(Finalist, WSFA Small Press Award, 2017)
If I’d listened to the tiger-sage’s warning all those years ago, I wouldn’t be trapped in the city of Samdae during the evacuation. Old buildings and new had suffered during the artillery battle, and I could hear the occasional wailing of sirens. Even at this hour, families led hunched grandmothers and grandfathers away from their old homes, or searched abandoned homes in the hopes of finding small treasures: salt, rags, dried peppers. As I picked my way through the streets tonight, I saw the flower-shaped roof tiles for which Samdae was known, broken and scattered beneath my feet. Faraway, blued by distance, lights guttered from those skyscrapers still standing, dating to the peninsula’s push to modernization. It had not done anything to prevent the civil war.
I had weighed the merits of tonight’s hunt. Better to return to fox-form, surely, and slip back to the countryside; abandon the purpose that had brought me to Samdae all those years ago. But I only needed one more kill to become fully human. And I didn’t want to off some struggling shopkeeper or midwife. For one thing, I had no grudge against them. For another, I had no need of their particular skills.
No; I wandered the Lantern District in search of a soldier. Soldiers were easy enough to find, but I wanted a nice strapping specimen. At the moment I was posing as a prostitute, the only part of this whole affair my mother would have approved of. Certain human professions were better-suited to foxes than others, she had liked to say. My mother had always been an old-fashioned fox.
“Baekdo,” she had said when I was young, “why can’t you be satisfied with chickens and mice? You think you’ll be able to stop with sweet bean cakes, but the next thing you know, it will be shrimp crackers and chocolate-dipped biscuits, and after that you’ll take off your beautiful fur to walk around in things with buttons and pockets and rubber soles. And then one of the humans will fall in love with you and discover your secret, and you’ll end up like your Great-Aunt Seonghwa, as a bunch of oracle bones in some shaman’s purse.”
Foxes are just as bad at listening to their mothers as humans are. My mother had died before the war broke out. I had brought her no funeral-offerings. My relatives would have been shocked by that idea, and my mother, a traditionalist, would have wanted to be left to the carrion-eaters.
I had loved the Lantern District for a long time. I had taken my first kill there, a lucky one really. I’d crept into a courtesan’s apartment, half-drunk on the smells of quince tea and lilac perfume. At the time I had no way of telling a beautiful human from an ugly one—I later learned that she had been a celebrated beauty—but her layered red and orange silks had reminded me of autumn in the forest.
Tonight I wore that courtesan’s visage. Samdae’s remaining soldiers grew bolder and bolder with the breakdown in local government, so only those very desperate or stubborn continued to ply their trade. I wasn’t worried on my own behalf, of course. After ninety-nine kills, I knew how to take care of myself.
There. I spotted a promising prospect lingering at the corner, chatting up a cigarette-seller. He was tall, not too old, with a good physique. He was in uniform, with the red armband that indicated that he supported the revolutionaries. Small surprise; everyone who remained in Samdae made a show of supporting the revolutionaries. Many of the loyalists had fled overseas, hoping to raise support from the foreign powers. I wished them luck. The loyalists were themselves divided between those who supported the queen’s old line and those who wished to install a parliament in place of the Abalone Throne. Fascinating, but not my concern tonight.
I was sauntering toward the delicious-looking soldier when I heard the cataphract’s footsteps. A Jangmi 2-7, judging from the characteristic whine of the servos. Even if I hadn’t heard it coming—and who couldn’t?—the stirring of the small gods of earth and stone would have alerted me to its approach. They muttered distractingly. My ears would have flattened against my skull if they could have.
Superstitious people called the cataphracts ogres, because of their enormous bipedal frames. Some patriots disliked them because they had to be imported from overseas. Our nation didn’t have the ability to manufacture them, a secret that the foreigners guarded jealously.
This one was crashing through the street. People fled. No one wanted to be around if a firefight broke out, especially with the armaments a typical cataphract was equipped with. It was five times taller than a human, with a stride that would have cratered the street with every step, all that mass crashing down onto surprisingly little feet if not for the bargains the manufacturers had made with the small gods of earth and stone.
What was a lone cataphract doing in this part of the city? A scout? A deserter? But what deserter in their right mind would bring something as easy to track as a cataphract with them?
Not my business. Alas, my delicious-looking soldier had vanished along with everyone else. And my bones were starting to hurt in the particular way that indicated that I had sustained human-shape too long.
On the other hand, while the cataphract’s great strides made it faster than I was in this shape, distances had a way of accommodating themselves to a fox’s desires. A dangerous idea took shape in my head. Why settle for a common soldier when I could have a cataphract pilot, one of the elites?
I ducked around a corner into the mouth of an alley, then kicked off my slippers, the only part of my dress that weren’t spun from fox-magic. (Magical garments never lasted beyond a seduction. My mother had remarked that this was the fate of all human clothes anyway.) I loved those slippers, which I had purloined from a rich merchant’s daughter, and it pained me to leave them behind. But I could get another pair of slippers later.
