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Chapter no 11

The Poppy War

The main core of the Federation Armed Forces did not attempt to hide their march towards Sinegard. He didn’t need it, in Sinegard they already knew they were coming, and that knowledge, that terror, gave them a much greater strategic advantage than the element of surprise would give them. They were organized in three columns, one in each cardinal point, except in the west, where the Wudang Mountains were. They advanced with enormous crimson banners, illuminated by raised torches.

For Ryohai , the banners read. For the Emperor .

In The Art of War , the great military theorist Sunzi warned against attacking an enemy occupying higher ground. The adversaries would have both the advantage of sighting and the energy of their troops who would not have to climb uphill.

The Federation’s strategy was a giant screw you Sunzi.

For the Federation to attack Sinegard from higher ground would have required a detour through the Wudang Mountains, delaying the attack for almost an entire week. The

The Federation wouldn’t give Sinegard a week, it had the weapons and the men to conquer it from below.

From the southern city wall, Rin watched as the Federation Forces approached like a great flaming wyrm slithering across the valley, surrounding Sinegard to crush and engulf it. Rin saw them coming, and he trembled.

I want to hide. I want someone to tell me that I’m going to be saved, that this is just a joke, a bad dream .

At that moment she realized that all this time she had been pretending to be a soldier, playing at being brave.

But now, when the battle was already imminent, he could no longer pretend.

Fear rose in his throat, so thick and tangible that he could almost drown in it. Fear made his fingers tremble so violently that he almost dropped the sword. The fear made her forget to breathe, and she had to force air into his lungs, close her eyes, and be aware of when he inhaled and exhaled. The fear made him dizzy and made him retch, made him want to vomit over the wall.

It’s a psychological reaction , he told himself. It’s only in your mind, you can control it . You can make fear go away .

They had been through this in training. They had been warned about it, taught to control fear, use it to their advantage, use their adrenaline to stay alert, to avoid fatigue.

But a few days of training couldn’t stop what his body instinctively felt, the terrible truth that

he was going to bleed, that it was going to hurt, and that he was probably going to die.

When was the last time she was so scared?

Had he felt this paralysis, this dread, before confronting Nezha two years ago? No, she had been angry then, and proud. She had thought she was invincible, she had waited for the fight, longed for the bloodlust.

It seemed stupid to him now. So, so stupid. War was not a game, where one fights for honor and admiration, where masters prevented you from coming to any real harm.

War is a nightmare.

She wanted to cry, scream and hide behind someone, behind one of the soldiers. I want to cry. I’m scared, I want to wake up from this dream, please help me .

But no one would come for her, no one would come to save her. And there was no dream to wake up from.

-Are you OK? Kitay asked.

“No,” he said, trembling. Her frightened voice sounded like a screech.

I’m scared, Kitay, we’re going to die.

“No, we’re not going to die,” Kitay said fiercely. We are going to win, and we are going to live .

—You have done the calculations. —Three soldiers were outnumbered by one—. Victory is not possible.

—You have to believe it is. Kitay’s fingers were clenched so tightly around the hilt of his sword that they had turned white. The Third will arrive here on time. You have to repeat to yourself that that is true.

Rin swallowed and nodded. You haven’t been trained to whine and cringe , she told herself. The girl from Tikany, the runaway bride who had never seen a city would be scared. But that girl from Tikany had disappeared. She was now a third-year trainee of Sinegard Academy, a soldier of the Eighth Division, and she had been trained to fight.

And she wasn’t alone. She had poppy seeds in her pocket, she had a god on her side.

“Let me know,” he said. Kitay had his sword ready on a rope holding a hidden trap to defend the outer perimeter. Kitay had designed that trap, and he would activate it as soon as the enemy was within range of him.

The Armed Forces were so close that Rin could see the firelight flickering over their faces.

Kitay’s hand was shaking.

“Not yet,” Rin whispered.

The first Federation battalion crossed the boundary.

-Now.

Kitay cut the rope.

An avalanche of logs broke free, and dragged by gravity, rolled directly into the advancing force. The logs rolled chaotically, shattering limbs and breaking the soldiers’ bones. For a moment the roar of carnage was so great that Rin thought that perhaps they had won the war before it began, that they had seriously damaged the advance force. Kitay screamed.

hysterically over the clamor, holding on to Rin to keep from falling as the doors themselves shook.

But after the sound of the logs had ceased to be heard, the invaders continued to advance towards Sinegard to the steady beat of the drums of war.

