Chapter no 21

The Poppy War

Baji yawned loudly, grunted and twisted his neck. A series of cracks were heard in the still morning air. There was no room to lie down on the sampan, so they slept at short, irregular intervals, bent in strange positions that gave them cramps. Baji blinked intensely for a full minute, and then reached out on the narrow boat toward Rin’s leg to get his attention.

—I can take care of watching now.

“I’m fine,” Rin said. She was curled up with her hands at her sides, leaning forward to rest her head on her knees, watching the river flow.

—You need to get some sleep.


—You could at least try.

“I have,” Rin said dryly.

He couldn’t stop hearing the Talwu’s voice in his head. She had heard the hexagram once, and he had not forgotten any of the words. They had been burned into her mind, and no matter how many times she thought about it, she wasn’t able to interpret it in any way that wouldn’t leave her scared to death.

It flames briefly, it faints… It flares up, it goes out… Crying in torrents… Great joy in decapitating enemies…

He had always thought that divination was an imprecise science, a vague approximation, if it had any value. But the Talwu’s words had not been imprecise at all. There was only one possible destination for Golyn Niis.

You have drawn the thirtieth hexagram. The fire . Chaghan had told him that the fire meant that a trap had been set.

But had the trap been set against Golyn Niis? Had it already happened, and they were heading straight for his death?

—You’re going to end up exhausted. Suffering in silence is not going to make these boats go any faster. Baji tilted his head slowly until she heard a satisfying rustle. And he will not bring the dead back to life.

They were sailing up the Golyn River, in an absurdly short time, on a journey that should have taken a month on horseback. Aratsha was driving them down the river at blinding speed. Even so, it took him a week to travel all the way up the Golyn River to the lush plain where Golyn Niis had been built.

Rin looked up to look at the boat in front, where Altan was standing next to Chaghan. They were talking in low voices as usual. They had been like this since they had

left Khurdalain. Chaghan and Qara might be anchored twins, but it was Altan that Chaghan seemed to be bonded with.

—Why isn’t Chaghan the commander? —He asked. Baji didn’t know how to react.

-What do you mean?

“I don’t understand why Chaghan obeys Altan,” he said. He had proclaimed himself to the woman as the most powerful shaman in existence, and she believed him. Chaghan navigated the spiritual world as if it belonged to him as if he were a god himself. The Cike did not hesitate to reply to Altan, but he had not seen any of them dare to contradict Chaghan. Altan commanded his loyalty, but Chaghan relished his fear.

“Chaghan was designated to be the next commander after Tyr,” Baji said. However, the appearance of Altan displaced him.

—And did that decision seem good to him? —Rin couldn’t imagine someone like Chaghan giving up his authority peacefully.

-Of course not. He was fuming when Tyr started favoring Sinegard’s golden boy.

-Then why…?

—Why are you satisfied serving Altan? She wasn’t at the beginning. She complained for a whole week, until Altan finally had enough. He asked Tyr for permission to challenge him to a duel and obtained it. He took Chaghan to the valley for three days.

-What happened?

Baji snorted.

—What happens when someone fights Trengsin? When Chaghan returned, all of his beautiful white hair was singed and he obeyed Altan like a whipped dog. Our friend from the Inner Lands may destroy minds, but he couldn’t touch Trengsin. Nobody can.


Rin rested his head on his knees again and closed his eyes against the dawn light. He hadn’t slept, hadn’t really rested, since they had left Khurdalain. His body couldn’t continue like this for much longer. She was so tired…

His boat shook in the water. Rin sat up abruptly. They had crashed into the boat in front of them.

“There’s something in the water,” Ramsa shouted from the front.

Rin turned to the side and looked at the river. The water was the familiar muddy brown color, until he looked up.

At first he thought it was a reflection of light, an illusion of the sun’s rays. But when his boat reached a strange-colored patch in the water, Rin ran her fingers over its surface. She then jumped back in horror.

They were going through a river of blood.

Altan and Chaghan stood silently, watching upstream.

Behind them, Unegen let out a long, inhuman scream,

“By the gods,” Baji said, over and over again. For the gods, for the gods, for the gods…

Then they saw the bodies floating around them.

