Chapter no 26

The Poppy War

When Rin woke up again in another unfamiliar room, he was so panicked that he couldn’t breathe. No, not again, they had caught her again, she was once again in the hands of the Mugeneses, and they were going to cut her into pieces and cut her open like a rabbit…

But when she moved her arms, nothing held them back, and when she tried to sit up, nothing stopped her. She had no chains, and the weight she felt on her chest was a thin blanket, not a strap.

She was in a bed, not on an operating table, nor chained to the floor.

It was just a bed.

He curled up, knees drawn up to his chest, and rocked back and forth until his breathing softened and he calmed down enough to assess the room.

The room was small, dark and without windows. The floor was made of wood, and so were the ceiling and walls. And she moved, from side to side gently, like a mother rocking her child.

At first she thought she had been drugged again, how else could she explain why the room moved rhythmically despite remaining still?

It took him a while to think that perhaps he was out at sea.

He flexed his arms and legs cautiously, and a wave of pain coursed through him. She tried again, and the pain was less. Surprisingly, no part of her body was broken. She was whole, intact.

He rolled over the edge and carefully placed his feet on the cold floor, took a deep breath, and tried to stand up, but his legs gave way and he quickly fell back onto the bed. He had never been to the open sea before. Nausea suddenly came over him, and despite an empty stomach, he retched at the side of the bed for a few minutes before he could control himself.

She was no longer wearing dirty, tattered clothes, but someone had dressed her in clean black clothes. They looked familiar to Rin, until she, examining the fabric of them, realized that she had already worn these clothes before her. It was Cike’s clothes.

For the first time, it occurred to him that perhaps he was not in enemy territory.

Against his hope, not daring to wish, Rin got out of bed and found the strength to stand. He approached the door, his arm shaking as he reached for the handle.

The door opened.

He began to climb the first stairs he saw, and reached a wooden deck. And when she saw the open sky, purple in the

evening light, she could have burst into tears.

—He’s woken up!

She turned around stunned, she recognized that voice.

Ramsa greeted her from the end of the deck. She carried a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other. He smiled widely at her, dropped the mop, and started running towards her.

The sight of him was so unexpected that Rin stood still for quite some time, looking at him in complete confusion. She then began to walk hesitantly towards him, with her hand outstretched. She had gone so long without seeing anyone from Cike that she was almost convinced it was just an illusion meant to torture her.

Still, he would accept that miracle, so he could hold on to something.

But it was real. As soon as Ramsa was close to her, he pushed her hand away from her to the side of her and wrapped his thin arms around her in a tight embrace. And when she put her face against her thin shoulder, she felt every part of him like something solid: her bony body, the warmth of her skin, the scars around her eye patch. It was real, and she was here.

I wasn’t dreaming.

Ramsa pulled away and looked into her eyes, frowning.

“Shit,” he said. Shit!


“Your eyes,” he said.

—What’s wrong with them?

—They look like those from Altan.

Upon hearing her name, Rin began to cry inconsolably.

“Hey, hey, calm down,” Ramsa said, patting her clumsily on the head. It’s okay, you’re safe.

—How did you…? Where? —She formulated the questions in a broken way between his sobs.

“Well, we’re quite a few miles from the south coast,” Ramsa said. Aratsha has been steering the ship. We thought it would be best to stay away from the coast for a while, things are getting complicated on the mainland.

-Us…? —Rin repeated with labored breathing. Could be?

Ramsa nodded, with a huge smile.

-We are all here. Everyone else is on the lower deck, well except the twins, they’ll be joining us in a few days.

-As? Rin asked. The Cike didn’t know what had happened in Chuluu Korikh, what had happened at the research center. So how did they know to come to Esper?

“We were waiting at the meeting point as Altan ordered,” Ramsa explained. But when you didn’t show up, we figured something must have happened. Unegen tracked the Federation soldiers to that location. We debated what to do and sent Unegen to find a way to get you out of there, but then…” Ramsa trailed off. Well, you know.

“That was Altan,” Rin said, and when he spoke he felt a new stab of pain, and he collapsed.

