The hours drag by as I lie in bed, analyzing our plan and how I’m going to proceed. I know rest will help me, but I can’t risk sleeping and missing when I need to get up. I track the moon’s position outside, and at last the time comes for me to begin. I slip out of my bed and out of the room, heading toward the servants’ wing of the school. My eyes dart everywhere, looking for signs of activity, but I soon realize my ears will serve me better. I hear footsteps and spot a servant on night watch heading toward me from an adjacent hall. I duck into a doorway, crouching in the shadows, until he passes. He stifles a yawn as he goes by, never guessing anyone else is up and about.
I’m not familiar with the servants’ wing. We have more rooms in the Peacock Court than we have need for, and it takes me a few tries to find the laundry room. I strip off my nightgown and change into a clean set of apprentice clothes intended for a boy. They’re the same blue I usually wear, but instead of a girl’s long skirt, they have pants paired with a wrap top. Wearing them feels a little strange at first, but I know they’ll be infinitely more practical than my skirt for climbing. The laundry room also has a small knapsack that I take, adding a spare change of clothes for myself.
I next make my way to the kitchen. It too has a servant on watch, and I recognize her as the intimidating head cook. She sits in a chair near the back door, sewing by the light of a small lamp to keep herself awake. I’m not sure if her presence is a result of the recent theft or a precaution always taken. All I know is that if she catches me, my rank won’t save me from her wrath. At the moment, her focus is on her sewing, and she’s angled in such a position as to allow me some freedom of movement out of her sight.
She doesn’t see me slipping in through the door that leads to the rest of the school, and I creep around the kitchen, watching her carefully and listening for any signs of movement. Several times, she shifts position and forces me to duck or seek other cover. I find a table where lunches for the coming day have been prepared and neatly laid out. It’s the kind of food meant to be packed and stored easily, ideal for the journey I’m about to undertake.
And yet my fingers hesitate as I reach for it. Stealing food is a grave crime. Everyone is hungry, and I hate the thought of depriving someone else. I find small comfort in knowing that one of the ration bags I take would have been my own lunch tomorrow. Li Wei and I don’t know what we’ll find at the bottom. Maybe when we get there, we’ll find a land of plenty. Or maybe the township sends us small amounts simply because they too are starving. After much deliberation, I take three more packs, giving Li Wei and me two meals each. We will have to fend for ourselves once these run out.
A long, drawn-out sound catches my attention, and I duck into the shadows, searching for the source of the noise. It is one of the doors from the servants’ wing being opened. The servant I saw in the hall earlier enters the kitchen, heading over toward the chef. They have a conversation I can see only part of, but it appears to be a status check, verifying all is well. While they are speaking, I seize the opportunity to dart out of the kitchen.
I’m about to take the hall that leads to a side exit when I notice another corridor. In searching for the laundry room and the kitchen, I encountered most of the areas that the servants work in, which makes me think this must be their living quarters. I need to be on my way, but I just can’t bring myself to leave without seeing Zhang Jing one last time. In a moment, I’ve made my choice, and I turn down the hall, carefully peeking in each room. Many doors make that same long noise the kitchen door did, and I’m grateful no one else can hear it. If I ever get a chance to read Feng Jie’s book again, I intend to learn what the name for that sound is.
At last, I find where the servant women sleep. The space is smaller than my bedroom but with more beds crammed into it. Zhang Jing is sleeping at the end of the room, her bed up against the wall. I lean over her, feeling my heart ache as I take in the features of her beloved face. With a pang, I suddenly wonder if I’ll ever see her again. Li Wei and I have no idea what we’ll find at the bottom. We don’t even know if we’ll reach the bottom. What will happen if I die? Who will take care of Zhang Jing then—especially if her sight goes?
The fear is almost enough to make me change my mind about the journey. Then I remind myself that while there are risks, there’s also the chance that I might be able to change everything—not just for Zhang Jing but for others in my village. Whatever it is we find—more food, answers about the blindness—it has the possibility of improving the world of those we know and love. Li Wei is making this journey regardless, and he needs every asset he can get. I am one of those assets.
I smooth Zhang Jing’s hair from her face, my touch as light as a feather. She shifts slightly but continues sleeping peacefully, her cheek on her pillow and hand underneath it, just as she has slept since childhood. I look around the room. Along with a bowl of water on a table, there are some scraps of paper and a pot of ink resting on a shelf. I go to it, and in the moonlight I write a brief note: I will be back with help. Trust me.
I take the scrap of paper and tuck it under Zhang Jing’s pillow, near her hand. She will feel it when she awakens and hopefully have faith in what I’m doing. I have no doubt my disappearance will eventually be linked to the theft of the food, and I hate the thought of her believing the worst of me—especially after she told me how my position brings prestige to our family. Knowing I’m risking throwing that all away, I place a gentle kiss on her forehead.