Shadow of the Fox – Julie Kagawa

It was raining the day Suki came to the Palace of the Sun, and it was raining the night that she died. “You’re the new maid, are you?” a woman with a narrow, bony face demanded, looking her up and down. Suki shivered, feeling cold rainwater sliding down her back, dripping from her hair to spatter the fine wood floor. The head housekeeper sniffed. “Well, you’re no beauty, that’s for sure. But, no matter—Lady Satomi’s last maid was pretty as a butterfly, with half the wit.” She leaned closer, narrowing her eyes. “Tell me, girl. They said you were running your father’s shop before you came here. Do you have an intelligent head on your shoulders? Or is it as full of air as the last girl’s?” Suki chewed her lip and looked at the floor. She had been helping to run her father’s shop within the city for the better part of a year. The only child of a celebrated flute maker, she was often responsible for dealing with the customers when her father was at work, too engrossed in his task to eat or talk to anyone until his latest piece was done. Suki could read and do numbers as well as any boy, but being a girl, she was not allowed to inherit her father’s business or learn his craft. Mura Akihito was still strong, but he was getting old, his once nimble fingers stiffening with age and hard use. Rather than marry Suki off, her father had used his meager influence to get her a job in the Imperial Palace, so she would be well taken care of when he passed away.

Suki missed home, and she desperately wondered if her father was all right without her, but she knew this was what he wanted. “I don’t know, ma’am,” she whispered. “Hmph. Well, we’ll see soon enough. But I would think of something better to say to Lady Satomi. Otherwise your stay will be even shorter than your predecessor’s. Now,” she continued, “clean yourself up, then go to the kitchen and fetch Lady Satomi’s tea. The cook will tell you where to take it.” A few minutes later, Suki walked down the veranda, carrying a full tea tray and trying to remember the directions she’d been given. The emperor’s Palace of the Sun was a miniature city in itself; the main palace, where the emperor and his family lived, loomed over everything, but a labyrinth of walls, structures and fortifications lay between the keep and the inner wall, all designed to protect the emperor and confuse an invading army. Nobles, courtiers and samurai paraded to and fro down the walkways, dressed in robes of brilliant color and design: white silk with delicate sakura petals, or a vivid red with golden chrysanthemum blooms. None of the nobles she passed spared her a second glance. Only the most influential families resided this close to the emperor; the closer you lived to the main keep of the palace, the more important you were. Suki wandered down the maze of verandas, the knots in her stomach growing tighter as she searched in vain for the right quarters. Everything looked the same.

Gray-roofed buildings with bamboo and paper walls, and wooden verandas between them so the nobles wouldn’t sully their clothes in the dirt and dew. Blue-tiled turrets towered over her in regal splendor, and dozens of different songbirds trilled from the branches of the perfectly groomed trees, but the tightness in Suki’s chest and the churning of her insides made it impossible to appreciate any of it. A high, clear note cut through the air, rising above the rooftops, making her freeze in her tracks. It wasn’t a bird, though a thrush perched in a nearby bush warbled loudly in reply. It was a sound Suki knew instantly, had memorized each and every note. How many times had she heard it, drifting up from her father’s workshop? The sweet, haunting melody of a flute. Mesmerized, she followed the sound, momentarily forgetting her duties and that her new mistress would almost certainly be very annoyed that her tea was so late. The song drew her forward, a keening, mournful melody, like saying goodbye or watching autumn fade. Suki could tell that whoever was playing the instrument was skilled indeed; so much emotion lay between the notes of the song, it was as if she was hearing someone’s soul. So hypnotized was she by the sound of the flute, she forgot to look where she was going. Rounding a corner, Suki squeaked in dismay as a young noble in sky blue robes blocked her path, a bamboo flute held to his lips. The teapot rattled and the cups shook perilously as she swerved to avoid him, desperately trying not to spill the contents. The sound of the flute ceased as the noble, much to her amazement, turned and put out a hand to steady the tray before it toppled to the veranda. “Careful there.” His voice was high and clear.

