S1| Ep18: The Luminous Court (上)
November 2, 2012
Water. She drifts. Hair tickles her cheeks. Overhead, the sun is bright and blurry. She squints, but her vision does not focus.
She misses the skies. The sea. Warm sand between her toes.
There is no sand here. Only water and gloopy yellow mud.
Something hisses in her ear. She tries to turn her head and look, but her neck seems frozen in place.
The sun does not move.
The hissing grows louder.
The water billows. Waves wash over her face, glimmering and rippling, forming a glassy wall between her and the sun.
As she sinks, vague images flash across her vision. A white undulating length of scales. A weeping woman. A disembodied eye. A scorched, cratered landscape beneath a blood red sky.
The hissing reaches a climax. Then, abruptly, stops.
It is so quiet she cannot even hear herself breathing.
In the corner of her vision, something moves. This time, when she turns to look, she recognizes it.
Dark tangled hair, uncoiling and snaking through the water. A broken, rotting grin.
Promise me, whispers the creature from the spring, only it is not crawling from a steaming pool of water as it usually does, but from a dark cave hidden behind a clump of seagrass. Promise me. Find my…
She tries to reply, forgetting that she is no mermaid. A stream of bubbles escapes from her mouth instead.
Her throat burns. She reaches up, only to find that she has no hands.
No arms. No legs. No body.
The creature folds and twists itself inside out.
Promise me, it wails. Promise me…
* * *
Intan blinked awake to a dim room. She sat up with an uncanny sense of reliving an old familiar moment, skewed ever so slightly.
It was very quiet. As she looked around, she rubbed idly at her throat. She wasn’t anywhere she recognized, though now that she thought about it, she seemed to recall collapsing again. Being rushed to the medical facilities.
But these were not the same ones as before.
The school’s, then, perhaps?
Except, upon closer inspection, these quarters did not seem to resemble any medical facilities Intan had ever been in. In fact, she wasn’t even lying in a bed, but on a comfortable, beautifully woven pallet on the ground. And her quilt was embroidered with bright designs that reminded her of Granny and of home.
Intan scrambled to her feet. But of course it could not be. Shulinaq’s village had been destroyed. And, she now realized, she had witnessed no evidence of normal daily life through her brief stay there. Even at the elders’ meeting, they had not dressed as at a proper council, but like laborers at the capital. Only Shulinaq had been robed in the vivid colors of home.
That had been no village, she thought. But a prison…
Someone coughed behind her. Intan whirled around.
There atop another pallet, a freckled child with hair like straw sat watching her.
No, not a child. Skin-and-bones, but not a child.
The children. Had they gotten away safely? Were they, even now, squirreled away in the caves and tunnels of the western mountains?
“I see they got you too,” the person on the pallet said, with a half-hearted sneer.
The person’s voice sounded familiar. In fact, the person kind of looked familiar too.
Intan stepped back with a gasp. “… Park!?”
“I’m amazed you remember my name.”
“But I thought…” Intan frowned. As if on cue, a rush of memories flooded back to her. “But Rusli said he would protect you!”
Kasih Park threw her head back and laughed. Despite her skeletal figure, the color of her face did seem somewhat better than it had been the last time Intan had seen her. Her eyes, at any rate, were back to their normal brown.
“Did he now? I guess even the Ruslis wouldn’t be able to move a finger in a situation like this!”
Intan stared, still confused. She felt that she was forgetting something quite important. It was not the first time she had felt this way recently. And yet she felt more like herself today than she had in some time.
“Anyway, put on some clothes, won’t you?” Park was saying, waving at a neatly folded pile in the corner.
Intan stopped staring. Looked down, and saw, with some amount of relief, that all parts of her body were in fact still present. (Albeit clothed only in underthings at the moment.) She padded over to the pile Park had indicated and slowly pulled on her uniform.
“Erm,” she said as she stuffed her arms into her sleeves. “Where are we?”
Park snorted. “What, you don’t recognize this place? Weren’t you holed up here for almost a week?”
They were clearly not in the underwater base. But then that left only…
“Wow, you’re not as much of an idiot as I thought.”
“The palace? But… why?”
“Hell if I know.”
Intan plopped back down on her pallet to think. “How long have we been here?”
“Me? Couple of days. They only just brought you in last night, though.”
“Are you…” Intan trailed off, unsure how to continue.
“Am I what? Sane? Better? Alive? All of the above, actually, no thanks to you. The Ruslis have some damn good resources, those bastards. Even better than the king’s, I’d wager.”
“Well, yeah. What rock have you been living under? The Sunagawas may be rich, and the Ouyangs may have connections, but everyone knows if it comes down to it, only Rusli and Gushiken are true contenders for the throne. Too bad for them the king finally declared his nephew heir! … Not that that’ll stop them in the end.”
Intan had no interest in the king’s supposed nephew. “The throne? Why would they want the throne?”
Park slapped her forehead. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Do they hate the king?”
“What the hell are you on about? Doesn’t matter if they do or don’t. It’s about power, that’s what it is. That’s all it comes down to.”
“The king does not have power,” Intan said solemnly. “What he has is duty and responsibility. He is the one who was chosen.”
It was Park’s turn to stare.
“Okay, never mind,” the other girl said at last. “I am not having this conversation.”
“If Rusli’s family is so powerful,” Intan insisted, “then why are you here? He promised me… us…” She trailed off again, puzzled.
“Like I said, I have no idea. Probably just wants to use me as a bargaining chip or something. Though they really must be in a corner to resort to something like this.”
“Rusli wouldn’t do that…”
Park snorted again. “Believe what you will. But even if Jinwei Rusli wouldn’t, what makes you think his father would do the same?”
This did give Intan pause. “Rusli said he would speak to his father.”
“What kind of father would let his own son order him around, huh?”
Intan said, frustrated, “I didn’t say anything about ordering around! Are you even listening to me? Rusli promised! He may be dull and silly, but he would never, ever break a promise!”
Something about Intan’s outburst seemed to startle Park.
“Look,” the other girl said. “I don’t know what’s going on in that little head of yours. But the fact is, those Ruslis are a lot of filthy rats. You have no idea what kind of shit they got up to back during the war, do ya? Sure, probably all the Clans had a hand in it. But the Ruslis were the worst of the bunch by far. It was all their idea to begin with, according to the rumors. And frankly, I believe it. Though the most disgusting part of it is that they managed to come out of it all looking squeaky clean anyway! Shifted all the blame over to those Gushikens! And of course Lord Gushiken, hermit that he is, didn’t even bother setting the record straight! Speaking of which, I really don’t get why they’re all so afraid of that man anyway. Ever since he took on the mantle of clan head fifteen years ago, he’s done nothing. All he ever does is skulk around in the shadows…”
“Their idea…” murmured Intan. “AUSOS was their idea?”
Park broke off her rant, looking confused. “Ausos? What are you talking about?”
Intan blinked. “I thought you knew. Weren’t you… Sita’s friend?”
The other girl’s confusion transformed to horror, then to something akin to panic. She opened her mouth.
But before she could say anything, she was interrupted by the doors sliding open, revealing two servants garbed in ornate silks.
They bowed in unison.
“Intan Aghavni. His Majesty requests your presence.”