Byeong-Woo strides through the door. His face says I’m in trouble. Hopefully, it’s the delicious, sweaty kind.
I step forward and push into him, ready to embrace his flesh, his taste—but he becomes a mountain, still and immutable. I step back.
“We should talk,” he says.
Fine. I’m good at talk. I’ve known for a whole moon what he’s going to say, and I won’t change my mind. I gesture at the low table, the only furnishing besides the thin mattress in the corner. This sparseness is intentional; a reminder that I won’t stay here, that my resources are for other things.
He steps in, his robes flowing around him with the rustle of fine silk. He sweeps them behind like a peacock’s tail.
Silk pleases me, because unlike so many other fabrics, it always knows what it is and what it wants to be. It’s elegant, but stolid and dependable. It would be a good medium for small magics if I had the temperament to work with cloth, but I don’t.
Byeong-Woo crosses his legs and lowers himself to the floor. I sit, but not nearly so elegantly; I am, after all, not made of silk.
His face twists. He’s uncomfortable. I won’t rescue him by making this conversation easier.
“You don’t have to leave,” he finally says.
He’s wrong. I’ve never told him about the coal I swallowed three years ago, the way it has plagued me ever since. Some nights, when I’m trying to sleep, it burns like the feathers of the vermilion firebird, five-colored fury that threatens to turn me to ash. Other times, it is barely the faint warmth of a finger on a wrist, a flutter that could be drowned out by the pulse of a thumb.
But the coal is always lit. I am always hungry.
Byeong-Woo wouldn’t understand this. I picked him because he’s kind and logical. He’s never been filled with a hunger like mine.
I cloak my response in flowery platitude: “We can refuse anything, as long as we’re willing to suffer the consequences, but I’m not.”
As I said, I’m good with words.
“You have a nice life here, Seon-Ah.” He cups my chin and lifts it, as if that will make me change my mind. The pressure stretches the length of my throat, pulling at scars left by the coal’s passage. “You’ve accomplished so much. Keep it up, and you’ll be quite wealthy. Things are stable.” And then, “I love you. Can’t that be enough? Do you always have to capitalize on everything?”
His words are awkward, but his voice is like a teapot’s. A teapot is proud and sure of what it is, could never conceive of being anything else. When they speak, teapots are always refreshingly earnest.
But then comes that word, capitalize, like plunging into cold water on a hot day. I’ve never liked this word, have always felt something greedy and dangerous slinking between its syllables. Capitalize means to make the best of—but so often, to take advantage.
Are his words an accusation? True or not, it hurts that this is the way he sees me.
Perhaps I’m not as resolute as I thought. But this thing between us, it isn’t love. He feels longing and heat, feels confused by the machinations of a person so unlike himself and lulled by the safety of someone who sees him as he is. It’s close to love, close enough that were I a different person, I could take it and be happy for it.
But I’m not that person. I’m not a teapot, or potter’s clay, or the slow fragmentation of an ink stone. I’m a person of decisions, the kind of person that takes a very small magic and builds an empire out of it. It’s for this reason the Maripgan sent for me—and although not answering the summons would bring consequences, my greatest fear is not his wrath.
As soon as the Maripgan’s letter arrived, I was eleven again, bowing before a shaman who warned me a croaking voice that I would die young. Scrawled between the exquisitely refined characters of my address was a similar promise: if I spend ten or twenty or thirty years in this village, withering away, the coal will consume me from the inside.
I saw this before I broke the seal. And when the wax parted under my blade, the coal within me roared into a furious blaze, demanding acquiescence. Demanding change.
Byeong-Woo leaves, face tight, in a silence that mimics mine.
I feel grief, but there’s no other way this could’ve ended. This seed was sown when I swallowed the coal, and there can be no going back.
I have only a little beauty. Not enough to make something of it, which is why I’ve acquired empire through other means.
