Little Fox

Award Category
Logline or Premise
In Ancient China’s Tang Dynasty, a young slave girl fights to escape a wealthy home teeming with intrigue.
First 10 Pages

Prologue: The Dying Woman’s Confession

Chang’an, China. 760 AD

It was very early, but the women of this Taoist monastery rose with the sun. By the time light was streaming through the high windows, all fourteen monks were well into their morning routines. Several tramped up the grassy hill, careful not to spill well water from their buckets. Others swept the prayer room’s earthen floor, while still others cleaned up after the meager breakfast of rice and dried fish. It was difficult labor but the women were used to it. They worked efficiently and without complaint.

Dong Mei wanted to complain. She was seventeen years old, the youngest sister in this place by far, and she had only been here for three months. She hated monastic life, hated the tedium and the quiet and the food that tasted like dried wood. She hated hearing her sisters screaming to the gods and begging for mercy on behalf of the dead.

Dong Mei found the children distasteful as well. In addition to the fourteen sisters, the monastery always had twenty to thirty little ones. The children were shy around the older women, but they delighted in tormenting Dong Mei. They seemed to sense her uncertainty, the way a dog sniffs out fear. Even when Dong Mei chastised them, they never behaved for long. Dong Mei wished she could strike them, but violence was forbidden here.

She hated all this and much more, but she dared not give voice to her feelings. Had she not come to this place she would have gone into exile with Father, a fate far worse than her life of religious doldrum. If the gods heard her complain, they might grow angry at her for spurning their generosity. They might send her somewhere that made this dull corner of the capital seem a paradise. And so she hid her despair.

Dong Mei found most aspects of this life unpleasant, but worst of all was tending to the old woman. And since the other sisters clearly felt the same way about that task, it fell to most junior among them.

It fell to Dong Mei.

She moved down the narrow hallway, her feet sliding quietly over the floor. The bucket of well water was full, and she prayed she would not spill any of it. That was just the sort of trivial infraction the old woman would notice. Then Dong Mei would find herself tramping down the grassy hill and fighting back tears.

Presently Dong Mei came to a wooden door with warped and uneven planks. She took a moment to fortify her will, pressed her fingers against the door and slid it open.

Dong Mei was not surprised to find Sister Fan awake. As she always did, Dong Mei marveled that such a body could still contain life. The old woman was little more than dry skin hanging from brittle bone, and she could not have weighed more than a bag of cloth. Her arms were thinner than kindling and could surely have snapped just as easily. When the old woman slept, which she did more and more with each passing day, Dong Mei often had to stare at that wasted chest to make sure it was still rising and falling.

But there was nothing wasted in Sister Fan’s eyes. They had not yellowed, as Dong Mei’s grandmother’s had, and they never looked cloudy. The centers of those eyes were somehow black and bright at the same time, and Dong Mei was certain the old woman’s vision was better than a hawk’s.

Sister Fan’s gaze stayed focused on the ceiling. “Good morning, Dong Mei.”

Dong Mei slid the door closed behind her. “Good morning, Sister Fan.”

“I trust you have finished your morning prayers?”

“Yes, Sister Fan.”

“And you trimmed the orange tree in the front garden?”

“Just a moment ago, Sister Fan.” After three months, Dong Mei was still not used to this sort of talk. In her old life, she had been the one asking questions. “I believe it will produce quite a bit of fruit this year.”

“You have no way of knowing such a thing. Come. Help me up.”

Dong Mei’s legs shook as she knelt by the bed. She set the wooden bucket down with too much force, sloshing some water onto the floor. Dong Mei gave Sister Fan a guilty glance, and was relieved to find the old woman still looking at the ceiling. She moved the bucket to conceal the spill.

“Quickly,” Sister Fan said. “It feels like the demons of hell are taking out their rage on my bones.”

Dong Mei placed a hand under Sister Fan’s back, terrified as always that she might break the old woman’s spine. A moment later Sister Fan was leaning back on a pile of pillows.

“Would you like some water, Sister Fan?”

Those bright, black eyes settled on Dong Mei. “Is there enough for me to drink after you spilled so much on the floor?”

Dong Mei cast her gaze downward, her face crimson. “I am sorry, Sister Fan. I will draw another bucket from the well.”

“Perhaps you should have done that immediately, rather than attempting to conceal the spill from me.”

“I am sorry,” Dong Mei repeated. She felt tears threatening. It seemed she couldn’t go one day without making some kind of foolish mistake. The other sisters carried out their chores with the precision of skilled dancers, while Dong Mei bumbled about with the clumsiness of an oaf. “I will return with a full bucket as fast as I can.”