***

One level above Rin and Kitay, on the high precipices of the South Gate, the archers released a round of arrows. Most crashed uselessly against the raised shields, but some managed to pass through some opening, stabbing their points into the unprotected parts of the neck. But the soldiers, in their heavy Federation armor, continued to march over the bodies of their fallen comrades, continuing their relentless assault on the city gates.

The squad leader shouted to fire another round of arrows.

It was useless. There were many more soldiers than arrows. Sinegard’s outer defense was weak at best. Each of Kitay’s traps had been activated, but although all but one had worked wonderfully, they had not been enough to make a dent in the enemy ranks.

They could do nothing but wait. Wait until the doors broke, wait until they heard a tremendous impact. Then they heard the gongs signal, warning anyone who had not yet heard that the Federation had breached the walls. The Federation was in Sinegard.

***

They marched in the cacophony of cannon and rocket fire, bombarding Sinegard’s external defenses with their

siege weapons.

The door gave way and broke under the attack.

The Federation came in en masse like a swarm of ants, a cloud of hornets, unstoppable and infinite, and overwhelming in numbers.

We can’t win . Rin was dazed with desperation, her sword hanging at her side. What difference would it make if she fought? She could delay her sentencing for a few seconds, maybe minutes, but at the end of the night she would be dead, with her body broken and bloody in the dirt, and nothing would matter…

This battle was not like those of legends, where numbers did not matter, where a group of warriors like the Triumvirate could take down an entire legion. It didn’t matter how good his techniques were, in the end only the numbers mattered.

And they outnumbered Sinegard terribly.

Rin’s heart sank as he saw the armored troops advancing through the city, in ranks and columns that stretched to infinity.

I’m going to die here , he realized. They are going to kill us all .

—Rin!

Kitay pushed her hard, causing her to stumble against the stones as an ax embedded itself in the wall where her head had been.

Its wielder pulled the ax out of the wall and swung it at them again, but this time Rin blocked it with his own sword. The impact sent a rush of adrenaline through his blood.

The fear was impossible to eradicate. And also the will to survive.

Rin ducked under the soldier’s arm and stabbed the sword into the gap behind his chin, unprotected by his helmet. He cut through fat and gristle, and felt the tip of the sword go straight through his tongue and down his nose to where his brain was. His carotid artery burst over the length of his steel. His blood wet her hand up to his elbow. The soldier shook and fell on top of Rin.

He’s dead , she thought dazedly. I have killed him .

Despite all his combat training, Rin had never thought about what it would be like to take someone’s life, which would be cutting an artery, not just pretending to do it. To destroy a body so brutally until all its vital functions ceased, until it stopped moving forever.

At the Academy they were taught how to incapacitate, training in fighting against their friends. They operated under the strict rules of the maesters, closely watched to avoid any injury. But with all that talk and theory, they hadn’t been trained to actually kill.

Rin thought he could feel the life leaving the victim’s body. He believed that he should record his death with a more meaningful thought than one fallen, ten thousand missing . He believed that he must feel something .

But I didn’t feel anything. Just a momentary shock, and then, the dismay that she would need to do it again, and again, and again.

He pulled his weapon from the soldier’s jaw just as a sword passed over his head. He thrust his sword against another

stroke. And she deflected it. And he attacked. And again he shed blood again.

It wasn’t easier the second time.

It seemed as if the world was full of Federation soldiers. They all looked the same: identical helmets, identical armor. You cut one, and here comes another .

In the continuous fight against that crush of soldiers, Rin had no time to think. He fought by reflex, every action asking for a reaction. He could no longer see Kitay, he had disappeared among the sea of ​​bodies, an ocean of clashing metal and torches.

Fighting against the Federation was completely different from fighting in the pit. He had no combat practice with more than one enemy at a time. And here the enemy could come from any angle, not just one, and defeating an opponent didn’t get you any closer to winning the battle.

In the Federation there were no martial arts. His movements were clumsy, studied, with predictable patterns. But they had trained in formations, in combat groups. They moved as if they were a hive mind; coordinated actions achieved by years of instruction. They were better trained, better equipped.

The Federation did not fight with elegance, it fought with brutality. And they were not afraid to die; If you wounded them, they fell, and their comrades advanced on their corpses. They were relentless, and there were so many…

I’m going to die .

Unless. Unless…

The poppy seeds screamed from his pocket for him to take them. He could swallow them now, he could go to the Pantheon and call a god to earth. What did Jiang’s warnings matter, when everyone was going to die anyway?

