Slowly, the miners and suppliers turn from the record and begin the treks to their jobs. Elder Chen signs to us apprentices: Go to your posts. Remember, observe. Don’t interfere.
I start to follow the others, and then I catch sight of Elder Lian taking the steps back up to the dais where the record is displayed. She seems to be examining the work all over again, painstakingly studying each character. Such scrutiny isn’t part of the normal routine. The other apprentices have left, but I can’t move, not until I know what she’s doing.
She stands there a little longer, and when she finally turns away, her gaze meets mine. A moment later, her eyes fall on something behind me. I turn around and see Zhang Jing is standing there, hands clenched together nervously. Elder Lian descends the stairs. Go to your posts , she signs. The silk thread that edges her robe is red, and it flashes in the light as she walks past.
Swallowing, I take Zhang Jing’s elbow and steer her away from the village’s center, away from the blind beggars. Most of them are old and former miners, I remind myself. She isn’t like them. She isn’t like them at all. I squeeze her hand as we walk.
She will get better , I tell myself. I will not let her become one of them.
I repeat the words over and over in my mind as we move past the beggars, but saying them to myself can’t erase the image of those cavernous faces and blank, hopeless stares.
WE SOON NEAR A SMALL PATH branching from the main track through the village, and I nod at it. Zhang Jing nods back, turning toward the fork.
Before we get very far, a group emerges unexpectedly from a nearby wooded area. It is Sheng with two boys dressed in suppliers’ attire. They’re dragging someone between them, and I recognize the servant from our school, the one who was caught stealing. New bruises and welts accompany the one the cook gave him, and from the gleeful look on the faces of the others, they have more planned. I can understand their outrage at what he did, but the enjoyment they take in doling out such pain sickens me. Zhang Jing cringes back in fear, not wanting to get involved in any altercation. I know I should do the same, but I can’t. I step forward, ready to speak my mind.
Before I can, I am knocked to the side by yet another person rushing past. He wears the dull clothes of a miner and strides right up to Sheng and the others, blocking their way. When I realize who this newcomer is, my breath catches, and I feel as though the very ground beneath my feet has shifted, knocking me off-balance.
It is Li Wei.
What do you think you’re doing? he demands.
Sheng regards him with a sneer. Teaching him a lesson.
Look at him , Li Wei says. He’s learned his lesson. He can barely stand anymore.
That’s not good enough , one of Sheng’s supplier friends says. Are you saying he should be let off easy? You think it’s okay for him to steal food?
No , Li Wei replies. But I think he’s been punished enough. Between your “lesson” and losing his job at the school, he’s more than paid for the crime of trying to help his family. All you’re doing is hurting his ability to help us in the mines. We can’t afford that right now. It’s time to let him go.
We’ll say when it’s time to let him go , Sheng says.
Li Wei takes a menacing step forward. Then say it.
Sheng and the suppliers hesitate. Although the numbers are in their favor, Li Wei is unquestionably one of the biggest and strongest in our village. Muscles gained from long hours of grueling work in the mines cover his arms, and he towers over them by nearly a head. He stands straight and tall, his tough body braced and ready for a fight. He doesn’t fear three-to-one odds. He wouldn’t fear ten-to-one odds.
After several tense moments, Sheng gives a shrug and smirks as though this is all one big joke. We have work to do , he says far too casually. He deserves worse, but I don’t have time for it. Let’s go.
The supplier holding the servant releases him, and Sheng and the others begin sauntering away. Seeing me, Sheng asks, Are you coming?
We’re going a different way today , I say, nodding toward the path.
Suit yourself , he replies.
When they are gone, Li Wei reaches out a helping hand to the servant, whose face is filled with terror. The boy backs up and then scurries away, fear having given him a burst of energy, despite his pain. Li Wei watches him go and then turns in our direction, looking surprised to see us still there. He bows in deference to our higher station, having noticed our blue robes, and then stiffens slightly when he looks up and sees my face.
It’s the only outward indication of his surprise. Everything else about him is perfectly respectful and proper. Forgive me, apprentices , he says. I was in such a hurry to help, I’m afraid I jostled you earlier. I hope you aren’t injured.
Although he is addressing both of us, his eyes are locked on me. His gaze is so piercing, I feel as though it will knock me over. Or maybe that’s just the earlier dizziness I felt from being near him. Regardless, standing there before him, I find myself unable to move or speak.
Zhang Jing, unaware I am reeling, smiles gently. It’s okay. We’re fine.
I’m glad , he says. He starts to turn from us and then pauses, his expression both curious and hesitant. I hope you don’t think I was wrong to help that boy.
It was very kind of you , Zhang Jing says politely.
Although she has answered for us, Li Wei’s gaze lingers on me as though he hopes I will add something. But I can’t. It’s been too long since I’ve seen him, and this sudden, unexpected confrontation has caught me unprepared. After several awkward moments, Li Wei nods.