“We saw it,” Ramsa said softly. We imagined it would be him.

—He saved me.


Ramsa hesitated.

—Then it’s definitely…


Rin started to cry.

“Fuck,” Ramsa said quietly. Chaghan…someone will have to tell him.

-Where are they?

-Near. Qara sent us a message with a raven, but it didn’t say much except that they were arriving. We’ll meet them soon, she’ll know how.

Rin looked at him again.

—How did you find me?

—After searching through many corpses. —Ramsa gave him a brief smile—. We searched the rubble for survivors for two days. Nothing. Then your friend had the idea of ​​going to the island and that’s where we found you. You were lying on a glass base, Rin. You were surrounded by sand, and you were on a sheet of transparent glass. It was like in the stories, like a fairy tale.

It’s not a fairy tale , he thought. Her fire had been so intense that it had melted the sand around her. It wasn’t a story, it was a nightmare.

—How long have I been unconscious?

—About three days. We put you in the captain’s cabin.

Three days? How long had she gone without eating? Her legs almost gave way at the thought, and she quickly leaned over the railing. Her head felt very, very dizzy. She turned to look at the sea, and the ocean mist against her face was wonderful. She was lost in herself for a minute, basking in the sun’s rays, until she came to.

In a low voice, he asked.

-What have I done?

Ramsa’s smile disappeared from his face.

She looked unsure, trying to decide what to say, but then a familiar voice spoke from behind her.

—We were hoping you would explain it to us.



And then he saw Kitay.

Kitay, wonderful and charming. Kitay, surprisingly unharmed.

Rin had never seen such an intense shine in his eyes. He seemed to have aged five years, resembling his father. It looked like a newly sharpened sword, a newly tempered metal.

“You’re okay,” Rin whispered.

“I had them take me with them, after you left with Altan,” Kitay said with a slight smile. He had a hard time convincing them.

“And how well you did it,” Ramsa said. It was his idea to search the island.

“And he was right,” Kitay said. I have never been so happy to be right. —He quickly approached and hugged Rin tightly.

—. You didn’t give up on me at Golyn Niis. I couldn’t abandon you.

All Rin wanted was to stay in that embrace forever, forget everything, forget the war, forget the gods. It was enough to be, to know that his friends were alive and that the world was not so dark after all.

But he couldn’t stay in that happy illusion.

Stronger than his desire to forget was his desire to know. What had the Phoenix done? What exactly had he done in the temple?

“I need to know what I’ve done,” he said. Now.

Ramsa was uncomfortable, there was something they were not telling him.

“Why don’t you go back to the deck below?” —She suggested, looking at Kitay—. Everyone is aware, it’s probably better if we all talk about it together.

Rin started to follow him, but Kitay grabbed her wrist, and looked very seriously at Ramsa.

“The truth is,” Kitay said, “I prefer to talk to her alone.”

Ramsa looked at Rin in confusion, but she nodded hesitantly.

-Clear. Ramsa stepped back. We’ll be on the lower deck when you’re ready.


Kitay remained silent until Ramsa was far enough out of earshot. Rin watched her face carefully, but she wasn’t able to guess what she was thinking about. What was happening to him? Why didn’t he seem happy to see her? He thought she might go crazy with anxiety if he didn’t say something now.

“So it’s true,” he finally said. You can really call on the gods.

His eyes wouldn’t stop looking at her, and Rin wished she had a mirror and could see her own crimson eyes.

-What are you taking about? What are you not telling me?

—Do you really have no idea? —Kitay whispered.

She walked away from him, suddenly scared. She had a slight idea, more than an idea, but she needed to confirm it.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“Come with me,” Kitay said, and followed him down the length of the deck until they stopped on the other side.

Then he pointed to the horizon.

-Over there.

In the distance, rising from the water was the most unnatural cloud Rin had ever seen. It was a huge, dense column of ashes, spreading over the earth like a flood. It looked like a storm cloud, but instead of being in the sky it emerged from a black earth. Great masses of gray and black smoke billowed from the sides, like a slowly growing mushroom. Lit from behind by the reddish rays of the sun, it seemed to bleed brilliant rivulets of blood into the ocean.

