"A Thousand Steps into Night" by Traci Chee, Part I: Chapters 8–15

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
Underneath it, however, Miuko heard a low crackling: the sound of flames, of hardening earth, of the ground breaking under the formidable glare of the sun.
It only occurred to her then that, if she did not join him, he might very well kill her; but it was too late to rescind her response.
A smile flitted across the doro’s face, fleeting as smoke.
On the one hand, Geiki had a kind, guileless face. On the other, that seemed precisely the type of a face a trickster would use to disarm her.
By all accounts, the nasu were shrewd dealmakers, and there were countless tales where one nebulous turn of phrase bound unwitting mortals to decades of misfortune or lives of servitude in far-off palaces, where they remained young as their families in Ada aged and died without them.
They wove through shops and market stalls, avoiding farmers' carts and passels of goods displayed upon blankets: porcelain vases, brass urns, sacks of dried beans, oversize calligraphy brushes made from horse hair.
"When I look like a bird, I eat bird food. When I look like a human, I eat human food." He shrugged. "It's not that hard."
Sufficiently chastened, Miuko accepted his next offering, a thick slice of watermelon, without further comment.
He gestured to the entrance of the pagoda, where two guards in ebony and ochre livery stood, stiff as dolls and equally wooden, beside a wide set of double doors.
Her apprehension, as it turned out, was not unwarranted, for he soon stopped, pointing to an open window on the first floor.
Shushing each other, she and Geiki skulked among the shelves, evading the scholars who floated through the library like ghosts, until Miuko discovered that at the end of every row were paper hangings describing the contents of the shelves.
On the first floor, she and Geiki slipped past ASTROLOGY, COSMOGONY, and FLUVIAL GEOMORPHOLOGY before edging up a creaking set of stairs to CRYSTALLOGRAPHY, PHILOSOPHIES OF THE ONE HUNDRED FORTY-FOUR SAGES, and MATHEMATICS, where they were briefly discombobulated somewhere between TESSELLATIONS and TIME TRAVEL, but they finally made it to the third floor, which was entirely dedicated to the study of the spirits.
"Greetings, man!" the atskayakina declared with a jaunty wave.
"Oh, look! A genial colleague and not a stranger I met last night in the woods. Come here, man!"
Briefly, she explained that they were seeking information on the shaoha’s curse—an esoteric affliction, she added, likely not seen in centuries.
For hours, Miuko pored over studies of the spirit world, from the academic to the apocryphal.
In somewhat stilted verse, the poem described how everyday curses, such as those inflicted by fox spirits or petty demons, could be eliminated by common priests, but only the followers of Amyunasa, the December God, could remove a curse as formidable as the kiss of a shaoha.
For the briefest of moments, she thought of her father: the way he chuckled at her impudence, the way he kissed the crown of her head...and then, the way his face had contorted when he banished her from the only place she'd ever called home.
If Miuko hadn't seen him frighten off rapacious brigands and break into libraries without so much as ruffling a feather, she might have thought he looked nervous.
Apparently, she lived here in Udaiwa in the ward of the warrior class, where Miuko and Geiki soon found themselves wandering through quiet neighborhoods inhabited by old retainer families, inactive since the Five Swords Era.
Seeing the manicured gardens and stately manors, Miuko wondered aloud how a demon could live peaceably among the gentry.
I host a card game every month, and someone has been cheating. I need to find out which of my illustrious guests would dare.
Common spirits, like atskayakinasu, were less powerful than longer-lived nasu, whose domains might be a very large boulder or a hoary tree.
Of course, this was to say nothing of demons—who could, oddly enough, be both powerful and abject at the same time.
Thanks to Sidrisine's generosity, she and Geiki had been supplied with baths, fine clothes, and a choice of perfumes ranging from sulfur to sweet cherry, but these accoutrements had only made her feel even more out of place, for they did not suit her.
To add insult to injury, her new hair pin—carved from the carapace of some gigantic green beetle—seemed to hold nothing but contempt for her efforts to blend in, for it kept trying to slip stealthily from the girl's knot at the top of her head.
Once, heisu had had social positions and families like anyone else, but under the rigid cultural strata of the Omaizi, they had been persecuted to the point where they were accepted only in rare corners of Awaran society, such as the priesthood at the House of December.
"I just didn't know a demigod would even deign to be seen with a bird like you!"
In fact, so arresting was she in her robes of black and gold that all she had to do was lift one of her hands, and she commanded the attention of the entire room.
From what she could gather, the rules were fairly straightforward—there was some sort of betting with lacquered tokens, and bluffing seemed particularly important—although she found the nuances of the game difficult to follow.
For his part, Geiki appeared to be a passable player, if somewhat gregarious, which the other players regarded with varying degrees of tolerance, from the hornbeam spirit's creaking chuckle to the frigid glare of the odoshoya.
Although she'd been awed by the Doctor's authority over men and spirits, she realized now that the snake demon wielded her power the same way human men did—as an instrument of fear and subjugation—and though Miuko could admit now that she was not satisfied with her station as a servant girl, neither did she wish to trade carnage for respect.
Miuko had never seen anyone flip so quickly from indignation to absolute astonishment as Geiki did now.
She was so preoccupied, in fact, that she didn't even notice when they sailed into the harbor, gliding smoothly for an empty berth.
A sudden shout jolted her out of her reverie.
The atskayakina gave her a strange look, but before he could say anything, he was accosted by the stevedore, who began scolding him for not watching Miuko better.

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