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Chapter no 13

The Poppy War

Clang .

Rin barely raised his sword in time to stop Altan’s trident, which would have sliced ​​his face in half. He anchored himself to the ground as best he could, to dissolve the ki of the blow evenly through his body to the ground, but even so, his legs shook from the impact.

It seemed like she and Altan had been fighting for hours. Her arms ached, and her lungs struggled for more air.

But Altan was not finished. He moved the trident, caught the blade of his sword between its tips, and swung it hard. The pressure tore the sword from Rin’s hands and threw it to the ground. And then Altan pressed the trident against Rin’s throat. She raised her arms in quick surrender.

“Your reactions are due to fear,” Altan said. There is no control in your fight. You need to empty your mind and concentrate. Focus on me , not my gun.

—It’s quite difficult to do it while you’re trying to gouge out my eyes.

—Rin murmured, moving the trident away from his face.

Altan lowered his weapon.

—You are still defensive, you are resisting. You have to let the Phoenix in. When you have invoked a god, when the god walks in you, you enter a state of ecstasy. He is a ki amplifier . You don’t get tired, and you are capable of doing extraordinary things. You don’t feel pain either. You have to immerse yourself in that state.

Rin could perfectly remember that state in which he asked him to immerse himself. He remembered feeling his veins burning, his vision turning reddish, and how all the people had become targets to be shot down. There was no need for rest anymore, only pain and pain to fuel his fire.

The only times Rin had been in that state was during the Trials, and then in Sinegard. Both times she had been furious, desperate.

He hadn’t been able to rekindle that state of mind. She hadn’t been so angry again, just confused, agitated, and like now, exhausted.

“Learn to control it,” Altan said. Learn to enter and exit that state. If you focus only on the enemy’s weapon, you will always be on the defensive. Look beyond the weapon, toward your enemy. Focus on the person you want to kill.

Altan was a much better teacher than Jiang, who had been frustratingly vague, distracted, and deliberately obtuse. Jiang liked to circle around an answer, forcing Rin to circle the truth like a hungry vulture, before granting her a gratifying morsel of understanding.

But Altan didn’t waste time, he went straight to the topic and gave her exactly the answers Rin needed. He understood his

fears and knew what he was capable of.

Training with Altan was like training with an older brother. It was very strange to be told that she and Altan were the same, not like the others, her joints hyperextended in the same way, that therefore he had to turn his foot in a certain way. Having so many similarities with someone, similarities rooted in her genes, was an overwhelmingly wonderful feeling.

Next to Altan. That was her place. Not the division or the army, but something deeper and older. He felt that he belonged to a lineage. He had a home. She wasn’t a nameless war orphan, she was a stud.

At least, everyone seemed to believe it. But despite all the evidence, Rin couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong. She couldn’t call upon the god as easily as Altan, and she couldn’t move with the same grace as him. Was it genes or training?

—Have you always been like this? Rin asked. Altan seemed to tense up.

-What do you mean?

“Like… you,” he gestured toward Altan. You’re not… you’re not like the rest of the other students. The other soldiers.

Have you always been able to invoke fire? Have you always been able to fight so well?

Altan’s expression was unreadable.

—I have trained in Sinegard for a long time.

-But I also!

—They didn’t train you like a sperli. But you are a warrior, she is in your blood. So I’ll beat your inheritance into you quickly. Altan pointed the trident at him. Weapons ready.

***

—Why a trident? Rin asked, when Altan finally allowed him to rest. Why not a sword? —I had not seen any soldier who did not carry the usual army halberd or sword.

“Greater range,” he said, “enemies don’t get very close when you’re surrounded by fire.”

Rin touched the tips of the trident, they had been sharpened many times. They were not shiny, nor were they smooth, they were marked with the evidence of multiple battles.

—Is it made by the esperlies?

For sure yes. The trident was made entirely of metal, unlike the nikara weapons, which had wooden handles. The trident was heavier, true, but Altan needed a weapon that wouldn’t burn him when using it.

“It comes from the island,” he said. He jabbed her with the blunt end and pointed to her gun for her to take. Do not get distracted. Come on, get up, let’s continue.

She dropped her arms exhausted.

“Couldn’t we just get high?” —She asked. She didn’t understand how relentless physical training could make it easier to summon the Phoenix.

“No, we can’t just get high,” Altan said. He prodded her again. Lazy That way of thinking is a rookie mistake, anyone can grab a handful of seeds and make it to the Pantheon, that part is easy. But forming a bond with the god, channeling his power at will and bringing him down to Earth, requires discipline. Unless you have trained your mind, it is very easy to lose control. Think of it as prey. The gods are sources of potential energy, like water flowing downhill, and drugs are like the door, opening the way to let the gods through. But if your gate is too large, or poorly constructed, the power will flow unchecked. The god will ignore your will, resulting in chaos. Unless you want to burn your own allies, you have to remember why you called the Phoenix in the first place. You must be able to direct his power.

—It’s like a prayer. Altan nodded.

