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Jeweled World

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I was working on my jade garden when I felt the rush of spirit wind that meant my brother Jun had appeared.

“Bora’s coming,” he said.

I grimaced. I had thought walking twenty minutes out into the dust would keep Bora away. I didn’t want her discovering my garden — not that there was much chance of that, as it was still fully underground. But sometimes I had to open paths to the surface to bring in fresh water, and I didn’t like the thought of my least-favorite cousin being the first to see it.

“Why is she coming all the way out here?” I asked.

“Security Officer Seok is here,” Jun said.

“Do you know why?” I asked, but Jun had already disappeared.

I closed my eyes and held the Dragon Pearl close to my chest. I had planned to spend all day working on my garden, hidden away from my aunties’ prying eyes. Now I had to concentrate to balance my jade garden’s gi before my cousin came.

The final cavern had just closed off, every stalactite and stalagmite still perfectly in place, when I heard Bora’s voice.

Bora is only two weeks older than me, but her voice sounded querulous, like her mother’s. “The dragons the Jinju Council hired are making the earth shake again.”

The Council had hired dragons — just a few, to guide Jinju’s development between my sessions working on the planet with the Dragon Pearl. There were multiple reasons for that. It provided work for dragons, which Seok and everyone else said was an important factor in getting the Dragon Council to accept the Domestic Security Ministry’s proposal for using the Dragon Pearl to fix the terraforming mistakes on Jinju, and forty other planets like it. But more importantly, the dragons were Jinju’s guardians while I was away. My changes to the world, as slowly as I was making them, could still result in flooding, or harsh winter, or worse. The dragons could guide the spirits of the wind and water to prevent deaths.

But the dragons working on Jinju couldn’t make the earth shake. That was all me.

I wanted to shift into my fox shape to run back to the domes, but I knew Bora would tell my mother. Our neighbors still didn’t know we were gumiho, and my mother was adamant that they never find out.

Jun and I earned salaries now, for our work for the Domestic Security Ministry, but my mother insisted that we keep that secret as well. If any neighbors asked, the new dome and robots at our homestead were purchased with Jun’s death benefits, and I had found work as a maintenance technician in Hongok.

Seok agreed with my mother’s plan. While people knew the Dragon Pearl had resurfaced, they couldn’t be allowed to know who carried it now.

I suspected the dragons were behind that. Hae had lost the Dragon Pearl while looking for glory for herself. The dragons, understandably, thought that it would be a mistake to let someone else — a gumiho, at that — seek to win public acclaim with the Pearl, and let it twist her head and lead her into folly.

I didn’t think I would let that happen, but I also didn’t feel a need for public acclaim. I was happy just seeing the changes the Pearl had brought to Jinju. We still had far to go, but my homeworld already had changed. New grasses grew over what used to be dust, enriching the soil and holding on to the rains that had finally begun to fall. Under the dragons’ watchful eyes, the Dragon Pearl and I had unlocked water hidden under the planet’s surface. On a good day, like today, you could walk outside without a breathing mask.

I didn’t want renown or fame for my work with the Pearl. But I did wish I could live my life as a fox spirit openly, the way tiger spirits and goblins and dragons and shamans could.

As we arrived at our home domes, I adjusted my appearance with Charm, removing the wrinkles and sweat from my clothes and smoothing my hair. Bora glared at me, but didn’t say anything.

Seok waited in the entryway. “Min.”

“I thought we weren’t leaving for Jangseong for another week,” I said.

“We’ve had a request,” Seok said. “Can we discuss somewhere private?”

My cousins and aunties knew that Jun and I were working for the Domestic Security Ministry, but none of them knew what I did for them, or that I held the Dragon Pearl. My mother and Seok said it was safer not to tell them, and I had to admit I didn’t want to have to deal with the requests my aunties would have made.

I led Seok to our our new dining room, a much grander room than the one where I’d dropped on his foot and hit him with a pan.

“Is your brother here?” Seok asked.

There was a rush of spirit wind, and Jun appeared beside me.

“He’s here,” I told Seok. “Is it a new world?”

I was hoping for a new world. The Dragon Council had let me terraform five new worlds, back when we were first testing the abilities of the Dragon Pearl. Fixing the terraforming mistakes of the past on planets like Jinju was my true passion, but there was something about standing on the surface of a world and unlocking its gi all at once, with no concern for moderation or holding the Dragon Pearl’s power in check. Feeling the world flowering beneath me was incomparable.

“Quite the opposite,” Seok said dryly. “We’ve been asked to bring the Dragon Pearl with a diplomatic envoy to the Jeweled Worlds.”

I gasped. I couldn’t imagine the Dragon Council letting us bring the Dragon Pearl anywhere near the raiders of the lawless border, and much less into the Jeweled Worlds themselves. “Are you certain?”

“I am.”

“But — the Jeweled Worlds!”

Nobody from the Thousand Worlds ever went to the Jeweled Worlds. Not for nearly fifteen hundred years, when the first worlds that would become the Thousand Worlds were settled by the Emperor’s son. The origins of their quarrel were the stuff of myth and legend, obscured by time, but the Jeweled Worlds and the Thousand Worlds had been separate ever since.

“We’ve had diplomatic envoys to the Jeweled Worlds for some time,” Seok said. “It’s not discussed in public sessions at the Pearled Halls for obvious reasons.”

“Won’t they try to take the Dragon Pearl?”

The corner of Seok’s mouth quirked up. “Do you think the Dragon Pearl would let them?”

It wouldn’t. I knew it wouldn’t. But if they couldn’t take the Pearl from me, they could try other ways. Ways that ended with me dead. “Can we trust them?”

“We’re not sure,” Seok said, his face troubled. “They’ve acted honorably in our recent dealings with them, but there is history there.”

I had always imagined that the Jeweled Worlds had more treasures like the Pearl than they knew what to do with. Their worlds were far older than ours. “Why should the Thousand Worlds do this?” I asked.

Jun, next to me, flickered brighter. “We’ve never been to the Jeweled Worlds,” he said into my ear.

Seok, not hearing Jun, spoke over him. “They’ve promised us new efforts to stamp out the mercenaries raiders along our shared border. It’s a common interest, and they’ve actually been working from their side for many years, but as the raiders focus their attentions on our worlds, it’s never been a priority for them. They’ve agreed to make it a priority if we bring the Pearl and use it to remake one of their worlds.”

