Revolution Days

Gary Kloster


Xin believed that on Revolution Day, she would kneel in the courtyard of Prosperity House and feel the razor’s touch. That steel would glide smooth across her scalp, and harvest her hair, with all the magic she had bound into it.

Instead, they brought her to Smiling House.


On a hard wooden bench in a bare grey room, Xin waited.

Scholar Tan sat silent beside her. Tan taught the wisdom of the First Equal to Xin and all the other penitents living in Prosperity House. The Scholar’s position as a full member of the Common Path made her worthy of respect.

Her reputation as an informer for the Honest Guard made her worthy of fear.

A black car had brought them to Smiling House, home of the Honest Guard. Men with white uniforms and black clubs escorted them into the towering building where the enemies of the Path were interrogated, judged, and executed.

Those hard-eyed men called it House of Truth, but everyone else in Xiangre named it for the mosaic that covered its thirty-story height. The First Equal, the man who had smashed the tyranny of the Emperor and his cabal of sorcerers, was patchworked there in millions of black-and-white tiles.

His face had surrounded Xin all her life.  His portrait hung in every home, was painted onto buildings or carved over the forgotten stone faces of ancient gods. Only here, though, did the First Equal smile. Years ago, packed in a truck with the other children claimed by Prosperity House, Xin had first seen the mosaic towering over the crowded tenements of the city. The quirk of those familiar lips smiling beneath the shining black eyes in that great face had terrified her.

Why had Scholar Tan brought her here? Her fingers touched the dark length of her hair, proof of her loyalty. Power crackled in the black strands, harvested from heaven and earth, her gift to the Common Path. Years of meditation, gathering in the breath of the universe. Gathering magic, making it part of her, so it could be given to the Servants’ House. To the sorcerers who had proven their unwavering loyalty to the Common Path, their dedication to the people.

The door opened and a man in white looked out. “Bring her.”

Scholar Tan stood, fingers snapping before Xin’s face.

Xin rose, knees trembling, head bowed. She served the Common Path. She had nothing to fear. Nothing. Eyes shining with unshed tears, she walked through the door.


There was a sorcerer, in pink silk stitched with crimson glyphs spelling out his vows to the Common Path. And a man lying on a table, naked, bleeding, and dying.

Xin dropped her eyes to the floor, stomach heaving. The thing on the table was barely recognizable as human. Ears and eyes, thumbs and toes, genitals, all sliced away. Across the body, thin cuts wept blood. A traitor, she told herself. A criminal who had earned this pain.

Nothing like her.

“Scholar Tan. This one?”

The sorcerer’s voice, smooth and sweet, was tinged with venom. Not the humble voice of a servant. Xin glanced up at him through her hair.

“She is small, but rich in power. You asked for our best, and I brought it.” Scholar Tan kept her voice even, but Xin, tuned to the moods of her instructors, could hear fear.

The sorcerer twitched thick fingers, and Scholar Tan pulled Xin forward and pushed her to her knees. The man’s fingers slipped through her hair, light against her skin. Then they tightened.

He pulled Xin up, slow enough for her to follow, fast enough to hurt. He brought her forward until her cheek rested against the inside of his knee, and tipped her head so her eyes met his.

“I feel the power she has gathered.” His grip loosened, and his fingers moved against her scalp, drawing slow circles.

Xin dug her thumbs into her thighs, using the pain to stop from jerking away.

“She’ll do. Wait outside. You’ll be given orders, signed by the hand of the Third Equal himself, explaining what you must do.”

“Yes, Lu Bei.” Excitement filled the Scholar’s voice.

A new shock of fear struck Xin. The Third Equal, leader of the Common Path. Scholar Tan retreated, leaving Xin trembling, alone with this sorcerer nothing like what she’d been taught a Servant should be.

Lu Bei frowned at the door.  “Dried up old bureaucrat.” He looked down. “You, though…” His fingers, delicate, awful, stroked Xin’s scalp again.  “You have potential. How old are you?”

“Sixteen, sir.”

His fingers tightened again and pulled her up.

Xin gritted her teeth and stood, rising on tiptoes to ease the pain.

Lu Bei leaned close, his words brushing against her lips like the wings of flies. “You look younger.”

Xin fought to keep still, to keep her lips from pulling back in disgust.

Lu Bei sighed and relaxed his grip, letting her heels hit the floor. “But now is not the moment.”