—It’s exactly like a prayer. All prayer is simple repetition, an imposition of your requests to the gods. The difference between a shaman and everyone else is that our prayers are heard. Hasn’t Jiang taught you this?

Jiang had taught him the opposite. Jiang had told him to leave her mind blank in meditation, to forget her ego, that she was not an entity independent of the universe. Jiang had taught him to remove his own will from him. Altan was teaching her to impose his will on the gods.

—He only taught me to connect with the gods, not to bring them with me to our world.

Altan looked surprised.

—So, what did you call the Phoenix in Sinegard?

“I shouldn’t have,” he said. Jiang warned me not to do it. He told me that the gods were not to be used as weapons, only to be consulted. “He was teaching me to calm down, to find my connection to the cosmos and find balance, or… whatever it was,” she finished, lamely.

It was becoming clear how little Jiang had actually taught him. She hadn’t prepared her for this war at all, she had only tried to prevent her from accessing a power that she now knew she had within her reach.

“That’s useless,” Altan said contemptuously. Jiang was a scholar, I am a soldier. He was interested in theology, and I am interested in destroying. Altan opened his fist, palm up, and a small ring of fire danced across the lines of his hand. With his other hand he extended his trident. The flame then ran through his body, from the tips of his fingers, dancing across his shoulders, and then running down the trident until it finally reached the three tips of his.

Rin was amazed at Altan’s absolute control over fire. Just as a sculptor shaped clay, the flames bent to his will with the smallest movement of his fingers. When she had summoned the Phoenix, the fire had come out of her uncontrollably. But Altan handled it as if it were an extension of himself.

“Jiang was right to be cautious,” Altan said. The gods are unpredictable. The gods are dangerous, and there is no one who understands them, not completely. But we, in the Castle

Nocturnal, we have made an art of using the gods as weapons. We are closer to understanding the gods than the ancient monks ever were. We have developed the power to rewrite the fabric of the world. If we don’t use it, what is the purpose?

***

After two weeks of hard marching, four days of sailing, and three more days of marching, they reached the gates of the city of Khurdalain shortly before nightfall. As they emerged from the forest onto the main path, Rin saw the ocean for the first time.

He stopped dead.

Sinegard and Tikany were interior regions. Rin had seen rivers and lakes, but never such an amount of water. She gaped at the vast expanse of blue, reaching further than she could see, further than she could have imagined.

Altan stopped next to him, and looking at his stunned expression, smiled.

—Have you never seen the ocean?

Rin couldn’t look away. She felt like the first day she saw Sinegard in all her splendor, as if she had been thrown into a fantasy world where the stories she had been told were all true.

“I’ve seen paintings,” he said. I have read descriptions. In Tikany the merchants who came from the coast told us about their adventures at sea. But not even in my dreams would I have imagined that it was like this.

Altan took her hand and pointed towards the ocean.

—The Mugen Federation is just beyond the strait. If you climb the Kukhoni mountain range, you can catch a glimpse of the island. And if you take a ship south from there, near Golyn Niis and go towards the Serpent Province, you will reach Esper.

He couldn’t see anything from where they were, but he still stared at the shimmering water, imagining a small, lonely island in the southern sea of ​​Nikan. Esper had spent decades isolated before the great continental powers tore the island apart in their wars.

-How was it?

—Wait? Esper was beautiful. Altan’s voice was soft, wistful. Now they call it the Dead Island, but all I remember is that it was green. On one side of the island you could see the coast of the Nikan Empire; On the other side the sea, an infinite horizon. We got on boats and sailed in that ocean without knowing what we were going to find, they were trips in endless darkness, looking for the other side of the world. The esperlies divided the night sky into sixty-four houses of constellations, one for each god. And as long as you find the Phoenix star to the south, you can always find your way back to Esper.

Rin wondered what Dead Island was like now. When Mugen destroyed Esper, would they have destroyed the towns as well? Or would the shacks and houses remain, ghost towns waiting for their inhabitants, who would never return?

-Because you left? —She asked.

She had just realized that she knew very little about Altan, that he survived was a mystery to her, just as his existence was a mystery to everyone else.

She must have been very young when she came to Nikan, a victim of the war that had killed her people. He couldn’t have been older than four or five years. Who had taken him off the island?

Why only him?

And why her?

But Altan did not answer, he stared at the night sky for a long time and then returned his gaze to the road.

“Come on,” he said, taking her arm. We’re going to be late.

***

Officer Yenjen raised the Nikan flag outside the city walls, then ordered his squad to take cover in the trees until they received a response. After half an hour of waiting, a thin girl, dressed from head to toe in black, appeared at the city gates and motioned for them to enter quickly. When everyone had finished entering, she closed the doors.

—Your division is waiting in the old fishing district. “It’s heading north, follow the main road,” the girl indicated to Officer Yenjen, then turned and greeted her commander. Trengsin.

—Qara.

—Is she our esperli?

-It is.