He had seen the face of the Phoenix. She knew the power that could be within his reach if he only asked her.

I can take away your fear. I can make you a legend .

She didn’t want to become a legend, but she did want to stay alive.

I wanted to live, more than anything in the world, consequences be damned. And if calling the Phoenix succeeded, that’s what he would do. Jiang’s warnings meant nothing to her now, not while her compatriots and companions were being torn apart beside her, not while she didn’t know if each second was going to be her last. If she was going to die, she wouldn’t die this way: small, weak, and helpless.

He had a link with a god. She would die as a shaman.

Heart pounding, he ducked behind a covered corner. During the few seconds that no one saw her, she reached into her pocket and pulled the seeds out of her. She put them in her mouth.

I doubt.

If he swallowed the seeds and it didn’t work, he would certainly die. She couldn’t fight drugged, dazed and hallucinated.

A horn rang through the air. He came back to reality abruptly, it was a distress signal, from the East Gate.

But the South Gate had no troops to give up, everything was an area in crisis. They were outnumbered three to one, if they gave up half of the troops at the East Gate, they could well let the Federation enter the city without hindrance.

However, Rin’s squad had been ordered to come if they heard the distress call. She stood frozen, uncertain, with the seeds in the palm of her hand. She couldn’t take them now, the drug needed time to take effect, and she could be in limbo indefinitely while she found her way to the Pantheon. And even if she could empty her mind long enough to call out to the gods, she didn’t know what they would answer.

Should she stay here, hide and try to summon a god or should she go help her comrades?

-Runs! his squad leader shouted over the din of battle. Go to the East Gate!

Ran.

 

***

The South Gate was packed with soldiers. But the East Gate was a massacre.

The Nikara soldiers were dejected. Rin headed towards his stall, but his hope died as he got closer. He couldn’t see anyone in nikara armor still fighting, the Federation soldiers simply came through the door, with no one to oppose them.

It was now obvious that the Federation forces had marked their main objective at the East Gate. They had sent three times as many troops, and had used sophisticated siege weapons.

against that city wall. The trebuchets threw flaming debris toward the silent sentinel towers.

He saw Niang collapsed in a corner, crouching over an inert body in the Militia uniform. As Rin passed, Niang lifted her face, full of tears and blood. The body belonged to Raban.

Rin felt like he had been stabbed in the stomach. No no. Raban, no…

Something hit him on the back. He turned around, two Federation soldiers were behind him. The first raised his sword and attacked him again. He dodged the arc of his blade and slashed at him with his own sword.

The metal cut the tendon. Rin was blinded by the blood that splashed into her eyes. She couldn’t see what she was cutting, only she felt great resistance and then nothing, and suddenly the Federation soldier was on his knees howling in pain.

He stabbed downwards without thinking. The howling stopped.

Then his comrade hit Rin’s sword arm with his shield. Rin screamed and dropped her. The soldier kicked the sword away and hit Rin with the shield in the ribs, then he pulled the sword out of him while he was on the ground.

But his skillful arm faltered, and he dropped the weapon. The soldier made a gurgling moan as he stared in disbelief at the sword protruding from his stomach.

He fell and stayed still.

Nezha caught Rin’s gaze, and then drew his sword from the soldier’s back. With his other hand he threw a gun at her.

Rin grabbed her in the air. Her fingers closed familiarly around the hilt of it. A wave of relief washed over her, she now had a gun.

“Thank you,” he said.

“On your left,” he answered.

Without even thinking they stood in formation: back to back, fighting while covering each other’s blind spots. They made a surprisingly good team. Rin covered Nezha’s overextended attacks, and Nezha protected Rin from low blows. Each knew the other’s weaknesses intimately. Rin knew that Nezha was slow to get back on guard when he had missed a hit, and Nezha would block from above while Rin would crouch down for close attacks.

It wasn’t like they could read each other’s minds. They had simply spent so much time observing each other, that they knew exactly how they were going to attack. They were like a well-oiled machine. As if they were dancing a spontaneously coordinated dance. They were almost two parts of a whole, not completely, but close.

If they hadn’t spent so much time hating each other, Rin thought they could have trained together.

Back to back, with their swords toward the enemy, they fought with savage desperation. They fought better than men twice their age. They relied on each other’s strengths, as long as Nezha fought, didn’t falter, Rin wouldn’t feel fatigued either. Because now she was not alone, fighting to stay alive, but she was fighting with a companion. They fought so well that they were almost convinced they would get out of this intact. In fact, the soldiers’ onslaught was slowing down.

