But there is a selfish part of me that hopes those I am close to—specifically Zhang Jing and Li Wei—will be chosen by pixius too. I want them to share this journey of hearing with me, to understand what it’s like to have all our senses restored. So far, the rest of the pixius are taking their time in choosing humans—if they ever will. I try not to be impatient, knowing it is a special and honored relationship that not everyone is ready for. And for pixius, who live much longer than humans, there especially seems to be no rush.
Jin Luan and I bow to Elder Chen and then leave the rest of our peers to transport the canvas. She and I step outside into the crisp autumn day, which is still cold but bright with the promise of sunshine. As we walk through the village, we see others out beginning their days as well. Some are gathering and waiting to see the record before going to work. Others, like the gardeners, have already set out on their tasks to make the most of daylight.
One such group we pass makes me frown. It is a small group of villagers working with Xiu Mei’s father. Disgruntled with the king’s rule, Xiu Mei and her father left the Red Myrtle Inn and came here when word spread of our village reconnecting with the world. His limp from the army is no deterrent, and his skills and knowledge are all still sharp. He has found work here training some of our young people how to be warriors, something else I feel conflicted about. After the attack from the township’s army, I can understand the need for self-defense . . . but it saddens me to see my people turning down this path.
Jin Luan and I soon leave them behind as we move on from the village limits and out into one of the fertile valleys opened by the army’s explosives. Gardeners are already at work, moving among the trees and plants in their green robes. I easily spot Zhang Jing kneeling in one of the vegetable gardens. Thanks to the pixius, her vision has not worsened, and she has discovered that her other senses—smell and touch—are strong and make her particularly well suited for this job. Even from this distance I can see her smile as she works, giving her more enjoyment here than she had as an artist.
Xiu Mei is late , Jin Luan remarks, glancing around. Again.
She is probably sleeping in , I say with a smile. With her knowledge of both silent and vocal language, Xiu Mei became an obvious choice to teach Jin Luan and me how to speak. We are not very good at it, and I often dread these lessons. Elder Chen knows of my distaste but reminds me there may come a time when those in our village are going to have to communicate with the outside world. As one of the pixius’ chosen, that responsibility falls on me.
If you’re lucky, maybe she’ll sleep a little longer , says Jin Luan slyly. At first, I think she’s acknowledging my dislike of the lessons, but then she nods off toward the side of the valley. I think someone would like to talk to you.
I follow where she gestures and feel myself blush. Li Wei is there, an axe in hand, working on one of the garden fences. As though he can feel our gazes, he pauses to wipe sweat from his brow and turns in our direction. Jin Luan nudges me.
Go! she says. Xiu Mei may sleep all morning.
He watches me as I make my way over. Language lessons? he asks when I get close.
I nod. But the teacher is late. What are you doing out here so early?
He points to the wooden fence he is working on. The gardeners got some peas and green beans from a merchant and want to try planting them. If the true cold holds off just a little longer, they think we might get a small crop before winter, so I’m building these for the vines to grow on.
I thought you were going to work on your carving? I ask.
I will. And I do sometimes at night. He shrugs. But the carving can wait. There are so many things to do . . . still so much rebuilding.
He’s right. There’s much uncertainty in our world right now, and our bruised village must use all its resources to survive this coming winter, particularly with King Jianjun’s eye still upon us. This is a hopeful time for my people—but also a fearful one. Li Wei’s brawn is of more value to our people right now than the burgeoning talent within him. I respect that but hope that someday the creativity within him will shine through and attract a pixiu. It is a secret wish I haven’t dared express to him or anyone else.
In his usual way, Li Wei tries to distract me with a cheery thought. Come over here , he says. I want your artistic opinion on something. He beckons me toward a recently built supply shed used to house gardening tools. We walk to the far side of it, putting us out of sight of Jin Luan and the other gardeners. I peer at the shed’s side, trying to figure out what he wants me to look at.
What is it? I ask.
This , he says, sweeping me into a powerful kiss. His lips touch mine, and an intoxicating heat spreads through me as he leans me against the shed. I put my arms around him and melt into him, amazed at how perfectly we seem to go together, despite our many differences. Harmony , I think. I’m still figuring out what exactly this thing between Li Wei and me is, but one thing I know is that it makes me feel stronger. There is a lot about the future we still don’t know, but somehow, if he is by my side, I feel I can take on whatever is waiting for us.
You tricked me , I sign when we briefly break apart.
I did , he admits. And that’s why you’ll never beat me in xiangqi.
Because you cheat? I tease.
Yes. And don’t forget that I’m a barbarian.
That’s true , I agree. It’s a wonder I even let myself be seen with you.
I’m glad you do , he says. Because I’ve spoken with the elders . . . and they’ve given permission for us to marry.
I stare, wondering if I misunderstood. They have?