Once we are both out, I hear shouts from above and look up. We may have escaped the guards in Nuan’s camp, but the ones on this watchtower have seen us. Our only saving grace is that it will take them time to get down and out. That buys us faint, precious time, and we cannot linger, especially when a few arrows come shooting down after us.
Without another backward glance, Li Wei and I run for our lives into the woods.
ONCE, WHEN I WAS A CHILD, some older kids in our village got it into their heads to steal lunches from the younger children. It only lasted a few days before some adults got wind of the bullies and put an end to it. But one of those days, I bravely sneaked into the part of the woods where the thieves were lording over their hoard, snatched a bunch of the lunches back, and took off running. It was one of the most terrifying chases of my life. My heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. I didn’t have a chance to think about where I was going; I only knew I had to get away, to run as far and as fast as I could.
Outrunning the soldiers reminds me a lot of that day, with one exception: That childhood race was silent. This isn’t.
My hearing is both a blessing and a curse as Li Wei and I desperately run for our lives. On the one hand, I can tell how close our pursuers are, whether they are gaining ground. But sound also adds to the terror of the chase. Having an extra set of stimuli increases my panic, making an already stressful situation that much worse. It’s hard to focus and think coherently.
Li Wei stops after some time, breathing heavily and rubbing his ankle. I wonder if it still hurts from his fall, but I know he’ll deny it if I ask. Perhaps we’ve lost them , he says.
I shake my head, still able to hear men and horses. Scanning, I point in what I think is the opposite direction of our pursuers. There. We must go there.
To Li Wei, all this forested area looks the same, but he trusts me enough to go without question. We take off again, running until my muscles burn and I am forced to stop and take in big gulps of air. Peering around, I realize the only sounds I hear are those I’ve come to associate with any forest: rustling leaves and birds calling. I look to Li Wei, who is bent over, hands resting on his knees as he too catches his breath.
I don’t hear them , I say, watching him again nurse his ankle. I think we’ve lost them. Are you okay?
He waves me off. Fine, fine. I just need a minute.
We should hurry and begin climbing back , I tell him. We have to reach our people.
His smile fades, and he shakes his head. Fei, that’s impossible. We’ve lost them for now, but they’re almost certainly going to go scout around the cliffs, expecting us to climb back. We won’t be able to get far enough before they find us. They’ll shoot us down with arrows. You thought the climb down was slow and painstaking? Going up is doubly so.
I frown. What are you saying then? How are we going to help them?
We aren’t , he states. We can’t get back up, and even if we could . . . Fei, I know you think—you hope—the elders will spur our village into action and make them leave for some new future. But do you really believe that? Think logically, not with an artist’s imagination. Our people are fearful and know nothing of the world. They won’t leave. They won’t believe us.
Then what are we supposed to do? I demand, stunned at this turn.
Go. He pauses and spreads his arms wide. Anywhere. Anywhere we want to in Beiguo. Or outside of it. I saw what Nuan said about my carving. We are skilled. We can get out of here, join a group of travelers at the inn, and go some place far away, somewhere we can eat well every day and earn enough to wear silk. Someplace you can listen to music and do the art you truly want to do. Someplace where love is not dictated by our jobs—jobs that have been forced on us by others.
His words send me reeling, but one in particular catches me. Love? I ask.
In a moment, he has closed the distance between us. An intensity burns in his eyes like I’ve never seen before. Yes, Fei. Love. I loved you the moment you looked up at me so defiantly from the ruins of that broken shed. I loved you all the years we spent growing up together. I loved you when you told me you were leaving to join the artists. Throughout it all, my heart has only ever had one person’s name on it—yours. And you can talk all you want about rank and how we can’t be together, but I know you love me too.
I raise my hands and actually think I might be able to convincingly deny it. But my hands tremble, and something in my face tells him the truth—that I love him too, have loved him since that beautiful, glittering boy came to my rescue. A boy who’s now become a man of passionate conviction, a pillar of strength at my side.
Then, before I realize what is happening, Li Wei pulls me to him and kisses me. Back when he nearly kissed me at the inn, he was timid and cautious. No more. There is a power and certainty in what he does as our bodies meld together and I lose myself in that kiss. Once I felt like I had too many senses, now I suddenly feel as though they’ve all disappeared. I hear nothing. I see nothing. All I’m aware of in the world at that moment is the feel of his lips on mine. It is dizzying and exhilarating, somehow leaving me both hot and cold all over and filling me up from my head to my toes with emotions that are as foreign to me as new sounds.
When we briefly break apart, I am breathless. I feel as though I am seeing the world with new eyes now that I’m no longer trying to convince myself I don’t care about him. Opening myself to my feelings and the truth has freed me. Li Wei kisses me again. I’m a little more prepared—but only a little. That kiss floods me with heat and longing as well as a renewed sense of hope and purpose.