The cloaked woman suddenly makes a sharp gesture. I follow where she points and see two guards from the front gate moving purposefully through the crowd, clearly in search of something. Their faces are hard, and they push people out of the way indiscriminately as their gazes dart around. A chill runs through me. I don’t know for sure that they’re looking for us, but we can’t take the chance. Li Wei and I clasp hands and follow this stranger into the unknown.
OUR GUIDE LEADS US around and in between buildings, taking a path so convoluted that I soon lose all sense of where the market is. We leave it far behind us along with a lot of the more populated areas—which makes me uneasy. This stranger spoke of saving us from danger, but is it possible we’re simply walking into a trap?
At last, we reach what appears to be the opposite side of the township. I can see the towering wooden wall in the distance, but it isn’t our final destination. Instead, our guide takes us to a squat two-story building with minimal decoration. Painted characters on the front read: Red Myrtle Travelers’ Inn. With a quick gesture, we are beckoned around the back side of the building, to a nondescript door.
After glancing around to make sure we’re alone, our guide pushes back her hood, and I am surprised to see she is our age and exceptionally pretty. She opens the door and starts to step through, pausing when she notices we don’t follow. It’s okay , she says. No one will hurt you here.
Who are you? I ask.
And what is this place? Li Wei demands.
My name is Xiu Mei , the girl replies. I work at this inn. I am its . . . The word she signs isn’t one I know. Seeing our confusion, intrigue lights her features. Your language must be different. Come in, and we will get something to write with. Don’t sign until we’re secure.
Li Wei and I exchange uncertain glances. I honestly don’t know if we can trust anyone in this strange place, but at least Xiu Mei isn’t openly shunning us like the vendors in the market. There is something open and disarming about her face, and the fact that she can use our language—or something like it—goes a long way toward providing a glimpse of order in what’s otherwise a thoroughly chaotic situation. After a moment of hesitation, we follow her.
We step into a kitchen like no kitchen I’ve ever seen. Steam bellows from pots on a hot stove, making the small space hot and stuffy. I’m assaulted with smells I’ve never encountered before, probably from foods I’ve never encountered before. This isn’t like our kitchen at home, with only a scarce handful of ingredients to carefully parse out. Here, two women and one boy scurry busily around, working with a vast array of vegetables and meats, sprinkling them with powders I’ve never seen. I feel my mouth begin to water and see a similar hunger in Li Wei’s awestruck expression.
And, of course, there are sounds. So many sounds, most of which I don’t have names for. Pots and pans are tossed heedlessly around, dishes set down without ceremony. Food dropped into hot skillets of oil makes a noise that leaves me staring, one never described by Feng Jie. Mixed with all this is the sound of human conversation, each of the workers chattering away as they go about their tasks. One of them sees us and gives us a polite nod, then says something directly to Xiu Mei. She smiles and answers back, surprising me. She can hear and is fluent in both spoken and hand communication.
I have little time to ponder that before she leads us out of the kitchen and into a much larger room. It is filled with tables, some of which sit out in the open and others of which are tucked away in corners, concealed by gauzy curtains. Scattered tapestries and scrolls adorn the walls, along with a few well-displayed pieces of pottery. Most of the people sitting at the tables are men, and their clothing covers a vast range of styles and colors. Some are dressed as humbly as Li Wei and I. Others rival the silk merchant we followed into the township. Aside from one older woman sitting with a large group in the open, the only other female besides Xiu Mei and me appears to work here. She is dressed in silk and has her back to us as she delivers food and drink.
I’ve read about inns in the archives, but Li Wei and I have no personal experience with any place like this. How could we? Who visits our village? Xiu Mei points us toward one of the private tables. We pass a grizzled man standing by the door with arms crossed over his chest. His face is scarred, and there is a tough, no-nonsense air about him. He watches Xiu Mei closely but makes no other movement toward us.
We sit down, and Xiu Mei draws the curtain around us. The smoky fabric is wondrous, sheer, and silky. I immediately find myself touching it. From the outside, it makes seeing the table difficult, but from this side, we can make out most of the goings on in the room. Although I am still nervous about what we’ve stumbled into, I nod politely and tell Xiu Mei our names.
It’s nice to meet you. Wait here , she says. She darts away to a podium across the room, returning with paper and ink. When she addresses us again, her face is eager and curious.
We can talk in here, behind the curtain—but don’t let anyone else see you sign unless I say so. Why are you different from the others? she asks. Why is your language different?
What others? I ask, wondering if I’ve missed something.
The others who can’t hear. They also speak with their hands, but a few of your words aren’t the same. They’re like . . .
I don’t follow her next sign, which kind of proves her point. Using her ink and paper, she writes out: . . . variations of each other.
I don’t know the people you mean , I tell her. As far as we know, we are the only ones from our village to have ever come here.