S1| Ep18: The Luminous Court (下)
November 18, 2012
(A/N: Oh boy. Seems I’m just permanently behind schedule, huh? Here’s a reminder that you can either subscribe to email updates/RSS and/or check my twitter for status updates. Sorry for the wait!)
The servants led Intan through a section of the palace she had never seen before. Not that she’d had the opportunity to stray too far from the wing where she had stayed before the new year, of course. In fact, as they ascended staircase after staircase, Intan was a bit surprised to recall that despite all her wanderings, she had never made it above the ground level.
Also surprising was the way the scenery changed with each floor. If anything, Intan had assumed the highest floors where the king was known to live in seclusion would be as beautiful and opulent as a shrine to the Four Guardians. But instead, the furnishings grew more and more austere the higher they went, and color seeped away from their surroundings like lush spring turning steadily to harsh high summer — or perhaps like the capital with its tall impersonal towers on that peculiar day months ago, dusted with unexpected snow.
It did not occur to her to be nervous. Her initial mild excitement at the prospect of speaking to the king face to face and asking him all the questions that had been burning within her ever since she left her village — almost exactly a year ago now — had already faded away to an equally mild disappointment. She had seen him three times already, after all, and each time her impression of the man had been much the same. Despite the hatred and conflict his very existence seemed to engender among everyone on the island, he was a man incapable of doing great evil or great good. This was no terrible shortcoming: as Granny always said, better for a king to be forgotten than to be remembered for all time.
Intan had not always agreed. After all, was not the Sun King the greatest man who had ever lived in the history of their nation? And it seemed so unbearably sad to her: to live and die forgotten.
“Countless are the souls who live and die forgotten,” Granny would always respond when Intan said so. “Not just kings.”
“Then I feel sorry for them all!” Intan would reply.
“You have a big heart, child. There will come a time when you learn what a burden that can be… But understand this: it matters not how great or insignificant the legacy. One day it shall be lost. Perhaps not immediately, perhaps not for ages to come. Nevertheless, it is inevitable. It is in the nature of humans to forget.”
“But they won’t, right? Surely even if everyone else forgets, they won’t!”
“Ah, my dear, precious girl,” her Granny would say then, gently stroking her hair. “You may not believe me now, but even the gods forget…”
Granny had been right about that, at least. How could Intan believe such a thing? Even the smallest of tree sprites could hold a grudge for some perceived slight for generations upon generations. Granny and the other villagers had had to explain to her how differently the sprites understood the concept of time compared to normal humans, but Intan knew all too well just how vast and profound the memories of those simple, silly creatures truly were.
And were not the Dolls themselves proof of the transcendence of memory above all?
But as the years passed, Intan had come to understand — a little bit, at least — what her Granny had meant. She’d seen how devastated the fisherman uncle who always slipped her an extra piece of dried fruit had been when his wife passed away. How furious and upset the parents of the big sister down the lane had been when their daughter left for the capital without a single word of farewell, after a dramatic fight that had had the entire village picking sides. For them Intan could see that memory was indeed a burden, a cruel and constant thorn in their hearts. And she supposed that when the fisherman was gone, when the big sister’s parents were gone, and everyone else who had known them too, and even the land itself had changed beyond recognition… when that day came, it would be as if none of them had ever existed. And sad as that prospect was, it was nothing to be feared or hated.
It still pained Intan when people forgot, though. Her own recent lapses in memory had troubled and terrified her, then angered her. She could not deny that.
She still remembered when Granny herself had begun to forget.
“Wait here,” one of the servants said then, and Intan looked around to see that they had arrived at a high chamber with slatted windows casting stripes of light and shadow on the bare floor. Wind whipped through the room, blowing hair into Intan’s eyes.
When she next looked, both servants were gone. In their place, blocking the way to a staircase leading higher still, stood three masked figures: one portly, one sharp and bony, the last with a mane of gold.
