I do, recounting the dream and how I saw the village in despair. When all the villagers opened their mouths to cry out, sound returned to me—as well as that sense of connection that I haven’t been able to fully comprehend. Elder Chen nods as I explain, and then he seeks out another scroll. When he returns, I see it is even older than the other one, the paper fragile and flaking. He will not allow anyone else to touch it, and he kneels down on his old, weary knees to open it himself.
Most of the documents here are copies , Elder Lian comments as we watch Elder Chen skim for the information he seeks. Some are kept down here simply because they are so precious and rare.
The scroll is all text, no illustrations, and after a few agonizing minutes, Elder Chen finally looks up. It’s just as I remember. This document is from someone who claims to have lived among pixius, long ago. It says the pixius can form connections of the mind with people who are open to it, those special individuals who are able to fully visualize the world and its possibilities. I think you are one such person, Fei. And I think a pixiu was trying to tell you something. Here it says that the pixius bring protection and fortune to the righteous—that they respond to the cries of those in need.
Everyone stares at me again when he finishes, and I take a step back, overwhelmed. Master, I can’t be one of those people. There’s nothing special about me.
Isn’t there, Fei? he asks with amusement. You’re the only one of us who can hear. Somehow a pixiu has reached out to you. Your hearing is a sign of its mark. The fact that it showed your people crying out, just as this text says the pixius respond to such cries, is a sign.
It is the sign that the king fears , says Li Wei eagerly. Perhaps we can make a stand against the king’s soldiers if we can summon the pixius back.
What does that mean? asks another elder, speaking up at last. His name is Elder Ho, and it has been obvious to me since I arrived that he does not share Elder Chen’s faith in my story. We don’t even know why the pixius disappeared or if they’re even real. These scrolls could just be myth.
They’re real , I say, thinking back to that tug I keep feeling within me. I think back also to the moment I heard all the people crying out in my dream. At the time I was so overwhelmed by the strangeness of my first experience with sound that I couldn’t comprehend much else. But simultaneously, in the back of my mind, I felt that stirring—that otherness activated by the people’s cries, even in just a dream. And when the army attacked today and my people cried out erratically, I felt the stirring again.
What are you thinking, general? Li Wei asks, seeing me lost in memories.
I give him a faint smile at the old nickname before turning to the others. I can’t explain it . . . only that I can feel it, but I think Elder Chen is right. I think the pixius will respond to the cries of our people. I think back to the dream, trying to recapture it exactly. It must be all of them raised at once. And it must be loud. Intense , I clarify when it’s clear no one in the room understands what I mean by loud . That’s how it was in the dream. That’s what the pixius need.
Elder Ho still looks skeptical, but everyone else is warming to the idea. I wonder if it’s because they believe me or because they are so desperate after the terrible turn of events in our village that they’ll sign on to any plan that offers hope, no matter how farfetched.
We must tell them , says Li Wei. If the soldiers are going through with their plan, they will have rounded up most of the villagers to force them to mine. I will go back outside and let them capture me. Then I can tell the others.
I’ll go with you , I say promptly.
No , says Elder Lian. It’s too dangerous. If you’re known to them as the specific threat that might bring back the pixius, then you shouldn’t be out there.
And yet that is exactly why she must be in the midst of it , counters Elder Chen serenely. She is the connection. She cannot hide away if it is her very presence that will affect the transformation of what is to come.
It will still be chaotic out there , I say. Although I am speaking to everyone gathered, I purposely make eye contact with Li Wei. Something tells me he is the one who will need the most convincing that I should be in the line of danger. And although the soldiers may have my description, most haven’t actually seen me. They won’t think I’m different from any other villager.
Elder Lian nods thoughtfully. Perhaps we can help. Perhaps there is a way to make you harder to detect.
After a bit of consultation, a boy among the servants is forced to exchange his outfit for mine. Although I am still wearing pilfered boy clothes, these new ones are dull in color and more likely to blend in with the other villagers rather than mark me in the telltale blue of the apprentices. Elder Ho, to my surprise, gives me his hat, a small, nondescript cloth one that nonetheless hides much of my hair and is something generally only seen on men. A healthy dose of dirt smudged on my face goes a long way to complete the illusion.
There , says Elder Lian. At a glance, the soldiers will not think you are the girl they’re looking for. Most of our own people probably won’t notice you either. I imagine they have bigger concerns now anyway.
We discuss a few more points of strategy, and I am startled when several among the apprentices and servants want to come with us. We want to add our voices , explains the boy whose clothes I wear. Besides, you won’t be spotted so quickly if you’re in a group.
The elders agree but want to hold some people back just in case. While they make their choices, I try to remain patient, but the need to act burns within me, making me restless. I have one last hope about where Zhang Jing is, and I want to investigate it.