Year 20 of the Reign of Enduring Militancy, 1st Lunar Month
There were times when Jinwei Rusli felt as if he had been preparing all his life for one single moment. Yet now that the moment had come, he kneeled in the silent testing room among hundreds of fellow applicants, feeling little else but a embarrassing sense of disappointment. Perhaps even boredom.
The written examinations proceeded much as he had expected. Eight carefully formulated essay questions, designed to test the applicant’s knowledge on a range of topics: law, military strategy, economics, geography, philosophy, history. The first question asked for an analysis of the various factors and influences that had caused the outbreak of war some two decades previously, and of the factors that ultimately led to their victory. A rather daring question, Wei thought, and wondered idly which of the proctors this year had penned it. Little matter: he rolled back his sleeves, picked up his brush, dipped it in freshly ground ink, and began to craft a demonstrably well-informed but deliberately ambiguous answer, speaking of everything, revealing nothing. His mind wandered: he began to daydream about what it must be like to pilot a real Doll for the first time before realizing, guiltily, that his essay too had run off on a tangent.
The other questions were much the same, though about halfway through there was one that required the examinee to compose a paired set of poems in response to a passage in the Analects, utilizing seasonal imagery. On this item he took time to conjure up a clever (and original, or so he hoped) metaphor involving the growth of a rice sprout over time, and found himself quite pleased, though not entirely satisfied, with the result.
But it was the final terse question that truly gave him pause.
If, in order to save the world, you must first destroy it, how would you choose to act?
His immediate reaction was that it was a prank, a joke question meant to trip up the examinee. Daring as the first question had been, Wei could think of no proctor who could possibly be foolish (or drunk) enough to propose such an item for the all-important entrance examination to the Royal Academy. Not even his normally pragmatic father, who had a perverse fondness for such ridiculous and inapplicable moral dilemmas — thought experiments, he called them — would have ever shown his hand so blatantly.
Yet an attempt to trip up the examinee so late into the exam could not possibly serve any purpose.
He snuck a glance through lowered lashes at his neighbors, making sure not to be caught lest he be accused of cheating. But it was of little help. The girl on his right was scribbling away furiously; the boy in front of him stared off into space as if completely overwhelmed, and the one on his left seemed to be doodling strange creatures in the margins. None of them seemed to have yet reached the final question.
He wondered then if Yusaku, who had been seated across the room, close to the back, had come across the question yet. How he would respond.
Instantly Yusaku’s humorless expression popped into his mind: What must be done, shall be done.
Wei hid a small smile and set down his brush. It was not as if there were no history of such moral and ethical quandaries worming their way into the yearly exams, though in those days they had not been held for Academy acceptance, but for officials’ promotions. In his father’s old records there had even been a question not-so-subtly insulting the then-king’s unfortunate choice of consort, a noblewoman who had been intended for his own son. Even now he remembered asking his father if the responsible proctor had been executed for libel. His father had only smiled in response. Years later, he learned that the question had instead spurred a minor revolt at court, forcing the king to abdicate in his son’s favor.
This particular question was not nearly so pointed. Harmless, in truth. The very premise of it seemed flawed, proposing a false binary between two equally unpalatable options. To save the world, one must destroy it. To not destroy, the world remained unsaved, leading, presumably, to the same result in the end.
The underlying assumption, of course, was that the world required saving. But could a world that could only be saved through destruction be worth saving at all? Thus one returned once more to the central contradiction of the proposed situation.
Perhaps, then, it was not the result that mattered? To do what must be done, no matter the whims and dictates of fate: that was the duty of a truly honorable man.
Yet such a response did not sit well with him.
Fate lies not in the hands of the gods, but in the hands of men, his father had once told him. He did not agree entirely with his father either, but surely, surely, destruction was not the only answer.
Or did the question imply that destruction was not the end? After destruction, could not the world be made anew? Indeed, even improved, if its new creators possessed both vision and ability, and above all love and compassion for all that had been good in the old world.
The answer seemed now obvious. To save the world, destroy it. Just as one must burn the fields to clear the way for new seedlings.
Heart and mind now clear, he picked up his brush again and began to write.
* * *
Weeks later, Wei received the notification of his scores through the post, and was pleased though not surprised to learn that he and Yusaku had taken the top two places respectively. His father, if proud, did not show it through word or expression, but immediately began to arrange for meetings between him and pretty highborn girls from the other Clans. Poor Yusaku, of course, got little for all his fine showing. It frustrated him sometimes, how little Yusaku asked of his father in return for all his loyalty. But it was, he supposed, also his most endearing trait.
He told Yusaku so, the day before the opening ceremonies, and was gratified with a barely perceptible blush on the older boy’s normally impassive face before he turned away.
“Jinwei,” said Yusaku then, completely out of the blue. His voice, already deep as a grown man’s, was hesitant, even reluctant. “How did you respond?”
“On the exam. That last question.”
Wei shrugged, though he knew the other boy could not see him. In truth he had not thought of the exam since learning of his placing. “I chose to destroy the world, I suppose. After all, one can always rebuild.”
For a long time Yusaku was quiet. At last, he said, “What must be done, shall be done.”
Wei relaxed. Laughed. “I thought so.”
As they stepped onto the transport that was to fly them to the Academy, it occurred to him suddenly that his life had not, after all, been building only to that one single moment in the exam room.
No. It was only the beginning.
For now, at last, rose the curtain to the rest of his life.
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