She seemed alive, like a vengeful smoke giant that had risen from the depths of the ocean. And somehow he was beautiful, just like the Empress was. She is beautiful and terrible at the same time. Rin couldn’t look away from her.

-What’s that? What happened?

“I didn’t see it happen,” Kitay said, “but I felt it.” Even miles from the coast, I could feel it. A great tremor under my feet, a sudden jolt and everything was quiet again. When we went outside, the sky was completely dark, and ashes covered the sun for days. This is the first sunset I’ve seen since we found you.

Rin felt his entire being contract. That dark, small land, at that distance… Was it Mugen?

-What is it? she asked, her voice low. What is that cloud?

—Pyroclastic flows. Ash clouds. Remember the ancient mountain eruptions we studied in Yim’s class? Kitay asked.

He nodded.

-That’s what happened. The island’s landmass had been stable for millennia, and it suddenly exploded without warning. I’ve spent days trying to figure out what happened to Rin, trying to imagine how the island’s inhabitants felt. I bet you that most of the population was cremated in their homes, and the rest of the survivors didn’t live much longer. “The entire island is caught in a firestorm of poisonous fumes and melted debris,” Kitay said, his voice barely audible. We couldn’t get close even if we wanted to, we would drown. The ship would burn miles away.

—Mugen has disappeared then? Rin said. Are they all dead?

“If they aren’t already, they will be soon,” Kitay said. I have thought about it a lot, and I remember by heart everything we have studied. The mountain of fire has had to erupt an avalanche of hot ash and volcanic gases, submerging the entire country. If they have not burned to death, they have had to suffocate from the smoke. And if they haven’t suffocated to death, they will have been buried under the rubble. And if none of that has killed them, then they’ll starve, because I’m damn sure nothing is going to grow on that island now, the ash will have destroyed the fields. When the lava cools, that island will be a sealed tomb.

Rin looked at the columns of ash, at the smoke that was still moving, little by little, like a furnace that burns eternally.

The Mugen Federation had perversely become Chuluu Korikh. The island located beyond the strait had been transformed into a stone mountain, and the citizens of the Federation were prisoners held in an animated suspension, from which they would never awaken.

Had he really destroyed the island? She felt a wave of panic and confusion. Impossible, it couldn’t be, this type of natural disaster couldn’t have been caused by her, it was a fucking coincidence, an accident.

Had he really done it?

But she had felt it, the exact moment of the eruption. She had caused it, she had wanted it to happen, and she had felt each of those lives disappear from existence, she had felt

the euphoria of the Phoenix, indirectly experiencing its uncontrolled thirst for blood.

He had destroyed an entire country with the power of his anger. He had done to Mugen what the Federation had done to Esper.

“Dead Island was dangerously close to that ash cloud,” Kitay finally said. It’s a miracle you’re still alive.

“No, it’s not,” he said. It is the will of the gods.

Kitay seemed to be struggling over what to say. Rin looked at him, confused. Why wasn’t Kitay relieved to see her? Why did she look like something terrible had happened? She had survived! She was ok! She had managed to get out of the temple!

“I need to know what you’ve done,” he finally said. Will you explain it to me?

Rin trembled without knowing why, and nodded. What was the point of lying to Kitay now? What was the reason for lying to anyone? They all knew what he was capable of, and then he was aware that he wanted them to know.

—Was this your will? Kitay asked.

“I explained it to you,” he whispered. I went to my god, and told him what I wanted.

Kitay was horrified.

“Are you telling me that your god made you do this?”

“My god didn’t force me to do anything,” he said. The gods cannot decide for us, they can only offer their power, and we can use it. “I did it, and that’s what I chose,” he swallowed. I do not regret.

Kitay’s face lost all color.

—You just killed thousands of innocent people!

—They tortured me! They killed Altan!

—You have done to Mugen what they did to Esper.

-They deserved it!

