I really hope you enjoy reading this two chapter sample of my historical detective novel A SONG FOR LONELY WOLVES, which is a dark mystery set in old Korea in 1590.
Chapter 1: A Beginning
Joseon Korea, January, 1590
The door slams and outside we hear screaming, words barely audible. I keep my head low and concentrate on pouring tea as the minister’s personal guard crouches by his side, whispering into his ear. I cannot hear the words but the minister’s face changes, brows drawn tight. Hands clenched.
“The establishment is under attack,” he spits abruptly, throwing his gambling sticks onto the pile of fine jewellery before him.
I say nothing, for it is not me the minister wishes to warn, but the man who sits opposite, his head shaved, wearing old worn clothes. That man, Poong Yi, is already on his feet, only stopping to gather the fine goods he was well on his way to losing, pushing jewelled hair ornaments and elaborate pins deep within his hanbok robes.
Such fine things for a lowborn man to gamble away so carelessly.
More shouts ring from the yard and the thick scent of smoke begins to fill the room. Something is burning.
Coughing, the men gather their belongings, the minister shouting orders at his bodyguard. I slide out of their way, kneeling with my side pressed against the wall, trying to remain invisible. Yet the man Poong Yi crouches to take my chin roughly in his hand, forcing me to meet his hard eyes.
“Girl! When the police come you say we left by the north gate, you hear me?”
His fingers dig painfully into my skin but I manage to nod. Poong Yi lets go and I cower on the floor at his feet, arms wrapped over my head protectively, quivering with fear and obedience in the dim candlelight.
The minister is already being pulled away through the inner door by his personal guard, not glancing my way once, lowly servant that I am. It is only the bald man that still hovers above me with one last look. But then the minister’s guard shouts that the whole compound will soon be crawling with police officers and Poong Yi follows quickly after them. They disappear into the inner hallways of the compound.
I am alone.
It does not take long before the doors swing open again. Four big men, warriors with swords and wide leather belts, enter the room, bending low beneath the doorframe.
But they are not police officers.
They are Poong Yi’s men. Mean-looking private soldiers and mercenaries employed to protect this place, to protect Poong Yi and the illegal business he conducts here.
Their bulk fills the tiny private gambling room and I push back hard against the wall, my shaking hands clasped over my mouth, my tea tray discarded at my side. I’ve seen them before, hanging around the inn, guarding important patrons who do not wish to be interrupted. The oldest of them scowls when he sees it is only me remaining, his mouth pulling tight.
“Where is the minister? Did he escape?” I am silent and he roars, “Answer me, girl!”
Flinching, I gesture wildly to the doors leading back outside into the courtyard. “They went north.” My lips tremble and I begin to cry. “I overheard. They said they would escape through the north gate.”
It is enough. The men move past as I push myself to my feet, back still pressed against the wall. As the last and youngest of the men comes near, I dart my hand out to take a hard hold of his arm, slowing him. Swiping the tears from my cheeks, I reach high to press my mouth close beside his ear. “Man Seok, they’ve gone to the south gate. I heard talk of a boat waiting at the river for the minister.”
“And the other one?” Man Seok breathes. “Poong Yi?”
“Still with them. Not for much longer. He’ll run.”
He nods curtly, then hesitates. “Someone must open the main gates.”
Shouts echo from beyond the room, the other guards swearing at him to hurry. I point at my chest to indicate I will do it. Man Seok doesn’t look pleased, jaw tightening and hands clenching, but he says nothing. Within moments he is gone and I am left alone, candlelight flickering wildly across the walls, yellow against the black.
My hands move quickly, well-practised under pressure. The inside door was hurriedly bolted; the scene of the gambling exchange left untouched, flat cushions still strewn across the floor, gambling sticks lying discarded in piles. I take only one remaining treasure that the criminal Poong Yi has missed, half hidden beneath a mat. A string of jewels unlike any I have seen before, opaque and shimmering in the darkness.
With both doors bolted shut from the inside, I step onto a low cabinet and launch myself high to reach a tiny window, slamming against the shutters to squeeze my body through the narrow space. I vault head first out into the cold night. My hands hit the wooden maru terrace outside and I curl my body into a roll, taking the brunt of my fall on my right shoulder, twisting until I am standing again. Only my long skirts cause me to falter.
