Chapter no 12

The Poppy War

When Rin was no longer under Enro’s supervision, she was moved to the basement of the main building, where duels were usually held. She might have found it strange, but she was too dazed to think. She slept an inordinate amount of time, there was no clock in the basement, but sometimes she would doze off and discover that it had already fallen into the night. They brought her food and each time, when she finished, she fell asleep almost immediately.

Once, in her dreams, she heard voices talking about her.

“It is inelegant,” said the Empress.

“It’s inhuman,” Irjah said. You’re treating her like a common criminal. This girl might as well have won the battle for us.

“And it could still burn the entire city to ashes,” Jun said.

—. We don’t know what he’s capable of.

“She’s just a girl,” Irjah said. She will be scared, someone has to explain to her what is happening to her.

” We don’t know what’s happening to him,” Jun said.

“It’s obvious,” said the Empress. It’s another Altan.

“So we’re going to let Tyr take care of her when he comes,” Jun said.

“Tyr is coming from Night Castle,” Irjah said. Will you keep her sedated for a whole week?

“I’m certainly not going to let her walk around the city,” Jun answered. You have seen what the Guardian has done with the eastern walls. His seal is breaking, Daji. He is a bigger threat than the Federation itself.

“Not anymore,” the Empress said coldly. The Guardian will no longer be a problem.

When Rin dared to open her eyes, she saw no one above her, and she only vaguely remembered what they had said. After being passed out in another dreamless sleep, she woke up and was no longer sure if she had imagined it all.

Slowly, he regained his senses. But when she tried to leave the basement, she was held back by soldiers from the Third Division, who were guarding the other side of the door.

-What’s going on? —She demanded. She was still a little dazed, but awake enough to know that this was not normal. Why can’t I leave?

“It’s for your safety,” one of them responded.

-What are you talking about? Who has authorized it?

“Our orders are to keep you here,” the soldier said dryly. If you try to force your way out, we’ll have to hurt you.

The soldier closest to her already had his hand on his gun. Rin backed away, he wouldn’t get away with arguing.

So he resorted to more primitive methods. She opened her mouth and screamed, writhing on the ground. He hit the soldiers with his fists and spat in their faces. He threatened to urinate in front of them. He yelled obscenities at them about their mothers, and obscenities about their grandmothers.

It went on like this for hours.

They finally agreed to his demand to see someone in charge.

Unfortunately, they brought Master Jun.

“This is not necessary,” she said grumpily when she arrived. She had quickly brushed off her clothes so that she didn’t look like she had been rolling in the dirt. I’m not going to hurt anyone.

Jun looked at her as if believing her would be the last thing he would do.

—You just demonstrated the ability to spontaneously combust. You have set the eastern half of the city on fire. You understand why we don’t want you wandering around the camp, right?

Rin thought that the combustion had been more deliberate than spontaneous, but he believed that explaining how he had done it wouldn’t help him much either.

“I want to see Jiang,” he said.

Jun’s expression was unreadable. She left without answering. When she managed to overcome the indignation of being locked up,

He decided the best thing to do was wait. He was loyal to

Empress. She was a good soldier. The other maesters of Sinegard would vouch for her, even if Jun did not. As long as she kept a clear mind, she would have nothing to fear. She mused, absurdly, that if she was going to get in trouble for anything, it might be for opium possession.

At least they weren’t keeping her isolated. Rin discovered that she could receive visitors freely. She was the one who couldn’t get out.

Niang visited her often, but hardly talked. When Niang smiled, it came out forced. It seemed like she was missing her life. She didn’t laugh when Rin tried to cheer her up. They spent hours sitting next to each other in silence, listening to each other breathe. Niang was filled with pain, and Rin didn’t know how to comfort her.

“I miss Raban too,” Rin said one day, but that only made Niang burst into tears and leave.

Kitay, on the other hand, was peppered with questions mercilessly about what was going on. He visited her as much as she could, but was constantly called in for rescue operations.

Little by little, he discovered what had happened after the battle.

The Federation had been on the verge of taking Sinegard until Rin killed their general. And that, combined with the arrival of the Empress and the Third Division, had turned the battle in his favor. The Federation had withdrawn for the moment. Kitay doubted they would return anytime soon.

