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a language without an army

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It was one of the first things he learned (in the old sense of “learning,” not his own) after he became two people: the Black-Cloaked Envoy, whose every word breathed Dixing and could not be otherwise, and quiet, diligent university student Shen Wei, who had no reason to be anything other than Haixingren, and whose speech must reflect that.

It was a Haixing trait, not a Dixing power he could have absorbed immediately, and the first few weeks were hard. He spoke as little as possible, listened desperately, whispered imaginary lines of dialogue to himself over and over at night—Professor, I had a question about the gene sequencing you mentioned. Cheng-tongxue, could you tell me where I could find a notebook like yours? Excuse me, I’m here to submit my residence form—and swallowed down slow tremors of fear that he was polishing away something of himself he would not get back.

Most Haixingren hardly ever thought of Dixing and would not have recognized his speech as Dixinghua, even at the first when he got everything wrong. They assumed that he came from another city, somewhere they had not been, that was all. He dissimulated, developed a reputation as a quiet observer and let it work for him. His second semester he signed up for a linguistics course and it helped, having a scholarly basis for the hard Haixing consonants and drawled vowels, the sentence-ending particles, the unfamiliar idioms that he had researched, sitting hunch-shouldered in a dusty carrel in the library with a stack of vast dictionaries and gaudy Haixinghua-for-foreign-students guides to slang, one by one.


A few times, summoned instantly and violently away from his Shen Wei life to handle trouble as the Black-Cloaked Envoy, he found himself struggling to speak: the familiar patterns of speech behind the black mask clashed with the new, hard-learned instinct to sound like a Haixingren. He choked, fell back on silent foreboding until he could master his consciousness enough to speak in the Black-Cloaked Envoy’s splendid, unsullied Dixinghua, ringing with echoes and archaisms going back to his true youth.


His voice betrayed him the first time he let himself speak Zhao Yunlan’s name; he heard the taut vowels on the rising tones, the consonants sliding into one another, Dixing on his tongue as if it were there around him as his cloak and hood might have been. For a moment he thought that alone would be enough to give himself away. With Zhao Xinci, an unforgiving observer who wanted to know very precisely what to hate, it might have been; but his son had other priorities and other things on his mind. When Shen Wei tried to teach himself to say “Zhao Yunlan” in the ordinary Haixing accent that Professor Shen would naturally use, he couldn’t do it. It felt wrong; the name struck deeper into him than this surface layer could encompass. He let himself have this one small failure.


After the caves—when it became possible to sit there in his suit and sleeve garters and glasses and hear Zhao Yunlan call him casually, teasingly, “Brother Black”—he began, for the first time in fifteen years, to ease his rigid, near-automatic grip on Professor Shen’s accent. With Zhao Yunlan; with the SID, that motley combination of Haixing, Dixing, Yashou, and the dead, all with their surface secrets and ground-bass honesty. Walking into the SID that day to hear the chorus of “Good morning, Lord Black Robe!”, the combination of temporary mortification, real shame, learned alarm, and irresistible amusement had left him speechless for a moment; but, making his apology to Chu Shuzhi, he concentrated on letting the Dixinghua back into his voice, letting Lao Chu hear it (Lao Chu, who spoke deliberately in such a broad Dixing accent that Xiao Guo had visibly struggled to understand him at first). His remorse was in the dialect as much as in the words, and he knew Chu Shuzhi understood.


(control yourself, he told himself savagely, facing the blackboard for a moment in a useless effort to ease the tightness in his throat and make himself concentrate, seeing yet another spelling error that Jiajia hadn’t noticed—yet—hearing the Haixinghua erode away from his lecturing voice. It had been years since he’d had this little control over his accent, and that slip could not be easily explained away. He forced his mind away from Zhao Yunlan one more time, focused on Jiajia’s crisp Dragon City-native accent, and tried to get his voice to obey him.)


Ye Zun’s Haixinghua was unnervingly perfect when he wanted it to be. Shen Wei didn’t want to know why. His brother shifted effortlessly between dialects, mimicking his own voice to make him hear the fine edges of Dixinghua that he had never been able to lose after all, reeling off bright, sharp Haixinghua to tear at him with images of Zhao Yunlan, sinking into the antique Dixinghua of their childhood to seduce him with memories of what they had lost. Under the crackle of the chains’ energy, Shen Wei couldn’t hear his own tones any more when he replied.


“It’s worth it,” he had said to Li Qian, long ago, in Professor Shen’s polished Haixinghua. And then to Zhao Yunlan that night with the knife—“Worth it,” shaken and in pain and speaking his heart, hearing zhí turn to as his voice slipped into the pure Dixinghua of his youth, the language he had spoken to Kunlun. He had not been able to fool himself, after, that if not for the dialect Zhao Yunlan would have understood.