It is quiet here, giving us a brief respite, and I run into his arms again. He holds me tightly, burying his face in my neck as the safety of his strength engulfs me.
Looks like you rescued me this time , he says, once we are able to speak.
How are you here? I was so worried about you , I say. I didn’t know what they’d done to you. I didn’t know if you’d be able to escape.
Actually, I did escape , he says. And then I found out they were marching back here . . . so I surrendered.
I try not to gape. But why?
I couldn’t leave our people to this fate, especially once I experienced the cruelty of the soldiers for myself. And . . . He gently traces the line of my cheek before continuing. I couldn’t leave you, Fei. I don’t care how dangerous it is here or what wonders Beiguo could hold for me. My place is with you, wherever that is.
I’m glad you came back. It’s an understatement. Shouts nearby force me to turn from him. We must go , I say, thinking frantically. We must get back to the Peacock Court.
It isn’t safe , he counters. They will most certainly attack an important building like that.
There are underground storage rooms beneath it , I tell him. I know a way that won’t be obvious to the soldiers.
His expression shows surprise at this news, but he gives a quick nod. Okay, show me.
We take off again, and I secretly hope Zhang Jing has also remembered the existence of the underground facility. Although the way to the school is fairly direct from here, we find many obstacles blocking our way. The soldiers have reorganized and are moving in small groups, trying to intercept those who made it out of the town square. Li Wei and I find ourselves taking a roundabout way, and at one point we cut very close to the mine itself. There, from the cover of the trees, we see a group of soldiers standing outside the entrance, having a heated conversation in those words I can’t understand. From their gestures—and the shocked look of a miner who runs up and halts when he sees them there—the mine has been used as a place of refuge by some of the villagers. Now the soldiers are squabbling over whether to go in or simply wait out those trapped inside. I wonder if the soldiers know about the poisonous metals and fear them.
How did all of you even get up here? I ask Li Wei. There’s no way you could have climbed in so short a time. There’s no way the horses could.
We took the mountain passes , he explains. If you go to the other side of the mountain, they lead straight up here.
I know about the passes, of course. Everyone does. But they are blocked , I point out. The giant boulders that fell in that ancient avalanche can’t be moved by human hands. Those who tried in the past were crushed by rockfall.
Human hands didn’t move them today , says Li Wei. They used some kind of black powder. I’ve never seen it before, but when enough of it was ignited, it exploded and blew apart the rocks so that we could pass.
I stare at him in wonder, thinking back to that terrible sound I heard just before the soldiers arrived. The township and the king’s men are already terrifying enough. The thought that they possess such weapons makes our chances seem bleaker than ever. Sensing my fear, Li Wei gives me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Come on, general. I will explain more later. We need to keep moving.
Our circuitous journey also takes us near the zip line, where I see more soldiers loading and sending down the abandoned metals from last night. Li Wei and I give them a wide berth, finally reaching the school. We observe it from a distance, noting the soldiers in the area. Some are gathering up villagers who have fled, putting them in chains and leading them away. Other soldiers remain and have started setting fire to some of the smaller houses. They seem to be leaving the Peacock Court alone for now, perhaps because they recognize it as a center of leadership and source of information. I take Li Wei’s arm and lead him into the trees, to a patch of forest far behind the school and the soldiers’ insidious work. I then begin stomping on the ground in various spots, pausing and searching the leafy undergrowth with a critical eye.
What are you doing? he asks.
Trying to remember , I reply. My foot hits a piece of wood cleverly concealed in the underbrush, and triumph flares within me. I kneel down, feeling around for the trapdoor’s handle. I pull it open and glance up at an awestruck Li Wei. Come on , I say. We will be safe here.
We have no light to take with us, but from the sun that shines down, we make out a ladder built into the earthen wall, leading down into a tunnel. I go first, and then Li Wei follows, making sure that the door closes securely behind us. For a moment, we are plunged into darkness, and then a torch flares to life in front of us. Beside it is the blade of a knife, and I recoil until I recognize the faces of two of my fellow apprentices: Jin Luan and Sheng. They look relieved that we’re not soldiers, but they still regard us with understandable wariness, given our reputations.
Are the elders down here? I ask. We must speak to them.
Sheng sheathes the blade and glares. You are in no position to make demands, not after what you’ve done.
We’ve done nothing , says Li Wei. This is the township’s doing—and the king’s. Now let us pass!
Sheng moves into a position that clearly blocks our path. I don’t know what you’ve done to corrupt Fei and twist her thinking, but there’s no way you’re getting past me.
Li Wei’s face hardens. There are plenty of ways I can get past you. Haven’t we been through this already? You didn’t fare so well before.
We have no time for this! I snap, infuriated with both of them. I turn to Jin Luan, hoping she at least will be sensible. Please, you must help. We have valuable information for the elders. Are they here?