“The battle ended pretty quickly when the Third Division arrived,” Kitay said as he swung his arm in the sling. He had assured Rin that it had been a minor sprain.

It has a lot to do with… well, you know. The Federation was scared, I think they were afraid that we would have more than one esperli in the army.

Rin sat up.


Kitay looked confused.

“Well, isn’t that what you are?”

A sperli? She ? _

“They’ve been saying it all over town,” Kitay said. Rin could feel his discomfort. Kitay’s mind worked at twice the speed of a normal person. His curiosity was insatiable, he needed to know what he had done, what he was, and why he hadn’t told her.

But Rin didn’t know what to say to him, she didn’t even know it herself.

-What are they saying? —She asked.

—That you fell into a bloodthirsty frenzy. That you fought as if you were possessed by a horde of demons. That the general gave you slash after slash and stabbed you eighteen times, and yet you continued fighting.

Rin spread her arms.

“I have no open wounds,” she said. She just stabbed Nezha.

Kitay didn’t laugh.

-Really? You’re locked down here, so it must be true.

So Kitay didn’t know anything about fire. Rin considered telling him, but he hesitated.

How to explain shamanism to Kitay, when he was so convinced of his own rationality? Kitay was the paragon of modern thought that Jiang so despised. He was an atheist and a skeptic, and would not accept a challenge to his way of understanding the world. He would think I was crazy. And she was too tired to argue.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. It’s all blurry. And I don’t know what I am. I am an orphan of war. She could be from anywhere. It could be anyone.

Kitay seemed dissatisfied.

“Jun is convinced you’re a slut,” Kitay said.

But how could it be? Rin was still a baby when Esper was attacked, and there was no way she would have survived if no one else had.

“But the Federation massacred the esperlies,” he said. They left no survivors.

“Altan survived,” Kitay said. You survived.


The Academy students had suffered a much higher proportion of casualties than the soldiers of the Eighth Division. Barely half of Rin’s class had survived, and most of them had serious injuries. Fifteen of his companions had died, and five more were in critical condition in Enro’s care, with their lives one step away from death.

Nezha was among them.

“Today he’s going to have surgery for the third time,” Kitay said. They don’t know if he will live. And even if he does, they cannot guarantee that he will be able to fight again. The halberd pierced his entire body. They say he broke her spine.

Rin was very relieved that Nezha was still alive. But she hadn’t thought that the alternative to not living could be so much worse.

“I hope he dies,” Kitay said suddenly. Rin turned, surprised, to Kitay.

—If he is dead or crippled for life, I hope he dies. “Nezha couldn’t live knowing that he can no longer fight,” Kitay continued.

Rin didn’t know what to answer.

Victory had bought them time, but it had not assured them the city. The Second Division Intelligence reported that reinforcements were being sent from the Federation across the narrow sea, and that the main force was awaiting their arrival.

When the Federation decided to attack a second time, the Nikara would not be able to hold the city. Sinegard was being completely evacuated. The imperial bureaucracy had completely moved to the military capital of Golyn Niis, so securing Sinegard was no longer a priority.

“They’re dissolving the Academy,” Kitay said. We have all been assigned to divisions. Niang has been sent to the Eleventh, Venka to the Sixth in Golyn Niis. Nezha hasn’t been assigned one until… well, you know.” He paused.

—. Yesterday I received my orders from the Second. Junior officer.

It was the division Kitay had always dreamed of. Under other circumstances, congratulating him would have been normal. But now, a congratulation seemed out of place. Rin tried it too.

-It’s great. She’s the one you wanted, right? Kitay looked away.

—They are desperate for soldiers. It is no longer a question of prestige, they have begun to recruit people from the countryside. But it will be fine to serve under Irjah. I will leave tomorrow.

Rin put a hand on his shoulder.

—Take care, Kitay.

“You too,” Kitay put his hand on Rin’s. Do you know when they’ll let you out of here?

-You know more than I do.

—No one comes to talk to you? Rin shook her head.

—Not since Jun. Have they found Jiang?

Kitay gave him a compassionate look, and Rin knew the answer before he spoke. It was the same answer he had been given for days.

