Chapter no 2

The Poppy War

The last time Tikany sent a student to Sinegard, the magistrate organized a three-day festival. Servants distributed red bean cakes and rice wine in the streets. The student, nephew of the magistrate, left for the capital accompanied by the cheers of the drunken peasants.

This year the nobility of Tikany were quite embarrassed that an orphaned clerk was given the sole position to go to Sinegard. Several anonymous complaints had reached the examiners. When Rin went to the town hall to register, her supervisors held her for an hour, forcing her to confess to her deception.

“You’re right,” he told them. I got the answers from the exam administrator. I seduced him with my nubile and young body. You have caught me.

The supervisors could not believe that a girl with no school training had passed the Keju.

Rin had shown them his burns.

-I have nothing else to say. I didn’t cheat. And you have no evidence to say otherwise. I studied for the exam. I

I mutilated myself. I read until my eyes burned. You can’t intimidate me into confessing, because I’m telling the truth.

“Consider the consequences,” the supervisor snapped.

Do you understand how serious this all is? We can invalidate your grade and lock you up for what you’ve done. You will die before you can finish paying the penalties that will be imposed on you. But if you confess now, we might overlook it.

“No, you consider the consequences,” Rin had shouted at him. If you decide that my rating is invalid, it will mean that this simple shop assistant was smart enough to circumvent your anti-cheat protocols. And that means you’re awful at your job, and I bet the magistrate will be happy to blame you for any cheating, whether it happened or not.

A week later, they dropped all charges. The Tikany magistrate officially announced that the grades had suffered an error. He didn’t call Rin a cheater, but he didn’t validate his rating either. The overseers asked Rin to keep her departure a secret, with a clumsy threat about stopping her in Tikany if she didn’t.

Rin knew that was all a bluff. Admission to the Sinegard Academy was the equivalent of an imperial summons, and attempting to prevent it, even by provincial authority, was akin to treason. And that’s why the Fang couldn’t stop her from leaving either, no matter how much they wanted to force her into marriage.

Rin did not need the approval of Tikany, nor his magistrate, nor the nobles. He was leaving, he had a way out, and that was all that mattered.

Forms were filled out, letters were sent. Rin registered to enroll in Sinegard on the first day of the month.

The farewell with the Fangs did not do justice to the relevance of the moment, obviously. No one wanted to pretend that they were especially sad to be rid of the other.

Only the sadness of Rin’s adoptive brother, Kesegi, was real.

“Don’t go,” he whimpered, clutching his traveling cloak. Rin knelt down and hugged Kesegi very tightly.

“I should have separated from you anyway,” he told her. If it hadn’t been for Sinegard, I would have had to get married.

Kesegi wouldn’t let him leave. He babbled piteously.

—Don’t leave me with her.

Rin’s stomach clenched.

“You’ll be fine,” he murmured in her ear. You’re a boy. And you are his son.

-But it is not fair.

—That’s life, Kesegi.

Kesegi began to whimper, but Rin broke free of his grip and stood up. He tried to grab onto his waist, but she pushed him away with more force than he intended. Kesegi stumbled back and dazedly opened his mouth and cried loudly.

Rin turned away from her tear-stained face and pretended to be busy with the straps of her travel bag.

—Oh, shut your mouth. —Aunt Fang grabbed Kesegi by her ear and pinched it until she stopped crying. Her eyes were glowing as she looked at Rin, standing in the doorway, wearing her travel clothes. It was late summer and Rin was wearing a light cotton tunic and twice-patched sandals. He carried his other, and unique, set of clothing in a bag made of patches slung over his shoulder. In the bag, Rin had also put Mengzi’s tome, a set of brushes, a gift from tutor Feyrik, and a small coin purse. That bag contained all of his possessions in the world.

Aunt Fang’s lips curled.

—Sinegard will eat you alive.

“I’ll take my chances,” Rin told him.



Much to Rin’s relief, the magistrate’s office gave him two taels for his travel expenses. The magistrate was obliged by imperial order to cover the costs of the trip. With one and a half tael, Rin and tutor Feyrik were able to pay for two places in a wagon of the caravan heading north towards the capital.

