Forgetting the music, I turn to regard him, lifting my face toward his. He rests his hands on my waist, and his gaze is electric, running over every part of me. I never knew it was possible to be both elated and terrified at the same time. It takes me a moment to recover myself and find the words I need.
You . . . you can’t look at me like that , I tell him.
He lifts his hands to answer, his fingertips brushing my waist. Like what?
You know what , I scold.
Why? he asks, taking a tantalizing step closer. Because you’re an artist and I’m a miner?
I swallow, mesmerized by how close his lips are to mine. Yes , I say. And because . . .
He leans toward me, knowing I’m out of excuses. Because?
My heart thunders in my chest as I close my eyes and lift my face toward his. I feel drunk, not from wine but from being with him in this way. I realize it’s not even about the setting or the clothes or the food. What marks this moment is that for the first time in our acquaintance, there really is no rank here. No artist, no miner. It’s just us.
And Xiu Mei. The sound of the door and her entry into the room end the spell, and I jerk back with a start. Li Wei backs away too, and I know we must look guilty. If she noticed anything between us, she doesn’t comment on it.
How was dinner? she asks.
Incredible , I say honestly, still a little dazed. We’ve never had anything like it.
It was an exquisite experience , Li Wei adds.
I’m glad to hear it , Xiu Mei says . And I’m done with my work, so I can take you to Nuan now.
Li Wei and I exchange brief glances, both of us understanding the same thing. We must wake up from this dream. The interlude is over. It’s time to get back to the business of helping our village.
Your dress is lovely , Xiu Mei tells me. But you’ll probably want to change.
True , I say, wistfully touching the red silk. I wouldn’t want to get it dirty.
It’s less about that than where we’re going. Xiu Mei’s face darkens. Believe me, it isn’t a part of town where you’ll want to stand out. In fact, it’s not a place anyone really wants to go.
PUZZLED BY HER OMINOUS WORDS, I don my artist’s clothes again and help Li Wei gather up our few belongings. Remember, don’t sign or draw attention to yourselves out in public , Xiu Mei warns.
Downstairs, the inn’s master is in the common room, but he pays little attention to us. He is speaking to some patron, his chest puffed with pride as he gestures to the art collection on the wall.
Lu Zhu gives us a wink and a friendly smile as we pass by her. Xiu Mei’s father simply nods, and something tells me he is glad to see us go. He might not agree with the king’s decree, but he fears for his daughter’s safety in speaking with us. Thinking of Zhang Jing, I can respect his protectiveness. I bow by way of thanks as we pass him.
Outside, the sun has sunk in the western sky, though the air is still warm and pleasant. Xiu Mei covers herself up again and leads us back through the twisting streets of the township. I might not be overly familiar with cities and towns, but it soon becomes obvious to me that she is taking us to a less than desirable place. The market we were in earlier didn’t smell great, but the odor is much worse here, making me frequently want to cover my nose. The streets are dirtier too, and the buildings no longer have much in the way of decoration. Soon we don’t see any real buildings at all. We’ve come upon a cluster of tents and a handful of dilapidated shacks. The people moving around this area don’t wear the colors or fabrics we observed in the marketplace, and they are all thin, just like us.
They’re also all signing.
Flashes of signed conversation that I observe appear to be the same type of language Xiu Mei uses. I think about the stories of how the language my village uses came from one used by our migratory ancestors. Xiu Mei’s guess, that our two peoples changed the language over time, makes sense. We’ve each added and dropped words until parts are unrecognizable.
Some of those milling among the tents recognize us as outsiders and stop to stare. Xiu Mei leads us to a threadbare tent, and we must duck to enter its low door. There, inside, an old woman sits cross-legged. Lines and wrinkles mark her face, and she is dressed in rags. Back at the inn, I felt poorly dressed, but here, my artist’s uniform, even with the splattered mud, appears luxurious. Xiu Mei bows and tells the woman, These are the ones I told you about. To us, she says, I must get back. I’m glad we met and hope you find what you’re looking for. Thank you for your help.
Li Wei and I bow. Thank you for yours , I say. When she is gone, I bow to the old woman. Thank you for speaking with us.
She indicates that we should join her on the floor, and we do. My name is Nuan , she tells us. Who are you? Where are you from?
We give her our names, and when I tell her we come from the mountain, she looks puzzled. I remember that this word was different for Xiu Mei too, and I wish we’d brought our paper and ink. Li Wei rummages through his sack and finds the stick I used to draw a game board. He draws the character for mountain , and she nods in understanding.
We use a different sign , she explains. She shows us how her people sign mountain . It’s different from ours, but I can see how both signs had a common origin. You can’t be from the mountain , she adds. I know everyone who came with us from the . . .
I don’t know the words she uses, and we must again pause to draw it out: plateau. Realization and shock hit me.
You’re from the plateau! I say. From the dead village! You’re one of the ones who escaped!
She watches my hands avidly, and I can tell she’s having the same issues I have, not always immediately grasping some words. She’s less able to follow along than Xiu Mei, but she understands enough to get what I’m saying and nods. Yes. But you aren’t from there.