There is no other way, Fei , he reiterates. We’re running out of time.
Okay , I say. What are we going to do about the line keeper? Normally our village never receives messages at nightfall, leading us to assume that the line keeper—or who we thought was the line keeper—went home at sunset. But now we can just barely make out someone standing at the line. I wonder if he has stayed longer because of today’s series of strange events.
I have an idea , Li Wei says. We begin walking in the line’s direction. He looks like he’s alone. You go talk to him.
About what? I ask incredulously.
Anything. Distract him with your charm.
Li Wei nods and gives me one more urging gesture before disappearing from sight. Mystified, I continue toward the line keeper, ever conscious of the noises farther back in the woods. I wonder if the soldiers have any idea of our plan, if they’ll come in this direction or spread around the mountain in search of a climbing spot. I just don’t know.
I also don’t know exactly what it is I’m supposed to say to the line keeper, especially since he can’t understand me. Presumably I’m to be some kind of diversion while Li Wei enacts the next part of the plan. I don’t know if I can be that captivating, but as I approach the line keeper, I can tell I already have his attention. It’s a different man from the last one, confirming what Nuan said about this simply being a common laborer’s job and not the exalted position we’d imagined. Although he hasn’t seen me before, there’s enough recognition in this man’s face to make me think he’s been given my description. I come to a halt before him, giving a great bow of respect.
Greetings , I say. I know you probably can’t understand a word I’m saying, but that’s not important. What’s important is that you pay enough attention for me to do whatever it is Li Wei needs.
This line keeper looks almost as uneasy as the last one. He utters some of those unintelligible noises and then makes a motion suggesting I follow him down the road. Apparently he learned a lesson from his predecessor about leaving us alone while going for backup.
I smile and shake my head politely, noticing then that Li Wei has crept out of the shadows carrying a large limb. I begin signing with renewed vigor, hoping to keep the line keeper’s interest. I thank you for your gracious offer to escort me to the township, but I think both of us know that’s not the place for me to be right now. And while we’re on the topic of thanks, please express my gratitude to your colleague for his generous gift of food earlier—
Li Wei is almost in position to swing the limb at the back of the line keeper’s head—until he steps on a smaller twig that’s fallen on the road. I hear it. So does the line keeper. He spins around, but Li Wei has already swung the limb. It strikes the side of the line keeper’s head—a blow great enough to render him unconscious. I kneel down, checking the man’s breathing. It is even and steady.
Li Wei and I hurry over to the zip line’s terminus, and it’s all I can do not to demand we give up on this crazy plan right now. How can Li Wei hope to hold out against these people? How can he hide from them when they have the advantage of hearing? Even just now, his plan was nearly foiled when he made a noise and didn’t even realize it. But despite my fears, I stay silent. He has made his choice and is ready to face the danger of staying here so that I can warn our people. My doubts will only hinder him, and I vow to remain calm and strong.
We do a quick rearranging of our packs, giving him the bulk of the food for weight purposes. I would give it all to him, but he insists I bring some as proof to our people about where we’ve been. I curl up in the basket that normally holds metals and food, and he loosely binds me to the line with an extra length of rope, just as a precaution. I hold on to the line as well, of course, my grip tight through the gloves. I look up toward the mountain, which is falling deeper and deeper into shadows, giving it an ominous feel. It seems like an eternity away, endlessly high and impossible to reach.
It won’t take that long , Li Wei tells me. You’ve seen them send stuff down before. You’ll be up a lot faster than it took us to get down—though I’m sure this line has never held such valuable cargo before.
He leans in and kisses me again, a kiss that manages to be both tender yet still full of that earlier intensity and passion. It completely undoes me, and I wish I could wrap my arms around him and never let him go. I think about his earlier words, about how he should have kissed me sooner. The time we’ve wasted leaves an ache in my heart, especially knowing I may never see him again.
Goodbye, Fei , he says when he straightens back up again. Save our people . . . and don’t forget about me.
Tears threaten me. I release the line long enough to sign, There will never be another name on my heart.
His eyes shining, he gives me one last kiss and then begins turning the crank. With a jerk, I lurch forward up the line, rocking back and forth with each turn of the crank. The basket and ropes holding me suddenly seem terribly fragile, and whatever skill and bravery I thought I’d earned from our descent blow away in the wind wailing around me. Coming down the mountain, I at least held my fate in my own hands. I wasn’t facing these dizzying, lethal heights in a basket at the mercy of someone else’s resolve.
No, I realize. Not just someone. Li Wei. As I twist around to look back, my eyes lock with his. His gaze is dark and steady, never leaving my face as he turns the zip line’s crank with every bit of strength he has. Moving me up the line at such a fast speed is no small feat, especially after all the work we did climbing down. But there is a relentless air about Li Wei as he turns, a determination that tells me I have nothing to fear so long as my fate is in his hands. He will guide me up to the top of the mountain, no matter the cost to him. His resolve wraps around me, securing me more than any rope could.