Anyone watching the transformation would only have seen a blaze of coalescing red, like fire and frost swirled together, before my bones resettled into their native shape. Their ache eased. The night-smells of the city sharpened: alcohol, smoke, piss, the occasional odd whiff of stew. I turned around nine times—nine is a number sacred to foxes—and ran through the city’s mazed streets.
The Lantern District receded behind me. I emerged amid rubble and the stink of explosive residue. The riots earlier in the year had not treated the Butterfly District kindly. The wealthier families had lived here. Looters had made short work of their possessions. I had taken advantage of the chaos as well, squirreling away everything from medicines to salt in small caches; after all, once I became human, I would need provisions for the journey to one of the safer cities to the south.
It didn’t take long to locate the cataphract. Its pilot had parked it next to a statue, hunched down as if that would make it less conspicuous. Up close, I now saw why the pilot had fled—whatever it was they were fleeing. Despite the cataphract’s menacing form, its left arm dangled oddly. It looked like someone had shot up the autocannon, and the cataphract’s armor was decorated by blast marks. While I was no expert, I was amazed the thing still functioned.
The statue, one of the few treasures of the district to escape damage, depicted a courtesan who had killed an invading general a few centuries ago by clasping her arms around him and jumping off a cliff with him. My mother had remarked that if the courtesan had had proper teeth, she could have torn out the general’s throat and lived for her trouble. Fox patriotism was not much impressed by martyrs. I liked the story, though.
I crouched in the shadows, sniffing the air. The metal reek of the cataphract overpowered everything. The small gods of earth and stone shifted and rumbled. Still, I detected blood, and sweat, as well as the particular unappetizing smell of what the humans called Brick Rations, because they were about as digestible. Human blood, human sweat, human food.
A smarter fox would have left the situation alone. While dodging the cataphract would be easy, cataphract pilots carried sidearms. For all I knew, this one would welcome fox soup as an alternative to Brick Rations.
While cataphract-piloting didn’t strike me as a particularly useful skill, the pilots were all trained in the more ordinary arts of soldiering. Good enough for me.
I drew in my breath and took on human-shape. The small gods hissed their laughter. This time, when the pain receded, I was wrapped in a dress of green silk and a lavender sash embroidered with peonies. My hair was piled atop my head and held in place by heavy hairpins. The whole getup would have looked fashionable four generations ago, which I knew not because I had been alive then (although foxes could be long-lived when they chose) but because I used to amuse myself looking through Great-Aunt Seonghwa’s collection of books on the history of fashion.
I’d hoped for something more practical, but my control of the magic had slipped. I would have to make the best of it. A pity the magic had not provided me with shoes, even ugly ones. I thought of the slippers I had discarded, and I sighed.
Carefully, I stepped through the street, pulse beating more rapidly as I contemplated my prey. A pebble dug into my foot, but I paid it no heed. I had endured worse, and my blood was up.
Even in human-shape, I had an excellent sense of smell. I had no difficulty tracking the pilot. Only one; I wondered what had happened to her copilot. The pilot lay on her side in the lee of a chunk of rubble, apparently asleep. The remains of a Brick Ration’s wrapper had been tossed to the side. She had downed all of it, which impressed me. But then, I’d heard that piloting was hungry work.
I crouched and contemplated the pilot, taut with anticipation. At this distance, she reeked worse than her machine. She had taken off her helmet, which she hugged to her chest. Her black hair, cropped close, was mussed and stringy, and the bones of her face stood out too prominently beneath the sweat-streaked, dirty skin.
She’d also taken off her suit, for which I didn’t blame her. Cataphracts built up heat—the gods of fire, being fickle, did an indifferent job of masking their infrared signatures—and the suits were designed to cool the pilot, not to act as armor or protect them against the chilly autumn winds. She’d wrapped a thermal blanket around herself. I eyed it critically: effective, but ugly.
No matter what shape I took, I had a weapon; there is no such thing as an unarmed fox. I wondered what the magic had provided me with today. I could feel the weight of a knife hanging from my inner sash, and I reached in to draw it out. The elaborate gilt handle and the tassel hanging from the pommel pleased me, although what really mattered was the blade.
I leaned down to slit the pilot’s throat—except her eyes opened and she rolled, casting the helmet aside. I scrambled backwards, but her reflexes were faster, a novelty. She grabbed my wrist, knocking the knife out of my hand with a clatter, and forced me down.
“Well-dressed for a looter,” the pilot said into my ear. “But then, I suppose that goes with the territory.”
I had no interest in being lectured before my inevitable addition to a makeshift stewpot. I released human-shape in a flutter of evanescent silks, hoping to wriggle out of her grip.
