Rin was shocked.
The supervisor looked up from his notebook.
—Preventive protocol for infractions. He pointed across the room to a supervisor. Go with her if you prefer.
Rin hugged herself tightly and went to the supervisor, who guided her behind a screen. He searched her thoroughly to ensure that she did not hide anything for examination in any orifice of her body. She then handed him a blue robe that looked like a sack.
“Put this on,” the supervisor said.
—Is it really necessary?
Rin’s teeth were chattering as she undressed. Her robe was too long for her and her sleeves covered her hands, so he had to fold them back several times.
-Yeah. —The supervisor pointed out a stool for her to sit on—. Last year we discovered twelve students with
papers sewn into the lining of their shirts, we’re just being cautious. She opens her mouth.
The supervisor pricked her tongue with a stick.
—No discoloration, very good. Open your eyes wide.
—Why would anyone take drugs before an exam? —Rin asked as the supervisor pulled her eyelids. She did not answer.
Satisfied, she led Rin towards the hallway where other students were waiting in an irregular line. Everyone had restless hands and shared anxiety on their faces. They had not been allowed to bring any material for the exam, even the brushes could be hollowed out to hide scrolls with written answers.
“Hands out, where we can see them,” the supervisor ordered, as he walked down the line of students. Sleeves should remain above the elbow. From now on, you will not speak. If you have to urinate, raise your hand, there is a bucket at the back of the room.
—What happens if we have to shit? —asked a boy. The supervisor looked through him.
—It’s a twelve-hour exam! —the boy defended himself. The supervisor looked away.
—Try not to make noise.
Rin had been too nervous to eat anything. Even thinking about eating made him nauseous. Her bladder and intestines were empty. Only her mind was full,
crammed with an absurd amount of mathematical formulas, poems, treatises and historical dates, ready to be dumped in the exam notebook. She was ready.
The room held five hundred students. The tables were arranged in rows of ten, and on each table there was a thick notebook, an inkwell, and a paintbrush.
The other provinces of Nikan had to reserve the entire town hall to accommodate the thousands of students who took the exams each year. But the municipality of Tikany, in the province of Gallo, was a town of farmers and peasants. Their families needed hands to work in the fields, not like in the cities, full of spoiled students. That is why in Tikany only one classroom was used.
Rin entered the room with the rest of the students and sat at the desk they had assigned to him. He wondered what image they would give from above, a perfect grid of students with black hair, uniformed in blue scrubs and at brown wooden tables. He imagined it multiplied in identical classrooms all over the country right now, everyone staring at the water clock with nervous anticipation.
Rin’s teeth were chattering loudly, in a clatter so crazy that everyone would undoubtedly be listening to it, and it wasn’t just because of the cold. He clenched his jaw tightly, but his agitation spread to his body, his hands and knees. His brush trembled in his hands, spreading black droplets of ink on the table.
Holding the brush tightly, he wrote his full name on the cover of the notebook. Fang Runin .
I wasn’t the only one who was nervous. She could already hear the sound of retching from the bucket at the end of the classroom.
He touched his wrist, covering the already faint burn scars, and inhaled. Concentrate .
In the corner, a water clock chimed lightly.
“Begin,” said the examiner.
A hundred notebooks fluttered open, as if a flock of sparrows had taken flight at once.
Two years ago, on the day the magistrates of Tikany had arbitrarily estimated her fourteenth birthday, Rin’s adoptive parents called her to her room.
This didn’t happen often. The Fang used to ignore Rin as long as they didn’t have a task for her, and then they would give him orders from her like a dog. She closes the store. She hangs the clothes. She takes this packet of opium to the neighbors and don’t come back until you sell it to them for double what we paid for it .
There was a woman I had never seen before sitting in the guest chair. Her face was completely made up with what looked like white rice flour, punctuated with a few touches of color on her lips and eyelids. She was wearing a bright lilac dress with a plum blossom print, a pattern fitting for a young woman half her age, as her plump figure bulged out the sides of her dress like sacks. grain.
—Is this the girl? —the woman asked—. Ummm . Her skin is a little dark, the inspector won’t mind much, but she will make him
its price drops a little.
Rin had the sudden, horrible suspicion of what was happening.
-Who are you? —Rin demanded.
“Sit down, Rin,” Uncle Fang said.
With his calloused hand he tried to sit Rin down, but she immediately tried to run away. Aunt Fang grabbed her arm and dragged her back. After a struggle, which Aunt Fang won, she pushed Rin onto the chair.
