MetropolisWritten alongside Force and Fury
Yalen and Zihan drew near to the Court of Magical Law, which turned out to be an immense hall with outbuildings and colonnades surrounding a vast courtyard. Hundreds of petitioners camped out in the square, along with petty vendors and a smattering of goats, donkeys, dogs, and chickens. Ragged clusters of people pestered government officials and orderlies as they walked by, but a mixture of Gold and Blue Guards kept the peace, not allowing their entreaties to go very far. Beyond this was an area cleared of people, but for a trio of long queues that wound back and forth under an improvised shelter. Each led to an entrance arch and each arch had a sign over it marked with Retanese words. There was no evidence of Xiulan anywhere."So where would a petitioner go to undertake the next phase of the clearance exam?"
Yalen asked as he glanced questioningly between the various buildings. He couldn't read any of the signs."Line one on ze right is ze matters of law. If zey sue."
Zihan shook her head. It was the shortest. "Line two is for ze test sings. If she pass ze test but have to do oral test or still wait for ze forms, she will to be zere."
It was not short, and people were fanning themselves, sitting on the ground, or slouching against posts as they waited. "Line sree is get ze license and renew ze ID card. If she pass and ze first line is quick one, she will be here."
It was the longest line, and Yalen may have noticed that many of the people waiting in it appeared to be of a rather... low
social standing, judging by their clothing. While everyone held a red slip of paper in their hands, these ones also held a yellow one.
Yalen pointed at the third line first. "We should probably ask whoever is in charge of the second line first, but I am curious. What are those slips of paper they're holding over there? Does it have something to do with the licensing?"
Zihan let out a long sigh. She nodded. "Line Sree is ze famous one. It is the very long line. Sometimes to take some days to get srough."
They were walking slowly as she talked, and Yalen may have noticed a handful of people shooting curious or beseeching glances their way. Some began to hesitantly pace them. Others whispered and stole glances at him. "Ze yellow paper is for ze stand-in. You pay money to ze poor people and he to wait for you." "监工!"
(Overseer!) shouted one of the growing throng, and others took up the call. "拜托, 监工!"
(Please, overseer!) "拜托!"
(I have a little problem. Maybe you can help?) Zihan ignored them and Yalen could feel her draw a scary amount of energy, and do so very quickly. Most of the petitioners backed off. "For very long time,"
she shared, "Some people want ze goverment to fix zis problem, but maybe zey don't want to because it cost many money and zey must to change zis place and build ze new sings."
She shook her head and smirked ruefully. "But ze twin emperors have ze very Retanese solution: zey introduce ze new system where you can to pay ze poor people wait in line for you. It help them make ze money and no new building and people not have to waste zere time."
She twisted to regard Yalen, hands clasped behind her back, a slight grin on her face. "What do you sink of zis idea?"
Yalen's eyebrow twitched with exasperation. "I think that the people who run this place are woefully apathetic and corrupt, but I'm an investigator, not a political advisor."
He stated very bluntly in reply.
Zihan let out a bark of laughter. "Ze foreigner always say zat."
She shook her head, still smiling, and glanced out over the courtyard.
Yalen was quick to move on to the next topic. "What do the red slips mean then?"
He pointed out. "Red rarely means anything good in our country." "In Retan, ze colour red is bring good luck. Really, to wait in zis line for days is not ze good luck, but to get ze license and being approve for ze renew is."
She shrugged. "Really, zey want people to feel good to come here and pay ze money to use magic."
Suddenly, one of the petitioners was back, and he made the mistake of walking up and reaching for her robes in the process of his entreaty.
Yalen reflexively prodded the man at the waist with his scepter, not even thinking about the stranger's intent. His hands had moved to intercept a possible threat before he could consciously think about it. It was little more than a hard poke, so hopefully there wouldn't be any unnecessary bruises. "Pardon my rudeness sir, but you should be careful where you put your hands."
