Chapter no 22

The Poppy War

—Did you know? —Rin asked.

“Yes, we all know that,” Ramsa murmured. He rubbed her shoulder tentatively, trying to comfort her, but he didn’t help. She tries to hide it. But he doesn’t do it very well.

Rin moaned and pressed his forehead against his knees. He could barely see through her tears. It hurt him to breathe, he felt like her ribcage was being crushed, like desperation was pressing him against her chest, crushing her so much that he could barely breathe.

This was supposed to be the end. The capital had fallen, his friends were dead or destroyed, and Altan…

-Because? “He,” he lamented. Don’t know what you’re doing?

-He knows. —Ramsa dropped his hand. He twisted his fingers in his lap. I don’t think he can help it.

Rin knew that was true, but she couldn’t accept it.

He knew the horrors of opium addiction. He had seen the Fangs’ clients, promising young men, buoyant merchants, talented men, whose lives had been ruined by the

opium nuggets. He had seen proud government officials reduced to destitution within months, begging on the streets to buy their next high.

But he couldn’t reconcile those images with his commander.

Altan was invincible. Altan was the best martial artist in the country.

Altan was not… Altan could not be…

“He’s supposed to be our commander,” he said. How can he fight when he, when he is like this ?

“We covered it,” Ramsa said quietly. He doesn’t smoke more than once a month.

All those times he had smelled smoke. All those times when he was missing when she tried to find him.

He had been lying in his office, smoking, staring into space, empty and absent.

“It’s disgusting,” he said. He’s…he’s pathetic.

“Don’t say that,” Ramsa said sharply. He curled his hand into a fist. Take it back.

—He’s our commander! He has a duty to us!

How can…?

But Ramsa interrupted her.

—I don’t know how Altan could survive that island. But what I do know is that I can’t even imagine what he had to go through. You didn’t know you were a stud until a few months ago. But Altan lost everyone he loved in one night. You can’t get over that kind of pain, and that’s what he needs. It’s a vulnerability. I don’t judge him, I don’t dare, because I don’t have the right. And you neither.


After two weeks of searching through the rubble, finding locked cellars, and relocating corpses, the Cike had found fewer than a thousand survivors in the city that had once housed half a million. Too many days had passed, and they gave up hope of finding more survivors.

For the first time since the war had begun, Cike had no planned operations.

—What are we waiting for? —Baji asked several times a day.

“Orders,” Qara always answered.

But they had not received orders. Altan was almost always absent, sometimes missing for days at a time. When he was present, he was also not in a position to give orders. Chaghan took command without anyone saying anything and assigned and assigned Cike routine tasks in the interim. Most of them consisted of surveillance. They all knew that the enemy was heading into the interior of the country to finish what they had started, and that there was nothing to guard in Golyn Niis except ruins, but they still obeyed.

Rin sat atop the parapet of the great gateway with a spear, as he watched the road that led to the city. She was in charge of keeping watch at dusk, which was good for her, since she was not able to sleep no matter how hard she tried. Every time she closed her eyes she saw blood. Dried blood in the streets. Blood in the Golyn River. Corpses on hooks. Babies in barrels.

I wasn’t able to eat either. Even the most tasteless food tasted like carrion. They only got meat once. Baji caught two rabbits in the forest, skinned them and impaled them with a piece of wood and then roasted them. When Rin smelled them, he gagged for several minutes. He was not able not to relate the rabbit meat with that of the charred bodies in the square. He couldn’t walk through Golyn Niis without imagining what the deaths were like at the time of his execution. He was not able to look at the hundreds of decapitated heads on poles without seeing the soldier who had walked down the line of kneeling prisoners, and how he had methodically lowered his sword again and again, as if he were harvesting corn. He couldn’t pass near the babies entombed in barrels without hearing their fearful screams.

All the while, his mind was screaming an unanswered question:


I couldn’t understand the cruelty. She could understand her bloodlust, she had lived it. She had lost consciousness in battle, she had gone further than she should, she had hurt others when she should have stopped.

But this, a cruelty of such magnitude, a senseless killing on such a scale, against innocent people who had not even raised a finger in their defense. She couldn’t imagine herself perpetrating this.

