S1| Ep23: Ultimatum (上)
January 4, 2016
An eerie stillness blanketed the lake and the surrounding mountains. Intan, weary and grieving anew, watched the ring of Dolls through the trees.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” murmured Rusli to no one in particular. He was trudging through the shrubbery ahead, his friend at his side.
No one responded to him, not even to clarify whether he referred to the rebels or the military. After the initial skirmish, during which neither side had actually employed any Dolls, the military seemed to have ordered a retreat. Rusli’s friend had offered his terse opinion that the skirmish’s objective — to allow the students’ escape from their crumbling campus — had already been achieved. Intan had not thought the military cared overmuch for the students of the Academy, but it was true, still, she supposed, that many of its officers had graduated from the school and were friends and relatives of those still attending. Certainly anyone who ever amounted to anything almost certainly must have been a graduate of the school.
But the rebels’ motives remained inscrutable. They had awakened the slumbering one. Did they think to control him? They would be fools to think that they could.
And yet, and yet…
“Miss Singh and the Headmistress are waiting,” Rusli’s friend was saying.
“I see. They must have a plan. That’s good.”
Rusli did not sound happy at all. Only anxious.
Intan slowed down, thinking hard. Even now she could still feel the giant’s pain echoing in her skull. With him in such a state, there was no telling what would happen. The very heavens might part, and she would not be surprised.
“Tell me about the Guardians,” said the Hibiscus boy. Intan jumped. She hadn’t noticed his approach.
The boy waited. Intan glanced at Eguzki, who was pretending that he had not heard. In fact, he carried himself with a discomfort bordering on regret, though it was impossible to tell what it was that he regretted.
“You said there were four? I had always… I was told there were only two.”
That drew Intan’s attention back to the other boy. She studied him, not for the first time — but with different eyes.
“Your name is Marius,” she said, remembering.
He stopped, expression flustered.
“I’m Intan!” she offered, to fill the silence. To the side, she noticed Eguzki stifle what she suspected was a chuckle. A tension she had not realized she’d been harboring dissipated from her.
“I know,” muttered Marius, not without a touch of sarcasm. Then, softly again, he repeated, “The Guardians?”
“There have always been four.”
“But the slumbering giants… Brother Ka and Sister Yu.”
Intan cocked her head in sudden understanding. “That’s different! Whoever taught you the tales didn’t do a very good job of it.”
“No one taught me,” he replied. There was no lie behind the glint of his spectacles, only a faded sorrow that seemed to echo Eguzki’s earlier regret. It reminded her of the way Eguzki had told her, I killed him, in what seemed now like ages past.
“Then you should ask my Granny sometime. She’d explain everything to you!”
Marius smiled, briefly, then turned solemn again. “But it’s too late now, isn’t it?”
She knew without asking what he meant. Could not bring herself to respond.
“The others must be in danger as well.”
Intan nodded slowly.
“How was the first one lost?”
She pointed silently at the lake below. Both boys turned to look at the ring of Dolls, but whether or not they understood, she could not tell, and there were no words to describe the sinking horror she had felt at the giant’s awakening, her own previous shallow, intuitive comprehension transforming into true insight.
What Shulinaq had feared, what Sita had died for, what the sprites had tried to warn her of all along.
She wondered if the rebels and their leader Mok knew what it was they had done. What sacrilege they had committed.
If this was why Granny had tried to keep her from coming to the capital.
“Is there anything we can do?” Marius asked, still facing the lake.
She recalled, vaguely, what Eguzki had said. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it was better for the Guardians to remain in hiding, rather than risk being taken as well. It had never occurred to her as an option.
And yet even as she mulled it over, she knew exactly why it hadn’t occurred to her.
For they could not hide. It was not in their nature. They were the Guardians of Nahwan, whose melodies in the island’s song remained eternally unbroken.
The matter was not one of saving or not saving, of curing or not curing, as she had thought before the day of renewal. It was no sickness or disease that had taken the first Guardian, though its symptoms had manifested as such. No. The wrongs that had been committed could not be so easily undone.
“Never mind,” said Marius. “There’s still time. We’ll figure out something…”
But he sounded unconvinced.
Some distance ahead, the older boys had noticed them lagging and stopped to wait.
“Hurry, you three!” Rusli called back at them. His expression was no longer harried, and he seemed to have mostly regained his equanimity, but for the slight quiver of something resembling anticipation in his voice. Intan, who had already begun to jog forward, paused again, momentarily struck by that dissonance, and wondered if her exhaustion were finally beginning to weigh on her, to skew her judgment.
“You haven’t changed at all,” Eguzki murmured, speaking for the first time since their landing.
Marius’s expression flickered with surprise when Intan glanced at him, but the brief glimpse of Eguzki’s face before he strode on ahead was unreadable.
* * *
It was not long before they reached the military encampment higher up on the slopes. Miss Singh and the Headmistress were indeed waiting with a handful of other students and soldiers, Miss Singh dressed rather soberly for once.
“We’ve received their terms,” Miss Singh announced, the levity in her tone a stark contrast with her outfit and the gravity of the situation.
“Really?” said Rusli. “What do they want?”
“Put in the simplest terms, they are requesting the king’s peaceful abdication. Otherwise, they plan to resort to less peaceful means.”