Yalen clicked his tongue. It suddenly occurred to him that Xiulan wasn't here to translate for him. They needed to keep moving.
The man recoiled from his touch, bowing and scraping as he backed away. "对不起,"
(I'm sorry,) he apologized, "对不起. 抱歉!"
(I'm sorry. My regret!)
Zihan glanced at Yalen and nodded approvingly. "I like you,"
she admitted. "You are much too honest to be a Retanese, but you are ze good person wisout be the soft man."
She shook her head in subtle admiration. "Zis is not ze easy sing to do."
They were now stopped at where the lines parted, and she was undoing the clasps on a satchel that she carried. "It might seem like ze unfair sing to say not to use magic for many people. To let zem come to ze capital city and zen return back to home for nossing."
She turned to face him. "But Retan is work well as ze country. People have ze safety. Zey have ze food and sings zey need. All people have ze same chance when zey come to take a test here, I sink. Many of the people have magic should not to have it. A country is like ze body: it need a head make a decision, hands to do ze sings, legs to carry him, and ze heart to keep him alive. Retan have one head. Zis is why it grows so big and still work. Ze Eastern countries? Everyone want be ze head."
She shook hers
, taking a moment to glance at the lines as if inviting the query that she knew would come next. They were here for a specific purpose, after all. She fished a small paper with a wax seal out from the bag and held it until he spoke."I won't pretend I understand how to run a country. I study criminal justice, not politics. All I can say is that while your system doesn't agree with my people's way of thinking, I understand your intent. I have seen firsthand the harm that unrestricted magic use can bring thanks to our dear friend, the Traveler."
In his mind Yalen was referring to the aberration disaster at Ersand'Enise. Many lives had been lost that day, out of reach of even the strongest magic the headmaster could bring to bear."I don't think we should copy Rettan's methods and ban magic for a majority of the population, but perhaps there is a happy middle ground that can be achieved..."
Yalen's eyes drifted down to the sealed scroll. "Hm? What is that?""We agree about zis, at least."
Her reply was short. Then, Yalen asked his question and she handed him the scroll. "Zis will give you permission to pass ze line. Go ask about ze translate woman. Line two will know."
Yalen gratefully accepted the document and nodded. "Thank you. I will be back shortly."
Without further delay, the Somnian marched past the waiting examinees and directly approached the staffer in charge of line two. He could only pray they encountered enough foreigners here to understand his Avincian. "Excuse me, but I have a few questions to ask if you can spare the time."
Yalen unsealed his permission slip and showed it to the civil servant. "I am looking for a particular individual who was known to have been here recently."
The man behind the counter's face turned ashen at Yalen's approach, and he concentrated ardently on every word the foreigner said, nodding along nervously. His eyes, however, showed scant little understanding. "Ah... Yes."
he held out his hand.
Yalen would have rolled his eyes internally, but his face remained stiff. Why was he using such complicated language around people who met an easterner maybe a few times a year? He twisted around and shrugged at Zihan while shaking his head. He hoped she would get the hint.
The man looked confused for a moment. "Very sorry."
He bowed repeatedly in apology. "I see... it?"
he asked in heavily accented Avincian. Zihan was not close by but, after some more direct prodding from Yalen, she strode over, never delaying, but not letting herself look hurried either. "He not understand ze Avince?"
she asked knowingly. When Yalen answered in the affirmative, she shook her head. "Zese people pass ze written test but not to speak ze language to real foreigner."
She turned to the orderly at the desk, absorbing sour faces from the tired-looking people near the front of the line with little sympathy or care, and the two went through a rapid exchange, during which Yalen picked out the name 'Jiang Xiulan' more than once. Finally, the desk clerk turned to a lower-ranking orderly and barked out instructions thick with the embarrassment he had clearly felt these past few minutes. The tall, awkward boy hurried off into the great hall behind.
Zihan turned to her charge. "Zey are look for ze records. We wait half one hour and we will to have." "Understood."
