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There must be conspiracy in the provinces, Li thinks. It is midwinter. Usually at this time of year frozen steppes and impassable mountains pause travel, and the capital city stops receiving messages from all but the very nearest provinces for a month, two months. But this winter, they have arrived at a rate that Li would consider appropriate to late spring, when it is possible to reach even the most distant locations in no more than six weeks.

Nor is it just this season. Things, Li thinks, have become too efficient; for several years now the capital has received too many messages, too many requests. The provinces want more and more; too much. The provincial officials' replies to the capital's queries are even faster: when messages reach their outposts, the officials perform the most complex authentication procedures almost instantly, so that you can measure everything in weeks rather than months.

Meanwhile, in the capital city forms are filled out and filed, correspondence is answered, resolutions are issued, all at the usual pace, a pace which not so long ago seemed quick in comparison with the provinces and now seems stately. It is as if the provinces are at the edge of a wheel, spinning faster and faster while the center sinks into stillness.


When you stand at one end of the hall where the first exam is held, Shen recalls, you cannot see the far wall. The rows of cubicles simply recede. In the rooms where the second and third exams are held, you find the walls are a little closer each time; the halls are vast, but they are not built on a scale that taxes perception. It is only when you walk into the fourth exam hall, Shen finds, that you have the sense of being in a room built for human use. It is because of the attrition after the third exam, which so many students fail; still more, having passed, decide not to proceed. Shen, like everyone who takes the fourth exam, thinks of such people with contempt, a contempt sharpened, just now, by envy.

A man gives him brushes and a stick of ink. Another man walks him to his narrow enclosure, with its wooden chair and table. At one side the chair, at the other the table. With the chair's back pressed against the wall, he can just reach the table's edge.


The gold cylinder lies lengthwise on the cherrywood table in Li's office. Someone has made a mistake, he thinks, and he almost failed to notice it. He picks it up again and examines the characters stamped into the bottom: East Central Processing Office. But the message inside, a routine request from the chancellor of the mountain region of Z— for six more doctors to replace those carried off in the last flu epidemic, should have come through the North River office.

Here is how it should have happened: the letter arrives at North River, where a clerk removes the outer envelope and reads the authentication sheet. Usually he decides that the reply to the authentication question posed, whether a few lines of verse or an exposition of a quotation or a series of maxims in a set pattern, demonstrates enough competence, enough skill, to be the work of an imperial official: the processing centers take into account the way time and the isolation of the provinces soften the intellect. In the dozens of authentication sheets the provincial officials receive each year to enclose with their requests and replies, there are bound to be some questions that would cause a commissioner of an obscure mountain outpost, or a rural lieutenant-governor, to stumble. The outer sheet is stamped and put into the cylinder with the sealed inner envelope, which the pneumatic tubes shuttle to the center of the city. Occasionally the material on the authentication sheet is simply not good enough—mere guesswork—or else the sheet is omitted. Then the clerk returns the message unread, and makes a black mark next to the town, fortress, or itinerant officer from whom it was sent. If eight black marks appear next to a name in a single year, an investigation begins.


The first few sections are easy. When Shen's finished one, he takes out a red silk handkerchief and spreads it squarely on the left side of the table. To the monitors, watching from lofts high on the wall, the square serves as a beacon; they hurry to trade his answer for a new question.

Dusk begins to fall and the air in the room becomes less transparent, as if someone has dipped an ink-soaked brush into a glass of clear water. The monitors bring around bright oil lamps with white paper shades, but the area around the ceiling gets blacker and blacker until you can no longer see them watching from their perches.

Shen remembers a story about a young man who fell in love a month into studying for the fourth exam. His parents tried to keep him from seeing the girl, but he met her anyway each night in her family's pear orchard, dozing and dreaming through lessons during the day. On the day of the examination he was pathetically unprepared; by the time he began the third section, he knew he would fail. In despair, he tried to run away during a lavatory break, but his green jacket snagged on the enclosure's barbed fence; though he clung on, the monitors plucked him down like an unripe fruit. He was not seen again, of course. The girl, who must have felt herself to be to blame—rightly, Shen thinks—hanged herself with a necklace the student had given her; and so there were two more exam hall ghosts to add to the multitude.


Could it be a mistake? It couldn't. How could it? Li taps his finger on the desk, considering the problem, but there's simply no way that a letter from the region of Z— could find its way to East Central. Z—, cut off from the coastline where the capital sits by a semicircle of desert, regains some of the time lost in crossing the arid terrain by using a riverboat for the final leg of the journey. The last stop is the North River office, where boats must turn back or risk drifting into the rough seas.