Marius frowned. “But isn’t the king already…?”
“The news must not have gotten out yet. Unless…” Rusli looked at the Headmistress in sudden realization.
The Headmistress smiled.
“Clever young man, aren’t you?”
From her, the remark did not come across as a compliment, and Rusli’s face suddenly paled for no reason Intan could discern.
He shook his head. “But why would they do all this — just to —”
At her side, Eguzki tensed, but Intan didn’t have much time to consider either him or Rusli further.
A bearded, portly man crashed into view, gasping for breath, wiping at his forehead with a handkerchief. The soldiers, who must have had some warning of his arrival, rested their hands on their weapons, but did not otherwise move to stop him.
“My daughter!” shouted the blustery man. “Where is my daughter?”
“Oh, do please calm yourself, Lord Sunagawa,” said Miss Singh with an exaggerated sigh, and Intan realized with a jolt that this man must be Kikue’s father, little as they resembled each other in looks.
Rusli and his friend exchanged a look. Eguzki had grown so quiet and still that Intan was reminded of his unusual state of upset back at the palace, almost a lifetime ago now, it seemed. It occurred to her then too that the Headmistress had not spared him a glance at all.
Marius was the least affected by the man’s arrival, but even he seemed more nervous than before.
“Where is she? Why is she not with you?”
“Oh, I’m sure your sweet girl is doing just fine. She is quite well trained, you know. Now, why don’t you tell us just where you’ve squirreled away our dear king?”
Lord Sunagawa spluttered.
Miss Singh’s smile was as frightening as the Headmistress’s was cold. “Entertaining as it’s been, this little play has gone on far enough, don’t you think?”
All at once the portly man seemed to deflate.
“I… I don’t know. It’s true we plotted to fake his death. To keep him out of the way so — so he could fulfill his proper role and lead our country to its rightful place in the world. But I don’t know where he is now. You must believe me!”
“You can’t be serious,” exclaimed Rusli. His face had been turning into several peculiar shades throughout the course of these events, reminding Intan of a chameleon. “You and my father and Lady Ouyang — what were you thinking? How on earth can you successfully fake a man’s death but then lose track of him?”
“Someone — someone must have interfered. Someone convinced His Majesty to deviate from the plan!”
Intan, who had not been paying much attention at all to the actual content of the conversation thus far, blinked at this.
So the king was alive after all.
What, then, had driven the palace spirits to such urgency? Had they sensed something of what was to come? But how could they? They were bound to the palace. For all their power, they knew little to nothing of the outside world. The tree sprites, on the other hand…
“So this is the real reason you’ve come, hm?” said Miss Singh. “What a terrible man you are. Using your daughter as an excuse.”
“You —” growled the man. “Do you even understand what a mess this has become? He has no heir. He is irreplaceable. Time and time again we have warned him. And now, those filthy rebel traitors —”
“On the contrary,” replied the Headmistress, her voice quiet but instantly arresting. “There is no one who cannot be replaced.”
He turned on her at once. “I know you’ve always disapproved, Liow! But the fact is inescapable! The island’s resources are running out. The yield from both land and sea grows worse year after year. Even with the war culling the population — in another thirty years, perhaps fifty if we’re lucky… it’s only a matter of time. We must expand our territories. But we cannot do that without His Majesty. Without His Majesty, without AUSOS, there is no future for this country!”
Intan, still lost in her own thoughts, noticed that both Marius and Eguzki had surreptitiously moved away. No one else had noticed, and Intan, despite her curiosity, decided not to draw attention to them by joining them.
“Evidently the rebels believe that there is no future for this country with His Majesty,” remarked Miss Singh.
“They are fools! They know nothing. Nothing! Ah, if only his trueborn children had not died in that plague! If only he had not refused to take another wife! Is the line of the Sun King doomed to end in our generation, survived only by halfbreeds and diluted bloodlines trumpeted about by the likes of the Ouyangs? Has that old curse upon His seed come to pass at last?”
Miss Singh laughed. “See? Even you doubt him.”
“Silence!” he snapped. “If His Majesty had at least named an heir, none of this would be an issue! Well, perhaps that’s exaggerating a bit. But it would have lessened our burdens.”
“Oh?” Miss Singh clearly did not think much of these “burdens.”
“When he named his nephew heir — even paraded around some boy — there were all these rumors. But the important thing is, no one’s seen either hide or hair of the boy since. But you —” he glared at Rusli “— your scheming father! He knew something! He’s been plotting something all along, hasn’t he?”
“I know nothing of my father’s plans,” Rusli said stiffly.
Kikue’s father snorted. “Little matter. Whatever his plans are, they are doomed to fail. AUSOS was created for the royal family. Only his descendants have the right — But now that damned Mok has laid his hands on it!”
“But it is not the original,” remarked the Headmistress then. “Only a copy. And a degenerate one, at that.”
“You are only a soldier. You do not understand, cannot possibly understand.”
“Yes. You are correct,” said the Headmistress. “As a soldier, all I understand is war. But what you do not seem to understand, my lord, is that the war from twenty years ago has never ended. Even now, we are still at war.”
She looked at the sky, and at once the entire encampment fell silent, even Lord Sunagawa.
For they had all seen what she saw.