Qara tilted her head as she assessed Rin. She was a short woman, more of a girl, and only reached her shoulders. She had her hair tied up in a thick, dark braid, which reached past her waist. Her features were strangely elongated, not

They were Nikara enough, but also not from anywhere Rin could recognize.

A huge hunting hawk perched on his right shoulder, and tilted its head towards Rin with an expression of disdain. His eyes and Qara’s were the same golden color.

—How are our people?

“Good,” Qara said. Well, most of them are fine.

—When will your brother return?

The Qara falcon craned its head up and then looked down, its feathers ruffled as if it were restless. Qara raised her hand and stroked the bird’s neck.

“When I’m here,” she said.

Yenjen and her squad had already disappeared through the winding alleys of the city. Qara gestured for Rin and Altan to follow her up some stairs adjacent to the city walls.

-Where it is? —Rin whispered to Altan.

“She’s from the Hinterlands,” Altan said, and grabbed her arm just as she tripped against some broken stairs. Don’t trip.

Qara led them along a raised path that took them above the first buildings of Khurdalain. Once at the top, Rin turned around and could see the port city for the first time.

Khurdalain could well be a foreign city torn from its roots and placed directly on the other side of the world. It was a chimera of multiple architectural styles, a strange amalgamation of different buildings from different countries, of

different continents. Rin saw churches he only knew as scribbles in history books, evidence of Bologna’s former occupation. He saw buildings with spiral columns, buildings with elegant monochromatic towers with deep grooves etched into the sides, instead of the sloping pagodas characteristic of Sinegard.

Sinegard may well be the beacon of the Empire, but Khurdalain was Nikan’s window to the rest of the world.

Qara led them from the wall to a rooftop. Thus they covered another block, running over the flat-roofed houses, built in the style of ancient Hesperia. And when the buildings began to be very far apart, they descended to the ground to walk down the street. In the space between the buildings, Rin could see the sun setting on the reflection of the ocean.

“This was a Hesperian settlement,” Qara said, pointing toward the dock. The long line that ran along the sea was a boulevard, full of shops with window displays. The passage was built with thick wooden planks damp with sea water. Everything in Khurdalain smelled faintly of the sea, even the breeze itself had a salty touch of the ocean. Those buildings there, the semi-detached ones with roofs at different levels, used to be the consulates of Bologna.

-What happened? —Rin asked.

“The Dragon Emperor happened,” Qara said. Don’t you know your own history?

The Dragon Emperor had driven the foreigners out of Nikan in the confusing days after the Second Poppy War, but Rin knew there were still a handful of foreigners left.

Hesperians, missionaries trying to spread the word of their Holy Creator.

“Are there any Hesperians still in town?” —Rin asked, hopefully.

Having never seen a Hesperian, foreigners in Nikan were prohibited from traveling as far north as Sinegard, and were restricted to trading in a handful of port cities, of which Khurdalain was the largest. He wondered if Hesperians were really pale-skinned and covered in hair, and if their hair was really the color of carrots.

“About two hundred,” Altan said, but Qara shook her head.

-Not anymore. They left after the attack on Sinegard. His government sent a boat for them to return, it almost capsized because of so many people who were trying to board. There are still one or two missionaries and some foreign ministers, they document what they see and send it to their governments. But that’s all.

Rin remembered what Kitay had said about asking Hesperia for help, and snorted.

—Do you think they help us with that?

“They are Hesperians,” said Qara. They always think they are helping.

The old area of ​​Khurdalain, the nikara neighborhood, was made up of low-rise buildings in a network of alleys, crisscrossed by a system of canals, so narrow that even a cart would have a hard time trying to pass through. It made sense for the Nikara army to have a base in this part of the city, even if the Federation vaguely knew where they were, their overwhelming

The number of soldiers would not be an advantage in those closed and winding streets.

Architecture aside, Rin imagined that under normal circumstances, Khurdalain must be a louder, dirtier version of Sinegard. Before the occupation, it must have been a bustling place of commerce, more exciting even than the market in the center of Sinegard. But Khurdalain under siege was quiet and silent, almost gloomy. She saw no civilians as they walked, either they had already been evacuated or they were hiding, following the Militia’s warnings, keeping their heads down and staying away from places where the Federation soldiers could see them.

Qara informed them about the siege situation as they walked.

—They have been trying to enter the city for almost a month. The Federation has camps in all three directions, all except the one you came from. The worst thing is that they have been constantly trying to invade urban areas. Khurdalain has high walls, but they have catapults.

—How much of the city have they occupied? Altan asked.

—Only a narrow strip of beach by the sea, and half of the foreign quarter. We could take back the embassies in Bologna, but the Fifth Division isn’t going to cooperate.

“Are you not going to cooperate?” Qara frowned.

—We are having some, uh, difficulties with the integration.

That new general they have doesn’t help either, Jun Loran.

Altan showed the same dejection that Rin felt.

—Is Jun here?

—He arrived by boat on the river three days ago.

Rin shuddered. At least she wasn’t serving directly under him.

—Isn’t La Quinta from the province of Tigre? Why isn’t the Tiger Warlord in charge?