I thought of the mercenaries who had attacked and boarded the Red Azalea, and nearly killed Byung-Ho, the kindly pilot. If there was something I could do to stop other ships from being attacked like that, or even planets — Gangwon, one of the planets on our terraforming rotation, had once been attacked by the raiders. Space Forces guarded them more closely now, but I’d seen the scars in the planet, the places where the merc’s weapons had dug down deep.

And then there was Jun, who I’d promised to bring to all the worlds. I hadn’t expected the Jeweled Worlds to be among them, but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

I patted the Pearl in its embroidered pocket. It felt warm.

“We’re in,” I said.

I expected us to leave for the Jeweled Worlds immediately. Instead, Seok sent us our very own workstation, with language packs for the language of the Jeweled Worlds. I was relieved to find it wasn’t far from the language of the Thousand Worlds. The vowels sounded different, but once you accustomed yourself to that, the words were much the same.

Jun wouldn’t be an official member of the delegation, but he insisted on studying the language too. “I won’t be a very useful spy if I can’t tell what the people I’m spying on are talking about,” he told me.

“Are we supposed to be spies?” I asked, concerned. We were going to the Jeweled Worlds so Jun could see new places, but I was still worried about his safety there. We already had troubles with the shamans when traveling to ports in the Thousand Worlds. Who knew what the people of the Jeweled Worlds might make of a ghost like Jun.

“Perhaps not officially,” Jun said. “But I’ll do what I need to keep you safe, little sister.”

To make matters worse, I kept getting interrupted to show people our cabbages.

The cabbages were my mother’s idea. The aunties had called them “Seonmei’s folly” at first, back when the rains had first come to Jinju and nobody, apart from me and the dragons, was sure they would return.

My mother had been sure. With help from the cousins, she’d run gutters along the bottom edges of our domes to collect the rain, and dug out a clay-lined cistern to store the water. Once the cistern was full, she’d programmed the household robots to spot-till the soil in a field next to our domes, and set cabbage seedlings in our garden dome. 

When I got home, the cabbage plants were growing in the field outside, and my aunties were grumbling over the time the household robots had to spend watering them. I wanted to grumble over the robots’ time as well. What was the point in having household robots if we still had to do chores? Inspired by a garden I had seen on one of the planets we were terraforming, I had created a system of hoses with small holes in them to drip water right at the cabbages’ roots.

The joke had been on me, though. Instead of spending my time doing chores so the robots could water the plants, I now had to spend my time showing every neighbor through the cabbage field, the irrigation system, and the cistern. Now that the cabbages had full heads, we also had to give each neighbor their own head of cabbage and invite them to try the gimchi we had made with it. 

I was showing a neighbor through the cabbages, watching him inspect each individual head, when Sujin and Haneul arrived.

I dropped the cabbage I was holding in my excitement to see them. Seok had told me that I would have bodyguards from Space Forces, but he hadn’t told me who it would be.

“Sujin!” I hugged them and then moved on to hug Haneul. “It’s so good to see you both.”

“Security Officer Seok asked Space Forces to assign you to us,” Haneul said, hugging me back.

“They knew you wouldn’t obey any other bodyguards,” Sujin said. They looked past me. “So this is a dome.”

“Yes, and we use it for growing healthy vegetables,” I said, “so anything your spork happened to land on would be much appreciated.”

My neighbor looked at me, and I flushed, realizing my error. Kim Min, ordinary steader on Jinju, wouldn’t have bodyguards. “These are my friends,” I said to him, and made the proper introductions. “We have not seen one another for some time. I apologize — our jokes must be confusing.”

Sujin glanced at Haneul. “We’ve got leave from Space Forces and came to visit a friend,” they said.

The neighbor didn’t seem convinced, but he was more interested in the cabbages. I considered using Charm to make him believe Haneul and Sujin’s story, but my mother didn’t approve of using Charm, and especially not on our neighbors. I gave him three cabbages instead. We could always grow more. My mother was already talking about expanding the cabbage field before the next growing season.

Sujin and Haneul weren’t just there to visit. They had brought new programs for the workstation, and now I had to learn about how to let them bodyguard me, along with all the training I still had to finish about diplomatic protocols and language.

I slogged my way through all the new material. It was almost as hard as pretending to be Jang, back on the Pale Lightning.

It wasn’t as hard as learning to use the Pearl. Although using the Pearl wasn’t the hard part. The Pearl wanted to be used. The hard part was learning to hold the Pearl back.

When Jun and I first arrived on Jaebo, the world of the famed Pearled Halls, the Dragon Council was skeptical. They had heard the story of what happened on the Fourth Colony, but they didn’t find it convincing.

Several of the oldest and most powerful dragons insisted on a demonstration. They brought me to a new world, one they had been considering adding to the terraforming roster, and brought me there. After I remade the world in a single day, the dragons believed.

They still wouldn’t set me loose on planets like Jinju, though. And at first I resented that. I thought they were trying to keep the power of the Pearl for their own ends, to create new worlds they could sell to steader groups for fantastic prices. Seok had promised that I could help worlds like Jinju, not make money for the Dragon Council.

And then the dragons found me a teacher.

Most dragons worked with the wind and the rain and the water, asking their spirits to do their work faster than they otherwise might. Most dragons reshaped planets like a gardener shaping a tree, pruning or supporting in small ways to change the shape the tree might take decades in the future.

Master Garam worked differently. They worked with the spirits of the deep waters, down in the burning core of a planet. They could calm volcanoes, or charm the spirits into raising new land. Their power wasn’t like the power of the Dragon Pearl, but it was in many ways closer than the powers the other Dragons held.

Master Garam worked with me for months, demanding that I find ways to better control my use of the Pearl. I didn’t understand the importance at first — not until Master Garam brought me to Jeonju, an abandoned planet.

Jeonju had been like Jinju, once, but the terraforming had failed more completely than on Jinju. When we arrived, the planet was nothing but dust, empty dome habitats, and a few half-finished buildings.

Master Garam asked me to remake the world, and I happily agreed. I used everything I had learned of control, moving slowly and cautiously, the way I planned to on Jinju. It took three days, rather than the day it had taken me on the other empty worlds I had terraformed, but when I was finished, Jeonju was a paradise.

And then Master Garam showed me all the toppled domes.

