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Look After Your Brother
    by Holliann R. Kim

Look After Your Brother
Artwork by Dean Spencer

At the base of jagged blue mountains rising out of the morning mist, Three inspected the new prisoners, who were learning to work in the fields.

Four patrolled the main prison gate, her paws making prints in the dust.

Five sat near the gingko trees on the eastern border, eyes half-lidded, nostrils flaring at the scent of pine blowing down from the mountaintops.

Watching through their eyes, I leaned back in my rickety wooden chair and took a sip of tea.

One of the newcomers in the fields, a woman just out of girlhood, turned in the corner of Three's vision. Something about her chin, the flash of her eyes . . .

My hand jerked violently. Tea splashed across my lap. I set the sloshing teacup on the table and wiped my palms against the rough cloth of my shirt before instructing Three to move closer.

When I was first imprisoned here in the camp, I mistook strangers for relatives or friends nearly every week, but that yearning for the past had faded long ago. This too was probably nothing, just another memory surfacing like a bubble from the bottom of a lake, but I had to make sure.

Three stalked closer until he was only a few feet away. The girl pretended not to notice the wolf, but the muscles on her back tightened as she pulled a bunch of carrots from the ground and shook the dirt loose.

I concentrated on her face until the teacup in front of me faded away, replaced entirely by Three's vision.

The resemblance to my younger brother's wife was unmistakable.

My chest tightened, suddenly finding it hard to inhale. Could this girl be Ah-ni's younger sister? No, she would be too old by now. Maybe a niece, or a cousin?

I instructed Three to keep watch on the girl, and Four and Five to continue their own surveillance. Then I concentrated on the teacup again until my wolves were only dim nudges in my mind and I was back in my tiny, windowless room in the guardhouse, with its single flickering supai stone lamp.

To still my shaking hands, I tried smoothing back my hair and realized it had become matted. My chin was scratchy and unshaven, and my skin had grown furrowed with wrinkles and scars like the hills near the capital where I had once lived. If the girl was anything like Ah-ni, she could forgive my rough appearance. But would she forgive me for becoming a Sneak Lord?

The door creaked open. "Cha-be, check."

"Check," I replied automatically, and the door clicked shut. The guards didn't even bother coming inside my room anymore. I never gave them trouble in all these years.

I let my mind drift back into Three, watching the girl. So strong was my desire to contact her that it bled over into Four and Five, and soon she was encircled by all three wolves. Other prisoners pointed and whispered, but she didn't seem to notice until Five tentatively licked the back of her arm. She sprang back, yelling, and I pulled my wolves away, still keeping her within eyesight.

I needed to talk with her. The yearning was so strong, it felt as if my ribcage would pull me toward her by itself. It had been so long since I'd seen a friendly face.

But what if instead of a smile, I got a sneer? My hopes had been dashed against the rocks so many times, I didn't know if I could take it again.

I inhaled deeply to draw in strength, then coughed, choking on the spicy tang of supai stone dust from the nearby mines. I needed to face this like a man. Or at least the man I had once been, rather than what I had become.

Knocking twice to let the guards know I was coming out, I opened the door, planning on giving a line about needing to use the toilets.

As I stepped into the hallway, the words died on my lips.

I blinked, and all three wolves blinked with me. First the girl outside had looked like Ah-ni, and now the man talking with the guards strongly resembled my younger brother, Giup-yo.

Often Sneak Lords couldn't take the fracturing of their minds; I had seen it happen before. One day they appeared fine, and the next they howled with their wolves.

This man had Giup-yo's eyes and melodious voice. He stood tall like our father, not hunched over as I did. And his face wasn't angry or fearful, but polite and respectful. Could it be Giup-yo?

No. My younger brother couldn't be here.

Because my father had defected to fight for the Empire during the war, the new government considered my brother and me tainted. I made a deal with the Doyen -- he had gotten rid of most of his rivals for power by that point -- so Giup-yo could remain free. All these years in prison were for him, to pay for our father's crimes. The Doyen wouldn't have broken his promise, would he?

My ears finally registered what they were talking about: finding a prisoner. A girl.

"I can help." My scratchy voice surprised me just as much as the guards, but I had to determine if this man really was my brother. "My wolves know all the prisoners."