—The Tiger Warlord is a three-year-old boy, and his seneschal is a politician with no military experience. Jun has assumed command of the province’s army from him. The Warlords of the Ram and Ox are also here with their provincial divisions, but they have been fighting more among themselves for supplies than against the Federation. And no one can find a plan of attack that doesn’t put civilian areas in the line of fire.

—What are the civilians doing here? Rin asked. It seemed to him that the army’s job would be much easier if the protection of civilians was not a priority. Why haven’t they been evacuated like the Sinegardians?

“Because Khurdalain is not a city you can leave easily,” Qara said. Most people live from fishing or factories, there is no agriculture. If they move further inland, they will have nothing. Most of the peasants who came here to live were escaping the misery of the countryside. If they are asked to leave, they will starve. The people are determined to stay, and we will have to make sure they stay alive.

The Qara falcon tilted its head suddenly, as if it had heard something. Several steps later Rin could also hear it,

They were voices that came from the general’s facilities.

***

 

—Cike!

Rin cringed, he would recognize that voice anywhere.

General Jun Loran stormed toward them, his face purple with fury.

—Ow, ow!

Beside him, Jun dragged a scrawny boy by the ear, shaking him with brutal jerks. The boy was wearing an eyepatch over his left eye and his right eye was watering in pain as he staggered behind Jun.

—By the Tiger’s tits! —Altan stopped dead.

—Ramsa. —Qara cursed under her breath. Rin couldn’t discern if it was his name or an insult in his language.

-You. Jun stopped in front of Qara. Where is your commander?

Altan took a step forward.

-It’s me.

“Trengsin?” —Jun looked at Altan, with clear disbelief

—. You’re kidding. Where is Tyr?

A spasm of irritation crossed Altan’s face.

“Tyr is dead.”

-That?

Altan crossed his arms.

—Has no one bothered to tell you? Jun ignored the taunt.

-Is dead? As?

“Risks of the profession,” Altan said, making Rin suspect that they had no idea.

“So they put Cike in the hands of a kid,” Jun murmured. Incredible.

Altan looked at Jun and the boy, who was still leaning next to Jun, sobbing in pain.

—What is this all about?

“My men caught him with his hands in the ammunition supplies,” Jun said. It’s the third time this week.

“I thought it was our ammunition cart,” the boy protested.

“You don’t have an ammunition cart,” Jun snapped.

We had already established it the first two times.

Qara sighed and rubbed her forehead with the palm of her hand.

“I wouldn’t have to steal if you shared it,” the boy said plaintively, appealing to Altan. His voice was high and reedy, and his good eye seemed enormous in his thin face. I can’t do my job if I don’t have gunpowder.

—If your men are missing equipment, you should have thought about bringing it from the Night Castle.

“We use everything at the embassy,” the boy complained.

Remember?

Jun pulled the boy’s ear down and the boy yelped in pain.

Altan reached behind his back for the trident.

—Let it go, Jun.

Jun looked at the trident, and his mouth twisted into a slight smile.

-Are you threatening me?

—I am making a request—Altan did not draw his weapon, raising a sword to the commander of another division would be high treason, but he did not remove his hand from the hilt either. Rin saw flames flicker briefly on his fingers.

Jun took a step back, but didn’t let go of the boy.

—Your men do not have access to the Fifth Division’s supplies.

“And disciplining him is my prerogative, not yours,” Altan said.

Release it. Now , Jun.

Jun gave a displeased grunt and let go of the boy, who quickly scurried away and took cover next to Altan, rubbing his ear with a regretful expression.

“Last time they hung me by my ankles in the plaza,” he complained.

He looked like a child accusing a classmate of his teacher. Altan looked indignant.

—Would you treat the First or the Eighth this way? —Altan asked.

“The First and Eighth have the common sense not to hang around the Fifth’s equipment,” Jun snorted. Your

men have just been causing trouble since they got here.

“We’ve been doing our damn job!” —the boy burst out—. You are what you have been hiding behind the walls like filthy cowards.

“Silence, Ramsa,” Altan said sharply. Jun let out a short, mocking laugh.

—You are a squad of ten people, do not overestimate your value in the Militia.

“Even so, we serve the Empress just as you do,” Altan said. We came from the Night Castle to be your reinforcements. So you will treat my men with respect, or the Empress will hear about this.

“Of course, you are the Empress’s special children,” Jun drawled. Reinforcements … What a joke.

He cast one last look of disdain at Altan and left. She pretended that he hadn’t seen Rin.

“That’s what the last few weeks have been like,” Qara said with a sigh.

“You told me everything was fine,” Altan said.

—I exaggerated.

Ramsa looked carefully at his commander.

“Hello, Trengsin,” he said cheerfully. I’m glad you’re back.

Altan pressed his hands to his face and then looked up at the sky, inhaling deeply. He dropped his arms with a sigh.

—Where is my office?

“Down that alley to the left,” Ramsa said. We emptied the old customs offices, you’ll like it, we brought your maps.