The man on the table groaned, thick and distorted, and she realized his tongue had been torn away too. Behind her curtain of hair, Xin kept her eyes turned from that hideous map of mutilation. Why hadn’t they left her to the clean emptiness of her meditations, in the familiarity of her silent slavery?

Because the Common Path owned her. And they wanted her magic.

“Time to begin.”  Lu Bei wound his hand in her hair again.

Xin stood still, breathing deep to keep from gasping at the pain of his grip.

Then the sorcerer spoke. In a language such as Xin had never heard, in sounds ill-suited for a human throat. They pierced her, wrung her, and the world was lost in crackling flashes and blazing symbols whirling around her. Then they were gone.

Gone, and Xin fell, limp, empty. She coughed, and grey motes drifted before her. She traced fingers over her head, found it smooth and dusted with ash. Her hair had burnt to ash as Lu Bei’s incantation pulled the magic from it.

The dying man was dying no more. Healed, but not whole. His skin flowed smooth over his body, interrupted only by the scars that marked where he had been maimed and cut. Wordless, blind, deaf, maimed.

Lu Bei laughed and rubbed Xin’s bare scalp.

“Like a plucked duck. Your first taste of magic, girl. Burns, doesn’t it?”

He gazed with smoldering eyes at the thrashing prisoner.

“You can’t hear me, Hsun. But with those scars across your meridians, you’ve no magic to give us any more trouble.”

The sorcerer opened the door and called Scholar Tan.  “Take the traitor back to Prosperity House and see that he lives. For a long time. And make sure all the penitents see him. To know the price of treachery.” Lu Bei turned his smile toward Xin. “In his five hundred commandments, what fate did the First Equal reserve for traitors?”

“Death,” Xin whispered, through a throat dry as sand.

“Death. And for a traitorous sorcerer, a long, slow death indeed.”


On next Revolution Day, fireworks crackled and the halls of Prosperity House echoed with the sounds of workers readying the court for the cutting ceremony. The sounds were distant in Xin’s cell, but losing herself in meditation was difficult when living with the constant reminder of what had happened a year before. “Damn you, Traitor!” she murmured.


The hard voice snapped Xin’s eyes open, and she bowed low, her cheeks flushing as Scholar Tan stepped into her cell. “My pardon, Scholar. I was trying to meditate.”

“That is how you meditate?”

Xin straightened, but kept her eyes down. This had once shown her humbleness.  It now often concealed flashing anger. “My focus slipped.”

“I see. Perhaps you should review your vows to the Common Path.”

Spend the morning chanting slogans with Scholar Tan and the children. How far she had fallen, that the idea made her want to scream.

But all she said was, “Yes, Scholar.”

The woman grunted, then turned her attention toward the man who lay in the corner, lost in his darkness.

“He does not meditate. Still.”

“Yes, Scholar.”

The lecturing edge in the Scholar’s voice sharpened. “You were given a gift. You were allowed to give your magic, personally, so that the will of the Third Equal could be carried out.”

“Yes, Scholar.” It haunted her nightmares.

“And what else was given to you?”

“Tending Traitor.  Making him raise power for the Servants’ House, as we all do.”

“An order from the Third Equal himself. An order that goes unfulfilled.”

Angry protests jammed Xin’s throat. Of course it was unfulfilled! What was she to do with this maimed thing that howled through nights like an animal, that lashed out leaving her bruised and scratched? She cleaned him, forced food into him when he tried to starve himself, led him about. But force him to meditate? She could barely do it herself, now.

Xin had grown to hate Hsun and the woman who had inflicted him upon her with a bright hate. Tan had set her up for failure. But the only words she could let pass her lips were, “Yes, Scholar.”

“If you fail, they will wonder why.” Scholar Tan’s voice turned thin and sharp as a blade. “They will talk to you about it, in the House of Truth.”

“Yes, Scholar.” Talk to her. Only Xin’s anger gave her the strength to keep from shuddering.

“Do not fail the Path, Xin.” The scholar left the room.

Xin was alone with the man they called Traitor, alone with her rage and fear. And her one last, dangerous hope.

Walking over to Hsun, she reached down and snagged his wrist. He tried to pull away, but she held on, turning his palm up. One glance at the empty door, then she traced her finger across the struggling man’s palm. Traced onto his skin a single glyph.


Hsun stopped for a moment, frozen. He started to pull away again, but she held tight, tracing another glyph.


His ruined face turned, as if he were searching for hers. Then his finger traced over her palm.



