The Poppy War Page 1

Author: R.F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy War #1

Genres: Fantasy

Part I

Chapter 1

“Take your clothes off.”

Rin blinked. “What?”

The proctor glanced up from his booklet. “Cheating prevention protocol.” He gestured across the room to a female proctor. “Go with her, if you must.”

Rin crossed her arms tightly across her chest and walked toward the second proctor. She was led behind a screen, patted thoroughly to make sure she hadn’t packed test materials up any orifices, and then handed a formless blue sack.

“Put this on,” said the proctor.

“Is this really necessary?” Rin’s teeth chattered as she stripped. The exam smock was too large for her; the sleeves draped over her hands so that she had to roll them up several times.

“Yes.” The proctor motioned for her to sit down on a bench. “Last year twelve students were caught with papers sewn into the linings of their shirts. We take precautions. Open your mouth.”

Rin obliged.

The proctor prodded her tongue with a slim rod. “No discoloration, that’s good. Eyes wide open.”

“Why would anyone drug themselves before a test?” Rin asked as the proctor stretched her eyelids. The proctor didn’t respond.

Satisfied, she waved Rin down the hallway where other prospective students waited in a straggly line. Their hands were empty, faces uniformly tight with anxiety. They had brought no materials to the test—pens could be hollowed out to contain scrolls with answers written on them.

“Hands out where we can see them,” ordered the male proctor, walking to the front of the line. “Sleeves must remain rolled up past the elbow. From this point forward, you do not speak to one another. If you have to urinate, raise your hand. We have a bucket in the back of the room.”

“What if I have to shit?” a boy asked.

The proctor gave him a long look.

“It’s a twelve-hour test,” the boy said defensively.

The proctor shrugged. “Try to be quiet.”

Rin had been too nervous to eat anything that morning. Even the thought of food made her nauseated. Her bladder and intestines were empty. Only her mind was full, crammed with an insane number of mathematical formulas and poems and treatises and historical dates to be spilled out on the test booklet. She was ready.

The examination room fit a hundred students. The desks were arranged in neat rows of ten. On each desk sat a heavy exam booklet, an inkwell, and a writing brush.

Most of the other provinces of Nikan had to section off entire town halls to accommodate the thousands of students who attempted the exam each year. But Tikany township in Rooster Province was a village of farmers and peasants. Tikany’s families needed hands to work the fields more than they did university-educated brats. Tikany only ever used the one classroom.

Rin filed into the room along with the other students and took her assigned seat. She wondered how the examinees looked from above: neat squares of black hair, uniform blue smocks, and brown wooden tables. She imagined them multiplied across identical classrooms throughout the country right now, all watching the water clock with nervous anticipation.

Rin’s teeth chattered madly in a staccato that she thought everyone could surely hear, and it wasn’t just from the cold. She clamped her jaw shut, but the shuddering just spread down her limbs to her hands and knees. The writing brush shook in her grasp, dribbling black droplets across the table.

She tightened her grip and wrote her full name across the booklet’s cover page. Fang Runin.

She wasn’t the only one who was nervous. Already there were sounds of retching over the bucket in the back of the room.

She squeezed her wrist, fingers closing over pale burn scars, and inhaled. Focus.

In the corner, a water clock rang softly.

“Begin,” said the examiner.

A hundred test booklets were opened with a flapping noise, like a flock of sparrows taking off at once.


Two years ago, on the day Tikany’s magistracy had arbitrarily estimated to be her fourteenth birthday, Rin’s foster parents had summoned her into their chambers.

This rarely happened. The Fangs liked to ignore Rin until they had a task for her, and then they spoke to her the way they would command a dog. Lock up the store. Hang up the laundry. Take this packet of opium to the neighbors and don’t leave until you’ve scalped them for twice what we paid for it.

A woman Rin had never seen before sat perched on the guest’s chair. Her face was completely dusted over with what looked like white rice flour, punctuated with caked-up dabs of color on her lips and eyelids. She wore a bright lilac dress dyed with a plum-flower pattern, cut in a fashion that might have suited a girl half her age. Her squat figure squeezed over the sides like a bag of grain.

“Is this the girl?” the woman asked. “Hm. She’s a little dark—the inspector won’t be too bothered, but it’ll drive your price down a bit.”

Rin had a sudden, horrifying suspicion of what was happening. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“Sit down, Rin,” said Uncle Fang.

He reached out with a leathery hand to maneuver her into a chair. Rin immediately turned to flee. Auntie Fang seized her arm and dragged her back. A brief struggle ensued, in which Auntie Fang overpowered Rin and jerked her toward the chair.

“I won’t go to a brothel!” Rin yelled.

“She’s not from the brothel, you idiot,” Auntie Fang snapped. “Sit down. Show some respect to Matchmaker Liew.”

Matchmaker Liew looked unfazed, as if her line of work often involved accusations of sex trafficking.

“You’re about to be a very lucky girl, sweet,” she said. Her voice was bright and falsely saccharine. “Would you like to hear why?”

Rin clutched the edge of her chair and stared at Matchmaker Liew’s red lips. “No.”

Matchmaker Liew’s smile tightened. “Aren’t you a dear.”

It turned out that after a long and arduous search, Matchmaker Liew had found a man in Tikany willing to marry Rin. He was a wealthy merchant who made a living importing pig’s ears and shark fins. He was twice divorced and three times her age.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Matchmaker Liew beamed.

Rin bolted for the door. She hadn’t made it two steps before Auntie Fang’s hand shot out and seized her wrist.

Rin knew what came next. She braced herself for the blow, for the kicks to her ribs where bruises wouldn’t show, but Auntie Fang only dragged her back toward her chair.

“You will behave,” she whispered, and her clenched teeth promised punishment to come. But not now, not in front of Matchmaker Liew.

Auntie Fang liked to keep her cruelty private.

Matchmaker Liew blinked, oblivious. “Don’t be scared, sweet. This is exciting!”

Rin felt dizzy. She twisted around to face her foster parents, fighting to keep her voice level. “I thought you needed me at the shop.” Somehow, it was the only thing she could think to say.

“Kesegi can run the shop,” Auntie Fang said.

“Kesegi is eight.”

“He’ll grow up soon enough.” Auntie Fang’s eyes glittered. “And your prospective husband happens to be the village import inspector.”

Rin understood then. The Fangs were making a simple trade: one foster orphan in exchange for a near monopoly over Tikany’s black market in opium.

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