"Holy crap!" muttered Kikue, gaping at the red glow of flames in the tunnel beyond. Her knees buckled under her; she grabbed at the rocky wall to steady herself.
"Holy crap!" she said again. As she turned away from the wreckage with a shudder, her gaze fell on her companion. The sight of him instantly pulled her back to her senses. And reminded her just how pissed off she was at the moment.
"You! What is going on here? How did you know this was going to happen?"
Said companion was currently crouched down next to a set of dusty rails leading into the darkness, busy fiddling with some sort of radio equipment, and pretending not to hear her.
"Trieu!" she snapped. "You're not going to get a signal out here in a place like this! Speaking of which, I hope you know the way out, because I most certainly do not!" She was, in fact, kind of terrified of the whole place collapsing. The supply trains only passed this way once a month, and there were all sorts of routes in the region that had been built halfway and then abandoned or forgotten. She had very strong doubts about the stability of a bunch of mountains that had been burrowed into with so many holes and tunnels that they now resembled giant anthills more than anything.
But from her fellow Dragon, she still received no response.
"Is that a yes or a no?"
She grabbed his shoulder and wrenched him away from his precious equipment. His glasses slipped down his nose. "Answer me!"
Before he could say anything, another voice suddenly crackled to life.
"- made their move - Mok's people - the students? - lost contact -"
Kikue whirled to the instruments on the ground and narrowed her eyes. "What the..."
Trieu shrugged, not quite looking at her. "The system here is old. I wasn't sure if it had been dismantled. Or fallen into disrepair."
She stared, then crossed her arms over her chest. "You had better explain yourself. Now."
"They built communications systems all over the island during the war. Didn't you know?"
"That's not what I'm asking you! Our orders said nothing about this! It was supposed to be a simple infiltration mission! Wait - are you... laughing?"
She'd thought he was sniffling or something.
Meanwhile, the voices continued. "- did they - but the records! - send in - AUSOS -"
Trieu fiddled with his equipment again. The voices fell silent. At last, he said, "Infiltration, huh?"
Nope, definitely laughing.
"Don't tell me you actually slept through the whole briefing!" Under her breath, she added, "You are just as bad as Aghavni."
The thought was like a bucket of cold water over her head first thing in the morning. Kikue'd gone back to their compartment, frustrated, expecting to find the girl already waiting for her with some crazy explanation or spouting completely unrelated nonsense at her. Instead, she'd found Trieu awake. For once. With a expression she'd never seen on his face before.
If only Kikue hadn't dragged the girl off. True, she'd been uneasy ever since the incident at the new year's ceremonies. Her idiot father, naturally, had been no help. Her equally clueless mother, ironically, had been the only one to sense that something was wrong. That nothing added up.
The king's words. The rebels' motives. But above all... the beast in the water.
Something had changed, that night. Completely and irrevocably changed.
But that was no reason for undue paranoia. Especially paranoia that very well may have just cost her a fellow student's life.
"I was given a separate set of instructions," Trieu said quietly.
"What? By who?"
"Impossible. Why?" Kikue bit back the next question that was about to come out of her mouth, Does she not trust the rest of us?
She'd thought she left behind all that stupid squabbling and politicking when she entered the Academy. Apparently, she'd been wrong. In fact, she seemed to have found herself right in the thick of it all.
"She believes the army's been compromised. It's why she formed the Nine Dragons in the first place, you know."
"Of course the army has been compromised! Every Inner Clan has about a dozen of spies planted in the ranks, if not more. Even some of the Outer Clans - the ones who can afford it - not to mention all the unaffiliated families..."
How had she been so naive to expect anything different?
Trieu said, patiently, "By compromised, I meant Mok and his rebels."
This gave her pause only for a moment. "I wouldn't be surprised." That was certainly one explanation for the unbelievable incompetence she had witnessed on the day of the ceremonies. "Where is the Headmistress getting her information anyway?"
"Oh, we've got a mole of our own too."
"You're not talking about yourself, are you?"
He shook his head. "I don't know who it is. It may not even be one of our classmates. I've heard that Mok refuses to recruit anyone under a certain age."
"Well, Mok is an idiot," said Kikue, frowning.
And the Headmistress... always carefully keeping herself out of the politics of the realm, firmly reinforcing the Academy as a neutral ground isolated from the ever-ongoing power struggles of court... What bullshit. What was the woman planning? Why hadn't she noticed before?
A stark, hollow realization dawned upon her.
Just what were they fighting for?
"Fine. Whatever," she muttered. "What were your instructions?"
He hesitated. His face went utterly blank. "To prevent important documents from falling into the wrong hands."
Was the bastard lying?
"What on earth would so-called 'important documents' have any business doing in some backwater village like this?"
He shrugged again. "I don't question my orders."
She wanted to punch the wall. For a variety of reasons. Instead, she spat out every single curse she knew (which was a considerable amount; she'd had the finest education money could buy, after all), including a couple she made up on the spot. And when she finally finished, began tromping down the dark tunnel, away from the horrible flames.
"Don't think this is the end of this," she said. "I'm just letting this go for now because we need to retrieve our Dolls and finish this stupid mission. In case you've forgotten. And just so you know, if Aghavni is dead, it's your. fucking. fault!"
"... I think you're going the wrong way."
"... Shut up."
Blowing shit up was incredibly cathartic. Especially since it took her mind off of more complicated matters.
And when Kikue saw a very familiar head of white standing next to an equally familiar head of yellow on a rocky outcrop, she could not deny the immense, overwhelming sense of relief that came over her entire body as she sat in the cockpit, watching the rest of the land go up in flame.
Aghavni was an idiot, and possibly insane. And just as impossible to understand as everything that had been going on since the beginning of the year.
But complicated she was not.
As the last of the enemy Dolls fled the scene, Trieu's voice spoke up over the wireless.
"Don't chase them."
"Why not? Where can they hide?"
"What if they're just leading us into a trap?"
"What would be the point?"
He had no answer to that. Instead, he said, "Our mission is complete."
Kikue switched off the wireless with a low growl. "Yours, maybe."
But she relented, gently bringing her Doll down into a crouch before Aghavni and Kaneshiro. She opened the cockpit, powered down, and stepped out.
Only for her shoulders to slam back against the Doll's imposing chest.
"Kikue!" bawled Aghavni, flinging herself onto a very surprised Kikue. "You - the Dolls - I thought you -"
"The ones on the train were retired models. Intended as decoys. Were you not listening at all during the briefing?" Kikue looked at her tear-streaked face and sighed. "Never mind. Why am I even bothering to ask?"
The girl continued to babble about something or other. Kikue listened and made noises as appropriate, but found her attention straying instead toward the two boys with them. Kaneshiro hadn't seemed to notice Trieu's presence yet, but Trieu was looking at him quite oddly - with the same expression he'd had in the compartment earlier, when he told her the train was about to be hijacked.
Bastard was definitely hiding something. Like just about every other damn person on the island, it seemed.
Not to mention the island itself.
"I'm so glad you're okay," Aghavni was saying, still sniffing into her chest. "So, so glad."
Only then did Kikue realize that her cheeks were wet too.
"Yeah," she said. "Me too."