No such luck. Almost as if she’d anticipated the change, she closed her hands around my neck. I snapped and clawed, to no effect. I had to get free before she choked the life out of me.
“Gumiho,” the pilot breathed. Nine-tailed fox. “I thought all your kind were gone.”
My attempt at a growl came out as a sad wheeze.
“Sorry, fox,” the pilot said, not sounding sorry in the least.
I scrabbled wildly at the air, only half paying attention to her words.
“But I bet you can speak,” she went on as I choked out a whine. “Which means you’re just as likely to snitch to my pursuers as something fully human.”
She was saying something more about her pursuers, still in that cheerful conversational voice, when I finally passed out.
I woke trussed up as neatly as a rabbit for the pot. The air was full of the strange curdled-sweet smell of coolant, the metal reek of cataphract, the pilot’s particular stink. My throat hurt and my legs ached, but at least I wasn’t dead.
I opened my eyes and looked around at the inside of the cockpit. The blinking lights and hectic status graphs meant nothing to me. I wished I’d eaten an engineer along the way, even though the control systems were undoubtedly different for different cataphract models. I’d been tied to the copilot’s seat. Cataphracts could be piloted solo if necessary, but I still wondered if the copilot had died in battle, or deserted, or something else entirely.
The cockpit was uncomfortably warm. I worked my jaw but couldn’t get a good purchase on the bindings. Worse, I’d lost the knife. If I couldn’t use my teeth to get out of this fix—
“Awake?” the pilot said. “Sorry about that, but I’ve heard stories of your kind.”
Great, I had to get a victim who had paid attention to grandmothers’-tales of fox spirits. Except now, I supposed, I was the victim. I stared into the pilot’s dark eyes.
“Don’t give me that,” the pilot said. “I know you understand me, and I know you can speak.”
Not with my muzzle tied shut, I can’t, I thought.
As if she’d heard me, she leaned over and sawed through the bonds on my muzzle with a combat knife. I snapped at the knife, which was stupid of me. It sliced my gums. The familiar tang of blood filled my mouth.
“You may as well call me Jong,” the pilot said. “It’s not my real name, but my mother used to call me that, after the child and the bell in the old story. What shall I call you?”
I had no idea what story she was talking about. However, given the number of folktales living in small crannies of the peninsula, this wasn’t surprising. “I’m a fox,” I said. “Do you need a name for me beyond that?” It wasn’t as though we planned on becoming friends.
Jong strapped herself in properly. “Well, you should be grateful you’re tied in good and tight,” she said as she manipulated the controls: here a lever, there a button, provoking balletic changes in the lights. “The straps weren’t designed with a fox in mind. I’d hate for you to get splattered all over the cockpit when we make a run for it.”
“So kind of you,” I said dryly. Sorry, I thought to my mother’s ghost. I should have listened to you all those years ago. Still, Jong hadn’t eaten me yet, so there was hope.
“Oh, kindness has nothing to do with it.” The cataphract straightened with a hiss of servos. “I can’t talk to the gods of mountain and forest, but I bet you can. It’s in all the stories. And the mountains are where I have to go if I’m going to escape.”
Silly me. I would have assumed that a cataphract pilot would be some technocrat who’d disdain the old folktales. I had to go after one who knew enough of the lore to be dangerous. “Something could be arranged, yes,” I said. Even as a kit my mother had warned me against trusting too much in gods of any kind, but Jong didn’t need to know that.
“We’ll work it out as we go,” she said distantly. She wasn’t looking at me anymore.
I considered worrying at the bonds with my teeth, even though the synthetic fibers would taste foul, but just then the cataphract shuddered awake and took a step. I choked back a yip. Jong’s eyes had an eerie golden sheen that lit up their normal brown; side-effect of the neural interface, I’d heard, but I’d never seen the effect up close before. If I disrupted the connection now, who knew what would happen? I wasn’t so desperate that I wanted the cataphract to crash into uselessness, leaving me tied up inside it while unknown hostiles hunted us. Inwardly, I cursed Jong for getting me involved; cursed myself for getting too ambitious. But recriminations wouldn’t help now.
For the first hour, I stayed silent, observing Jong in the hopes of learning the secrets of the cataphract’s operation the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, the closest thing to a cataphract pilot I’d ever eaten had been a radio operator. Not good enough. No wonder Great-Aunt Seonghwa had emphasized the value of a proper education, even if I had dismissed her words at the time. (One of her first victims had been a university student, albeit one studying classical literature rather than engineering. Back then, you could get a comfortable government post by reciting maxims from The Twenty-Three Principles of Virtuous Administration and tossing off the occasional moon-poem.) The ability to instantly absorb someone’s skills by ingesting their liver had made me lazy.
“Why are they after you?” I asked, on the grounds that the more information I could extract from Jong, the better. “And who are they, anyway?”
She adjusted a dial; one of the monitors showed a mass of shapes like tangled thread. “Why are they after anyone?”