—In the days of the Red Emperor, an unaccompanied bride, even with her dowry, could travel from the southern tip of the Rooster Province to the farthest northern peaks of the Wudang Mountains.

Tutor Feyrik couldn’t help but teach Rin even on board the caravan.

—Nowadays, a lone soldier cannot travel almost three kilometers without encountering problems.

The Red Emperor’s guard had not patrolled the Nikan Mountains in a long time. Traveling alone on the vast roads of the Empire was the perfect way to be robbed, killed, or eaten. And even all three things, and not always in that order.

“Your fare covers much more than a seat in the carriage,” the leader of the caravan told him, pocketing the coins. You’re paying for bodyguards, and our men are the best in the business. If we come across the Opera, we scare them away without any problems.

The Red Reed Opera was a religious cult of bandits and outlaws, famous for their attempts to assassinate the Empress after the Second Poppy War. They had become a myth, and remained very present in the Nikara collective imagination.

-The opera? —Tutor Feyrik scratched his beard thoughtfully.

—. She hadn’t heard that name in years. Are they still active?

“They’ve been pretty quiet for the last decade, but I’ve heard rumors that they’ve been seen in the Kukkhonin Mountains.” If our luck continues, we won’t see a hair of them. The leader of the caravan tapped his belt. I will carry your luggage. I want to get out before the day gets hot.


The caravan spent three weeks on the road moving north, at a pace that seemed exasperatingly slow to Rin. And although Guardian Feyrik spent the trip entertaining her with stories of her adventures in Sinegard from decades ago, the

Attractive descriptions of the city drove her crazy with impatience.

—The capital is located at the base of the Wudang mountain range. Both the Palace and the Academy are built on the mountain, but the rest of the city is in the valley. Sometimes, on foggy days, you can look out over the cliff and it will seem like you are higher than the clouds themselves. The capital market alone is larger than all of Tikany, it is very easy to get lost in the market… you can find musicians playing pumpkin flutes, street vendors frying a pancake in the shape of your name and master calligraphers painting fans before your eyes for only two coppers.

—By the way, we’ll have to exchange this at some point. —Tutor Feyrik patted the pocket where he kept what was left of their travel money.

—Don’t they accept taels and coppers in the north? Rin asked. Tutor Feyrik laughed.

—It is obvious that you have never left Tikany. There were probably twenty types of currency circulating throughout the Empire. Turtle shells, cowrie shells, gold, silver, and copper ingots… All provinces have their own currency because they do not trust the monetary supply of the imperial bureaucracy, and the largest provinces have two or three. The only currency that everyone accepts is Sinegardian silver.

—How many can we get with this? —Rin asked.

“Not many,” said Tutor Feyrik. But the change will be worse as we get closer to the city. It would be best to do it before we leave the province of Gallo.

Tutor Feyrik was also full of warnings about the capital.

—Keep money in your front pocket at all times, Sinegard thieves are bold and desperate. I once caught a boy with his hand in my pocket. He fought for my money, even after he had caught him stealing from me. Remember that everyone will try to sell you something, when you meet solicitors, keep your eyes straight ahead and pretend that you haven’t heard them, or they will harass you all over the street. They get paid to bother you,

You know? Stay away from cheap liquor. If a man offers you a jug of sorghum wine for less than a bullion, that’s not real alcohol.

Rin was fascinated.

—How can you make fake alcohol?

—Mixing sorghum wine with methanol.


—Wood alcohol. It is poisonous, in large doses it will make you blind. Tutor Feyrik scratched his beard. Also stay away from soy sauce sellers. Some sites use human hair to simulate the acid in soy sauce at a lower cost. I’ve heard that hair has been found in the dough of bread and noodles… so it’s best to avoid street food. They sell you breakfast pancakes for two coppers, but they fry them in sewer oil.

—Sewer oil ?

—It’s oil they collected from the street. Large restaurants throw the oil they have used into the sewer.

cooking, and street food vendors take it out and reuse it.

Rin’s stomach twisted.

Tutor Feyrik reached out and tugged at one of her tight braids.

—You’ll have to find someone to cut them before you enter the Academy.

Rin touched her hair protectively.

—Don’t the women of Sinegard grow their hair?