Rin was paralyzed, plagued by the irrational fear that the bodies might be the enemy, that they would rise from the water and attack them.

The boats stopped moving. They were surrounded by corpses. Soldiers. Civilians. Men. Women. Children. They were swollen and discolored. Some of their faces were disfigured, slashed. Others were unfazed, floating listlessly in the crimson water as if they had never lived, never breathed.

Chaghan reached out to examine the blue lips of a young girl. Her own mouth was pursed dispassionately, as if she were inspecting a footprint, and not touching a rubbery corpse.

—These bodies have been in the river for days. Why aren’t they floating out to sea?

“It’s Golyn Niis’s dam,” Unegen suggested. He’s blocking them.

“But we’re still far from the city…” Rin said. They remained silent.

Altan stood up from the head of his boat.

-Out of the water. Get ready to run.


The road towards Golyn Niis was deserted. Qara and Unegen were scouting ahead, and had not yet warned of any signs of the enemy. However, there were traces of an obvious Federation presence everywhere they looked: trampled grass, abandoned bonfires, rectangular areas in the dirt.

where they had set up camps. Rin was sure that Federation soldiers were waiting for them, preparing an ambush, but as they approached the city, she realized that this made no sense. The Federation couldn’t have known they were coming, and they wouldn’t have set up such an elaborate trap for such a small squad.

Rin would have preferred an ambush. The silence was much worse.

If Golyn Niis was still under siege, the Federation would be on alert. They would be prepared for possible skirmishes. They would have posted guards to ensure that no reinforcements could arrive and join the city’s resistance.

There had to be a resistance.

However, it seemed as if the Federation had simply packed up their things and left, not even bothering to leave a mere patrol behind. The Federation seemed to care who came to Golyn Niis.

Whatever was behind the city walls, it wasn’t worth guarding.


When the Cike finally managed to open the heavy doors, a horrible stench assaulted them like a slap in the face. Rin recognized that smell, she had smelled it in Sinegard and Khurdalain. He already knew what they would find. It had been a vain hope to expect anything different, and yet he was unable to comprehend the sight that awaited them when they passed through the doors.

They all stopped at the doors, lacking the will to take another step forward.

A long time passed without any of them being able to utter a word.

Then Ramsa fell to his knees and began to laugh out loud.

“Khurdalain,” he gasped. We were so obsessed with maintaining Khurdalain.

He doubled over, shaking with laughter and pounding the ground with his fists.

Rin envied him.


*** Golyn Niis was a city of corpses.

The bodies had been arranged deliberately, as if the Federation had wanted to leave a welcome message for the next people entering the city. The destruction had been carried out with a strange art, a sadistic symmetry. The corpses were stacked meticulously, in equal rows, forming pyramids of ten, nine, and eight bodies. Corpses leaning against the wall. Corpses placed neatly in lines along the street. Corpses arranged as far as the eye could see.

Nothing human moved. The only sounds in the city were the wind rustling through the rubble, the buzzing of flies, and the squawking of scavenging birds.

Rin’s eyes were filled with tears, the stench was overwhelming. He looked at Altan, but his face was unreadable. He walked stoically, down the main street towards the center of the city, as if he were determined to witness the extent of the destruction.

They marched in silence.

The Federation’s meticulous work became more elaborate as they moved through the city. Near the plaza, the Federation had arranged the corpses in horrible, unholy positions, positions so grotesque that they defied human imagination. Corpses nailed to boards. Corpses hanging from their tongues with hooks, Bodies dismembered in every possible way: headless, limbless, showing mutilations that must have been carried out while the victim was still alive. Bodies without fingers, and then these placed in a small pile next to the five stumps of his hand. An entire row of castrated men, their severed penises placed delicately in their open mouths.

One sees great joy in beheading enemies.

There were so many beheadings. Heads stacked neatly in small piles, not yet so rotten as to have become skulls, but no longer looking like human faces. The heads that still had enough flesh showed the same dull expression, as if they had never been alive.

He calls briefly, faints.