“Don’t want to drop anything—that would be an awful mess. Are you all right?” Suki stared at him. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen. No, not handsome, she decided. Beautiful. His broad shoulders filled the robe he wore, but his features were graceful and delicate, like a willow tree in the spring. Instead of a samurai’s topknot, his hair was long and straight, falling well past his shoulders, and was pure white, the color of mountain snow. Even more amazing, he was smiling at her—not the cold, amused smirk of most nobles and samurai, but a real smile that reached the mirthful crescents of his eyes. “Please excuse me,” the man said, releasing the tray and taking a quick step back. His expression was calm, not irritated at all. “That was my fault, planting myself in the middle of the walk, not thinking anyone could be rushing around the corner with a tea tray. I hope I did not inconvenience you, miss…?” Suki opened her mouth twice before anything came out. “Please forgive me, lord.” Her voice was a whisper. Nobles did not speak like this to peasants; even she knew that.

“I am Suki, and I am only a maid. Please don’t trouble yourself with the likes of me.” The noble chuckled. “It is no trouble, Suki-san,” he said. “I often forget where I am when I am playing.” He raised the flute, making her heart leap. “Please do not think any more of it. You may return to your duties.” He stepped aside for her to pass, but Suki didn’t move, unable to tear her gaze from the instrument in his slender hand. It was made of polished wood, dark and rich and straighter than an arrow, with a distinctive band of gold around one end. She knew she shouldn’t speak to the noble, that he could order her flogged, imprisoned, even executed if he wished it, but words escaped her all the same. “You play magnificently, my lord,” she whispered. “Forgive me. I know it is not my place to say anything, but my father would be proud.” He cocked his head, a flicker of surprise crossing his beautiful face.

“Your father?” he asked, as understanding dawned in his eyes. “You are Mura Akihito’s daughter?” “Hai.” He smiled and gave her the barest of nods. “The song is only as beautiful as the instrument,” he told her. “When you see your father again, tell him that I am honored to possess such a masterpiece.” Suki’s throat closed up, and her eyes grew hot and blurry. The noble politely turned away, feigning interest in a cherry blossom tree, giving her time to compose herself. “Ah, but perhaps you are lost?” he inquired after a moment, examining a chrysalis on one of the slender branches. Turning back, his slender brows rose, but Suki caught no derision in his stance or voice, only amusement, as one might have when speaking to a wandering cat. “The emperor’s palace can be dazzling indeed to the uninitiated. Whose quarters are you assigned to, Suki-san? Perhaps I can point you in the right direction.” “L-Lady Satomi, my lord,” Suki stammered, truly stunned by his kindness. She knew she should bow, but she was terrified she would spill the tea. “Please forgive me, I have come to the palace only today, and everything is very confusing.” A slight frown crossed the noble’s face, making Suki’s heart nearly stop in her chest, thinking she had offended him.

“I see,” he murmured, mostly to himself. “Yet another maid, Satomi-san? How many does the emperor’s concubine need?” Before Suki could wonder what that meant, he shook himself and smiled once more. “Well, fortune favors you, Suki-san. Lady Satomi’s residence isn’t far.” He raised a billowy sleeve, pointing an elegant finger down the walkway. “Go left around this building, then walk straight to the very end. It will be the last doorway on the right.” “Daisuke-san!” A woman’s voice echoed down the veranda before Suki could even whisper her thanks, and the man turned his beautiful face away. Moments later, a trio of noblewomen in elegant green-and-gold robes sashayed around the building and gave him mock frowns as they hurried forward. “There you are, Daisuke-san,” one of them huffed. “Where have you been? We are going to be late for Hanoe-san’s poetry recital. Oh,” she said, catching sight of Suki. “What is this? Daisuke-san, don’t tell me you were here all this time, talking to a maid.” “And why not?” Daisuke’s tone was wry. “A maid’s conversation can be as interesting as any noblewoman’s.