—The women of Sinegard are so vain about their hair that they soak it in raw egg to keep it shiny. But it’s not for beauty. I don’t want someone pulling you by your braids into the alleys. No one would hear from you again until someone found you in a brothel months later.

Rin looked doubtfully at her braids. She was too dark-skinned and scrawny to be considered a beauty, but she had always thought that her long, thick hair was one of her best attributes.

-I have to do it?

“They’ll probably make you get a haircut at the Academy anyway,” Tutor Feyrik said, “and they’ll make you pay for it.” “Sinegard barbers aren’t cheap.” He swayed his beard as she seemed to think about what else she could warn him about. Be careful with fake coins. You can tell that the silver is not imperial silver if the Red Emperor’s face always comes up after tossing the coin ten times in a row. If you see someone lying on the street with no visible injuries, don’t help them. They will say that

You’ve pushed, they’ll take you to court, and they’ll even sue you for the clothes you’re wearing. “And stay away from betting houses.” Tutor Feyrik’s tone turned bitter. These people don’t mess around.

Rin was beginning to understand why he had left Sinegard.

But nothing Tutor Feyrik said could dampen his excitement. If anything, he became even more impatient to arrive. She would not be a stranger in the capital. She wouldn’t eat street food or live in the slums. She wouldn’t have to fight over minutiae or beg for a few coins to eat. She had secured a spot. She was a student at the most prestigious academy in the entire Empire. Surely that protected her from the dangers of the city.

That night she cut her braids with a rusty knife she borrowed from one of the caravan guards. He brought the blade as close to his ear as he dared, sawing back and forth until his hair gave way. It took longer than he imagined. When he finished, she gazed for a moment at the two thick clumps of braided hair that lay in her lap.

At first I had thought I could keep them, but now I can’t. She didn’t find sentimental value in them, they were just bunches of dead hair. He couldn’t even sell them for much money in the north, for Sinegard’s hair was famous for being fine and silky, and no one would want the coarse braids of a Tikany peasant girl. So he threw them out of the wagon and watched them fall on the dusty road. .


The group arrived at the capital just as Rin was starting to go crazy with boredom.

The eastern gates of Sinegard could be seen for miles, an imposing gray wall topped with a three-tiered pagoda, ornate with an inscription to the Red Emperor: Eternal Strength, Eternal Harmony.

How ironic, Rin thought, for a country that had been at war more often than at peace.

Just as they approached the round gates, the caravan came to an abrupt stop.

Rin waited. Nothing happened.

After twenty minutes, Tutor Feyrik peeked out of the cart and caught the attention of a caravan guide.

-What’s going on?

“A Federation contingent is ahead,” the guide said. They’re here because of a border dispute. They are checking their weapons before entering, it will take a few more minutes.

Rin stood up straight.

—Are those Federation soldiers?

I had never seen Muganese soldiers in person. By the end of the Second Poppy War, all Muganese citizens had been expelled from the occupied areas and either sent home or relocated to limited diplomatic and trade offices on the mainland. For the Nikara born after the occupation, they were the specters of modern history, always lurking at the borders, an always constant threat whose face was no longer known.

Tutor Feyrik’s hand grabbed her wrist quickly, before she could get out of the car.

-Come back here.

—But I want to see them!

“No, you don’t want to.” He held her shoulders. You never want to see Federation soldiers. If you run into them, Rin, and they think you’re looking at them strangely, they can and will hurt you. They still have diplomatic immunity. They don’t give a shit about anything.

Do you understand?

“We won the war,” Rin sneered. The occupation ended.

” We barely won the war.” He pushed her to sit down. And there’s a reason all your instructors in Sinegard are so focused on winning next time.

Someone shouted an order at the front of the caravan. Rin felt a jolt and then the cars started moving again. He leaned over the side of the carriage, trying to get a look, but all he could see was a blue uniform disappearing behind the heavy door.

And then, at last, they crossed the portal.

The downtown market was an assault on the senses. Rin had never seen so many people and so many things in the same place at the same time. She was quickly overwhelmed by the deafening clamor of buyers haggling over prices with sellers, by the vivid colors of the floral silk scrolls displayed on large boards, and the cloyingly pungent smell of durian and pepper accumulated on the portable grills of the stalls. sellers.

—The women here are so white! Rin marveled.

