But when I reach the rope’s end, there is no other place to secure a rope. The zip line’s start is still far out of reach. I must climb with my hands now, praying I make the right choices and that my holds won’t crumble to dust in my fingers and send me plummeting back below. Amazingly, everything holds, but just as I’m almost finally near the end, I hear the rumblings of a small rock fall from above. Unlike before, there is nowhere to seek shelter, no rope to swing out of danger on. All I can do is cling to the mountain and hide my face, hoping this avalanche will miss me.
Several sharp rocks strike my arms and face, causing me to flinch, and I must summon all my resolve simply to hold on and maintain my hand- and footholds. When silence returns again, I slowly lift my head, listening for further signs of trouble. None come, and I make my move, scrambling up as quickly as I dare, needing to reach the top. When I see the zip line station, I nearly cry in relief. With trembling arms, I pull myself up and grip an outcropping of rock that will let me pull myself over onto solid ground. Almost immediately, I feel the rock crumble in my hands. There’s nothing else to grasp, and I scream as I fall backward, back down the cliff into the blackness below.
I land back-first on the ledge I was on earlier, hitting with an impact so great that it momentarily knocks the wind out of me. I lay there, gasping, staring up at all the distance I just lost. Tears spring to my eyes, and the urge to give up threatens to engulf me. I feel despair not only for myself but for Li Wei. Out on the line, I couldn’t allow myself to worry too much about him, not with my survival in the balance. Now all those fears come tumbling back. What has happened to him? Is he even alive? Worse still is the guilt of knowing that if I’d simply run away with him, I could have saved him from his fate. That would have meant abandoning Zhang Jing . . . but what does it matter? I’ve failed everyone now.
Stop that, Fei , I tell myself sternly. All is not lost. Make Li Wei proud. You climbed down the mountain. You want to go back up it. You can see your goal—don’t give up now.
Sniffling, hurting everywhere, I manage to make my way to my feet. I have bruises and aches in parts of my body I didn’t even know existed, but I refuse to let them master me. Gritting my teeth, I retrace this last, painstaking climb up to the top. My hands are bloodied by the time I make it up, and without the outcropping from earlier, pulling myself up at the end is much more difficult. I must rely on the strength of the rest of my body—a body pushed past its limits. For a brief moment, as I try to haul myself up and onto the mountain’s top, my muscles can’t quite do it. I am stuck there, clinging to the cliff, knowing it will take only the briefest of slips to send me plummeting back to the ledge below—or worse.
Do it for Zhang Jing. Do it for Li Wei.
The feel of their names in my mind gives me courage. I cry out, pulling myself over the edge, touching the rocky—but solid—ground with gratitude. It’s now the middle of the night, but against all odds, I have made it to the zip line station. I have made it home.
I rise to my feet, my legs still weak and shaking, knowing I have no time to rest—despite how much my body is screaming to. I need to alert the others to what is happening. I press forward and nearly trip over several dark bundles on the ground near the zip line station. I can’t tell what they are in the darkness, so I kneel down to unwrap one and am astonished to find it full of glittering gold ore. Another bag reveals silver. These are mined metals, a day’s work, waiting to go down. Why are they still here, just sitting out? These would provide the day’s food.
I know I won’t find out by sticking around. I make my way back to the heart of the village, more relieved than I can say to be in my homeland after the adventures of these last couple of days. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to fix things or alert people, but my feet take me, almost of their own volition, back to the one place I feel safest: the Peacock Court.
Getting inside presents a new challenge. I’m not yet ready to announce my return to the others, so I don’t want to use any of the doors that might alert one of the servants on watch. Instead, I go to an out-of-the-way window in the back of the building, one that opens near a storage room where we keep art supplies. A latticework of narrow wooden slats covers the paper windowpane, and with a grimace, I begin breaking and prying out the wooden guards. It makes a terrible amount of noise—as does the paper windowpane, when I’m finally able to rip it out—but I at least have the reassurance of knowing I’m the only one who can hear it.
When I’ve created a big enough opening, I climb through and land just outside the supply room, as expected. From there, it’s just a matter of making my way through the school to the servants’ wing. Along the way, I dodge more servants on patrol than I recall seeing last time, which seems odd. Fortunately, their sounds alert me, and no one is on guard in the servants’ actual sleeping wing. I sneak into the women’s room, and there, just as I last saw her, is Zhang Jing sleeping in her bed.
Although it’s only been a matter of days, I feel like years have passed since I saw my sister. My whole world has opened up on my journey. I don’t even feel like the same person. Zhang Jing is the same, though. Still sweet and beautiful, her face peaceful in sleep. I watch her for several moments, overwhelmed by my love for her, and then wipe tears back from my eyes. Trying to be as gentle but as firm as I can, I shake her awake. She stirs, blinking in confusion, and then manages to focus on me in the dimness. She gasps, her eyes widening.
I throw my arms around her, and she buries her face in my shoulder. I have tears in my eyes again and can feel them on her face as well. When she finally pulls back to look at me, her pretty face is a mixture of emotions: confusion, relief, suspicion.