“I’m not going to a brothel!” —Rin shouted.
“It’s not from the brothel, you idiot,” Aunt Fang cut him off. Now sit down, show due respect to matchmaker Liew.
The matchmaker was unfazed, as if her line of work often involved accusations of sex trafficking.
“You’re going to be a very lucky girl, darling,” he said, his voice cheerful and falsely sugary. You want to know why?
Rin gripped the edge of the chair and looked at matchmaker Liew’s red lips.
Matchmaker Liew tightened her smile.
-You are such a cutie.
It turned out that, after a long and arduous search, matchmaker Liew had found a man in Tikany who would want to marry Rin. He was a rich merchant who made a living importing pig ears and shark fins. He had been divorced twice and was three times older than Rin.
-Is not it wonderful? —The matchmaker was glowing.
Rin started running towards the door. But he hadn’t taken two steps when Aunt Fang’s hand grabbed his wrist.
Rin knew what was coming next. She braced herself for blows, for kicks to the ribs where the bruises wouldn’t show, but Aunt Fang just dragged her back to her chair.
” Behave, ” he whispered. The clenched jaw promised punishment. But not now, not in front of matchmaker Liew. Aunt Fang liked to keep her cruelty private.
Matchmaker Liew, oblivious to the situation, continued.
—Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. It is exciting!
Rin was getting dizzy. He turned to his adoptive parents, struggling to keep his voice calm.
—I thought you needed me at the store. It was the only thing she could think of to say.
“Kesegi can run the shop,” said Aunt Fang.
—Kesegi is eight years old.
“He’ll grow up soon,” Aunt Fang’s eyes were shining, “and it turns out that your future husband will be the import inspector in the village.”
Then Rin understood. The Fang were making a simple exchange: an orphan adopted by the effective monopoly of the black opium market in Tikany.
Uncle Fang took a long drag from his pipe and exhaled, filling the room with thick, sweet smoke.
—He is a rich man. He you will be happy.
No, the Fang will be happy. They will be able to import opium wholesale without having to lose money on bribery. But Rin kept his mouth shut, arguing would only bring pain. It was clear that the Fangs wanted her to marry, even if they had to drag her into the marriage bed themselves.
They never wanted to have Rin. They had taken her in when she was a child by order of the Empress, after the Second Poppy War, which forced every household with less than three children to adopt a war orphan, and thus prevent They became thieves and beggars.
And since infanticide was frowned upon in Tikany, the Fang put Rin to work as a shopgirl, and as an opium delivery girl when she was old enough to know how to count. And yet, despite all the free work she did, it seemed like the living and feeding expenses were more than the Fangs wanted to take on. Now was her chance to get rid of the financial burden she was carrying.
This merchant could feed and clothe Rin for the rest of her life, matchmaker Liew explained. All she had to do was serve him kindly as a good wife, and bear him children, and take care of the house (which, matchmaker Liew pointed out, had not one, but two toilets). It was a much better deal than a war orphan, with no family or connections, could ever get.
A husband for Rin, money for the matchmaker, and drugs for the Fangs.
“Wow,” Rin said in a weak voice. The ground seemed to wobble beneath his feet. It’s fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Spectacularly fantastic.
Matchmaker Liew was glowing again.
Rin hid her panic, and struggled to keep her breathing under control, even after dismissing matchmaker Liew. She also bowed slightly to the Fangs, and like a good adopted daughter, she expressed her gratitude for the hardships they had gone through to get her such a stable future.
He returned to the shop and worked quietly until nightfall. She made the orders, the inventory, and recorded the new orders in the accounting book.
The problem with keeping an inventory is that you have to be very careful writing the numbers. It was so easy to make a nine look like an eight! And even more, turning a one into a seven…
Much later than sunset, Rin closed the shop and locked the door.
Then he stuffed a packet of stolen opium under his shirt and ran.
—Rin? —A small, wiry man opened the library door and looked out—. Big Turtle! What are you doing out here? It is pouring rain.
“I’ve come to return a book,” he said, holding up a waterproof bag. And besides, I’m getting married.
—Oh. Oh! That? Enters.
Tutor Feyrik gave free afternoon classes to the children of Tikany peasants who would otherwise grow up illiterate. Rin trusted him more than anyone, and she also understood his weakness better than anyone.
This made him the key to his escape plan.
