There’s a boulder overgrown with moss nearby with a cuplike depression in its center. I pour water into it and do my best to soak and scrub the shirt, making a little progress—but not much. I’m fighting against dirt gathered from much more than just this journey. The linen is probably permanently dyed the color of the mines.
I didn’t think artists had to do their own laundry , he remarks as I work.
I lift my wet hands to make a retort but stop when inspiration hits. I go back to my pack and find my belt pouch, which I brought with me from the Peacock Court. It still contains the packets of pigment I used to bring with me on my observations. After a few moments, I select the one that makes green paint and dump its entire contents into the water. Li Wei comes up beside me, muscled arms crossed over his broad chest and a curious expression on his face. I take a deep breath, more than aware of how close he’s standing.
If we can’t get the dirt out, maybe we can cover it up , I explain. He looks dubious, and I add, Well, it can’t be any worse. Once it’s set in the dye for a while, we’ll hang it to dry in that tree—
My hands freeze midsentence as my eye catches something. I forget all about dyes. I forget about shirts. I even briefly forget about Li Wei as I take in this new discovery. Most of the trees around here are evergreen, but a few are deciduous and just barely showing the signs of late summer giving way to autumn. The tree I’d nodded at is one, a kind I’ve never seen before. While I don’t know what type it is, I do know what I see in its highest branches. I point, and Li Wei follows the motion, his eyes widening when he sees what I spotted.
No fruit trees grow in our village. We’ve tried planting seeds and pits on the rare occasions we receive fruit in the shipments, but they just don’t take. I’ve always known fruit comes from trees, but seeing it here in the flesh is unbelievable. Maybe Li Wei’s little statue is helping us after all. With food at such a premium where we come from, it’s downright magical to find it growing on a tree in front of us, just waiting for us to pick and eat.
If we can reach it.
Li Wei strides over to the tree, then hesitates as he scrutinizes it more closely. I can get up there , he tells me. But I’m not sure if the branches can support my weight—especially the high ones.
They can support my weight , I say confidently.
He looks me over, glances at the tree, and then looks back at me. It can probably support ten of you. We just need to get you up there. He beckons me over and holds out his arms to lift me.
My indecision over his half-naked state and Elder Lian’s disapproval is short-lived. I let go of my fears, and suddenly it is like we are children again, off on some adventure in the woods. I step forward, and he grips my waist, his strong hands careful as he raises me. I stretch my arms up but can’t quite reach the lowest branch. Li Wei shifts, sliding his hands down so that he can hold me up by my legs and raise me higher. For a moment, I lose my balance as he adjusts, and I slip down. He catches me before I can fall, and for the space of a heartbeat, he holds me in his arms, our bodies pressed together.
As I meet his eyes, noting how very close we are, I think, No, we are not children.
He seems to be thinking the same thing, and a flush fills his cheeks. Quickly, he boosts me up again, holding me by my ankles so that I can reach higher. Resolutely, I push aside thoughts of the way his arms felt or how the lingering scent of sandalwood still clings to him. My fingers make contact with a limb, and from there I’m at last able to swing myself up and begin scaling the rest of the tree’s branches. They’re small and thin, but I find enough that can support me until I reach the fruit at the very top.
Up close, I see it’s almost at the end of its season and starting to wither. I pluck one and sniff, grinning when I recognize persimmon. It’s a rare treat in our village, occasionally given to us chopped up with other food. I glance down at Li Wei, who is watching me anxiously.
Be careful , he signs. We didn’t just survive a lethal mountain climb only to have you fall from a fruit tree.
By way of answer, I toss the persimmon down to him and then begin picking all the rest. There are about a dozen total, and when I’ve thrown them all down, I climb back, feeling a bit of pride that I’m able to swing off the last branch and land without his help.
It must be true , he says wonderingly. He has gathered all the persimmons together. We’ve been in the lowlands for barely an hour and have already stumbled across food. They must have an abundance.
Someone came through and picked over the rest of the tree earlier in the season , I point out. There may be people nearby.
He nods, growing serious. We’ll be careful tonight and take watches again.
We make a dinner of the persimmons, prudently saving some for tomorrow’s journey—though I know we’re both secretly hoping to find more food along the way. When we finish eating, I take his shirt out of the dye. It isn’t as dark a green as I’d hoped, but it’s definitely an improvement. I change into my clean robe and give him my travel-stained one to wear overnight. He can’t even fully cinch it, leaving a comical gap over his chest, but at least it will provide warmth.
We are in good spirits as we settle down for the night, playing another round of xiangqi before the sun goes down. I still can’t beat him, and he gently tries to coach me. The moves you make seem good, but you aren’t thinking far enough into the future. Plan at least two moves ahead of your opponent.
I sigh. You’d think I’d be better at that, with all the planning and organizing I normally have to do in my work.