The master guard cocked his head. "Hero Roo Giup-yo, may I introduce our eldest Sneak Lord, Prisoner C.B."

My little brother, in front of me after all these years. And they hadn't taken away his hero status, so he must not be here as a prisoner. I thanked all of the fates in the heavens.

The master guard continued, "Prisoner C.B. has helped us catch hundreds of misdeeds around the country, and the Kuo Peninsula is safer for his efforts."

I kept my face impassive as my happiness turned into shame. Hundreds of men, women, and children that I had turned in to keep myself -- and Giup-yo -- alive. Old women caught stealing food; children swimming across the Songim Strait to the Empire; prisoners just trying to survive in the mines any way they could. So many sins I had committed by watching through the wolves' eyes and whispering to the guards. I would pay for each one in the afterlife.

"I hope I can be of service." I inclined my head in deference.

"If he'll help me find the prisoner quicker, I'll use all means necessary," Giup-yo said, but no spark of recognition showed on his face. As much as I yearned to embrace him -- my brother -- a small part of me was relieved that he didn't know yet what I had become.

The guards shifted their feet. They had too much work to babysit a Hero of the Revolution, but they couldn't have the Doyen hear that they were shirking their duties. "There's no need to involve you, Prisoner C.B."

"It would be my pleasure," I said, giving them my widest smile. I hadn't made a peep of trouble for them in so many years. Please let it pay off now.

Eyeing the door to the prison yard, the head guard said, "Well, if you insist. We have a group of new prisoners to settle into camp, and as you can imagine, we're needed outside. Please shout if you need anything, Hero Roo Giup-yo. There'll be a guard within earshot at all times."

I led Giup-yo back to my tiny room, my mouth dry. Now that I had him here with me, the words flew away faster than a deer spotting one of my wolves. I'd never imagined I'd see him again.

As soon as the door closed, my brother began pacing around the tiny space, barely looking at me. "I need you to find a girl . . . I mean woman . . . who arrived in the past few days. Delicate face, small stature . . ."

I swallowed, thinking of the girl pulling up carrots outside. "Does she look like Ah-ni?"

Giup-yo froze in place. "How do you know my wife's name?"

I held my hands towards him, palms up. "Do you not recognize me? Brother?"

He cocked an eyebrow. "The only brother I have is Roo Cha-be, and he hasn't written in many years."

When I was younger and my mother was feeling well in the evenings, she would pull me aside and say, "Look after your brother, Cha-be. That's the duty of an older brother, to look after the family. Always do what's best." Revealing my identity would surely cause him pain, but it would be "what's best."

Whispering so the guards outside couldn't hear, I said, "Our mother fell sick when we were very little, but didn't die until the year we left to fight in the war. In the fall, we gathered wild ginseng in the mountains behind our home. The trader in the market never gave us a fair price for it, but we thought we were rich. We grew up in the same village as the Doyen, and you used to call him 'Beaky' because his nose . . ."

The purple flame of the supai stone lamp danced in the whites of Giup-yo's eyes. "How do you know all of this? Did the Doyen tell you?"

Part of me wanted to confirm the lie; it would be easier. But he deserved the truth. "I'm your brother. Cha-be. Although I've been called 'Prisoner C.B.' for most of my life."

He clutched my wrist, his fingers hard as iron. "How did you get here, in prison? Why didn't you tell me?"

The words tasted like rotted fish in my mouth. "Father fled to the Empire. He fought against us in the war. The Doyen needed someone to punish."

Releasing my arm, Giup-yo rocked back on his heels, eyes searching somewhere far away. I poured more lukewarm tea from the kettle, then offered my teacup to him. He took it and drained the cup instantly.

Five's vision suddenly overlaid my own: she had caught a woman stealing from the prison kitchen. The woman clutched a tiny bag of rice to her thin chest, tears running down her cheeks as she faced the snarling wolf. Her lips moved in a prayer, too fast for me to catch the words.

For the first time in many years, I had something more important to do. I commanded Five to walk away, letting the woman go free. Once she realized what the wolf was doing, the woman stumbled past, bowing and thanking me for my kindness. If the guards found out what had happened, I would be whipped, but today I didn't care.

