Rin and Nezha were the last to enter the main hall, a remodeled temple from the third layer of the mountain. Although the room was not particularly large, its sober and gloomy interior gave the feeling of being a huge space, making you feel small. Rin supposed that was the desired effect when they found themselves in the presence of both gods and professors.
The freshman class, which numbered no more than fifty in total, sat on their knees in rows of ten. The students wrung their hands in their laps, blinking and looking around in anxious silence. The older students sat in rows around them, chatting quietly. Their laughter sounded louder than usual, as if they were trying to make the first years uncomfortable on purpose.
As soon as Rin sat down, the main doors opened and a tiny woman, even shorter than the smallest of the new students, entered the room. She walked with the step of the soldiers, perfectly upright, precise and in control.
Five men and one woman, all dressed in dark brown togas, followed him. They formed a line behind her at the front of the room with their hands folded under her sleeves. The students
They fell silent in unison and stood up, with their hands clasped behind their backs and their heads bowed slightly. Rin and the rest of the first years followed suit and hurried to their feet.
The woman stared at them for a moment, then gestured for them to sit down.
—Welcome to Sinegard. I am Jima Lain, Grand Master of the school, commander of the Sinegard Reserve Forces, and former commander of the Nikan Imperial Militia. —Jima’s voice cut through the room like a knife, precise and chilling.
Jima pointed to the six people arrayed behind her.
—These are the maesters of Sinegard. They will be your instructors in your first year, and will ultimately decide whether to take you on as apprentices after your Trials at the end of the year.
The maesters were a solemn group, each one more imposing than the last. No one smiled. Each one wore a different colored belt: red, blue, purple, green and orange.
Except one. The man to Jima’s left was not wearing a belt. His toga was also different, with no embroidery at the ends and no Red Emperor insignia sewn onto his right breastplate. He was dressed as if he had forgotten the orientation and had thrown on a brown cape cloth at the last minute.
This teacher’s hair was pure white, like Tutor Feyrik’s beard, but he was not nearly as old. His face was curiously wrinkle-free, but he was not young. It was impossible to guess his age. While Jima was talking, she stuck her finger in her
ear and then brought his finger closer to examine the wax he had removed.
He suddenly looked at the students, and caught Rin looking at him, and smiled.
Rin looked away suddenly.
“You’re here because you have the highest Keju scores in the entire country,” Jima said, spreading his hands over them. You have defeated thousands of aspirants for the honor of studying here. Congratulations.
The first years looked at each other uncomfortably, unsure if they should applaud themselves. Some tentative clapping was heard around the room.
—Next year, a fifth of you will be gone. The silence became evident.
—Sinegard doesn’t have the time or resources to train every kid who seeks glory in the army. Even illiterate farmers can become soldiers. But we don’t train soldiers here. We form generals . We train the people who will have the future of the Empire in their hands. Therefore, if I decide that you are no longer worth our time, you will be asked to leave. You will notice that you will not be given the option to choose your studies. We do not believe that decision should be left in the hands of the students. After your first year, you will be evaluated for your proficiency in each of the subjects we teach here: Combat, Strategy, History, Weapons, Linguistics, and Medicine.
“And Acervo,” the teacher with white hair interrupted. Jima’s left eye twitched.
—And Acquis. If at the end of the first year tests you are deemed worthy of one of the lines of study, you will be approved to continue at Sinegard. It will be then that you will obtain the rank of apprentice.
Jima pointed to the older students around them. Rin now noticed that the students’ bracelets matched the teachers’ belts.
—If no Master deems you suitable to take on as an apprentice, you will be asked to leave the Academy. In general, the retention percentage is eighty percent. Look around you. That means that next year, two people in your row will be gone.
Rin looked around, fighting the surge of panic growing inside her. He had thought that passing Sinegard guaranteed him, if not a stable career, then at least a home for the next five years.
She hadn’t realized she could be sent home for months.