He asks the members of his department, Technical Staffing, if they have received any official correspondence in the wrong canisters. They have not or—plausibly—have not noticed. A third possibility occurs to him: they're lying. Used canisters, he recollects, are stored in the basement until the depot's collectors pick them up. He asks if there are any there now.

"A dozen crates at least," his assistant says. "We get so many these days, Director; God knows what's gotten into those provincials!"

In the basement, he picks up the canisters one by one, tilting them so that the lamplight catches the symbols inscribed on the bottom disc. Seventy-three of them are stamped with East Central's code. He checks the log books for the last week, matching provinces to processing offices, occasionally looking up a less familiar name (there have been no requests at all from the province of Q— L—, he realizes, for months) and arrives at: forty-one. Only forty-one messages should have been routed through the East Central office, and yet here, he thinks, are seventy-three canisters.


The questions become harder. At last there is one in the strange characters, the strange language, which Shen's tutor has been pressing into his brain for the last eighteen months. He knows his answer is clumsy, but he is confident that it will do. Answers to the questions posed in the ordinary tongue must be above all graceful; in the other language, his tutor has told him, the important thing is showing that you understand: elegance, though appreciated, is unnecessary.

The day before the exam, his mother spoke to him with such plangency that his fears now assume her voice. "But if you fail?"

"Exile," he replied then, "isn't so terrible. They say there are cities even outside the empire." But he knew that they were both wondering if exile wasn't merely one of the empire's euphemisms. Exile was, after all, the very least they could do. Even those who failed the fourth exam knew too much; bits and pieces that were just enough to get an occasional response to an authentication question past the processing offices. Such scraps of broken knowledge would be worth something on the black market. But only a minority failed; those who hadn't done well on the third exam didn't risk training for the fourth one. His odds, he reminds himself, are good.


Li sends a message to General Wenyan using their old code, from those days when they had used one for the sheer pleasure of it: 12.232 31.96, he writes, seals and addresses it, and slides a canister into the open mouth of the pneumatic tube.

An hour later his assistant ushers Wenyan in, pausing expectantly in the doorway. It is late; he hopes to be sent home. "I may need you later," Li tells him. "You'll have to sleep here tonight." And the young man leaves, deference failing to conceal petulance.


Li asks Wenyan whether the Commissariat, which coordinates supplies for the troops stationed in the provinces, has been busier than usual lately. Things get busier all the time, he replies, adding a conventional compliment to the education ministry, which seems—miraculously!—to have found a way to teach officials diligence. Wenyan would never have used such trite praise when they were school friends—but that was decades ago; men change. No, Li thinks, that's nonsense, no one changes. Wenyan, sly as ever, is hinting at the suspicions he himself has been entertaining all evening.

"Then you think something's wrong too?" Li asks.

"I don't think provincial officials are likely to have become so much more efficient without a reason. Education ministry notwithstanding."

"Is it being looked into?"


"I don't know what this means," Li hands Wenyan the canister from East Central, with its message from Z— curled inside it, "but I wanted you to see it."


An hour after midnight, two proctors begin taking the students to the lavatories in groups of twenty-eight. One proctor walks in front holding a lantern attached to a pole; another follows the procession of students, watching. The lavatory is a small building on the far corner of a tiled pavilion. Shen, who is the first in and the first out, waits at a respectful distance near the center of the diagonal stretching from the lavatories to the exam hall. One proctor is still inside the lavatory, making sure no one talks or trades notes; the other waits outside, steadying the pole of his lantern against the tile. Shen must be just far enough away to disappear into the darkness, because when another man enters through the courtyard and hurries toward the proctor, neither the man nor the proctor notices him. "The Imperial Secretary," Shen hears, and then, very faintly, "It could be any number of . . . but still, at this hour . . . no, I don't know." Now it is the proctor speaking: "Yes, of course you must . . . the Secretary . . . probably nothing." The man glides off toward the rear entrance of the exam hall, moving with the silent urgency of one of its ghosts.


Li and Wenyan wait for the Imperial Secretary. From the window, they watch the lamps beneath the gables of the building opposite making soft cones of light in the air. At last a dark figure approaches from the north. His jacket turns a brilliant red under the lamp before returning to liquid black as he steps into the shadow of their doorway. Two assistants walk clumsily behind him, carrying huge boxes.

Li lets Wenyan tell the Imperial Secretary about the unaccountable surplus of canisters from East Central, and their suspicion that it is connected to the recent influx of messages.

