When the Sea Turned to Silver Page 31







Pinmei shoved the Paper in her sleeve and looked at Lady Meng and Yishan, their blank faces mirroring her own. They needed to go, but which way? Without the swallow, how would they know? Behind the wall, a loud shout rang out. Without a word, Yishan grabbed Pinmei’s hand and ran.

Lady Meng followed, and they skidded and stumbled in panic on the snow-covered streets. Up a twisting alley, down a narrow lane—where was the gate out? Were they even going in the right direction? As they kept running, the night grew colder and colder and the wind bit their faces. How many roads were there in the Outer City? It was a cruel maze, with every corner taunting them.

Pinmei did not know how long they wandered, half running and half staggering through the piles of snow and frozen stone streets. Pinmei’s feet lost all feeling, and her legs threatened to go limp with each step. As they turned a corner, she grabbed Lady Meng’s hand and felt it shiver with cold and exhaustion. Where was the gate?

The blackness of the sky began to lighten and an old peddler came out of a doorway, the creaking of his cart echoing in the silence of the upcoming dawn. Yishan bounded toward him, almost grabbing him.

“The gate out of the city!” Yishan demanded. “Where is it?”

The peddler stared at him, openmouthed, but before he could even make a movement with his hand, there was another noise that made them all turn around.

“Halt!” a voice in the distance yelled. A soldier! He was alone, but he wouldn’t be for long, for he turned his head and shouted, “They’re here! I found them!”

Yishan yelped and leaped over the peddler’s cart, Pinmei and Lady Meng close behind him. They turned down one alleyway and then another. The winding roads hid them from view, but they could hear the loud stomping of soldiers in the streets.

Lady Meng pounded on the door of the nearest house.

“Please,” she said. “Let us in!”

No answer.

Yishan banged on the door of the next house, and Pinmei the next. They ran down the street, knocking and pleading. Scared eyes peeked through curtains that were quickly drawn, and each door stayed silent and shut.

Pinmei felt herself sobbing. Every part of her was trembling with cold, exhaustion, and despair. Lady Meng drooped like a dying flower, and even Yishan’s pace had slowed. Yet the sounds of soldiers were getting louder. Closer. Closer. “Please help us,” Pinmei begged in a whisper to the wind. “Please!”

A faint voice called out. “Here,” it said. “Over here!”

As if clouds had uncovered the moon, a soft light streamed toward them from a gate down the lane. The large figure of a woman beckoned to them. Pinmei felt relief flood through her, the waves of gratitude carrying her in reckless abandon, as they crashed through the open door.







“Thank you!” Pinmei gasped.

“Shh!” the woman said, shutting the door. Broad and strong, she was obviously a servant, but when she raised the lantern, Pinmei gasped again, this time in surprise. For while the woman’s eyes were kind, her face was horribly scarred—the skin as rough as the outside of an oyster shell. But the woman blew out the flame, and she was just a shadow in the thin darkness of early dawn.

Pinmei looked around and saw they were in the outer courtyard of a rich mansion. The high walls hid them from view, but there were few places to hide. She gulped. The soldiers were almost there. She could hear echoing noises coming closer—the stomping boots, the bangs as the soldiers forced open doors not opened quickly enough, the shouted questions. Lady Meng and Yishan crouched next to her, and when the soldiers struck at the door of the gate, they all clutched one another.

“Open, by order of the emperor!” the soldier barked.

“Shh,” the woman said again to them. She pushed them out of sight of the door and, with an unhurried pace, went to the gate.

“The children!” the soldier growled. “Are they here?”

“Who? What children?” the woman asked. Her tone was placid and calm, but Pinmei saw that her hand gripped the door tightly.

“The spying children! Are they here?” the man spat impatiently. He made as if to force his way through the door, but the woman stood firm and blocked his entry, her hulking figure as large as his.

“Sir, this is the House of Wu,” she said, as if talking to a small child. “Surely you know my masters are highly favored by the emperor.”

The soldier froze.

“If my masters were to complain about the annoyance caused by his soldier…” the woman said, drawing herself up to her fullest height to gaze directly into his eyes.

“Uh, yes,” the soldier said, lowering his arm as well as his tone. “Of course, the honorable House of Wu is above any suspicion. I was just checking to make sure the household was not bothered by these, uh, young nuisances.”

“How kind,” the woman said. “We have not been bothered, except by the wind that is now coming through this door.”

“Uh, yes,” the soldier said again, bowing as he retreated from the doorway. The woman shut the door before he even raised his head. Then she stood against the door like a propped tree, and they all waited for the heavy steps of the soldier to fade.

“There,” the woman said, finally looking at them. “That takes care of them. Now, how should we take care of you?”







“I think food first,” the woman said with a smile. “Come.”

She led them through another gate to the inner courtyard and past the side hall, her finger pressed to her lips for silence. Despite her size, she walked noiselessly, and they followed her to the kitchen. The warmth of the room made them stumble as if they were wading in honey. She led them to the stove and began to spoon rice porridge into bowls, its steam issuing like a sighing breath.

“Eat,” the woman said, holding out a bowl, her large fingers almost completely hiding the design of a painted monkey.

“Thank you,” Lady Meng said, taking it. “We…”

“It matters not,” said the woman, pressing another bowl toward Yishan.

“But…” Pinmei said as the woman held out a third bowl. The rich smell of the porridge was intoxicating, and its hot mist made a translucent cloud around the woman, softening her many scars. “Who are you?”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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