“Thank you,” Altan said, “Where are the Warlords stationed?”

—In the old government complex. It’s turning the corner. They meet regularly. Although they don’t invite us, of course, because well, you know. —Ramsa fell silent, suddenly very guilty.

Altan gave Qara a questioning look.

“Ramsa blew up half the foreign quarter at the docks,” he reported. He did not warn the Warlords beforehand.

—I blew up a single building.

“It was a large building,” Qara said flatly. La Quinta still had two men inside.

—Well, did they survive? Altan asked. Qara looked at him in disbelief.

—Ramsa detonated a building above them .

“It seems you haven’t done anything useful while I was gone,” Altan said.

—We have made fortifications! —said Ramsa.

—On the defense line? Altan asked hopefully.

—No, only around your office, and in our barracks. The Warlords no longer let us get close to the defense lines.

Altan looked deeply irritated.

—I need to fix this. Is the government complex down there?

-Yeah.

-Good. Altan looked absently at Rin. Qara, Rin needs equipment. Get it to him, and let him install himself. Ramsa, come with me.

***

—Are you Altan’s lieutenant? Rin asked, as Qara led her through new winding alleys.

“Not me, my brother,” said Qara. He quickened his pace, and crouched under a round door set in a wall. She waited for Rin to follow her. I’m filling in for him while he returns. You will stay here with me.

Qara led Rin up another staircase that led to a damp underground room. It was a tiny room, barely the size of the Academy’s latrine shed. A draft came from the entrance, Rin rubbed her arms and shivered.

“We have the women’s barracks to ourselves,” said Qara.

—. How lucky.

Rin looked around the room. The walls were made of compressed earth, not brick, so they would not be insulated from the cold. There was only a mat spread out in the corner, surrounded by Qara’s things. Rin figured she should get her own blankets unless she wanted to sleep surrounded by cockroaches.

—Are there no women in the divisions?

—We do not share barracks with the other divisions. Qara dug into a bag near her mat, pulled out a pile of clothes, and tossed them to Rin. You should take off your Academy uniform. I’ll take your clothes, Enki wants old clothes to make bandages.

Rin quickly took off the worn Academy robes she had traveled in and gave it to Qara. His new uniform was an unmarked black tunic. Unlike the army uniform, he did not have the Red Emperor insignia on his left chest. The Cike uniforms had been designed to have no markings to identify them.

—The bracelet too. —Qara’s hand was extended, expectant.

Rin touched her white bracelet self-consciously; she had not taken it off since the battle, even though she was no longer officially Jiang’s apprentice.

—Should I take it off? —Rin had seen many Academy bracelets in Yenjen’s squad among the soldiers, even among quite older soldiers. Sinegard officers often wore such armbands for years after graduation as a mark of pride.

Qara crossed her arms.

—This is not the Academy. Your apprentice specialization does not matter here.

“I know…” Rin started to say, but Qara interrupted her.

-You do not get it. This is not the Militia, it is the Cike. We have been recruited because we are considered skilled at killing, but not skilled at a division. Most of us haven’t been to Sinegard, and those who have don’t have fond memories. here to

No one cares who your teacher was, and announcing it won’t earn you any good will. Forget recognition or promotion or glory, or whatever shit you were waiting for in Sinegard, you’re now Cike. By default, you don’t have a good reputation.

“I don’t care about my reputation…” Rin protested, but Qara interrupted her again.

—No, listen to me. You’re not in school anymore. You are not competing against anyone, you do not need to get good grades. You live with us, you fight with us, you die with us. From now on, your greatest loyalty is to the Cike and the Empire. If you wanted an illustrious career, you should have joined the divisions, but you didn’t, which means there’s something wrong with you, which means you’re stuck here with us, you understand?

“I didn’t ask to be here,” Rin snapped defensively. I had no choice.

“None of us had it,” Qara said sharply.

Get over.

 

***

Rin tried to draw up a map of the city in her head as they walked, a mental image of the labyrinth that Khurdalain appeared to be, but gave up after the fifteenth turn. He suspected that Qara had deliberately taken a complicated route to wherever he was taking her.

—How do you get anywhere? —She asked.

“Memorize the routes,” Qara replied. The harder it is to find the way, the better. And if you want to find Enki, just

continue the whining.

Rin was about to ask what he meant when he heard a cluster of voices from around the corner.

“Please,” a male voice pleaded. Please, it hurts a lot.

“Look, I understand you, I really do,” said a second, much deeper voice. But frankly it’s not my problem, so I don’t care.

—Just a few seeds!

Rin and Qara turned the corner. The voices belonged to a thin, dark-skinned man, and to a disconsolate soldier. The soldier wore an insignia that marked him as part of the Fifth. His right arm ended in a bloody stump at the elbow.

Rin shuddered at the sight, she could almost see the gangrene through that poor bandage. No wonder he was begging for poppy.

“Now they are just a handful of seeds for you, but then another poor boy will come, and then another,” said Enki. I will suddenly be out of seeds, and my division will have nothing to fight with. So the next time your division is backed into a corner, my division won’t be able to do its job and save your sorry hide. They are a priority, you are not, you understand?

