Dragon Pearl(5)

“You must have traveled a great distance to reach us here in the outer rim,” Mom said. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful in the matter about my son. Serving in the Space Forces was his dream, you know. I can’t imagine that he’d turn his back on it.”

His voice was curt. “Your daughter’s hiding something, Ms. Kim. If you don’t help me determine what it is, then I will be forced to open a general investigation into your family. In my experience, everyone has dirty laundry. Even in a place like Jinju.”

He didn’t get any further. I wasn’t going to let him get away with threatening my mom! Especially since our family did, in fact, have a secret we couldn’t afford to reveal. My senses jumbled as I resumed human shape. I shook the dishes off my back. But I hadn’t reckoned on getting burned by hot soup as it splashed out of upturned bowls. I yelped. My flailing caused more of the dishes to crash on the floor and break. I was going to have kitchen cleanup duty for the rest of my life.

“Min!” my mom shouted. She attempted to grab my arm and yank me out of there.

I dodged her, flung a shard at the man, and scooted backward. I didn’t want to get too close, because he was a lot bigger and it would’ve been easy for him to overpower me. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to run away and leave my mom alone with him.

Mom made another grab for me. “This is not the way,” she said in a taut voice. “Let me handle it.”

It was too late. The investigator and I locked gazes. “Foxes,” he hissed. His eyes had gone hard and intense, like a predator’s. Even with the gimchi dumped over his head and dripping down the bridge of his nose, he looked threatening. I could smell the anger rising off him. “So that’s why they needed the cadet.”

Before I could react, he lunged for me and snatched me up by the throat. I scrabbled for air, my fingernails lengthening into claws, and tore desperately at his fingers.

“Please,” Mom said, low and fast. “I’ll make her tell you anything you need to know. Just let her go.”

“You’re in no position to bargain, Ms. Kim,” he said. “Do you realize how bad it will look that one of your kind joined the Space Forces only to go rogue? Or how paranoid the local population will become when they realize that anyone they know could be a fox in disguise? I have no choice but to inform the authorities about your presence here.” He reached into his coat, and his fingers closed around something that gleamed.

I panicked, thinking he was going to draw a blaster. I turned into the densest, heaviest block of metal I could manage. Gravity yanked me straight down onto the man’s foot. Mom sneezed in response to my shape-shifting magic. The investigator didn’t scream or even grunt, just remained silent. That scared me most of all.

Making rapid changes exhausted me, but what choice did I have? The world swam around me as I took human shape again. My clothes tugged awkwardly at my elbows and knees. I’d gotten the garments’ measurements wrong.

Gray-faced, the man bent over to examine his foot. Before he stood upright again, I snatched up a saucepan and brought it crashing down against his head. He fell without a sound.

All my aunties had woken up by now. Mom had to explain the situation to them while the oldest one complained about having her sleep interrupted. Still, even she had to admit that we were in trouble.

Mom and the two strongest aunties dragged the unconscious investigator into the parlor. I looked away, feeling a little guilty about all the trouble I’d caused, though the sound of his head thunk-thunk-thunking across the threshold gave me a moment of vindictive pleasure. They laid him on a quilt as if they were going to nurse him back to health. The quilt would have to get washed afterward. I could guess who’d be stuck with that task.

Mom took me aside while the others fussed over the investigator. Her fury gave off a bitter, acrid smell. “I’ve told you time and again that using our powers will get us into trouble,” she said. “And to make matters worse, you had to attack the man. I could have gotten rid of him and he’d have been none the wiser.”

I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out that she’d been using fox powers herself. I just stared at the floor and muttered, “Yes, Mom.”

“Go clean up the mess in the dining room,” she said after a searching pause. “I’ll deal with you later.”

I recognized that grim tone and didn’t argue. Instead, I headed back into the dining room, seething, and retrieved a threadbare rag. We used to borrow a robot housekeeper from the neighbors, but it had broken down a year ago. I missed that housekeeper almost as much as I missed my brother, whatever trouble he had gotten into.

While I knelt and scrubbed, Mom and the aunties held council in the parlor. “We can’t simply kill the man. Even if we were the ones being threatened, we’d wind up taking the blame,” said the one I disliked the most, Auntie Kim Areum. Bora’s mom. For once I agreed with her, though.

“We can’t throw Min to the authorities, either,” Mom snapped back.

Good to know, I thought.

As I was trying to eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation, Bora and her younger brother clomped into the dining room, tracking dark pickled leaves all over the floor. “Hey,” Bora said in a hushed voice, “did you throw a tantrum with our food? And why’s there a dead guy in our parlor?”

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