When darkness fell on Revolution Day a year later, Xin took Hsun outside. He couldn’t see the illusions rippling overhead, the brilliant displays drawn over the stars by the sorcerers of the Servants’ House, the celebration of the Common Path’s victory over the corrupt Empire. But they could sit in the darkness and talk.

Who came for my hair? Hsun sketched the words into Xin’s palm, quick with practice.

Lu Bei, she answered. Xin ran her free hand over her bare scalp. And for mine.

He gloats.

He acted the perfect Servant, she sketched. Not like in Smiling House.

We know when to wear our masks.

Across the dark yard, Xin saw the flash of eyes. Scholar Tan, watching. Tan suspects.

Informers suspect everything.

She seems more angry than usual.

Hsun’s finger tapped light against her palm, their gesture for laughter. Your success pains her.

Why? I loyally serve the Third Equal. Did she? How far had she strayed, this last year, listening to Traitor?

Tan hates us for having what she doesn’t. Magic.  Power.  All commoners do.

The Path —

Is a lie. Hsun paused to see if she would snatch her hand away. She used to, when his talk turned dangerous.

Used to.

Sorcerers always ruled, he sketched. Long ago, they were God Kings. Those fell to the Empire.  The emperors kept sorcerers, but soon were puppets dancing on the Pearl Throne, sorcerers pulling the strings.

So the Common Path and First Equal overthrew the emperor, she wrote back.

And new puppets replaced the emperor. Behind them are the sorcerers of the Servants’ House — the house of power, the house that is served.

Talk like this is why they carved your crimes into your flesh, Traitor. Xin pulled her hand away.

His fingers touched hers, lightly. She made her hand into a fist, denying him. But he drew his glyphs across the back of her hand.

Do you want to know my crime?

Did she? Who would that knowledge turn her against?  Light blossomed overhead, the great dragon of the people pulling down the Pearl Throne. In its glow, she watched her hand open, watched his finger move across it.

I killed a man to serve the Common Path.

A criminal?

The illusions dancing above lit the planes of Hsun’s expressionless face. A general, a hero of the Path.  An opium-addled idiot. His incompetence killed thousands of our soldiers.  Let Imperial forces escape. But he was Lu Bei’s cousin, a useful tool, no matter what it cost the people.  I couldn’t challenge him outright, so I took his dreams, left him screaming with nightmares until he fell on his sword for escape.

In the sky above, the stern visage of the First Equal, flanked by the Second and the Third, glowed like the sun, then faded. Around them, the penitents of Prosperity House began to walk to their cells. Xin held Hsun’s hand, and led him with her. Why should I believe you Traitor?

You believe Lu Bei?

Lu Bei —  so solemn and pious today at the ceremony.  A pious monster.  Is that what power and magic meant?

There had been a man in her village. Gruff and old, the children steered a wide path around him. He had magic. Just enough for a few charms. Xin remembered hiding with her friends, daring each other to steal a plum from the tree that grew before his little house, spinning tales of the terrible curses he could call down.

And then a burning sickness had swept the village. Xin lay in her bed, aching and delirious. She didn’t recognize the old man when her parents brought him. Didn’t know who stayed with her night and day, whispering charms, weaving tiny slips of magic into her faltering body, wresting her from death. Not until the fever broke, and she saw him bowed over her. Not fierce, but exhausted, his face lined, his grey hair streaked with white. She knew now what she’d only sensed then. He had reached deep, and spent his own mortality to fuel the magic that had saved her.

She never feared him after that. Never stole his plums again. And on that day the truck had come, and the honor guards had loaded her onto it to bring her to Prosperity House, she had looked away from her stone-faced parents to see him, looking at her, eyes wet with tears.

Xin thought power and magic might be a more complicated thing than she or Traitor knew.

Was the display beautiful? Hsun asked.


I can teach you to shape light. Weave intricate spells. Beautiful.

Xin looked at his ruined face. Ruined, but so dangerous.

At Prosperity House’s gate, Scholar Tan made a narrow shadow, watching them pass.


Distant war and summer heat took their toll, street lights faltered, and Revolution Day arrived in darkness.

Behind Prosperity House, in an abandoned temple sacked by the Honest Guard years ago, Xin sat with Hsun and worked the shadows, sculpting darkness. Subtle magic, complex, tricky.  Intoxicating.

How goes it?

Hsun’s question almost broke her concentration, but Xin sharpened her focus and forced the shadows to keep dancing. Well.

You have skill. More than many in the Servants’ House. Yet you gather magic for your so-called betters.