The soldier spat at Enki’s door.

“You nuts.” He walked past Enki and headed toward the alley, casting malicious glances at Rin and Qara as he passed.

“I need to change places,” Enki complained to Qara as she closed the door behind her. The room was small and crowded, filled with the bitter smell of medicinal herbs.

—. These are not conditions for storing material. I need a dry place.

“Move near the division headquarters and you will have thousands of soldiers at your door asking for seeds,” Qara said.

— Ummm . Do you think Altan would let me move into his closet?

—I think Altan likes to have his closet to himself.

—You’re probably right. Who is it? —Enki examined Rin from head to toe, as if he were looking for any injury. His voice was really charming, rich and velvety, just listening to him made Rin sleepy. What is it that hurts you?

—It’s the sperli, Enki.

—Oh! She had forgotten. Enki rubbed the back of her shaved head. How did you manage to escape from the hands of the Mugenese?

“I don’t know,” Rin said. I just discovered it myself.

Enki nodded slowly, studying Rin as if she were a particularly fascinating specimen. He had a calculatedly neutral expression, which gave nothing away.

-Of course. You had no idea.

“He needs equipment,” Qara said.

—Of course, no problem. —Enki disappeared into a built-in closet at the back of the room. They heard him move animatedly for a moment, and then he appeared with a tray of dried plants.

—Does any of this help you?

Rin had never seen so many different types of psychedelic drugs in one place. There was more variety of drugs here than Jiang’s garden had. He would have been happy.

Rin ran her finger over the opium capsules, the wilted mushrooms, and the earthy white powders.

-What is the difference between them? —She asked.

“It’s really a matter of preference,” said Enki. All of these drugs get you in the mood and get you high, but the key is finding a mix that lets you invoke a god without being so high that you can’t even hold your gun. The strongest hallucinogens will take you straight to the Pantheon, but you will lose all perception of the material world. Invoking a god will do you little good if you can’t see an arrow right under your nose. Weaker drugs require greater concentration to achieve the correct mental state, but you will lose less physical faculties. If you have received meditation training, then I would recommend more moderate drugs.

Rin didn’t think a siege was the best time to experiment, so he decided to choose something familiar. He found the variety of poppy seeds he had stolen from Jiang among Enki’s collection, reaching out to grab a handful, but Enki withdrew the tray out of his reach.

-No. —Enki took out a weight from under the counter, began to weigh a precise amount and put it in small bags. You will come to see me to get your dose, which I will write down. The amount you receive will be based on your weight. You are not great, without a doubt

You won’t need as much as others. Use sparingly and only when ordered. An addicted shaman is better off dead.

Rin was thoughtful.

-It happens a lot?

—In this type of work? said Enki. It’s almost inevitable.

***

Army food rations made the Academy canteen seem like a luxury restaurant in comparison. Rin stood in line for half an hour until he received a measly bowl of rice porridge. With the spoon he stirred the gray, watery soup, and some uncooked chunks rose to the surface.

He looked around the dining room for black uniforms, and found a few members of his contingent grouped at a long table at the end of the hall. They were sitting away from the other soldiers. The two tables closest to them were empty.

“This is our esperli,” Qara announced when Rin sat down.

The Cike members looked at Rin with a mix of fear and cautious curiosity. Qara, Ramsa and Enki were sitting with a man he did not recognize. The four of them were wearing all-black uniforms without any insignia or armbands. Rin was surprised at how young everyone was. None of them looked older than Enki, and even he didn’t look like he had lived four full cycles of the zodiac. Most seemed to be in their late twenties, Ramsa was barely fifteen years old.

No wonder they had no problem having a commander Altan’s age, or that they became known as the Strange Children. Rin wondered if they had been recruited like this.

when young, or if they simply died before they had a chance to grow up.

“Welcome to the weird squad,” said the young man next to him.

—. My name is Baji.

Baji had the build of a mercenary, quite thick, and with a very deep voice. Despite his considerable belly he was somewhat attractive, in a rough, dark way. He looked like one of the Fang opium smugglers. An immense nine-pronged rake was tied to his back, which looked incredibly heavy. Rin wondered what strength it would take for him to handle it.

—Admiring this? —Baji said, slapping his rake. The pointed ends of it were coated in something suspiciously brown. Nine points. One of a kind, you won’t find one like it anywhere.

Because no forge would create such an extravagant weapon , Rin thought, and no farmer would have any use for a lethally sharpened rake .

“It seems impractical,” Rin said.

“That’s the same thing I told you,” Ramsa interrupted. What are you, a potato farmer?

Baji pointed his spoon at the boy.

—-Shut your mouth or I swear to Heaven I will make nine perfectly spaced holes in your head.

Rin spooned rice porridge into her mouth and tried not to imagine what Baji had described. Then her eyes fell on a barrel that was placed right behind Baji. The water inside was strangely cloudy, and on its surface

occasionally waves formed, as if there were a fish swimming inside it.

