Dragon Pearl(3)

A shock went through me when he said my name.

“I have been sent here to show it to her. It may offer clues to Jun’s location—or the Pearl’s. Perhaps he wrote it in a code language only she would understand.”

“Again, I think you have the wrong impression of my son,” Mom said haughtily. “He is an honorable soldier, not a traitor.”

“So you say. But I am not leaving these premises until I have shown Min the message. Are you not curious to see his last communication?”

That did the trick.

“Min!” Mom called.

I ducked back around the corner before she could spot me, waited a couple moments, then walked out to greet them both. My nose tickled again, and I stifled a sneeze. “Yes, Mom?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t been eavesdropping on their conversation.

Mom briefly explained the situation to me. “This man has a message from Jun,” she said. “He’d like you to tell him if you see anything unusual in it.” I could hear the skepticism in her voice.

I nodded sullenly at the investigator, resenting the fact that he had accused Jun of deserting. Still, there was a silver lining: The man seemed unaware that we were foxes.

“Please, let me see the message,” I said, remembering to speak formally.

The investigator looked down at me. If I’d been in fox shape, my ears would have flattened against my skull. His expression wasn’t condescending, as I would have expected. Instead, I could sense him measuring me. And now I could smell some suspicion coming off him. Did he think I was hiding something?

He drew a data-slate out of a pocket, tapped on it, and showed me a message marked with Jun’s seal—nothing fancy, just his name done in simple calligraphy.

I scowled at the fact that they’d been snooping into my brother’s private correspondence, but there was nothing I could do about it now.

Hello Min,

Don’t tell Bora, but there are even more chores on a battle cruiser than there are at home. I can’t wait until my first leave. I have so many things to tell you. I’ve made lots of friends. Together we’ve been exploring a new world, just like Dad. My friends help with the chores sometimes, too. Did I mention the chores?



I blinked rapidly. I wasn’t going to cry, not in front of this stranger. I handed the slate to Mom so she could read it, too. Jun’s letters to us had been few and far between. The Thousand Worlds lacked faster-than-light communication technology, so all interstellar messages had to be delivered by courier. I couldn’t bear the idea that this might be the last we ever heard from my brother. The investigator had to be wrong.

Still, the message’s contents gave me hope. There was a hidden meaning in there, all right. Jun had never complained about chores the whole time we were growing up. He was trying to tell me that something was wrong. Who were the “friends”? Were they really friends, or troublemakers he’d fallen in with? Why hadn’t he included any of their names?

The most worrying clue was his mention of Dad. For one thing, our dad had died seven years ago, when I was six. And for another, he had never been an explorer. According to Mom, he’d been a skilled technician. What was Jun trying to imply?

How much of this did I want to reveal to the investigator, though? I didn’t trust the man. After all, I didn’t know anything about him or his motives. On the other hand, I couldn’t thwart him too obviously. That might get my family in trouble, and if he decided to investigate us further, our secret—that we were fox spirits—might be exposed.

I’d hesitated too long. “Min,” the investigator said in a disturbingly quiet voice, “can you tell me anything about this?”

“He’s just complaining,” I said, doing my best not to sound grudging—or concerned.

His gaze captured mine. “That’s not the whole story, is it?”

I wasn’t going to rat Jun out to some stranger. “I don’t know what you mean.”

I smelled an extra whiff of worry from Mom. She wanted me to do something in response, but what?

“Many powerful people are interested in the Dragon Pearl,” the investigator said, as if I couldn’t have guessed that. “If it has resurfaced, it is imperative that it be recovered by the Space Forces and not some unscrupulous person.”

I understood why that was important. According to legend, the Pearl could transform an entire planet in a day. Dragons controlled terraforming magic, but they were not nearly that fast and efficient—it took years for teams of trained workers to make a world fully lush and hospitable. As a citizen of Jinju, I was especially aware of that fact. Jun was, too.

With a sinking feeling, I remembered why Jun had wanted to go into the Space Forces. I want to learn how to help Jinju, to make life better for everyone here, he had told me more than once.

He wouldn’t have stolen the Pearl for our benefit, would he? Surely not.

“I don’t know anything,” I said quickly.

The investigator looked dubious.

Fortunately, Mom intervened. “I assure you, my son would never desert, and my daughter is telling the truth.”

I was grateful to her for supporting us and shutting him down.

Then she surprised me by adding, “Perhaps you would like some refreshments before heading to your next stop?”

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