“On a planet like Jinju, every dome would hold a family,” he told me. I didn’t need to hear it. My mind was filled with nightmare images of my family, my mom and my aunties and cousins, in one of those domes. I could keep my family safe — the Pearl kept a small area around me stable. But I could not keep others safe.

And so I learned control. I started my jade garden not long afterwards, on one of my first terraforming trips to Jinju. The Pearl yearned to remake the whole world, but I had learned to hold it back. To use only the tiniest fraction of its power to open a hole in the earth and bring water to flow through, so gently that my stalactites and stalagmites could stay standing safe and proud in their underground caverns.

I thought of bringing Haneul and Sujin to see the gardens. I hadn’t seen the gardens yet myself, just sensed their shapes through the magic of the Pearl, but the Pearl would let me open an access way easily enough.

In the end, there was too much to do before leaving. Learning everything the Domestic Security Ministry and Space Forces expected me to learn was exhausting, and I was reminded more than once of my time as Jang.

“I don’t know how you did this,” I complained to Jun one evening. Hanuel and Sujin were outside, at target practice.

Jun smiled. “You learn quick if the alternative is a morning scrubbing toilets!”

I groaned at the memory.

Jun’s face grew serious. “This is important,” he said. “This information will help Haneul and Sujin keep you safe.”

I thought for a moment. “Have you had second thoughts about going to the Jeweled Worlds?”

“Seok thinks this is safe enough,” Jun said, slowly. “Or he would have asked you to say no.”

“Could he?” I wondered. “If the Domestic Security Ministry asked him not to?” I knew how much the raiders and pirates of the border took from our outer worlds.

“Seok is an experienced bureaucrat. He would have given everyone the impression you came up with the no on your own.”

“I worry about the Pearl,” I admitted. Nobody knew the Pearl’s history for sure, but I had heard stories from the dragons, and especially from Master Garam. The stories said the Pearl had come from the Jeweled Worlds, originally — brought by the Emperor’s rebellious lesser son, who had founded the Thousand Worlds as a democracy.

“The Pearl has chosen you,” Jun said. In my pouch, the Pearl grew warmer, like it had heard him and agreed.

I hadn’t ever seen anything like the group of ships assembled to bring us to the Jeweled Worlds. There were eight battle cruisers like the Pale Lightning, and even a dreadnought. I had never seen a dreadnought before.

I was excited to board the dreadnought, but then Seok directed Jun and I towards the same courier we had traveled in for our trips within the Thousand Worlds.

“Not the dreadnought?” I asked, looking wistfully at the display screens and the dreadnought’s image. The delegation was assembling at Song-gen Station, and the docking ports were nearly full.

“Our diplomats don’t anticipate an attack,” Seok said. “But Space Forces always anticipates an attack. If the forces of the Jeweled Worlds attempt to attack us, the dreadnought and the battle cruisers will distract them while our courier vessel makes a run back to Thousand Worlds space.”

I shivered, thinking of the battles I had been through on the Red Azalea and the Pale Lightning. I had thought my new job meant leaving them behind.

Seok was already thinking about the next thing. “You’ll need to shift into your new shape here,” he said.

I nodded, understanding. To keep my identity a secret, I shifted into a different person each time we arrived on a new world. Apparently even the other people in our delegation weren’t to know my true face.

I concentrated, pulling Charm to myself, and wove it into a new appearance. When I finished, I looked into the mirrored wall and saw a tall girl, older than me, her hair cut into a neat fringe and hanging down long on her back. Her eyes were lighter than mine, with laugh lines just forming around the corners. She wore a red silk blouse, much more formal than I normally liked, and the magic had given her heavy jewelry.

Seok nodded. “Can you remember this form for the rest of the trip?”

I looked again, committing my new face to memory. “I can.”

Jun kept himself scarce in ports and on space stations. They were full of shamans, and we found it easier not to explain his presence. Haneul and Sujin came in, though, and took a surprised look at me.

“It would have been easier if you had warned us of the form you intended to take,” Haneul said reprovingly. “We were training to protect someone shorter!”

“It’s a very nice form,” Sujin said placatingly.

I concentrated, and made my new form a few inches shorter, closer to my usual human shape, the one I wore at home on Jinju. “Is this better?”

“I’ll never get used to that,” Haneul said. She studied my blouse. “I like that embroidery, though.”

I patted the Dragon Pearl — no matter what my Charm shifted about myself, the Dragon Pearl and its embroidered case stayed the same. I had had to embroider that the hard way. “Time to go.”

I hadn’t thought there would be a gate to the Jeweled Worlds, but there was. If I’d thought about it, it would have been obvious — the raiders and mercs who harassed the people around the edges of the Thousand Worlds’ space had to get there from somewhere.

“The Gates are hard to close,” Jia said. “Especially the ancient ones, like this one.”

Jia was our regular pilot on the courier vessel. Seok and I both knew how to pilot the vessel, but I often arrived back on the ship drained from holding back the Pearl, and Seok had his own work to accomplish during our trips. We had gone through several regular pilots before finding Jia, who was a talented pilot and not nervous about flying a ship with Jun aboard.

We normally didn’t have a weapons specialist, but for this trip, Space Forces had made us take two, along with Haneul and Sujin as my bodyguards. The ship felt very full, and I had come to sit copilot with Jia while the rest watched the screens in the ship’s mess.

Ahead of us, two of the battle cruisers rippled into yellow-gold light as they entered the Gate. We waited a moment longer, and then fleet control crackled over the ship’s speaker and gave us permission to enter the Gate ourselves.

I had expected passing through Gate to the Jeweled Worlds to be even worse than the first time I traveled through the Gate from Jinju. It wasn’t. Instead, it sparkled with golden lights, like the golden lights of the fireworks display Jinju had held the year before to mark the first year’s anniversary of the rains coming.

After a long time in gate-space, we emerged. I shivered. For the first time in my life, I was outside of the Thousand Worlds!

“I hope the diplomats were right about trusting the Jeweled Worlds,” Jia said. “We’ve got another eight Gates before we get to our destination. We can’t hold off the whole Navy of the Jeweled Worlds for eight jumps.”

Jun appeared behind me with a rush of cool air. “I expect they’ve got backup plans,” he said. “If the worst comes, they’re probably planning to pay off the mercs to hide us.”

“Would the mercs do that?” I asked skeptically. We were traveling into the Jeweled Worlds to get aid to fight the mercs.

“Why do you think they kept you off a Space Forces cruiser?” Jun asked cynically.