—What’s in the barrel? —Rin asked.

“It’s the Friar.” Baji turned in his seat and rapped his knuckles against the barrel. Hey, Aratsha! Come say hello to the esperli!

For a second the barrel stayed the same, and Rin wondered if Baji was right in the head. He had heard rumors that the Cike agents were crazy, that they were sent to the Night Castle when they had already lost their sanity.

But then, the water began to come out of the barrel, but in the opposite direction, upwards. He solidified into a form that looked vaguely like a man, and two eye-like orbs enlarged as he looked in Rin’s direction. Something that distantly resembled a mouth moved.

—Oh! You cut your hair.

Rin was too busy gaping to answer.

Baji made an impatient noise.

“No, idiot, it’s the new one, from Sinegard ,” he emphasized.

-Oh really? —A part of the water made a gesture that seemed like a greeting. The water vibrated in waves as she spoke.

“Well, you should have said that.” Be careful, or you will catch a moth in your mouth.

Rin’s jaw closed with a loud click.

-What happened? —Rin finally managed to say.

-What are you taking about? —The figure made of water sounded alarmed.

He lowered his head, examining his torso.

“No, I mean,” Rin stuttered. That…? Why are you…?

“Aratsha prefers to spend his time this way,” Baji interjected. You wouldn’t want to see the human form of him, it’s creepy.

“As if you were a joy to behold,” Aratsha snorted.

“Sometimes we release it into a river when we need to poison it,” said Baji.

“I’m quite skilled with poisons,” Aratsha admitted.

-You are? I thought you contaminated things with your mere presence.

—Don’t be rude, Baji. You’re the one who doesn’t bother cleaning his gun.

Baji leaned his rake menacingly over the barrel.

—Should I clean it on you? What part of you is this, anyway? Your leg? You…

Aratsha gasped and dove back into the barrel. In a few seconds, the water became very still. The barrel now seemed to only hold rainwater.

“It’s weird,” Baji said happily, turning to Rin. He is an initiate of a minor river god. He is much more committed to his religion than the rest of us.

—What god do you invoke?

—To the god of pigs.

-As?

—I invoke the fighting spirit of a very angry wild boar.

Come now! Not all gods are as glorious as yours, darling. I chose the first one I saw. The maesters were very disappointed.

The maesters? Had Baji gone to Sinegard? Rin remembered her and Jiang’s conversation about other students from Acquis before her, students who had gone crazy, but were supposed to be in a mental asylum or in Baghra. They were too unstable, and had to be locked away for their own good.

—So, that means…

“It means I destroy things very well, darling.” Baji finished his bowl, threw his head back, and burped. His expression made it clear to Rin that he didn’t want to continue arguing.

—Will you step aside? —A very thin young man with a slight goatee sat at the table on Rin’s other side with a bowl full of lotus roots.

“Unegen can turn into a fox,” said Baji, by way of introduction.

-Become…?

“My god allows me to change forms,” ​​Unegen said. And yours allows you to breathe fire, no big deal. “He” put a spoonful of steamed lotus into his mouth, swallowed, grimaced, and then belched. I think the cook doesn’t even try anymore. How come we have little salt? We are next to the ocean.

“You can’t put seawater in food,” Ramsa interjected. There is a hygiene process.

-How hard can it be? We are soldiers, not barbarians. — Unegen leaned across the table, drawing Qara’s attention.

Where is your other half?

Qara looked irritated.

-Out.

—Well, when will he be back?

“When he’s back,” Qara said irritably. Chaghan comes and follows his own plan, you know.

“As long as their plan fits the fact that, you know, we’re fighting a war, it’s fine,” Baji said. At least he could hurry.

Qara snorted.

—Neither of you like Chaghan. Why do you want me to return?

—We’ve been eating rice porridge for days. “It’s time we had some dessert.” Baji smiled, showing sharp incisors. I’m talking about sugar.

“I thought Chaghan was doing a mission on Altan’s orders,” Rin said confused.

“Sure,” Unegen said. But that doesn’t mean she can’t stand in an oven on the way back.

—Is it at least close? —Baji asked.

“I’m not my brother’s carrier pigeon,” Qara complained.

—. We’ll know where she is when she’s back.

“Can’t you two, you know, do that?” —Unegen touched his temple.

Qara grimaced.

—We are anchored twins, not mirrors of water.

—Oh, can’t you act as water mirrors?

“No one can act as a mirror of water,” Qara snapped. Not anymore.

Unegen looked at Rin across the table and winked at her, as if messing with Qara was something he and Baji both used to do for fun.

—Oh, leave Qara alone.

Rin turned from her seat, to see Altan. He approached them, looking over his head.

—Someone needs to patrol the outer perimeter. Baby, it’s your turn.

“Oh, I can’t,” said Baji.

-Because?

-I’m eating.

Altan rolled his eyes.

