"A Thousand Steps into Night" by Traci Chee, Part I: Chapters 1–7

October 26, 2022
After receiving a curse that causes her to slowly transform into a demon with a deadly touch, Miuko embarks on a quest to find a cure so that she can return to her normal life.

Here are links to our lists for the novel: Part I: Chapters 1–7, Part I: Chapters 8–15, Part I: Chapters 16–33, Part II: Chapters 1–15, Part II: Chapters 16–31
The son, growing impatient with the length of the journey, kept asking, "Where are we, Father? Where are we?" and the father, growing impatient with the child's incessant inquiries, kept responding, "Nihaoi. Nihaoi."
Once, when she was two years old, her mother was wrestling her into one of the inn’s cedar tubs when Miuko, who had no plans for a bath that day, screamed so violently that the foundations shook, the bells rang in the nearby temple, and a respectable chunk of the dilapidated bridge spanning the river a full quarter-mile away let out a horrified groan and slid, fainting, into the water.
Among other things, girls of the serving class—and indeed, girls of all stations in Awara—were expected to be soft-spoken, well-mannered, comely, charming, obedient, graceful, pliable, modest, helpful, helpless, and in every respect weaker and more feebleminded than men.
There were the ones she'd dropped, the ones she'd cracked as she cleaned them, the ones she'd cantered across the courtyard stones, pretending they were ponies (but that was ten years ago).
In Miuko's opinion, her father's habitual muttering somewhat mitigated the effect of his good looks, for she thought it made him seem older than his forty-three years.
Her father's smile turned languid, the way it always did when he was thinking of his wife (beautiful, by all accounts, but completely unable to be brought to heel).
Inwardly, Miuko cursed her recalcitrant tongue. Sometimes, contrary to the conclusions of the priests, she was certain she was possessed, for no other girls she knew spouted off with every comment that popped into their heads.
She traipsed into the front garden, nearly clipping the camellia bushes with the tip of her umbrella.
Miuko's mother had always been particularly wary of the verge hours, for it was during these times that demons attacked travelers for their unctuous, buttery livers, ghouls appeared in mirrors to steal human faces, and ghosts slipped from doorways to wring the necks of unsuspecting passersby underneath.
In Awara, tachanagrisu are said to be small, green-skinned creatures, rarely glimpsed unless their trees are chopped down and used for lumber, at which point their sharp features become visible, to the discerning eye, among the fine whorls of the timber.
Then again, she'd also stolen a horse and ridden off into the gloaming one evening while she was supposed to be fetching water for the dinner kettle, leaving Miuko, age nine, and her father at the table, watching their rice grow cold.
In ancient times, Nihaoi, only a half-day's journey from the city, had catered to travelers of every stripe: noblemen and their vassals, lecherous monks, beggars, circus troupes that boasted choleric fortune tellers and dancing raccoon spirits, and, on at least four occasions, unmarried women.
In the centuries since, traffic on the Old Road had dwindled, and Nihaoi had entered a sustained period of decline: taverns closed; stables, cobblers, and merchants forced out of business; farmers leaving their fields to fallow and rot; government emissaries, who had once been wealthy and complacent in their fine pavilions, all removed to other, more promising posts.
Since then, nothing in Nihaoi had gone untouched by decay: not the smattering of shops, or the temple, home to four lugubrious priests, not even the spirit gate, which marked the edge of the village.
Generations of insects had left tunnels along the pillars, forming twisting labyrinths beneath the flaking vermillion paint.
Despite herself, then, she could not help but wonder how her mother had looked astride that stolen horse, its mane and tail the same flowing dark as a river at night.
Perhaps the boy broke the occasional vase or ceremonial urn, but on the whole, he remained a chatty, good-natured child, and none of them were prepared to sacrifice their happy family for something as frivolous as safety.
When she was a child, Miuko had longed to dig among the furrows with the boys her age, unearthing rusted arrowpoints and scraps of lamellar armor, but propriety had forbidden it; and, after hearing a number of harrowing tales about warrior ghosts rising from the earth, she'd decided that perhaps it was better if she played inside instead.
Swinging her umbrella, Miuko picked her way across the dilapidated bridge that spanned the Ozotso River, an emerald serpent that hissed and glittered along its steep banks as it meandered toward the capital.
Then, among the weeds in the overgrown ditches, an insect chirped eleven times and stopped. A portent of misfortune, which Miuko did not hear.
Nervously, she wondered if she were still headed toward the village, or if she had been turned around somehow, on some tortuous path spun by trickster spirits.
Through the fog, she could have sworn she saw a shape, both massive and ethereal, fluttering overhead.
Yazai, or so it was said, was the reason Nihaoi was crumbling and returning slowly to the earth—the result of some long-ago transgression by one of the villagers against a powerful spirit.
The doro was supposed to be summering in the southern prefectures with the other young nobles, as he did every year. What was he doing galloping for the abandoned village of Nihaoi with no retinue to speak of?
She had not gone far when she spotted one of the lugubrious priests loping toward her, his robes flapping comically about his slim figure, a string of wooden prayer beads bouncing on his neck.
A willowy man, Laido had terrible halitosis—his breath always stinking of rot and whatever pungent herbs he'd tried to cover it up with—but his breath was not why she disliked him.
His fetid breath billowed over her, and she bowed again to hide the way she wrinkled her nose.
Her mother, who had ridden out of Nihaoi with the same dramatic flourish as she'd once ridden into it, had always been dreaming of far-off places, fantastical stories, and adventures among the nasu.
For a time, it had endeared her to the villagers, who would stop by the inn to listen, rapt, while she regaled them with tales beyond their limited imaginings; but the longer she remained among them, the more the rumors spread—she was too free, she did not act as a woman should, she did not belong with them, she was a tskegaira, poor Rohiro—and soon what had been most engaging about her became the thing for which she was most ridiculed.
"Not very," she admitted truthfully, for the swelling seemed to be abating and the pain was not much.
Perhaps the creature from the road was not a demon at all but an emissary, sent by Amyunasa for some purpose unfathomable to Miuko's feeble human mind.
More than that, she could not deny the malevolence she'd felt emanating from the creature on the Old Road—that ominous chill.
Miuko did not remember closing her eyes, but before she knew it, sleep had overtaken her, swift as the doro on his steed. Her dreams, however, were no respite, for they churned with images of priests, torches, chanting, the oil slick of panic, and something else she could not name but only felt, behind the eyes and under the skin, cold and murderous.
The priests, their incantations, the smoke curling across the sky like the many-fingered hands of some depraved god—it was but a dream.
No longer lugubrious but inflamed with spiritual fervor, the priests chased her to the village border, but she did not stop running there.
It was unconscionable that girls were not encouraged to exercise more.
Like many humans, however, and particularly the unscrupulous kind, these men had no interest in facing the consequences of their wrongdoings, and did not linger to see what penalties were in store for them.
She recoiled, falling to the ground again with an ungainly whump!
A wave of heat struck her, and it was with considerable dread that she redirected her gaze upward to the noble visage of Omaizi Ruhai.

Create a new Word List