Yalen replied. He took a few steps back to indicate that he would no longer be holding up the line. It was an annoying stretch of time to wait through, too long to pass comfortably but too short to allow for them to detour elsewhere. He shuffled his feet somewhat impatiently and contented himself with people watching for now.
After a few minutes transpired Yalen noticed a mildly distressing scene. There were some youngsters gathered around a government official, caught in various states of screaming or crying. While it made him a bit uncomfortable to get involved in other people's business as a guest in a foreign country, there was no other matter currently demanding his attention. Maybe it was something minor enough that he could help without stepping on anyone's toes. With that resolve, he attempted to inch closer to the gathering to see if he could make any inferences as to what the trouble was.
At first, he had little luck. They were all speaking in Retanese. There seemed to be a lot of frustration, and a sense of (self-) righteous grievance. Then, however, one of them noticed him, and word rippled through the small cluster. "You see zis, Afince man?"
a boy about his age demanded. He was dressed in clothes that were simple, but clean, well-cared for, and of formal cut. "We come all ze Retan take zis exam."
He shook his head angrily. "Me famiry has not-uh mach mahneys. Work hahd let me to go here."
The others shouted in support... though in Retanese. Then, the young man leveled a furious finger at the orderly he and his peers had cornered. "Zey say us zis exam about ze magic, so we study ze magic.""Baht-uh no magic!"
cried a girl perhaps a couple of years older, her face stained with running makeup. The boy nodded vigorously. "Many ozer sing on zis-uh exam! Stupid-uh sing like 'do you feed ze poor man?'""Zis our future!"
wailed the girl, tears streaming down her face. She looked genuinely stricken. "It is-uh..."
She looked flustered, searching for a word. "一切!"
(everything!) she cried in frustration, trying to lock eyes with the Somnian. "We do all sing good-uh baht zey lie about zis exam! My mahzer and-uh fahzer take all ze mahneys to zis. I to save zem."
He held back both tears and fury. In the periphery of Yalen's vision, he could sense a half-dozen goldcloaks approaching in tight formation, drawing energy. These youngsters, heartbroken and furious, either hadn't noticed yet or didn't care. "You fahcker!"
the boy screamed, leveling his finger at the orderly like it was a weapon. The small man, carrying a stack of papers, flinched back, starting to draw. "You bastard!"
Yalen observed the chaos unfold without raising his hand. He lent his ear to the angry youth, but there was nothing more he was willing to offer in this situation. What could he do? In this country, whether he agreed with it or not, magical aptitude had more to do with your disposition than your RAS level. Why else would magic be so rare here? There were millions of people possessing the Gift. It wasn't exactly a commodity in such a populous country. The bleeding heart in him considered offering alms of some sort, some financial charity that might soothe their frustrations, but if you fed one wild cat there would be a hundred more right behind it. This was neither the time nor place to be playing the hero, especially since the guards were coming to kick some ass.
Rather than stick his neck out for either party, and potentially jeopardize his search for Xiulan, Yalen closed his eyes regretfully and walked away from the scene. He didn't feel good about it, but he wouldn't let emotions control his actions more than necessary. There were sounds of a scuffle behind him, but Yalen didn't look back.
The shouts and screams rose, and then the sounds of bodies thumping to the ground. Unconscious or dead, he could not say. Voices shouted in desperate apology and plea, but then there was the familiar echo of a sonic bubble dropping over an area, and they became faint and indistinct.
There was good news when he reached Zihan, however. "Good timing,"
she said. "Zey are call us up."
Promptly, he followed her there, marching in lockstep with the high-ranking White Knight, his black robes a perfect and intimidating contrast. None dared bother them this time and a few hastily scurried away.
There was a different official at the desk, and Yalen could not say why until the replacement opened his mouth to speak. "Welcome Retan,"
said the man. "I see you very busy, so I will not waste-uh ze time."
He shook his head. "Ze woman you look for - Jiang Xiulan - take ze test, but-uh she fail."
