There are few things worse than waiting all night for the special guests to arrive at the party. Especially when those guests hold the fate of the Thousand Worlds in their hands.
And yet, all Min can mostly think about is the free food . . .
The best thing in the world is a party, except when you’re the youngest person there and everyone wishes you would go away.
It’s one thing to be the youngest at a party that’s for you, when you’re expecting gifts and a good time. For a day you can forget that the dome that protects your shabby house from the dusty atmosphere needs repair, that your helper robot has broken down again, that your mean cousin Bora messed up the household digi-slate so no one can watch holo shows. For my family, that day used to be New Year’s, when everyone added a year to their age. We’d always exchange gifts, however small: hand-sewn needle minders, or a pin to hold up our hair, or a solar-powered toy blaster that actually lit up.
That was back on my old home on the steader world of Jinju. We were poor, but we had each other. Something I hadn’t appreciated at the time.
Today’s party was on the space station of Ssangyong—the name means twin dragons—and at times I thought it was bigger than the biggest city on Jinju. My obnoxious cousin Bora wouldn’t be attending this celebration, but that was the only good thing about it. I lurked by the trays of food, trying not to look like the only thing I cared about was the mandu dumplings, stuffed with seasoned pork and green onion. They’d invited me here as Bearer of the Dragon Pearl, a magical artifact that could transform whole worlds. An artifact that might be the key to peace between the Thousand Worlds (my nation) and the Sun Clans, with whom we’d been at war for years. Spoiler alert: The only thing I wanted to care about was the mandu. Too bad it would cause a diplomatic incident if I chowed down before the real guests arrived.
I had to admit the place looked great. The officials, or more accurately, their peons, had decorated it for the occasion. The Thousand Worlds’ symbols were everywhere, as if to remind any guests that we were at the heart of our influence.
The banners showed everything from the mugunghwa flower with its pink and magenta petals to paintings of entwined dragons in their native serpentine form, coiling around stylized clouds that reached up to the starry skies. People were dressed in gold-embroidered silk and stiff brocades, rich in the bold colors that the people of the Thousand Worlds loved so much. Instead of the plain, functional pronoun pins that the Space Forces used, people had fancy ones, often sporting jewels or elaborate enamel designs. Even I’d consented to wear a hanbok in bright red and blue and have my hair braided with matching ribbons. It almost made me fit in.
I was in the form of an older teen, the sixteen-year-old guise I wore for the sake of convenience. But while I may have looked like just another one of the young women in the room, I was an impostor. I was a gumiho, a shape-shifting fox, and if the other guests knew the truth, they would never trust me again. A few of the higher-ranking officials were in on the secret, but people would be even more appalled by the presence of an untrustworthy fox than by my true age of fourteen.
They would be especially offended by the fact that a fox was the Bearer of the Dragon Pearl. The orb, a comforting presence the size of my fist, rested snugly in a silken pouch at my waist. I thought I could even hear its murmuration, as of a vanished sea. It was the most coveted object in the Thousand Worlds, and it had chosen me to carry it after I’d recovered it from the Ghost Sector last year.
Funny thing: I’d once asked my handler, Seok, if the Thousand Worlds literally included a thousand worlds, and he’d looked at me like I’d admitted that I couldn’t count to four. “What do you mean by ‘world’?” he asked. “Is a moon a ‘world’? How about a really big starbase?” It wasn’t until he’d left the room that I realized he’d never answered the question.
When I was growing up in a backward steader household on Jinju, I’d always imagined that the Thousand Worlds were the breadth and width of the universe. I’d never thought about the worlds that lay beyond our borders, our diplomatic reach—or the shadow of war.
I spotted my bodyguard, a lean woman in drab clothes, lurking at the edge of the party, not too close and not too far. I winked at her. Her face went carefully blank.
I’d asked for her name when we first met. She called herself Silhouette, which was exactly the kind of code name I imagined a former spy would have. Seok hadn’t coughed up her actual name, either, so Silhouette it was. Mostly I thought of her as “the bodyguard,” which at least described her function.
I could only waste so much time teasing her, though. We’d been through the wink-and-ignore routine a dozen times already during the course of this party.
“Where are they?” I grumbled, confident that even other supernaturals, such as tiger spirits or goblins, couldn’t overhear me over the hubbub of chatter and gossip. “If the Sun Clans ambassador is any later, I’m going to turn into a fox and make off with that ginseng-stuffed chicken.”
“Please don’t,” murmured my sensible older brother, Jun.
Jun was even less noticeable than I was. People overlooked him most of the time, not because of his retiring demeanor, but because he was a ghost. He usually faded into the background so he wouldn’t spook anyone. Ghosts generated bad luck, and if the attendees found out he had accompanied me here, they’d probably get one of the shamans present to exorcise him on the spot, which I couldn’t allow. Not after all the things we’d both been through.
Besides, if they got rid of Jun, who would protect me from my worse impulses?
I cast an eye around the milling group of officials, diplomats, and guards. Once I would have been thrilled to be in such august company. Today, though, all I could think were catty things like Do you really think that hairdo does your face any favors? and Maybe go lighter on the cologne next time? The latter, at least, was unfair—humans had less acute senses of smell than foxes did.
An older man, his hair lightly streaked with gray, sidled over to the food tables and began sneaking a bun decorated with edible flowers. I cleared my throat. If I couldn’t eat yet, no one else would, either.
