Chapter no 18

The Poppy War

“The river banks are clear,” Rin said. There are small signs of activity in the northeast corner, but nothing we haven’t seen before. They’re probably just transporting more supplies to the far end of the camp. I doubt they’ll try anything today.

“Good,” Altan said. He marked a point on the map, and then put down the brush. He massaged his temples and stood still as if he had forgotten what he wanted to say.

Rin fiddled with his sleeve.

They hadn’t trained together in weeks. It was also reasonable, there was no time now to train. Under siege for months, Nikan’s position in Khurdalain was dire. Even with additional reinforcements from the Seventh Division, the port city was dangerously close to falling under Federation occupation. Three days earlier, the Fifth Division had lost a significant part of the suburbs of

Khurdalain that served as a transportation hub, exposing much of the eastern part of the city to the Federation.

Aside from that, they had also lost a good portion of imported supplies, which had forced the army to impose even worse rations than what they had been subsisting on. They were surviving on rice porridge and sweet potato, two foods that Baji had declared he would never touch again after the war. As it was, they were more likely to end up chewing handfuls of raw rice than to receive cooked food from the mess hall.

Jun’s vanguard retreated little by little and suffered heavy casualties in doing so. The Federation took fort after fort on the banks of the river. The water in the stream had been red for days, forcing Jun to send men for barrels of water uncontaminated by the rotting bodies of the dead.

Aside from downtown Khurdalain, Nikan still occupied three crucial buildings on the dock (two warehouses and a former Hesperia trade office), but their dwindling numbers were too spread out to maintain the buildings indefinitely.

At least they had shattered the Federation’s fantasies of a quick victory. They knew, from some intercepted emails, that Mugen had hoped to take Khurdalain within a week. But the siege had already lasted for months. Rin knew that the longer they fought Mugen in Khurdalain, the more time Golyn Niis would have to build his defenses. They had bought more time than they had expected.

But that did not mean that in Khurdalain it was not experienced as an absolute defeat.

“One more thing,” he said.

Altan nodded sharply for him to continue. Rin spoke quickly.

—La Quinta wants a meeting about the offensive on the beach. They want to put the plan into action before losing any more troops at the warehouse. The day after tomorrow at the latest.

Altan raised an eyebrow.

—Why has the Fifth asked you to transmit this request?

In truth, the request had been conveyed by Nezha, on behalf of his father, the Dragon Warlord, whom Jun had spoken to because he did not want to give Altan legitimacy by going to his headquarters. Rin found these politics between the divisions incredibly annoying, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

—Because at least one of them likes me, sir.

Altan was speechless. Rin immediately regretted speaking.

Before he could answer, a scream cut through the morning air.


Altan reached the top of the watchtower first, but Rin was right behind him, her heart beating furiously.

Was it an attack? But he saw no Federation soldiers in the surroundings, no arrows flying over the sky…

Qara lay collapsed on the floor of the tower. She was alone. As they watched, she Qara writhed on the stone floor, moaning low, tortured growls from the back of her throat. Her eyes were blank, and her body was stiff.

Rin had never seen anyone react to an injury that way. Had she been poisoned? But why would the Federation have attacked a single sentinel and no one else? Rin and Altan ducked instinctively, out of the possible range of the line of fire, but no other arrows flew, if there were any previously. Except for Qara’s shaking, they saw no altercations.

Altan knelt beside him. He took Qara from her shoulders, and sat her down.

-What’s going on? What happened?

– Hurts…

Altan shook her hard.

– Answer me.

Qara just moaned again. Rin was surprised at how hard she was treating Qara, despite her obvious agony. But she realized, too late, that Qara had no visible injuries. There was no blood on the floor or on his clothes.

Altan lightly slapped Qara’s face to regain her attention.

-Has returned?

Rin looked back and forth between them, confused. Who was she talking about? From Qara’s brother?

Qara’s face twisted in agony, but she managed to nod.

Altan cursed under his breath.