Like the girls painted on the murals.

Rin had observed that the skin tones became whiter and whiter as they moved further north. He knew that the people of the northern provinces were industrialists and businessmen, who were citizens of class and resources. They did not work in the fields as they did in Tikany. But he hadn’t thought the difference was so pronounced.

“They are as white as their corpses will be,” Tutor Feyrik said disdainfully. “They’re terrified of the sun,” he growled in irritation as a pair of women with an umbrella walked past him, accidentally hitting him in the face.

Rin quickly discovered that Sinegard seemed to have a unique ability to make newcomers feel as unwelcome as possible.

Tutor Feyrik was right. Everyone in Sinegard wanted money. Vendors shouted persistently from all directions. Rin had not even gotten out of the carriage when a waiter quickly ran towards them offering to carry their luggage. His two pathetic light travel bags, for the measly amount of eight silver imperials.

Rin objected, as it was almost a quarter of what he had paid for his trip in the caravan.

—I’ll take them. He stammered, pulling his travel bags away from the waiter’s eager hands. Really, I don’t need it…

Let them go!

They escaped from the waiter only to be assaulted by a crowd, each person offering them a different service.

—Rickshaw? Do you need a rickshaw?

—Young lady, are you lost?

—No, we’re just trying to find the Academy.

—I will take them, at a very low price, five ingots, only five ingots…

-Go away! Tutor Feyrik blurted out. We do not need your services.

Vendors scurried into the market.

Even the speech of the capital made Rin feel uncomfortable. Sinegardian Nikara was a loud, forceful, brusque dialect no matter what you said. Feyrik asked three different strangers for directions to the Academy three times, before one person gave him an answer they could understand.

—You didn’t live here? —Rin asked him.

“Not since the occupation,” Tutor Feyrik grumbled. It’s easy to forget a language when you never speak it.

Rin thought he was right, she herself found this dialect almost indecipherable. Every word, it seemed, had to be shortened, and a short r added at the end. In Tikany, speech was slow and melodious. Southerners lengthened their vowels, stirring the words on their tongues like sweet rice congee. In Sinegard, it seemed no one had time to finish the words.

Even with directions, the city itself was as navigable as its dialect. Sinegard was the oldest city in the country, and its architecture evidenced the many changes between the powers that had ruled Nikan over the centuries. The buildings were either new or collapsing, emblems of regimes

They had long since lost their power. In the districts to the east remained the spiral towers of the ancient barbarian invasion of the North. To the west, gridded barracks, placed closely together, a remnant of the Federation occupation during the Poppy Wars. It was a mosaic of a country, with many norms, represented in a single city.

—Do you know where we are going? —Rin asked after walking uphill for several minutes.

“Only vaguely,” Tutor Feyrik was sweating profusely. It’s become a maze since I’ve been here. How much money do we have left?

Rin dug into her purse and counted.

—A rope and a half of silver.

“That should cover what we need.” Tutor Feyrik wiped his forehead with his cloak. Why don’t we give ourselves the luxury of transportation?

He approached the dirty street and raised a hand. Almost immediately, a rickshaw driver veered off the road and came to an abrupt stop.

“To the Academy,” said Tutor Feyrik. He threw his suitcases back and climbed up. Rin grabbed the sides to give himself momentum to climb, when he heard a loud scream behind him. Surprised, she turned around.

A child was lying in the middle of the road. Several steps ahead, a horse-drawn carriage had veered off the road.

“You just hit that kid!” Rin screeched. Hey, stop!

The driver pulled the horse’s reins. The car screeched to a stop. The passenger stuck his head out of the carriage and watched as the boy stirred weakly in the street.

The boy stood up, miraculously alive. Blood ran down his forehead. He touched his head with two fingers and looked at the ground, dazed.

The passenger leaned forward and curtly ordered the driver something that Rin didn’t understand.

The carriage turned slowly. For an absurd moment, Rin thought that the driver was going to offer the boy a ride with them. And then he heard the crack of the whip.

The boy stumbled and tried to run.

Rin screeched over the sound of galloping hooves.

Tutor Feyrik approached the panting rickshaw rider and slapped him on the shoulders.

-Come on. Runs!

The racer picked up speed, taking them faster and faster down the bumpy streets until the screams of passersby were far behind.