Perhaps out of an initial desire for hygiene, or out of mere curiosity, the Federation had tried to light some of the pyramids of corpses. But they had quit before finishing the job. Maybe they didn’t want to waste the oil. Maybe the stench became unbearable. The bodies were a grotesque spectacle, half charred; His hair turned into ashes, his skin charred, but worst of all was that behind the ashes undoubtedly human figures could be seen.

Crying in torrents, sighing and lamenting.

In the plaza they found strangely low skeletons, not bodies, but skeletons that glowed a pristine white. At first they looked like the bones of children, but upon closer examination, Enki identified them as the torsos of adults. He bent down and touched the ground where one of those skeletons was fixed on the ground. The upper half of the body was clean, with the bones glistening in the sun, while the other half remained intact beneath the earth.

“They buried them,” he said with disgust. They buried them up to their waists and left them to the dogs.

Rin couldn’t understand how the Federation had found so many ways to inflict suffering. Every corner they turned revealed another scene in the series of horrors, a barbarity so savage that it could only fit into the most abject imagination. A family still embracing, impaled on the same spear. Babies floating in vats, their skin a horrible crimson color, suspended in the water in which they had been boiled to death.

In the hours that had passed, the only creatures they had encountered were dogs abnormally fat from feeding on corpses. Dogs, and vultures.

—Orders? —Unegen finally asked. They looked at his commander.

Altan had not spoken a word since they had passed through the city gates. His skin had turned a ghostly light gray. He could be sick. He was sweating profusely, and his left arm was shaking. When they found

another pile of charred bodies, he convulsed, fell to his knees and could not continue walking.

This was not the first Altan genocide.

This is Esper again , Rin thought. Altan must have been thinking about the Esper massacre, imagining the way his people had been slaughtered like cattle during the night.

After a long time, Chaghan extended a hand to Altan.

Altan grabbed her and stood up. She swallowed and closed her eyes. A mask of detachment spread across her face in a curious wave, sealing her face with an expression of indifference, locking any vulnerability deep inside her.

“Disperse,” Altan ordered. His voice was impossibly neutral.

—. Look for survivors.

Surrounded by death, parting ways was the last thing any of them wanted to do.

Suni opened her mouth to protest.

—But the Federation…

—The Federation is not here. They left for the interior of the country at least a week ago. Our people are dead. Find me survivors.


They found evidence of a last desperate battle near the southern gate. It was clear who the winners had been. Army corpses had been subjected to the same deliberate treatment as civilians. They had piled up their

bodies in the middle of the square, small neat piles of corpses carefully arranged one on top of the other.

Rin saw the torn Militia flag lying on the ground, burned and stained with blood. The bearer’s hand was still clutching the flag, severed at the wrist. The rest of the body lay a few meters away, eyes blank, staring without seeing.

The flag was emblazoned with the Red Emperor’s dragon, the symbol of the Nikan Empire. In the lower left corner was sewn the number two in ancient Nikara calligraphy. It was the insignia of the Second Division.

Rin’s heart skipped a beat. Kitay’s division.

Rin fell to his knees and touched the flag. A barking noise sounded from behind the pile of corpses. He looked up just as a dark, fleathy mutt came running toward her. It was the size of a small wolf. Her belly was grotesquely swollen, as if she had been gorging herself for days.

He walked past Rin towards the corpse that had held the flag, sniffing hopefully.

Rin watched him fumble, salivating anxiously, and something inside her reacted.

-Go away! —She screeched, kicking toward the dog.

Any animal in Sinegard would have run away, scared. But this dog had lost its fear of humans. This dog had lived surrounded by the juicy feast of a butcher shop for too long. Maybe he had assumed

that she, too, was close to death. Maybe she thought fresh meat would taste better than rotten meat.

He growled and lunged at her.

Rin was taken by surprise by the dog’s tremendous weight, and he knocked her to the ground. He drooled down his gaping maw in search of his artery, but Rin raised her arms in defense and instead the dog’s teeth sank into his left forearm. He screamed loudly, but the dog did not let her go, with his right arm Rin grabbed his sword, unsheathed it and stabbed upwards.