Not stupid enough to tell a stranger, then. I couldn’t fault her. “How do I know you won’t use me, then shoot me?”
“You don’t. But I’ll let you go after I get away.”
Unsatisfying, as responses went. “Assuming you get away.”
“I have to.” For the first time, Jong’s cheerfulness faltered.
“Maybe we can bargain,” I said.
Jong didn’t respond for a while, but we’d entered a defile and she was presumably caught up making sure we didn’t tumble over some ledge and into the stony depths. I had difficulty interpreting what I saw. For one thing, I wasn’t used to a vantage point this high up. For another, I couldn’t navigate by scent from within the cockpit, although I was already starting to become inured to the mixed smells of grubby human and metal.
“What bargain can you offer?” Jong said when she’d parked us in a cranny just deep enough in the defile that the cataphract wouldn’t be obvious except from straight above.
I wondered if we had aerial pursuit to worry about as well. Surely I’d hear any helicopters, now that the cataphract had powered down? I knew better than to rely on the small gods of wind and storm for warning; they were almost as fickle as fire.
Jong’s breathing became unsteady as she squinted at a scatterfall of glowing dots. She swore under her breath in one of the country dialects that I could understand only with difficulty. “We’ll have to hope that they’re spreading themselves too thin to figure out which way we’ve gone,” she said in a low voice, as though people could hear her from inside the cockpit. “We’ll continue once I’m sure I can move without lighting up their scanners.”
Carefully, I said, “What if I swear on the spirits of my ancestors to lead you where you need to go, with the aid of the small gods to mask your infrared signature?” This was a guess on my part, but she didn’t correct me, so I assumed it was close enough. “Will you unbind me, at least?”
“I didn’t think foxes worshiped ancestors,” Jong said, eyeing me skeptically. She fished a Brick Ration out of a compartment and unwrapped it with quick, efficient motions.
My mouth watered despite the awful smell. I hadn’t eaten in a while. “Foxes are foxes, not gods,” I said. “What good is worship to a fox? But I remember how my mother cared for me, and my other relatives. Their memory means a lot to me.”
Jong was already shaking her head. A crumb of the Brick Ration fell onto her knee. She picked it up, regarded it contemplatively, then popped it into her mouth.
A ration only questionably formulated to sustain humans probably wouldn’t do me much good in fox-form, but it was difficult not to resent my captor for not sharing, irrational as the sentiment was.
“I need a real guarantee that you’ll be helpful, not a fox-guarantee,” Jong said.
“That’s difficult, considering that I’m a fox.”
“I don’t think so.” Jong smiled, teeth gleaming oddly in the cockpit’s deadened lights. Her face resembled a war-mask from the old days of the Abalone Throne. “Swear on the blood of the tiger-sages.”
My heart stuttered within me. “There are no tiger-sages left,” I said. It might even have been true.
Jong’s smile widened. “I’ll take that chance.”
When I was a young fox, almost adult, and therefore old enough to get into the bad kind of trouble, my mother took me to visit a tiger-sage.
Until then, I had thought all the tiger-sages had left the peninsula. Sometimes the humans had hunted them, and more rarely they sought the tigers’ advice, although a tiger’s advice always has a bite in it. I’d once heard of hunters bringing down an older tiger in a nearby village, and I’d asked my mother if that had been a sage. She had only snorted and said that a real sage wouldn’t go down so easily.
Tiger-sages could die. That much I knew. But their deaths had nothing to do with shotguns or nets or poisoned ox carcasses. A tiger-sage had to be slain with a sword set with mirror-jewels or arrows fletched with feathers stolen from nesting firebirds. A tiger-sage had to be sung to death in a game of riddles during typhoon season, or tricked into sleep after a long game of baduk—the famously subtle strategy game played upon a board of nineteen-by-nineteen intersecting lines, with black stones and white. A tiger-sage had to consent to perish.
We traveled for days, because even a fox’s ability to slice through distance dwindled before a tiger-sage’s defenses. My mother was nervous than I’d ever seen her. I, too stupid to know better, was excited by the excursion.
At last we approached the tiger-sage’s cave, high upon a mountain, where the trees grew sideways and small bright flowers flourished in the thin soil. Everything smelled hard and sharp, as though we lingered dangerously close to the boundary between always and never. The cave had once served as a shrine for some human sage. A gilded statue dominated the mouth of the cave, lovingly polished. It depicted a woman sitting cross-legged, one palm held out and cupping a massive pearl, the other resting on her knee. The skull of some massive tusked beast rested next to the statue. The yellowing bone had been scored by claw-marks.
The tiger-sage emerged from the cave slowly, sinuously, like smoke from a hidden fire. Her fur was chilly white except for the night-black stripes. She was supposed to be the last of the tiger-sages. One by one they had departed for other lands, or so the fox-stories went. Whether this one remained out of stubbornness, or amusement at human antics, or sheer apathy, my mother hadn’t been able to say. It didn’t matter. It was not for a fox to understand the motivations of a sage.
