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I got ready with my knife when I heard the footsteps outside the house. If the Manchus were going to kill me, I'd try to take some of them with me; but knowing myself, that wasn't likely. I'd find some way to botch it. Id lived my life like a clumsy down, and I was going to die like one.
Smoke from the burning village drifted through the windows. When I had seen the corpses in the street and the houses burning, I had figured that the Manchus were up to their old tricks. Ever since they had conquered the Middle Kingdom two centuries ago, we'd been trying to get rid of them and they had kept coming back and killing. At any rate, I thought I would be safe enough for now because the Manchus had already swept through this village. But I'd been wrong--as usual, my uncle Itchy would have said.
He'd warned me that I'd been a fool to march off to fight against the Manchus. I could see his face, wrinkled like an old apricot, scowling at me. "Let other fools do the dying. That's what they're good for. You're one of the Laus of Phoenix Village. If you've got to fight anything, fight the beetles in our fields."
Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that I'd listened to him. joining the Revolution had sounded so glorious. I'd swaggered off expecting to find a camp of heroes waving banners and *instead had found a lot of dirty, flea-bitten bandits arguing with one another about who ought to get a bigger share of the loot. No wonder the Manchus had scattered us like a flock of geese.
The door creaked open, and in the rectangle of bright sunlight I saw three shadows stretch across the floor toward the wall. Even as I lunged, I noticedthat one shadow was smaller than the others. I had one moment to see the faces of two men and a girl. Both men had their hair done up in an antique topknot just like mine--even though the Manchus commanded us to wear a queue instead. The girl was wearing the red turban of a rebel. And they were all looking as desperate as me.
And then the girl was gone and I felt a foot clip MY right leg out from under me while hands grasped my wrist and yanked me forward, and I was flying through the air straight toward the opposite wall. I managed to throw out one hand to cushion the impact, but my face stiff hit hard. 1 could feel the tears blurring my eyes and a saltiness on my lips as if my much-abused nose were bleeding.
Before I could even cry out in pain, a knee jammed the small of my back hard, driving the breath out of my lungs. Fingers again seized my knife hand and twisted it around behind my back. "Drop it," the girl said, "or I'll break this arm."
She spoke in the dialect of the Four Districts. I never thought that I'd hear it here in the Three Districts around Canton. In fact, there had been something familiar about her face. "All right," I said hurriedly and let go of the knife. She snatched it from me with her free hand. "I'm a friend, after all."
"Banish the Darkness," the man said.
I gave the rebel's countersign. "Restore the Light." The Darkness was the symbol for the Manchu dynasty.
But the girl seemed determined to find some excuse to do me bodily harm. "He might be a spy who has picked up the passwords."
And in my panic at that moment all I could think of was what my uncle would have said. "Don't you think the Manchus could hire better spies than me?"
"If he were a spy," the man suggested softly, as if he were coaxing the girl out of a tantrum, "we would have been dead by now."
"You've taught me enough so that I bet I could take on a real spy," the girl protested, but she let go of my hand and stood up.
I rolled over on my back and looked up at her. She was small and thin, with a high, flat forehead over narrow eyes and a long, slender nose. Now that I had a chance to study her face, I was sure that I'd seen her before. "I know you from somewhere."
She tucked my knife behind her back within her sash. "I think I've seen you before too." And she drew her eyebrows together intently.
"That's possible." I sat up and began to rub the wrist that she had twisted. "Have you ever been to Phoenix Village?" The next thing I knew, she had the knife out again and was touching the point against my neck. "Did I say something wrong?"
She nodded toward the scar on my cheek. "I thought I recognized that decoration."
I smiled nervously. She really looked ready to use that knife. "My cousin Lumpy put it there. We were playing swordfight with some sharp sticks. Actually, it was more his idea than mine to fight with sticks. He's something of a bully, and-"
She pressed the knife point ever so slightly deeper into the skin at my throat. "We're Youngs from Three Willows."
Did you ever try to swallow with a knife pressing on the bump on your throat? Try it sometime. It isn't easy. My clan, the Laus from Phoenix Village, had been feuding with the Youngs of Three Willows ever since our ancestors had settled in neighboring valleys. It was bound to happen, I suppose, since they both had to compete for the same land and water. For a long time my clan had the upper hand and had bullied the Youngs. But then the Youngs, in just one stroke, had reversed things and were starting to muscle my clan. I knew that my life now depended on choosing my words carefully. "Listen, I'm sure you've got a long list of wrongs