She props the torch so that she can sign. From her troubled expression, I can tell she’s trying to decide which story about me to believe. Some of them. They brought a bunch of us here—as many as they could—and then sealed the door leading here from the school.
I can’t hold back any longer. Was my sister with them?
No. Jin Luan’s face falls a little. Not everyone made it in.
I feel a pang in my chest, and Li Wei gives my arm a quick, comforting squeeze that Sheng’s sharp eyes don’t fail to notice. We must talk to the elders , I reiterate. Can you take us to them?
Jin Luan glances at Sheng. One of us will have to stay here and stand guard.
He stares at her in disbelief. Are you serious? After what they’ve done?
Jin Luan meets his gaze unblinkingly. I’m serious about helping our people. And no one really knows what they’ve done—least of all you. It is for the elders to judge them.
Sheng scowls, and for a few seconds, the two of them are locked in a battle of wills. I confess, I have never had more respect for her than I do right now. She’s always been my artistic rival; I never realized her true strength.
Fine , Sheng says at last. He hands her the blade. I will take them.
I nod at her in thanks as we pass by and follow Sheng down the tunnel. With the torch behind us, we are soon swallowed by darkness. Without even realizing I’m doing it, I find Li Wei’s hand as we walk. Our fingers intertwine, keeping us connected as our free hands feel along the tunnel’s sides. When we reach the turn, faint illumination from more torches ahead begins to guide us, and we soon find ourselves walking into a wide, open room underground supported by stone posts and wooden beams. I tense, not sure what we’ll encounter—I know about this area only by reputation. The bare walls have been plastered, and the floor is made of hard-packed earth. And we are not alone.
Masters , Sheng declares. Look who I’ve found.
I clasp Li Wei’s hand tighter as I face the elders for the first time since I left the village.
Most of them are here, including Elder Chen and Elder Lian. Several apprentices and a few school servants are gathered around them. My heart sinks when I don’t see Zhang Jing. I’d hoped Jin Luan was wrong about her. They all stop what they’re doing when we enter, turning to stare at us. Beneath their scrutiny, I feel almost more vulnerable than I did when I stood on the dais and faced the whole village. These are my peers and my mentors, the people I’ve worked with every day. They thought the best of me, but then, because of my actions, that viewpoint changed. The impact of that weighs heavily on me.
When no one acts right away, I release Li Wei’s hand and approach Elder Chen deferentially. I bow three times, low, before speaking. Greetings, master. I beg your pardon for leaving without permission. I have come now to tell you all the things I’ve observed in my time away.
Elder Chen studies me for a long time, and I tense, fearful of what he will do. He might very well have Li Wei and me thrown back outside into the chaos, and it would be completely within his rights. Perhaps I didn’t cause our village’s initial difficulties, but my actions are certainly what have caused our current ones.
Is it true? Elder Chen asks at last. What you told us in your painting?
Every word, master , I reply.
He studies me a bit longer, and then, to the complete astonishment of everyone in the room, Elder Chen bows to me. It appears we may owe you a great debt , he says once he straightens up. His eyes fall on Li Wei. Both of you. Now. Let us talk about what you know.
I’M HONORED AND FLUSTERED but also self-conscious, because by this point I’ve already told the village all I know. The current actions of the township and the army are as much a mystery to me as to everyone else.
Li Wei steps forward, bowing to the elders before speaking. If you’ll allow me, I can add to what Fei has told you. I spent the night as one of their prisoners, marching up the mountain pass. I couldn’t understand the guards, but a few of them can sign. I also met a prisoner—one of the plateau villagers—who has learned to read lips. Between them, I know some of what is happening.
By all means , Elder Chen says. Continue.
Once they realized Fei had made it back up here, they decided to do a forced march up the passes with the soldiers and some of the other village’s prisoners. They’ve apparently had this explosive powder for a while and could have cleared the passes long ago.
This leaves all of us dumbfounded for a moment. By now, I shouldn’t be surprised by the township’s cruelty . . . but it still comes as a shock. We’ve been beholden to the zip line system for so long, given no future except to mine for our survival. If the passes had been clear, we would have had access to trade and travel, not to mention the fertile valleys our ancestors allegedly grew crops in. But then, if we’d had those freedoms, the king and the township would have lost their source of metals.
Why open it now? I ask. It costs them their hold on us: If we can leave the mountain, we no longer have to mine for our food. They no longer get their metals.
That’s why they brought the soldiers and the other prisoners , Li Wei explains. They plan on doing one big push in the mines, using our people and the other displaced miners to get as much metal as possible while the soldiers stand guard and enforce their rule. They want to deplete the mine as quickly as possible, even if it kills the rest of us in the process.
All this because we found out the truth? I say in disbelief. Because I came back and told everyone what was going on?
Now Li Wei turns unexpectedly hesitant, glancing between our audience and me. It’s more than that.