Shun-yin gripped the chisel too tightly.
Loosen! Loosen! the instructor barked every day, smacking Shun-yin’s forearm with a thin bamboo rod.
No instructor loomed over him tonight. Shun-yin labored alone, standing on a stool, dim lanternlight scarcely reaching the schoolhouse’s thatched ceiling and dirt floor. Alone, save the nine identical warchild statues – two-meter tall bronze warriors standing at attention. They were the rejects, minor imperfections making them unfit for the Emperor’s army, given over to the school to see which students could bring them to life.
Only after years tracing words of magic onto paper and carving them into clay were students allowed to chisel across bronze foreheads and spines and arms. It was not until then that students learned whether they truly possessed the talent. Some of the boys and girls Shun-yin’s age had already succeeded in making a warchild crush a lotus flower between its palms. Shun-yin had not even managed to get a clay rabbit to take one hop.
If you are dismissed from school, your father will not want you home, his mother’s letter had read. Where will you go?
A boy Shun-yin’s age was not supposed to drink, but he was glad he’d found the instructor’s hidden bottle. The burning sip had blurred the edges of reality just enough to bring his mind into focus.
You think spelling words of incantation correctly is what makes the warrior move? his instructor had scoffed. Intentions are the true language of magic.
Shun-yin relaxed his grip. Firm, but light, that was the way. The hammer blow must be decisive, yet delicate. Unlike clay, bronze could not be filled in so a novice could try again. One errant strike ruined a warchild. And when he struck, he could not think about the motion. Intention was all. He’d make them see he had the ferocious spirit required to breathe violence into a warchild.
Think of the Emperor, his father had commanded, the day Shun-yin left home, reinforcing the lesson with a smack to the side of the head. Think of our mighty nation wiping out every last one of the heathens who sit upon land that is rightfully ours.
Shun-yin closed his eyes. He dragged hatred up from his heart, breathed life into his anger, flooded his mind with fist and spear tip, axe and blood. He punched downward with the hammer, a short, quick chop carving into the back of the warrior’s head.
He dropped the chisel, grasping for the lantern. Holding it close he saw the mark was perfect – a slanted line, growing thinner along its length, curving just to the left as it tapered off. It was the first letter of the spell that would bond the warchild to his will, force it to march into war and kill everything in its path.
With confidence, he continued. He wouldn’t try to do too much, he would only chisel in the handful of letters needed to awaken the warchild. A few dozen strokes – he could keep his mind clear, his focus set, for that long. And in the morning, the teachers would see that he’d jumped to the head of the class.
Again, Shun-yin closed his eyes, strained to conjure every drop of venom he could wring from his veins.
Why do you not thrash him? the other kids had laughed, while Shun-yin held down the child who had stolen his blanket. You must show the instructors your warrior soul! Why do you not hit him?
Shun-yin shook the memory away. He pushed forward visions of wolf claw gouging the muscle and sinew of the students who taunted him, dragon flame burning his brutal father to white ash.
The last stroke fell easily. He stepped back to inspect his work. It was better than he had hoped for. Metal creaked and bent and the warchild stepped forward.
Shun-yin startled back. He had actually done it. The pupil-less bronze eye stared at him, awaiting instruction. He grabbed a lotus flower and dropped it on the table before the bronze warrior.
The warchild did not move. Shun-yin motioned to the flower. Metal twisted and whined sharply and the warchild lumbered forward. It picked up the flower in both hands and turned, as if offering it to Shun-yin.
The warchild held the flower gently, cradling and protecting it. Why did it not crush the flower?
You are not meant for that place, his older sister had said, the night before he was to leave for school. You have no cruelty in your heart.
He’d done all he could to blacken his soul. Yet still, he could not muster the hatred needed to make a warchild kill.
He had no place here. He had no place anywhere.
He wouldn’t wait for them to kick him out of school, he would leave right away, before anyone else awoke. He didn’t even need to sneak through the sleeping mats to collect his belongings – he owned nothing of value.
Shun-yin snatched the instructor’s bottle and lifted it to his lips. A glimmer of golden lanternlight reflected off the warchild. He lowered the bottle without taking a sip. The warchild could never become a soldier now, and would be melted down.
Just because the warchild had no desire for war and destruction and violence, did its existence have no value? Surely, there was something else it could give to the world, something of worth. It only needed a little time to discover what that thing might be.
Shun-yin put the bottle down and motioned for the warchild to follow him. They walked together along the trod-grass path and out of the schoolyard gate. The barest hint of morning lightened the sky. Mountains to one side, a river far ahead, farming villages to the other side. Any of these would take them further from the war.
Though he knew the statue was incapable of answering, Shun-yin couldn’t resist asking the warchild which direction it would like to go.