Xin let the shadows go. Every day he tempted her. They may ask me to join them soon.

Join their corruption.

So you say.

So I say. I believed I could murder with magic and not be tainted. That I could save the Path from men like Lu Bei. His finger paused, then moved, slowly. They would be suspicious of your ability.

I can hide it.

Can the bird pretend it has no wings?

You care for me, Traitor? So why give me such dangerous wings?

Because you deserve to fly.

To fly free. With you, my broken teacher?

 He sat still, a warm shadow beside her. Finally, he nodded.

The knowledge of what he wanted had been growing in her for months. She had ignored it, covering it with her joy in learning magic. He had corrupted her. Enough to become a traitor, like him. Xin scowled, angry at him for giving her this choice, at herself, for wanting it.

Then the light came.

Harsh and yellow, burning through the darkness, lighting the profaned statues of old gods with dancing shadows. She heard the voice of Scholar Tan, cold and gloating.

“Xin.” Tan held a lantern in one hand, a gun in the other, its dark eye focused on Xin’s chest. The Scholar stepped forward, a cruel smile on her gaunt face. “At dawn, they will bring the truck of new penitents the Guard has gathered. I’ll line them up, and when Liu Bei comes, I will give you to him.” The smile stretched Tan’s thin lips as she stared at them. “He will do to you what he did to this one, and those dangerous children will learn the fate reserved for traitors. Death, years long, years slow, after a life spent as a maimed, howling thing.”

A moment passed, and then Xin whispered. “No, Scholar.”

And the shadow Tan cast shifted, slid, reached up with dark hands, tightened around her, pulled down the gun, covered her smile.  Tan’s eyes widened with fear, and she fought to raise her gun.

Xin tangled her hand in Hsun’s hair. Power surged through her, and a little of his hair flared to ash.

The light flashed wildly through the temple as Tan staggered, gripped tight by shadows. The gun dropped, then the lantern, its light flaring across Tan.

Xin stared at her, caught in the fierce joy and terror of seeing in her power this woman she had feared for so long. She formed a noose of shadow around Tan’s neck, twitched her fingers, and it tightened. She could make sure Scholar Tan never hurt anyone again.  Like Traitor had done with Lu Bei’s uncle…

Scholar Tan hit the floor, the harsh rasp of her breath through her bruised throat.

Xin’s hand was still tangled in Hsun’s hair.  More of it flared to ash as she changed the shadows into chains that held Tan in motionless silence.

Hsun sketched words across her palm.

What’s happened?

Tan found us.

Does she live?



I’m not you.  Not Lu Bei.

We should go.  Quickly.

Xin stared at the black shape of Prosperity House. Her home. Her prison.  Xin gathered light from the air around her once-teacher and wove an illusion of dusty emptiness that would hide the gaunt woman for at least a day. She led Hsun out of the ruined temple, wrapping them in shadows as they went.


They sat beside a tomb in an ancient cemetery on the city’s outskirts. The sky to the east grew light, below them Xiangre stirred, and somewhere a rooster crowed.

We must go north. They can protect us.

Join the Imperial forces?

Yes. We can help fight the Common Path. Overthrow the Third Equal and Lu Bei.

Xin stared across the city. In the distance, the bulk of the Smiling House was a grey shadow hanging over the slums.

I never told you about my grandfather.

Hsun twitched. Xin’s lips curled into a small smile. He needed her too much to show anger.

He was our village’s Imperial scribe, keeping records. Then the revolution came, and the Honest Guard beat him. Left him blind, deaf, mute. My grandfather hated the Honest Guard. But he believed in the Revolution.

Xin! The Revolution failed. Power corrupts. I know.

I cared for him, before Prosperity House took me. Xin wiped away tears. He taught me how to write in the palm of my hand. So we could talk. Like this. He told me about the Empire. Prosperity House is an idea taken from the Empire. In the Empire’s time, if a girl had power, they scarred her meridians.  Denied her magic.  Made her gather power for them. They called it the House of Broken Flowers. They took my grandfather’s sister there.

Hsun sat in rigid stillness. They wouldn’t do that to you.

Because they’d want me for their war against the Common Path.  Was he afraid, she wondered, that she’d leave him, helpless? Come here, Traitor.

He stirred, turned his ruined face towards her, uncertain.

She reached up and sank her hands tightly into his hair, the magic he had gathered wrapped in her hands, and she remembered. Remembered that day in Smiling House, remembered Lu Bei’s magic… and made it hers.