“They’re retreating,” Nezha said incredulously.

Rin’s chest filled with hope for a brief, wonderful, moment. Until he realized that Nezha was wrong, the soldiers were not retreating for them. They were leaving room for his general.

***

The general was a head taller than the tallest man Rin had ever seen. His arms and legs were like tree trunks, and his armor was made of enough metal to cover three smaller men. He was sitting on a warhorse as big as he was, a monstrous creature, covered in steel. His face was hidden behind a metal helmet that covered all of it except his eyes.

-What is this? —Her voice sounded with a strange reverberation, as if the ground itself was shaking as she spoke.

—. Why have you withdrawn?

He stopped his warhorse in front of Rin and Nezha.

“Two puppies,” he said with a low voice, full of amusement. Two nikara puppies, guarding a door by themselves. Has Sinegard fallen so low that the city must be defended by children?

Nezha was trembling. Rin was too scared to tremble.

“Look carefully,” the general said to his soldiers. This is how you have to treat nikara scum.

Rin reached out and grabbed Nezha’s wrist.

Nezha nodded sharply in response to her unasked question.

Together? Together.

The general turned his monstrous horse back and charged at them.

There was nothing they could do. At that moment, Rin could only close her eyes tightly and wait for the end from him.

***

 

But it didn’t arrive.

There was a deafening crash, the sound of metal against metal. The air shook at the vibration produced by a great force that created small gusts of wind.

When Rin realized that she hadn’t been cut in two or trampled to death by the monstrous horse, she opened her eyes.

-What the hell? —Nezha said.

Jiang stood before them, his white hair suspended in the air as if he had been struck by lightning. Her feet did not touch the ground. He had both arms extended, blocking the tremendous force of the general’s halberd with his own iron staff.

The general was trying to push Jiang’s staff away, his hands shaking from the pressure exerted, but Jiang didn’t seem to be using any force. The air vibrated eerily, like a prolonged rumble of thunder.

non-existent. The Federation soldiers retreated, as if they could sense an imminent explosion.

“Jiang Ziya,” the general said. I live despite everything.

-I know you? Jiang asked.

The general responded with another massive attack from his halberd. Jiang swung the staff and blocked the blow as easily as if he were swatting away a fly. Jiang dissipated the force of the blow into the air and onto the ground at his feet. The cobblestones shook from the impact, nearly knocking Nezha and Rin off their feet.

—Withdraw your men.

Although Jiang spoke calmly, his voice sounded as if he had shouted. She seemed to have grown in size, not just in height but in presence, like her enormous shadow that stretched to the wall behind them. No longer the scrawny and nervous teacher, Jiang now seemed like a completely different person, someone younger, and someone infinitely more powerful.

Rin looked at him in amazement. The man before her was not the senile and eccentric professor. The shame of the Academy. This new man was a soldier.

He was a shaman.

When Jiang spoke again, his voice contained an echo. She spoke in two tones, one normal and the other much more serious, as if her shadow was repeating the same thing she was saying at double the volume.

—Withdraw your men or I will summon into existence beings that should not be in this world.

Nezha grabbed Rin’s arm. His eyes were wide.

Look . It seemed like the air behind Jiang was solid, as if

It was warped, bright, darkening, more than the night itself. Jiang’s eyes rolled into her sockets until they went blank. He sang out loud in an unknown language, which Rin had heard him use only once.

—You are sealed ! —the general shouted. But he quickly moved away from that darkness that was forming and clung to his halberd.

“Am I now?” —Jiang spread his arms.

A high-pitched wail sounded from behind him, too high-pitched for any beast known to man.

Something was emerging from the darkness.

Beyond that void, Rin saw silhouettes that should only exist in the puppet world, forms of beasts that belonged in stories. A three-headed lion. A fox with nine tails. A mass of snakes coiled around each other, their many heads snapping and biting in all directions.

—Rin. Nezha—Jiang did not turn around to look at them—.

Run.

Then Rin understood. Whatever he had summoned, it was out of Jiang’s control. The gods will not willingly come to battle. The gods always demand something in return . Jiang was doing exactly what he had forbidden her to do.

Nezha lifted Rin to his feet, and his right leg felt like there were hot knives stuck in his kneecap. She screamed and staggered against him.

Nezha held her, though his eyes were wild with terror. She only seemed to be able to think about getting away from there.