—How could anyone deserve this?! Kitay shouted. As _

, Rin?

Rin was amazed. How could he be angry with her now? Did he have any idea what had happened?

“You don’t know everything they did,” he said in a whisper. What they were planning, they were going to kill us all, they didn’t care about human lives. They…

—They are monsters! I know! I was in Golyn Niis! I was buried among corpses for days! “But you…” Kitay swallowed, stumbling over his words. You turned around and did the same. Civilians. Innocents Kids, Rin. You just buried an entire country and you don’t feel a thing.

—They were monsters ! Rin shouted. They weren’t human !

Kitav opened his mouth, and said nothing. He closed it again. When he spoke again, he sounded like he was close to crying.

—Have you ever considered that that was exactly what they thought of us? —She said slowly.

They looked at each other, breathing heavily. Blood pounded in Rin’s ears.

How dare he? How dare he get like this and accuse her of committing an atrocity? He had not seen the inside of the

laboratory, he didn’t know that Shiro had planned to wipe out all the nikara… he hadn’t seen Altan walking towards the dock and being consumed in his own fire.

He had achieved revenge for his people, he had saved the Empire. Kitay wasn’t going to judge her for it, she wouldn’t let him.

“Get out of my way,” he snapped. I need to meet my people.

Kitay looked exhausted.

—For what, Rin?

“We have work to do,” he said firmly. This is not over.

—Are you serious? Have you heard anything I’ve told you?

Mugen is finished! Kitay shouted.

“Not Mugen,” he said. Mugen is not the final enemy.

-What are you talking about?

—I want a war against the Empress.

-The Empress?

Kitay looked stunned.

“Su Daji betrayed us, he revealed our location to the Federation,” he said. That’s why they found us, they knew we would be in Chuluu Korikh…

-That’s crazy.

—They told us! The Mugenese told us… Kitay stared at her.

—And hasn’t it occurred to you that they had good reasons for lying to you?

—Not about this. They knew who we were, and where we would be, and only she could know.” Her breathing became rough, she was angry again. I need to know why she did it, and I need to punish her for it. I need to make her suffer.

—Are you listening to yourself speak? Does it matter at all and who sold to whom? Kitay grabbed her shoulders and shook her hard. Look around you, look at what has happened to this land. All our friends are dead. Nezha. Raban. Irjah. Altan. Rin flinched with each name, but Kitay remained relentless. Our whole world is broken and yet you still want more war?

—The war is already here. “There is a traitor sitting on the throne of the Empire,” she said stubbornly. And I will see it burn.

Kitay moved her hand away, and the expression on his face surprised her. He looked at her as if he were looking at a stranger, and he seemed scared of her.

“I don’t know what happened to you in that temple,” he said. But you are not Fang Runin.


Kitay left her alone on the deck. She didn’t come back to look for it.

Rin saw the Cike in the galley on the lower deck, but she didn’t join them, she was too exhausted, worn out. She returned to her cabin and locked herself inside it.

She thought, rather hoped, that Kitay would come looking for her, but he didn’t. When she started crying, there was no one to comfort her, she

He choked on his tears and buried his face against the mattress. She muffled her screams in the hard padding of straw, but then she decided she didn’t care who heard her, and she screamed very loudly in the dark.

Baji came to his door with a tray of food. She rejected him.

An hour later, Enki entered his room and ordered him to eat, and again he refused. Enki told him that he would not do them any favors by starving, and Rin agreed to eat if he gave her opium.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Enki said, looking at her haggard face and tangled, disheveled hair.

“No, listen to me,” he said. I don’t want seeds, I want to smoke.

—I can give you a sleeping pill.

“I don’t need to sleep,” he insisted. I need to not feel anything.

Because the Phoenix had not abandoned her when she had crawled out of the temple. The Phoenix spoke to her even now, it was a constant presence in her mind, hungry and delirious. He had been ecstatic on the deck, watching the ash cloud as an offering.

Rin couldn’t separate her thoughts from the Phoenix’s wishes. He could resist, but he feared that then he would go crazy. Or he could also accept it, and love it.