“The vase is gone,” he observed, as he glanced around the narrow library.
Tutor Feyrik lit a small flame in the hearth and pulled up two stools. He motioned for her to sit down.
—A bad bet, a bad night in general, really.
Tutor Feyrik had an unfortunate adoration for Divisions, an immensely popular game in Tikany’s gambling houses. He wouldn’t have been so troublesome if he wasn’t so bad at playing.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Tutor Feyrik said after Rin told him what happened with Matchmaker Liew. Why would the Fang want to marry you? Aren’t you their best source of unpaid work?
“Yes, but they think I’ll be more useful in the import inspector’s bed.”
Tutor Feyrik was disgusted.
—Your old people are assholes.
“So, will you do it?” —Rin said, hopefully. Will you help me?
—My dear girl, if your family had let you study with me when you were younger, we could consider it… I told the Fangs then, I told her that you might have the necessary potential. But at this point, you’re talking about something impossible.
He raised a hand.
—More than twenty thousand students take the Keju each year, and only three thousand enter an academy. Of them, only a handful are from Tikany. You will have to compete against good children: children of merchants, children of nobles… Who have been studying for this all their lives.
—But I have taught with you. How difficult could it be? The tutor laughed in response.
—You know how to read and you can use an abacus, that is not the preparation needed to pass the Keju. The Keju tests a deep knowledge of history, advanced mathematics, logic and the Classics…
“The Four Noble Branches, I know.” Rin was impatient. But I’m a fast reader. I know more characters than most adults in this town. More than the Fang. I can reach your students if you let me try, I don’t even have to attend class. I just need the books.
“Reading books is one thing,” said Tutor Feyrik, “but taking the Keju exam is something else entirely.” My Keju students spend their entire lives preparing: nine hours a day, seven days a week. And you spend more time than that working in the store.
“I can study in the store,” Rin protested.
—Don’t you have responsibilities in the store?
—I’m good at, ummm , multitasking.
He considered her skeptically for a moment, then shook his head.
—You would only be two years old. It is impossible.
“But I have no other options,” Rin answered with a strident voice.
In Tikany, an unmarried woman was worth less than a sissy rooster. She could live as a servant in a good house, as long as she found who she had to bribe. Her alternative was a combination of prostitution and begging.
She was being dramatic, but she wasn’t exaggerating. She could leave town, perhaps with enough stolen opium to buy a ticket on a caravan to any other province… but where? She had no friends or family, no one to come to her aid if she was robbed or kidnapped. She, too, had no remarkable abilities. And having never left Tikany, she did not know how to survive in a city.
And if they caught her with so much opium in her hands… Possession of opium was capital punishment in the Empire. She would be dragged to the square and publicly beheaded, the latest victim of the Empress’s futile war on drugs.
I only had this option. She had to convince the tutor Feyrik. He held up the book he had come to return.
—Mengzi. Reflections on the State . I’ve only had it three days,
“Yes,” he said without checking his record. Rin gave it to tutor Feyrik.
—Read me a passage. Any.
Tutor Feyrik still looked skeptical, but opened the book halfway to please Rin.
—«The feeling of commiseration is the basis of…»
“Benevolence,” Rin finished. «The feeling of shame and displeasure is the basis of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and complacency is the basis of… ummm , decorum. And the feeling of approval and disapproval is the basis of wisdom.
Feyrik raised an eyebrow.
—And what does that mean?
“No idea,” Rin admitted. Honestly, I don’t understand Mengzi at all. I’ve just memorized it.
Feyrik went to the end of the book, selected another passage, and read:
—«Order is present in the earthly world when all beings understand their place. All beings understand their place when they fulfill the role given to them. The fish does not try to fly. The mustela does not try to swim. Only when each of the beings respects the celestial order will there be harmony” —he closed the book and looked at her—. And this passage? You know what it means?
Rin knew what Tutor Feyrik was trying to tell her.
The Nikara were governed by strict social classes, a hierarchy that marked them from birth. Everything had its place under heaven. The princes became lords of the
war, the cadets became soldiers, and an orphaned Tikany shop assistant must have been content to remain an orphan Tikany shop assistant. The Keju was a supposedly meritocratic institution, but only the wealthy classes had the money to afford the tutors their children needed to pass.
Well, screw the heavenly order! If marrying an obese old man was her predestined place on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.
“Yes, it means I’m very good at memorizing long passages of rubbish,” she said.