Jiang was nowhere to be found. He was not dead, but missing. No one had seen or heard anything since the end of the battle. They had searched the rubble of the eastern wall for survivors, but there was no sign of the Master of Acquis. There was no evidence of his death, but there was nothing to give hope otherwise. He seemed to have disappeared into the same blackness that he had called into existence.


Once Kitay left with the Second Division towards Golyn Niis, there was no one to keep Rin company. He spent his time sleeping. She was constantly drowsy, especially after meals, and when she slept, she slept dreamlessly and deeply. She wondered if her food and drink were drugged. In some ways, she was almost grateful. Being alone with her thoughts was much worse.

Now that he had managed to summon a god, he didn’t feel safe. She didn’t feel powerful. She was locked in a basement. Her own commanders did not trust her. And half of her friends were dying or dead. Her master had disappeared into that blackness and she was being held for her own safety, and that of others.

If that was what it meant to be esperli, if it was esperli, Rin didn’t know if it was worth it.

He slept, and when he couldn’t make himself sleep anymore, he curled up in a corner and cried.


On the sixth day of his confinement, when Rin woke up, the door to the main room opened. Irjah looked inside it, checked that she was awake, and then quickly closed the door behind him.

“Master Irjah,” Rin smoothed his wrinkled robes and stood up.

“I am now General Irjah,” he said. He didn’t seem particularly happy about it. Combat casualties imply promotions.

“General,” Rin corrected. Sorry.

Irjah smiled at him and gestured for him to sit back down.

-It’s not important. How are you?

“Tired, sir,” he replied. She sat cross-legged on the floor, as there were no stools in the basement.

After hesitating for a moment, Irjah also sat down on the ground.

-Well. —He put his hands on his knees—. They say you’re stupid.

—How much do you know about it? —Rin asked with a trembling voice.

Would Irjah know that he had summoned fire? Did she know what Ella Jiang had taught her?

“I raised Altan after the Second War,” Irjah said. I know.

Rin felt a deep sense of relief. If Irjah knew what Altan was like, what esperlies were capable of, then surely he could vouch for her, persuade the Militia that she was not dangerous, at least not to them.

“They’ve made a decision about what to do with you, Rin,” Irjah said.

“I didn’t know it was under debate,” he replied, just to make it more difficult.

Irjah gave him a tired smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

—You will soon receive your transfer orders.

-Really? —Rin sat up straight, suddenly excited. They were going to let her out of it. Finally-. Sir, I was hoping to join the Second with Kitay…

Irjah interrupted her.

—Note you will join the Second. You will not join any of the Twelve Divisions.

Rin’s excitement was immediately replaced by fear. He suddenly noticed a faint hum in the air.

-What do you mean?

Irjah played with his thumbs uncomfortably.

“The Warlords have decided that it is best for you to join the Cike,” he said.

For a moment, Rin sat there with a stupid look.

The Cike? The infamous Thirteenth Division? The Empress’s assassination squad? The murderers without honor, reputation, or glory? The combat force so vile and so perverse that the Militia itself preferred to pretend it did not exist?

—Rin? Do you understand what I’m saying?

—El Cike? —Rin repeated.


—Are they sending me to a squad of strange people? —Her voice broke. She had an immense desire to burst into tears. The Strange Children?

“The Cike is a division of the Militia as much as the others,” Irjah said hastily. His tone was artificially reassuring. They are a perfectly respectable contingent.

—They are failures and marginalized! Are…

—They serve the Empress like everyone else.

“But I…” Rin swallowed hard. She thought she was a good soldier.

Irjah’s expression softened.

—Oh, Rin. You are . You are an incredible soldier.

—Then why can’t I be in a real division?

He was well aware of how childish he sounded. But in this situation, she thought that she deserved to act like a child.

“You know why,” Irjah said quietly. The esperlies have not fought with the twelve provinces since the last Poppy War. And before that, when they did it, cooperation was always… difficult.