"What was that?" asked Giup-yo. He stared at me. "Your eyes, they glinted silver for a moment."

I gazed down at the bare wooden boards of the floor. "I was tending to my wolves. I've disgraced our family by becoming a Sneak Lord." Father would surely have preferred death in the mines to spying for the prison guards.

"Oh, Cha-be." Giup-yo squeezed my shoulder until I looked up. His expression was kinder than I had expected. "I had no idea the Doyen would use my research like this."

"What do you mean?"

He poured himself another cup of tea. "Ah, you've missed so much. After the war, the Doyen asked us to concentrate our supai stone research on defense rather than weaponry. Replacing the wolves' eyes with the supai stones and linking them to human minds, that was only supposed to be a temporary measure. To watch for an invasion from the Empire. It was never supposed to be used here in the prison camps, against our own people. I can't tell you how sorry I am, Cha-be."

After a minute, understanding dawned on me. My little brother's research had created the Sneak Lords, and I had become one to save him. Sometimes the fates have a sense of humor.

He misinterpreted my expression. "Please don't be angry with me. I couldn't have imagined this would happen."

There were no words to tell him of my past few decades as a Sneak Lord: the searing pain after the procedure, when no amount of screaming or vomiting could bring release; the extra minds overlaid on mine, thoughts and sights and sounds swirling so fast I felt like I was spinning; and the exhilaration when the wolves ran through the dark mountain forests, swift and tireless as the falling snowflakes that collected on their fur. I closed my eyes briefly, remembering the calmness of having just one mind, before changing the subject. "How is Ah-ni?"

Giup-yo's face darkened. "She has grown close to the Doyen. Too close." He didn't have to say more: the Doyen had always been a handsome man.

He continued. "Our daughter, Henge-sa, has disappeared, along with her husband. I found him in another prison camp, his mind taken away by the supai stones, just like your wolves." His fists clenched and unclenched. "So many ways the Doyen has twisted my research."

"And you think Henge-sa is here?" Three continued to watch the girl who looked like Ah-ni, keeping just out of eyesight.

"I hope so. I need to find her before the Doyen decides I'm also a threat. It seems anyone can disappear these days."

I sucked in a breath. "But the Doyen promised me you'd be safe."

"He also promised that my family would be safe."

Hatred hot and feral burned through me. Four howled into the blue sky outside.

Giup-yo clutched my hand, eyes wide as the howl dissipated. "Please, Cha-be. Do you know where she is?"

I fell into Three's vision and nudged the girl with my nose. She scrabbled away across the dirt of the field -- Three padding after her -- until one of the nearby women said, "The Sneak Lord wants you to come. I'd follow his orders if I were you."

The girl nodded, and soon I heard footsteps in the hallway. Three stopped in front of the door and motioned for her to open it before I sent him back to his rounds. Seeing myself through his eyes was always disconcerting.

When the girl opened the door and spotted Giup-yo, tears formed in her eyes, but she held herself back, glaring at me.

"Is everything all right here?" One of the guards appeared behind the girl.

"Yes, this is the prisoner I need to question." Giup-yo's voice quivered; but after a nod from me, the guard left the room. I closed the door behind him.

Giup-yo swooped Henge-sa into his arms and rocked her back and forth, whispering into her hair. What had once been a tight married woman's braid had come loose, and sections of it stuck out in all directions. My niece had been born, grown up, and married while I remained imprisoned. If I had been free, I could've had a daughter by now, maybe grandchildren. My chest ached with what might've been.

"Do you have a plan?" I asked as soon as it felt appropriate. "The guards won't leave us alone much longer."

"Why would you care, Wolf Man?" asked Henge-sa. Though my ears had long grown used to the insult, they burned at hearing it from my niece's lips.

"He's your uncle, don't talk to him that way," said Giup-yo. "Brother, can you help us escape?"

The answer to his question should be "of course." But I hesitated.

Prisoner U.J. hadn't been particularly beautiful or charming. Her crime had been the same as mine: her father had fought for the wrong side during the war. But there was a fire in her eyes, an overwhelming desire to live that held me captivated. After I became a Sneak Lord, she begged for my help. A small section of the enclosure fence could be bent back, creating a tiny hole just large enough for a slim woman to slip through. If my wolf could distract the guards, she could escape.