“Why, hello there, young lady!” he said, suavely replacing the bun. “You wouldn’t let one of your elders collapse of hunger, would you? My doctors say I need to eat to keep up my strength.”
I forced myself to smile. The older man, besides being dressed in robes that must have cost as much as my family’s yearly allowance for food, had clear skin, great teeth, and a sturdy frame. His smell did hint that he was indeed ill, but I doubted he’d ever known hunger or shared expired ration bars because the hydroponics had malfunctioned and there was a poor harvest.
I couldn’t say any of that to him, though. No one was supposed to know that Kim Min, Bearer of the Dragon Pearl, had come from such a hardscrabble background. Seok hadn’t even wanted me to use my real name, but that was something I’d insisted on holding on to, especially since it was a pretty common name. After so much shape-shifting, I wasn’t sure I remembered my native form, that of a small fox, let alone the default human one I’d used back home. My name—my real name—gave me an anchor to my identity.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he studied me, and my unease grew. I didn’t want to stand out too much, despite my so-called vital role in the ceremonial meeting. The meeting that our guests from a rival nation, the Sun Clans, were almost half an hour late for.
My stomach settled the matter by growling loudly. I blushed.
Best to distract him. “I’m Kim Min,” I said with a deep bow, as befitted the man’s age. “Pleased to meet you.”
“That’s better,” Jun said in his ghostly whisper.
“Ah, the Dragon Pearl’s guardian,” said the man with a firm nod, as if he’d won a bet with himself. “Forgive me, my dear. I’d expected you to be taller, or maybe broader.”
If only you knew, I thought, hiding a grin. My shape-shifting had limits. I couldn’t become very tall, or very broad, because as a fox I wasn’t all that big. But I could stretch things if I had to, and as my power grew, so did my ability to expand.
The man hadn’t finished speaking. “Of course, people say the same thing to me.” He smiled wryly. “I’m the minister of defense, so people expect me to have the build of a taekwondo champion or a wrestler.”
Now he had my attention. Minister Baik. I’d seen him in the news holos, but he’d been a tiny speck of a figure then, so I hadn’t recognized him in the flesh.
I should have taken a closer look at the guest list when Seok was going over the mission brief with me, but my eyes had glazed over after the umpteenth assistant to the assistant to the aide of the dog-walker to the . . . You get the idea. Many of the high-and-mighty people hadn’t been able to make it in person, and a bunch of them had sent their aides, assistants, and so forth.
On the other hand, it made sense that the minister of defense had come. Seok had informed me that the Thousand Worlds and Sun Clans had a history of warfare going back to their founding and beyond, even back to the misty days when they’d both been small nations on the Old World, our origin planet. We’d lost the Old World in some crisis I didn’t know the details of, and the ancient rivalries had followed us into space.
It was my turn to study the elderly man, although I had to do so without looking him straight in the eye, which would have been disrespectful, not just on account of his greater age, but also his position. “Sounds like a stressful job,” I offered.
“This could be the turning point,” Minister Baik said wistfully. “Peace between the Sun Clans and the Thousand Worlds. The Space Forces could stand down. I’d go to the final ceremony on the world of Jasujeong myself, but my doctors recommend against it. . . . Good thing I can rely on my assistant to represent the ministry in these matters, and work for peace.”
I blinked. Not a sentiment I would have expected from the minister of defense. I wasn’t super clear on the intricacies of the Thousand Worlds’ government, other than the fact that steaders didn’t get much say in matters of interstellar policy. But I did know that the minister of defense was in charge of the Space Forces. A better name for his position might have been the minister of war.
“I can see what you’re thinking,” Minister Baik said.
I winced and wished I had hidden my expression better.
“You’ve probably lost friends or family to marauders, or pirates, or Sun Clans raiders,” he went on.
I nodded like I had some idea what he was talking about. I’d encountered pirates, but that was after I’d run away from home. Another story I didn’t want to get into. On Jinju, we’d kept a low profile, and the neighbors had looked out for us. Once I would have killed for a nice, exciting raid to interrupt my boring chore of scrubbing vegetables. Now I knew better.
“The prospect of war is one thing,” Minister Baik said. “The parades, the medals, the fancy machines and starships . . . But the reality is another.” He shook his head. “I am haunted by my share of ghosts.”
I startled. Had he spotted Jun? No, he must have been talking metaphorically. I couldn’t imagine the authorities would let someone hold government office if they thought he was actually being haunted.
Jun manifested as a chiaroscuro of light and dark just to my left, not coincidentally near the coveted pork mandu. I raised an eyebrow at him, then nodded toward the brooding minister.
Jun shrugged, his long hair hanging down around his face, and shook his head. The ragged hair was one thing that gave away Jun’s spectral status, along with his transparency. Otherwise, if you weren’t paying close attention, he looked like any other Space Forces cadet, complete with blue uniform.
I was trying to think of a way to extricate myself from this depressing conversation, which was way over my head, when a ripple passed through the crowd. Minister Baik straightened as though someone had slapped him. Excited murmurs began, then quieted.
The Sun Clans ambassador and her entourage had finally arrived.
Want to read more? Fox Snare: A Thousand Worlds Novel from New York Times best-selling author Yoon Ha Lee is on sale now!