Jiang convulsed in the air in front of them, and then lost control completely. The darkness exploded, tearing at the very fabric of existence and collapsing the walls that surrounded them. Jiang slammed his staff into the air, which emitted a shockwave that exploded in the shape of a ring. For a moment everything was quiet.

And then the east wall fell.

***

Rin groaned and rolled onto her side. He could barely see, he could barely feel. None of her senses were working, she was wrapped in a cocoon of darkness penetrated only by flashes of pain. Her leg brushed against something soft and human, and she reached for it. It was Nezha.

He groaned and forced his eyes open, Nezha lay slumped next to him, bleeding profusely from a cut on his forehead. His eyes were closed.

Rin sat up, wincing in pain and shook his shoulder.

—Nezha?

Nezha moved slightly, a great relief washing over her.

-We have to get up. Nezha, come on, we have to…

A cluster of debris exploded on the far side next to the door.

Something was buried under that rubble. Something was still alive.

He clung to Nezha’s hand, watching the shifting debris, wildly hoping that it was Jiang, that there was

survived the terror he had invoked and that he was okay, that he was himself again, and that he could save them…

And then a hand emerged from the rubble, it was bloody, it was huge and it was wearing armor.

***

Rin should have killed the general before he emerged from the rubble. He should have grabbed Nezha and run. He should have done something .

But his body did not obey what his mind demanded of him, his nerves transmitted nothing but fear and desperation. She was paralyzed on the floor, her heart pounding against her ribs.

The general stood up, took a step forward, and then another. His helmet was gone. When he turned to them, Rin held her breath. Half of his face was gone after the explosion, revealing a horrible skeletal smile beneath the torn skin.

“ Nikara scum ,” he growled as he advanced. His foot caught against the body of one of his own soldiers. Without looking, he kicked it away in disgust. His furious gaze remained fixed on Rin and Nezha. I’m going to destroy you.

Nezha whimpered in terror.

Rin’s arms finally responded to his commands. He tried to lift Nezha, but his own legs were weak from fear and he could barely stand.

The general loomed over them, raising his halberd.

Half crazed with fear, Rin attacked with her sword in a great, desperate arc. But her sword struck uselessly against the general’s protected torso.

The general closed his gauntlet on Rin’s thin sword and ripped it from her hands. His fingers had bent the steel.

Trembling, Rin dropped the sword. The general grabbed her by the neck and threw her over what was left of the wall. His head hit the stone and his vision darkened, at first he only saw points of light, then shapeless blurs. He blinked slowly, and when he regained vision, he saw the general slowly raising his halberd over Nezha’s limp body.

Rin opened her mouth to scream just as the general plunged the halberd into Nezha’s stomach. Nezha let out a high pitched cry. A second impalement silenced him.

Sobbing in fear, Rin dug in her pocket for the poppy seeds. He grabbed a handful and put them in his mouth, swallowing them just as the general realized he was still moving.

“No, you won’t,” he growled, picking Rin up by her tunic. He brought Rin’s face close to his, looking at her with his horrible half smile. No more nikara witchcraft, even gods cannot inhabit dead vessels.

Rin thrashed wildly in the general’s grip. Tears poured down his face as he searched for air to breathe. His head throbbed where he had hit the stone. He felt like he was floating, swimming in the dark, but whether it was because of the poppy seeds or because of his head injury, he didn’t know. Either he was dying or he was going to see the gods. Maybe both.

Please , he begged. Please come to me. I will do anything .

Then he rushed through the void. She was in the tunnel towards the heavens again, her spirit flying at tremendous speed towards an unknown place. The edges of her vision darkened and then turned a familiar red, a crimson color that spread across her field of vision like a glass lens.

In her mind she saw the woman appear before her. The woman extended a hand towards her, but…

-Get out of my way! —Rin yelled at him. He had no time to waste on a guardian, he had no time for warnings, he needed the gods, he needed his god.

To his surprise, the woman obeyed.

He passed through the barrier and even higher, towards the throne room of the gods, towards the Pantheon.

All the pedestals were empty except one.

Then he saw him surrounded in his glorious fire. A large and terrible voice echoed in her mind. And she reverberated throughout the universe.

I can give you the power you seek .

He struggled wildly for breath, but the general only tightened the grip around his neck even more.

I can give you the strength to bring down empires, to burn your enemies until their bones are nothing but ashes. I will give you all this and more. You know the deal. You already know the conditions .

“Whatever,” Rin whispered. Whatever you want.