We waited, watching the Gate, until the dreadnought and the final battle cruiser appeared in regular space with us.

The full fleet was assembled when a new ship appeared. The ship was tiny — even smaller than our courier ships — but its exterior ran with shimmering colors under the light from the system’s star.

“The ship is hailing the fleet.” Jia flipped a switch, and the forward display screen lit up with an image of a woman.

She wore a heavily-embroidered robe, with her hair tied up in a severe style. She didn’t look much older than me, but the expression in her eyes made me wonder.

“Honored guests.” She leaned forward, as much as one could in a pilot’s chair. “We welcome you to the Jeweled Worlds.”

Her words sounded strange to me, but I found I could understand her.

“I am Sori. The Emperor has sent me to escort you to his homeworld.”

Jun flickered beside me. “Tactics,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, as Jia flipped a few more switches to prepare for the next jump.

“They control all the gates,” Jun said. “We see one small ship and feel silly for bringing such a force into their space, but they can hold an enormous force in reserve just one jump away, ready to move immediately to attack if the tiny ship out there sends a message beacon through the gate.”

“They would be foolish not to hold a force in reserve.”

Seok’s voice. I turned to see him at the entry to the pilot’s chamber.

“Min, we need you in the hall,” he said. “Space Forces has updated the response protocol for emergencies, and we need to run another drill before we make the next jump.”

I groaned and followed him.

It took several days to travel through the Jeweled Worlds. We saw many worlds, but only at a distance — because of the gravity wells around the planets, the biggest ships couldn’t land, and Space Forces wouldn’t let the rest of us do so, either.

I knew Jun longed to see the worlds, to walk on their surfaces. We had seen so many fantastic worlds in the Thousand Worlds, but the Jeweled Worlds were the stuff of childhood fairy tales.

After eight more jumps, we arrived at the Emperor’s world, at the center of the Jeweled Worlds.

The world itself was covered in sparkling seas and thick, dark forests, with smears of desert and ice. When Jia turned on the exterior sensors, we tried scanning for settlements, and found only one, held under a dome.

A dome. A giant dome, with shadows inside that might be buildings — but a dome. Why a dome, on a planet so beautiful?

“That makes no sense,” Haneul said, hanging over my shoulder. “This planet is incredible. There should be people.”

The rest of us agreed. We were so busy studying the dome, we nearly missed seeing the space station swing into view over the planet’s horizon.

I was used to the scale of Thousand Worlds space stations, which provided docking and repair facilities for Space Forces ships too large to land on planets, and provided inter-Gate locations where a habitable planet hadn’t been found but a Gate had to be located. The Thousand Worlds space stations were huge compared to what I had grown up seeing on Jinju, but any one of them would have looked tiny compared to the sprawling, enormous station we saw now.

We watched as our ships approached and were swallowed by the station’s enormity. At Song-gen Station, our fleet had taken nearly all the available docking ports. Here, even our dreadnought looked tiny.

I felt my stomach churn as the others dressed in their formal clothing for the reception ceremony. I renewed my Charm nervously, adding more jewelry and a more formal hair style, before giving up and just patting the Pearl where it sat in its embroidered pouch.

Finally, it was time to leave the ships. We let the Space Forces soldiers exit first, and watched from the view screens as they set up their defensive perimeter. The exercises that had looked so impressive on Song-gen Station seemed like children playing with toys against the backdrop of the massive station.

Seok and I waited before stepping forward towards the far end of the disembarking space, where Sori waited, all alone.

Each time we had seen Sori on the display screens, she had worn a grander robe. By the time we arrived at the station, we had begun to wonder how her tiny ship had room for all of them.

The one she wore now was by far the grandest, fully embroidered with beads that sparkled like tiny gems. There couldn’t have been room for another person in her ship, and yet her hair was perfectly coiffed.

Seok and I stepped forward, flanked by our diplomats on each side, Haneul and Sujin at my back. We sank into a bow, mirroring Sori’s welcoming bow.

In person, her voice was beautiful. “Welcome to the Jeweled Worlds.”

Seok stood straight again, and I followed his lead. “The Thousand Worlds accepts your welcome in gratitude and friendship,” Seok said.

There was a lot more diplomacy-speak then — everyone needed to say things, and then Sori needed to respond to them in her melodic voice, and then more things needed to be said. Most of them were just repeating the first things we had said, in different words and different tones, and I found myself glazing over, although I tried to keep my face looking like I was following everything.

I wondered where Jun was. We had worried that the shamans of the Jeweled Worlds would try to exorcise him, but there weren’t any shamans here at all.

Finally, the diplomacy-speak ended, and Seok gestured for me to follow Sori out into the station proper.

I stepped closer, and suddenly felt the need to sneeze.

It wasn’t Jun. It wasn’t any of the diplomats — I’d met every one of them before.

I looked at Sori in surprise. She smiled back, blank and polite, and suddenly I knew.

Sori was a gumiho.

“You should have told us,” Haneul complained.

We were in the palatial guest quarters where Sori had led us. Space Forces had spent hours sweeping the place for electronic bugs, and then Jun had taken another pass through, looking for observation posts or other non-electronic trickery. Nobody had found anything, which meant it was safe to talk, or as safe as it could be.

“How could I have told you?” I asked, from the sofa. I’d asked my Charm to replace my heavy ceremonial dress with loose cotton slacks and a tunic, and I was finally comfortable. “The code words we learned didn’t include any for gumiho, because we didn’t expect to encounter any. Apart from me, at least.”

“And me.” Jun flickered in at Sujin’s elbow.

“Jun!” I said in relief. He had left after checking the guest quarters, to explore the station, and I had worried that he had run into a shaman. “Where have you been?”

“Talking to the other ghosts.” Jun didn’t need to sit down — he didn’t grow tired the way the living did — but sometimes he still did, to make us feel more comfortable. He sat now, on an elaborate settee that faced us.

Haneul blinked. “Other ghosts?” She looked around. “Should we be worried? Is this like the Fourth Colony?”

“They’re like me,” Jun said. He sounded stunned. “All our travels through the Thousand Worlds, and I’ve never met another ghost like me.”

There were more surprises to come. Sori wasn’t the only gumiho — during our tours of the station, I even saw another gumiho in fox-form, using tiny paws to work on the gi of the station. It didn’t seem like the other people on the station were frightened of her, which surprised me the most.