They surrendered , I wanted to shout to the enemy that he had already left. They lowered their weapons. They were not a threat. Why did you have to do this to them?

I couldn’t find a rational explanation.

Because the answer couldn’t be rational. It did not exist in military strategy. It was not due to a lack of food rations, nor the risk of a possible insurrection or revolt. It was simply what happened when one race decided that the other was insignificant.

The Federation had massacred Golyn Niis for the simple reason that they did not see the Nikara as human beings. And if your enemy was not human, if your enemy was a cockroach, what did it matter how many you killed? What was the difference between crushing an ant and setting fire to an anthill? Why not rip off insects’ wings for your own enjoyment? The bug may feel pain, but what did it matter?

If you were the victim, what could you say to make your tormentor recognize you as human? How do you get your enemy to recognize you at all?

And why should an oppressor care?

Wars moved in absolutes. Them or us. Victory or defeat. There was no path in between. There was no mercy. There was no surrender.

Rin discovered that this was the same logic that had justified Esper’s massacre. For the Federation, wiping out an entire race in one night was not an atrocity. Just a necessity.



-You’re crazy.

Rin’s head snapped up. He had fallen into another exhausting sleep. He blinked twice and squinted into the darkness until he found the source of the voice, amorphous shadows that slowly turned into two familiar figures.

Altan and Chaghan were under the door. Chaghan had his arms crossed, and Altan was leaning against the wall. With her heart pounding in her chest, Rin crouched under a battlement so they couldn’t see her if they looked up.

—What would happen if it weren’t just us? Altan asked in a low, anxious voice. Rin was surprised, Altan seemed to be awake, alive as she had not seen him in days. What if there were more like us?

“Not again,” Chaghan said.

—What would happen if there were thousands of Cike, soldiers as powerful as you and me, soldiers who could invoke the gods?


—What if I could summon an entire army of shamans?

Rin snapped out of it. An army?

Chaghan made a muffled noise that might have been laughter.

—And how do you propose to do it?

“You know how,” Altan said. You already know why I sent you to the mountains.

“You told me you only wanted the Guardian.” Chaghan’s voice became increasingly agitated. You didn’t tell me you wanted to free all the crazy people from there.

—They’re not crazy.

—They’re not even human! They are now demigods! They are like rays of light, like hurricanes of spiritual power. If I had known what you were planning, I wouldn’t have…

—Don’t lie, Chaghan. You knew exactly what she was planning.

—We were supposed to free the Guardian together. — Chaghan sounded hurt.

-And we will do. Just like we’re going to free everyone else. Feylen. Huleinin. All of them.

“Feylen?” After what she tried to do? You don’t know what you’re saying. You are talking about atrocities.

-Atrocities? Altan asked coldly. You have seen the bodies here, and you accuse me of atrocities?

Chaghan raised his voice.

—Mugen’s acts are human cruelty . Humans alone are already capable of much destruction. But the beings imprisoned in Chuluu Korikh are capable of destruction on an entirely different scale.

Altan barked a dry laugh.

—But do you have eyes? Have you even seen what they did to Golyn Niis? A ruler should do whatever is necessary to protect the people from him. I won’t be Tearza, Chaghan. I won’t let them kill us like dogs.

Rin heard noises of fighting. Feet dragging against dry leaves. Arm and leg noises. They were fighting? Not daring to breathe, Rin leaned over the wall.

Chaghan had Altan by the collar of his shirt with both hands, pulling him down so they were face to face. Altan was a hand’s breadth taller than Chaghan, he could have easily freed himself from him and yet he did not fight back.

Rin looked at them in disbelief. Nobody touched Altan like that.

“This isn’t Esper again,” Chaghan hissed. His face was so close to Altan’s that their noses were almost touching. Even Tearza wouldn’t unleash her god to save an island. But you are condemning thousands of people to death.

—I’m trying to win this war…

-So that? Look around you, Trengsin! No one is going to pat you on the back and tell you that you did a good job. Because there is no one to do it. This country is going to shit and no one cares…

“The Empress cares,” Altan said. I sent a hawk, she has approved my plan…

—Who cares what your Empress says? Chaghan shouted. His hands were shaking wildly. Screw your Empress! Your Empress fled!