"My name is Uihee-jo," she whispered as One gave an ear-splitting howl near the guard post. "I'll be forever in your debt." Her lips grazed mine just before she curled her body under the fence.

The next day as the sun burned the morning mist from the valley, a guard dropped Uihee-jo's severed head in front of me. Then, as my mind whirled with the horror on the ground, he thrust his sword through One by my side. First the sharp piercing, cold metal sliding against bone, and then the agonizing separation of mind from muscle. She was my first wolf, and my first death. I held her in my arms until she grew cold and stiff, wondering what she had been like before they replaced her eyes with supai stones: if she had left a love behind, or pups who never knew what happened to their mother.

Two's sickness many years later hadn't been any easier.

Now I had three wolves attached to me. I shuddered to think of three more deaths. Most Sneak Lords couldn't take more than two or three in their lifetimes.

The lines in Giup-yo's forehead knit together. "You will help us, won't you, elder brother?"

Look after your brother, my mother had said. There shouldn't be questions in Giup-yo's eyes; I should help him instinctively. But how much pain could I carry?

Henge-sa spoke up. "Could you find my husband too, Uncle?" The word "uncle" left her mouth twisted as if she had eaten a sour grape.

Giup-yo's face fell. "My daughter, I'm so sorry."

She turned towards him, hands covering her mouth. "Is he dead?"

"Not dead . . ." Giup-yo's sentence trailed off.

She leaned closer, as if trying to reel in the words from his lips.

I took pity on my brother and spoke. "He has become like one of my wolves, only without a master. You have my sympathies." I had heard of the Human Sneaks before, blindly following orders until their bodies could no longer move. They were the perfect mine workers, never complaining about the enormous loads of supai stones crushing their backs.

She blinked at me, hands not moving from her mouth. One tear trickled from the inside of her left eye.

"No!" She turned and pounded on the wooden wall before either of us could stop her. "Not my Sen-ha! Not my husband!"

I waited for the guards to come and drag her and my brother away. But nothing happened.

Crossing the distance between us, I slapped her hard across the face. She fell silent, lifting one hand to her reddening cheek. Tears dripped from her chin.

"Silence," I hissed. "Unless you want to follow his soul into the afterlife tonight." I paused a moment before adding, "I'll check on the guards."

I crept along the passageway, but none of the guards were at their posts. I wished I had kept Three nearby -- the wolf was swift and nimble while I was slow and clumsy -- but all my wolves were at least five minutes' run from the guardhouse. As a precaution, I directed them nearer.

I stepped into the sunlight and breathed in the air tinged with the spicy smell of the supai stone mines, but still there were no guards in sight.

Four caught the scent of horses and sweaty men before I saw them around the trees. Ten guards led a large group of men on foot from the main gate towards the guardhouse.

In the center was the Doyen.

Four shook until her teeth clattered together. Five made a yip-yip and raced towards me, paws clawing the dusty path. Three flew into a frenzy, leaping and foaming at the mouth.

I stood still, watching the man who had put me into this hell.

The Doyen hadn't aged a year since I last saw him. His eyes were narrowed, searching and seeing all, without any hints of lines crinkling his smooth skin. His mouth was soft, his hair cut perfectly under his military cap. His steps were brisk and fluid as he strode toward me in his impeccable dress uniform.

I had never wanted to kill someone so badly.

A guard shoved me from behind with his pistol. I bowed low, as much following orders as to hide my face. The Doyen strolled past without pausing.

". . . eager to see what you've done since my last inspection."

"We're honored by your visit. Oh, and we'll tell Hero Roo Giup-yo that you're here."

The Doyen paused a few feet away. "Roo Giup-yo?"

I stared down at the dust, wondering if I could set it aflame with my eyes.

"Yes, he came to question a prisoner. He's with her now."

"Ah, I see. I think it's time I had a chat with Hero Roo Giup-yo."

Look after your brother. "Wait," I said. Shoes scuffed as the men turned. I raised my eyes to the Doyen, but his expression was expectant, confused. Like Giup-yo, he didn't recognize me at all. "I'll fetch him for you."

The head guard gave me a warning look. "Sneak Lord, you were supposed to be watching them now."