"The first thing to do," the Secretary says, "is to find out which provinces have been too active. Then we'll see if the men over at East Central have anything to do with the irregularities." He has brought records going back twenty years from all sixty provinces, which Wenyan says will be long enough; the change has only occurred in the last decade, perhaps only in the last five or six years.

They pin a map on the wall. One of the assistants shades the provinces that have had significant increases in correspondence in the last decade with a piece of charcoal. It takes two hours before they have gotten through all the files and another hour before they have made the necessary calculations; when they have finished Li looks at the map and is shocked at how many of the provinces have been blackened. There are white tendrils branching out from the central city, but surrounded everywhere by shaded areas: the empire looks like a piece of coral adrift in a dark sea.


Something is wrong. There are people walking up and down the corridors constantly; even when Shen cannot see them, he can hear the rustling of their clothes and sometimes even whispered conversations, though all speech is prohibited within these walls. Since his return from the courtyard, the atmosphere has changed; noises divide the quiet; flickering lights interrupt the planes of shadow.

The exam, meanwhile, has gotten more difficult. Now every question is presented in the new language, and with each one, he tests the limits of his knowledge. He reads it well, writes it imperfectly but, he hopes, adequately. He has never heard it spoken, and does not, in fact, even know if it has a name: his tutor called it "the cipher" or sometimes "the script"; outside their conversations, he has never heard it mentioned. He places the red silk square on his desk more rarely and wonders whether he is falling behind. There seems to be no end to the exam, no end to the night. It has broken into a succession of seconds, each of which departs with incredible speed; yet there is always another—and another.

It is still well before dawn when a monitor, leading a dozen or so students, pauses by Shen's desk. He is told to follow; it must be, he thinks, another trip to the lavatories.


The Imperial Secretary reassures everyone that it isn't too late to repair things, not at all. They are gathered round the map, staring at it. They don't, he points out, even know anything's wrong; it might be one of these inexplicable shifts in the bureaucratic culture, and won't we, he suggests, won't we all feel foolish to have been so frightened by the very efficiency we're always trying to encourage. But just in case, he'll see to sending some men—of tested loyalty, of course—to see how things stand in the relevant provinces. Wenyan suggests that they send someone to East Central in the meantime, in fact as soon as possible, before dawn (Li has already noticed the dark beginning to lift). The Imperial Secretary proposes that Li himself should go, along with one of the Secretary's two assistants.

"But where," the assistant asks shyly, "is the East Central office, exactly?" None of them has ever been there, and so Li's assistant gets a map of the city, looks at the key, locates the relevant block.

"It's directly behind the Fourth Exam hall," he says.

The Imperial Secretary's second assistant is the first person to have the terrible thought. Li and Wenyan see his lips open silently, his eyes glance around the room, and then, both at once, they understand what he must be thinking.

"It would explain it," Wenyan says.

"Explain what?" the Imperial Secretary asks.

"Why we get too many messages. Why they seem to come through East Central. Everything."


It is not a trip to the lavatories, after all. They walk through the pavilion to the rear of the hall, then through the elaborate wrought-iron gate leading out of the exam compound and onto the streets. A few of the students murmur, while the rest merely look questions at each other; this is no part of the exam that they have heard of—but then, they have heard so little. They turn into a small house two streets over, and are shown into an elegantly furnished room on the upper story. Shen notices that it has no windows.

There are eight men in the room. Two sit in low cushioned chairs with delicately carved wood frames; another two stand behind them. The man in the chair on the right waves the students to the benches arranged along the wall. He tells them that he will explain this strange pre-dawn excursion: that he will explain everything.

His speech lasts just under ten minutes. It is precise, well structured; he has rehearsed it, Shen thinks. The burden of it is that the exam they are taking is not merely a test of their ability to answer authentication questions; they have been writing answers to real questions, which are being used to pass off decidedly unofficial communications. Half of the letters to the provinces these days, the man says, never reach them; they are answered from within the city itself, diverted through a processing center. East Central. There are places the administration believes it corresponds with daily, he tells them, from which it has not, in fact, received a word in two years. These men have interposed themselves between the capital and the provinces, issuing orders, disbursing goods, receiving tribute—and profiting, Shen imagines, from every transaction. As the speech's cadences soften and extend, moving toward a conclusion, Shen begins to wonder why they are being told any of it. Surely the others, all those who were taught the new language in the last decade, were not; they would not have been given the truth with its clean lines and harsh symmetry, but something agreeably blurred, easy to misunderstand.


