Dragon Pearl(2)

As I reluctantly let go of sleep that morning, I heard the voice of a stranger in the other room. At first I thought one of the adults was watching a holo show—maybe galactic news from the Pearled Halls—and had the volume turned up too high. We were always getting reports about raids from the Jeweled Worlds and the Space Forces’ heroic efforts to defend us from the marauders, even if Jinju was too far from the border to suffer such attacks. But the sound from our holo unit always came out staticky. No static accompanied this voice.

It didn’t belong to any of the neighbors, either. I knew everyone who lived within an hour’s scooter ride. And it wasn’t just the unfamiliarity of the voice, deep and smooth, that made me sit up and take notice. No one in our community spoke that formally.

Were we in trouble with the authorities? Had someone discovered that fox spirits weren’t a myth after all? The stranger’s voice triggered my old childhood fears of our getting caught.

“You must be misinformed.” That was Mom talking. She sounded tense.

Now I really started to worry.

“. . . no mistake,” the voice was saying.

No mistake what? I had to find out more.

I slipped out from under the blanket, freezing in place when Bora grunted and flopped over. I bet starship engines made less racket. But if the stranger had heard Bora’s obnoxious noises, he gave no sign of it.

I risked a touch of Charm to make myself plainer, drabber, harder to see. Foxes can smell each other’s magic—one of my aunties described the sensation as being like a sneeze that won’t come out—but my mom might be distracted enough not to notice.

“How is this possible?” I heard Mom ask.

My hackles rose. She was clearly distressed, and I’d never known her to show weakness in front of strangers.

I tiptoed out of the bedroom and poked my head around the corner. There stood Mom, small but straight-backed. And then came the second surprise. I bit down on a sneeze.

Mom was using Charm. Not a lot—just enough to cover the patches in her trousers and the wrinkles in her worn shirt, and to restore their color to a richer green. We hadn’t expected visitors, especially anybody important. She wouldn’t have had time to dress up in the fine clothes she saved for special occasions. It figured she’d made an exception for herself to use fox magic, despite the fact that she chastised me whenever I experimented with it.

The stranger loomed over her. I didn’t smell any Charm on him, but he could have been some other kind of supernatural, like a tiger or a goblin, in disguise. It was often hard to tell. I sniffed more closely, hoping to catch a whiff of emotion. Was he angry? Frustrated? Did he detect Mom’s magic at all? But he held himself under such tight control that I couldn’t get a bead on him.

His clothes, finely tailored in a burnished-bronze-colored fabric, were all real. What caught my eye was the badge on the breast of his coat. It marked him as an official investigator of the Thousand Worlds, the league to which Jinju belonged. There weren’t literally a thousand planets in the league, but it encompassed many star systems, all answering to the same government. I’d never been off-world myself, although I’d often dreamed of it. This man might have visited dozens of worlds for his job, even the government seat at the Pearled Halls, and I envied him for it.

More to the point, what was an investigator doing here? I could only think of one thing: Something had happened to my brother, Jun. My heart thumped so loudly I was sure he and Mom would hear it.

“Your son vanished under mysterious circumstances,” the investigator said. “He is under suspicion of desertion.”

I gasped involuntarily. Jun? Deserting?

“That’s impossible!” Mom said vehemently. “My son worked very hard to get into the Space Forces!” I didn’t need my nose to tell me how freaked-out she was.

I remembered the way Jun’s face had lit up when he’d gotten the letter admitting him to the Academy. It had meant everything to him—he would never run off! I bit the side of my mouth to keep from blurting that out.

The investigator’s eyes narrowed. “That may be, but people change, especially when they are presented with certain . . . opportunities.”

“Opportunities . . . ?” Mom swallowed and then asked in a small voice, “What do you mean?”

“According to his captain’s report, your son left to go in search of the Dragon Pearl.”

I wasn’t sure which stunned me more: the idea of Jun leaving the Space Forces, or the fact that the Dragon Pearl might actually exist.

“The Pearl? How . . . ?” my mother asked incredulously. “No one knows where it—”

“The Dragon Council has made strides in locating it,” the investigator said, rudely cutting her off. “And they would pay handsomely to have it back in their possession. If he found it, your son could have found the temptation irresistible. . . .”

No. I knew my brother wouldn’t risk his career by trying to cash in an artifact, even one as renowned as the Dragon Pearl.

Mom’s shoulders slumped. I wanted to tell her not to believe the investigator so readily. There had to be some other explanation.

“Jun is not here,” she said, drawing herself up again, “and we have not heard from him, either. I’m afraid we can’t help you.”

The man was not put off. “There is one matter you can assist us with,” he said. “Your son’s last report before he left—it included a message addressed to Min. I believe that’s your daughter?”

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