The frost of deep night burns my skin, cutting through the thin maidservant uniform I wear as if it was not there at all. I have only my indoor slippers but leap into a run across the stony courtyard anyway, melting into the shadows clinging against thick stone walls and overhanging bare winter branches. No moon shines tonight, only low clouds heavy with snow, frost biting at my bare hands. Beyond the courtyard the front gates of the inn are ablaze with light; the burning torches within small and paltry compared to the flames that lick the outer walls. The police must be burning the storage sheds beyond the gates, trying to force their way inside.
There is nowhere to hide; the entire entrance courtyard is awash in yellow light. Men scurry across the open space, their footsteps burning pathways in the slushed snow. Bracing the heavy courtyard doors with their broad bodies, they check that the iron bolts are secure. Beyond the main gates rages the sounds of battle, metal ringing through the cold air, men screaming and shouting.
Poong Yi’s men are out there, I know, defending the compound, fighting off the police officers, holding them back—giving Poong Yi the time he needs to escape. With the gates at their back, the guards of this place have a defendable position, two men with bows above, the police outside funnelled close together by the road and wildwood.
Even so Poong Yi’s men will not last long against the full might of the Kingdom’s police and military—just long enough to help their leader escape. And the minister too, the nobleman Poong Yi is bribing.
There is no time left to hesitate. Man Seok said the gates must open, and so they will open.
Breathing on my stiff fingers, I step from the shadows, walk calmly across the stony courtyard straight to the gate, running my hand over the bolt. A man runs past, a warrior holding a wide heavy sword. He does not stop. Does not even glance at me.
He will though. The moment I move the heavy latch they all will. I lean away from the door, my fingers still exploring the lock, arching my back as I peer into the darkness at the bowmen above. Only one of them now, the other must be dead, hit by an arrow from outside.
Another guard runs desperately by, veering close. I ignore him, ignore the shouts ringing from behind the bolted gates. It must be done now. I lean against the door and begin to scream hysterically, pointing back toward the nearest building. My legs give way, sliding heavily toward the ground, only for my elbow to be caught by one of the passing guards, his face alive with panic.
“I saw police officers,” I babble at him, tears streaming. “Up there, on the roof! They’re already inside! Do something! Do something!”
He leaves me sobbing against the gates, three nearby men joining him to storm the places my pointed finger has led them.
The moment they reach the building and disappear into its depths I twist back toward the gate, leaving my cheeks wet as I work. The first bolt slides easily but the second is stiff and I must push my whole weight against it. It barely moves.
A shout from behind me. A man’s voice, gruff and commanding of my attention. I ignore him until he says my name.
“Dan Ji ssi?”
I turn slowly. It is a man I know, a man I have seen many times before working within the compound, one of the guards here. He is much older than I, much bigger too, his sword sharp and gleaming in the torchlight.
“What are you doing? It’s dangerous here. The soldiers are outside. You can’t open…” He trails off into silence as his expression changes, light dawning in his eyes.
He hesitates a long time before advancing, before lifting his sword. And I hesitate too, staring back at him, slowly shaking my head. I know him. But the guard advances anyway, pushing loose black hair from shining skin. I turn back to the bolt desperately, numb fingers scrambling to loosen it, to drag it open. The gates beneath my hands are thumping now, something slamming heavily into the wood from the other side.
The bolt moves just as the guard lunges. His sword slashes through the air, hitting nothing but the gates themselves as they open, pushed from the other side. I twist to avoid being crushed by the heavy swinging doors, three men bursting through the open space, two of them dressed in police uniforms and the last, a criminal fighting for his life. The police officers are quick and efficient. The criminal dies loudly and savagely just as the guard’s hand closes over my collarbone, fingers digging into bone as he manoeuvres his sword in the confined space behind the moving gate. He knows me. Yet he will kill me. My back slams hard against the stone wall and I fight the wail that rises on my lips for he will impale me, gleaming metal breaking skin and bone. Instead his life-blood sprays across my face, an errant arrowhead emerging through the soft flesh of his throat, shocking us both. The tip is visible through the parted skin, awash in wet red.
The man’s mouth widens and our gazes lock for a heavy thick moment before he falls, both of us in shared surprise, both of us expecting a different ending to our struggle. He is dead before he hits the ground.
The battle has spilled into the torch-lit courtyard now, arrows flying haphazardly, chaos and screaming and fire all around. I huddle behind the heavy gates with the dead man, dirty snow seeping wet into his clothes as more and more police officers plunge through the opening I have made for them.
Taking one last look at the body huddled at my feet, I wipe his blood from my face. It smears across my skin as I breathe heavily, chest heaving. I cannot remember his name. But I knew him. No one special. No one in particular. Just a guard. And now a wayward arrow misfired has saved my life and ended his. But I remember a moment in the depth of winter, sitting on the terrace wrapped warmly against the snow, this man offering me a ginger taffee he bought for his own young daughter.