“Foxes,” the tiger rumbled, her amber eyes regarding us with disinterest. “It is too bad you are no good for oracle bones. Fox bones always lie. The least you could have done was bring some incense. I ran out of the good stuff two months ago.”
My mother’s ears twitched, but she said only, “Venerable sage, I am here to beg your counsel on my son’s behalf.”
I crouched and tried to look appropriately humble, having never heard my mother speak like this before.
The tiger yawned hugely. “You’ve been spending too much time with humans if you’re trying to fit all those flowery words in your mouth. Just say it straight out.”
Normally my mother would have said something deprecating—I’d grown up listening to her arguing with Great-Aunt Seonghwa about the benefits of human culture—but she had other things on her mind. That, or the tiger’s impressive display of sharp teeth reminded her that to a tiger, everything is prey. “My son hungers after human-shape,” my mother said. “I have tried to persuade him otherwise, but a mother’s words only go so far. Perhaps you would be willing to give him some guidance?”
The tiger caught my eye and smiled tiger-fashion. I had a moment to wonder how many bites it would take for me to end up in her belly. She reared up, or perhaps it was that she straightened. For several stinging moments, I could not focus my vision on her, as though her entire outline was evanescing.
Then a woman stood where the tiger had been, or something like a woman, except for the amber eyes and the sharp-toothed smile. Her hair was black frosted with white and silver. Robes of silk flowed from her shoulders, layered in mountain colors: dawn-pink and ice-white and pale-gray with a sash of deepest green. At the time I did not yet understand beauty. Years later, remembering, I would realize that she had mimicked the form of the last legitimate queen. (Tigers have never been known for modesty.)
“How much do you know of the traditional bargain, little fox?” the tiger-woman asked. Her voice was very little changed.
I did not like being called little, but I had enough sense not to pick a fight with a tiger over one petty adjective. Especially since the tiger was, in any shape, larger than I was. “I have to kill one hundred humans to become human,” I said. “I understand the risk.”
The tiger-woman made an impatient noise. “I should have known better than to expect enlightenment from a fox.”
My mother held her peace.
“People say I am the last of the tiger-sages,” the tiger-woman said. “Do you know why?”
“I had thought you were all gone,” I said, since I saw no reason not to be honest. “Are you the last one?”
The tiger-woman laughed. “Almost the last one, perhaps.” The silk robes blurred, and then she coiled before us in her native shape again. “I killed more than a hundred humans, in my time. Never do anything by halves, if you’re going to do it. But human-shape bored me after a while, and I yearned for my old clothing of stripes and teeth and claws.”
“So?” I said, whiskers twitching.
“So I killed and ate a hundred tiger-sages from my own lineage, to become a tiger again.”
My mother was tense, silent. My eyes had gone wide.
The tiger looked at me intently. “If the kit is serious about this—and I can smell it on him, that taint is unmistakable—I have some words for him.”
I stared at the tiger, transfixed. It could have pounced on me in that moment and I wouldn’t have moved. My mother made a low half-growl in the back of her throat.
“Becoming human has nothing to do with flat faces and weak noses and walking on two legs,” the tiger said. “That’s what your people always get wrong. It’s the hunger for gossip and bedroom entanglements and un-fox-ish loyalties; it’s about having a human heart. I, of course, don’t care one whit about such matters, so I will never be trapped in human-shape. But for reasons I have never fathomed, foxes always lose themselves in their new faces.”
“We appreciate the advice,” my mother said, tail thumping against the ground. “I will steal you some incense.” I could tell she was desperate to leave.
The tiger waved a paw, not entirely benevolently. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account, little vixen. And tell your aunt I warned her, assuming you get the chance.”
Two weeks after that visit, I heard of Great-Aunt Seonghwa’s unfortunate demise. It was not enough to deter me from the path I had chosen.
“Come on, fox,” Jong said. “If your offer is sincere, you have nothing to fear from a mythical tiger.”
I refrained from snapping that ‘mythical’ tigers were the most frightening of all. Ordinary tigers were bad enough. Now that I was old enough to appreciate how dangerous tiger-sages were, I preferred not to bring myself to one’s attention. But remaining tied up like this wasn’t appealing, either. And who knew how much time I had to extract myself from this situation?
“I swear on the blood of the tiger-sages,” I said, “that I will keep my bargain with you. No fox tricks.” I could almost hear the tiger-sage’s cynical laughter in my head, but I hoped it was my imagination.
Jong didn’t waste time making additional threats. She unbuckled herself and leaned over me to undo my bonds. I admired her deft hands. Those could have been mine, I thought hungrily; but I had promised. While a fox’s word might not be worth much, I had no desire to become the prey of an offended tiger. Tiger-sages took oaths quite seriously when they cared to.