His bow was quick and professionally courteous only. "I am sorry for zis bad-uh news."
He turned to Zihan and there was a rapid exchange in Retanese full of uncomfortable smiles and what looked like a mix of commiseration and information exchange.
They walked away. "I sink, if she is you friend,"
said Zihan, in a softer voice than he had previously heard from her, "You should go talk her."
At his quizzical look - they hadn't actually found
the translator - she lowered her voice. "You will probably to find her at 泪桥 - ze Bridge of Tears. It is about ten minute walk west, at ze river.""The bridge of..."
Yalen scratched his head. With a name like that, it was obvious what people went to the Bridge of Tears to do. Hearing that such a sweet lady failed what was arguably the most important task in her life filled his heart with dread for her future. "Well,"
Yalen replied to Zihan, "I came here to find her, so I might as well go and confirm her whereabouts. Will you be tagging along?"
Zihan shook her head regretfully and glanced at the ground before looking back up. "I must to go wiss you for ze safety reason,"
she answered regretfully. "But I will stay not too close. I am sorry."
With that, Yalen led the way, and they walked in relative silence. The bridge was a small one, in the shadow of a larger peer just south, and foot traffic was sparse, almost as if people knew
what this place was famous for and avoided it as a result.
It took him a minute or two and a few glances at other faces to make sure they were not the one that he sought, but then there, sure enough, was Xiulan, sitting on a bench and staring out up the river, so still that she'd have been a statue were she made of something different than flesh and blood. If she noticed him, she made no indication whatsoever.
Yalen patted Zihan on the arm and went ahead knowing that she would remain where she was. He went to where Xiulan sat, though not directly. As he walked he tried to roll his feet, but there was no hiding one's footsteps in such a silent place. She would know he was coming whether he wanted her to or not.
Rather than intrude on her personal space, Yalen took a more passive approach and sat on the bench just next to hers. He relaxed his back and leaned into his seat, settling into an almost meditative state as he stared at the flowing waters. He did not say a word out of respect for her privacy, but he would be here if she had feelings that needed to be let out.
She only let out a small snort, ambivalent in its tone. Ambivalent about much of anything. Seconds passed, and turned into a minute, and then minutes, but all was not still any longer. Her fingers knit and unknit themselves. Tears streamed silently down her cheeks and she sniffed.
Finally, Jiang Xiulan broke. "I'm a terrible a guide. I leave you alone when I say I will come."
She turned to Yalen all at once, trying hard to swallow her tears and failing utterly.
Yalen turned his head to look at Xiulan. He was quiet for a moment, searching his thoughts for the words he wanted to say aloud. "No one among us would expect you to do a good job when your heart has been broken. You shouldn't degrade yourself."
She turned back to face the water, unsure, and shrugged. "Maybe you are right, but maybe you are wrong."
She paused and sniffed, resigning herself to talking, to just letting it all come out, damn the consequences. "I will be honest: I never want to be ze guide. When I was little, as long time I can remember, I want to be..."
She stopped abruptly and rolled her eyes. "Is like some fucking sad story from ze play wiss bad writing."
Yalen crossed his fingers across his lap and smiled. "I understand. I also wanted to be someone else once. I didn't dream I would be spending my future fighting dragons and chasing criminals across the ocean. I am here now because I have a job to do, just like you."
She turned back to him, pained. "But do you like it? Do you want it?"
It was a simple enough question, but did it have a simple answer?"...It's hard."
Yalen eventually answered after an extended period of silence. He relaxed the back of his head on top of the bench and stretched his arms out. The heaviness of this topic was draining all the energy from his body. "For every friend I make and every moment of joy I experience, I am made to endure an equal amount of heartache. When it gets really tough, sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off never leaving the countryside. My life was simpler back then."