Tutor Feyrik was silent for a moment.
“You don’t have an eidetic memory,” he finally said. I have taught you to read. She would know.
“I don’t have it,” he accepted. But I am persistent, I study a lot and I don’t want to get married. It has taken me three days to memorize Mengzi. It was a short book, so I’ll probably need a whole week for the long texts. But how many books are on the Keju list? twenty? thirty?
—Then I’ll memorize them all. Each one of them. That is all it takes to pass the Keju. The other subjects are not so difficult. It’s the Classics that make everyone fail. You told me yourself.
Tutor Feyrik narrowed his eyes. His expression was no longer skeptical, he seemed to be thinking. Rin knew that look. It was the same one he put in when he was trying to calculate his winnings in Divisions.
In Nikan, the prestige of a tutor was linked to his reputation for the results of the Keju. You attracted clients if your students entered an academy. And more students meant more money, and for a debt-ridden player like Tutor Feyrik, every new student counted. If Rin managed to enter an academy, the corresponding influx of students would save tutor Feyrik from his most unpleasant debts.
—You’ve had few registrations this year, haven’t you? —She pressed him.
—It is a year of drought. Of course admissions are delayed. There are not many families who want to pay for classes when their children barely have a chance of passing.
“But I can approve,” he said. And when it does, you will have a student who has entered an academy. What do you think she will happen to the license plates then?
He shook his head.
—Rin, I can’t accept your money in good faith.
That was the second problem. She calmed her nerves and looked him in the eyes.
-Alright. I can’t pay for classes.
The tutor’s sympathy visibly worsened.
“I don’t make anything at the store,” Rin said before he could speak. The inventory is not mine. I don’t have any salary. I need you to help me study for Keju for free, and twice as fast as you teach your other students.
Tutor Feyrik shook his head again.
—My dear girl, I can’t… this is…
Now it was time to play his last card. Rin pulled her bag out from under her seat and dropped it on the table, hitting the wood with a clear, satisfying thump.
Tutor Feyrik’s eyes followed Rin with interest as he slid a hand into the leather pouch and pulled out a heavy, sweet-smelling package. And then another. And one more.
“This is worth six taels of excellent quality opium,” he said calmly. Six taels was half of what Tutor Feyrik could earn in the entire year.
“You stole it from the Fang,” he said uneasily. Rin brushed it off with a hand.
—Smuggling is a difficult business. The Fangs know the risks, packages are constantly lost, and they cannot report it to the magistrate either.
Feyrik twisted his long whiskers.
—I don’t want the Fang to think poorly of me.
He had good reason to be afraid. The people in Tikany didn’t rip off Aunt Fang, not if they were worried about her safety. She was patient and unpredictable like a snake. For years she could smile at mistakes, and then poison the unfortunate man with a well-disguised pill.
But Rin had covered her tracks well.
“Last week, one of the shipments was confiscated by the port authorities,” Rin said, “and I didn’t have time to take the inventory.” I have marked these packages as lost. You can’t track them.
“They could still beat you up.”
“I couldn’t be very strong,” Rin said with resignation. They cannot marry defective merchandise.
Greed was evident in Tutor Feyrik’s gaze.
“Done,” he finally said, and reached for the opium. But Rin pushed it out of his reach.
—Four conditions. One, you will teach me. Two, you will teach me for free. Three, you will not smoke when you are teaching me. And fourth, if you tell anyone where you got this, I’ll tell your creditors where they can find you.
Tutor Feyrik looked at her in surprise, and nodded. Rin cleared his throat.
—Besides, I also want to keep this book. Feyrik smirked at him.
—You would be a terrible prostitute. You don’t have any charm.
“No,” said Aunt Fang. We need you in the store.
“I’ll study at night,” Rin said. Or during rest hours.
Aunt Fang frowned as she rubbed the stuck frying on the wok. Everything about Aunt Fang was rough. Her expression, an open display of impatience and irritation. Her fingers, red from hours of cleaning and doing laundry, and her voice, hoarse from screaming at Rin, her son Kesegi, her smugglers, and Uncle Fang who lay limp in his smoke-filled room. .
—What have you promised him? —She asked him suspiciously.
Aunt Fang abruptly slammed the wok on the counter. Rin backed away, terrified that they had discovered her theft.
—What’s wrong with getting married? —Aunt Fang was exasperated.