Rin knew the story. He knew what Irjah meant. The last time the Esperlies had fought alongside the Militia, they had been considered primitive rarities, just as those of the Cike were considered now. Esperlies would go into a trance and fight on their own terms, they were a walking danger to everyone around them, friend and foe alike. They followed orders, but only vaguely. They were given a goal and objectives, but good luck to the officer attempting any other more sophisticated maneuver.

“The Militia hates esperlies,” Rin said.

“The Militia is scared of esperlies,” Irjah corrected. The Nikara have never been good at dealing with something they can’t understand, and Esper has always made them uncomfortable. I hope now you know why.

-Yes sir.

—I recommended you to Cike. And I did it for you, girl.

Irjah stared at her.

—The rivalry between the Warlords has never completely disappeared, even since their alliance under the Dragon Emperor. Even though their soldiers are going to hate you, the twelve Warlords would be delighted to have a sperli in their hands. Whichever division you joined, you would have a huge advantage. And any division you didn’t join wouldn’t welcome that shift in the balance of power. If you enter any of the Twelve Divisions, you would be in grave danger from the other eleven.

“I…” Rin hadn’t considered that. “But there is already a sperli in the Militia,” he said. What about Altan?

Irjah stroked his beard.

—Would you like to meet your commander?

-That? —She said surprised, without understanding.

Irjah turned and called to someone behind the door.

—Well, come in.

The door opened. The man who entered was tall and graceful. He was not wearing the Militia uniform, but was instead wearing a black tunic without insignia. On his back he carried a silver trident.

Rin swallowed hard, fighting the ridiculous urge to tuck her hair behind her ears. He felt a familiar flush, a warmth starting at the tip of his ears.

He had gained several scars since she had last seen him, including two on his forearms and one that ran irregularly across his face, from the corner of his left eye to the right side of his jaw. She no longer had her hair

neatly cut like he had had it at school, but had grown wild and untamable, as if he had not bothered to cut it in months.

“Hello,” said Altan Trengsin. What were you saying about losers and outcasts?


—How the hell did you survive the firebombs? Rin opened his mouth, but no words came out.

Altan. Altan Trengsin . He tried to formulate a coherent response, but all he could think about was her childhood hero standing in front of her.

He knelt in front of Rin.

—How can it be that you exist? she asked quietly.

I thought I was the only one left.

Rin finally regained his speech.

-Don’t know. They never explained to me what happened to my parents. My adoptive parents didn’t know either.

—And you never suspected what you were? She shook her head.

“Not until… I mean, when I…”

She was left speechless, shocked. The memories she had been repressing appeared before her: the woman’s screams, the Phoenix’s laughter, the terrible heat that flooded her body, the way the general’s armor curled and dissolved under the heat of the fire. …

He put his hands to his face and realized he was shaking.

He hadn’t been able to control it. She hadn’t been able to stop, the flames hadn’t stopped erupting from her. She could have burned Nezha, she could have burned Kitay, she could have turned Sinegard to ashes if the Phoenix had not listened to her pleas. And even when the flames stopped, the fire that coursed through her body had not, not until the Empress had kissed her forehead and extinguished them.

I’m going crazy , she thought. I have become everything Jiang warned me against .

-Hey Hey.

Cold fingers grabbed her wrists. Gently, Altan moved his hands away from her face.

Rin looked up and met his eyes. They were a crimson brighter than poppy petals.

“It’s okay,” he said. I know, I know what it is. I’ll help you.


“The Cikes aren’t so bad once you get to know us,” he said, leading her out of the basement. I mean, we kill people because they tell us to, but overall, we’re pretty nice.

—Are you all shamans? —She asked. She felt dizzy. Altan shook his head.

-Not all. We have two who don’t get involved with the gods, a munitions expert and a doctor. But the rest are. Tyr was the one who had the best training of all of us before

Entering the Cike, he grew up with a sect of monks who worship a goddess of darkness. The others are like you: full of power and shamanic potential, but confused. We took them to the Night Castle, trained them, and then sent them against the Empress’s enemies. That way everyone wins.

Rin tried to find that reassuring.

—Where do they come from?

-From everywhere. “You would be surprised how many places the old religions are still alive,” Altan said. There are a lot of secret cults throughout the provinces. Some contribute an initiate to the Cike in exchange for the Empress leaving them alone. But it is not easy to find shamans in this country, nor in this era, but the Empress takes them wherever she can. Many of them come from Baghra prison, Cike is her second choice.

