S1| Ep19: Back to the Mines (上)
December 4, 2012
(A/N: As always, my apologies for the delay. Hope you enjoy!)
“Impossible,” muttered Rusli, face paling. “His Majesty — it cannot be –”
His friend seized the servant girl’s collar. “Who ordered the drums sounded?”
“L-Lady Ouyang and the others –”
The two older boys exchanged a glance. Eguzki, suddenly subdued, leaned against the wall, and all the life seemed to drain out of him. He seemed, in fact, as though he might float away at any moment..
“Are you okay?” Intan whispered to him as Rusli waved the servant girl away and conferred nervously with his friend.
“I’m fine,” he said gruffly.
She frowned and peered closely at his face. “No, you’re not.”
“You’re taking this well,” he said after a moment, ignoring her. “Didn’t you have a whole bunch of questions you wanted to ask him?”
“They weren’t very important questions,” she replied. But it was true that the spirits must have wanted her to meet the man for some reason.
They must have known he was about to die.
But if he were indeed dead now, then it must have been written in the stars. The fate of kings could not be defied.
“I should have been there,” she said. Only then would she have known the spirits’ true purpose.
Eguzki looked up at her. When he next spoke, his voice was curiously devoid of emotion. “Why? You couldn’t have done a damn thing for him. It was the same with that Guardian…”
She shook her head, frustrated. “It doesn’t matter. I should have been there!”
“Because of those spirits of yours?”
“Yes! Don’t you understand?”
“Dammit, do I look like I understand?” His voice cracked. “How can I understand something that doesn’t even abide by the laws of reality? When it feels like the whole world’s gone mad and I’m the only sane one remaining?”
Intan patted his hand and offered him a quizzical smile. “I’m not mad.”
He snorted. “So you say.” But then he sighed and smiled back.
“You should smile more often!” said Intan.
A blush crept onto his face as he immediately dropped back into a scowl. “The spirits wanted you to go to the king. Why?”
“That’s what I wanted to find out,” she replied. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it had to do with the Guardian…”
“With what happened that night.”
“Are you saying that…”
But whatever Eguzki had been about to ask, he was interrupted by a new arrival clattering up the stairs.
“What the hell is going on here, Rusli?”
Rusli looked up from his heated conversation with his friend. “Dugu! What are you doing here?”
“That’s what I should be asking you!” snapped Tuyet, cropped hair flying free around her face. Then she noticed Intan, and her face softened briefly. “Intan? Didn’t you just get back from your mission?” Anger chased away confusion again as she noticed Intan’s companion. Her eyes narrowed. “And Kaneshiro, too, I see.”
Rusli held up his hands. “I swear, I don’t know any more than you do.”
Tuyet raised an eyebrow. “And you expect me to believe that? I know very well the king was holding council with three Clan heads this morning…”
His friend whispered something in his ear.
Rusli sighed. “You’re right. Let’s talk someplace else. They’ll be sending officials up to confirm his passing any moment now…”
Tuyet unceremoniously pulled him into the corridor. Rusli’s friend followed at once, glaring at the older girl.
Intan noticed Eguzki lingering. “Come on,” she said. “Maybe we can figure out something.”
“I’d have thought you would be the last person interested in things like this,” he said wryly, but obeyed.
“Things like what?” she asked as she tugged at his sleeve. “I just want to know what Rusli was lying about.”
To that he had no response.
“Start talking,” said Tuyet some distance ahead.
“I can’t believe my father…” Rusli shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t have. He couldn’t have. He has no reason to benefit from the king’s death.” The slightest hint of bitterness slipped into his tone. “No, he would much prefer the king alive. Serving as a puppet.”
“Well, maybe he’d outlived his use,” said Tuyet coolly. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“No,” said Rusli. “It wouldn’t. But I do not believe that is the case now.”
“Oh? What do you believe, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Surely you have some idea, milord.”
Intan observed their exchange with some interest. She had never seen Tuyet speak like this to Rusli. Or indeed, act at all so harshly…
Except at the capital.
But she hadn’t thought Tuyet felt so strongly about the king, either. Just the opposite, in fact.
Rusli said, “Even I am not privy to all my father’s plans. But I do know one thing. If the king’s health was truly failing as the rumors say, my father would not have needed to take any action on his part if the king’s death is what he desired. And even my father wouldn’t have dared do anything before the king’s bodyguards. At any rate, his manner of passing hasn’t been announced yet… It’s no good for us to jump to any conclusions before that, yes?”
“You have this all thought out, don’t you?” said Tuyet with a great sigh. Then she stopped and turned on her heel. “Now, why are you here?”
“My father summoned me.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that either.”
“Aren’t you a well of knowledge today.”
“I’m sorry, Dugu. If I –”
The floor shook again with the beat of a drum. All five cadets froze in place.
