A great cry from the table tells me another competitor has been stung. I shake my head in disgust. It can’t be worth it for that sort of injury!
It isn’t deadly , Li Wei says, face intrigued as he watches the spectacle again. I’ve seen it happen to others. The swelling will go down in another day or so.
It still doesn’t seem like it’s worth the risk, no matter the riches, and judging from Xiu Mei’s exasperated expression as she supervises the matches, she agrees. After the last defeat, no other volunteers offer themselves up. The bearded man calmly nods to his assistant, who dumps more coins on the table. I see temptation in the eyes of those gathered, but no one steps forward.
It is more difficult now , Li Wei tells me. The scorpion is agitated, more likely to strike.
The old man’s assistant pours out still more coins. It’s not enough to entice anyone , I remark. No one is that foolish.
Or so I think.
To my complete astonishment, Li Wei gets up and strides forward. Before I can even think to stop him, he has pushed through the crowd and holds out the pixiu statue to the assistant. The young man looks it over with a critical eye, particularly the gold trim, and then gives a sharp nod of acceptance. The crowd goes crazy, and I spur myself forward. I need to stop him, tell him he’s being an idiot, but a warning look from Xiu Mei stills me. I can’t sign to Li Wei—not in front of all these people.
Helpless, I watch as the bets are taken. Most of them are against . I don’t need to understand what the others are saying to know their thoughts. From their expressions and nudges, it’s clear they think Li Wei is some bumbling, naive boy who will almost certainly falter and fail. Untroubled by their comments, Li Wei’s hard gaze is fixed squarely on the scorpion in its box. He never takes his eyes from it as the bets are collected, and his jaw is tightly clenched.
I’m nearly as tense and again have to fight the urge to drag him away from this madness. But there’s no time. With the bets in, the bearded man has the scorpion out and on Li Wei’s hand. I stop breathing. The crowd starts in with its cacophony, but that at least is one distraction Li Wei doesn’t have to worry about. He is oblivious to the sounds, able to focus solely on keeping his hands and arms straight—which, even I have to admit, he does remarkably well. Back and forth he passes the scorpion, remaining calm and collected the entire time, while I grow increasingly anxious. What is he thinking? He can’t risk that kind of injury to his hand, especially if we have to climb back soon! And what if he’s wrong about how harmless the sting really is?
Six, seven, eight. On the ninth pass, the crowd goes wild, trying desperately to unnerve him as he nears his final pass. He doesn’t twitch at all, but I am shaking so much that I wrap my arms around myself to stay steady. The tenth pass finishes, and triumphant, he returns the scorpion to its box. Pandemonium breaks out. Most of the spectators lost, but a few who bet on Li Wei will be paid handsomely. The assistant pushes an enormous stack of coins toward Li Wei, who shakes his head and points to the vivid red silk. After a quick conference with his master, the assistant collects a few of the coins and then hands the rest to Li Wei, along with the silk and pixiu statue.
Grinning, Li Wei gathers up his winnings and starts to step away when another man suddenly crosses his path. The man speaks, but Li Wei can’t understand. He stares in confusion, which seems to agitate the man. Whatever he says next causes a few others to regard Li Wei speculatively, and I tense, wondering what is going wrong. Xiu Mei suddenly moves to his side and says something with an easy smile. This pacifies the others, though the original speaker looks suspicious. She steers Li Wei back to the seclusion of our table, and I quickly join them.
Are you out of your mind? I demand. What would drive you to do something so dangerous? You were nearly stung!
Nearly? Li Wei asks indignantly after setting down his goods. I wasn’t even close to that!
I’ll agree to that , Xiu Mei says wryly. You were in more danger of being discovered as deaf, which many would see as an unfair advantage. That man thought you were too calm around the noise, and then you didn’t answer him. I told him you come from far away and don’t speak our language.
Thank you , I tell her, needing to get us back on track from this madness. Now, if you could help us find the others who—
I stop as a new commotion draws my attention. Two men at the table have gotten into a physical confrontation over something. One man dives at another, knocking his chair backward. Xiu Mei sprints away, trying to intercede. Li Wei gets to his feet, ready to help her, but her father is already on the move. He darts across the room, clearly intent on breaking up the fight, but he isn’t fast enough to stop what happens next.
The men keep grappling with each other, and one is slammed into the wall with an impact so great, I can feel the vibrations across the room. A small shelf high on the wall displaying an ornate bowl wavers and then sends the bowl crashing to the floor. Lu Zhu puts her hand to her mouth and lets out a small scream.
By the time the men stop their fighting, Xiu Mei’s father has them both by the necks of their shirts and is hauling them out of the inn. Xiu Mei and Lu Zhu both kneel around the broken bowl, their faces stricken with worry and fear. Li Wei watches them with concern but finally settles back down beside me when he observes no immediate danger.
I wonder what has happened , I say. Even though it has nothing to do with us, I can’t help but feel bad for Xiu Mei, who is clearly distraught. Once her father has thrown the other men out, he comes to speak with her and Lu Zhu. The rest of the inn’s patrons go on with their normal business, but those three remain upset. At last, Xiu Mei’s father shakes his head sadly as he says something. Xiu Mei gives a great sigh and stares bleakly ahead, doing a double take as she catches sight of our curtained table. I think she had forgotten about us. Quickly, she hurries over and joins us within the curtained seclusion.