“Hello?” said Intan. She wondered if she owed these people a formal greeting. None of them resembled the king at all, and she did not recognize their outfits.
The figures started at her voice, but relaxed visibly at the sight of her uniform.
“Cadet…” said the golden-haired figure, a woman from the sound of it. A beak curved out from the middle of her mask; above it was painted a sun with five rays, alternating in color.
It took another moment before Intan realized the woman was prompting her for a name.
“Aghavni,” she offered helpfully.
“Cadet Aghavni. What is your purpose in coming to this place?”
Were these people unaware of her summons, then? Intan frowned.
“I am here to see the king.”
“The king!” repeated the woman.
“Whatever makes you think the king would consent to a personal audience with the likes of you?” boomed the portly figure. That one, then, was a man, with big ruddy balls for cheeks and equally round eyes overlooking an upturned snout.
Intan considered this. “Why wouldn’t he? I am his subject. What king does not wish to hear what his subjects have to say?”
The third figure laughed.
This last man’s eyes were slitted and outlined in red. Red whiskers flamed across white cheeks, and red brows as well, and so too did his mouth curve in a grinning red bow.
“Little girl,” he said. “Did the gloomy one send you here?”
Intan cocked her head. “I don’t know anyone like that!” Then she added, “I don’t like gloomy people!” And then, “It was the servants who brought me here, you know. Didn’t you see them just now?”
The grinning man said, “Servants?”
The portly man said, “You lie! No servants are allowed this far!”
“Do at least make the effort to come up with a better excuse next time,” said the woman. “Now, be off with you. This is no place for a student.”
“You really didn’t see them?” Intan said, suddenly suspicious.
All three stared at her.
“Stop this nonsense at once,” hissed the woman at last. “Consider this your final warning.”
Intan bowed and turned. As she made her way down the stairs once more, she could still feel their eyes boring through her back.
* * *
Shifter spirits, Intan thought, racing down flights of stairs with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Now that she thought about it, their forms had indeed been indistinct — human and yet with no defining features, aglow in color and yet shadowy in substance. Were they, then, the palace guardians she had failed to find during her last stay here? But why had they wanted her to speak to the king? And why hadn’t they done anything about those three masked figures who’d blocked her way?
She paused, foot still poised halfway down the next step.
Wait here, one of them had said to her.
But she had not waited.
She whirled around.
They had asked her to wait. But instead, distracted by her own excitement, she’d allowed that masked trio to chase her away.
She had to get back. She increased her pace, skipping up stairs two at a time, careful not to trip herself, and had just made it to the next level when she ran smack into something.
“Ow, watch where you’re going!”
Or someone. She shook her hair out of her face and looked up.
Only to recognize the boy with the H-bird at Shulinaq’s village.
“Oh… it’s you!” she exclaimed happily.
He stepped back. Then his expression crumpled in anger.
“Why do you always show up at the worst places, at the worst times?” he said, and Intan realized the boy was not angry after all, but upset.
In fact, he looked like he had been crying.
“I’m here to see the king!” she replied. “He summoned me here. Sort of. I think.”
“Why… why’d you agree to something like that?”
“He’s the king, isn’t he? It would be bad if no one listened to him!”
He stared at her. The corner of his lips twitched, settling halfway between a smile and a scowl. He looked away.
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Anyway, I’ve got to go! I was supposed to wait but I forgot, or, um, the spirits told me to but I didn’t realize it in time, that they were spirits I mean –”
“Wait,” the boy said, and she stopped trying to sneak past him. “The king… what were you planning to say to him?”
“Hmm, dunno! I’ve got lots and lots of things to ask, so much I’m not sure where to start!”
He snorted, but did not respond for some time. Intan studied his face and wondered why he had been crying.
“It’s strange,” he said at last. “The king… he’s been ill.”
Intan gasped. “What? But he always looked fine before!”