-It’s hurt? Where is the?

Chest heaving, Qara grabbed Altan’s robe. He had his eyes closed tightly, as if he was concentrating on something.

“The East Gate,” he managed to say. Is here.


By the time Rin helped Qara down the stairs, Altan had already disappeared from sight.

He looked up and saw the archers of the Fifth Division standing frozen on top of the wall, arrows ready on their bows. Rin heard the clash of metal on metal on the other side, but none of the soldiers were firing.

Altan must be on the other side. Were they afraid of shooting Altan by mistake? Or did they just not want to help them?

He helped Qara to sit next to the nearest wall and ran off to look at the East Gate from the wall.

On the other side of the gate, an entire squad of Federation soldiers surrounded Altan. He was fighting on horseback, fighting his way in a frantic attempt to get back to the gate. His arms moved faster than Rin’s eyes could follow. His trident flashed once and twice in the midday sun, glistening with blood. Every time he moved it, a Federation soldier fell.

The squad dwindled as soldier after soldier fell, and finally Rin saw the reason Altan hadn’t summoned fire. A young man was sitting in front of him in

the horse, sunk in his arms. His face and chest were covered in blood. His skin had become as white and pale as his hair.

For a moment Rin thought, hoped , that it was Jiang, but that man was shorter, visibly younger, and much thinner.

Altan was facing the Federation soldiers as best he could, but they had him surrounded against the door.

Below her, Rin saw the Cike members gathered.

—Open the door! Baji shouted. Let them pass!

The soldiers exchanged suspicious glances and did nothing.

—What are you waiting for? Qara shouted.

“Jun’s orders,” one of them stammered. We must not open the door under any circumstances.

Rin looked over the wall and saw another squad with Federation reinforcements approaching quickly. He leaned over the wall and waved his hands to get Baji’s attention.

—They’re getting closer!

—Fuck it! Baji exclaimed and kicked one soldier out of his way, then hit another in the stomach with the butt of his rake, and began to open the door while Suni defended him from the other soldiers.

The huge doors began to open.

Standing from the door opening, Qara released arrow after arrow from his quiver, rapidly firing one after another at the

Federation soldiers. Under the great hail of arrows, the Mugenese retreated long enough for Altan to slip through the barricade.

Then Baji moved the doors in the other direction until he slammed them shut.

Altan pulled on the reins, forcing the horse to stop.

Qara ran towards him, shouting in a language Rin couldn’t understand. His tirade was interspersed with a rich variety of insults in Nikara.

Altan raised a hand to silence her. She dismounted with grace and then helped the young man down. The boy staggered when his feet hit the ground, and he slumped against the horse for support. Altan offered him a shoulder, but he rejected it.

-It is there? Altan demanded to know. You’ve seen? With his chest heaving, the young man nodded.

—Do you have the diagrams? Altan asked. The young man nodded again.

What were they talking about? Rin gave Unegen a questioning look, but Unegen was just as bewildered as she was.

“Okay,” Altan said. OK. Well, you’re an idiot. Then he and Qara started yelling at him in unison.

-You’re stupid…

—You could have died…

—…such recklessness…

—…no matter how powerful you think you are, how dare you…

“Look,” said the boy, whose cheeks had turned white as snow, and who had begun to tremble. Seriously, I would love to discuss it, but right now the life is draining out of me from three different injuries and I think I’m going to faint. Could you give me a moment?


Altan, Qara, and the new arrival did not leave Altan’s office for the rest of the afternoon. Rin was sent to fetch Enki for medical care, and Altan immediately asked him to leave with quite specific terms. He toured the city bored, insecure and without orders. He wanted to ask the others for an explanation of what had happened, but Unegen and Baji had gone on a reconnaissance assignment and wouldn’t return until dinner.

-Who is that? —Rin asked as soon as they arrived at the dining room.

—The boy with that dramatic entrance? “He is Altan’s lieutenant,” said Unegen. He sat on the bench opposite Rin, and adopted a proud and disdainful expression. The one and only Chaghan Suren of the Hinterlands.