The sword tore through the dog’s ribs, and its jaws lost their grip.

He went through it again. Finally, the dog collapsed on top of her.

Rin jumped to his feet, and stabbed the sword again, piercing the dog’s side. He was at death’s door. He stabbed him again, this time in the neck. A stream of blood splashed over her, wet and warm, covering her face. She passed through it again and again, only to feel bone and flesh give way to metal. Just to hurt and break something…


Someone grabbed her by the arm she was holding the gun with. She turned, but Suni pinned both her arms behind her back, tightly, so that she couldn’t move until she had stopped sobbing.


“You’re lucky your clever arm didn’t bite you,” said Enki. Do not remove the bandage for a week. Come see me yes

It starts to smell.

Rin flexed his arm. Enki had tightly bandaged the dog’s bite with a plaster that stung as if his arm had been stuck in a wasp’s nest.

“It’ll cure you,” he said when she grimaced. She will prevent infection, we don’t want you to go crazy foaming at the mouth, Rin.

“I think I’d love to go crazy and foam at the mouth,” Rin said. I want to lose my mind. I think I would be happier.

“Don’t say that,” said Enki sternly. You have work to do.

Could what they were doing be called work? Or were they fooling themselves by looking for survivors so as not to face the fact that they had arrived too late?

Rin continued the painful work of examining the deserted streets, overturning rubble, and investigating the houses whose doors had been smashed. After hours of searching, he stopped believing that he could find Kitay alive, and began to wish that he would not have to find his body during his patrols, because the sight of him skinned, dismembered, piled on a cart next to a pile of other corpses , or half burned, would be much worse than not finding him.

I walked through Golyn Niis alone and dazed, trying to see and not see. As time went by, she got used to the smell, and slowly the sight of so many corpses stopped being a stab in the stomach, and became just a repertoire of faces to observe in case it was someone she recognized.

All the while he was shouting Kitay’s name. He screamed every time he thought he saw movement, anything that might be alive: a cat disappearing into an alley, or a flock of crows taking flight, surprised that there were humans who weren’t dead, or dying. He screamed for days.

And then, among the ruins, so faint he thought it was an echo, he heard his name answered.


—Do you remember that time I told you that the Trials were as horrible as Esper? Kitay asked. He was wrong. This is as horrible as Esper. Much more horrible than Esper.

It wasn’t funny at all, and neither of them laughed.

Rin’s eyes and throat were sore from crying so much. She had been holding Kitay’s hand for hours, pressing his fingers tightly against hers. She never wanted to let him go. They sat side by side in a hastily constructed shelter almost a kilometer from the city, the only place where they could escape the stench of death that permeated Golyn Nuis. Kitay’s survival was nothing short of a miracle. He and a small group of soldiers from the Second Division had hidden for days under the bodies of their slain comrades, too afraid to venture out in case the Federation patrols returned.

When it seemed that they could get away from that execution ground, they hid in the demolished slums on the east side of the city. They had ripped out a cellar door and filled the space with bricks, making it look like a

wall from outside. That was the reason why Cike had not seen them the first time they had passed through the city.

Only a handful of Kitay’s squad were still alive.

Kitay did not know if there were more survivors in the city.

—Have you seen Nezha? Kitay finally asked. I heard he had been sent to Khurdalain.

Rin opened her mouth to respond, but a horrible tingling overcame her, spreading from the bridge of her nose to her eyes, and she choked under a loud, wild cry. She was not able to formulate any words.

Kitay didn’t say anything, he just held out his arms. Understanding without words, Rin collapsed on top of him. It was absurd that he had to console her, that she was the one crying, especially after everything Kitay had suffered. But Kitay was as if numb, he had normalized his suffering and seemed to no longer be able to feel pain anymore. He was still holding her in his arms when Qara entered the store.

—Is your name Chen Kitay? —Qara wasn’t really asking him, he just seemed to want to say something to break the silence.


—Were you with the Second Division when…? —Qara cut herself off. Kitay nodded.

—We need you to inform us of what has happened. You can walk?


Under the open sky, in front of a silent audience consisting of Altan and the twins, Kitay narrated with a voice

hesitant the Golyn Niis massacre.