—But you are not officially part of the Militia.

-No. We are murderers. Although in times of war we function as the Thirteenth Division.

Rin wondered how many people Altan had killed. Who would he have killed?

—What do you do when there is peace?

-Peace? Altan gave him a wry look. There is no peace for Cike. There never ceases to be people the Empress wants dead.


Altan ordered him to pack all his things and head to the front door. They would leave in the afternoon with the squad

from officer Yenjen of the Fifth Division to the front. The rest of the Cike had already left a week ago.

All of Rin’s belongings had been confiscated after the battle. He barely had time to grab a new set of weapons from the armory before crossing the city and heading to the meeting point. The soldiers of the Fifth Division carried light backpacks and two sets of weapons each. Rin only had a sword with a poorly sharpened blade. She looked and felt very unprepared. She didn’t even have a second set of clothes, and he suspected that he would start to smell very bad very soon.

—Where are we headed? Rin asked as they began to descend the mountain path.

“Khurdalain,” said Altan, “in the province of Tiger.” It will be two weeks of traveling south until we reach the West Murui River, then we will go downriver to the port.

Despite everything, Rin was very excited. Khurdalain was a port city overlooking the eastern Nariin Sea, and had a thriving international trade. It was the only city in the Empire where you could negotiate regularly with foreigners, Hesperians and Bolognans who had established an embassy there for centuries. Even Federation merchants once occupied the docks, at least until the city became the center stage of the Poppy Wars.

Khurdalain had seen two decades of war and survived. And now the Empress had established a battlefront there again, to lure the Federation invaders to eastern and central Nikan.

Altan explained the Empress’ defensive strategy to him as they advanced.

Khurdalain was an ideal location to establish the initial front.

Federation armored columns would have a decisive advantage in the vast plains of northern Nikan, but not in Khurdalain, where rivers and streams abounded that favored defensive operations.

Leading the Federation towards Khurdalain would force them into their worst territory. The attack on Sinegard had been a bold attempt to separate the northern and southern provinces. If the Federation generals had had their choice, they almost certainly would have cut into the center of Nikan by marching directly south. But if Khurdalain was well defended, the Federation would be forced to change direction from north to south to an east to west offensive. And Nikan would have room in the southwest to retreat and regroup if Khurdalain fell.

It would have been ideal if the Militia had made a pincer maneuver to trap the Federation from both sides, cutting off both their escape routes and their supply lines. But the Militia was neither competent nor large enough to carry out such an undertaking. The twelve Warlords had barely coordinated in time to unite for the defense of Sinegard, and now all of them were too preoccupied with defending their own province to attempt joint military action.

—Why can’t they unite like they did during the Second Poppy War? —Rin asked.

“Because the Dragon Emperor is dead,” Altan said. He can’t unite the Warlords this time, and the Empress doesn’t impose even half of her authority on them. Oh, the Warlords will bow in Sinegard and swear their vows of loyalty to the Empress, but when push comes to shove, they will put their own provinces first.

Keeping Khurdalain would not be easy. The recent attack on Sinegard had shown that the Federation had clear military superiority in both weapons and mobility. And Mugen possessed a great advantage on the northern coastline, they could easily receive reinforcements from the strait. Troops and supplies were just a boat ride away.

Furthermore, Khurdalain had little advantage in terms of defensive structures. It was an open port city, designed as a priority enclave for foreigners before the Poppy Wars. Nikan’s best defense had been built along the lower Western Murui river delta, well away south of Khurdalain. Compared to the heavily garrisoned military capital of Golyn Niis, Khurdalain was easy prey, welcoming its invaders with open arms.

But the city had to be defended. If Mugen advanced into the country and managed to take Golyn Niis, then he could easily turn eastward, pursuing the rest of the Militia that remained on the coasts. And if they were caught against the sea, Nikan’s pitiful little fleet would not be able to save them. So Khurdalain was a vital point on which the destiny of the rest of the country rested.

“We are the final front,” Altan said. If we fail, the country is lost. “He” patted him on the shoulder.


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