“It took him a long time this time,” Baji complained.

Where was it? vacation?

—That was Qara’s brother? That’s why… Rin didn’t know how to politely ask about the attack Qara had suffered, but Baji read her bewilderment.

—They are anchored twins. “Some kind of… some kind of spiritual bond,” Baji said. Qara explained it to us once, but I have forgotten the details. It’s a long story, but the summary

It would be that they are linked. Damage Chaghan and Qara will bleed. Kill Qara and Chaghan will die. Something like that.

It was not a foreign concept to Rin. He remembered that Jiang had explained that kind of dependency to him. He had read that Inner Land shamans sometimes bonded with each other to enhance their abilities. But after seeing Qara on the ground like that, Rin could no longer think of it as an advantage but rather as a terrible vulnerability.

—Where have you been?

“Everywhere,” Baji said indifferently. Altan sent him away from Khurdalain months ago, around the same time we learned that Sinegard had been invaded.

-But why? What was she doing?

—He didn’t tell us. Why don’t you ask him yourself? —Baji nodded, his eyes looking behind Rin.

Rin turned around and jumped out of the chair. Chaghan was standing behind him, and he hadn’t even heard him approach.

For someone who had been bleeding this morning, Chaghan looked remarkably well. His left arm was carefully bandaged against his torso, but otherwise he appeared unharmed.

Rin wondered exactly what Enki had done to heal them so quickly.

Up close, Chaghan’s resemblance to Qara was evident. He was taller than his sister, but they shared the same birdlike silhouette. His cheekbones were high and hollow, and his eyes were

framed in sunken sockets, which gave a shadow to his pale gaze.

-Can I join? —She asked. The way she spoke it seemed more like an order than a question.

Unegen immediately moved to make room for him. Chaghan walked around the table and sat in front of Rin. He gently placed his elbows on the table, joined his fingers, and rested his chin on them.

“So you’re the new sperli,” he said.

He reminded Rin a lot of Jiang. It wasn’t simply her white hair or her slender figure, but the way he looked at her, as if he could see right through her, but not staring at her person, but somewhere else. behind her. As he looked at her, Rin felt the unsettling sensation of being interrogated, as if he could see right through her clothes.

I had never seen eyes like his. They were abnormally large, dominating her narrow face. They had no pupils or irises.

Rin forced a calm expression and picked up her spoon.

-If that’s me.

Chaghan raised the corner of his lip.

—Altan told me that you are having performance problems.

Baji choked and coughed into his plate.

Rin felt heat invade her cheeks.

– Sorry?

Was this what Altan and Chaghan had wasted the afternoon arguing about? The thought of Altan talking about his problems with this newcomer was depressingly humiliating.

—Have you ever managed to call the Phoenix from Sinegard?

Chaghan asked.

I bet I could call him right now, asshole . Her fingers tightened around the spoon.

—I’ve been working on it.

—Altan seems to think you’re stuck.

Unegen looked as if he wished he were sitting anywhere else. Rin gritted her teeth.

—Well, Altan is wrong.

Chaghan gave him a condescending smile.

—I can help you, you know? I’m your Seer, I’m good at that. I walk through the spirit world and talk to the gods. I do not invoke them, but I know the way to the Pantheon better than anyone. And if you’re having trouble, I can help you find your way back to your god.

“I’m not having any problems, ” he huffed. I was afraid in the marsh. Now I don’t have it anymore.

And that was the truth. She suspected that she could summon the Phoenix, right now in the dining room, if Altan asked her to. If only Altan would deign to talk to her beyond giving him orders from her. If only Altan trusted her enough to give her tasks other than patrolling in the city where nothing was happening.

Chaghan raised an eyebrow.

—Altan is not so sure.

“Well, maybe Altan needs to stop being such a stuffy little piece of shit,” he snapped, and immediately regretted saying it. Letting Altan down was one thing, but complaining about it to his lieutenant was quite another.