“The driver was clever,” Tutor Feyrik said as they staggered down the uneven road. If you incapacitate a child, you must pay them compensation for life. But if you kill him, you pay for the funeral only once. And that’s if they catch you. If you hurt someone, make sure they’re dead.

Rin held on to the carriage, and tried not to vomit.


The city of Sinegard was suffocating, confusing, and terrifying. But Sinegard Academy was beautiful beyond description.

The rickshaw driver dropped them off at the base of the mountains on the edge of the city. Rin left tutor Feyrik to handle the luggage and ran to the school gates, out of breath.

I had been imagining for weeks what it would be like to climb the steps of the Academy. The entire country knew what the Sinegard Academy looked like, because it was painted on decorative scrolls throughout Nikan.

But the drawings were nowhere near what the Academy was like in person. A winding path curved around the mountain, spiraling upward toward a complex of pagodas built at higher and higher levels. In the highest layer there was a sanctuary, at the top of which was a stone dragon, symbol of the Red Emperor. There was also a resplendent waterfall, like a piece of silk hanging next to the sanctuary.

The Academy looked like a palace for the gods. A place out of legends. And this would be his home for the next five years.

Rin was speechless.

An older student named Tobi gave them a tour of the place. He was tall, had a shaved head, and wore a black robe with a red armband. He looked at them boredly, implying that he would rather be doing anything else than being there with them.

They were joined by a slender, attractive woman who initially mistook tutor Feyrik for a lackey and apologized without haste. The

He was accompanied by his son, who was a fine-featured boy who would have been very handsome if he didn’t have that resentful grimace on his face.

—The Academy is built on the grounds of an old monastery. —Tobi motioned for them to follow him up the stone steps toward the first level. Temples and places of prayer were converted into classrooms once the Red Emperor united the Nikan tribes. First-year students are required to sweep, so you will become familiar with the Academy grounds very soon. Come on, try to keep up.

Not even Tobi’s lack of enthusiasm could overshadow the beauty of the Academy, although he did his best. She walked down the stone steps in a quick and customary way, without bothering to check if her guests were keeping up with her. Rin stayed behind helping the huffing Tutor Feyrik climb the dangerously narrow staircase.

There were seven levels in the Academy. Every bend in the stone path revealed a new complex of buildings and training grounds, embedded in the lush foliage that had been clearly and carefully cultivated for centuries. A torrent rushed down the mountainside, splitting the campus cleanly in two.

—The library is over there. The dining room is this way. New students live on the lower level. Upstairs are the teachers’ quarters. —Tobi quickly pointed to different stone structures that all looked the same.

-And what is that? Rin asked, pointing to an important-looking building built next to the stream.

Tobi’s lips curled.

—There are the latrines, girl.

The handsome boy snickered. With blushing cheeks, Rin pretended to be very fascinated by the views from the terrace.

—By the way, where are you from? —Tobi asked in a not very friendly tone.

“From the province of Rooster,” Rin murmured.

—Ah, from the South. —Tobi sounded like everything made sense now.

—. I guess multi-story buildings are a new concept for you, but try not to get too overwhelmed.


After Rin’s registration papers were reviewed and filed, Guardian Feyrik had no more reason to stay. They said goodbye at the doors of the Academy.

“I understand that you are scared,” said Tutor Feyrik.

Rin tried to swallow the lump in her throat and gritted her teeth. His head was spinning, he knew that a reservoir of tears would overflow from his eyes if he didn’t suppress it.

“I’m not scared,” Rin insisted.

Her face fell, and she rushed to hug him. She buried her face in her robe so no one could see her cry. Tutor Feyrik patted him on the shoulder.

He had traveled across the country to the place he had spent years dreaming about, only to discover that it was a city that was hostile, confusing, and despised southerners. She didn’t have a home in

Tikany nor in Sinegard. Wherever she traveled, wherever she went, she would always be a war orphan who should not be there.

She felt terribly alone.

“I don’t want you to go,” Rin said. Tutor Feyrik’s smile disappeared.

—Oh, Rin.

“I hate this place,” Rin suddenly blurted out. I hate this city. The way they talk, that stupid apprentice. It’s like they think I shouldn’t be here.