If Jiang could see me now he would lock me in Chuluu Korikh.

After all, that was where he was supposed to be.

Jiang would have told him that locking oneself in was a noble act.

Not even in dreams , he thought.

He would never willingly go to Chuluu Korikh, not while Empress Su Daji walked the land, not while Feylen was free.

She was the only one powerful enough to stop them, for she now had a power that even Altan could only have dreamed of.

Now he understood that the Phoenix had been right. Altan had been weak. Altan, no matter how hard he had tried, could only be weak, incapable from all those years of captivity. Altan had not chosen his wrath willingly, it had been imposed on him, blow by blow, torture by torture, until he had reacted like a wounded wolf, rising to bite the hand that struck him.

His anger had been wild and aimless, he was just a walking vessel for the Phoenix. She had never had a choice in her quest for revenge, nor had she been able to negotiate with the gods like she had.

Rin was sane, convinced and complete. She had lost a lot, yes, but she still had her mind, she still made her own decisions, and she had chosen to accept the Phoenix, she had chosen to let him invade her mind.

But if she wanted his mind to herself, then she should not think about anything. If she wanted a respite from the Phoenix’s bloodlust, she needed the pipe.

He mused out loud into the darkness as he inhaled that sickly sweet drug.

In out. In out.

I have become something wonderful , he thought, and I have become something terrible .

Was she now a goddess, or a monster?

Maybe neither of those things, maybe both.


Rin was curled up in bed when the twins arrived on the ship, but she didn’t find out until they showed up in her cabin unannounced.

“So you have,” Chaghan said.

Rin sat up, they had found her in a strange state: sober. She hadn’t touched the pipe in hours, but only because she had been sleeping.

Qara ran in and hugged her.

Rin accepted the hug, her eyes wide with surprise. Qara had always been very withdrawn, distant. Rin awkwardly raised her arms, deciding whether to pat her shoulder.

But Qara turned away just as abruptly.

“You’re on fire,” he said.

“I can’t separate him from me,” Rin said. He is in me, he is always in me.

Qara touched Rin’s shoulders gently, and looked at her with understanding, with pity.

—You have gone to the temple.

“Yes, I went,” Rin said. That cloud of ashes, it was me.

“I know,” Qara said. We’re sorry.

“Feylen,” he said abruptly. Feylen escaped, he’s out, we tried to stop him, but…

“We know,” Chaghan said. We are sorry too.

He stiffened at the entrance to the door, looking as if he were eager to say something.

—Where is Altan? —She asked at the end.

Rin didn’t say anything, she remained sitting, looking at him. Chaghan blinked and made the sound of a beaten animal.

“It’s not possible,” he said in a very low voice.

“He’s dead, Chaghan,” Rin said, and felt very tired.

Don’t insist, he’s not here anymore.

“But I would have felt it, I would have felt it go,” he insisted.

“That’s what we all think,” she said.

-You’re lying.

-Because I would do? I was there, I saw it happen.

Chaghan suddenly emerged from the cabin, slamming the door behind him.

Qara looked at her, without the usual irritated expression, just sad.

“You understand,” he said.

Rin did much more than understand him.

-What did you do? What happened? —he finally asked Qara.

“We won the war in the north,” Qara said, wringing her hands in her lap. We follow orders.

Altan’s last desperate orders had been not one but two operations. To the south he had gone with Rin to liberate Chuluu

Korikh. And to the north, he had sent the brothers.

They had overflowed the Murui River. The river valley that Rin had seen in the spirit realm was that of the Four Gorges Dam, the large set of dams that prevented the Murui from flooding the four provinces that surrounded it. Altan had ordered these dikes breached to free the river southward through an ancient canal, cutting off the Federation supply route to the south.

It was almost the same battle plan that Rin had suggested in Strategy class in their first year, and he still remembered Venka’s objections. You can’t just break a dam. Dams take years to rebuild. The entire river delta will be flooded, not just that valley, you’re talking about famine, dysentery.