At the table they stopped pretending to be eating, Baji and Unegen were restless as if they couldn’t wait for an opportunity to leave, looking everywhere except at Rin and Chaghan.

But Chaghan looked like he was having fun.

“Oh, you think he’s an idiot?”

Anger erupted in Rin, and with it, any caution he had had disappeared.

—He is impatient, too demanding, paranoid and…

“Look, we’re all on the edge,” Baji hurriedly interrupted. We shouldn’t complain. Chaghan, there’s no need to tell him… I mean, look…

Chaghan tapped his fingers on the table.

—Baji. Unegen. I would like to talk to Rin alone.

He spoke so imperiously, so arrogantly, that Rin was sure Unegen and Baji would tell him to go get some wind, but the two simply picked up their bowls and left the table. Surprised, she watched them go to the other end of the dining room without exchanging a word. Not even Altan achieved that subordination without being questioned.

When the others were far enough away, Chaghan leaned forward.

“If you ever speak of Altan that way again,” he said quietly, “I will have you killed.”

Chaghan might have intimidated Baji and Unegen, but Rin was too angry to fear him.

“Go ahead and try it,” he snapped. It’s not like we have any soldiers to spare.

Chaghan’s mouth quirked into a smile.

—Altan said you were difficult. Rin looked at him cautiously.

—Altan is not wrong.

—So you don’t respect him.

“I respect you,” he said. It’s just, he’s been so…

– Different. Paranoid. Not the commander I thought I knew .

What she didn’t want to admit was that Altan scared her. But Chaghan seemed surprisingly understanding.

—You should understand. Altan is a new commander. He’s trying to figure out what he’s doing as much as you are. He is scared.

Altan, scared? Rin almost started laughing. The operations carried out by Altan had grown so much in scale over the past two weeks that it almost seemed like he was trying to destroy the Federation single-handedly.

—Altan doesn’t know what it means to be scared.

—Right now, Altan is perhaps the most powerful martial artist in all of Nikan. Maybe from all over the world,” Chaghan said. But despite this, most of his life has been limited to being good

following orders. Tyr’s death has been a blow to all of us. Altan was not yet ready to take command. Commanding is difficult for him. He doesn’t know how to make peace with the Warlords. He tries too hard. He’s trying to fight an entire war with a squad of ten, and he’s losing.

“You don’t think we can keep Khurdalain?”

“I don’t think we were ever expected to hold Khurdalain,” Chaghan said. I think Khurdalain is a sacrifice to get paid time in blood. Altan is going to lose because Khurdalain can’t be beaten, and when he does, he’s going to break.

“Altan is not going to break,” he said. Altan was the strongest warrior he had ever seen in his entire life. Altan could not be broken.

“Altan is more fragile than you think,” Chaghan said. He’s breaking under the weight of command, can’t you see it? This is something new for him, and he is sinking, because he depends totally on victory.

Rin rolled her eyes.

—The entire country depends on our victory. Chaghan shook his head.

-That’s not what I mean. Altan is used to winning. He has been put on a pedestal his entire life. It was the last esperli, a national rarity. The best student at the Academy, Tyr’s favorite in the Cike. He has grown up with the constant claim of being very good at destroying things, but here he will have no praise.

any, especially not when his own soldiers are so openly insubordinate.

—I’m not being…

—Oh, come on Rin. You’re a real pain in the ass, that’s what you’re being, and all because Altan doesn’t pat you on the head and tell you what a great job you’re doing.

Rin stood up and slammed his hands on the table.

—Listen to me, you idiot, I don’t need you to tell me what to do.

“And yet, as your lieutenant, that is precisely my job.” Chaghan looked at her languidly, his expression so haughty that Rin trembled with the effort of not slamming his face into the table. Your duty is to obey. My duty is for you to stop fooling around. So I’d suggest you come clean, learn how to summon fucking fire, and give Altan one less problem to worry about. Am I being clear enough?

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