My limbs ached, and it still hurt when I swallowed or talked. Small pains, however, and the pleasure of being able to move again made up for them. “Thank you,” I said.
“I advise being human if you can manage it,” Jong said. I choked back a snort. “The seat will be more comfortable for you.”
I couldn’t argue the point. Despite the pain, I was able to focus enough to summon the change-magic. Magic had its own sense of humor, as always. Instead of outdated court dress, it presented me in street-sweeper’s clothes, right down to the hat. As if a hat did anything but make me look ridiculous, especially inside a cataphract.
To her credit, Jong didn’t burst out laughing. I might have tried for her throat if she had, short-tempered as I was. “We need to”—yawn—”keep moving. But the pursuers are too close. Convince the small gods to conceal us from their scan, and we’ll keep going until we find shelter enough to rest for real.”
Jong’s faith in my ability to convince the small gods to do me favors was very touching. I had promised, however, which meant I had to do my best. “You’re in luck,” I said; if she heard the irony in my voice, she didn’t react to it. “The small gods are hungry tonight.”
Feeding gods was tricky business. I had learned most of what I knew from Great-Aunt Seonghwa. My mother had disdained such magic herself, saying that she would trust her own fine coat for camouflage instead of relying on gods, to say nothing of all the mundane stratagems she had learned from her own mother. For my part, I was not too proud to do what I had to in order to survive.
The large gods of the Celestial Order, who guided the procession of stars, responded to human blandishments: incense (I often wondered if the tiger I had met lit incense to the golden statue, or if it was for her own pleasure), or offerings of roast duck and tangerines, or bolts of silk embroidered with gold thread. The most powerful of the large gods demanded rituals and chants. Having never been bold enough to eat a shaman or magician, I didn’t know how that worked. (I remained mindful of Great-Aunt Seonghwa’s fate.) Fortunately, the small gods did not require such sophistication.
“Can you spare any part of this machine?” I asked Jong.
Her mouth compressed. Still, she didn’t argue. She retrieved a screwdriver and undid one of the panels, joystick and all, although she pocketed the screws. “It’s not like the busted arm’s good for anything anymore,” she said. The exposed wires and pipes of coolant looked like exposed veins. She grimaced, then fiddled with the wires’ connectors until they had all been undone. “Will this do?”
I doubted the small gods knew more about cataphract engineering than I did. “Yes,” I said, with more confidence than I felt, and took the panel from her. I pressed my right hand against the underside of the panel, flinching in spite of myself from the metal’s unfriendly warmth.
This is my offering, I said in the language of forest and mountain, which even city foxes spoke; and my mother, as a very proper fox, had raised me in the forest. Earth and stone and—
Jong’s curse broke my concentration, although the singing tension in the air told me that the small gods already pressed close to us, reaching, reaching.
“What is it?” I said.
“We’ll have to fight,” Jong said. “Buckle in.”
I had to let go of the panel to do so. I had just figured out the straps—the cataphract’s were more complicated than the safety restraints found in automobiles—and the panel clanked onto the cockpit’s floor as the cataphract rumbled awake. The small gods skittered and howled, demanding their tribute. I was fox enough to hear them, even if Jong showed no sign of noticing anything.
The lights in the cockpit blazed up in a glory of colors. The glow sheened in Jong’s tousled hair and reflected in her eyes, etched deep shadows around her mouth. The servos whirred; I could have sworn the entire cataphract creaked and moaned as it woke.
I scooped up the panel. Its edges bit into my palms. “How many?” I asked, then wondered if I should be distracting Jong when we were entering combat.
“Five,” she said. “Whatever you’re doing, finish it fast.”
The machine lurched out of the crevice where we’d been hiding, then broke into its version of a run. My stomach dropped. Worse than the jolting gait was the fact that I kept bracing for the impact of those heavy metal feet against the earth. I kept expecting the cataphract to sink hip-deep. Even though the gods of earth and stone cushioned each stride, acting as shock-absorbers, the discrepancy between what I expected and what happened upset my sense of the world’s equilibrium.
The control systems made noises that had only shrillness to recommend them. I left their interpretation to Jong and returned my attention to the small gods. From the way the air in the cockpit eddied and swirled, I could tell they were growing impatient. Earth and stone were allied to metal, after all, and metal, especially when summoned on behalf of a weapon, had its volatile side.
The magic had provided me not with a knife this time but with a hat pin. I retrieved it and jabbed my palm with the pointy end. Blood welled up. I smeared it onto the cataphract’s joystick. Get us out of here, I said to the small gods. Not eloquent, but I didn’t have time to come up with anything better.
The world tilted askew, pale and dark and fractured. Jong might have said something. I couldn’t understand any of it. Then everything righted itself again.
More, the small gods said in voices like shuddering bone.
