She pauses, her gaze traveling around the room to each of us as we nod in acknowledgment at a concept that has been driven into us with as much intensity as our art. Interference leads to distraction, interrupting both the natural order of the village’s life as well as accurate record keeping. We must be impartial observers. Painting the daily news has been a tradition in our village ever since our people lost their hearing centuries ago. I’m told that before then, news was shouted by a town crier or simply passed orally from person to person. But I don’t even really know what “shouting” is.
We observe, and we record , Elder Lian reiterates. It is the sacred duty we have performed for centuries, and to deviate from it does a disservice both to our tasks and to the village. Our people need these records to know what is happening around them. And our descendants need our records so they can understand the way things have always been. Go to breakfast now, and then be a credit to our teachings.
We bow again and then shuffle out of the workroom, heading toward the dining hall. Our school is called the Peacock Court. It’s a name our ancestors brought with them from fairer, faraway parts of Beiguo beyond this mountain, meant to acknowledge the beauty we create within the school’s walls. Every day, we paint the news of our village for our people to read. Even if we are only recording the most basic of information—like a shipment of radishes—our work must still be immaculate and worthy of preservation. Today’s record will soon be put on display in our village’s heart, but first we have this small break.
Zhang Jing and I sit down cross-legged on the floor at a low table to wait for our meal. Servants come by and carefully measure out millet porridge, making sure each apprentice gets an equal amount. We have the same thing for breakfast each day, and while it chases the hunger away, it doesn’t exactly leave me feeling full either. But it’s more than the miners and suppliers get, so we must be grateful.
Zhang Jing pauses in her breakfast. It will not happen again , she signs to me. I mean it.
Hush , I say. It’s a topic she can’t even hint at in this place. And despite her bold words, there’s a fear in her face that tells me she doesn’t believe them anyway. Reports of blindness have been growing in our village for reasons that are just as mysterious as the deafness that fell upon our ancestors. Usually only miners go blind, which makes Zhang Jing’s current plight that much more mysterious.
A flurry of activity in my periphery startles me out of my thoughts. I look up and see that the other apprentices have also stopped eating, their gazes turned toward a door that leads from this dining room to the kitchen. A cluster of servants stands there, more than I normally see at once. Usually mindful of the differences in rank, they stay out of our way.
A woman I recognize as the head cook has emerged from the door, a boy scurrying in front of her. Cook is an extravagant term for her job, since there’s so little food and not much to be done with it. She also oversees running the Peacock Court’s servants. I flinch when she strikes the boy with a blow so hard that he falls to the floor. I’ve seen him around, usually doing the meanest of cleaning tasks. A frantically signed conversation is taking place between them.
—think you wouldn’t get caught? the cook demands. What were you thinking, taking more than your share?
It wasn’t for me! the boy tells her. It was for my sister’s family. They’re hungry.
We’re all hungry , the cook snaps back. That’s no excuse for stealing.
I give a sharp intake of breath as I realize what has happened. Food theft is one of the greatest crimes we have around here. The fact that it would occur among our servants, who are generally fed better than other villagers, is particularly shocking. The boy manages to get to his feet and bravely face the cook’s wrath.
They’re a mining family, and they’ve been sick , the boy says. The miners already get less food than we do, and they had their rations cut while not working. I was trying to make things fair.
The hard set of the cook’s face tells us she is unmoved. Well, now you can join them in the mines. We have no place here for thieves. I want you gone before we clear the breakfast dishes.
The boy falters at this, desperation filling his features. Please. Don’t send me to work with them. I’m sorry. I’ll give up my rations to make up for what I took. It won’t ever happen again.
I know it won’t happen again , the cook replies pointedly. She gives a curt nod to two of the burlier servants, and they each take one of the boy’s arms, hauling him out of the dining room. He tries to free himself and protest but can’t fight against both of them. The cook watches impassively while the rest of us gape. When he’s out of sight, she and the other servants not working our breakfast service disappear back into the kitchen. Zhang Jing and I exchange glances, too shocked for words. In his moment of weakness, that servant has just made his life significantly more difficult—and dangerous.
When we finish breakfast and head to the workroom, the theft is all anyone can talk about. Can you believe it? someone asks me. How dare he give our food to a miner!
The speaker’s name is Sheng. Like me, he is one of the top artists at the Peacock Court. Unlike me, he is descended from a family of artists and elders. I think he forgets sometimes that Zhang Jing and I are the first in our family to achieve this rank.
It is certainly a terrible thing , I respond neutrally. I don’t dare express my true feelings: that I have doubts about whether the food distribution is fair. I learned long ago that to keep my position in the Peacock Court, I must give up all sympathies to the miners and simply view them as our village’s workforce. Nothing more.