Memories of home flooded Yalen with nostalgia, filling his chest with the pain of homesickness. Once upon a time, he could have been a pharmacist or surgeon, helping his small community and remaining free of his memories of violence and tragedy. "To answer your question, no, I don't like what I do. They asked me, I didn't ask them. However, I strongly feel that this is something I was meant to do. I have been shown a greater purpose, one that is not beholden to the sinful ways of this world."
It was clear that Xiulan was still deeply absorbed in her own misery, but she made an effort to listen and understand, as any decent person would. "I am... relieved that you find ze purpose in zis life you have not to choose for yourself."
She shook her head. "Really. For some people, life is about purpose."
She shook it again, however, more adamantly, as if stuck on something. "But zis is more zan just take away my purpose, Yalen. Zis magic - zis Gift you Quentic people say coming from ze gods - it is in me and I had feel it since I am a little girl. It is zere and it is mine and..."
She trailed off, more tears streaming down her cheeks. "I know I sound like some ozer person just complain 'my life is so bad' when it is okay, actually, but..."
Her face scrunched up bitterly. "Who ze fuck are zey tell me 'you cannot to use zis sing that is part of you'? Is it some wrong sing? Do I have it on accident? Every time I have a choice to make, I always follow ze rules. I work hard. I study hard. I try do ze right sing and zey just say 'fuck you Xiulan. You must spend your life like ze bug. You cannot ever use zis sing you have because you do not answer some stupid questions how we want. Should I go my whole life like zis?"
She was pleading with him now, looking for someone to tell her that it was okay to feel as she did and maybe even that her anger was justified. If there was ever to be healing or acceptance, she seemed unready for it as of yet.
Yalen sighed. "Why did they fail you?""Zis is ze sing: I don't know."
She glanced away in helplessness. "Really, I know zis test. I know you have only once chance to pass, but I am good. In your R-A-S number, very high."
She shook her head and the chemical mage could feel the soup of boiling emotions just beneath her surface. "I know it is not just about your magic, but how you to act."
She turned to look at him beseechingly. "I answered all sings as well I can. I always try to sink what is ze good sing. I... don't know. I don't understand how I fail. Am I ze bad person?"
Her fists balled up.
Yalen felt helpless at times like these. He couldn't tell if he was saying the right things or not. It was regretful that she couldn't have her own family be here to console her. Right now he was the best she had. "Xiulan, I will be blunt. To an outsider, your country has the appearance of a machine built out of human lives. You are being controlled in ways you can't even begin to understand. Maybe they didn't want someone prepared to do the good thing." "Maybe they wanted someone colder. More pragmatic. That is the feeling I get from many of the guards I've spoken to thus far. Controlling such a large country in the way they do requires a certain level of apathy towards others. You are far from a bad person, but I think that is why you have remained a slave here.""I love my country,"
Xiulan stated, eyes flicking over to the distant figure of Zihan, "But I do not love ze government."
They returned to the river and all of the little boats happily making their way up and down it, conducting the business of the day. "I love the cherry blossoms in ze spring, and the paper lanterns in ze night, to smell ze cooking baozi, and feel ze fresh air of ze first snow, to talk and sing wiss your mozer as you sweep ze courtyard."
She smiled faintly and released a long breath. "Zere are many ozer people who feel like I do, you know, and it is almost funny how stupid ze government sinks we are."
She regarded Yalen almost... evaluatively, maybe hopefully
after what he had just said. "Zese people I talk about are just normal people: million of us. Zey do not work wiss ze Traveler. He isn't even here. You cannot to imagine how much I hear as ze translator."
There was a grim, satisfied look on her face. "Zey are just using him as ze excuse to beat zis rebellion and say zey beat a bad guy."
Her eyes met his, face even and composed. "If zey succeed, you get some small reward and your school can be happy. But if zey make some mistake?"
She snorted and there came a bitter, ironic smile. "Zey blame you and zen your school to owe zis evil government some apology."
She shook her head. "You cannot trust zem. Zey must to go."
Xiulan’s final words left Yalen in shock.