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Author: Richelle Mead

One of them is Li Wei, and I’m astonished to encounter him twice in one day. Our lives have taken such different directions that I rarely see him anymore. The older man with him is his father, Bao. He shows the signs of having worked in the mine his entire life: a strength of body and character that’s let him survive all these years but that’s also taken its toll. He doesn’t stand as straight as he once did, and there’s an exhaustion in him that’s almost palpable, despite the resolute look in his dark eyes.

Studying the two together, I can see how Li Wei serves as a reminder of what Bao must have looked like in his youth. Li Wei still shows all the strength and none of the wear. His black hair is pulled into the same neat topknot the other miners have, though a few strands have escaped and now cling to his face, which is damp with perspiration. Fine gold dust from the mine glitters across his skin and clothing, almost as it did on that day long ago in my childhood. The light plays over him now, and I feel an ache in my chest.

Bao turns his head, revealing an oozing red gash on his forehead. Once Li Wei has made sure his father can stand, he begins cleaning the wound with some supplies he removes from a small cloth bag. Li Wei’s hands are quick and efficient, a contrast to his towering strength and size. But his touch is delicate as he helps his father, and soon the older man’s head injury is clean and bandaged.

You can’t let this keep happening , Li Wei tells him when he’s finished. You could’ve been killed.

I wasn’t , Bao signs back obstinately. Everything’s fine.

Li Wei points to his father’s forehead. Everything’s not fine! If I hadn’t intervened at the last minute, this would’ve been a lot worse. You can’t work in the mines anymore.

Bao remains defiant. I can and I will! I see well enough to do my work. That’s all that matters.

It’s not just about your work . Li Wei looks as though he’s trying very hard to remain calm, but there’s an obvious panic behind his eyes. It’s not even just about your life. It’s about the lives of others. You endanger them by staying down there. Let go of your pride and retire.

Pride is the only thing I have left , says Bao. It’s the only thing any of us have. They’re taking everything else away from us. You heard the news about the food. With rations decreased, they need me more than ever down there. That’s where I’ll be—doing my duty. Not sitting around the village’s center with the other beggars. It is not your place to dictate your father’s actions, boy.

Li Wei gives a reluctant bow, but it’s clear that it’s out of respect, not agreement. With that, Bao turns around and returns to the mine, leaving his son staring.

I hold my breath. Their conversation could have been a mirror to the one I had earlier with Zhang Jing. Bao is yet another villager going blind.

Once his father is out of sight, Li Wei punches a scraggly tree growing near the mine’s entrance. I’ve seen him make impulsive gestures like this since childhood. They’re born out of passion, when his emotions run high, and they’re usually harmless. Except, when his hand makes contact with the tree, blood spurts out, and he jumps back in surprise. Recalling how notices are sometimes hung on the tree, I realize he’s struck one of the old nails. Without thinking twice, I’m on my feet, retrieving the supply bag he brought out for his father.

What are you doing? Li Wei signs, even with blood dripping off his hand. The surprise on his face tells me he didn’t know I was nearby.

Stop talking , I scold. Stay still.

To my astonishment, he complies and stops moving so that I can help him. The cut is on his right hand, which could be catastrophic for a miner. As I clean it, though, I can see it’s actually pretty shallow. It reminds me of the paper cuts I sometimes get back at the Peacock Court, cuts that are barely skin deep but still manage to put out a lot of blood. But there’s something a little bit more sinister about an old nail, and even after I’ve poured water on the cut and wiped away most of the blood, I worry about infection. I hurry over to the stump and return with a small belt pouch, searching through tiny packets of pigment. When I find the one I want—yellow—I sprinkle a little of the powder on his cut before wrapping a clean cloth bandage around it. Once the bandage is secure, I examine his hand one more time, turning it over in my own. His fingers start to entwine with mine, and I abruptly pull back.

What was that? Li Wei asks when I tuck the packet back into my pouch.

It’s pigment for a special type of paint. We make the color from a root that also has medicinal properties. I saw my master use it once on another wound. It will prevent infection. I don’t tell him how valuable the pigment is and that I’m not even supposed to be bringing it out with me on my observations. It’ll be a while before our masters do inventory, and I hope I’ll have some reason for explaining why I’m low.

Won’t you get in trouble for interfering? Li Wei asks. With a miner?

His words startle me. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t even really have a chance to think about what I was doing. I just broke our primary commandment, interfering when we’re only supposed to be observing. I’d be in serious trouble if my master or any of the others found out.

If I get in trouble, so be it , I say at last. I make my own decisions.

That’s not what I remember. A moment later, he realizes how mean that was. I’m sorry. His hands waver again before he asks: I suppose you’ll have to tell them about my father? That he’s going blind?

Li Wei is right. Technically, as part of my duty, I should report back everything I observed—including their discussion. I can tell that as much as it pains him, Li Wei secretly wants me to report on his father. It will take the burden of responsibility away and finally get Bao removed from the mines and the danger there. I think about the old man’s words, about holding on to his pride. And then I think about Zhang Jing and her own fears of being found out. Slowly, I shake my head.

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