What’s wrong? Li Wei asks.
I set down a shard with a pixiu and a deer on it. This one in particular seems to resonate with me. Nothing. Just something from a dream.
The same dream that keeps disturbing your sleep? he asks sagely.
It’s not important , I say. I start to avoid his gaze again, and he reaches out, tipping my chin up so that I must meet his eyes.
Fei, you know you can trust me. I’m here for you. I always have been and always will be. Tell me what’s wrong.
You can’t keep rescuing me , I say.
Of course not , he agrees. You can rescue yourself—but perhaps I can give you a hand now and then.
I smile faintly, but there is an ache in my chest as I think back to that long-ago day, trapped in the rubble when a beautiful, glittering boy held out his hand to pull me out. A moment later I find myself telling him everything about the night my hearing came to me and the dream I had of everyone in our village opening their mouths in a single cry.
You think this pull you’ve been feeling is tied to your hearing? To why it returned? he asks.
I don’t know , I admit. I don’t understand why any of this happened to me.
I want to say more, but over his shoulder, I see Lu Zhu going about her work. Her pretty face is drawn with worry, and I remind myself I must help these people first. I can give in to my own worries later. I paint with a renewed vigor, conscious that time is pressing upon us. When I finally finish and compare my copy to the broken one, I am more than pleased at what I’ve wrought.
You did it , Li Wei says. It’s a perfect match.
Not a perfect match , I say. My blue is darker than the original.
Well, I’m no painter, but it looks amazing to me. His eyes lift to something behind me. And not a moment too soon.
I turn and see Xiu Mei hurrying through the door toward us. Our master is returning! she tells us once she reaches our table. I saw him on the way back and was just able to get ahead of him and— She stops when she sees my bowl, looking back and forth between it and the broken pieces I copied. That’s it? You did this?
I nod, suddenly feeling flustered. I can’t interpret her expression, and I fear the worst, that she’ll tell me it’s a ridiculous imitation and that I’ve just given her and her father a death sentence.
I don’t know what’s more incredible , she says, that you did it at all or that you did it in so short a time. There are renowned masters in the capital who would fight to take you on as an apprentice.
I already have a great master , I say proudly, thinking of Master Chen.
Xiu Mei gets rid of the broken pieces and then hands the copied bowl to her father. Careful of the wet paint, he cautiously places it on the shelf just minutes before the inn’s master returns. When he walks in the door, I can immediately see how he might order someone beaten for an accident. His face is narrow and drawn, and he has the expression of someone who is perpetually displeased with everything he sees. He scrutinizes the room as he enters, taking in the number of guests and how his employees work. His pinched eyes scan the wall of art but find nothing amiss, and I exhale a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. Continuing on his way, he snaps something loud and hostile-sounding at the kitchen boy, who scurries away in fear. The master then approaches Xiu Mei at the podium, and she greets him with a bow. A conversation ensues between them, and after another wary survey, the man stalks away.
When he has disappeared into a back room, Xiu Mei returns to us, grinning. He suspects nothing. Thank you.
It was my pleasure to help , I say honestly.
And now I can help you. Nuan is willing to speak with you later, closer to sunset. I have some duties to attend to and will take you to her in a couple of hours. Come. She beckons for us to stand up. I’ll get you some dinner.
Li Wei starts to hand her some of his coins, but Xiu Mei shakes her head. After what Fei did today, believe me, your dinner is paid for.
Li Wei’s eyes sparkle. Fei is the hero now. My daring feat with the scorpion isn’t so impressive anymore.
We all laugh at that, relieved that the earlier tension has lightened. I see other patrons eating in the common room and am puzzled as to why we wouldn’t just eat at our curtained table. We followed her out to another small staircase and go up one floor. The room she leads us into leaves me gaping.
I thought I had seen many beautiful and wondrous things since coming to the township, but this room puts them all to shame. Screens and tapestries fill it with color and whimsy, each scene lovelier than the last. I see goldfish swimming on a pattern of blue and white flowers, silver pheasants on a backdrop of black and blue. The scenes go on and on, and I feel like I could spend hours staring at each one. Jade vases of flowers sit in the corners, and the middle of the room holds a small low table of gleaming black wood. The far side of the room isn’t screened but is a made of a fine wooden mesh. When I get closer, I see that it looks down on the common room below. Ornate lanterns bathe everything around me in a gentle glow.
What is this place? I ask.
We call it the Egret Pavilion—even though it’s not really a pavilion. Xiu Mei rolls her eyes. The master is trying to emulate some of the really high-class inns in the capital.
This isn’t high class? I ask in disbelief.
Not compared to some of the ones I’ve seen , she says. But it’s fine for some wealthy guests who come through to host parties or eat a private dinner. No one’s renting it out today, and our master is busy. You won’t be disturbed. Relax, and Lu Zhu will be up with some food. As soon as I finish some accounting, I’ll take you to Nuan.
I’m so overwhelmed by the beauty of this room that I can’t help but bow to Xiu Mei. Thank you. I think you’ve done far more for us than we have for you.