Shadow of The Fox (Shadow of the Fox #1)

By: Julie Kagawa

Suki obeyed, placing her feet carefully to avoid squashing any paper creatures, and stood before Lady Satomi.

The woman struck her across the face with her open palm.

Pain exploded behind her eye, and she collapsed to the floor, too stunned to even gasp. Blinking back tears, she put her hand to her cheek and gazed blankly up at Lady Satomi, who loomed over her, smiling.

“Do you know why I did that, little Suki-chan?” she asked, and now she did show her teeth. They reminded Suki of a grinning skull.

“N-no, my lady,” she murmured, as her numb cheek started to burn.

“Because I called for Mai-chan, not you,” the lady replied in a relentlessly cheerful voice. “You might be a stupid country girl, Suki-chan, but that does not excuse your complete ignorance. You must come only when called, is that understood?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Smile, Suki-chan,” Satomi suggested. “If you smile, perhaps I can forget you have the accent of a sweaty country barbarian and the face of an ox. It will be dreadfully difficult not to loathe you on sight, but I will do my best. Isn’t that generous of me, Suki-chan?”

Suki, not knowing what to say to this, kept her mouth shut and thought of Daisuke-sama.

“Isn’t that generous of me, Suki-chan?” Satomi repeated, an edge to her voice now.

Suki swallowed hard. “Hai, Lady Satomi.”

Satomi sighed. “You’ve smashed my creations.” She pouted, and Suki glanced down at the origami creatures that had been crushed by her body. The lady sniffed and turned away. “I shall be very angry if you do not replace them. There is a quaint little shop in the Wind district that sells the most delicate lavender sheets. If you run, you should catch them before they close.”

Suki gazed through an open screen at the storm clouds roiling above the palace. Thunder rumbled as silver-blue strands chased each other through the sky. “Yes, Lady Satomi.”

* * *

The passing days made Suki long for her father’s shop, for the quiet comfort of sweeping, stitching torn clothing and cooking meals three times a day. For the comforting smell of sawdust and wood shavings, and for the customers who barely gave her a second glance, concerned only with her father and his work. She’d thought it would be easy enough to be the maid to a great lady, to help her dress and run her errands and see to the mundane little tasks that were beneath the notice of the nobility. Perhaps that was how it should have been—certainly, the other maids did not seem to share her plight. Indeed, they seemed to go out of their way to avoid her, as if associating with Lady Satomi’s maid would attract the ire of her mistress. Suki couldn’t blame them.

Lady Satomi was a nightmare, a beautiful nightmare of silk, makeup and heady perfume. Nothing Suki did suited the woman. No matter how she scrubbed or cleaned, the laundry never met with Satomi’s satisfaction. The tea Suki brewed was too weak, too strong, too sweet, always too something. No amount of cleaning sufficed within Lady Satomi’s chambers—there was always a speck of dirt to be found, a tatami mat out of place, an origami creature in the wrong spot. And each failure brought a little smile from the lady and a shockingly powerful slap.

No one cared, of course. The other maids looked away from her bruises, and the guards did not look at her at all. Suki did not dare complain; not only was Lady Satomi a great and powerful lady, she was the favored concubine of the emperor himself. To speak poorly of her would be insulting Taiyo no Genjiro, the great Son of Heaven, and would result in a flogging, public humiliation, or worse.

The only thing that saved Suki from complete despair was the thought of running into Daisuke-sama again. He was a great noble, of course, far above her station, and would not care about the troubles of a lowly maid. But even catching a glimpse of him would be enough. She looked for him on the verandas and the paths to and from Lady Satomi’s chambers, but the beautiful noble was nowhere to be seen. Later, she learned through servant gossip that Taiyo Daisuke had left the Palace of the Sun not long after she arrived, heading off on one of his mysterious pilgrimages across the country. Perhaps, Suki thought, she would catch a glimpse of him when he returned. Perhaps she would hear her father’s flute again, and follow it until she found him on the verandas, his long white hair flowing behind him.