Rin brought her knees closer to her chest.

—I guess there’s no point in asking if you evacuated people before.

Qara laughed without smiling.

-You did it?

Qara’s words hit her like fists. There had been no reflection whatsoever on anything she had done, what had happened, it had been a decision that had arisen entirely from her, and she had… she had…

It started to shake.

“What have I done, Qara?”

Until now he had not been aware of the magnitude of the atrocity he had committed, he had not really understood it. The number of lives lost, the enormity of what

had invoked, it was an abstract concept, an unreal impossibility.

Had it been worth it? Was it enough redemption for Golyn Niis? Because of Esper?

How could the lives lost compare? One genocide for another? Was it possible to equate, even measure, from justice?

And who was she, who thought she could make that comparison?

He grabbed Qara by the wrist.

-What have I done?

“The same as us,” Qara said. Win a war.

—No, I killed… —Rin choked, he couldn’t finish what he was going to say.

But Qara suddenly became angry.

-What do you want from me? Do you want forgiveness? I can not give it to you.

-Only me…

—Do you want us to compare the death toll? —She said harshly—. Do you want to debate who bears the most blame? You created an eruption, and we caused a flood. Entire towns, submerged in an instant, devastated. You destroyed the enemy. We have killed nikaras.

Rin could only look at her in response, and Qara released her arm from his grasp.

—Wipe that expression off your face. We made our decision, and we survived with our country intact. Okay, it was worth it.

—But we have murdered…

—We have won the war! Qara shouted. We’re getting revenge, Rin.

Altan is gone, but let’s avenge him.

When Rin didn’t respond, Qara grabbed her shoulders, digging her fingers painfully into her skin.

“This is what you have to tell yourself,” Qara said fiercely. You have to believe that all of this was necessary, that it prevented something much worse from happening. And even if it is not true, it is the lie that we are going to tell ourselves, starting with today and continuing with every day of our lives. You made your decision, now you can’t do anything to change it. It is done.

That was what she had told herself on the island, what she had told Kitay.

And then, in the dark of the night, when she couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares and went in search of the pipe, she could do like Qara and keep telling herself that what was done was done. But Qara was wrong about something.

It wasn’t over yet, and it wasn’t over because there were still Federation troops in the country, scattered across the south, because even Chaghan and Qara wouldn’t have been able to drown them all. And now that they had no leader to obey, nor a country to return to, it made them reckless, unpredictable… and dangerous.

And somewhere in the Empire, the Empress sat on a makeshift throne, sheltered in a new capital, Sinegard having been destroyed in a conflict of her own making. Perhaps now she had already heard that the arch-shaped island had disappeared. Would she be devastated to have lost an ally?

Relieved to be freed from an enemy? Maybe for now

He had already appropriated this victory that he had not calculated, perhaps he was using it to consolidate his power.

Mugen had disappeared, but the Cike’s enemies had multiplied. Now they were rebel agents, no longer the loyal servants of the crown they had sold.

Nothing had finished.



No one from Cike had ever witnessed the death of a commander before. Due to the nature of his work, a change in leadership was inevitable and problematic. Past Cike commanders had either gone mad and been dragged to Chuluu Korikh against their will, or had been killed on a mission and never returned.

Few had died as gracefully as Altan Trengsin.

They bid him farewell at dawn. The entire contingent gathered on the deck, solemn, in their black clothing. The ritual was not a nikara ceremony, it was esperli.

Qara spoke for them all, and conducted the ceremony because Chaghan, the Seer, had refused. Because he couldn’t.

“The esperlies used to burn their dead,” he said. They believed that their bodies were passengers. From the ashes we come, and to the ashes we return . For the esperlies, death was not the end, but a great congregation. Altan has left us to return to his home. Altan has returned to Esper.

Qara raised her arms above the waters, and began to sing, not in the language of the esperlies, but in the rhythmic language of the Inner Lands, and then her birds flew in circles above her.

heads in silent tribute. The wind itself seemed to stop, the rolling of the waves stopped, as if the universe itself stopped at the loss of Altan.