Here’s the thing about small magics: they depend on understanding the object you’re trying to shape, its true nature and what it wants. The potential of what it could be. Take, for example, a knife. Knives control. They want intention and permanence, and if not that, then sudden change. They dislike the liminal, the uncertain. You could convince a knife, if you were sure enough of yourself, to become a sword—but never a soap bubble, or a filigree chain, or a compass.
Every object is like this, full of secret desires, which is how I came to work with soap.
I’ve always been able to talk to soap, although I once found it distasteful. Soap, at its core, is empire. The fats of its base spring from violence. After harvest, it’s subjected to more violence, to boiling and a caustic lye that washes away all traces of blood and renders it into something homogeneous and translucently beautiful—although the slightest mistake here leaves a permanent scar. To talk to soap is to understand civilizing murder, to give voice to the normally silent cleansing of sin.
Three years ago, I was evicted from a hovel. Left freezing in each blast of wind. Men called at me for favors in the street, but I kept my honor close, as my mother had taught me, hoping it would sustain me.
It wasn’t my first time scraping through that space, but each round of poverty makes one more tired, less likely to claw out. I might be there still if someone hadn’t spat on me for the crime of being poor and hungry and asking to be otherwise.
I stood, the coil of their saliva trailing down my face, and decided this time was the last. I would have an empire. Soap was logical, not likely to be offended by the stolen funds needed to kindle my endeavors.
I asked the soap what it wanted, and it asked me for expansion, for violence that would never end. I asked a coal what it wanted: to consume something forever. I swallowed the coal, two birds with one stone—the violence of my never-ending consumption, now exchanged for empire—and got to work.
I started with two kinds of soap. For the first, I climbed a mountain and convinced the wind to shave off a small part of itself and bleed into my waiting basket. That soap is effervescent and cold. Bathing with it leaves even the tiredest person feeling invigorated.
The second kind was easier to make. I would’ve liked to use silk for the evenness it would’ve lent, but as I mentioned, I’m no good with textiles. In the end, I convinced a nine-tailed gumiho pelt to lend me some of its shine and combined that with the scent from a plum-blossom, and that was good enough. After many washes, the user becomes more beautiful, with skin as clear and ageless as new snow. The effect isn’t permanent.
I’d imagined the first soap, my mountain soap, to be in higher demand. It aligned so much more closely with my heart. With limitless energy, I could conquer the world.
But I’d been naive. Sales of plum-fox soap easily eclipsed mountain soap’s. Before long, there was no point in making it. I saved the last of the batch for my personal use and apologized to the wind.
• • • •
I stole money for the first batch of soap. Starved myself for a week to pay for the supplies for the second. Finally, I had enough coin to make another batch and feed myself. From there, I grew.
I bought properties. I hired employees, paid their slave-prices and set them free, sure of the good work their gratitude would bring. They boiled and refined and strained, so many batches of soap that the air glistened with vaporized fat. At night I let myself in with a key only I had and talked to the soap, weaving tales of violence.
Orders came in from all five directions. Before long, I owned my village.
If I thought of resting, the coal blazed like the roar of Baek-Ho, White Tiger of the West.
Feed me, it said, and if I hesitated, it filled me full of fear.
• • • •
The letter was hand-carried by a messenger clad in scholar’s robes. I broke the seal to find its first half was titles. Celestial Eminence. Fair and Radiant Child of Heaven. Despite the pulse of the coal, beating in synchronicity with my heart—doogoon, doogoon—my mind drifted when I first read the summons, too captivated by the paper it had been written on.
Made from the inner bark of the dak mulberry tree, hanji lasts a thousand years. It can be formed into a light, durable armor that repels arrows, or a window with wide fibers that allows the passage of light and air, or into wall-coverings that keep rooms comfortable in any season. It can survive underwater, undamaged, for a year.
This hanji was adorned with drawings of the four gracious plants—the plum, the orchid, the bamboo, and the chrysanthemum—elevating it to be worthy of the Maripgan’s summons. Long after I and the white funeral shroud that will one day cloak my body turn to dirt, this paper and its plants will remain.
Hanji paper is like a textile. I couldn’t hear its voice. But I could feel it, something golden and refined, and how desperately I wanted to know what it wanted, what it would like to become.