—. I married your uncle when he was younger than you are now. All the other girls in the village get married on his sixteenth birthday. Do you think you are better than them?
Rin was so relieved that she had to remember that it must look like she was being chastened.
-No. I mean, I don’t think so.
—Do you think it will be that bad? Aunt Fang’s voice became dangerously soft. What’s really wrong with you? Are you scared about sharing his bed?
Rin hadn’t considered it, but now just thinking about it closed his throat.
Aunt Fang’s lips curled in mirth.
—The first night is the worst, I admit. Keep a wad of cotton in your mouth to avoid biting your tongue. Don’t cry, unless he wants to. Keep your head down and do what he says, become his silent little slave until he trusts you. But once he does? You’ll start giving him opium, just a little at first, although I doubt he hasn’t smoked before. Then you will give him more and more and more each day. Do it at night, after he has finished with you, this way he will always associate it with pleasure and power. Give him more and more until he is completely dependent on the opium, and on you. Let it be destroyed
in body and mind. You will be more or less married to a breathing corpse, yes, but you will have his wealth, his status and his power. Aunt Fang tilted her head. So, will it hurt you that much to share her bed?
Rin wanted to vomit.
—Is it because of the children that you are so scared? Aunt Fang tilted her head. There are ways to kill them when they are in the belly. You work at the apothecary, you know. But you will want to give him at least one child, consolidate your position as his first wife, and then he won’t waste your money on a concubine.
“But I don’t want that,” Rin choked. I do not want to be like you .
—And who cares what you want? Aunt Fang asked softly. You are an orphan of war. You have no parents, no status, no connections. You’re lucky the inspector doesn’t care that you’re not pretty, just that you’re young. This is the best I can do for you. There will be no more opportunities.
—But the Keju…
“ But the Keju ,” Aunt Fang imitated her. Since when did you become so delusional? Do you think you’re going to go to an academy?
“I believe it,” Rin said, straightening up, trying to give greater confidence to his words. Calm down, you still have options — and you’ll leave me. Because one day, authorities might start wondering where opium comes from.
Aunt Fang examined her for a long time.
—Do you want to die? —She asked.
Rin knew it wasn’t an empty threat. Aunt Fang was more than willing to cut any loose ends. Rin had seen it before. She had spent much of her life trying to make sure she would never be one.
But now he could fight back.
“If I disappear, Guardian Feyrik will tell the authorities exactly what happened to me,” he said forcefully. And he will tell your son what you have done to me.
“Kesegi wouldn’t mind,” Aunt Fang scoffed.
“I raised Kesegi, he loves me,” Rin said, “and you love him too.” You don’t want him to know what you do. That’s why you don’t send him to the store, and make him stay in the room with me when you go to meet your dealers.
He had achieved it. Aunt Fang gaped at her, her nostrils flaring.
“Let me at least try,” Rin begged. It won’t hurt you if you let me study. If I pass, you’ll get rid of me, and if I fail, you still have a girlfriend.
Aunt Fang picked up the wok. Rin instinctively tensed, but Aunt Fang only began to viciously resume cleaning.
“If I see you studying in the store, you’ll go out,” said Aunt Fang, “I don’t want the inspector to know this.”
“Done,” Rin said, lying through his teeth. Aunt Fang snorted.
—And what will happen if you pass? Who is going to pay your tuition?
Wait, your dear, broke tutor?
Rin hesitated. He had been hoping that the Fangs would give him her dowry as tuition money, but now he could see that it had been a foolish hope.
“Tuition at Sinegard is free,” Rin pointed out. Aunt Fang burst out laughing.
“Sinegard!” Do you think you’re going to enter Sinegard? Rin raised her chin.
The Sinegard Military Academy was the most prestigious institution in the Empire. A place of learning for future generals and statesmen. Anyone from the rural south rarely, if ever, enrolled.
“You’re being delusional,” Aunt Fang snorted again. It’s okay, study if you like it, if it makes you happy. Please make the Keju. But when you fail, you will marry the inspector. And you will be grateful.
That night, as he lit a stolen candle in the small bedroom he shared with Kesegi, Rin opened his first introductory book for the Keju.
The Keju evaluated the Four Noble Subjects: History, Mathematics, Logic and the Classics. The imperial bureaucracy in Sinegard considered these subjects the basic pillar in the development of an academic and a statesman. Rin had to learn all of these subjects before his sixteenth birthday.
Rin set a strict schedule for herself: she had to finish at least two books each week, and alternate between two subjects each day.
