I’m sorry , she says. You’re going to have to leave. We all are. Our lives are in danger.
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? asks Li Wei, getting to his feet again. He looks around, ready for danger to leap out of the walls. Did the soldiers find us?
No, no , Xiu Mei says. It has nothing to do with you. It’s the bowl. She opens her hand, revealing a broken shard. It is white porcelain, with a brightly colored design painted on it. Our master—the man who owns this inn—is very proud of his collection. The last time one of his employees let something get broken, our master had him hunted down and beaten. Later, the servant died of his injuries. She sighs again. Fortunately, the master isn’t due back for a while. My father and I have time to flee. Lu Zhu will probably go with us so that she’s not blamed in our absence.
We were hoping you could take us to the others who are like us , says Li Wei.
She shakes her head. I’m sorry. We must use every bit of time we have to leave.
I pick up the shard she’s set on the table and hold it to the light. The porcelain looks nearly identical to what I saw in the kitchen, with nothing particularly special about it. It’s the design that makes it unique, I suppose. I can’t be sure, but it looks like part of a phoenix.
Does your master inspect his art each day? I ask.
No, but he will instantly be able to tell something is missing from the wall , Xiu Mei says.
I look up to where the shelf is on the opposite side of the room. It is prominent enough to be noticed but too high for whatever’s on it to be viewed too closely. Glancing down, I study the design again. Do you have paints? I ask. If you got me a bowl from the kitchen, I could re-create this. Your master would never know.
Xiu Mei looks at me like I’m a crazy person. That’s impossible.
Not for her , says Li Wei proudly, catching on to my plan. If you replace the bowl, you and your father won’t have to run away.
That would be great , she says grudgingly, but even if you could do such a thing, we only have a few hours at most.
Just get me the supplies I need , I say.
Disbelievingly, Xiu Mei gets up to speak to her father and Lu Zhu. Minutes later, they have gathered at our table, bringing me a clean bowl from the kitchen, the fragments of the broken one, and as many paints as they could muster. Some look like household paints, the kinds used for repairs. Others are of a more delicate quality, and Xiu Mei explains that those are used for paperwork and documents. The colors aren’t an exact match, but I have enough of a variety to feel confident in what I can do. I arrange all the broken pieces together to get a sense of the original and then dive into my work.
All is silent for a while, and then Lu Zhu says something that makes Xiu Mei nod. She turns to Li Wei, and I see her sign in my periphery: You weren’t kidding. Where did she learn that?
In our village , Li Wei says. She is the most talented artist of all our people.
I set down my brush long enough to say, Hush. That’s not true.
Lu Zhu returns to serving tables. Xiu Mei and her father have a conversation, and then she tells us, I’ll go talk to my contact among the silent ones and see if she will meet with you.
Silent ones? Li Wei asks.
It’s what we call your kind , she explains. As long as you stay concealed here, you should be fine. My father and Lu Zhu will keep watch. Get one of them if you have any issues. I will return shortly.
She leaves the inn, and her father resumes his watch of the common room. I continue my work with mixed feelings. Part of me is anxious for Xiu Mei. Will my work be good enough? Will I only get them into more trouble? At the same time, I feel a secret thrill at being able to paint something that is simply beautiful. Until now, I’ve only ever dreamed of that, and it is a delight to imitate the intricate pattern of phoenixes and plum blossoms on the bowl.
I lose track of my surroundings and am startled by a soft sound that I recognize as Li Wei laughing. I glance up and see him watching me intently. What ? I ask, pausing to set down my brush.
I think you’re tenser working on this than I was with the scorpion , he tells me.
I can’t help it , I say. There’s a lot at stake.
He nods, his smile fading. But you’re also into it—I can see it. There’s a light in your face as you work.
I can’t help that either , I tell him. I always see things—imagine them, I mean. Beautiful scenes. They burn in me, and I have to get them out.
Keeping you from this life and forcing you to work in the mines would have been a tragedy , he says solemnly.
I’m unprepared for that. With the recent flurry of activity since coming to the township, I’ve had little time to ruminate on all the unresolved issues between us. Now, looking at him, I’m surprised to see a mix of admiration . . . and an almost reluctant acceptance.
There’s more to it than that , I say. It wasn’t easy, that decision. Never think it was easy. I still—
You still what? he prompts when I don’t finish.
I shake my head and look away, unable to convey what’s truly in my heart. How can I explain that I have thought about him every day since we parted? That in that first year of officially being an apprentice, I constantly questioned whether I’d made the right choice in walking away from him? My desire to make art and for Zhang Jing’s security got me through many low moments.
My eyes come to rest on the bowl, and I suddenly stiffen. Now that I’m looking at the larger picture and not the individual shards, I notice that although the main design depicts a phoenix, the border appears to be a mix of all sorts of animals, both real and imagined. I see tigers, qilins, cranes, elephants, dragons, and more. I pick up each piece one by one and feel that strange tugging in my chest.