I whispered stories to them, still speaking in the language of forest and mountain, which had no words except the evocation of the smell of fallen pine needles on an autumn morning, or loam worked over by the worms, or rain filling paw prints left in the mud. I was still fox enough for this to suffice.
“What in the name of the blistering gods?” Jong demanded. Now even she could hear the clanging of distant bells. Music was one of the human innovations that the small gods had grown fond of.
“They’re building mazes,” I said. “They’ll mask our path. Go!“
Her eyes met mine for a moment, hot and incredulous. Then she nodded and jerked a lever forward, activating the walk cycle. The cataphract juddered. The targeting screen flashed red as it locked on an erratically moving figure: another cataphract. She pressed a trigger.
I hunched down in my seat at the racket the autocannon made as it fired four shots in rapid succession, like a damned smith’s hammer upon the world’s last anvil. The small gods rumbled their approval. I forced myself to watch the targeting screen. For a moment I thought Jong had missed. Then the figure toppled sideways.
“Legged them,” Jong said with vicious satisfaction. “Don’t care about honor or kill counts, it’s good enough to cripple them so we can keep running.”
We endured several hits ourselves. While the small gods could confuse the enemies’ sensors, the fact remained that the cataphract relied on its metal armor to protect its inner mechanisms. The impacts rattled me from teeth to marrow. I was impressed that we hadn’t gone tumbling down.
And when had I started thinking of us as “we,” anyway?
“We’re doomed,” I said involuntarily when something hit the cataphract’s upper left torso—by the I’d figured out the basics of a few of the status readouts—and the whole cockpit trembled.
Jong’s grin flickered sideways at me. “Don’t be a pessimist, fox,” she said, breathless. “You ever hear of damage distribution?”
“I’ll explain it to you if we—” A shrill beep captured her attention. “Whoops, better deal with this first.”
“How many are left?”
There had been five to begin with. I hadn’t even noticed the second one going down.
“If only I weren’t out of coolant, I’d—” Jong muttered some other incomprehensible thing after that.
In the helter-skelter swirl of blinking lights and god-whispers, Jong herself was transfigured. Not beautiful in the way of a court blossom but in the way of a gun: honed toward a single purpose. I knew then that I was doomed in another manner entirely. No romance between a fox and a human ever ended well. What could I do, after all? Persuade her to abandon her cataphract and run away with me into the forest, where I would feed her rabbits and squirrels? No; I would help her escape, then go my separate way.
Every time an alert sounded, every time a vibration thundered through the cataphract’s frame, I shivered. My tongue was bitten almost to bleeding. I could not remember the last time I had been this frightened.
You were right, Mother, I wanted to say. Better a small life in the woods, diminished though they were from the days before the great cities with their ugly high-rises, than the gnawing hunger that had driven me toward the humans and their beautiful clothes, their delicious shrimp crackers, their games of dice and yut and baduk. For the first time I understood that, as tempting as these things were, they came with a price: I could not obtain them without also entangling myself with human hearts, human quarrels, human loyalties.
A flicker at the edge of one of the screens caught my eye. “Behind us, to the right!” I said.
Jong made a complicated hooking motion with the joystick and the cataphract bent low. My vision swam. “Thank you,” she said.
“Tell me you have some plan beyond ‘keep running until everyone runs out of fuel,'” I said.
She chuckled. “You don’t know thing one about how a cataphract works, do you? Nuclear core. Fuel isn’t the issue.”
I ignored that. Nuclear physics was not typically a fox specialty, although my mother had allowed that astrology was all right. “Why do they want you so badly?”
I had not expected Jong to answer me. But she said, “There’s no more point keeping it a secret. I deserted.”
“Why?” A boom just ahead of us made me clutch the armrests as we tilted dangerously.
“I had a falling out with my commander,” Jong said. Her voice was so tranquil that we might have been sitting side by side on a porch, sipping rice wine. Her hands moved; moved again. A roaring of fire, far off. “Just two left. In any case, my commander liked power. Our squad was sworn to protect the interim government, not—not to play games with the nation’s politics.” She drew a deep breath. “I don’t suppose any of this makes sense to you.”
“Why are you telling me now?” I said.
“Because you might die here with me, and it’s not as if you can give away our location any more. They know who I am. It only seems fair.”
Typically human reasoning, but I appreciated the sentiment. “What good does deserting do you?” I supposed she might know state secrets, at that. But who was she deserting to?
“I just need to get to—” She shook her head. “If I can get to refuge, especially with this machine more or less intact, I have information the loyalists can make use of.” She was scrutinizing the infrared scan as she spoke.
“The Abalone Throne means that much to you?”
Another alert went off. Jong shut it down. “I’m going to bust a limb at this rate,” she said. “The Throne? No. It’s outlived its usefulness.”
“You’re a parliamentarian, then.”