The station itself was also a surprise. In the time left between the diplomatic receptions and dinners, we got to explore — always with an escort, and in my case, with a complement of Space Forces soldiers to give Haneul and Sujin backup. We brought Seok along, to explain the presence of bodyguards, and I shifted into another form and pretended to be Seok’s aide.

The space station had gardens — huge gardens, much larger than we could have maintained with the gravity fields we used back in the Thousand Worlds. On big stations, there were always skip zones, where you’d have to float briefly before landing in the gravity field on the other side. But the station we were on had no skip zones. The entire thing was solid, like walking on a planet. There were even spaces big enough for dragons to take their true forms, and many of them did.

Another strange thing was how nobody talked about the planet we were orbiting, not even to mention its name. The planet below us was beautiful, but nobody we spoke to in the tea-rooms and markets had ever been there. Most of them didn’t want to discuss it, as if even the mention of the planet were somehow unlucky.

I thought of the Fourth Colony, and wondered.

Jun had been right about the ghosts. We saw them sometimes, walking around the corridors like anyone else. There were shamans aboard as well, but the people around us thought they only needed to work with the vengeful spirits, who had lost their way. Nobody thought Jun’s presence was unusual — not unless they looked closely enough to see that his uniform was that of the Thousand Worlds, and not the Jeweled Worlds. That attracted comment.

We had been on the station for a few days when Sori came to my door wearing Haneul’s face.

I hadn’t talked to Sori directly before. We had talked to other people from the Jeweled Worlds, but Sori seemed to have special status — they called her the Emperor’s Voice.

I knew the Haneul standing in front of me was an imposter immediately. She stood like Haneul — she even smelled like Haneul. But I could feel the tickling in my nose that meant gumiho magic, and anyway, Haneul was on a tour of the Emperor’s water-gardens this morning.

I wasn’t alone — Sujin was with me, but they were in the dining room, distracted by a sampling of special foods sent as a gift. I suddenly realized that the platter of delicacies must have been as much a trap as the invitation to the water gardens.

Seok was in the next room, with my other guards from Space Forces. But this fox had already drawn away my guards. I of all people knew how easily Charm could handle the others.

I didn’t know if she meant me harm. I felt my heart beat faster, but decided there was only one thing to do.

“Come in, fox,” I said, inclining my head and opening the door wider.

The fox’s face shifted, and she shrank a few inches into the familiar face of Sori, her clothing shifting instantly from Haneul’s familiar uniform to the jewel-encrusted robes of the Emperor’s Speaker.

“Well done, little sister.”

Sori sounded amused. She stepped past me to curl up on the most formal of the couches, her robes falling perfectly around her.

“It is an honor to entertain an elder.” I bowed again. “Shall I bring refreshment?” I knew it would be polite to offer her refreshment. More importantly, it would allow me to tell Sujin was was going on.

“No, let your friend enjoy their food,” Sori said. “We have things to discuss.” She studied me, her eyes shrewd, and I was reminded again that she was much older than her unlined face suggested. “You’re the holder of the Pearl, aren’t you?”

I stopped myself from reaching towards the Pearl, held against my chest. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s not the ghost,” Sori said dismissively. “It can’t be. And I can’t believe it’s any of the dragons in your party. Not with the stories we’ve heard about how it’s made over your worlds.”

“You can’t take it from me,” I said, suddenly afraid that Sori had come to do just that. “The Pearl will harm anyone who tries to take it from me by force.”

“Does it?” Sori’s eyes were bright. “I’d imagine the others who’ve tried were dragons.”

I kept my mouth shut, horribly worried I had said too much.

“I didn’t come to take your Pearl, little sister,” Sori said. “I came to tell you about the Emperor.”

We hadn’t seen the Emperor. We had seen many signs of him. We were in his palace. Haneul was touring his water-gardens. We knew he was a dragon, from the size of his throne room, which must have been built for one of the largest dragons I had ever seen. The fanciest tea-room we had seen had a large seal, indicating that it served teas that were the Emperor’s selections. But of the Emperor himself, there was no sign.

Sori leaned in, like someone sharing a confidence. “The Emperor cannot leave his planet.”

“So someone does live on the planet.” I had wondered. “Why can’t he leave?”

“He doesn’t dare,” Sori said. “The Emperor is the most powerful dragon in the Jeweled Worlds, but even his powers have grown weak against the planet.” She sighed. “The world below has been the planet of the Emperors of the Jeweled Worlds for generations, since they founded these worlds. Only the Emperor and his court are allowed to visit the world. Everyone else stays on the station.”

That answered a few questions, but raised more. “If the world is safe to live on, why does it have a dome?”

“The Emperor is the only one who can hold the winds and the rains back,” Sori said. “When he leaves, the spirits become restless. The dome was erected to keep the palaces safe, but now even that may not be enough.”

“This is why you need the Pearl,” I said, suddenly realizing. The diplomats had been trying to figure out which planet the Jeweled Worlds wanted us to fix. Nobody had thought that it could be the planet below us, which looked so peaceful from space.

“The planet below is dying,” Sori said. “Unless you and the Pearl can remake it.”

The real Haneul came back an hour later, bubbling over with stories about the water-gardens. She told Sujin and I all about the fountains and the water lilies, while Sujin and I munched on a new type of cookie that had been on the platter they had been sent.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t come,” Haneul said, looking suddenly guilty.

I waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I had my own excitement.”

I told them about the world below, and about Sori’s visit.

“She took my face!” Haneul looked disturbed by that. “I know she needed to get into your rooms without someone noticing, but why my face?”

“I know,” Sujin said. “Why not my face? I’m insulted!”

“It had to be Haneul,” I said. “The other guards would have known that you were in the kitchen, Sujin.”

We talked for a while longer, wondering when and how I would be asked to remake the planet. The answer would come sooner than we expected.

That night, I couldn’t sleep, even though the artificial gravity was perfect and the bed was soft and warm.

I wandered out into the main room of the suite, and started flipping through the pile of pamphlets about the Jeweled Worlds that had been left in our suite. I had already seen most of them, but there was another book there now — a slim volume labeled Fox Lore.

Sori must have left it, I decided. I hadn’t seen it when she left, but she was a fox — it would have been easy for her to Charm the book into the appearance of one of the pamphlets, trusting it to return to its original shape when she left.