—From the beginning the city’s defenses were doomed

Kitay said. We thought we still had weeks left. But even if you had bought us months, nothing would have changed.

»Golyn Niis was defended by an amalgamation of the Second, Ninth and Eleventh divisions. In this case, the large number of soldiers did not imply greater capacity. Perhaps it was even worse than in Khurdalain, because being soldiers from different provinces they had problems uniting and maintaining a joint objective. Commanding officers acted like rivals, paranoid in their distrust, unable to share their intelligence.

—Irjah begged the Warlords again and again to put aside their differences. He didn’t get them to see reason. —Kitay swallowed—. The first two confrontations went badly. They took us by surprise. They surrounded the city from the southeast. We did not expect them so soon, nor did it occur to us to think that they would have been able to find their way into the mountains. They arrived at night and they… they captured Irjah. They skinned him alive on the city wall so we could all see him. That broke our resistance. After that, most of the soldiers wanted to flee.

»After Irjah died, the Ninth and the Eleventh surrendered. I do not blame them. They outnumbered us and thought they would be more generous if they didn’t resist. They thought it was better perhaps to become prisoners than to die. Kitay shivered violently. They were so wrong. The Federation general accepted his surrender and acted accordingly.

They confiscated their weapons and took the soldiers to prison camps. But the next morning they took them to the mountains and beheaded them. Afterwards there were many desertions in the Second. Some of us stayed to fight. It was useless, but… it was better than giving up. We couldn’t dishonor Irjah. Not that way.

“Wait,” Chaghan interrupted. Did they take the Empress?

“The Empress fled,” Kitay said. He took twenty of his guards and left the city the night after Irjah died.

Qara and Chaghan both made a sound of disbelief, but Kitay shook his head slowly.

—Who can blame her? It was either that or let those monsters get their hands on her, and who knows what they would have done with her…

Chaghan did not seem convinced.

“Pathetic,” he spat and Rin agreed with him. The idea that the Empress had fled a city while its people were being roasted, burned, murdered, and raped, went against everything Rin had been taught about war. A general did not abandon his soldiers. An Empress did not abandon her people.

Again, the Talwu’s words had been true.

A leader abandons his people. A ruler begins a campaign… One sees great joy in beheading enemies. Evil.

Was there any other way to interpret the hexagram in the face of the obvious evidence of the destruction before them? Rin had been torturing herself with the Talwu’s words, trying to interpret them in a way that didn’t imply the massacre of Golyn Niis, but in the end she had been fooling herself. The Talwu had explained to them exactly what to expect.

He should have known that when the Empress had abandoned the Nikara, that was when all was lost.

But the Empress had not been the only one to abandon Golyn Niis. The entire army had surrendered the city. Within a week, Golyn Niis had been practically handed over to the Federation on a platter, and the entire half million people who lived there were subject to the whims of the invading forces.

Those whims had little to do with the city. In fact, the Federation wanted to squeeze Golyn Niis of any resources they could find, in preparation for a deeper march into the country. They looted the market, rounded up livestock, and demanded that families bring their reserves of rice and grain. Anything they couldn’t load onto their supply wagons, they burned or let spoil.

Then they got rid of the people.

“They decided that beheading took too much time, so they started doing things more efficiently,” Kitay said. They started with gas. You should probably know by now actually, they have this thing, this weapon that emits a yellow-green mist…

“We know her,” Altan said. We saw the same in Khurdalain.

“They wiped out almost the entire Second Division in one night,” Kitay continued. Some of us survived by being near the south gate. When the gas dissolved, there was nothing alive left. I went later to find survivors. At first I didn’t know what I was seeing. There were animals covering the ground. Mice, rats, rodents of all kinds. There were so many! They had crawled out of their holes to die, When there was no army left, there was nothing to come between the soldiers and our people. The Federation had a great time, They turned everything into a sport. Throwing babies into the air and seeing if they could shoot them before they hit the ground. Contests to see how many civilians they could round up and behead in one hour. A race to see who could pile up bodies the fastest.” Kitay’s voice cracked.