Every night, after closing the store, he ran to tutor Feyrik’s house, and when he returned he returned with his arms loaded with more books.
History was the easiest subject to learn. Nikan was a highly entertaining epic of constant wars. The Empire had been formed a thousand years ago under the mighty sword of the ruthless Red Emperor, who destroyed the monastic orders scattered across the continent and created a unified state of a size never seen before. It was the first time that the people of Nikan had considered themselves as a single nation. The Red Emperor also established a single Nikara language for the entire Empire, a uniform set of weights and measures, and a system of roads that connected the entire territory.
But the newly conceived Empire of Nikan did not survive the death of the Emperor. His many heirs turned the country into bloodthirsty chaos during the Warring States era that followed the Empire, a new era that divided Nikan into twelve rival provinces.
Since then, the immense country had been reunified, conquered, exploited, divided and unified again. Nikan was successively at war with the northern khans of the Inland Lands and the western highlands beyond the great sea. On both occasions, Nikan had proven too large to suffer foreign occupation for long.
Of all the attempts to conquer Nikan, it had been the Mugen Federation that had come closest. The island country had attacked Nikan when domestic conflicts between provinces were at their peak. It took two Poppy Wars and fifty years of bloody occupation for Nikan to regain its independence.
Empress Su Daji, the last living member of the Triumvirate that had taken control of the government during the Second Poppy War, ruled a country divided into twelve provinces, which had never achieved the same unity that the Red Emperor had imposed. .
The Nikan Empire had proven throughout history that it was unconquerable. But it was also unstable and disunited, and the current mirage of peace did not promise to stand the test of time.
If there was one thing Rin had learned about her country’s history, it was that if there was one thing constant in the Nikan Empire, it was war.
The second subject, Mathematics, was a pain. It wasn’t overly challenging, but it was tedious and exhausting. The Keju was not looking for mathematical geniuses but for students who could manage the country’s finances and account books. Rin had been keeping accounts for the Fang since he could add up. He was good at doing head calculations with large sums. Rin would still have to catch up on the more abstract trigonometric theorems, which he assumed would be useful for naval battles, although he found learning these theorems to be pleasantly easy.
The third subject, Logic, was completely unknown to him. The Keju posed logical puzzles as open questions. Rin opened a sample exam to practice. The first statement went like this: « a student following a busy path passes by a pear tree. The tree is so full of fruit that its branches are bent by the weight. Even so, it does not bear any fruit, why? »
Because it’s not his pear tree, Rin thought immediately, because the owner could be like Aunt Fang and split the student’s head open with a shovel. But the answers to the riddle were either moral or self-contained. The solution was in the very statement of the riddle. There had to be some fallacy, some contradiction in the same scenario.
Rin had to think for a long time until he came up with the answer. If a tree on such a busy road has so much fruit, then there must be something wrong with the fruit .
The more I practiced the more I saw the puzzles as a game. Finding the solution to the puzzle was very satisfying. Rin drew diagrams on the ground, studied the structures of syllogisms, and memorized the most common logical fallacies. Within a few months, Rin could already answer these riddles in mere seconds.
The worst subject, by far, was the Classics. They were the exception in their study rotation. He had to study the Classics every day.
That section of the Keju required students to recite, analyze, and compare texts from an established canon of twenty-seven books. These books were not written in a modern language but in the ancient Nikara language, which was notorious for its unpredictable grammar and misleading pronunciation. The books contained poems, philosophical treatises, and essays on the art of government. They had been written by the legendary scholars of Nikan’s past, and were intended to shape the character and morals of future statesmen. And they were, without exception, desperately confusing.
Unlike Logic and Mathematics, Rin couldn’t reason with the Classics. The Classics required a knowledge base that
most of the students had been building slowly since they could read. And in just two years, Rin would have to simulate more than five years of constant study.
So he performed real feats of memorization by repetition.
Rin recited the Classics backwards as he walked along the edges of the ancient defensive walls surrounding Tikany. He recited at double speed while he jumped over the poles in the lake. She mumbled to herself in the store, getting irritated every time customers asked her for help. She was not going to sleep until she had recited the day’s lesson without any errors. She would wake up reciting analects from the Classics, terrifying Kesegi, who thought she had been possessed by ghosts. And in a way, she was. She dreamed of ancient poems from long-dead voices and she woke up shaking with nightmares in which she had been wrong.