“She’s one of us,” Altan said. You know she is. If we had her with us, and we had the Guardian, then we could lead that army…

“No one can lead that army,” Chaghan let go of Altan’s shirt. Those people on the mountain are not like you. They are not like Suni. You can’t control them and you’re not going to try. I will not leave you.

Chaghan raised his hands to push Altan again, but Altan grabbed them this time, grabbed his wrists, and pulled them down with ease. He didn’t let them go.

“Do you really think you can stop me?”

“This isn’t you,” Chaghan said. This is for Esper, it’s your revenge. This is all you esperlies do, you hate and burn and destroy without consequences. Tearza was the only one of you who had any vision. Maybe the Federation was right about you, maybe it was for the best that they burned your island…

“How dare you,” Altan said, his voice so soft that Rin pressed himself against the wall, moving even closer to check that he was hearing correctly. Altan tightened his fingers around Chaghan’s wrists. You have gone too far.

“I am your Seer,” Chaghan said. I give you advice whether you want to hear it or not.

“A Seer does not command,” Altan said. A Seer does not disobey . I have no use for a disloyal lieutenant. If you don’t help me, then I will send you away. Go north. Go to the dam. Take your sister and do what we have planned.

“Altan, listen to reason,” Chaghan pleaded. You don’t have to do this.

“Do as I tell you,” Altan said dryly. He sees or leaves the Cike.

Rin sank back behind the battlements, her heart pounding.


He abandoned his position as soon as he heard Altan’s footsteps disappearing into the distance. Once she stopped seeing his form from the door, she quickly descended the stairs and ran outside. She caught Chaghan and Qara while they were saddling a horse.

“Come on,” Chaghan said to his sister when he saw Rin approaching, but she grabbed the reins before he could move forward.

-Where are you going? —She asked.

“Far away,” Chaghan said briefly. Please let go of the reins.

-I need to talk with you.

—We have orders to leave.

—I have heard you before with Altan. Qara murmured something in his own language. Chaghan frowned.

“Could you mind your own business for once?” Rin gripped the reins tighter.

—What army were you talking about? Why don’t you want to help him?

Chaghan’s eyes narrowed.

—You have no idea what you’re getting into.

“Then tell me.” Who is Feylen? —Rin continued loudly—. Who is Huleinin? What did he mean by he will free the Guardian?

—Altan is going to burn all of Nikan. I will not be responsible.

—Burn Nikan? Rin repeated. As…?

“Your commander has gone mad,” Chaghan said bluntly. That’s all you need to know. You know what is the worst? I think this is what he intended to do from the beginning. I’ve been blind, this is what I’ve wanted to do since the Federation marched on Sinegard.

—And you’re going to let him do it?

Chaghan recoiled violently, as if he had been slapped. Rin was afraid that he would take the reins and leave, but he remained still, sitting, with his mouth slightly open.

I had never seen Chaghan be speechless. She got scared.

He hadn’t expected Chaghan to cower at anything. Only Chaghan among the Cike, had never shown even a hint of fear of his powers, of losing control. Chaghan was confident in his abilities. He enjoyed them.

What could be so unthinkable that it would horrify even him?

Without taking his eyes off Rin, Chaghan crouched down, grabbed the reins, and climbed off the horse. Rin took two steps back as he walked towards her. He stopped much closer than she would have liked. He studied her in silence for a long moment.

—Do you know the source of Altan’s power? —She finally asked.

“He’s a creep, it’s obvious,” Rin responded, frowning.

“Any ordinary esperli wasn’t half as powerful as Altan is,” Chaghan said. Have you ever wondered why only Altan, of all the esperlies, survived? Why was he allowed to live when the rest of his race were burned and dismembered?

Rin shook her head.

“After the First Poppy War, the Federation became obsessed with your people,” Chaghan said. They could not believe that their Armed Forces had been surpassed by that small island nation. That was what sparked his interest in shamanism, since there have never been shamans in Mugen. When they occupied Serpent Province, they built a research center next to the island and spent decades between the Poppy Wars kidnapping esperlies, experimenting on them, trying to discover what made them so special. Altan was one of those experiments.

