Fei , she signs, where have you been? What’s happened? I’ve been so worried about you.
It’s a long story , I say. But I’m okay—for now. The truth is that we’re all in danger. That’s why I’ve come back.
What did you do? she asks. What did you do to make them stop the food?
Now I am the confused one. What do you mean?
Yesterday morning , she explains. The suppliers sent their first shipment of metals down the zip line. No food came up. Instead, a note came from the line keeper about betrayal and spies. No one really understood what it meant, but they kept sending metals, hoping food would come. It didn’t. The line keeper started sending the metals back.
I think back to the glittering bundles sitting out on the ground. I saw them , I say.
People are saying it’s your fault—yours and Li Wei’s. That you did something to anger the line keeper and—
There is no line keeper , I interrupt. Only a group of workers who take turns pulling the line. We’ve been lied to, Zhang Jing. The notes and food come from a larger regime that’s keeping us up here to mine metals for them—metals that are toxic. That’s why we lost the ability to hear, why you and some of the others are going blind. We need to change something—to get away from this place.
That’s impossible , she says. It’s not clear to me which of the many things I’ve just told her is causing her the most disbelief. All of them are a shock to the world she has always known.
It’s not , I say simply. You know me. Would I lie to you?
She meets my gaze for a very long time. No , she says at last. But maybe you’re confused. People say Li Wei is a rebel, that his grief has deluded him and that he’s corrupted you into doing something that’s angered the line keeper. If you just go to Elder Chen, I’m sure you can explain things and get your place back. Maybe we can fix things before people get too hungry.
I don’t even bother correcting her about the line keeper. Zhang Jing, if we don’t take action, there won’t be a place for me. There won’t be anything for any of us except death and despair. We have to explain this to the others.
But inside my heart is sinking a little as Li Wei’s warning rings true. If my own sister won’t believe what I’ve learned, how will the others? And how am I going to convey the full scope of what I’ve seen? Will anyone even listen to me? The township overlords have already done a neat job of turning my people against me, attacking in the most powerful way they can: by withholding food. Zhang Jing’s words about people getting too hungry aren’t lost on me. They are already hungry. In our village, we have at most one extra day’s supply of food at any given time. If no food came up today, the villagers would have had to use that tiny reserve and would have rationed it out pretty strictly. That’s why there were extra servants on watch tonight. No wonder people have been quick to believe the worst of Li Wei and me. They are starving and desperate, just as the township wants. Who will believe our story now? How will I even get them to pay attention?
An idea suddenly hits me. It isn’t ideal, but it’s the best one I’ve got. It’s the only one I’ve got. I think back to when I was standing outside the school, breaking the window. Based on the moon’s descent in the sky, I probably have about three more hours until the first people in the village start waking up. It’s not a lot of time, and I’m so exhausted from the feat of climbing, but what choice do I have? Everything is riding on what I do next.
I rise from where I’m sitting on Zhang Jing’s bed, beckoning her forward. Come on , I say. I’m going to need your help.
With what? she asks, startled.
It’s time to make the record.
ZHANG JING FOLLOWS ME as we head to the school’s work studio. Along the way, we encounter two servants patrolling the halls. I hear them before they see us and am able to dodge them each time, keeping us concealed. Zhang Jing observes all of this without comment until we’re safely behind the closed door of the workroom. I begin lighting lanterns for us to work by.
Fei , she says at last . How are you able to do that? What’s happened to you? Did you receive some kind of enchantment while you were down the mountain?
I smile, imagining how what I’ve been able to do would seem like magic. And really, for all I know, maybe there is some sort of magic involved, since I have yet to understand why this is happening to me. I’ve regained my hearing , I tell her. It surprises me how easily I am able to say those words. I guess after everything I’ve gone through and learned, my hearing is just one more incredible thing. And seeing as how Zhang Jing is having enough trouble believing the rest, I figure I have nothing to lose by sharing this too.
That’s impossible , she says. It’s becoming her standard line.
Believe me, I know , I say. I’ll tell you more about it later, when there’s time. Right now, we need to get to work.
And so, as usual, Zhang Jing follows my lead. The room is set up the way it always is, with the previous day’s record still in progress on assorted pieces of canvas. A glance at what my fellow apprentices have been working on confirms Zhang Jing’s earlier story. It is an accounting of yesterday, covering the rejection of the metals and refusal of food. Even Li Wei and I are mentioned—probably the first time we’ve been included in the record since our birth announcements. There are also recaps of emergency meetings and arguments that have already broken out since the food shortage began. Elder Chen’s other apprentice, Jin Luan, has done a commendable job of painting a scene of some disgruntled miners gathering for a meeting in the village’s center. She’s probably the only person glad for my disappearance.