Perhaps this particular hanji wanted nothing. As a Maripgan’s summons, it might’ve been everything it could ever hope to be.
It took me many tries before I could stop thinking about the feeling of the paper under my fingers. The fine, dancing arc of the calligrapher’s brush. Only then did I come to understand its cryptic message: that news of my soap had reached the throne. My presence was required in the capitol.
It was not written that failing to appear would result in the separation of my head and neck, but I understood. Perhaps that was the small magic of this hanji.
There were three moons before the summons expired. At the end of the first, I had no choice to tell Byeong-Woo, who waited another before appearing in my door and asking me to talk.
A week later, the coal burns in my gut, anticipating our journey.
I long to travel fast and light, but the entourage is necessary. The mountain passes to Seoraebeol, the capitol, are haunted by peril. An entourage also honors the Maripgan and lowers the chances that his royal advisors will deem me feckless or my response to his summons lacking.
The number eight is lucky, so I bring my eight best assistant soap-makers and eight guards. Eight shamans to ward us from spirits; eight more to ward us from demons. We travel with eight stallions that carry supplies and eight mares laden with chests of plum-flower soap, the gumiho pelt buried under a secret panel in the bottom of one of the chests.
Already, the fox-fur has lost half its shine. I’ll have to find another, but it shouldn’t prove hard, as I’ve figured out the reason for my summons. The Maripgan sometimes orders those he wants close at hand to Seoraebeol and gives them posts inside the capitol.
I imagine legions of new customers, the power of my forthcoming post, and my mouth waters.
The soap reads my mind, chanting as we progress: empire, empire, empire.
On our trip, the shamans prove useful. We see the blue lights of dokkaebi fire, but the goblins do not approach, one-legged or otherwise, and although we often hear the keens of hungry ghosts, none cross the paths of our fires.
• • • •
Seoraebeol comes into sight at noon on the seventh day, but we hang back and camp in a valley outside the capitol’s confines, the birdcage-like frame that encloses the city gleaming under the light of the moon. None complain. We can sense how great our need for an auspicious arrival is.
I try to sleep, but the coal knows we are close, and it burns like liquor with each breath. I give up and pace the camp, weaving behind tents, listening to snores amidst the crackle of a fire that so closely mirrors the one in my stomach.
Something moves—gleams?—outside the camp’s periphery, but the fire has destroyed my eyes for the dark. I creep forward to the edge of the tents and sit until the pine forest climbs the mountains jutting up around us.
The gleam comes again. A pair of eyes, alight like the coal, embedded in a shadow that slinks through the trees. The pupils are vertical slits: a cat, maybe.
I clear my throat. My mouth is dry. “Here, kitty.”
A lightning-like flash of russet fox-tails, too numerous to count, and then the creature disappears, swallowed by the dark.
I do not sleep that night, and in the morning, I don’t tell anyone what I saw.
I brandish my summons as the guards search us. They take our identification tags as collateral, assurance that we intend no wrong. The absence of my tag’s weight around my waist makes me entirely too cognizant of the cage around us and the way it blocks the sky.
Without our tags, we cannot exit Seoraebeol, much less cross through any of the checkpoints that dot the Maripgan’s domain. There are those that will brave a death sentence to fabricate a false tag, but I don’t have connections here.
The guards take the hanji summons from my hand—and here, I cry inside. I don’t want to give it up, this thousand-year paper, this mystery that a life’s study might one day allow me to solve—but they won’t run the risk of me giving it to someone else.
When we’ve been stripped of anything threatening, the guards blindfold us and march us across the city. I don’t understand the need, but the sudden crush of noise that engulfs us is a wild thing without beginning or end. I stumble forward, focusing on a single sound at a time, marking my progress with the cries of a baby, with the dagal-dak of a trotting horse.
Eventually, our blindfolds are removed.
I cannot stop glancing around the throne room. It’s full of objects unlike any I’ve ever seen: silk folding screens made of gold and fine wood, a throne with abalone inlay, walls covered with sheet after sheet of fine hanji. I am rendered deaf and mute; I’ve never spoken with an object of this quality, which means I don’t know how.