I stare down at him. And then I slide quietly from behind the thick doors and leave him behind, creeping alongside the stone walls and scanning the warring men who fight bloody across the stony ground. There is no way out of the compound now, police officers stopping everyone they see, maidservants and guards, not letting anyone through. They will not listen if I try to explain. I slip into the shadows and climb up toward the battlement. It is empty now of archers, both of them lying huddled and lifeless in the darkness, shadows of hollow flesh. I climb over one body to the railing, peering down carefully onto the road outside, scanning the men who mill beyond the gates.
At the back, an older man sits tall on a war horse, beard wiry and streaked with grey, plumes of long feathers bound to his wide-brimmed hat. A swinging string of heavy beads hangs from the brim, affixed above each ear.
I watch, calculating and assessing.
Man Seok will follow Poong Yi and the minister to the river. Yet he is only one man.
It will not be enough.
I glance at the buildings behind me, watch as the fighting ebbs and the police officers herd prisoners into the courtyard, forcing them to kneel grouped together in the cold. I look back at the man in uniform, sitting straight and imposing on his war horse. He is the man I must speak with, the man who has authorised this raid. And he is the one who must authorise reinforcements to be sent to the river to find the minister and to stop Poong Yi from disappearing into the night.
To cut the head off the snake.
Man Seok cannot arrest these criminals on his own.
I take a deep breath and climb over the railing, into the blackness below.
Chapter 2: The Request
I stand before the grand desk in silence, my head bowed. Imposing shelves rise against the walls, filled to the brim with manuals and scrolls. The heavy office doors remain closed tight, the room dim with only muted sunlight filtering through a latticed window.
Man Seok stands beside me, in uniform, as am I. He’s dressed only as a minor police lieutenant since his recent demotion. Mine is the uniform of a damo, a lowly government office servant, expected to serve tea and whatever else my superiors might request. Together, we wait unmoving, all outward patience and jittery nerves as the police chief sits before us, assessing with narrowed eyes. He is flanked by a secretary, a younger man with a shrewd cold expression, who acts as an official office scribe.
The silence deepens, filling the room. Tension rises, filling my body.
I do not know why we are here.
It has been many days since the raid, quiet slow days spent inside the podocheong, the police bureau. I have given my statements, I have provided the evidence of corruption I gathered at the gambling compound, and passed over the string of shimmering jewels left behind by the criminal, Poong Yi. And Poong Yi himself, he will never run an illegal organisation like it again; he is long gone.
Wiped from this earth.
The silence draws out, almost stifling, and I steal a glance at Man Seok beside me. He looks different now, clean shaven and young with his hair pulled high into a topknot beneath the brim of his uniform hat. His face is impassive. If the silent presence of the police chief makes him nervous, he does not show it. And if he is angered by his sudden demotion, it is hidden just as deep. But I am used to it now, the way his expression never changes. Man Seok never speaks unless there’s something to say. Silence does not make him uncomfortable. Silence is his natural state.
I peer back down at the floor, clearly alone in my fear of this meeting, unable to understand why a great man like the police chief would call someone as lowly as myself into his private offices. It’s true that Man Seok and I were instrumental in gathering intelligence against this recent case of deep corruption. Without our actions on the night of the raid, that criminal organisation would still be skimming goods from the people’s tax tributes. They would still be selling them and bribing officials to turn a blind eye.
And the criminal Poong Yi would still be alive.
I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. I do not believe we’ve been summoned here for thanks. The room is too cold, the silence too long.
The secretary clears his throat loudly and I startle. Have I done something wrong? Or has Man Seok? Perhaps his demotion is only the first of many punishments he’ll receive for his transgression during the raid. The way our two superiors stare prickles my skin despite the deep chill of winter.
Finally, the police chief speaks. “State your names.”
“Damo Dan Ji, Yeonggam,” I say, addressing him respectfully.
He raises his brows at Man Seok.
“Lieutenant Jo Man Seok, Yeonggam.”
“And how long were you each embedded at the gambling establishment prior to the night of the raid?”
I hesitate, expecting Man Seok to answer, for he outranks me.
He does not.
Finally, I say, “One year and one month, Yeonggam.”
Man Seok clears his throat and answers in his quiet slow way. “I was there six months, Yeonggam.”
The police chief considers us carefully.
“And are you well rested since returning to the offices?”
