I give my sister one last fond look and make my way out of her room. The patrolling servant is back on his rounds, but I dodge him, winding through the corridors until I reach a side door. Although I don’t expect there to be many people out this time of night, this door is less exposed than the main one, allowing a more discreet exit. Keeping to the shadows, I follow paths and trails until I reach the spot on the outskirts of our village that Li Wei and I had both agreed on: the place where our ancestors used to mount climbs from, farther up the trail from where the supply line is. And it is where I find Li Wei waiting.
You’re late , he signs to me in the moonlight. I thought maybe you’d changed your mind. Or feared the restless spirits that come out at night.
I stopped believing in them when I stopped believing in pixius, I respond haughtily. I had to say goodbye to Zhang Jing .
Shock fills his face. You told her?
No, no. I just checked on her—while she was asleep. No one knows. I pat my knapsack. And I found food, just as I promised. Did you get the things you need?
He gestures to a pile of equipment near his feet. Some of it, like the ropes, look like gear I’d find among the miners. Other items—metal rings, spikes, and hammer-like tools—are beyond me.
Some of this is from the mines , he confirms. The rest is from the magistrate’s supply shed. It has been stored there for centuries, but I was able to find pieces still in good shape. His face darkens. I had to steal all of it.
I know , I tell him. I had to steal the food too.
He shakes off his dismay and forces a smile. None of that will matter when we return with new supplies, right?
Right , I say, trying to smile back. I don’t bother pointing out what he already knows: that there’s no guarantee we’ll make it back, let alone with any bounty. Do you know how to use this stuff?
Much of it works like what we’ve used in the mines , he tells me. I’ve read up on what I don’t know and made some inquiries in the past. He glances up at the sky, where the full moon is descending in the west, still bright. In the east, however, I see a faint purpling of the sky as the sun readies itself for the day. Ready to go?
Ready as I’ll ever be , I reply.
He gives me a quick primer on the basics of the equipment and then shocks me when he uses some of the rope to tie us together. He grins when he sees my astonishment.
Nervous about being so close to me? he asks, giving the rope a slight tug.
I cross my arms, refusing to be baited by that dangerous question—even if there is truth to it. But whatever my feelings for him, I must focus on the larger picture: Zhang Jing and our village’s future.
Don’t get any ideas , I warn.
A small smile tugs at his lips. And what kind of ideas would those be, apprentice?
You know what kind of ideas. Just because we’re going on this journey, it doesn’t mean anything has changed. I meant what I said two years ago: My life has taken a different course. We can’t be together. I cross my arms imperiously, hoping I am convincing and that I’m not letting on that his nearness makes my pulse quicken.
He scrutinizes me, trying to determine if I’m telling the truth. Very well , he says. If that’s the way you feel, far be it from me to interfere. He gives the rope around my waist a test tug. There. It’s an older rope, but it should hold. I can’t risk you slipping and falling , he explains. This way, I can help you.
Or go down with me , I point out.
Then don’t fall , he advises.
The ropes and rings become a confusing web to me, but Li Wei understands them and how they’ll work to keep us safe. He secures our climbing ropes at the top of the cliff and hands me a pair of miner’s gloves. Although we are loosely tied to each other, we each have our own rope to rappel down with, and I grip mine with a tightness born out of fear as much as necessity. Li Wei makes the first leap, launching himself over the edge. A pit opens up in my stomach as I watch him drop, but then the rope goes taut in his grip, and his feet land on the mountain’s stony face, securing his position. Stable and safe, he glances up at me nonchalantly, as though what he just did was perfectly ordinary. Easy, even. I’m sure I look terrified, but there is no coddling from Li Wei. The challenge in his gaze spurs me on, and before I have a chance to second-guess myself, I leap over the edge as well.
I do exactly as he did, hopping only a short distance down, but that first leap feels a hundred miles long. The air rushes past me, and for a few terrifying seconds, I feel as though I’m floating, with nothing to save me. Then my feet strike the mountain’s side with a teeth-rattling jolt. The rope above me holds true, and I squeeze it tightly, grateful for its security . . . yet fully aware that its security is a tenuous thing. One snap, one slip, and there would be nothing to save me from the drop.
Li Wei nods at me in approval, and with that, our journey begins.
I’ve climbed and played on ropes before, especially when I was younger. I have the strength to do it, but it’s been a long time. My hands, more used to the delicate work of painting and drawing, are unaccustomed to this type of labor and soon begin to hurt from the exertion. I refuse to let Li Wei see my pain, however, and keep pace with him as we descend the rocky mountain face in the moonlight.
We’ve only been going a few minutes when I hear rocks crashing and realize holding the rope requires both hands. I can’t signal to Li Wei that we’ve triggered our first avalanche. Panicked, I twist my hips in a way that tugs our adjoining rope. He looks over at me, and I jerk my head to my opposite side. Understanding, he quickly drops and swings off in the other direction, making room for me to take his spot just as a tumble of rocks falls near my original position.