Dong Mei began to rise, but Sister Fan took her hand. “It is all right. Menial work is difficult for a girl with your background, but you will adjust. In my seventy-five years running this monastery, I have seen girls with less aptitude than you persevere.”

“Thank you, Sister Fan.” Dong Mei realized the tears would not come, and she felt a rush of sweet relief. “Is there anything else you require of me?”

“Yes, quite a bit. In fact, I imagine you will remain with me until sunset.”

Dong Mei searched for a reply and found none. Surely Sister Fan knew of her other chores. She had to gut the chickens, clean the privy and pick oranges – and that was all meant to be done before midday! What would the others say about her passing the day here while they toiled and sweat?

It was as though Sister Fan had heard Dong Mei’s thoughts. “Do not worry about the other sisters. If they have objections, they can voice them to me.”

Once again, Dong Mei said nothing. Even the older sisters wouldn’t dare complain to Sister Fan. “What would you have me do, Sister Fan?”

“Tell me,” said Sister Fan. “Can you read?”

“Yes, Sister Fan.”

“And write?”

“Yes.” Dong Mei felt a twinge of guilt. The others probably guessed that she was literate, but that was something best not admitted. Education was a privilege of the elite. “I have been fully literate since I was ten.”

“Good. In that case, I would have you listen.”


“That’s right,” Sister Fan said. “By the time this moon waxes full, I will be dead. I would have you listen to my story. When I am gone, write what you feel is relevant.”

“I will, Sister Fan.” Agreeing with Sister Fan was as automatic as breathing, but Dong Mei was shocked. Write the events of someone’s life? Who had ever heard of such a thing?

Once again, it was as though Sister Fan had divined Dong Mei’s thoughts. “You believe I am mad for making such a request. Or perhaps you think me vain.”

“No, Sister Fan. Never.”

“Perhaps I am vain, but I am not mad. And I believe my story is worth telling. No, that is not correct. It is a story I must tell. Everything I saw, everything I did…I cannot abide those memories dying with me. If you choose to write down what I tell you, I ask only two things. First, relate the facts as I have told them to you, no matter how they might sicken or frighten you. Second, repeat none of this until I am dead. Do you consent to what I have asked of you?”

“Yes, Sister Fan.”

“Good. Then listen as I tell you how I came to kill three people.”


I was born in the southwest ward of the capital, but I remember very little from my early years. I know my mother died giving birth to me and my father sold fish in the West Market. I cannot remember Father’s face, but to this day the smell of raw fish reminds me of him. He was a cheerful man, but he used to cry at night when he thought I was asleep. I suppose he was thinking of my mother.

When I was six years old, ruffians abducted me from my home. Two of them held my father down while a man named Shin cut his throat. I remember being struck dumb by the sight of blood expanding from Father’s open neck. I also remember screaming when I felt the hot wetness of his blood touch my toes.

Those three bastards brought me to the Wangs, a wealthy family that lived in the northeast ward. That was where you grew up, was it not, Dong Mei? How many servants did you have? I wonder if those people who brought you food and brushed your hair were abducted from their murdered families, as I was. I wonder if you ever thought to ask that question.

For the next eleven years, I was a slave in the Wang family compound. But in the end, I made my prison into grave of my oppressors.


The day after my abduction, I stood in the slave quarters wearing only a pair of hemp pants. It was the height of winter, and I shook so hard I thought my teeth might break against each other. But I wasn’t only shaking because of the cold. From the first moment I saw Miss Chen, she terrified me.

She couldn’t have been forty at the time, but to me she seemed like a grandmother. Miss Chen was always too thin. She wore her hair in a bun so tight it pulled her skin taut against her skull. I was not as in tune with the spirit world as I was to become, but even then I thought she might be a ghost masquerading as a living woman. Sometimes I still think that.

Behind Miss Chen stood a monster of a man, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. He wore a tunic of hard leather that covered everything from his chest to his knees. It must have once been a rich brown, but years of hard use had left it scuffed and faded. A beautiful dagger with a bronze handle hung from his belt.

Later I came to know him as Guard Captain Shin. He was the man who cut my father’s throat.

Miss Chen paced in front of me, her hands clasped behind her back. “What is your name?”

I do not know how, but I stopped shaking long enough to answer. “Fan Chun Hua.”

Faster than a cat, one of those hands whipped out and caught me across the cheek. “Address me as Miss Chen.”

I wiped the tears away but more followed immediately. “My name is Fan Chun Hua, Miss Chen.”

Miss Chen turned on her heels and looked at me. “I supervise the servants. If you displease your masters in any way, you will answer to me. Do you understand?”

