Rao Nawong, aide to Magician Tepwe Kodai, had not been on the hillside for long with her. The sky threatened rain on and off, and the air smelled of river poetry, of lakes with their scarves of reeds. Water would make their mission here, in the distant shadow of the Spiders’ fortress, more difficult, if not outright impossible. The Empire’s defeat of the upstart Spiders, whose rebellion had sparked a general conflagration in the southwest provinces, depended on the mission’s success. At the moment, Nawong found it hard to care. His world had narrowed to Kodai’s immediate needs, politics be damned.
Kodai was scowling at the sky as she drew a roll of silk out of a brass tube. She had clever hands, which he had always admired, precise in every motion, as good with a brush as she was with the pliers and hammers and snippers that she used for the gadgets that were her hobby. “I still think it’s going to rain,” she muttered. “But this has to be done.”
Nawong hesitated for a long time before he said what he said next. “Does it?” he asked at last.
She looked at him sidelong, no doubt guessing his intent. Waited.
His hands tightened on the umbrella he had brought just in case. Stupid thing to carry in the field this close to the enemy, but the nature of graphological magic meant protecting Kodai’s ink while it dried. He had once asked, when they were both new to each other, why the hell couldn’t magicians use a pencil. She’d explained that the nature of the instrument changed the nature of the marks: you got different strokes and thicknesses and curves with a piece of graphite than you did with the traditional brush, and this in turn affected the spell framework in such a way that you’d have to discard centuries of research and start over with a completely new way of constructing spells. For the longest time he’d thought she was making this up to shut him up. Only gradually had he realized that this was not, in fact, the case.
“The spell-plague,” Nawong said. “Don’t do it this way. Use one of the traditional spells.” One of the spells that wouldn’t kill her in the casting, he meant. But he didn’t say it outright.
Kodai began unrolling the silk, then stopped. Waited a little more. When he thought he would have to make another plea, she surprised him by speaking, in a low, rueful voice. “You know, you’ve spent years dealing with the fact that I cart around so many books and documents. Yet I’ve never once heard you complain about making the arrangements. Why is that?”
While it was true that he didn’t believe in talking just to hear himself talk, he couldn’t claim he never complained, either. “It’s the nature of your work,” he said.
Her eyebrows raised. “Be honest,” she said, as though he was the one who needed sympathy.
It was Nawong’s turn to be silent. He met her eyes, although he had a hard time doing so, trying to figure out what she wanted of him.
The Empire had developed a class of spells linked by their destructiveness: storms of fire, sheets of blading ice, earth swallowing cities. Such spells were not without their limitations. The performing magician had to know the languages of the region so they could bind the magic to its target, and copy out the spell, adopting a handwriting with the particular characteristics dictated by the spell’s effects, whether this was the volatility of fast writing or the murderous intent of clubbed vertical segments or the fire nature of certain sweeping diagonal strokes.
The few other military magicians Nawong had met had little interest in reading their victims’ writings after wielding fire or ice or earth to destroy their civilizations. Kodai was different, however. Kodai treasured her books and poems and crude posters, even if they belonged to the Empire’s enemies. She’d carried them around even after the ability to read them was burned out of her, never to return.
This last mission, against the Spiders, was different. The Spiders’ writing system was based on the Imperial writing system, which made it impossible to focus a spell on them without losing literacy in Imperial. It was a terrible thing to ask of a magician, someone trained to the nuances of writing and literature. But then, beyond being exiled to the military in the first place, Kodai being sent to this particular assignment—putatively on account of her brilliance—was a punishment. More relevantly, from her superiors’ point of view, the entanglement of the two writing systems meant that anything that hit the Spiders would also hit the Imperials in the region, and a full evacuation would cede too much territory, enable too much mischief. They trusted that she would find a workaround.
Kodai’s solution, if you could call it that, was to come up with a completely new class of spell. The difficulty, from Nawong’s point of view, was that it would require her to sacrifice her life.
“Lieutenant,” Kodai said. She had averted her eyes and was tensed as though she expected rain to fall like blows. “I have to do this one way or another.”
“We don’t,” he said, meaning that we. “We could desert. I don’t imagine you’re very good at hunting or foraging, but my mother used to take me into the woods to gather greens and mushrooms. We’d find a way to survive, far from here.”
“Just what kind of livelihood do you think there would be?” Kodai said. “Do you think the Spider rebellion is going to stop if we don’t stop it?”