"We have only suspicions," the Imperial Secretary says. Li cannot tell how much the Secretary believes; most of it, he decides, but the Secretary is used to understating catastrophe. "Besides," he says, "the officials in the provinces would realize something was wrong, eventually. If they were always sent supplies and orders that didn't match their requests. If their own correspondence never reached the administration. The effects would show."

"But if they were being paid to ignore it?" Wenyan asks. "Or if they were the very worst, those who wouldn't have passed the exams? They would be pleased to be spared, pleased to look the other way while the correspondence they couldn't manage somehow got written. The best students write the authentication answers and are converted to their side or eliminated; the worst are given positions on the understanding that they won't, can't, intervene."

"Shall we leave now?" the assistant asks, but the others, absorbed in speculation, ignore him.

"Then they've worked cleverly, whoever they are," Li says. "If the officials were merely corrupt it would be easier; they could be bought or frightened back—but what can we do about this? There are too many of them in posts; we can't replace half our people in the provinces. And who knows how many in the capital."

The Imperial Secretary walks over to the window, looking at something on the narrow, cobbled street, which under the influence of dawn has lightened to gray. "Not at once. Gradually, as they've done. It can't be too late; if it were, they would have acted. But we must work quietly, we must instate new men, exert influence, find and remove their people slowly. Above all we don't want to frighten them into acting."

"Are we still going to go investigate East Central?" The assistant finally attracts the notice of the Imperial Secretary.

"Of course not," the Secretary replies.


The conclusion has come and Shen still does not understand. It is too much information and not enough. Everything has been explained except the one really pressing question: why are they being told? Two or three of the students are expressing signs of indignation, trying to show outrage through their posture and the set of their chins. The rest, like Shen, are trying much harder to show nothing. Shen is not, in fact, indignant, not outraged. Instead he senses only a slight pull and drift, as if after standing on the earth's surface for eighteen years, he has suddenly become able to feel its motion.

A man opens the door to the room halfway, and signals to the speaker, who rises and stands in the threshold of the door, talking softly to the new arrival. Shen hears, again, "The Imperial Secretary . . . without question . . . they must have guessed." A long series of phrases follows in reply which he cannot quite hear, and then "It's time." The door shuts behind them.

Now the man in the chair on the left, a bald man who has been sitting very still in a stiffly embroidered mantle, addresses them. He understands that they will have been wondering why they are being told all this. It is because, he tells them, of what they already know. They, but not just them: hundreds of others like them, all placed in positions of influence. "Not the highest positions," he says, "but the ones with the most sway." Now he turns halfway round in his chair, stretching out his hand, in which the man standing behind him places a leather case. He takes out a sheet of paper and holds it up to the students: it is an exam response, written in the new script. "Whose is this? Stand up."

Shen rises.

"There are imperfections. The way you shape this character, for instance—it should have more curve to it. But on the whole it's very good." He pauses. "You see?" he asks all of them. "I could have chosen any one of your papers. You've all learnt the language of the new empire."


There is a faint clattering in the outer office. Messages are arriving through the pneumatic tubes, one after another. There must be a dozen within the minute or two it takes Li's assistant to fetch them; still they can hear more arriving.

The Imperial Secretary remains standing at the window. It is lighter now but not bright, a cloudy day just turning to rain. He points to a building at a diagonal across the street. "Look at the window behind that balcony." It is half hidden by a stone balustrade, through which one can just see the folds of a heavy green curtain. "That curtain. From time to time, it moves."

Li imagines he can see, in the slit where the fabric doesn't quite meet the wall, an eye glinting wetly. Then the darkness flattens; he can see nothing. He takes the first message from his assistant and opens it, then the second and third. The fourth is addressed to Wenyan; the fifth, sixth, and seventh to the Imperial Secretary. "Does this mean anything to you?" he asks them.

"If you're asking whether I've ever seen this script, I haven't. But we all know what it means," the Imperial Secretary says. "It's their opening move."

His assistant looks perplexed.

"They're showing us," he explains, "that they're taking control. That they can run the empire in a language that means nothing to us."

"I don't see that we have a response," Wenyan says.

"Nor I," Li replies. "But that would mean it's over."

Wenyan picks up a canister, turns it around in his palm, and tosses it gently onto the carpet. "There's always war."

"It's over," the Imperial Secretary says. Li looks at the map of the empire hanging on the wall. It is as if black waves are washing over that white coral, and it is submerged.

Dorothy Yarros is a teacher and writer living in L.A.
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17 Jan 2022

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