Dragon Pearl(4)

I suppressed a groan. I didn’t want this man here any longer than necessary. Not even Charm could disguise the modesty of our dome house. I tried to remember how well I’d wiped down the lacquered dining table that we brought out for special occasions. All our other furniture was scratched, banged-up plastic. Great-Grandmother had brought the red-black table and its accompanying red silk cushions when she immigrated to Jinju. Mom was going to make me drag it all out for this horrible man who thought Jun had done something wrong.

The man cocked his eyebrows at Mom. I bristled. I bet he doubted we had anything good to offer him. The thing was, we didn’t. But Mom had invited him, which made him a guest, which meant I had to treat him politely.

“I’ll stay for a meal,” he said, as if he were doing us a favor. “We can discuss matters further.”

“Min,” Mom said with a sigh, “get the table ready. You know the one.”

“Yes, Mom,” I said. She meant the nice table. I had a better idea, though. Especially since I was dying to know what else the investigator had to say about Jun.

On the way to the dining area that adjoined the kitchen, I passed the common room, where my four aunties were still huddled in bed. “Privilege of age,” they always said about their sleeping late. Of course when I tried lazing about, I got cuffed on the side of the head. Not hard, but it still infuriated me.

Once I reached the kitchen, I grabbed settings out of cupboards and drawers and laid them out on the counter: chopsticks, spoons, and bowls for rice, soup, and the small side dishes called banchan, like mung bean sprouts and gimchi, spicy pickled cabbage. I grabbed real rice, imported from off-world and saved for special occasions because it required too much water to grow, instead of the crumbly altered grains we produced locally. After hesitating, I added some of the fancier foods and drinks we saved for festival days, like honey cookies and cinnamon-ginger punch. As I worked, I tried to listen in as Mom and the stranger talked in the hallway, but their voices were too low.

“I’m just about done, Mom!” I called out so she’d know to bring the guest in.

Then I concentrated hard, thinking about rectangles, right angles, and straight lines. About the smooth, polished red-black surface of that lacquered table. If I was going to imitate a table, I had to appear better than the real thing.

Charm swirled and eddied around me. My shape wavered, then condensed into that of the knee-high table. I couldn’t put out the table settings now—Mom would have to take care of that. In the meantime, while I could only observe the room as a blur through the reflections on my surface, I could listen pretty well.

Most foxes only used shape-shifting to pass as humans in ordinary society. My true form, which I hadn’t taken since I was a small child, was that of a red fox. I had one single tail instead of the nine that the oldest and most powerful fox spirits did. Even Great-Grandmother, before she’d passed several years ago, had only had three tails in her fox shape. When the aunties had told us stories about magic and supernatural creatures, and taught us lore about our powers, they had cautioned us to avoid shifting into inanimate objects. It was too easy to become dazed and forget how to change back into a living creature, they’d warned. I’d experimented with it on the sly, though, and was confident I could pull it off.

I heard footsteps. Mom’s I would have recognized anywhere. She had a soft way of walking. The investigator also stepped quietly—too quietly, almost like a predator. Like a fox.

“Where did your daughter go off to?” the investigator asked.

A flicker told me that Mom was looking at the countertop where I’d left the settings out. “Pardon her flightiness,” she said with a trace of annoyance. “She’s been like that a lot lately.”

Is that so? I thought.

Mom began transferring the dishes onto my surface. I endured the weird sensation of being a piece of furniture. Even as a table, I had a keen sense of smell—a side effect of being a fox. The rich aroma of cinnamon-ginger punch would have made my mouth water if I’d been in human form. It didn’t always work in my favor, though. The cabbage pickles were starting to go sour. I bet the investigator would be able to tell.

Clunk, clunk, clunk went the dishes as they landed on my surface. Mom wasn’t slamming them down, but they sounded loud. Then she put the silk cushions on the floor for the courier and her to sit on.

I had a sudden urge to sneeze, which felt very peculiar as a table. It wasn’t my own Charm causing it—


I concentrated to get a better picture of what Mom was up to. I was right—she was using more Charm! And this time she wasn’t doing it to fancy up her clothes. Rather, her Charm was focused on the investigator, who still hadn’t given his name. She was trying to get him to lower his guard, by using the kind of magic she had always told me honorable foxes never resorted to. The prickling sensation intensified, although it wasn’t directed at me.

I quivered with outrage. Some of the platters on my surface clanked. The investigator froze in the middle of reaching for his chopsticks. “What was that?” he asked.

“Maybe there was a tremor,” Mom said after a brief pause. “We get those from time to time.” I could smell her suppressed anger, even if she was hiding it from the investigator. She was onto me. I was going to be lectured later, I just knew it.

Surely the investigator wouldn’t fall for her excuse? This region was old and quiet, no volcanoes or anything. But I resolved to tamp down my reactions.

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