“Maybe he was. Or maybe he was just hiding it. Either way, after that incident at new year’s… apparently it got worse.”
“Incident?” How odd. She had thought herself back to normal. But something… something was still missing.
The boy eyed her strangely. “You… don’t you remember? That Guardian…”
Her heart twisted.
And she knew, then, exactly what memory she had lost.
“… dead…” she whispered. “I was… we were… too late?”
He bowed his head.
“I still don’t understand what happened that day,” he said hoarsely. “But clearly something did. The king…”
“But there are still three more! The others — they must be in danger too! Otherwise…”
A new voice interrupted her from below.
“Aghavni? Kaneshiro? What are the two of you doing here?”
Kaneshiro. That was the boy’s name. Eguzki. Eguzki Kaneshiro.
How could she have forgotten? How could she have forgotten something so important?
“She got lost,” Eguzki said. “I was told to find her.”
Jinwei Rusli looked back and forth between the two of them. Behind him, his tall friend watched without a word.
“Ah,” said Rusli. “I was surprised to see you at the palace, actually. Aren’t you two supposed to be in class right now?”
“I could say the same to you,” replied Eguzki.
“I didn’t mean to sound accusatory,” Rusli hurriedly assured him. “As it happens, my father called for me, and I received permission to leave for the rest of the day…”
“I was asked to run an errand.”
“Oh, for the Headmistress. I see.” To Intan, Rusli said, “I thought you just got back! But I suppose the Headmistress is a strict woman after all. Not a single moment of rest for us!”
He was lying. About what, Intan could not say. Whether he intended the lie, she could not say either.
But it annoyed her nonetheless.
“Why is Park here?” she demanded.
“Kasih?” exclaimed Eguzki. “Kasih is here?!”
“That medic girl?” Rusli’s astonishment was genuine. “Why would she be here? She should be at my father’s facilities…”
“She’s here,” Intan insisted. “I just talked to her earlier!”
“I did! Or do you think I’m lying too?”
Rusli blanched. “My father. If this is what he summoned me here for –”
Before Intan could even blink, Eguzki had launched himself at Rusli, seizing the collar of the older boy’s robes.
And Rusli’s friend had drawn a gun and pointed it to Eguzki’s head.
“I should have known better than to trust you!” growled Eguzki.
“Yusaku! Put that down!”
The tall boy did not move.
Intan stepped forward and grabbed Eguzki’s arm, prying his fingers away. He let go, but did not stop glaring. Only then did the tall boy back away again.
“What does your father want with Park?” she asked softly.
“Please, believe me,” said Rusli. “I don’t know. But…”
“I don’t know if this has anything to do with it. But a few months ago, my father told me he had discovered a great secret.” He hesitated. “You know how the king adopted a nephew a while back, right? After my father and the other Clan heads had been badgering him to name an heir for years?”
At her side, Eguzki trembled with anger, but did not speak.
Even Intan could not trust herself to speak. Instead, she nodded.
“Well,” Rusli continued. “My father told me this: there is no nephew. Or at least, the boy is not of royal blood. The king did have a younger half sister, but she died in childbirth. As did her baby. Her husband, a nobleman of the Outer Clans, secretly adopted a servant’s child in its place…”
“I don’t get what this has to do with Park.”
“As I said, this may not have any bearing on our current situation.” Rusli turned, speaking directly now to Eguzki. “My father complained that he had no solid proof of this nobleman’s deception, despite all his searching. Then, when I asked him to take in your friend, he suddenly took great interest in her. I thought nothing of it at the time, but it’s possible that she is somehow related to this affair my father spoke of –”
A commotion from above pulled their attention upward. A young servant girl clattered down the steps, red-faced and wheezing for breath, and stumbled right into Intan.
Rusli reached out and steadied them both. “What’s the matter? Has something happened?”
“It’s the king!” gasped the girl. “They say he’s…”
A single drumbeat shook the walls.
The beat of death.