Could you drink some water?

Silently, Qara handed him his canteen.

—How did the Mugenses become like that? Chaghan asked himself. What do you have to do to make someone hate you so much?

“It’s nothing we did,” Altan said. Rin noticed that his left hand was shaking again. It’s how they train Federation soldiers. When you believe that your life means nothing except your usefulness to the Emperor, the lives of your enemies mean even less.

—The Federation soldiers don’t feel anything. —Kitay nodded agreeing. They do not consider themselves people, but rather parts of a machinery. They do what they are told, and the only time they feel joy is when they enjoy someone else’s suffering. You can’t reason with them. There is no way to understand them. They are so used to

“spread an evil so grotesquely diabolical that they cannot be considered properly human.” Kitay’s voice trembled. When they were slaughtering my squad, I looked into the eyes of one of them. I thought I could try to get him to recognize me as a human being, as a person, and not just as an enemy. He looked back at me, and I realized I couldn’t reach him. There was nothing human in those eyes.


Once the survivors began to realize that the Militia had arrived, they emerged from their hiding places in miserable, scattered groups.

The few survivors of Golyn Niis were deep within the city, hidden in shelters built like the one in Kitay or locked in makeshift prisons, and forgotten by the Federation soldiers when they decided to continue their march inland. After discovering two or three such prisons, Altan ordered both the Cike and the civilians to carefully search the city.

Nobody contradicted the order. Rin suspected it was because everyone knew how horrible it would be to die alone, chained to the wall when your captors were long gone.

“It seems like we’re saving people for a change,” said Baji.

—. It makes me feel good.

Altan himself led a squad to take on the nearly impossible task of clearing the city of corpses. He claimed it was to protect against rot and disease, but Rin suspected it was because he wanted to give them a proper funeral, and because there was little else they could do for the city.

They did not have time to dig mass graves at the necessary pace so that the stench of decomposing corpses would not become unbearable. So they piled up the corpses on large pyres, large bonfires full of bodies that burned constantly. Golyn Niis went from being a city of corpses to a city of ashes.

The number of dead was overwhelming. The corpses that Altan burned barely reduced the immense number of decomposing bodies in the city. Rin didn’t think it was possible to clean Golyn Niis unless they burned the entire city.

Maybe at some point they should. But not while there might still be survivors.

Rin was outside the city walls trying to find a source of clean water without blood, when Kitay pulled her aside and informed her that he had found Venka. She had been kept in a “relaxation house,” and that was probably the only reason the Federation had left a soldier alive. Kitay didn’t give many details about what a “relaxation house” was, but Rin didn’t need them.

Rin could barely recognize Venka when he went to see her that night. His beautiful hair was now short, as if someone had cut it with a knife. His eyes, once full of life, were dull and glassy. He had both arms broken at the wrists. He had them in a sling. Rin looked at the angle at which his arms were broken, and he knew there was only one way they could have broken like that.

Venka barely moved when Rin entered the room. Only when Rin closed the door did he react.

“Hello,” Rin said softly.

Venka looked up sadly and said nothing.

“I figured you’d want someone to talk to,” Rin said, though her words seemed hollow and insufficient even as they left her mouth.

Venka fixed his absent gaze on her.

Rin was unable to find what to say, couldn’t think of any question that wasn’t wildly inane. Are you OK? Of course Venka was not well. How have you survived? Having a woman’s body. What has happened to you? But he already knew it.

—Do you know that they called us public toilets? Venka asked suddenly.

Rin stopped two steps from the door. The compression reached her slowly, and her blood turned to ice.


“They thought I couldn’t understand Mugenese,” Venka continued, with a gruesome attempt at laughter. That’s what they called me, when they were in me.


—Do you know how much it hurt? They were in me, they were in me for hours and they didn’t stop. I lost consciousness again and again and every time I woke up they were still going on, with a different man on top of me or maybe the same one… they were all the same after a while. It was a nightmare, and there was no way to wake up.

Rin’s mouth was rough with the taste of bile.

“I’m so sorry…” he tried.

But Venka didn’t seem to hear her.