“Of course they think so,” said Tutor Feyrik. You are an orphan of war. You are from the south. You’re not supposed to have approved the Keju. Warlords like to say that Keju turns Nikan into a meritocracy, but the system is designed to keep the poor and illiterate in their place. You offend them with your mere presence.

He grabbed her shoulders and leaned slightly to her eye level.

—Rin, listen. Sinegard is a cruel city. The Academy will be worse. You will study alongside the children of the Warlords. Guys who have been training martial arts since before they could even walk. They will make you an outsider, because you are not like them. And that ‘s fine . Don’t let anything discourage you. No matter what they say, you deserve to be here . Do you understand?

Rin nodded.

—Your first day of class will be like a punch in the stomach

Tutor Feyrik continued. Your second day will probably be

worse. You will find that the classes will be more difficult than Keju ever was. But if anyone can survive here, it’s you. Don’t forget everything you went through to get here.


—And don’t even think about going back to the south. You’re too good for that.


As Tutor Feyrik disappeared down the road, Rin pinched the bridge of her nose, struggling to eliminate the burning behind her eyes. She couldn’t let her new classmates see her cry.

I was alone in a city without a friend, where I barely spoke the language, in a school I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to right now.

He takes you down the hallway. He is old and fat, and smells of sweat. He looks at you and licks his lips…

He shuddered, closed his eyes, and opened them again.

So Sinegard was scary and unknown. It didn’t matter, he had nowhere to go.

He squared his shoulders and walked back to the Academy doors.

This is better. No matter what, this was a thousand times better than Tikany.

“And then he asked if the latrines were one of the classrooms,” said a voice further down the registration line. You should have seen her clothes.

The back of Rin’s neck stood on end. He was the visiting boy. He turned around.

He was really handsome, impossibly handsome, with big almond eyes and a pretty sculpted mouth even when it was twisted into a grimace. His skin was a porcelain white shade that any woman in Sinegard would kill to have, and his silky hair was almost as long as Rin’s had been.

He looked into her eyes and smirked, continuing aloud as if he hadn’t seen her.

—And your professor, you know, I bet he’s one of those senile losers who can’t get a job in the city so he spends his life trying to get a position from the local magistrates. I thought he would die going up the mountain because of how much he was panting.

Rin had dealt with the Fang’s verbal abuse for years. Hearing insults from this boy barely bothered her. But to slander her guardian Feyrik, the man who had brought her from Tikany, who had saved her from a miserable future in a forced marriage… that was unforgivable.

Rin took two steps towards the boy and punched him in the face.

His fist hit his eye socket with a very pleasant cupping sound. The boy staggered among the students behind him, almost falling to the ground.

—You, bitch! —She screamed. He stood up and lunged toward her. Rin backed away, fists raised.

—Stop! —A black-clad apprentice appeared between them, his arms outstretched to keep them apart. When the

The boy wanted to advance anyway, the student quickly grabbed his arm by the wrist and twisted it behind his back.

The boy stumbled, immobilized.

—Don’t you know the rules? —The apprentice’s voice was low, calm and controlled—. Dont fight.

The boy said nothing, his mouth twisted in open contempt. Rin fought a sudden urge to cry.

-Names? —the apprentice demanded.

“Fang Runin,” Rin said quickly, terrified. Were they in trouble? Would she be expelled?

The boy struggled in vain against the apprentice’s hold. The apprentice tightened his grip on him.

-Name? —She asked him again.

“Yin Nezha,” the boy spat.

—Yin? —The student released him—. And what is the well-mannered heir of the House of Yin doing fighting in the hall?

—He punched me in the face! Nezha screamed. A nasty bruise was already blooming around her left eye, a shiny glob of purple against her porcelain skin.

The apprentice raised an eyebrow as he looked at Rin.

—And why would you do something like that?

“You insulted my teacher,” he said.

—Oh? Well, that’s different. The student seemed to be having fun. Haven’t you been taught not to insult teachers?

That’s taboo.

-I’ll kill you. Nezha growled at Rin. I’m going to fucking kill you.

— Buff , shut up. —The student faked a yawn—. You are in a military academy. You will have enough opportunities to kill each other this year. But save it until after orientation, will you?

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