This matter of monarchies and parliaments and factions was properly none of my business. All I had to do was keep my end of the bargain, and I could leave behind this vexing, heartbreaking woman and her passion for something as abstract as government.
Jong was about to add something to that when it happened. Afterwards I was only able to piece together fragments that didn’t fit together, like shards of a mirror dropped into a lake. A concussive blast. Being flung backwards, then sideways. A sudden, sharp pain in my side. (I’d broken a couple ribs, in spite of the restraints. But without them, the injuries would have been worse.) Jong’s sharp cry, truncated. The stink of panic.
The cataphract had stopped moving. The small gods roared. I moved my head; pain stabbed all the way through the back of my skull. “Jong?” I croaked.
Jong was breathing shallowly. Blood poured thickly from the cut on her face. I saw what had happened: the panel had flown out of my hands and struck her edge-on. The small gods had taken their payment, all right; mine hadn’t been enough. If only I had foreseen this—
“Fox,” Jong said in a weak voice.
Lights blinked on-off, on-off, in a crazed quilt. The cockpit looked like someone had upended a bucket full of unlucky constellations into it. “Jong,” I said. “Jong, are you all right?”
“My mission,” she said. Her eyes were too wide, shocky, the red-and-amber of the status lights pooling in the enormous pupils. I could smell the death on her, hear the frantic pounding of her heart as her body destroyed itself. Internal bleeding, and a lot of it. “Fox, you have to finish my mission. Unless you’re also a physician?”
“Shh,” I said. “Shh.” I had avoided eating people in the medical professions not out of a sense of ethics but because, in the older days, physicians tended to have a solid grounding in the kinds of magics that threatened shape-changing foxes.
“I got one of them,” she said. Her voice sounded more and more thready. “That leaves one, and of course they’ll have called for reinforcements. If they have anyone else to spare. You have to—”
I could have howled my frustration. “I’ll carry you.”
Under other circumstances, that grimace would have been a laugh. “I’m dying, fox, do you think I can’t tell?”
“I don’t know the things you know,” I said desperately. “Even if this metal monstrosity of yours can still run, I can’t pilot it for you.” It was getting hard to breathe; a foul, stinging vapor was leaking into the cockpit. I hoped it wasn’t toxic.
“Then there’s no hope,” she whispered.
“Wait,” I said, remembering; hating myself. “There’s a way.”
The sudden flare of hope in Jong’s eyes cut me.
“I can eat you,” I said. “I can take the things you know with me, and seek your friends. But it might be better simply to die.”
“Do it,” she said. “And hurry. I assume it doesn’t do you any good to eat a corpse, or your kind would have a reputation as grave-thieves.”
I didn’t squander time on apologies. I had already unbuckled the harness, despite the pain of the broken ribs. I flowed back into fox-shape, and I tore out her throat so she wouldn’t suffer as I devoured her liver.
The smoke in the cockpit thickened, thinned. When it was gone, a pale tiger watched me from the rear of the cockpit. It seemed impossible that she could fit; but the shadows stretched out into an infinite vast space to accommodate her, and she did. I recognized her. In a hundred stolen lifetimes I would never fail to recognize her.
Shivering, human, mouth full of blood-tang, I looked down. The magic had given me one last gift: I wore a cataphract pilot’s suit in fox colors, russet and black. Then I met the tiger’s gaze.
I had broken the oath I had sworn upon the tiger-sage’s blood. Of course she came to hunt me.
“I had to do it,” I said, and stumbled to my feet, prepared to fight. I did not expect to last long against a tiger-sage, but for Jong’s sake I had to try.
“There’s no ‘have to’ about anything,” the tiger said lazily. “Every death is a choice, little not-a-fox. At any step you could have turned aside. Now—” She fell silent.
I snatched up Jong’s knife. Now that I no longer had sharp teeth and claws, it would have to do.
“Don’t bother with that,” the tiger said. She had all her teeth, and wasn’t shy about displaying them in a ferocious grin. “No curse I could pronounce on you is more fitting than the one you have chosen for yourself.”
“It’s not a curse,” I said quietly.
“I’ll come back in nine years’ time,” the tiger said, “and we can discuss it then. Good luck with your one-person revolution.”
“I needn’t fight it alone,” I said. “This is your home, too.”
The tiger seemed to consider it. “Not a bad thought,” she said, “but maps and boundaries and nationalism are for humans, not for tigers.”
“If you change your mind,” I said, “I’m sure you can find me, in nine years’ time or otherwise.”
“Indeed,” the tiger said. “Farewell, little not-a-fox.”
“Thank you,” I said, but she was gone already.
I secured Jong’s ruined body in the copilot’s seat I had vacated, so it wouldn’t flop about during maneuvers, and strapped myself in. The cataphract was damaged, but not so badly damaged that I still couldn’t make a run for it. It was time to finish Jong’s mission.