—Baji . _

“Send Ramsa,” Baji complained. He hasn’t been out since…

Bang . The dining room door burst open. All heads turned to look at the other end of the dining room, where a figure in the black robes of the Cike staggered through the door. The division soldiers standing by the exit quickly moved out of the way, clearing a path for the huge stranger.

Only those from Cike remained unchanged.

“Suni has returned,” Unegen said. It’s taken quite a while.

Suni was a gigantic man with a baby face. A thick layer of golden hair covered his arms and legs, more hair than Rin had ever seen on a man. He walked with strange strides, as if he were a monkey, as if he preferred to be moving through the trees instead of lurching heavily on the ground. His arms were almost thicker than Rin’s torso, it looked like he could crush her head like a walnut if he wanted to.

He headed straight towards the Cike.

—Great Turtle! Rin murmured softly. What is it?

“Suni’s mother fucked a monkey,” Ramsa said happily.

—Shut up, Ramsa. Suni invokes the Monkey god – reported Unegen

—. We have to be grateful that he is on our side, right?

Rin wasn’t sure that would take away her fear. Suni had already reached the table.

-How did it go? Unegen asked cheerfully. They saw you?

Suni didn’t seem to hear Unegen, she tilted her head, as if she smelled them. His temples were filled with dried blood, and his disheveled hair and vacant gaze made him look more animal than human, like a wild beast that couldn’t decide whether to attack or flee.

Rin tensed, something was wrong.

“It’s so loud,” Suni said, her voice a rough, guttural growl.

Unegen’s smile disappeared.

-That?

—They keep shouting.

—Who’s still screaming?

Suni’s eyes searched the table, furious and unfocused. Rin tensed for a split second before Suni jumped across the table towards them. She slammed her arm into Unegen’s neck, pinning him to the ground. Unegen was choking, and was frantically hitting Suni’s torso.

Rin jumped to the side, raising her chair like a weapon just as Qara grabbed her bow.

Suni was fighting furiously with Unegen on the ground. Then an explosion was heard and then a small red fox appeared where Unegen had been. He almost managed to escape from Suni’s grasp, but Suni caught him, and grabbed him by the throat.

—Altan! Qara shouted.

Altan rushed over the fallen table, pushing Rin out of his way. He jumped on Suni just before he was going to tear Unegen’s neck. Surprised, Suni attacked with his left arm, hitting Altan in the shoulder, but he ignored the blow and hit him hard in the face.

Suni roared and let Unegen go. The fox slunk away and ran to Qara’s feet, where he collapsed, gasping for air.

Suni and Altan were now wrestling on the ground, each trying to pin the other down. Altan looked tiny next to the massive size of Suni, who must have been twice his weight.

Suni grabbed Altan’s shoulders, but he grabbed her face and squeezed her eyes with his fingers.

Suni howled and threw him away from her. For a moment, Altan looked like a puppet flying through the air, but he landed on his feet, tense as a cat, just as Suni charged at him again.

The Cike had formed a circle around Suni. Qara had the bow prepared with an arrow, ready to shoot him in the forehead. Baji had the rake ready to attack, but Suni and Altan were fighting so savagely that a clean hit was impossible. Rin had her fingers clenched tightly around the hilt of his sword.

Then Altan kicked Suni’s sternum hard, and a sound of breaking bones echoed throughout the room. Suni staggered back, dazed. Altan rose from the ground in a crouch, between Suni and the rest of the Cike.

“Back off,” Altan said quietly.

“There’s so much noise,” Suni said. He didn’t seem angry, but scared. So much noise!

—I said back !

Baji and Unegen reluctantly backed away. But Qara remained where he was, with an arrow ready for Suni’s head.

“They’re so loud,” Suni said. I can’t understand what they say.

—I can explain it to you. “Anything you want to know,” Altan said.

Just put your arms down, Suni. Could you do that for me?

“I’m scared,” Suni moaned.

“We do not aim arrows at our friends,” Altan said without moving his head.

Qara lowered her bow, her arms visibly shaking.

Altan walked slowly towards Suni, his arms open in supplication.

—It’s me, only me.

-Will you help me? Suni asked. His voice didn’t match his demeanor, he looked like a small child, terrified and helpless.

“Only if you let me,” Altan replied. Suni dropped her arms from her.

Rin’s sword trembled in her hands, she was sure Suni would break Altan’s neck.

“They’re so loud,” Suni said. They tell me to do things, I don’t know who to listen to…

“Listen to me,” Altan said. Only me.

Quickly with short steps, he eliminated the distance between him and Suni.

Suni tensed, and Qara’s hands drew her bow again.

Rin crouched down to jump forward.

Suni’s big hand closed around Altan, and she took a deep breath. Altan touched his forehead gently and gently brought his forehead to hers.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. Are you OK. Your name is Suni and you belong to Cike. You don’t have to listen to any voice, only me.

With her eyes closed, Suni nodded. Her heavy breathing calmed, and a smile spread across her face. When she opened her eyes, there was no madness in them anymore.

“Hello, Trengsin,” he said. I’m glad you’re back.

Altan exhaled slowly, nodded, and patted Suni on the shoulder.

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