Xiaozi had expected a long journey, and anticipated many obstacles on the road. He had been preparing for many years to move to Xi An. What he did not expect though, what he could not have prepared for, was the sheer mass of bodies that swelled in and out of the gates. The canals ran green and the bridges stretched across them dipped with the weight of a thousand incessant feet. Xiaozi had not taken three steps before he was jostled by every person in the crowd twice over.
This was the biggest day of his life, and no one cared. Why would they? Each and every one of these people had their own business to go about; lives and wives and hives of children. Xiaozi probably wasn’t even the only rural man coming to the capital after passing the Civil Exam. Any one of the eager faces, bobbing in the sea of labor-worn visages, could be here for the same reason.
No reason to get himself down over it though. Xiaozi had worn the face of labor himself not too long ago. Just being here was a privilege, no matter what he left at home. It was time to move forward. The cool cleanliness of the countryside was far behind, replaced by the stench and beauty of the big city. High stone walls passed overhead, seemingly of their own accord. Xiaozi was borne forward almost entirely on the momentum of the crowd, dragged into the belly of the beast by its tongue of swarming humans.
Peddlers and street carts called out their wares, shoving raw, smoked, and cooked meat into Xiaozi’s face. Hunger for the delectable pieces was quickly replaced by repulsion for the questionable chunks, and back around to hungry curiosity as he pushed ever onward. Food definitely felt like a good idea at the moment, but there were far more pressing matters at hand. Besides, they would feed him at the Consulate.
Excitement wore thin as his soles after half an hour. Xiaozi could not find the Consulate on his own, but the people here spoke with heavy tongues. They spoke the same language, but it was so obscured by dialect that his own words felt strange and cumbersome when spoken out loud. After many fumbled questions, Xiaozi resigned to calling out the name of his village, hoping someone would understand.
“Renhao! A friend from Renhao?” Somewhere in the swarm, he thought an answer echoed back. He squinted and hopped up to see over the crowd, but no face matched the sound. “Renhao? I need to find the Consulate building!”
Suddenly the crowd seemed to slow, and split right in front of him. A man stepped forward, and Xiaozi stepped back. It was a man like none he had seen, tall, with light hair and foreign clothing. This man was not from Xi An; perhaps not from the Middle Kingdom at all.
“I am not from Renhao, but I think I can help you.”
The Consulate waiting parlor was jarring in contrast to the noise in town. Xiaozi sat with his hands folded, unsure whether to drink the tea the attendants had served, or let it steam away. The cups looked too perfectly set to disturb.
His eyes searched around on behalf of his stomach. The bowl of cakes were well-arranged, but not enough that it couldn’t survive the removal of one member. The foreigner was not so conflicted, and drank his tea steadily. A clink, and his teacup settled back on the table. “What was your name again? Forgive me, I have forgotten.”
“Li Xiaozi, and you?”
The foreigner smiled, “My original name is something I have not used in a long time. For now, I’m known as Hui Nuoya.”
Xiaozi was saved from furthering the conversation when another attendant glided into the room. Xiaozi’s finest tunic paled in comparison to the finery of this servant’s garb. At least I am my own man, Xiaozi thought.
“Sir Li, the magistrate will see you now.”
Xiaozi bowed to Hui Nuoya, and followed the attendant out of the room. He immediately felt badly for looking down on the servant. Surely he was an honorable man, and meant no insult to Xiaozi just by wearing nice clothing.
The magistrate’s office was wide and ornate, revealed slowly as its carved doors swung inwards. Renhao’s best temple did not have half as much decoration as this room. The magistrate himself sat between two stacks of paper on his desk. One stack stood taller, but lost height as he removed a layer, marked it, and transferred it to the second stack.
“Li Dazi,” the magistrate’s voice boomed out through his long mustache. “I heard terrible rumors about you, and half expected you not to come to Xi An.”
Xiaozi bowed slightly, but did not lower his eyes. “Sir Qing, I regret to inform you that those rumors were fact. Dazi is dead; I am his brother.”