« The Plan of Heaven operates without ceasing, and leaves no accumulation of its influence in any particular place, so that all things are brought to perfection by it… in this way the Plan operates and all things under heaven are They direct them, and everything in the seas is subject to them. »
Rin put aside the Annals of Zhuangzi with a pout. Not only did he have no idea what Zhuangzi was writing about, but he also didn’t understand why he had insisted on writing in the most irritating way possible.
He understood very little of what he read. If even the scholars of Yuelu Mountain had trouble understanding the Classics, Rin could hardly be expected to understand their meaning. And since he did not have the time or experience to delve into the
texts, and since he couldn’t think of mnemonics or shortcuts to learn the Classics, he was left to memorize word by word and hope that it was enough.
He always went with a book. She studied while she ate. And when she got tired, she conjured up images for herself, telling herself the story of her worst possible future.
You walk down the hallway in an ill-fitting dress. You are shaking. He waits for you at the end. He looks at you as if you were a tasty fattened pig, a prime steak from his property. He licks his parched lips. He doesn’t take his eyes off you the entire banquet. When he’s done, he takes you to his bedroom, and he throws you on the sheets .
Rin shuddered, closed his eyes tightly, and when he opened them he continued where he had left off.
By Rin’s fifteenth birthday, he already knew a great deal of Nikara literature, and could recite the vast majority of it. But he still made mistakes, left out words, exchanged complex clauses, and mixed up the order of stanzas.
He knew that it was enough to enter a teaching university or a medical academy. Even medical academy. He even suspected that he might enter Yuelu Mountain’s school of scholars, where Nikan’s greatest minds created astonishing works of literature and pondered the mysteries of the natural world.
But I couldn’t afford any of these academies. He was to enter Sinegard. His results had to be in the highest percentage, not only in his town, but in the entire country. Otherwise, his two years of study would have been of no use.
He had to perfect his memory.
He stopped sleeping.
His eyes were always red, swollen. Her head was saturated with so much studying. When she visited tutor Feyrik one night to look for more books, her gaze was anxious, unfocused. Rin looked through Feyrik as he spoke. Her words drifted over her head like clouds, she barely registered his presence.
—Rin. Look at me.
Rin inhaled deeply and forced her eyes to focus on his blurry silhouette.
-As you take? —She asked him.
“I can’t,” Rin said in a whisper. I have two months left, and I can’t do it. Everything escapes from my head as soon as I put it there and… —his chest rose and he fell very quickly.
The words poured out of his mouth, speaking without thinking.
—What will happen if I don’t pass? What if I have to get married despite everything? I guess I could kill him. Suffocate him while he sleeps,
You know? Would she also inherit his fortune? That would be nice, don’t you think? —She started laughing uncontrollably. Tears were spilling down her cheeks. It’s easier than getting addicted. Nobody would ever know.
Tutor Feyrik quickly stood up and pulled out a stool.
—Sit down, little one.
Rin was shaking.
-Can’t. I have to read Fuzi’s Analects before tomorrow.
—Runin. Sit down.
He sat on the bench.
Tutor Feyrik sat across from her and took her hands.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” he said. Once upon a time, not long ago, there lived a student from a very poor family. He was too weak to work long hours in the fields, and his only chance of taking care of his parents when they were older was to gain a position in the government so that he could receive a stable salary. To do this, he had to enroll in an academy. With his last savings, the student bought a bunch of books and registered for Keju. He was very tired, because he worked in the fields all day and could only study at night.
Rin’s eyes closed. His back was heavy, and he avoided yawning.
Tutor Feyrik snapped his fingers in front of his eyes.
—The student had to find a way to stay awake. So he pinned the end of his braid to the ceiling, so that every time he nodded, his hair would tug and the pain would wake him up. Tutor Feyrik smiled at him. You’re almost there, Rin. Just a little more. Please don’t commit spousal homicide.
But Rin had stopped listening.
“The pain made him focus,” he said.
—That’s not what I was trying to say…
“The pain made him concentrate,” he repeated. The pain would make him focus.
So Rin studied with a candle at her side, throwing drops of wax on her arms if she started to fall asleep. Her eyes would water with pain, but she would wipe them away and resume her studies.
On the day he took the exam, his arms were covered in burns.
When he finished, tutor Feyrik asked him how the exam went. She was not able to answer. Days later, she still couldn’t remember those horrible, exhausting hours of exam. They were like a gap in her memory. When she tried to think about how she had answered a particular question, her brain would crash and she wouldn’t let her remember the answer.