I swallowed. "The questioning is complete, sir."

The guard narrowed his eyes at me. I'd be paying for this small indiscretion later, one way or another. "Go then and bring us Hero Roo Giup-yo."

The Doyen nodded. "Thank you, Sneak Lord."

I bowed and led them into the guardhouse, trying to keep my steps steady even though my whole body wanted to break into a run.

While the guards and the Doyen's men collected in the main room, I slipped down the hallway and into my tiny room.

"What is it?" asked Giup-yo.

"The Doyen," I breathed. "You have to leave, quickly. Run down the hallway and out the front gate, before anyone realizes. The guards are all here, not at their stations. I'll tell them you hit me, I'll . . ."

The sound of the door opening swallowed the rest of my words.

The Doyen himself walked in, tall and confident. I blinked, trying to make sense of the scene in front of me. My brother, niece, and the Doyen were all crowded into the tiny room where I had spent years alone. The fates must be enjoying toying with me today.

The Doyen's eyes flicked to Henge-sa. "You must be Ah-ni's daughter. I warned your husband twice, in deference to your mother, but he didn't listen. Pity."

"He only told the truth," Henge-sa spat. "Our navy can't defend our shores if they're not given proper boats or cannons or . . ."

The Doyen's voice cut sharp like his sword. "I warned him, and my warning was ignored. That cannot be tolerated." He turned to Giup-yo. "And you shouldn't have come here. I was willing to look past your family's transgressions because of our history together, but now you're forcing me to take action."

He pointed to me, his finger accusing me of all the wrongs ever committed in the Kuo Peninsula. "I can command the guards to make you a Sneak Lord like this man. In exchange for your service, you'll be well treated. Otherwise, you and your daughter will work in the mines, or meet the fate of her husband. It's your choice."

Giup-yo looked from me to Henge-sa. "Doesn't she get a choice?"

"No, she'll be used as the guards see fit."

I suppressed a groan. I had seen all the ways the guards could use a pretty young woman, and I wouldn't wish those on anyone, much less my niece.

"My old friend," Giup-yo said, "will you allow us a few moments alone? I want to say goodbye to my daughter in private."

"I've been more than generous . . ."

"Please, Beaky."

Surprise and anger crossed the Doyen's face before he nodded. "You can say goodbye, but the Sneak Lord stays in the room with you. Guards will be stationed outside, don't think about running. And this is the end of our friendship. Don't let me ever hear the name 'Beaky' again."

Without a backward glance, the Doyen left and shut the door behind him.

"How will we escape?" asked Giup-yo immediately.

I stared at the wood grain of the door, pockmarked by age and claws, and felt it closing in on me like a coffin.

"Please, Uncle." Henge-sa's voice rippled with tears. "You've been here a long time, you must know a way out."

Look after your brother. I held up my hands, helpless. "I've never known anyone to escape." A vision of Uihee-jo's bloodied head swam before me. "There's no way out."

But that wasn't true. There was a way: through claw and tooth. My wolves still circled the camp, just out of sight of the guards. They could be at the room within a minute. If I took the guards by surprise, attacked before they had time to draw their pistols, there might be enough time for Giup-yo and Henge-sa to make a run for it.

"Promise me . . ." My voice cracked. I licked my lips and started again. "Promise me you'll go to the Empire. Father might still be alive. Tell them about the Doyen. Tell them about the prison camps and the supai stones and the hunger. Ask for their help. The Doyen's regime must be stopped."

"You can tell them yourself," Giup-yo said. "You're coming with us."

"I can't. I have to concentrate to give you time to escape." I drew my wolves in closer and touched each of them in turn, feeling the ripple of their powerful muscles and the pad of their feet against the earth.

"No, Cha-be." Giup-yo's voice was insistent. "I've lived too many years without you."

I rubbed the top of his balding head, remembering how I used to ruffle his hair when we were kids. "I'm glad we got to see each other once more in this life." I reached over to touch Henge-sa's cheek. "And that I met my niece. I wish I could've watched you grow up."

Four crouched down to watch the master guard just outside the door to the guardhouse. If I carried through with this plan . . .

