S1| Ep21: Enter the Labyrinth (上)

February 20, 2013

(A/N: Sorry — not only is this update late, it’s shorter than the past few updates have been! A bunch of RL stuff came up this week, and then I couldn’t figure out a good break point/did some scene arranging… Interesting things coming up next week though, so I hope that will make up for it. :P)

BeginIntan slid to her knees, overwhelmed with sudden exhaustion. Eguzki made his way to her side, silent and brooding.

“Tuyet and…” She grasped for a name, then gave up. “Are they okay?”

He looked in the direction of the fallen Dolls but did not answer. Instead, he said quietly, “Who are you? What are you?”

Intan blinked up at him with some confusion. “Did you forget my name too?”

“You’re the only one who’s ever…” He seemed to change his mind then. “Thank you. For helping with Kasih.”

“It would have been wrong,” she said solemnly, “not to help her.”

“It was my fault. My responsibility. I should never have told her.”

“Told her…” Intan hesitated. “About Sita?”

“About the Headmistress.”

“Headmistress Liow?”

He nodded absently. “She was an orphan. Kasih, I mean. Whole village died in the plague. The soldiers who found her hadn’t expected any survivors. Didn’t know what to do with her, so they dumped her in the orphanage in the capital. Taking the exams was her only chance for a better life.”

“Is that where you met her?” asked Intan, suddenly curious.

“The orphanage?” His eyes sharpened. His lips curved into a bitter, secret smile. “I… No. She was the one who came to me. She’d scored just above the threshold. Barely eligible for admission. Couldn’t find any sponsors. But she was resourceful. She’d heard the rumors. About the incident. My transfer.”

Memory flitted back to her, warped and uncomfortable, but vivid. “The boy of the crows.”

The smile dropped. He studied her. “Funny that you call him that.”

“So it was the Headmistress who sponsored her?”

He did not seem to have expected the question, for it was a moment before he responded.

“No one else would.”

Though Intan had been about to express her surprise that the Headmistress, of all people, should have then been willing to take her on, she said instead, “Then isn’t it good that you told her?”

Again he seemed startled by her question.

At last, he said, “I wonder. I didn’t have to. I could have turned her away. But I…”

Intan waited, puzzled.

“I wish I could say I helped her out of the goodness of my heart. But looking at her was just like looking at a younger version of myself. Maybe it was that selfish desire of mine that made everything go wrong in the end.”

“But it was good that you told her,” repeated Intan. “You offered her a way out. You gave her the chance she needed.”

“If only it were that simple.”

“Isn’t it?”

“… Even if it came at a cost?”

“When we walk down one path, the others are lost to us. But when we close one door, countless others open before us.”

He studied her again. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Because it’s true!”

To this he did not respond.

“We’d better find Tuyet!” she said then, springing back up and brushing herself off.

“Wait.”

Intan looked back.

“What about you?” said Eguzki. “What is the path you have chosen?”

“I haven’t chosen yet!” she replied brightly, and scrambled off across the rocks.

It did not take much longer before they reached the first of the fallen Dolls. Intan clambered under and over bent limbs and dented sides. But to no avail. There was no sign of either Tuyet or Rusli’s friend.

Worry clenched in the back of her throat as Eguzki caught up to her.

“No sign of ejection,” he murmured. “Did you check the cockpit?”

She shook her head and dropped down immediately to lean her cheek against the Doll’s adorned chest, where bright paint had already begun to chip away.

“Empty,” she announced.

“They can’t have just disappeared. Unless…”

He stiffened, eyes fixing on a viny outcropping not too far away.

Took a step backwards.

Intan rose and approached him.

“What’s wrong?” she whispered.

“They’re here,” he said, clearly shaken. “Again.”

So it was true. They were no longer willing to show themselves to her.

No simple apology would now suffice.

“What are they saying? What do they want?”

“I..” he began, then broke off abruptly.

Intan saw why a moment later, as a pair of long shadows fell before them. From beyond the rocks, two figures emerged.

Rusli — and running beside him, the bespectacled Hibiscus boy, looking small and lost in his robes.

“Where are the others?” Rusli asked as they neared, panting for breath. “We stopped by the village — they said there was a skirmish — What happened here?”

“The rogue is taken care of,” said Eguzki stiffly. “We are looking for the others.”

Rusli gave the fallen Doll a wild, shaken glance.

“Yusaku! Yusaku!”

“Calm down. Wystan can take of himself.”

“He’s always been a terrible pilot! Why did Dugu force him to come along on this mission –”

Intan had the sudden urge to giggle, but decided against it as being probably rather inappropriate for the situation. Her senior’s upset was, at any rate, genuine.

And it was true she was worried too. About Eguzki. Tuyet. The sprites. She looked around surreptitiously, hoping that they were perhaps just playing their usual jokes on her.

But instead, her eyes met the Hibiscus boy’s gaze, startling her. He blinked, evidently startled himself, then ducked his head.

His odd behavior distracted her from her original concerns. She continued to watch him as Eguzki repeated, “Wystan can take care of himself.”

“But –”

“Why did you come?”

Eguzki’s words seemed to pull the older boy back to his senses. “I — I spoke to my father.”

No one spoke.

Rusli, beginning to calm, continued, “My father and his allies needed the king alive. They dared not kill him. His death would only bring chaos — encourage our enemies to take advantage of us in our moment of weakness.”

The Hibiscus boy spoke then for the first time, still not looking at anyone in particular. “Not even with an heir now in place?”

“There is none. There never was one!”

“Oh?” said the Hibiscus boy in a mild, dry tone. Despite his apparent nonchalance, Intan noted that his fingers had tightened against the edge of his sleeves. “Then who, pray tell, was that fellow they paraded around two years ago?”

“That’s the problem!” said Rusli, surprisingly agitated. “No one knows! He was just some fake the king installed to keep my father and the others from continuing to harangue him! But no one’s seen the boy since then — The king never intended to name an heir!”

“Why? Especially if he knew he was ailing?”

“Now’s not the time,” Eguzki interrupted in a curious flat tone. He was staring at the outcropping again. “Whether or not your father and the others wanted him dead, it no longer matters. And…”

Something not quite like fear had frozen his expression.

Intan tugged at his sleeve. “What is it?”

The two other boys looked over at them — Rusli clearly confused, the Hibiscus boy with an odd melancholy trepidation.

Eguzki’s expression melted, ever so slightly. He gently pushed Intan’s hand away.

He said, with a slight hitch in his voice, “They — they want us to follow.”

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