I am not sure what to make of that, glancing once again at Man Seok, whose expression only remains the same. Finally, I venture, “Yeonggam?”
The police chief exhales slowly. “It seems we have need of your services again. There is a district magistrate in a county far to the north. He has requested assistance from the capital with a rather … complex case. After careful consideration, I have recommended you both. I trust you will be capable of aiding this regional magistrate in solving his particular problem.”
The police chief gestures impatiently at his secretary, and the younger man departs the room briefly, leaving us in uncomfortable silence. When the doors swing open again the secretary ushers in another damo, dressed in the same uniform as me, her gaze lowered to the ground.
“This is Damo Choon Shim, she will accompany you both to the north, reporting directly to Lieutenant Jo.”
I peer across at Choon Shim but she does not look back at me. Her hair is smoothed from her face, tight and neat, but her expression has a softness to it, round and sweet despite her down-turned mouth.
I am unable to hold my questions back, though it should be Man Seok who asks them. Yet I cannot rely on him to fulfil my curiosity, as he has none of his own.
“Yeonggam,” I venture. “Two damo have been requested for this case?”
The secretary is affronted by my audacity, speaking without being spoken to, yet the police chief holds up his hand to silence the younger man before he can berate me.
“Indeed, the magistrate has need of two damo. One for undercover work,” he motions toward Choon Shim, “and the other to aid in the investigation, to question the people that his own men cannot.”
I nod, satisfied. A delicate balance exists within this world, so it’s not always possible for men to directly question noble daughters or even lowly women. I can pass through doorways that men cannot. I glance back at Choon Shim.
Her role in this, however, is still shrouded in mystery.
“The magistrate has no damo of his own? At his office in the north?” I ask my question boldly, for when I find a thread I must pull it, always I must pull it.
Once again, the secretary narrows his eyes but the police chief silences him. “The magistrate did,” he says. “But no more.”
No further explanation is given and a thick heavy silence slowly fills the room. I am forced to push down my curiosity, and turn my mind to my next question, asking quietly, “Yeonggam, this case, what does it involve that the magistrate has sent for aid from the capital?”
The police chief ignores me. “Lieutenant Jo, do you not have any questions? Only this damo speaks for you?”
Man Seok’s face does not change. “No, sir,” he says. “I have no questions at this time.”
I curl my lip, annoyed, but the police chief only says, “I see.”
His gaze runs over Man Seok’s hard blank face and new minor lieutenant uniform, assessing and calculating. Finally, his eyes seem to rest on the younger man’s hands, which tightly clutch a thin lacquered sword scabbard, his skin scarred and knuckles scabbed. Man Seok is no stranger to violence. And it shows across his marred skin. The police chief’s brows draw close together, with … disapproval? Disgust? I cannot say.
The moment passes and still the police chief says nothing, finally waving a hand at his secretary, who quickly steps forward to take over the briefing.
“This should not be a difficult case,” the secretary informs us. “Yet it is a delicate one. A young woman has disappeared from her village home. There is great pressure on the district magistrate to recover her quickly.”
The police chief clears his throat. “The girl is the daughter of a nobleman with connections to the royal family.”
“Correct, sir,” agrees the secretary. “The nobleman’s uncle was a close friend of the prince when they were younger, and he has called in a favour, asking this situation to be resolved quickly.”
I push my luck. “Which prince?”
The secretary’s lips tighten. “Which prince does not matter, damo. That the royal family is involved at all should be your main concern.” He does not like me; it is clear. He believes I do not know my place.
Perhaps he is right.
“The royal family has a vested interest in the outcome of this case.” The secretary looks at us pointedly, and I understand this to mean that pressure directly from the royal family is being applied not only to the district magistrate, but to the entire podocheong.
A knock raps on the door and an older officer enters. It is like a candle being snuffed out; the police chief’s attention shifts from us completely and we are dismissed without another glance—albeit for the secretary taking a further few moments to brief us on travel arrangements before we are hurriedly ushered away.
Emerging outside into the wide-open courtyard, I stand blinking in the pale sunlight, wrapping my arms around my body to combat the sharp wind. The yards are busy; police officers’ bustle about their business, weaving in and out of the official buildings lining the wide stark courtyard. Man Seok stands beside me, arms crossed. Nothing in his expression sheds light on what he thinks of our assignment.
“It could not be so very important,” Choon Shim says suddenly, reminding me she is there.
She is a little taller than me, her body shapely yet strong beneath her uniform. I frown at her. “What do you mean?”