I picked it up and started looking through. I braced myself to find the fox being the villain in all of the tales, the way foxes were in stories back in the Thousand Worlds, but this collection was different. Some of the foxes were evil, but others were just tricksters, and some were helpers of the humans and the other spirits.

I was starting to nod off when I came to a story that made me sit up in surprise.

The Fox’s Pearl

Many years ago, when the suns were young, a fox was born in a humble village near the Emperor’s palace.

Few live near the Emperor’s palace, and so the fox grew up with the sons of the Emperor, and grew to know one of them better. The dragon-son was comely, in human and dragon form, and was kind to others; and the fox was a kind if crafty fox, and soon they grew to love one another.

If the fox’s beloved had been the Emperor’s favored son, the fox and the dragon-son would have married, and their story would have ended there. But the dragon-son was a younger son, and also much disposed to being soft with the people; and so the dragon-Emperor gave his son a challenge. If the dragon-son could remake a planet in a single night, he could wed his fox.

The dragon-son was a powerful dragon, but even his powers could not remake a planet in a single night. But the fox was crafty, and knew more magic than all the Emperor’s ministers combined.

“Take my fox-pearl,” the fox said, and kissed the dragon-son deep. A fox’s pearl contains all the fox’s guile and cunning, and all the fox’s magic; and a dragon knows how to remake a world.

The fox knew that she could only keep her powers without her pearl for a hundred days. And so each morning, the dragon took the pearl the fox had given him, and tried to remake another planet; and each morning he failed, until the hundredth day, when the fox lost her powers and became human. On that morning, the dragon-son remade a world.

The dragon-son went to the Emperor with his fox-bride and their Pearl, and showed the Emperor what he had done, and asked to wed his bride. But the Emperor grew furious, for he had not thought that his challenge was possible; and more, he had not told the dragon-son that the fox’s magic could be used.

The stories say that the fox-bride and the dragon-son left, then, and founded new worlds, where people and spirits could live in harmony, and where all might have a say in how they are governed.

I felt the Pearl grow warmer under my hand. Was this how the Pearl had been created? Were the new worlds the story talked about the Thousand Worlds?

The Thousand Worlds had been founded over fourteen hundred years ago, and much of the history of the early times had been lost. But it felt right. The Thousand Worlds might have their problems — planets like Jinju, where the local officials were corrupt, and planets where mercenaries walked free — but ultimately, each planet had a voice in the Pearled Halls, and each planet’s people had a voice in who was sent.

I touched my throat, wondering about the fox-pearl the story mentioned. None of the other stories had mentioned a fox-pearl. Was it something that my mother and aunties had never told me about, or did only some foxes have one?

I stayed awake late that night, wondering.

It was a couple more days before the diplomats finished all of their diplomat-ing and reached an agreement that they felt would allow us to go down to the planet. Once the planning for the trip to the planet started, everything stopped again, because Space Forces wanted to land far more ships on the planet than the Emperor’s diplomats were comfortable with, so everything had to go back for yet more discussion.

We offered to help the diplomats, but they didn’t want us. I used the time to read Fox Lore again, and tour the gardens and shops on the space station.

The Jeweled Worlds didn’t use jades, but we had been given a travel allowance in local currency, and I bought a splendid new baduk set, where the white stones were tiny planets in pale, cloudy shades and the black stones were tiny planets in deep greens and blues.

Finally, after two more days spent sipping tea in cafes and being beaten by Haneul at baduk, the diplomats announced that they had reached an agreement. We would leave for the planet the following day.

My stomach was full of nerves when I woke up that morning and wrapped my Charm around me. Seok had asked me to take the place — and face — of one of our pilots, who worked on another diplomatic courier ship.

The pilot’s usual co-pilot seemed unnerved by me, and insisted on doing the piloting. I had nothing to do but sit back and enjoy my view of the planet as we dropped towards it. Wide seas, gentle waves, and rolling hills covered in vegetation — the Emperor’s planet was beautiful.

I wondered what it would look like without the Emperor’s control.

We landed inside the dome, which was impressive already — most domes in the Thousand Worlds were too small for space ships to land inside. The landing field was crowded, and it was easy for me to find a place to change from the pilot to the form I had taken as the holder of the Dragon Pearl. I asked the Charm to make me impressive enough for an Emperor.

I expected to be wrapped round with gold and gemstones, embroidery and satin. Instead, the Charm chose something very different. I wore a simple jacket in red silk, and dark trousers. My hair was straight and long, and I wore no jewelry.

“Min!” Haneul and Sujin had found me. “Why are you wearing that?” Haneul asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, but it was too late — the crowd of diplomats had parted and I was in full view of the palaces.

They were set into a series of hills, receding into the distance, with the dome far, far beyond. I had known the dome must be enormous to be seen from the space station, but I hadn’t known it would be like this.

The palaces were low buildings, heavy in carved wood, with roof slates that looked like pure jade. “I see why they call these the Jewel Palaces,” Haneul said, looking awed.

I patted the Dragon Pearl in its pouch for reassurance. The Emperor might live in a palace of jewels, but he couldn’t remake his world.

The sea of diplomats and Space Forces guards organized into a loose parade, with me in the middle. Everyone wore their dress uniforms, or their best formal outfits, and I felt horribly out-of-place as we walked towards the first palace.

Sori met us in the receiving room. She wore a coat and skirt, encrusted with gems and embroidery. I knew she was a fox, so I didn’t wonder where it came from, but I did wonder how she could stand under the weight. She welcomed us on the Emperor’s behalf, and began leading us through a succession of palaces.

The palaces were even more overwhelming up close — a series of rooms, each grander than the last, and every one filled with the treasures of the Jeweled Worlds. Jun was by my side as we walked through the palaces, eyes wide. Neither of us had ever imagined that anything like this would be possible for two kids from Jinju.

The Emperor’s throne sat on the highest level of the highest palace, at the very center of the dome.

The diplomats performed all their greeting rituals, like a school-yard full of children playing a marching game. Finally, the crowds parted, and I stood in full view of the Emperor’s throne.

“Good luck, Min.” Next to me, Jun flickered and disappeared. I had known he would need to leave me, but I still felt suddenly alone. Haneul and Sujin had stepped back too.

The steps to the base of the throne felt long. I felt everyone’s eyes on me, a small woman in simple clothing, daring to stand here, and wondered what the people from the Jeweled Worlds were thinking.

Finally, I could look up and see the Emperor himself — a giant dragon, even larger than the largest dragons I had seen in the Pearled Halls.