” The three women giggled as if that were the funniest thing they had ever heard. Suki didn’t see what was so amusing. “Oh, Taiyo Daisuke, you say the most wicked things,” one of them chided from behind a white fan painted with cherry blossoms. “Come, now. We really must go. You,” she said, directing her gaze to Suki, “get back to your duties. Why are you just standing there gaping? Shoo!” As quickly as she could without spilling the tea, Suki hurried away. But her heart still pounded, and for some reason she couldn’t catch her breath. Taiyo. Taiyo was the name of the imperial family. Daisuke-sama was of the Sun Clan, one of the most powerful families in Iwagoto, the blood of the emperor himself. The funny feeling in her stomach intensified, and her thoughts became a swarm of moths, fluttering around the dazzling memory of his smile and the melody from her father’s flute. Somehow, she found her way to the correct door, at the very end of the veranda, looking over the magnificent gardens of the palace. The shoji panel was open, and Suki could smell the smoky hint of burning incense wafting from the darkened interior. Creeping inside the room, she peered around for her new mistress but saw no one.

Despite the nobles’ unified preference for simplicity, this apartment was lavishly cluttered. Ornamental screens turned the room into a small maze, and tatami mats lined the entire floor, thick and soft beneath her feet. Paper was everywhere; origami sheets of every style and texture lay in piles around the apartment. Folded paper birds peered at her from atop every flat surface, dominating the room. Suki brushed a flock of origami cranes from the table so that she could set the tea down. “Mai-chan?” A gossamer voice drifted out of the adjoining room, and the sound of silk rustled over the floor. “Is that you? Where have you been? I was getting worried that you—oh.” A woman appeared in the doorway, and for a moment, they stared at one another, Suki’s mouth hanging open in amazement. If Taiyo Daisuke was the most handsome man she had ever met, this was the most elegantly beautiful woman in the whole palace. Her billowing robes were red with silver, gold and green butterflies swarming the front. Shimmering black hair was beautifully styled atop her head, pierced with red-and-gold chopsticks and ivory combs. Dark eyes in a flawless porcelain face regarded Suki curiously. “Hello,” the woman said, and Suki quickly closed her mouth. “May I inquire as to who you are?” “I… I’m Suki,” the girl stammered. “I’m your new maid.

” “I see.” The woman’s lips curved in a faint smile. Suki was sure that if her teeth showed, they would light up the room. “Come here, if you would, little Suki-chan. Please don’t step on anything.” Suki obeyed, placing her feet carefully to avoid squashing any paper creatures, and stood before Lady Satomi. The woman struck her across the face with her open palm. Pain exploded behind her eye, and she collapsed to the floor, too stunned to even gasp. Blinking back tears, she put her hand to her cheek and gazed blankly up at Lady Satomi, who loomed over her, smiling. “Do you know why I did that, little Suki-chan?” she asked, and now she did show her teeth. They reminded Suki of a grinning skull. “N-no, my lady,” she murmured, as her numb cheek started to burn. “Because I called for Mai-chan, not you,” the lady replied in a relentlessly cheerful voice. “You might be a stupid country girl, Suki-chan, but that does not excuse your complete ignorance. You must come only when called, is that understood?” “Yes, my lady.

” “Smile, Suki-chan,” Satomi suggested. “If you smile, perhaps I can forget you have the accent of a sweaty country barbarian and the face of an ox. It will be dreadfully difficult not to loathe you on sight, but I will do my best. Isn’t that generous of me, Suki-chan?” Suki, not knowing what to say to this, kept her mouth shut and thought of Daisuke-sama. “Isn’t that generous of me, Suki-chan?” Satomi repeated, an edge to her voice now. Suki swallowed hard. “Hai, Lady Satomi.” Satomi sighed. “You’ve smashed my creations.” She pouted, and Suki glanced down at the origami creatures that had been crushed by her body. The lady sniffed and turned away. “I shall be very angry if you do not replace them. There is a quaint little shop in the Wind district that sells the most delicate lavender sheets. If you run, you should catch them before they close.” Suki gazed through an open screen at the storm clouds roiling above the palace.