“I wasn’t the one who ended up the worst,” Venka said. I fought, I confronted and I caused problems. So they saved me for last, they wanted to break me first. They wanted me to look.

»I saw gutted women. I saw soldiers cut off their breasts. I saw them nail live women to the wall. I saw them mutilate girls, when they had tired of their mothers. If their vaginas were too small, they would cut them open with a knife to make them easier to rape. Venka’s voice became higher pitched. There was a pregnant woman in the house with us, seven months pregnant. At first the soldiers let her live so she could take care of us. She washed us, she fed us. He was the only friendly face in the house. They didn’t touch her because she was pregnant, not at first. Then the general decided that he had gotten tired of the other girls, and he came for her. You would think she would have learned by then, after seeing what the soldiers had done to us, you would think she would know better than to resist.

Rin didn’t want to listen anymore, she wanted to bury her head in her arms and block it all out. But Venka continued, as if now that he had begun his testimony he couldn’t stop.

—She kicked and resisted, and they slapped her. The general howled and went for the stomach. Not with his knife, but with his fingers, his nails. He struck her down and tore her, and he tore. Venka looked away. And he ripped out her stomach, her intestines, and finally the baby… And the baby was still moving… We saw it all from the hallway.

Rin had stopped breathing.

“I was glad,” Venka continued, “I was glad that she was dead before the general cut the baby in two, just like

you would open an orange. In her sling, Venka’s fingers clenched and shook. She made me clean it.

“Gods, Venka.” Rin couldn’t look her in the eyes. Very sorry.

– Don’t take pity on me! —Venka suddenly yelled at him. He made a movement, as if he wanted to reach for Rin’s arm, as if he had forgotten that his arms were broken. He stood up straight and walked towards Rin, until they were face to face, nose to nose.

His expression was just as unbalanced as the day they fought in the pit.

—I don’t need your pity, I need you to kill them for me. “You have to kill them for me,” Venka whispered. Swear it. Swear by your blood that you will burn them .

—Venka, I can’t…

-I know you can. Venka’s voice rose in pitch. I’ve heard what they say about you. You have to burn them all. Whatever it takes. Swear on your life. Swear it. Swear it on me.

His eyes were like two broken glass.

It took all of Rin’s courage to look up into those eyes.

-I swear.



Rin left Venka’s room and ran away. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t speak.

I needed Altan.

She didn’t know why she thought he could give her the relief she needed, but out of all of them, only Altan had been through something.

similar before. Altan was in Esper when it was burned, Altan had seen his people being murdered… Without a doubt, Altan will tell him that the earth continues to spin, that the sun will continue to rise every day in the morning, that the existence of such an evil abominable, such disregard for human life did not mean that the entire world was covered in darkness. Altan will no doubt tell you that they still had something worth fighting for.

“In the library,” Suni told him, pointing to an old tower two blocks from the city gates.

The library door was closed, and no one answered when he knocked.

Rin turned the doorknob slowly and took a look.

The great inner chamber was filled with lamps, but none were lit. The only light came from the moonbeams shining through the tall glass windows. The room was filled with sickly sweet smoke that brought back memories, so thick and cloying that Rin almost choked.

In a corner among a pile of books, Altan lay, legs outstretched and head bowed limply. He had taken off his shirt.

His breathing stopped in his throat.

His chest was a map of scars. Many of them were battle wounds. But others were disturbingly neat, symmetrical and perfect, deliberately carved into her skin.

A pipe lay in his hand. As Rin watched, Altan brought her lips to his and inhaled deeply with her eyes turning crimson.

to look at the ceiling. She let the smoke fill her lungs and then exhaled slowly with a contented sigh.

—Altan? —She said in a low voice.

He didn’t seem to have heard her. Rin crossed the room and slowly knelt next to her. The smell was nauseatingly familiar. Opium seeds, sweet as rotten fruit. She reminded him of Tikany, of living corpses wasting away in the smoke of drugs.

Finally, Altan looked in their direction. His face twisted into an idiotic smile, and among the ruins of Golyn Niis, in a city littered with corpses, Rin thought that the sight of Altan was the most terrible thing he had ever seen in his life.

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