And it was true. It would be enormously risky to look for a hiding place elsewhere in the Empire. The disorder in the southwest might make it harder to track them into the outlying lands, but was a threat in itself. The Empire was little liked by its neighbors after the past decades of expansion. They would have difficulties wherever they went.
“It’s a terrible chance,” Nawong agreed. “But it’s better than no chance. Which is what you’re proposing.”
“We are doing a terrible thing here,” Kodai said. He didn’t miss how she, too, said we: generous, considering the most he could contribute was to hold an umbrella for her, or carry her ink sticks. He wasn’t the one with the specialist knowledge. “Maybe, if I carry through with it, other magicians will see just how terrible it is.”
He wanted to shout at her. “That’s a ridiculous reason.”
“Someone has to fight,” she said. “Even fighting with ink and brush. And some of the Spiders are as ruthless as we are.” She was referring to the tactician who had taken out an entire division, which had included one of her old classmates. Nawong remembered how little she had eaten the entire month after that incident. “I will do this last thing, since it would disgrace my family for me to fail, and then I will be done.”
Curiously, it was the mention of her family that stopped him from pressing the point. The Tepwe line was a proud one. She had spoken rarely of her family in all the time he had known her. The tremor of her voice when she mentioned them now did not escape him.
“Then you may as well get started,” Nawong said, feeling each word like a knife.
Kodai smiled at him without smiling—her eyes shadowed but alert—and spread the silk upon the grass. Nawong weighted the corners with the ritual stones, heavy at heart.
• • • •
Magicians in the Empire ranged from those who told auguries to the Empress’s court to those who copied out charms for millers and farmers. Kodai’s original trajectory should have been toward court. Magicianship was overwhelmingly the province of the nobility, and for all its importance, the military enjoyed much less prestige than the literati. So Kodai’s parents, who had anticipated benefiting from their daughter’s connections for years to come, reacted poorly when she enlisted.
It wasn’t entirely their fault. Kodai’s father had never quite understood his daughter, consistently giving her gifts, like sentimental adventure novels, that his oldest son would have appreciated more. (And did, actually. Kodai and her brother swapped books regularly.) On the other hand, their relationship wasn’t so bad that he would have had reason to expect that she’d run off to the army.
As for Kodai’s mother, she had romanticized visions of her daughter having erudite discussions on poetic forms in scented parlors while zithers played, or practicing calligraphy beneath gingko trees turning color. The fact that a number of court magicians led such existences didn’t help. It came as quite a shock to her when Kodai broke the news to her.
What Kodai’s parents never knew, and were never going to find out, was that the choice to enter the military had never been a choice. Sleeping in a leaky tent, picking at moldy biscuits, having to wear a uniform whose dyes ran in the rain, to say nothing of the run-ins with dysentery . . . no one would have considered Kodai, with her love of rhyme schemes and assonance, to be the sort of person who’d sign on for that if she could sit in a pavilion sipping tea and reading fortunes in people’s pillow books.
At academy, Kodai and three mechanically minded classmates came up with movable type. They weren’t the first in the Empire to do so, but the prior discoveries were classified, so they deserved credit for their ingenuity. Two of her classmates were also sent to the military as punishment. The third hanged herself.
Movable type seemed like a good idea at first. It would eliminate all the troublesome irregularities of human handwriting; it would replace personal deficiencies with a machine’s impersonal perfection. Kodai and her friends worked out a simplified system for the Imperial script, reducing it to a much smaller set of standardized graphemes. It was moderately clever, and could, conceivably, be learned more quickly than the original script itself.
The head of the academy disapproved for entirely orthodox reasons, as had others before him, because of the democratization of literary magic that movable type implied. (“Democratization” was anachronistic; “vulgarization” might have been truer to the Imperial term.) It was one thing for the Empire’s statutes to be enforced by the writings of ministers indoctrinated in the Empire’s philosophies. Think of the body of Imperial writings, as one of Kodai’s instructors often said, as the living map of the Empress’s will. It was another thing for this to become available to people whose training consisted merely of combinatorial arrangement, rather than dedicated calligraphic toil.
On the other hand, the head of the academy was also a pragmatist. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust that the military sometimes accomplished useful things, but he recognized that Kodai was the most promising of the miscreants. Sending her to languish in a backwater unit would waste her skills. After her initial assignment, he had his agents keep an eye on her. When her initial performance in the military did, in fact, bear out her potential usefulness, he had a relative in the War Ministry pull strings to assign her to the problem of the Spiders.