I didn’t want to remember. She didn’t want to think about it anymore.
Seven days later, the scores came out. Every exam in the province had to be reviewed, not once, but two and three times.
For Rin, those days were unbearable. He barely slept. For the past two years his days had consisted of tireless study. Now that she had nothing to do, and that her future was out of reach, she felt much worse.
He irritated everyone with his worry. She made mistakes in the store. She caused a disaster in the inventory. She was abrupt with Kesegi and she quarreled more with the Fang than she should.
More than once he considered stealing another packet of opium and smoking it. He had heard of women in the village committing suicide by swallowing
whole opium pearls. In the dark hours of the night, he came to consider that option as well.
Everything was on hold. She felt like he was adrift, his entire existence reduced to a single score.
He thought about making contingency plans, preparations to escape from here in case he didn’t pass. But his mind refused to continue that line of thought. He could not conceive of a life after Keju, because there could be no life after Keju.
Rin became so desperate that, for the first time in her life, she prayed.
The Fang were far from religious. At most, they visited the village temple sporadically, mainly to exchange packets of opium behind the golden altar.
They were not the only ones who lacked religious devotion. Once, the monastic orders had exerted an even greater influence on the country than the Warlords did now, but then the Red Emperor had devastated the continent with the glorious unification of it, leaving in his wake slain monks and temples. destroyed.
The monastic orders no longer existed, but the gods remained. Numerous deities represented every aspect of life, from topics as general as love and health to the most mundane concerns of kitchens and homes. These traditions had been kept alive thanks to the faithful who had remained hidden, but in Tikany the majority frequented the temple as a mere ceremonial habit. Nobody was a true believer, at least nobody dared to
admit it. For the Nikara, the gods were already relics of the past, protagonists of myths and legends, but not of the present.
But Rin wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. One afternoon he left the shop early and brought some dumplings and stuffed lotus root as an offering to the pedestal of the Four Gods.
The temple was very quiet. It was noon and she was alone. Four statues looked at her silently through her painted eyes. Rin hesitated, she wasn’t entirely sure which one she should pray to.
He knew their names, of course. The White Tiger, the Black Tortoise, the Sky Dragon and the Vermilion Bird. He knew that they represented the four cardinal directions, but that they were only a small sample of the vast pantheon of deities worshiped in Nikan. The temple also had small shrines to minor guardian gods, whose portraits hung on scrolls all over the walls.
So many gods! What was the god for exam results? What was the god of single shop assistants who wanted to continue like this?
He decided to just pray to all of them.
—If you exist, if you are up there, help me. Give me a way out of this pigsty. And if you can’t, give the import inspector a heart attack.
He looked around the empty temple. What came next? She had always thought that praying involved more than just speaking out loud. She found several unused incense sticks on the altar. She lit one of them in the brazier, and then experimented with waving it in the air.
Should I give the smoke to the gods? Or should she smoke the rod herself? She had just put the burnt end of the incense to her nose when a temple custodian emerged from the altar.
They looked at each other.
He slowly pulled the rod out of his nostril.
“Hello,” he said. I am praying.
“Go away, please,” he replied.
Today the results would be posted at the door of the exam room at noon.
Rin closed the store early and left for the center with tutor Feyrik half an hour early. A large crowd had already gathered around the panel where the scores were to be posted. Feyrik and Rin found a shady corner about a hundred meters away and waited.
There were so many people at the entrance that Rin couldn’t see when the scrolls with the results were posted, she only knew because everyone suddenly started screaming and rushed forward, squeezing Rin and Tutor Feyrik into the crowd.
His heart was beating so hard he could barely breathe. She couldn’t see anything except the backs of the people in front of her. She felt like she was going to vomit.
When they were finally in front of everyone, it took him quite a while to find his name. She searched at first along the bottom half of the parchment, not daring to breathe. He sure wouldn’t have scored enough to be in the top ten.
He didn’t see Fang Runin anywhere.
Only when he looked at Tutor Feyrik and saw that he was crying did he realize it.
His name was at the top of the scroll. She wasn’t in the top ten. No, she was the first in the entire region. From the entire province.
He had bribed a teacher. He had stolen opium. She had burned herself, lied to her adoptive parents, shirked her responsibilities at the store, and broken a marriage agreement.
And I was going to Sinegard.