All his hair burnt away, flaring into ash, the power gathered into it sacrificed to the healing spell that roared through Hsun, through the ruins of his eyes and ears and mouth, hands and feet and groin, through the scar tissue dams that walled the meridians of his magic.

With a shout, Xin pulled her hands away, magic flaring through her like ecstasy. She stood, shaking with it, staring at Hsun as he sprawled back, blinking, gasping. Whole.

“You… How did you do that?” The words came thick and heavy across his new tongue, hard to decipher.

“I remembered what was done through me.” Xin made herself breathe, ecstasy fading.

“So it goes,” Hsun whispered. His fingers twitched in the air, his lips moved, and on his palm an orchid appeared, white, beautiful. He held it out to her with a smile.

Xin took it, breathed its scent, then watched it fade to nothing in her hands.

Hsun touched his bare scalp.  He looked at her carefully, nodded. “Thank you.” His eyes traced her face, seeing her for the first time. Thankful eyes. Wary eyes. “What now, then?”

“You have your plan. Go to those who will protect you. Plot your revenge.”

“Come with me.”

Xin shook her head. “Your dreams are not mine. I don’t like the world you live in, what it’s made you. The world of Lu Bei, and Smiling House, and the House of Broken Flowers.”

He frowned and looked away, staring at the graves surrounding them, littered with forgotten tributes to forgotten dead. “But this is the world we live in.”

“It’s the world we live in,” Xin agreed. “Yesterday. Today. But maybe not tomorrow.”

Hsun’s eyes came back to her. “You’ve an idea.”

“A new group of children will arrive at Prosperity House today. Like I did, years ago.” Xin stared at her empty hand, where the faint scent of orchid lingered. “Another handful of flowers, to be broken for the Path. But Scholar Tan will not be there to meet them.” Magic stirred in Xin, and the orchid was back in her hand. “Or will she?”

“You just escaped.  You would go back, to save a handful of children?” Hsun shook his head. “They are weak, untrained. What help could they be to you?”

Xin stroked the orchid and remembered a stern-faced old man who had hunched over her, whispering spells, spending his life to save hers. She set the flower down on a tomb, a splash of beauty among broken grayness. “Men like Lu Bei ask such questions, and make the world what it is. But another question can be asked. What help could I be to them?”

Hsun winced, as if cut. But he shook his head. “You are powerful, but inexperienced. Rash.”

“Stupid,” she said.

“And stubborn.” He stared at her, wanting to make her listen. Wanting to make her follow him with the magic she had given back to him? Maybe, but he didn’t try. He just looked north. “We don’t have time to argue.” The frown on his face deepened. “You’re probably going to end up caught or killed. But if you survive this foolishness, come to me. You’re a good student. I’ll have a place for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“So you say.” He began to move, on new-healed feet. At the graveyard’s edge, he looked back. “Good luck, Xin!” He turned and lost himself in the thickening mist and forest shadows.

“Good bye, Hsun.” Xin turned to the east, one finger twining into her hair. The clouds glowed red and pink and gold, heralding the new day. A day that would fall on the powerful and powerless alike, a day of promise. Let us all be equal, and good. The first commandment of the First Equal. Across the city, his face stared at her from the side of Smiling House.

“A fine precept,” she said, smiling back fiercely. “Someone should hold you to it.”

With whispered words and the smell of singed hair, she bent the morning light around her into the image of a woman bitter and lean. Wearing Scholar Tan’s scowl, Xin walked down into the city, into the smoke of cooking fires and noise of the people and the dust. Hsun was right, she was rash. But the world always changed, could always be changed, if even one person tried.

It was Revolution Day.


Revolution Days © Gary Kloster
Gary Kloster is a writer, librarian, martial arts instructor, and stay-at-home father. Sometimes all in the same day, but seldom all at the same time. His stories have appeared with Apex, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod and others. His first book, Firesoul, is available now.


Lead illustration: “Acolytes” © by James Zapata, U.S. He can be found on deviantArt and on his website.

End illustration: Digital Painting © by Fran Eisemann
Photo references:
“D.” by Zhang Jingna, U.S. You can find her at her website here and here.
“Nymph,” by Alli  Jiang, U.S.
“Maiden 21,” by Cathleen Tarawhiti, New Zealand.
“Stock 22 Firework,” by Michael, U.K.
“Fireworks Stock 00,” by Malleni-Stock, Germany.
“Fireworks Stock 17,” by Janna7, Czech Republic.

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