Still, I close my eyes and listen, glad it is no longer dangerous to practice small magic in public view—too few left that can recognize its practice.
I expect silence, but the second I shut my eyes, my head is full of a roaring thrum: hungry, hungry, hungry.
I inhale sharply. The voices of objects are normally small, quiet things—and while this voice sounds like my coal, it isn’t. My coal answers, as if afraid: not here, not here, not here.
I don’t have time to figure out what this means before the Maripgan is announced and brought in on a screened palanquin. The hairs on the back of my neck all stand on end. It’s as if the air is full of a scent—and it is, perfumed by the boughs of maesil plum blossoms that a train of young men and women wave around me like fans, but this isn’t the scent that I speak of, the one that makes me feel like a deer in a tiger’s den.
Two attendants walk forward and pull lengths of curtain to the side, unveiling the palanquin’s contents. I take in the outfit—jade belt, flowing robes of floral embroidered silk. Long black hair, through which protrude two antlers of solid gold. My breath catches.
The Maripgan is a woman, and she is uncommonly beautiful.
She gives me a disdainful look; I’m staring. I collapse my body—legs, chest, gaze—down toward the floor, hoping my stunned impertinence hasn’t already signed my death warrant. I can hear my coal laugh, the whispers of the soap in the chests to either side of the room as they gossip about whether or not I’ve just brought violence down on myself.
And still, in the back of my mind: hungry, hungry, hungry.
“I assume you know why you’re here.” The Maripgan’s voice is unlike any I’ve ever heard, too smooth to be human.
I don’t answer, not until one of the attendants clears his throat and compels me to speak. “I am sorry, dear Lady—”
A hush echoes around the room, followed the angry clearing of throats. A man calls out, “Honorable Maripgan, I shall have her jailed immediately!”
I am afraid to lift my head, but then the room rings with the Maripgan’s laughter. It’s high and brassy, like the coal’s. “Oh, it’s not her fault, is it? A poor country bumpkin. Of course you don’t know the rules. You may gaze upon me.”
Another series of gasps. I grit my teeth and look up.
My insides turn cold. I cannot make out her pupils, but I know, suddenly, that they have turned to slits.
Sweat breaks out along my back.
“You see,” says the Maripgan, and she smiles, a mouthful of small, predatory teeth, “The Maripgan has no gender. I’m not male or female.” They lift their head to one side, preening like a fox. “I am only the Maripgan. I give you permission to use they, if you must, but you may also call me honorable Maripgan when addressing me directly.”
“Yes, honorable Maripgan,” I feel like I’m stuck on a rope bridge over a mountain pass full of screaming wind, each step both relief and portent.
“You’ve been brought here because you’re to be honored with a post.”
Despite my fear, my heart swells. With a post in Seoraebeol, I can grow my business to a size that will decimate all others. I’ll never be hungry or powerless again. “Thank you, honorable Maripgan.”
They nod, ever so slightly, and then they smile again, that chilling, perfect smile. “Yes. You’ll be my personal soap-maker. From this moment on, your residence is here, and all your soap mine. So, as you can see, it is you who will be a dear Lady.”
As the Maripgan’s laugh and the coal’s laugh mingle in my ears, I picture the cage around the city, the snap of the bridge under my feet. My heart breaks as I plunge into the abyss.
The Maripgan signals at an attendant. In the last flash I catch of them before the curtains close, I am sure their black hair shines orange-red.
My soap-makers and I are moved into a wing of the palace. We are given separate rooms for personal use, as well as a large shared workroom. We labor from twilight to twilight. Once each day, we comb through our stock for the most flawless bar, which we present to one of the Maripgan’s attendants; anything less than the pristine would sully their body.
I no longer pour the shine of gumiho fur into the soap, no longer sit with it and speak words of violence. I have no expansion to offer. The coal inside exacts its vengeance on me solely, a consumption that I most notice when I wake each morning.