He blurred, and shifted into his human form. He was young, but as he stepped down to meet me, I could see dark circles under his eyes.

“Sori tells me your name is Min,” he said, informally.

I wasn’t sure how to reply. I patted the pouch holding the Pearl, and felt it warm reassuringly. Instead of speaking, I bowed — not the full bow that he might expect from one of his subjects, but the shallower bow that the diplomats had told us was appropriate. I hoped they were right.

“Will you walk with me, Min?” the Emperor asked.

He waited for my nod before turning and leading me through the throne room to a small door. Sori stepped behind us. As the Emperor and I stepped outside, I could hear Sori asking for everyone in our delegation to stay, and Haneul and Sujin protesting over the murmurs of the diplomats.

The door led outside, to a small, flowering garden on the very highest point of the hills. The dome stretched above us, a thin, shimmering membrane held in place by force-fields, very different from the heavy, scratched domes of Jinju.

“This is my garden.” The emperor led me to a rock at the center. He walked like a man carrying a heavy load. “This whole planet is my garden — my family’s garden. But this space here, this is my favorite place.” He nodded towards the dome, and I could see the clear vista out to the horizon, trees spreading away from us down to a sparkling sea.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

“It is.” He sat on the rock, his legs crossed. “And it is wrong, and I do not know how to fix it. My skills have not grown weak, and yet when I return to this planet —”

He broke off.

The Pearl grew warmer, drawing my attention to it. I took it from its pouch and sat on the ground, my legs crossed, mirroring the Emperor’s posture.

Each planet had a gi. Master Garam had taught me how to reach the gi of a planet, how to see what it needed. Dragons could only see a planet’s gi with great skill and effort, but the Dragon Pearl made it easy to see to the heart of a world.

Normally I would only need a few moments, but here, I found myself struggling. I felt the earth below me, and it should have connected me to the planet. Instead, I found myself buffeted by the spirits of the elements, a great cacophony of angry voices.

I stood up. “Emperor, I cannot reach your world’s gi.” I paused, not knowing how to ask, but if I was to fix this planet, I had to see its gi first. “Can you let the wind and water spirits go?”

The Emperor studied me for a moment, and then bowed his head. I could see his lips moving.

Outside the dome, the air boiled with clouds. Rain appeared as if from nowhere, buffeting the dome in sheets as lightning forked to the ground, and then suddenly the rain turned to snow.

I had seen snow before, on planets where the climate was cooler than Jinju. The snows I had seen on those worlds had been quiet, blanketing the ground in white. This snow was angry and unsettled, boiling around the dome like it wanted to get in.

“You see,” the Emperor said.

I wasn’t sure I did. I sat down again, rooting myself in the planet’s soil, and listened.

The howling wind outside couldn’t drown out the planet’s gi, but now that I could see into the planet’s heart, I found myself confused. I looked closer, trying to understand.

The Emperor was patient, but finally he stood and came closer, to sit across from me on the ground.

He didn’t speak. Instead, I looked up from the Pearl to find myself looking at him.

I took a deep breath. “Emperor, I think I know what has happened here, but I am afraid you will not like the news.”

“Tell me,” he commanded, and then seemed to think better of it. “Please, Min. I want to know.”

“This planet was meant to be something else,” I said, searching for the right words. “It’s not a planet like the others I’ve seen. There’s something different about it.” All the other planets I had terraformed had welcomed the coming of our sort of life — of trees and planets and lakes and seas. The Emperor’s world was something else, something wild and strange.

“My ancestors knew this planet was unusual,” the Emperor said. “We settled here after a long search, and we began talking to the wind and rain spirits, and we made it a paradise.”

“You made it a paradise for you,” I said gently. “The planet wanted to be something else.”

The emperor bowed his head, and then met my eyes. “Can you fix it?”

“That depends on what you mean by fix,” I said. I closed my eyes again to hold the Pearl and concentrate. Yes, I could feel the edges of the dome — it was enormous, larger than anything I’d tried to hold before, but I thought I could do it.

“Is anyone living anywhere else on the planet?” I asked. “Anybody outside the dome, who might be hurt or lose their home?”

“The dome is the only place on the planet where people are allowed to live,” the Emperor said sadly. “Any structures elsewhere were lost in the storms long ago.”

“I can hold your dome,” I said. “I can help the planet remember what it was meant to be. But it may not be your planet anymore.”

The Emperor looked at me, and then at the snow just beyond the dome. “If what you tell me is true, this world has never been the planet we thought it was.” He paused. “Please, Min. Help it find its way back to its true nature.”

I closed my eyes again, feeling my connection to the ground beneath me, the air beyond the dome. This world was different, and I took my time, feeling for the bones underneath, the rock and crystal below the thin surface of plants the Emperors of the Jeweled Worlds had kept growing like a garden.

The crystals wanted to grow. I had worked with crystals before, in my jade garden, but these crystals were different.

I held the Pearl close and whispered to the heart of the world.

The dome shuddered once, and I held it still again. Outside, the howling of the wind stopped, replaced by stillness.

The world had been held back by the Emperor’s ancestors for centuries — millennia — and worlds might move slow, but this one remembered what it was meant to be. Around me, I felt the changes. The trees of the forests fell, replaced by crystal plants growing towards their sun in strange and beautiful shapes. I felt the seas contract and then spring forth again.

When everything finished, the Pearl had cooled in my hands. When I looked at it, it had a pale gray luster. I had seen this before — first on the Fourth Colony, and then on the other worlds I had remade.

I looked up to face the Emperor, and found him staring at the horizon.

As we watched, the first light of a new day broke, and a thousand answering reflections sparkled from the mountains and the plain below. The world outside of the dome had turned to crystal, sparkling in a million shades of crimson and green, gold and royal blue. The plants were like nothing I had seen before, not in any of Jun’s and my travels in the Thousand Worlds, and yet I knew, without doubt, that they were plants, growing in the light of their sun.

The Emperor was smiling when he turned back to me. “It really is the seat of the Jeweled Worlds,” he said.

I felt a breath of spirit-wind as Jun appeared beside me. “It’s beautiful,” he told me.

I hadn’t asked the planet to be beautiful. I had asked the planet to be itself — to let the Dragon Pearl balance its gi, after thousands of years of the Emperors asking the wind and water spirits to make it something it was not.

