Kitty's Big Trouble Page 44

Sun moved toward the sound. “Uh-oh.”

“What do you mean, ‘uh-oh’?” Ben shot at him.

Sun turned back to the rest of us. “Someone wants to meet us.”

Sun—Sun Wukong, the Monkey King—gestured, and we looked to see the nine-tailed fox sitting at the end of the corridor, shining ruddy in a small patch of light. It opened its mouth to make that eerie, too-human noise of a hungry infant. Instead of being attracted to it this time, I was horrified. Wrong, this was all wrong. I wanted to run, to flee. I reached for and found Ben’s hand, and he squeezed back.

“Who?” Anastasia said. “I won’t go until you say who has summoned us.”

“Do we have a choice about this?” I said.

“You know who the huli jing belongs to,” Grace said, wondering. She seemed entranced as she stepped toward the creature, which then jumped to its feet and twitched its tails, waving them. The bundle of tails blurred, it seemed to move so quickly, the red fur sparking in the dim light.

Grace went toward the fox, and I followed with my pack because I didn’t want to leave her alone. Anastasia hesitated, but Sun gestured, and she went forward. He brought up the rear.

The fox bounded ahead and stopped at a side door that I swore hadn’t been there before. This one had Chinese written directly on the wood—another blessing or a warning? The fox yipped—this time, the sound was like a child’s sharp laugh. Standing on its hind legs, it put its paws on the door as if hoping to push it open, but it was too heavy. Grace went to help it, and Sun joined her. With the three of them pushing together, the door creaked open, wood scraping against the concrete floor, dust shaking from the hinges. A warm light shone from the room behind the door.

I held back, feeling like I was stepping into someone else’s story. I didn’t understand the rules and symbols that were being shown to me.

“Grace?” I asked softly.

“Just watch,” she said. “And be quiet. Be respectful. You think you can do that?”

Normally, I could never promise to be quiet. Somehow, I didn’t have much of an urge to speak just now.

“What’s happening?” Ben said. I shook my head, so he turned to Cormac.

“Never seen anything like it. Neither of us,” he said.

We entered the room.

Chapter 14

THE NINE-TAILED FOX bounded forward like a puppy greeting its favorite person. Its final leap took it into the lap of a woman, middle-aged and full-bodied, seated in a chair, ornately carved and lacquered in black and gold. Cooing, the woman gathered the animal close, scratching its ears, rubbing its flanks, bringing her face close so the fox could lick her chin and nose, which it did joyfully, and the woman laughed.

The woman—she must have been of average height, of normal size. But she seemed to fill the space. Her face was kind and beautiful, though what must have been smooth porcelain features when she was young had softened to make her more approachable, more motherly. Her thick hair, black and shining, was twisted into a knot and held in place by sticks carved from a milky green stone—jade, maybe. The robe she wore over a multilayered gown was silk and shining, royal blue, with dense images embroidered in gold and silver, belted around her waist with a braided gold cord. She smelled like incense and peaches.

Her chair’s arm on the right-hand side was carved in the shape of an angry, bulging-eyed tiger, its stripes painted like daggers. The left-hand arm was shaped like a dragon, body twisted around on itself, slender whiskers trailing from a mouth full of teeth. On the back of her chair stood a large black bird, a crow. It hopped back and forth, snapping its beak and shaking its feathers at us. It had three legs, three sets of claws to scrabble at the wood.

The chair sat on a wooden porch overlooking a nighttime garden, however impossible that should have been. We were in a room, in a tunnel system under downtown San Francisco. And yet, a pond spread out from the porch, its surface dark and glasslike, reflecting back the image of a blossoming tree that grew from the shore nearby. From the branches hung red paper lanterns that gave off a peaceful light. Across the pond I thought I could make out buildings, carved railings around more porches, lit windows, tiled pagoda roofs that didn’t seem out of place here—an entire palace complex.

I smelled fresh air and the scent of peach blossoms. My mouth watered.

Grace knelt, her hands pressed flat together and touching her nose, her eyes tightly shut—praying hard, keenly devout. She may not even have been breathing.

Anastasia stared, and her expression altered, slack wonder pulling into grief, lips pursed, brow furrowed, eyes narrowing until I thought she might cry. Finally, she covered her face with her hands and sagged.

Behind us, Sun quietly closed the door.

We waited. No one could hurry this woman or make demands. She could ignore the tableau before her forever, and that would be fine. And what a tableau—two Chinese women who obviously knew who and what she was and were awed into immobility; and three white-bread American tourists, rude and ignorant, cowboys in a china shop, as it were. If we didn’t move, maybe we wouldn’t break anything.

Then there was Sun Wukong, who looked on her as a friend. That look made me relax a little.

Finally, she kissed the fox on the top of its head and urged it away, stroking the length of its body, including the batch of tails, as it hopped off her lap and took up the position of a sentinel under a pedestal table next to the chair. It wrapped all its tails around its feet like a big fur stole.

She straightened, regarded us all, then focused that regal gaze on Sun. “Well. Sun Wukong, I gave you a simple task and look what happens. Always trouble with you!”

“And yet you keep trusting me. Look, I had everything under control—”

She raised a hand, and he stopped. She turned her gaze on the rest of us. I suddenly wanted to apologize. This felt like I’d been brought to the principal’s office.

“Grace Chen,” the woman on the throne said, her voice gentle. Grace, her nut-brown skin flushed with emotion, bowed even lower.

The woman began speaking to her in what I assumed was Chinese. I didn’t understand, but the tone was kind, not at all accusing like it had been a moment before.

I glanced at Anastasia, hoping for a translation, but her eyes were tightly shut.

Sun saw my look and translated. “Xiwangmu is telling her that her family has done well, guarding the Dragon’s Pearl for these centuries, but the task is finished now. She’s releasing the family from its vow.”

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