The Cike formed a line, in their identical black uniforms, staring at Qara in silence. Ramsa crossed her arms tightly over her chest, her shoulders hunched, as if she wanted to disappear. Baji silently placed a hand on her shoulder.

Rin and Chaghan remained at the end of the deck, separated from the rest of their division.

Kitay was nowhere to be seen.

“We should have had his ashes,” Chaghan said bitterly.

“His ashes are already in the sea,” Rin answered.

Chaghan glared at her, his eyes red with pain, bloodshot. Her pale skin stretched against her cheeks, giving her a more skeletal appearance than ever. She looked as if she hadn’t eaten in days, as if the wind might blow her away.

Rin wondered how long it would take for him to stop blaming her for Altan’s death.

“I imagine he did the best he could,” Chaghan said, gesturing toward the ashes that were the Mugen Federation. Trengsin finally got revenge on him.

-No, he did not do it. Chaghan stiffened.

-Explain yourself.

“Mugen did not betray you,” he said. Mugen didn’t take him to that mountain. Mugen didn’t sell Esper, the Empress did.

—Su Daji? Chaghan said incredulously. Because? What would he gain?

—I don’t know, and I want to find out.

“ Tenega ,” Chaghan cursed, looking like he had just realized something. He crossed his thin arms against his chest, and murmured something in his own language. Of course.


“You obtained the hexagram of Fire,” he said. Fire means traps, betrayals. The nets of your capture were placed before you. His Daji must have sent a letter to the Federation at the same time Altan thought of going to that damned mountain. One is prepared to move, but the footprints run crisscrossed at random . All this time you were both pawns in someone else’s game.

“We weren’t pawns,” Rin snapped. And don’t act like you saw it coming. Then he felt a sudden surge of anger, at Chaghan’s masterful tone, his backward thinking, as if it fit his predictions, as if he had expected all this to happen, as if he had known more than Altan all along. Your hexagrams only make sense in retrospect, they didn’t guide us at all. Your fucking hexagrams are useless.

Chaghan stiffened,

—My hexagrams are not useless, I see the fabric of the world, I understand the changing nature of reality. I have read countless hexagrams to the Cike commanders.

Rin snorted.

—And in all the hexagrams you read to Altan, did you never glimpse that he could die?

To his surprise, Chaghan shuddered.

She knew she wasn’t being fair, throwing accusations at him when Altan’s death could hardly have been Chaghan’s fault. But she needed to hit, to blame someone else instead of herself.

He couldn’t stand Chaghan’s attitude that he knew better, that he had foreseen this tragedy, because it wasn’t true. She and Altan had gone to that mountain blindly, and he had let them go.

“I told you,” Chaghan said. Hexagrams cannot predict the future, they are windows to the world as it is, descriptions of the forces at play. The gods of the Pantheon represent sixty-four fundamental forces, and the hexagrams reflect their undulations.

—And none of those undulations shouted, don’t go to the mountain, or they will kill you?

“I warned you,” Chaghan said quietly.

“You could have tried harder,” he said bitterly, even knowing that it was also an unfounded accusation, and that he was only saying it to hurt Chaghan. You could have told him that he was about to die.

“All the Altan hexagrams spoke of death,” Chaghan said. I didn’t imagine that this time he was referring to his.

Rin laughed out loud.

—Are you really a psychic? Have you ever seen anything useful?

—I saw Golyn Niis, right? Chaghan snapped.

But the moment those words left his mouth, he made a choking sound, and his face contorted with grief.

Rin didn’t say what they were both thinking, that maybe if they hadn’t gone to Golyn Niis, Altan wouldn’t have died.

He wished he had fought the war in Khurdalain. He wished they had abandoned the Empire and escaped to Night Castle, letting the Federation wipe out the population while they waited for the end of the conflict in the mountains, safe, isolated, and alive.

Chaghan was so sunk that Rin’s anger disappeared. Chaghan, after all, had tried to stop Altan, and had failed. Neither of them could have convinced Altan to change his frantic quest for death.