After three days, I start to feel faint when I stand. After five, I need naps, stolen between batches.
It is on the eighth day that the coal in my chest speaks the truth, dispensing a realization I was too slow to come by: I am dying.
• • • •
The Maripgan sends for me shortly after sundown. The attendants that come give me a round, brown disk that I recognize—a wooden mask, the kind used in the dances that mark the weeks in villages all over the Maripgan’s dominion.
But which role have I received?
I flip it over and run my finger along the long, beaky nose and the drooping facial hair. It is the mask of a yangban: an aristocratic nobleman, portrayed as an ignorant buffoon.
One of the attendants brings her palms to her face. I put the mask on. She bows and leads me out of my room.
After a wordless gesture from the attendants, the guards outside the Maripgan’s chambers step aside, letting me in.
The fashion among some nobles is an elevated bed, but the Maripgan lies on a traditional quilted mattress on the floor. Yellow lantern-light shines off silk of many different colors, stacks of blankets and pillows limned in gold thread, but my eyes aren’t drawn to them or the Maripgan’s beauty.
Instead, my gaze trails to their legs. A copper-furred, white-tipped tail climbs from behind the curve of their knee, a snow-covered mountain in miniature.
My heart hammers. I collapse to the ground, crouching and frog-like, my voice muffled by the wooden mask. “Forgive, honorable Maripgan, I—”
“Do you like the mask?”
I don’t know what to say. “It is a very gracious gift.”
The Maripgan rolls forward onto their belly, their long night-robes obscuring their tails—but I can see them flicking sinuously under the blanket. “Do you know why I picked the yangban?”
“I confess I don’t, honorable Maripgan.”
“The yangban assumes himself smart but is foolish all along. One marvels at the spectacle of an unknowing fool.” The tails slither under the silk. “Like a bold soap-maker that steals from a gumiho.”
My arms shake as I curl into myself. “I didn’t know, I—”
The silk rustles. When I look up again, the Maripgan has been replaced by a red fox, nine-tailed and massive, eyes glowing gold in the lantern light.
Despite knowing all along what the Maripgan is, their true form is a shock—the flicking of their ears; the long, pink tongue that creeps between their bared fangs like a prisoner. Their body coils as they get ready to pounce.
I blurt out a truth I’ve never revealed. “I have a coal in my chest, and it makes me hungry for an empire.”
The Maripgan stills. “What kind of coal?”
I look back at the ground. “One that will never go out.”
A long pause. “I see. Then, you’re like me.”
“How so, honorable Maripgan?”
Something signals to me, some whisper of the coal. I look up to see the Maripgan again coiling, like a snake about to strike.
“Hungry.” They lunge, red body streaking through the air like a comet.
They pin me to the ground. Their lips part, and the room fills with a soft, white glow. A shining orb floats out over their tongue—a fox bead, to drink away my spirit.
I close my eyes and ready myself for death. In that moment, I hear it again: hungry, hungry, hungry. “Wait—”
The orb slips between my lips, cool in all the ways the coal is hot. It burns the same.
The Maripgan drinks. My vitality tears away, muscles twitching and my heart racing as my body clings to my soul.
I flail inside of myself, listening, reaching for the touch of small magic, but there is nothing. Darkness spreads in front of me, rolling forward like a fog. Pinpricks of light sparkle, stars—
(You are dying, I am hungry, hungry, hungry)
—that rush together to form images. The splendor of a nine-tailed gumiho, creeping through a window. She drinks the soul of a man with two golden antlers—
(hungry, hungry, hungry)
Before she finishes, she is attacked by something riding on the back of the man’s spirit. It filters into her body like a disease.
Two flares of pain, bright as stars, as antlers erupt from her temples. A sudden appetite roars through her, the man’s burden becoming her own, she becoming they.
I am them, filled with want, with need. The need to consume, to capitalize—
(As if from deep underwater, inspiration flashes, as lazy and unpredictable as the wink of a firefly.)
I can help you, I think, and then the last of my life-blood ebbs, and everything goes dark.