• • • •
Kodai collected letters, especially Spider letters. A love letter from Captain Arvash-mroi, for instance. Arvash was the Spider tactician who had come suddenly and unhappily to the Imperials’ attention in general, and Kodai’s in particular, when he arranged to demolish a dam on top of an Imperial army that was fatally certain the Spiders couldn’t manage the trick so quickly. One of Kodai’s three classmates had been part of that army.
She had obtained this love letter by bribing a Spider messenger. While all Spider captains used the same seal, Arvash consistently perfumed certain personal letters, which were delivered to a local town rather than his home city. The messenger endured hard days of riding and inadequate sleep in exchange for a salary that never went as far as it ought to. Kodai’s agent, for his part, persuaded the messenger that some coin in exchange for the loan of a piece of personal correspondence was harmless enough. After that, it didn’t take Kodai too long to copy out the letter—so close it could have been mistaken for the original—and substitute that to be given to Arvash’s lover; like most magicians, Kodai was excellent at forgery.
Whether Arvash or his lover noticed the letter’s delay was an open question. If the Spiders’ official messenger service was anything like the Imperial one, message delivery time varied anyway.
The fact of Arvash’s letter suggested that his lover was also literate, although the man might also have had someone to read the letter to him. (It was not entirely proper for Arvash to take a man as a lover, but as long as he kept the affair out of sight of his wife, it was not a terrible sin, either, since there could be no child. A female lover would have been another matter.) While it was the case that the Spiders used Imperial writing, some of their calligraphy forms had diverged from the Empire’s over time. Imperials argued over the interpretation of, say, the formation called the Swindler’s Hook. Most Imperials said it should retain its meaning of an untrustworthy or vacillating personality. The Contextualists, a graphological school that had become politically irrelevant twenty-nine years ago, insisted that the interpretation should instead be drawn from the Spiders’ conventions and community of use. Kodai had subterranean Contextualist leanings, but in this instance she was on the fence. The Spiders called the same formation the Widower’s Hook. Maybe it pointed to a lack of interest in his wife.
Most magicians would have left it at that, but Kodai wasn’t just a magician. She had been one of the best magicians of her class. And her mastery of graphological principles had only improved in her years of field practice.
So Kodai put together the puzzle pieces: the telltale leftward drift of the columns of text, the elongated water-radical and its association with strategic thinking, the slight tendency to roll the brush at the end of horizontal strokes (unattractive, but no one was perfect), even the preference for brushes too large for the size of the handwriting. The finicky attention to detail, with no smears or smudges or thumbprints. Kodai reflected that her instructors would have liked her to be this good with ink. Not that trying harder would have saved her from exile.
Captain Arvash-mroi’s letter mentioned a gift of a fine bolt of cloth and (in surprisingly mawkish terms) anticipated embraces. It then launched into a tirade about how his boots pinched his toes. Interesting. Kodai would have expected him to be able to afford better than army issue.
More interestingly, the graphological signs in Arvash’s letter spoke of conquests. Not just in bed, although Kodai saw that, too, especially in the vigorous club-ended downstrokes. But there was more, pointed at by forked marks and tapering lines and narrow diagonals: villages encircled and eaten by fire. Torched women. The lamentations of the drowned. The ugly seesaw balance of fire and water dominated his writing, as sharp as swordfall.
Kodai kept track of these traits, using them to focus her hatred of Arvash and writing them down in a notebook with dog-eared pages. Whenever she grew weary of her mission, she returned to the notebook and reread her notes, and went to the next page to write the name of her dead classmate over and over again in stab-shaped columns.
• • • •
Nawong remembered the first time he had met Kodai. She had been sitting in a precarious folding chair, lips moving slightly as she read a book and, occasionally, nibbled green tea cookies. He had been prepared to dislike her; he couldn’t imagine that a daughter of the Tepwe family wouldn’t be spoiled rotten. But instead, when he saluted, she waved him down and said, “Lieutenant, I trust you will consider it your duty to help me finish this box of cookies?” She added, “I used to love green tea cookies, but there’s love and then there’s being inundated with the things.”
