Dragon Pearl(8)

“. . . send Min to Jaebi Village.” It was my oldest auntie, sounding very firm. “. . . still have some friends there. The authorities can’t arrest her if they can’t find her, and Jaebi is so remote, nobody goes there if they can help it.”

No way was I going to let myself be shipped off to some family friends I’d never heard of! I shuddered just thinking about it. But it was clear I couldn’t stay home after what I’d done, either.

That, plus Bora’s sniping about Jun, made up my mind: I would go after my brother. Someone had to track him down, and I was the best person for the job. I’d avoid being exiled to somewhere horrible and isolated. Best of all, once I disappeared, my family could blame me for assaulting the investigator and using fox magic, and they could escape punishment. I was sure my wily aunties would figure out a way to convince the local authorities to keep the family’s true identity a secret.

I slipped over to the closet where we kids stored our personal items. As second oldest, I had the second-highest shelf to myself. It contained all my meager belongings: faded clothes, folded to my mom’s painstaking standards; my breathing masks, along with some extra filters; an outdated data-slate that I had to share whenever someone asked; and a patched-up backpack, which Auntie Areum had been about to throw out until I begged for it.

And one more thing: a brush-and-ink portrait of Mom, Dad, Jun, and me as a baby, done on pale silk, which was marred only by a blotch in the lower left corner. I’d tried to remove the stain, but I couldn’t do much without risking damage to the work. If it weren’t for this portrait, which Jun had left with me, I wouldn’t remember Dad’s face at all.

Jun and I had inherited Dad’s quizzical eyes and his narrow chin. I had Mom’s smile, which I seldom saw on her anymore. In the portrait, she was smiling faintly, as though trying not to laugh at something one of us had just said.

All four of us were wearing festival clothes. I could imagine the bright colors and embroidery, the latter cunningly hinted at by stylized dabs of ink. I hadn’t owned any garments that fine since my father’s death.

I rolled up the silk and tucked it into a scroll case made of battered green plastic. The portrait deserved better. I used to imagine purchasing a replacement case carved from imported mist-ivory or sable-wood, but our money had to be saved for more important things. The plastic case did the job.

Then I retrieved the backpack and stuffed my possessions into it. While I could outfit myself with the help of shape-shifting magic, maintaining the illusion required effort and a good memory for details. I’d save that for times when I had no other choice. The masks and filters went into a pouch on the front, while I nestled the scroll case among some folded pants.

I shouldered the backpack and crept toward the storage room. This would be the tricky part. The adults were still talking loudly enough for me to hear them, though it was hard to discern the words from here. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t hear me rummaging through the cabinet. I’d have to be quiet.

“Min?” said a small voice from behind me.

I’d been so focused on the adults, I hadn’t heard Manshik pad around the corner with a basket full of laundry. I decided to go on the offensive before he asked what I was doing with my backpack. I gestured for him to follow me into a side room. “Weren’t you supposed to do that earlier this morning?” I demanded in a hushed voice.

That may or may not have been true. I knew Manshik, though, and he was young enough to get flustered easily.

No such luck today. “You’re not going somewhere, are you?” he asked, frowning.

“Of course not,” I lied. “Since you had the basket, I decided to use my backpack to take my dirty clothes to the laundry room.”

He held the basket out helpfully. Heaven save me from cooperative younger cousins. I performed my best smile and emptied some of my clothes into the basket, deliberately rumpling them in the process.

“Thanks,” I said, keeping the sarcasm out of my voice with an effort. “I have to check the air filters, okay? If anyone asks, I’m going to be busy for a while.”

Manshik pulled a face. “Your mom seems mad—”

“She can come get me when she’s ready to yell at me. Just go ahead and deal with the laundry.” As he trotted off, I eyed my mostly emptied backpack and sighed.

At least no one interrupted me when I went to the cabinet. I carefully slid open the false bottom and was amazed by the size of the cache inside. We could have been living a little less frugally all these years!

But right then, I was thankful for my aunties’ thriftiness. As much as I hated to steal from them, I needed some jades. Fox magic wasn’t any good for conjuring money—fake currency and other valuables disappeared soon after they left our hands. And I had to be prepared for a long trip.

Then I hesitated. If my family ended up having to bribe authorities in order to stay out of trouble, who knew how many chits they would need. I ended up only taking a couple of fistfuls.

My backpack felt heavier and heavier with each tiptoe I took toward the back door. I’d never even flown before, and here I was preparing to journey to the stars. What other choice did I have? I had no intention of going to jail or being shuttled off to the boonies. More important, Jun needed me.

Once I stepped outside, I didn’t look back.

Like everyone over the age of ten, I knew how to drive a hover-scooter. Technically you couldn’t get a license until you were sixteen, but out where we lived, no one cared about such things. In the city of Hongok, where I was headed, I couldn’t count on the patrols being lax. I took a moment to shift into a slightly older version of myself. The extra two inches of height was nice, if dizzying, even though it meant my clothes no longer fit as well.

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