All .

Something like a gust of wind blew into the throne room.

He thought he heard laughter.

Rin opened her eyes. He no longer felt the bruise. He raised his hands and grabbed the general’s wrists. She was almost dead, his grip on her should have been like the touch of a feather, but the general howled in pain, dropped her, and then raised her arm to strike her. Rin saw that both of her wrists were marked, with red-hot blisters.

Rin crouched down, raising his elbows above his head to form a pathetic shield.

And a great flame broke out before her. The heat of the fire hit her face. The general stumbled back.

-No. —Her mouth opened in disbelief. He looked at her as if she were looking at something else. You do not.

Rin tried to stand up with difficulty. Flames continued to surge in front of her, flames that he had no control over.

-You are dead! —the general shouted—. I killed you!

He rose slowly, fire emerging from his hands, strands of flame lulling him, leaving no escape. The general howled in pain as the fire licked at his gaping wounds, at the gaping holes in his face. The flames ran through his entire body.

—I saw you burn! I saw you all burn!

“Not to me,” she whispered, and opened her hands toward him.

The fire came in waves towards the general with a vengeance. He felt a gut-wrenching sensation, as if he were being

tearing out its entrails from within. That sensation of hers ran through her, without harming her, but immobilizing her. The god used her as a conduit, Rin controlled the flame as much as he could the wick of a candle, joining it, enveloping it.

In his mind he saw the Phoenix moving from its pedestal in the Pantheon. Looking. Laughing.

He couldn’t see the general through the flames, only a silhouette, the shape of armor collapsing and folding in on itself, less a man than a mass of burned flesh, charcoal and metal.

“Stop,” Rin whispered. Please make him stop .

But the fire continued to burn. What was left of the general collapsed and crumpled, a ball of fire that grew smaller and smaller, and eventually it was extinguished.

His lips were dry, chapped. When Rin moved them, they bled.

-Please stop.

The fire roared louder and louder. She couldn’t hear, couldn’t breathe through the heat. She fell to her knees, eyes closed, and clutched her face with her hands.

I beg you .

In his mind he saw the Phoenix retreat, as if irritated. He opened his wings with a huge flare and folded them.

The road to the Pantheon was closed. Rin staggered and fell.

***

Time stopped making sense. There was a battle around her and then there wasn’t any. Rin was enveloped in a shelter of nothingness, isolated from everything that was happening around her. Nothing else existed, until she did it.

“It’s burning,” he heard Niang say. Feverish… I’ve looked for poison in his wounds, but I can’t find anything.

It’s not a fever , Rin wanted to say, it’s a god . The water that Niang put on her forehead failed to appease the flames that still ran through her.

She tried to ask about Jiang, but her mouth wouldn’t obey her. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move.

He thought he could see, but he didn’t know if he was dreaming, because when he opened his eyes he saw a face so beautiful that he almost cried.

Arched eyebrows, the softness of porcelain. Lips the color of blood.

The Empress?

But the Empress was far away, with the Third Division still arriving from the north. They couldn’t have arrived so soon, not before dawn.

Had it already passed dawn? She thought she saw the first rays of the sun, the dawn of this terrible and long night.

-What’s it called? —the Empress demanded.

Is the Empress talking about me?

—Runin. —Irjah’s voice—. Fang Runin.

“Runin,” the Empress repeated. Her voice sounded like the strings of a harp, sharp, piercing and beautiful at the same time.

Runin, look at me.

Rin felt the Empress’s fingers on her cheeks. They were cold, like snow, like a winter breeze. He opened his eyes for the Empress, and looked into those beautiful eyes. How could someone possess such perfect eyes? They were not at all like the eyes of a viper. They were not the eyes of a snake, they were wild, black and strange, but beautiful, like those of a deer.

And the visions… he saw a cloud of butterflies, thousands of silk ribbons floating in the wind. She saw a world that was made only of beauty and color and rhythm. She would have done anything to stay trapped in that gaze.

The Empress inhaled sharply and the visions disappeared. The grip of her fingers on Rin’s face tightened.

“I saw you burn,” he said. I thought I saw you die.

“I’m not dead,” Rin tried to say, but her tongue was too heavy and all she managed was to make a strange noise.

—Shh. The Empress placed a cold finger on her lips.

Don’t talk, it’s okay. I know what you are.

Then he felt the cold touch of lips against his forehead, and the same coldness that Jiang forced into him during the Trials ran through him. And the fire inside him died.

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