I swallowed against a fear I hadn't felt for many years. My chest felt breathless and airy with yearning. I wanted to go back to the mountains of my childhood and hunt for ginseng beneath the trees. I wanted to get to know this old man that was my brother, and the young woman that was my niece.

But I had done so many horrible things in my lifetime. Many had suffered as a result of my spying. If I was going to die in this prison, I should at least do it nobly, protecting my family.

My three wolves howled as one. Giup-yo's eyes widened and Henge-sa let out a cry.

"Run!" I shouted as Four lunged for the master guard's neck.

Giup-yo cupped my cheeks and kissed my forehead. "I wish you'd come with us, Brother. May the fates be with you." He took Henge-sa's hand and bolted out the door. I sank to the floorboards, the room fading away as I gave all my attention to the wolves.

Outside, a second guard appeared in the doorway. Three fell upon him, ripping out his throat with terrifying efficiency. Four tossed the master guard aside when his eyes went vacant. Five raced into the guardhouse to meet the next man.

Slash. Rip. Claw. One man went down, then another and another. Blood streaked my muzzles, ran hot along my fur.

Then there was a blast I heard with four sets of ears, and a blinding pain. Five tumbled to the ground, the world going dark around her. I gasped, trying to keep my focus on the other two wolves while Five fought the deep.

Find the Doyen. Slash. Rip. Claw.

Through the commotion, Four spotted Giup-yo and Henge-sa held by several of the Doyen's men. The Doyen himself had retreated back into the room, guarded on all sides.

Four thrust into the middle of the fray, snapping and snarling, scattering the Doyen's men around my family. One brave man continued to hold on to Giup-yo's arm, but Henge-sa punched and kicked until he let go. I commanded Four to follow them, all the way to the Empire if possible. They fled out the door of the guardhouse.

Three cleared a path towards the Doyen, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.

Then Five's lungs refused to draw in another breath. Her whole body -- my body -- seized, aching to stay living, but the spirit world tore at her until she couldn't hold on any longer.

Sitting in my cold, tiny room, I screamed for the loss of Five. I could continue screaming for days, mourning her, but I had to continue the fight, to help Giup-yo and Henge-sa escape.

Suddenly Three's side seared with pain. A guard grinned as he shoved his sword further in. Three hadn't even seen it coming.

"I'm sorry," I sobbed. Three went quicker than Five, the pain burning him up from the inside until there was nothing but blackness.

My soul felt like it had been torn into shreds. If not for Giup-yo and Henge-sa running in front of Four, I would collapse onto the ground, never desiring to rise again.

The Doyen stood in the open doorway, ringed by guards.

"Sneak Lord! How dare you turn on us! Your entire family will be punished for your crimes."

The sight of his stern eyes and set mouth, which would have thrown me into a fit of rage just minutes ago, seemed trivial in comparison with the deaths of my wolves.

I laughed hollowly. "You can't hurt me anymore."

The Doyen stepped forward, his voice low. "I highly doubt that. What you experienced through your wolves will seem like nothing after the torture we'll inflict upon you. You'll be begging us to let you die again."

Giup-yo and Henge-sa reached the prison gate. Four slipped from behind and tore out the throat of a sentry. A bullet zinged nearby, but missed its target.

I ran my fingers along the crags and wrinkles of my face, twisted by age and scarred by whips. I reached a hand up to the Doyen's face, but he drew away, his lips curled in disgust.

"You don't recognize me, Beaky, though you haven't aged a day since we last met."

"Beaky?" The Doyen drew his sword. "No one calls me that. What did Roo Giup-yo tell you?"

Another zing, and pain exploded in Four's shoulder. She continued running after Giup-yo and Henge-sa, but her steps slowed as they disappeared into the trees.

I laughed again, tasting blood in Four's mouth. It wouldn't be long now, for either of us. But my family had gotten away. They were safe, at least for now.

"My brother didn't need to tell me your childhood nickname, Beaky. Your nose hasn't always fit your face, and you haven't always been the Doyen. By the way, I'm sure my father sends his regards from the Empire. My brother is on his way there now."

The Doyen's face looked puzzled, then outraged as he finally realized who I was. He raised his sword.

Just before he brought it down, I howled. Four howled with me, a sound not mournful . . . but triumphant.

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