• • • •
I don’t die.
I wake to the Maripgan, human-formed. I struggle to hold my eyes open. My head spins, bing-bing.
“I heard you,” they say. “How?”
Their brow lifts. Their lip curls up like an animal’s.
It’s hard to breathe, hard to make sounds. “Small magic,” I gasp.
They smile, their teeth shining like pearls. “I see. Like the soap.”
“Yes.” My face heats, and I feel faint. There isn’t enough life in my blood to sustain this sign of embarrassment.
“I’m getting bored. And I’m still hungry.” The Maripgan licks their lips.
“Right.” I close my eyes and hold my breath, and I can hear it again, the call of the antlers, broadcasting hunger like cymbals. Deprived of air, the coal flares angrily in my chest. It would be better, perhaps, to let the Maripgan drink my soul—better than a life driven mad by the coal’s whims.
But then I picture Byeong-Woo, his sad face, his rustling robes. The cold fingers of the wind prying back the collar of my hanbok, the way my belly stuck to my ribs those first months in the street.
There is a wetness on my face. Real? Or a memory?
I made my choice, then. I make it now—a gamble based on a vision. “Would you trade away being the Maripgan?”
They narrow their eyes. “In exchange for what?”
“For your freedom.”
For the first time, the Maripgan looks uncertain, but I hold fast. I’m good with words, and good with small magics, and even if that isn’t true, I won’t go back.
Finally, the Maripgan nods. “I would.”
I shift onto my side. My body aches in a thousand places. Whatever the gumiho did to me, it aged me, the wick of my life somehow shortened.
May it burn bright. I crawl to my hands and knees. “Come on.”
The Maripgan stands and puts on a robe without offering to help me. “Where are we going?”
“To make soap.”
The knowledge given to me in the midst of the vision fades away as quickly as it came. It seems my small magic isn’t enough; I still need that connection.
I boil water. I vaporize, I strain, I combine fat and lye—and in between each step, when I lose sense of the magic, the Maripgan steps forward and sips from me, re-establishing the connection.
I was already weak. I grow weaker, until I can barely lift my head. In the end, the Maripgan has to take over, preparing things according to my whispered directions.
Soap is empire, but I felt the Maripgan’s hunger. Can hear it, still, as the Maripgan shaves away a sliver of antler. Their tails lash and their shoulders stiffen—this pain must be even worse than swallowing a live coal—but they don’t stop or cry out. They want this as much as I do.
I speak to the piece of antler. As a fragment, its voice is different, thin and reedy—but still, it chants of its hunger.
“Be mine,” I tell it, “and I will feed you. We will rule—for I’m already hungry.”
I feel it reach inside me, probing like the fox bead’s pull—and then a release as it finds what it seeks. “It’s ready,” I say.
The Maripgan sniffs at the soap suspiciously. It smells a bit like frost, unless brought up to the nose—and then, even the perfume cannot mask the blood’s metallic scent. “Now what?”
I’m too weak to bow more than my head. “Now, we bathe.”
• • • •
Two attendants draw the bath, boiling water above giant braziers. They fan the smoke out the hanji windows, but still, I can smell burning. Perhaps it comes from inside me.
They leave when the bath is ready. We climb into the water. The Maripgan uses the soap first, as befits their station.
When it’s my turn, they watch me, eyes hungry, as I lather the soap across my skin. I can hear its whisper, empire, empire, empire. There’s a new note behind it, one that sends a shiver down my back.
The Maripgan closes their eyes. They reach up, grab the antlers, and pull—and they fall away, as easy as doffing a horsehair hat.
The Maripgan hands them to me. I bring them to my temples.
They tingle as they embed themselves into my skull. The coal in my chest roars to life, its voice competing with the antlers—hungry, hungry, hungry—but I’m not concerned.
I am the Maripgan. I’m empire. All the land I could ever hope to travel in my life is mine.
I hope I will not be a cruel ruler, but I don’t hope too hard.
I lean back and watch as a nine-tailed fox slips out the window, leaving me alone in the soapy bath.