He was dying to find out what a Tepwe daughter had done to get herself exiled to the military, when she could instead be languishing amid silk cushions and (presumably) a greater variety of cookies. But it wasn’t for him to ask. As much as she confided in him about everything from cookies to insect bites, she rarely dropped any hints about that part of her past.
So Nawong contented himself by making up stories, none of which he expected to have any relationship to the truth: Kodai was the reincarnation of a general who had died without winning their last battle (not that most people in the Empire believed in reincarnation). Kodai had followed a lover into the army—except she showed no signs of being lovesick. Kodai had fled an unhappy engagement—but would her family have permitted such a thing? All in all, he liked the reincarnation story best. If nothing else, it gave him an excuse to speculate about the legendary generals she could be.
He should have remembered that legendary generals rarely enjoyed happy endings.
• • • •
Kodai collected books. One of them was a collection of military aphorisms, which she treasured. It wasn’t the only such collection she owned, but it came from a country called Maeng-of-the-Bridges, which no longer existed. Maeng was conquered by the Empire half a generation ago and razed the way all things beautiful and defiant were razed. Kodai knew a little about Maeng, about its dueling aristocrats and its high gardens with the prized sullen orchids and the fabled crown of its king, set with seventy-six sapphire and aquamarine cabochons. (The rumor that nine of the aquamarines were in fact heat-treated topazes of much lower value was surely invention.)
She had carried it for the length of the Spider campaign, even when she was footsore and sleep-deprived and any modest decrease in the weight she was carrying would have brought her ease. Although no one had been able to teach her to read the dead Maeng language, she could still say a little about the calligraphic style. That was what mattered, not the book’s fragile but exotic stab binding, in contrast to the link stitches favored in the Empire, or the book’s cover, in fibrous dark red paper that was worn at three edges.
The book’s aphorisms weren’t organized in any useful manner, as though the unattributed author simply sat down to dinner and spilled out whatever came to mind. They were written untidily. Kodai got headaches when she examined the characters too closely. Both the Maeng and the Empire wrote with the brush, and in times past Kodai pored over the calligraphy style used in the book, which bore a distant resemblance to the Imperial one called The Stars Fall Slowly. Kodai’s least favorite instructor in academy had used The Stars Fall Slowly, yet she couldn’t deny the beauty of the script, with its deceptively relaxed spacing and dramatic, almost blot-like serifs.
Lately Kodai hadn’t opened the book at all. In the evenings leading up to the ritual against the Spiders, Nawong had watched her sitting with her head bent, book cradled in her tense hands. Open it, he had wished her, but she refused herself that small comfort, as though she didn’t think she deserved it.
• • • •
When spoken indistinctly (and face it, drunken soldiers were a universal), the name of the nation of Pekti-pehaktuch sounded similar to the Imperial word for “spider.” Thus the Imperials called the Pektis Spiders.
Kodai was familiar with the official Imperial maps of the region. The old surveys weren’t as useful as she had hoped, given the cartographers’ tendency to stylize topographical features and the fact that local roads were easily damaged. For military applications, she relied heavily on the scouts’ investigations and on local informants.
Still, the official maps did hold some interest for Kodai, and this was in the realm of (what else?) calligraphy. Imperial cartographers were a conservative lot, and they wrote in what was called, unimaginatively, Cartographers’ Hand. The characteristics of Cartographers’ Hand had proved stable despite the ebb and flow of calligraphic fashion in the Imperial court and among the government’s ministries.
Cartographers’ Hand (according to Kodai’s notes, terse but readable, and the few remarks she made to Nawong on the subject) had the following traits: extreme vertical alignment, as though the calligrapher labeled everything while being hounded with a knife-edged ruler. This signified rigidity, conformity, reverence for tradition. Minimal variation from the beginning and end of a brushstroke, in contrast, for instance, to the dramatic flourishes favored in Evening Flight of Swans. In fact, the permitted variation was so minimal that it made reading the script at small sizes difficult. The implication was of narrow vision and institutional incestuousness.
One final quirk of the cartographers’ art was that borders were not drawn with simple lines (if any line, following the twist-weave of political entanglements, river boundaries, and the habitations of different ethnic groups, was ever simple). They were inked, carefully, with the same character repeated over and over, like textual bricks: lio, for Imperial jade. In other words, the Empire was being carved out of the substance of other nations, which existed for this purpose.