Rin felt a weight on his chest. He feared what would come now, but Chaghan continued, his voice flat and devoid of emotion, as if he were reciting a history lesson.

—When the Hesperians liberated the research centers, Altan had already spent half his life in a laboratory. Federation scientists had been drugging him daily to keep him sedated. They starved him to death. They tortured him to make him obey. He wasn’t the only esperli they had, but he was the only one who survived. Do you know how?

Rin shook her head.


Chaghan continued, ruthlessly.

—Did you know that they tied him up and forced him to watch others being dismembered to find out what made them so special? To find out what esperlies were made of? The Federation was determined to find out. Did you know that they kept them alive as long as they could, even while they ripped the meat off their ribs, so they could see how their muscles moved while they were spread open like rabbits?

“He didn’t tell me,” Rin whispered.

“And he never will,” Chaghan said. Altan likes to suffer in silence. Altan likes to let his hatred burn, incubate it as much as he can. Do you now understand the origin of his power? It’s not because he’s a creep. He has nothing to do with genetics. Altan is so powerful because he hates so deeply and so completely that he constitutes every part of his being. Your Phoenix is ​​the god of fire, but he is also the god of wrath. Of revenge. Altan does not need opium to summon the Phoenix because the Phoenix is ​​always alive inside him. You asked me why I don’t stop it. Now you can understand it. You can’t stop a person seeking revenge. You can’t reason with a madman. You think I’m running away and I’ll admit I’m scared. I’m afraid of what he might do in his quest for revenge. And I fear that Altan is right.


When he found Altan, he was lying in the same corner of the old library as last time. Rin didn’t say anything. He crossed the moonlit room and took the pipe he held in his languid fingers. She sat cross-legged, leaning on the shelves filled with ancient scrolls. Then she gave a big

drag. It took a while for it to take effect, but when it did, she wondered why she had learned to meditate.

He understood, now, why Altan needed opium.

No wonder he was addicted. Smoking the pipe must have been the only time where he was not consumed by his misery, with scars that could never heal. Thanks to the bloating induced by the smoke he could not feel anything, the only moment where he could forget.

-How are you? —Altan murmured.

“I hate them,” he said. I hate them so much! I hate them so much it hurts. I hate them with every drop of my blood. I hate them with every bone in my body.

Altan exhaled a puff of smoke. He looked more like a vase of smoke than a human, he looked like the animated extension of the pipe.

“It never stops hurting,” he said.

Rio took another big drag of that wonderful sweetness.

“Now I understand,” he said.


—I’m very sorry about before.

His words were vague, but Altan seemed to know what he meant. He took the pipe from her and inhaled again and that seemed to be enough.

It was a long time before he spoke again.

“I’m going to do something terrible,” he said. And you have a choice. You can choose to come with me to the prison under the stone. I think you already know what I intend to do there.

“Yes,” he knew, without needing to ask, what he had imprisoned in Chuluu Korikh.

Supernatural criminals, who have committed supernatural crimes.

If I went to him, I would help him release monsters. Monsters worse than the chimei. Monsters worse than anything in the Emperor’s Menagerie, because these monsters were not beasts, thoughtless beings that you could bind and control, but warriors. Shamans. The gods walking among humans, with no respect for the mortal world.

—Or you can stay in Golyn Niis. You can fight with the remnants of the Nikara army and try to win this war without the help of the gods. You can continue to be Jiang’s good girl, listen to her warnings, and avoid the power you know you possess.

He extended his hand towards her. But I need your help. I need another esperli.

He looked down at his thin brown fingers.

If she helped him free that army, would that make her a monster? Were they guilty of everything Chaghan had accused them of?

Maybe. But what else did they have to lose? The invaders had covered the country with opium, left it to rot, and then returned to finish what they had started.

He reached for her hand, and wrapped his fingers around hers. The feel of her skin beneath his was unlike anything she had dared to imagine. Alone in the library, with ancient scrolls in ancient nikara as witnesses, Rin swore her allegiance to him.

“I am with You,” he said.

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