For the first time, Qing stopped reading the stacked papers. “I hope you realize the extent to which we are intolerant of trickery. The Consulate does not accept just any country fool, family member or not. The Exam—”
“I have taken the Exam.” Xiaozi stood tall in front of the desk. “There is no trickery at hand.”
“Our reports only indicate Dazi’s attempts.” The magistrate smirked, “Barely a passing grade, I might add.”
Xiaozi withdrew a scroll from the depths of his robe. “My brother took the exam when it was first administered by the envoy from Xi An. He passed, but stayed in town to finish local business, intending to follow the envoy within the week.” Xiaozi felt his heart grow heavy. “But Dazi died the next day.”
The magistrate returned to his stacks. “It really wasn’t necessary to travel all this way, just to tell me your brother isn’t coming. My condolences. You may return to Renhao.”
“I came not to inform you of Dazi’s passing, but to present my results.”
The magistrate scoffed, hardly looking up from his work. “No family within a hundred miles of Renhao can afford to educate two sons.”
“I was an observant farmer. Field work did nothing to stop me from teaching myself my brother’s lessons.” Xiaozi presented the scroll, pushing it onto the magistrate's current paper and forcing it to be seen. Xiaozi stepped back. “These are my scores.”
Qing opened the scroll, dangerously irritated. As his eyes scanned the document, surprise, then suspicion crossed his brow. He threw the scroll down. “Who administered this Exam to you?”
“Han Zuofan, the assistant administrator.” Xiaozi picked the scroll up off the desk. “I convinced him to stay and give me a chance.”
Qing sat back, stroking his chin. He rang the bell beside his chair. The well-dressed attendant scurried in, and bowed. “Tea for Sir Li,” said the magistrate. “And a chair.”
Xiaozi was soon sitting and not drinking his tea.
“So,” Qing had pushed the stacks of paper to the side. “I know why you’re in Xi An - governmental training.”
“That is correct.”
“But why are you in my office, specifically?”
Xiaozi wanted to put his teacup down, but was sat too far from the desk. The porcelain was getting hot. “To ask a favor.”
Qing smiled with humorless eyes. “You’re hardly in a position to do so, Sir Li. I am not a man known to favors others.”
Xiaozi felt his heart beginning to pound, but tried not to let it show. This was the most important part. “Your reputation as a hard man precedes you, Sir Qing. My uncle spoke of you often once he returned from governance in Lengtiao. However,” Xiaozi decided just to drink the hot tea, doing his best not to flinch as it scalded down his throat. “However, I was hoping to appeal to your kinder side, and ask for an exception.”
Qing leaned forward menacingly. “I could just save you the effort; the answer can only be 'no'. But I’m curious to hear your request, for laughter’s sake.”
The porcelain cooling in his palm, Xiaozi looked Qing straight in the eye. “Out of respect for my uncle, I ask permission to be deployed back to my village of Renhao after training here in Xi An.”
As promised, Qing burst into laughter. “Respect? For Li Fasheng?” The magistrate somehow growled underneath the laugh. “Your uncle was one of the most incompetent governors I ever had the displeasure of overseeing.”
“But Renhao is in desperate need of a new governor,” Xiaozi said, voice laden with concern. “My region needs someone who understands its people. We have very particular traditions—”
“Which is exactly why the government never sends civil servants back to their own villages.” Qing gnashed at the air. “How can we trust governors to serve the Empire without favoritism when their first loyalty is always to their hometown?”
But the magistrate waved him silent. “I left my own home forty years ago, and never went back. Do you know why? Can you understand how? Exclusive loyalty to the Emperor and Xi An, that’s how." Qing seemed to swell up behind the desk, filling his space with righteous indignation. "I serve with an impartial hand, unburdened by familial ties.”
Xiaozi appeared to be disheartened by the outburst. “Sir Qing, even so, you must see that sending governors to unfamiliar regions causes unnecessary conflict. My uncle endured many hard years in Lengtiao; the people there hate anyone from Renhao.”