It was impossible for Chaghan to have predicted the future of Altan, for the future was not written. Altan made his choices, at Khurdalain, at Golyn Niis, and finally at that dock, and neither of them could have stopped him.

“I should have known,” Chaghan finally said.

We have an enemy we love.


—I read it in the Altan hexagram, months ago.

“Talk about the Empress,” he said.

“Maybe,” he said, and turned his gaze toward the ocean.

They watched the Qara falcons in silence, they flew in large circles, as if they were the guides, as if they could carry

a spirit towards the heavens.

Rin thought about the parade so long ago, about the animal puppets from the House of Heavenly Menagerie. In the majestic kirin, that noble beast with the head of a lion, which appeared in the skies after the death of a great leader.

Would a kirin appear in Altan?

Did he deserve it?

He found that he was not able to answer that question.

“The Empress should be the least of our worries,” Chaghan said after a while. Feylen is getting very strong. And he has always been powerful, almost more so than Altan.

Rin thought about the storm cloud she had seen over the mountains, and those malicious blue eyes.

-What do you want?

-Who knows? The god of the Four Winds is one of the most volatile entities in the Pantheon. His moods are completely unpredictable. One day it could be a gentle breeze, and the next it could devastate entire towns. He will sink ships and tear down cities. It could be the end of this country.

Chaghan spoke lightly, casually, as if he didn’t care that Nikan would be destroyed the next day. Rin had expected blame or accusation, but there was nothing, just facts, as if the Hinterlands had lost interest in Nikan’s problems now that Altan was gone. Maybe he was the one who had no interest.

“We’ll stop him,” Rin said.

Chaghan shrugged indifferently.

—Good luck, you’ll need to give it your all.

“So, will you be our commander?” Chaghan shook his head.

—No, even when I was Tyr’s lieutenant, I knew I would never become a commander. I was the Seer of Altan, but he was never considered a commander.

-Why not?

—A foreigner in charge of the Empire’s deadliest division? No joke. Chaghan crossed his arms against his chest. No, Altan named his successor before leaving for Golyn Niis.

Rin sharply raised her head, this was something new.


Chaghan looked at her as if he couldn’t believe what she was asking.

Then Rin felt as if he had been hit in the solar plexus.

Altan had named her his successor, entrusted her with his legacy. She had written and signed the order in blood before she even left Khurdalain.

“I am the commander of the Cike,” she said, and she had to repeat those words to herself before the meaning made sense. She had a status equivalent to that of the Warlords’ generals. She had the power to order Cike to do whatever she wanted. I order Cike.

Chaghan glanced at her sideways, his expression grim.

—You are going to paint the world with the blood of Altan, right?

“I’m going to find and kill everyone who caused it,” Rin said. You can’t stop me.

Chaghan laughed, it was a dry, sharp laugh.

“Oh, I’m not going to stop you.”

He extended his hand, and Rin took it. The drowned earth and the sky covered in ash were witnesses of the pact between the Seer and the esperli.

They had reached an agreement. They were no longer at odds, competing for Altan’s favor. They were allies now, united by the atrocities they had committed.

They had a god to kill, a world to rebuild, and an empress to overthrow.

They were united by the blood they had shed, united by the suffering, and united by what had happened to them.


It hadn’t just happened to them.

We don’t force you to do anything , the Phoenix had whispered, and he had spoken the truth. The Phoenix with all his power could not force Tearza to obey, and he could not have coerced Rin either, he had to accept the deal wholeheartedly.

Jiang had been wrong, they did not handle forces that they could not control, because the gods were not dangerous. The gods had no power except what they decided to give them. The gods could only alter the universe through humans like her. Her destiny had not been written in the stars, or in the records of the Pantheon. Rin had made her autonomous decisions and

consciously. And even though she had called upon the gods to aid her in battle, they had only been her tools from the beginning to the end.

Rin was not a victim of fate, she was the last esperli, commander of the Cike, and a shaman who invoked the gods to do her will.

And Rin, with the help of the gods, was going to do terrible things.

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