I was crying too hard to answer, and so she struck me again. Silver stars winked in my vision. “I asked if you understand.”

“Yes, Miss Chen.”

She grasped my temples and moved my head this way and that. “You will probably be an attractive girl, although you are far too thin. Too bad. If you had some meat on your bones we could make you a courtesan.”

I wondered how such a thin woman could talk of meat on someone’s bones, but of course I stayed quiet.

Perhaps Miss Chen had been testing me, because when I did not answer she gave me the slightest of nods. “It is good that you did not respond. You will speak only when you are told to do so.”

I opened my mouth to say yes, Miss Chen, but I stopped myself. I was learning. Even at six years old, even after just a day in that dreadful place, I was learning.

Miss Chen said, “You are a slave. You will scrub the floors and empty the privy. You will chop wood and if you are not too stupid, I may have you serve food and drink to the Wangs someday. How much work have you done?”

I did not want to be struck again, so I maintained my powers of speech. “I helped my father in the market, Miss Chen. I gutted his fish and cleaned his stall.”

“Did you serve the customers?”

“Yes, Miss Chen.”

“Handled money?”

“Yes, Miss Chen.”

Miss Chen nodded again. “Then I imagine you can count. How high?”

I thought for a moment because I did not want to make a mistake and invite her anger. “Probably up to one hundred, Miss Chen.”

“All right. You sleep here with the other servants. Tomorrow, you will get a sense of this place. It is a beautiful and opulent home, as you will see. It is divided into two courtyards.” Miss Chen waved a hand at the door behind her. “This courtyard is where the work is done. It contains the slaves’ quarters, where you now stand. It contains quarters for myself and for the guards. The fourth building is a kitchen, and the fifth is for storage. Do you understand me?”

She was speaking too fast and I was too afraid, so I understood very little. “Yes, Miss Chen.”

“The other half of this home is where the Wang family lives. You will never go there. You will never go there because you are like a rat. Your presence will offend them the way a filthy rat offends a decent family sitting down to dinner. If I catch you in there, I will make you cry. Tell me you understand.”

I felt my bladder trying to let go, and I wanted to cross my legs. “I understand.”

She slapped me hard enough to make my head rock back.

“I understand, Miss Chen.”

“If you are lazy or if you steal, Guard Captain Shin will see to you. Tell the girl what you will do, Guard Captain.”

“Cut her, Miss Chen.” Shin sounded like a bored actor rattling off familiar lines. “On her belly or maybe her face, depending on what she does.”

Miss Chen turned back to me. “You will hate your life here and you will likely consider suicide. Remember that those who take their own lives spend an eternity of torment as wandering ghosts. If I am not satisfied with your work, I will throw you out. Then you will live on the streets, begging and stealing and selling your body just to pay for another day of misery. I strongly suggest, Fan, that you resign yourself to your fate. This home is going to be your new world.”

And it was.


Miss Chen was right. I did consider suicide. Those thoughts came to me at night, when I slept on the hard floor with the other servants. Thirteen of us shared a room hardly larger than this one.

I cannot express to you the cold of that room. We did not have a dugout fireplace as most homes do. Instead, we hugged each other for warmth. The fourteen of us pressed close together with our arms around each other like lovers.

If one person had to urinate at night, at least four others woke with them. We watched each other during the afternoons to make sure no one drank more than a little water. If someone drank too much at dinner, the others would scold them and demand they sleep at the edge of the group. The mornings were so cold that I cried at the thought of leaving the warmth of my fellows.

During the days, I was too busy to think of hanging myself. Because I was the youngest it was my job to empty the privy. That was morning work because the waste was older and the stench didn’t hit you as hard. Most of the other chores were not so different from your work here. I scrubbed floors and carried well water and set traps for the rats.

They had me work in the kitchen sometimes, and that was even worse than the privy. I would have shoveled shit from dawn until dusk to avoid kitchen work. It was cleaning the fish that tormented me. It reminded me of Father. I would stand before a table, crying as I carved a fish in a few fast and practiced strokes. Every fish I prepared for the Wangs was seasoned with my tears.

And what of the Wang family? What of those who ran the household, who could have ended my life with one word?

The Wangs are central to this story, and it may seem strange that I have spoken so little of them thus far. However, you must remember that during my first few years, I was in a haze of fear and misery. I feared the swift hand of Miss Chen, which lay ready to strike at any infraction. I had a deeper, blacker fear of Guard Captain Shin. I never saw the Wangs and so I did not think of them. Only one wall separated us, but we may as well have lived in different cities.

But very soon I learned everything I needed to know about them.