Thunder rumbled as silver-blue strands chased each other through the sky. “Yes, Lady Satomi.” * * * The passing days made Suki long for her father’s shop, for the quiet comfort of sweeping, stitching torn clothing and cooking meals three times a day. For the comforting smell of sawdust and wood shavings, and for the customers who barely gave her a second glance, concerned only with her father and his work. She’d thought it would be easy enough to be the maid to a great lady, to help her dress and run her errands and see to the mundane little tasks that were beneath the notice of the nobility. Perhaps that was how it should have been—certainly, the other maids did not seem to share her plight. Indeed, they seemed to go out of their way to avoid her, as if associating with Lady Satomi’s maid would attract the ire of her mistress. Suki couldn’t blame them. Lady Satomi was a nightmare, a beautiful nightmare of silk, makeup and heady perfume. Nothing Suki did suited the woman. No matter how she scrubbed or cleaned, the laundry never met with Satomi’s satisfaction. The tea Suki brewed was too weak, too strong, too sweet, always too something. No amount of cleaning sufficed within Lady Satomi’s chambers—there was always a speck of dirt to be found, a tatami mat out of place, an origami creature in the wrong spot. And each failure brought a little smile from the lady and a shockingly powerful slap. No one cared, of course.

The other maids looked away from her bruises, and the guards did not look at her at all. Suki did not dare complain; not only was Lady Satomi a great and powerful lady, she was the favored concubine of the emperor himself. To speak poorly of her would be insulting Taiyo no Genjiro, the great Son of Heaven, and would result in a flogging, public humiliation, or worse. The only thing that saved Suki from complete despair was the thought of running into Daisuke-sama again. He was a great noble, of course, far above her station, and would not care about the troubles of a lowly maid. But even catching a glimpse of him would be enough. She looked for him on the verandas and the paths to and from Lady Satomi’s chambers, but the beautiful noble was nowhere to be seen. Later, she learned through servant gossip that Taiyo Daisuke had left the Palace of the Sun not long after she arrived, heading off on one of his mysterious pilgrimages across the country. Perhaps, Suki thought, she would catch a glimpse of him when he returned. Perhaps she would hear her father’s flute again, and follow it until she found him on the verandas, his long white hair flowing behind him. A ringing slap drew her from her daydream, knocking her to the floor. “Oh dear. You are such a clumsy girl.” Lady Satomi stood over her, resplendent in her stunning silk robes. “Get up, Suki-chan.

I have a task for you.” In her arms, the lady carried a coil of fine silken cord, bloodred in color. As Suki staggered to her feet, the rope was thrust into her arms. “You are such a feebleminded little thing, aren’t you? I despair of ever making a good maid out of you. But surely even you can take care of this one small task. Take this rope to the storehouse in the eastern gardens, the one past the lake. Surely you can do that much? And do stop crying, girl. What will people think of me, if my maid goes around weeping everywhere?” * * * Suki awoke to darkness with a throbbing in her skull. Her vision swam, and there was a weird coppery taste in the back of her throat. Overhead, thunder growled, and a sharp, ozone-scented wind blew into her face. The floor beneath her felt cold, and hard, stony edges were pressing uncomfortably into her stomach and cheek. Blinking, she tried pushing herself upright, but her arms would not respond. A moment later, she realized they were tied behind her back. Ice flooded her veins. She rolled to her side and attempted to stand, but her knees and ankles were bound as well—with the same rope she’d brought to the storehouse, she realized—and a rag was stuffed into her mouth, tied with a strip of cloth.

With a muffled shriek, she thrashed wildly, writhing on the stones. Pain shot up her arms as she scraped along the ground, cutting her skin on rock edges and leaving bits of flesh behind, but the ropes held firm. Panting, exhausted, she slumped against the stones in defeat, then raised her head to gaze at her surroundings. She lay in the center of a courtyard, but not the pristine, elegant courtyard of the Sun Palace, with its swept white stones and trimmed bushes. This one was dark, rocky, ruined. The castle it was attached to was also dark and abandoned, looming over her like some great sullen beast, tattered banners flapping against the walls. Dead leaves and broken stones were scattered throughout the courtyard, and a samurai’s helmet, empty and rusting, lay a few feet from her. In the flickering light overhead, she could see the glint of eyes atop the walls—dozens of crows, watching her with their feathers spiked out against the wind. “Hello, Suki-chan,” said an eerily cheerful voice somewhere behind her. “Did you finally wake up?”


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Updated: 10 October 2021 — 20:04

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