• • • •
Kodai had her favorites in the collection of letters. Her interest should have been strictly military, focused on the task of reducing the Spiders to a name spoken only by the wind. But she was human, and anyway it was impossible not to take interest in the Spider soldier Gevoh-an’s recipes when she spent so many days eating cold rice and longing for jellied anchovies, pickled lotus root, or beef braised in summer wine—any smidgen of flavor. She liked to talk about food with Nawong: specifically, she talked about food, and he made fun of her nostalgia for anchovies. They both took a certain consolation from this conversation.
Her favorite recipe was the one for shadow soup. Gevoh’s instructions neatly paralleled those for some of the fish soups that they’d eaten in the past. Kodai hated fish, but not more than she hated starving. In any case, the concept was to catch a shadow in a pot with green onions, ginger, winter melon, and whatever other vegetables you could steal from stores or bully from the local peasants. If you boiled the shadow for long enough, it might become palatable. Or nourishing. Or something.
Gevoh’s recipes had inconsistent letterforms, although in this case this indicated a partial education—he might even have been self-taught—rather than mental instability. His columns drifted right and left in the minor way that indicated humor rather than the major way that suggested a dangerous temper.
Kodai showed some of the recipes to Nawong from time to time, and they shared a chuckle over their fancifulness. But when she came to the one for shadow soup, her eyes darkened, and she murmured, “It may be a fake soup, but that’s real hunger talking.”
• • • •
Kodai first explained the solution to the Spiders to Nawong on a cold, sleety night while the ruddy light of a full moon filtered through the clouds. They had been talking about something else entirely—the way local berries were mouth-puckeringly unappetizing, which guaranteed that the cook would incorporate them in desserts—when Kodai said abruptly, “If you think about it, graphology is stratificational.” Her voice was soft but not drowsy in the slightest, above the soprano cry of the frogs. “We’ve been focusing all this time on characteristics, as though people and their cultures could be factored into motes. But a person is more than the sum of their traits, just as a grapheme is more than the sum of its strokes. A person is a character, just as a word is represented by a character. If you can specify people entire, not just the traits, you can narrow the focus of the spell. You can direct it against Spiders rather than against Imperials. The Spiders won’t know what hit them.”
Nawong wasn’t a graphological theorist. But he wasn’t stupid, either, and he didn’t like where this was going. “You can’t say that,” he said with more familiarity than their relative stations would ordinarily permit. Except it was a cold, sleety night, and they had come to know each other well. “‘Character,’ like a person in a book.”
“Oh, but everyone’s in a book,” Kodai said, suddenly fierce, “if the whole damn Empire and its ever-growing pile of decrees and statutes and declarations is a book.”
Now, several years after that discussion, Kodai and Nawong were on the hillside, hoping it would and wouldn’t rain. No frogs this time. Kodai was gnawing her lip, not realizing it, as she wrote more and more exactingly, approaching the knot of characters that would complete and activate the spell.
She paused, withdrew her brush so it wouldn’t drip over the paper, grimaced. Nawong, recognizing the signal, bent to massage her shoulders. She let him do this for a while, then straightened. He backed off, resolved to watch. For a moment, he thought she was about to say something. Then she lifted the brush and wrote the final few strokes with a sure hand.
• • • •
Here’s the final piece, the key, the piece you must have discerned from the beginning: █████’s own hand, distinct from the style she would rather have used, itself distinct from the style she was originally taught by tutors in her parents’ house.
Extremely crisp brushwork, as though chiseled. A broadening of the spacing of the characters as the text marched across the page. Vertical strokes like perfect spear hafts. Most of all, if you looked sideways at the page, diagonal spaces falling through the columns like rain.
█████ couldn’t read any of this anymore. █████, as she had known, and had explained to her aide, was gone. The side-effect of writing the Spiders into the narrative of their own destruction, even if she spared the Imperials, was that the author, too, was an implicit character in that selfsame narrative.
She had been obliterated along with them.
• • • •
Everywhere the Spiders bled from punctures like crescent moons, in the villages, in the towns, upon the battlements of castles. Their bones burned up from the inside and candled the night. Their outposts ran red like hemorrhage and black like rot.
On the hillside, Lieutenant Nawong lingered beside the crumpled mass of charred meat that had once been █████, knowing that he would never remember her name, and trying to anyway. After all, there was no hurry now. Then he gathered up the spell-pages, even if █████ couldn’t read any of them anymore.
Like the Spiders she had destroyed, she was no longer part of the story.
Spread the word!