She hesitates, glancing up at Man Seok, eyes darting to his face and then away. I realise she is afraid of him. And perhaps she is right to be. Yet because she does not wish to speak while he is here, I grow impatient.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the police chief … he said there is pressure to close the case, yet they do not send their senior investigators. They send only a minor lieutenant and two damo. Is that not … strange?”
I shrug. “The pressure is only from a slight connection in youth to the royal family. It’s not as if the missing girl or her uncle are direct relatives of the prince.”
“True…” Yet Choon Shim does not seem satisfied. “But surely if the girl cannot be located it means the district magistrate will lose his position. It means the stakes are high.”
“For the district magistrate, perhaps,” I mutter. “I doubt the police chief will care what happens. Sending us is simply a formality. Whether we recover the missing girl or not.”
I turn to Man Seok for his opinion and he nods in quiet agreement. “It is simply a regional matter. The news of it will not travel.”
Choon Shim raises her brows. “Not travel … sir?” I notice she does not meet Man Seok’s eye.
“It means there will be no public dissent here in the capital,” I explain. “Even if the case is not resolved, so the worst possible outcome is the district magistrate being demoted. Even with pressure from the royal family, it will make no difference to the police chief.”
“I see … It is why he only bothers to send us.” Choon Shim bites her lip. “I feel sorry for the girl.”
“Why?” I ask, my tone sharper than I mean it to be. “Because it is only us being sent to help her?”
Choon Shim tilts her head to the side, assessing me. Finally, she smiles. “I’ve heard about you, Damo Dan Ji.” She leans close to whisper. “The other girls call you the battle axe.”
I cough. “They call me what?” I am offended.
“Because of your temper.”
Choon Shim begins to walk across the courtyard and I hesitate a moment before following her, still annoyed. When I glance back there is something different about Man Seok’s face, as if he might smile if he knew how.
When I reach her side, Choon Shim chimes a low laugh, as if to soften her words. “Dan Ji, it is a compliment. You are the battle axe who never backs down. All the girls know about the taxation corruption case.” She shrugs. “I haven’t done work like you. I stay here in the office mostly, doing chores.”
I nod. Although damo can be used for undercover operations or for questioning women, it is not a regular assignment. Essentially, we are only lowly servants. We cook and clean and bring the high-ranking officials their tea and meals. We do as we are asked. It is the kind of life I’ve lived until I made something more for myself—until it became clear I could be relied on during real cases. That I would not break or bend.
I will never go back to how it was.
I peer at Choon Shim closely, wondering if she feels the same.
“And when you are not here in the offices?” I ask her. “What do you do?”
Choon Shim makes a list on her fingers. “I questioned a noblewoman about a family dispute she witnessed. I eavesdropped at a gibang entertainment house while a murder suspect visited his favourite gisaeng there. And I investigated adultery charges … three times.”
She looks at me, as if waiting for my approval. Her eyes shine and I do not know what to say. I blink. “That is … very good.”
Choon Shim beams. I have said the right thing.
The three of us walk slowly toward the men’s and women’s quarters where we are housed—Man Seok trailing behind, our footsteps crunching across the stony yard. The sunlight is waning, the air turning crisper and cooler by the moment. When we reach the high stone wall Choon Shim speaks again, louder now, braver. I wonder if perhaps she has forgotten Man Seok is still here.
“Damo Dan Ji, what do you think about this missing girl? Could she have been kidnapped?”
Already I can feel myself reaching for the answers, pulling at the threads, trying to discover the truth behind this new case.
It is how I felt when I was first embedded at the gambling inn, when I first realised my assignment was not a petty illegal merchant ring; it went far deeper, reaching into political corruption and bribery.
And now again I am curious, already it chafes at my mind to understand more.
We stop outside the gated building of the damo quarters, and I turn back to face Man Seok. “How long do you suspect the girl has been missing?”
I wait while he calculates how long it might have taken for a message to arrive at the capital requesting our aid. Man Seok has travelled far more widely than I.
“At least half a moon,” he says eventually. He is grim now, gripping his sword in one hand, the other tucked behind his back. “More by the time we arrive into the magistrate’s county. That village lies deep within the mountains. Far to the north.”
I nod, turning back to Choon Shim.
“Whether she has been kidnapped or not, after so long I think we must prepare ourselves to find a body.”
Choon Shim is taken aback, but I prefer she does not operate under false assumptions.
A buried body is much easier to hide than a living breathing girl. It does not take a royal investigator to understand that much.
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LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea.
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