“Thank you,” the Emperor said. “The wind and water spirits tell me that the planet is at peace.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. Normally only Jun and Seok and Master Garam saw me after I worked on terraforming. The Pearl’s use was kept strictly secret, disguised by cover stories about dragons and other supernaturals working on planets over longer periods of time. I had never been thanked by someone before. 

“She’s looking for the words ‘you’re welcome’,” Haneul said, and I turned to see her standing with Sujin at the door, guarding it.

“Haneul!” I got up, my legs cramped from sitting, and walked towards them. “Sujin. You’re here.” I hugged them both.

“It was terrifying to watch,” Sujin said thoughtfully, after we separated. “Almost as bad as the Fourth Colony.”

“But the water spirits are much happier now,” Haneul added. “When we landed on the planet, they were so sad I thought I would cry.”

I turned back to the Emperor. “I am glad I could help,” I said, and bowed again. I paused, and then said it. “Sometimes a fox’s paws are needed.”

“Foxes are treasured in the Jeweled Worlds,” the Emperor said, and I thought I could see a sparkle in his eye as he said it.

The diplomats were worried and then furious and then worried again, and then very happy. I was looking forward to getting back to the Thousand Worlds and being able to dispense with the lot of them.

Back on the space station, a festival had broken out to celebrate the remaking of the world below. It looked quite different from the viewing screens now — instead of the rolling hills of green forests, there were giant formations of crystal, splintering the planet into thousands of points of sparkling color. It really did look like a jeweled world.

The rest of our delegation was packing. The diplomats had negotiated what I was told was a very generous deal for shared protection duties along our border, and now all that was left was an orderly retreat.

Being a fox, I had very little to pack, beyond my new baduk set and a few other gifts and souvenirs. Jun had even less, so we were playing with the set of dice and bones we had gotten for our cousin Manshik when Sori arrived, wearing the face of Jia, our pilot.

Haneul let her in, and then looked over at Jun and I. “Is this really Jia?”

“It’s Sori,” I said, feeling the familiar nose-twitching feeling of Charm.

Sori shifted into her familiar human shape, wearing a simple jacket and pants. “I apologize for the deception,” she said. “I just wanted to bid my goodbyes to Min and Jun before you all return to your worlds.”

Haneul regarded her skeptically, but Sori turned on the Charm until Haneul finally was convinced that Jun and I would be safe.

“The Emperor sends his thanks again,” Sori said, once the three of us were alone.

“But that’s not why you came here, is it?” I asked shrewdly. The Emperor’s thanks could have been offered in front of everyone in the delegation, and already had been.

“It’s not the only reason,” Sori said. She shifted into her fox form.

I gasped, and Jun flickered brighter in surprise. Sori’s fox form had nine tails!

“You’ve probably guessed the truth about the Dragon Pearl,” Sori said, settling down with her tails wrapped around herself. She looked like she was sitting on a fox-fur cloud.

I had known, deep in my bones. “The Dragon Pearl is the fox-pearl from the story.”

“And I knew the fox who gave it.” Sori’s fox-face looked sad. “She was my sister.”

I felt a wave of sympathy. In its pouch, the Pearl warmed, as if to reassure me.

Jun, meanwhile, looked skeptical. “That would make you over 1,400 years old. How is that possible?”

“A great many things are possible with fox-magic, little one-tail,” Sori said. “Someday, you and Min may learn more of them. But you won’t learn them in the Thousand Worlds, where foxes have to hide their true natures.”

“That’s why you’re here,” I said, finally realizing. “You want us to defect.”

“Is it really defection?” Sori twitched her tails. “The Thousand Worlds are terrified of foxes. You’ve nobody but your own family to learn from, and they’re all too terrified to do anything but hide. And spirits are feared, too — I’d bet you can’t go through a port without some shaman trying to exorcise you, Jun. Is that life worth it?”

I wanted to think that I found her points persuasive because she was using Charm on me, but I couldn’t feel the slightest breath of it.

She looked at each of us in turn. “Here in the Jeweled Worlds, you’ll be heroes. The ones who saved the Emperor’s planet. You’ll be able to do anything. See all the new worlds — especially the ones you’ll make.”
For a moment, I thought about it. She was right that Jun and I were distrusted in the Thousand Worlds for who we were. I thought about being able to wear my fox-form openly.

But then I thought about my neighbor, and the cabbages. I was doing something important on Jinju, and on all the worlds like it. And I thought about the worlds along the border — if I defected with the Pearl, the agreement our diplomats had just reached would shred like festival banners in a hard wind. It might even come to war.

Jun and I looked at one another. “We can’t,” I said.

“You’d rather go back to being reviled?” Sori asked. “Hated for what you are?”

“We can work to change that,” I said fiercely. The Dragon Pearl was working with me to remake the planets of the Thousand Worlds. I would have to find other ways to remake the people — to find other foxes, and to show our people that we were not to be feared.

“If we leave, we only make things better for ourselves,” I said. “But if we go back, we can work to make things better for all the foxes in the Thousand Worlds.”

Sori twitched her tails once more. “Very well, little sister. I will tell the Emperor your choice has been made.” She stood, and I felt the familiar tickle of Charm return as she shifted into her human form. “Safe travels on your return to your home worlds, and if you ever should change your minds, know that the Jeweled Worlds will stand ready to welcome you.”

Sori sent us one last gift from the Emperor, before our ships departed: a holo-unit, filled with holos of the new Jeweled World I had made. “So you never forget us here in the Jeweled Worlds,” she said, and I thanked the Emperor and we all said nice and diplomatic things, and then we finally — finally — got on our courier vessel to go home.

We were nearly to the first Gate when the holo-unit disappeared, replaced by an enormous stack of books.

“A fox gift,” Haneul said, peering at the books.

I picked up the books. “In more ways than one.” They were all about foxes. Fox lore, fox magic — there were even guides for young foxes learning how to control their magic!

Jun appeared with a breath of spirit-wind. “Sori couldn’t speak against her Emperor,” he said. “But I think she wants us to go home, to the worlds her sister helped found, and help the foxes there.”

I didn’t know how we could do that. Not yet. But with Jun at my side, and Sori’s books showing us the way, we would figure it out. We were remaking worlds already — if anyone could remake the way the Thousand Worlds saw spirits and gumiho, it was us.

We returned to Jinju in the spring, and all the fields around our dome were planted with cabbages. “A good idea can spread on wings,” my mother said.

I smiled. I hoped so.