“An intruder?” murmured Rusli. “Now, of all times?”
Tuyet listened for a moment longer, then bolted into a run.
“Someone’s stolen one of the royal Dolls!”
* * *
“So,” said a grumpy and visibly shaken Kikue Sunagawa as she stepped off the train and onto the platform. “Tell me again why we’re risking expulsion from the Academy just to pay a visit to your village in broad daylight.”
“As if sneaking off in the night would be any better,” retorted Hadil, looking around to make sure no one from the village was around. But of course, no one was there. At this time of day, the station was just about empty. “It’d be harder, too. Security gets way tighter then. And even if we managed to get out, none of the trains run that late.”
“I suppose you would know.”
Hadil frowned, then laughed as she realized what was going on. “What, never taken the train before, Sunagawa?”
“How do you think I got to the destination of our last mission? By walking?”
“Yeah, but it was your first time, right?”
Kikue sniffed. “Does it matter?”
Hadil continued to laugh. “Fun, wasn’t it? Actually taking your time to get somewhere for a change? Mingling with the masses?”
“It was not the most pleasant experience,” said Kikue then, with a sharpness to her tone that reminded Hadil of exactly what the other girl had been on her way to doing on her previous train ride.
Sobering, she said, “Well, we’d better get going. Don’t want to look too suspicious.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
Hadil quickened her step. “What question?”
“Don’t play stupid with me, Wong. Didn’t you say you trusted me?”
Ouch. Should’ve expected that. It was true she’d said as much, and what she’d said was no lie. Her Ma and Ba had taught her better.
“Look, Sunagawa… I’m sorry, but it’s complicated.”
“Isn’t everything?” Hadil could just about hear the eyeroll in that remark. “I can handle complicated. In case you couldn’t tell.”
Yeah, by blowing it up, if her piloting style was any indication. But Hadil didn’t say so out loud. Instead, she said, “I’ll explain later.”
“In my experience, ‘later’ usually means never.” Without missing a beat, Kikue continued, “I assume you intend to continue investigating those blueprints you showed me yesterday. What I don’t see is what a bunch of dirty old maps of the capital have anything to do with… here.”
“Well, I’m not sure either. It’s just… just a hunch.”
Kikue stomped right into Hadil’s path, hands planted on her hips, glaring. “I did not agree to this little excursion of yours on nothing more than a hunch.”
It would’ve been an adorable sight… if Hadil weren’t on the receiving end of that vicious glare.
“You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to,” she pointed out.
“You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t want me to come,” replied Kikue.
Hadil sighed. “Fair enough.” She sighed again, this time to hide her sudden nervousness. “Like I said, though, it’s complicated. I don’t even… I don’t even know where to start.”
“Start with why the rebels targeted this place last summer.”
A beat passed before the words fully registered.
“It was no coincidence, was it?”
She had begun to shiver. She forced herself to stop and look the other girl in the eye. “Since when did you realize?”
“Only a fool would think otherwise. Everyone else keeps harping on about how disorganized the rebels are. As if our side has been doing any better! Anyway, I think it’s either a front, or else we’re all blind to the bigger picture. I don’t think a single move they’ve made so far has been without purpose.” Kikue paused. “But if you must know, I wasn’t sure until you approached me.”
“Someone like me wouldn’t have any reason to care, otherwise, huh?”
“I did not say that.”
“Never mind.” Hadil shrugged. The movement did not calm her. She took a deep breath, but that didn’t help much either. Still, the other girl was watching her closely, and she knew she couldn’t stall any longer. “They’ve always hated us, you know.”
Kikue’s brows furrowed. “Who?”
“The people of the red moon.”
“Red moon… you mean Redmoon Village?”
“That’s not what they call their village. But yeah.”
“They insist on upholding the old ways. I mean, not the old ways, but the old old ways. The old tongue. I mean, who the heck talks like that anymore?”
“No,” growled Kikue. “I don’t care about that. Why do they hate you?” After a moment, she added, “Why are you so afraid of them?”
“Oh, it’s not them I’m afraid of,” said Hadil, laughing nervously.
“Well…” Hadil began, then hesitated. “I guess you could say it’s us I’m afraid of. Ourselves. What we’re capable of…”
“What you’re capable of.”
Hadil gulped down another breath. “Have you ever heard of Project AUSOS?”
“No,” Kikue began, then shook her head. “AUSOS? The name is familiar… Don’t tell me this is the project my father…”
“No. I mean, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know what your father or the Great Clans are up to. I mean, you’re in a way better position than I am to know, aren’t you? But no… the AUSOS I’m talking about is from before we were even born. From the war. Top secret stuff.”
“If it was such a big secret, then how on earth did you find out?”
“Because… well… you see. My parents –” She stopped. Clenched her fists at her side. “No. The whole village. We were all involved in it.”