Dragon Pearl(6)

“He’s unconscious, not dead,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Look,” I said, not wanting to get into it with her, “I have to clean this up.” I stabbed my finger toward the corner. “Could you stand over there?”

Manshik obediently trudged to the corner. Unlike his sister, he wasn’t so bad. He was the only boy out of all my cousins. Most foxes choose to be female, like Mom and all my aunties, because it is traditional. Manshik had insisted on being male, though, because he wanted to be like Jun, and no one in the family hassled him about it.

“Seriously,” Bora said, planting herself in my way when I attempted to mop up some spilled cinnamon-ginger punch, “what’s going on?”

She was going to be in my face until I gave in, so I explained.

“I can’t believe you were going to serve the investigator that nasty stuff,” Bora said, wrinkling her nose at some dark pickled leaves, as if that were the most important thing that had happened. “We’re the only family in the county that will touch it.”

“Food is food,” I said. How could I get Bora to go away? Mom and the aunties were discussing my fate, as well as that of the investigator, and I couldn’t hear them while Bora was nattering at me. I scrubbed harder. Maybe if I ignored her long enough, she’d get bored and scoot.

“. . . call the local magistrate,” Auntie Areum was saying. “Surely they’ll understand that—”

“Hey.” Bora kicked at a bowl to get my attention. Its contents scattered, making a greasy mess of the section of floor I’d just scrubbed. “Min, stop spacing out.”

I lost my patience and flung the dirty rag at her face. She shrieked as though I’d scalded her.

Manshik ran forward and tugged on her arm. He always hated it when people fought. I scowled at him and he blanched.

Mom appeared at the doorway. “What in the name of heaven—?” She stared at the rag on Bora’s face, then strode forward and plucked it off. “Min,” she said.

“Bora got in the way when I—”

“I’m not interested,” Mom said. “Min, this situation is serious. I need you to do what you’re told for once, with no loopholes or clever tricks.”

I kept my hands loose at my sides, even though I wanted to ball them into fists, and I put on my meekest expression. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ll get back to work.”

“We’re going to have an even longer discussion after we’ve figured out how to protect the family,” she said, frowning severely at me. “Starting with your inability to follow directions. Bora, Manshik, why don’t you get to work in the hydroponics dome.”

My cousins knew better than to argue with Mom when she was in this mood. They bowed and scurried off.

“Seonmi,” another one of the aunties called to my mom, “come back here and let the children sort things out among themselves. We have matters to settle.”

Auntie Areum added, “Your daughter’s been a handful ever since—”

The oldest auntie shushed her, but I knew how that sentence would have ended. Ever since Jun left. My mouth tasted sour. Still, I kept quiet. The last thing I needed was to draw the adults’ attention once more.

Mom handed me the rag. I pasted a smile on my face, then made a show of scrubbing. Now I felt angry about the quantity of food I’d splattered over the floor while fighting the courier. Aside from the dark pickled leaves, I’d picked out the good stuff, because Mom would have wanted to impress a guest. We never had much of it on hand, and it had gone to waste.

At least with Bora and her brother gone, I could concentrate on eavesdropping.

“We can’t drug him into forgetfulness,” the oldest auntie was saying in a whiny tone. “They’d consider that an even worse offense than using Charm. Such terrible luck, having an investigator show up at our house . . .”

“What?” Auntie Areum asked. “You expect our local hospital to be able to detect subtle poisons?”

“I’m more concerned about what Jun’s gotten tangled up in,” Mom said. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The investigator seemed to think that Jun’s being a fox is significant. He said, ‘That’s why they needed the cadet,’ as if the fleet had recruited Jun specifically because of his powers. It wasn’t just normal distrust of our kind.”

“Too bad we can’t just keep the investigator Charmed here,” Auntie Areum said.

I almost dropped a bowl I’d been putting into the sink as I imagined the stern investigator meekly following Auntie Areum around and smiling at everything she said, maybe even doing some of the chores normally assigned to me. Too bad indeed!

“No, someone would notice his absence and come looking for him,” Mom said.

While I wrung out the rag and freshened it up with clean water, Mom and the aunties squabbled over the appropriateness of bribery. Predictably, Mom opposed it, while the oldest auntie and Auntie Areum argued that it would save trouble down the line. They let it slip that they’d stashed some jades—interstellar chits more valuable than our planetary currency—in the rickety old storeroom cabinet. I should have guessed it had a false bottom for hiding things.

While they discussed which local officials would be the most helpful if we bribed them, my mind puzzled over the investigator. There was no way—especially now—I’d be able to get more information out of him about my brother’s disappearance. Just what had Jun been trying to signal with that letter?

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