By the third night of her captivity, Shiyako’s weaving had begun to attract crowds. She was working in a tower room in the Imperial palace, and for two nights now its window had overflowed with yards and yards of shining goldweve.
The prince had brought Shiyako back with him after his visit to the regional governor. He’d overheard her father, a porter, boasting about her marvelous weaving. Like her kin, Shiyako was indeed a skilled weaver, coaxing lengths of fine gold cloth from ordinary silkworms using spells passed down through generations. Had she married a village boy, she would have the amended her spells with syllables from her mother-in-law’s family – but instead, she’d become indentured in the governor’s house.
The prince had promised to marry her if she could produce such a quantity for three nights – as if she, whose conquered people lived and died at the Summer Empire’s whim, had any desire to marry him. Still she wove all through the night, though her fingers cramped and her voice rasped, for if she failed, the prince would raze her village.
“You’re quiet tonight.” The forest imp had followed her here and set to work weaving. At first, she’d been grateful for his help – how else could she have possibly produced the amount of goldweve she was supposedly capable of? But the third morning was upon them. Shiyako had no doubt that their goldweve would reach the ground, as promised, but then she’d have to marry the prince – and no doubt pay a price to the imp.
“I’m tired,” she said. Outside, cheering: their golden cloth had reached the third story.
“You know he won’t let you stop. You’ll have to keep weaving every night of your life.”
“There are worse ways to spend a night with a prince.”
“And oh, how many nights you’ll spend.” The imp bared his pointed brown teeth. His fingers darted over the silk threads. “I can still save you…”
“You need only guess my name, and I swear I’ll free you from this tower, and save your dear village.”
“I didn’t ask your help, and I don’t know your name,” Shiyako snapped. “Be quiet; let me work.”
The imp settled. Another handspan of goldweve unrolled at his feet. Shiyako began to sing, a lilting chant that transformed the silk and kept pace with her fingers.
The imp yawned. Shiyako changed tunes: a lullaby her mother had sung to all six of her children. The imp’s head dropped, recovered, dropped again. He snored. Shiyako sang another verse, just to be sure, then cast off the length of goldweve. She needed to work quickly – she had only her own spells now, and dawn was coming.
At sunrise, a crowd gathered at the base of her tower. They muttered to themselves – the goldweve ended just out of arm’s reach.
Shiyako clapped. “Hear that, imp? It’s morning.”
He grunted and tried to sit up, but found himself rolled up in the goldweve she’d spun in the early dawn.
“Is this the thanks I get?” he hissed.
“You wanted me to guess your name, but yours is irrelevant since it was another’s that got us both here: Hamul.”
He scowled, writhing in his golden shroud. “Never heard of it.”
“I believe you have. You see, Hamul was my father, and considering he died eight years ago, the only way the prince could have heard him boasting was if you’d been doing the boasting yourself.”
The imp froze.
Shiyako gestured to their weaving. “I couldn’t guess your purpose initially, but…this isn’t gold, is it?”
“No.” He grinned. “It’ll turn to rotten rattan at the next full moon.”
“Which is, what, twelve days away?”
He giggled. “More than enough time for our creation to be dispersed as gifts among the High Houses. How embarrassing for His Grace, eh?”
“Embarrassing enough to get me executed, certainly – unless I kept you as my evidence.” She smirked. “You need little food, right?”
That took the smile off his face. “What do you want?”
“Make him forget about me. I’ll tell no one your secret. You’ll embarrass the Empire, I’ll save myself and my village – we both win.”
He cackled, rocking back and forth in his golden wrapper. “You weave bargains as skillfully as silk! Unspool me, and we have a deal.”
The prince couldn’t remember why he’d climbed to the tower room and he was inexplicably angry. It must have been for this goldweve, he thought, and ordered it rolled up.