Qing shrugged. “Then Li Fasheng failed to instill the ideals of empirical unity in Lengtiao. It’s not the people’s fault that his leadership was lacking.”
Xiaozi half stood up. “That is unfair and you know it. My uncle was a great leader! The families of Renhao and Lengtiao have been quarreling for decades. You can’t blame him for being unable to quell such old bad blood.”
Qing bared his teeth, long mustache quivering. “It almost sounds like you are questioning my decisions.” He stood up from his desk for the first time, and rounded its ornate dragon-headed corners. “Which is a dangerous way to sound when I am the one who decides where you will be assigned.”
Xiaozi looked defiant. “I’m not scared of you.”
Qing towered over the young man, but did not say anything. The magistrate glared down at the governor-to-be for an uncomfortably long time, then returned to his desk. Xiaozi kept quiet, uncertain how to react. Qing sat down and took up a blank scroll, a brush, and an inkwell. A moment of tense calligraphy passed through the room.
When he had finished, the magistrate rolled up the scroll, walked back to Xiaozi, and dropped it in the young man’s hands. “You may leave now.” There was a satisfied glint in Qing’s eyes.
Xiaozi stood, and bowed slightly. Both men knew it was a mockery. The magistrate went back to his seat, and Xiaozi left the room.
The well-dressed attendant scurried past Xiaozi, eyeing the foreboding scroll with knowing disapproval, but quickly moving on to the parlor. “Sir Hui, the magistrate will see you now.”
The foreigner Hui Nuoya nearly bumped into Xiaozi as they passed each other in the hall, but the latter hardly noticed. Li Xiaozi was ecstatic, but he didn’t let it show just yet. The young man rushed out of the Consulate building, and back into the rush of city crowds. He found the nearest tea house, and paid for a room on the second floor.
In the quiet and security of the wood-paneled chamber, Xiaozi sat cross-legged in front of a low table. A teapot sat steaming and un-poured, but he couldn’t wait any longer. Xiaozi took out the scroll and laid it flat on the table. A short message was written in perfectly straight columns, instructing the magistracy to send Li Xiaozi to Lengtiao as soon as he completed his governmental training.
Xiaozi sat back, relief pouring over him. It worked! He needed to write to Xiumei as soon as possible, so that she wouldn’t have to worry any longer. He called for an attendant, and requested writing utensils, and lunch. This was cause to celebrate.
Xiumei, My Love,
The magistrate has been most cooperative, and I am pleased to say that you and I will soon be reunited. It has been a long and difficult journey, and I was scared the entire time that our plan would not be successful.
I have been assigned to Lengtiao as "punishment" for my presumption. And while I admit, dealing with its citizens will be a challenge, the ordeal is more than worth it to be near you once again. My uncle's poor reputation was more than enough to antagonize the magistrate. He is convinced that he got the better of me, and now I will come to Lengtiao as your governor. Soon too, I hope, as your husband.
Light a candle for my brother, and another for me. He would understand why I needed to take his place. Surely he will forgive me in the next life for what I did to him in this one.
- Li Xiaozi
“Sir Hui, do come in.” Qing was sitting between the stacks of papers once again, already pushing the foolish country boy from his mind.
Hui Nuoya bowed low, and entered the room slowly. “I bring an update from the front lines of our experiment.”
Qing put down his brush. “And?”
Nuoya raised his hands, tentative. “We have made a lot of progress in the past few months.” He lowered his hands, resigned. “But it has come at a cost.”
Qing shrugged. “We sacrifice what we must for the Emperor.”
Nuoya bowed in agreement. “The gunpowder cannons are almost battle-ready. Unfortunately, a village near our testing fields suffered the consequences of a trial run accident.”
The magistrate winced. “The Emperor will not be pleased. Where was this? What is the extent of the damage?”
“I will speak to the Emperor about it myself, if you wish.” Hui Nuoya said. “But the people of Lengtiao will forever be remembered for their contribution—both in life and in death—to the expansion of the Empire.