—We select out of necessity, not out of cruelty. Our task is to train the elite, the best of the best. We don’t have time to waste on amateurs. Take a good look at your companions. They will be your closest friends, but also your biggest rivals. You are competing among yourselves to remain in this Academy. We believe that it is through this competition that those with talent will make themselves known. And those without talent
They will be sent to your house. If you deserve it, you will be apprentices next year. If not… well, they shouldn’t have sent you here.
Jima seemed to look directly at Rin.
—Finally, I will give you a warning. I will not tolerate drugs on this campus. If you have the merest wisp of opium on you, if you are caught ten steps away from any illegal substance, you will be expelled from the Academy and thrown into Baghra prison.
Jima looked at them one last time sternly and then waved them off.
Raban, the apprentice student who had stopped the fight between Rin and Nezha, led them from the main hall to the dormitories on the lower layer.
“You’re first years, so your task is to sweep starting next week,” Raban said, walking backwards to address them. He had a gentle, soothing voice, the tone Rin had heard practitioners in the village say before amputating limbs. The first bell rings at dawn, classes start half an hour later. Be in the dining room before or you will miss breakfast.
The boys were housed in the largest building on campus, a three-story building that looked like it had been built long after the Academy grounds had been expropriated from the monks. The women’s building was small in comparison, a simple one-story building that was once a meditation hall.
Rin expected the dormitory to be crowded, but only two other beds showed signs of being occupied.
“Three girls in one year, a record in fact,” Raban said before leaving them to settle in. The maesters were surprised.
Alone in the room, the three girls inspected each other suspiciously.
“I’m Niang,” offered the girl to Rin’s left. She had a round, friendly face, and spoke with a rhythmic accent that revealed her northern heritage, nowhere near as indecipherable as the Sinegard dialect. I am from the province of La Liebre.
“My pleasure,” the other girl drawled. She was inspecting her sheets. She rubbed the thin whitish fabric with her fingers, made a disgusted face, and dropped the fabric. “Venka,” she said reluctantly. From the Dragon Province, but I grew up in the capital.
Venka fulfilled the archetype of Sinegardian beauty, she was beautiful in her pallor, and thin as a willow branch. Rin felt crude and unsophisticated next to her.
He realized that they were both looking at him expectantly.
“Runin,” he said. Best Rin .
“ Runin ,” Venka destroyed the name with her Sinegardian accent, moving the syllables in her mouth as if she were chewing on stale meat. ¿What kind of name is that
“He’s from the South,” Rin said. I am from the province of Gallo.
“That’s why your skin is so dark,” said Venka, with a half smile.
—. Brown like cow dung.
Rin snorted silently.
—The sun once hit me. You should try it sometime.
Just as tutor Feyrik had warned him, the difficulty of the classes escalated rapidly. The martial arts training began in the courtyard of the second layer just after dawn the next day.
-What is this? —Maester Jun, the red belt Combat instructor, looked at the crowded class with distaste. Get in line. I want straight rows. Don’t crowd around like scared chickens.
Jun had a pair of fantastic, thick black eyebrows that almost met in the middle of his forehead, resting on his dark face like a storm cloud over a permanently frowning brow.
—Straight back. Jun’s voice matched her face: impatient and relentless. Look forward. Arms behind the back.
Rin tried hard to imitate the postures of his companions opposite. His left thigh was tingling, but he didn’t dare scratch it. Too late, he realized that he had to urinate.
Jun walked to the front of the courtyard, satisfied that they were as uncomfortable as possible. He stopped in front of Nezha.
—What happened to your face?
Nezha had developed a truly spectacular bruise over his left eye, a bright purple spot on an otherwise flawless appearance.
“I got into a fight,” Nezha murmured.
“You’re lucky,” Jun said. If it had been later, I would have expelled you.
He raised his voice to address the class.
—The first and most important rule of my class is this: do not fight irresponsibly. The techniques you are going to learn are lethal in their application. If done incorrectly, they will cause serious injury to you or your fellow intern. If you fight irresponsibly, I will suspend you from my class and push to have you expelled from Sinegard. You understood me?
“Yes, sir,” they answered.
Nezha turned his head over his shoulder and gave Rin a look of pure venom. She pretended she hadn’t seen him.
—Who has practiced martial arts before? Jun asked.
—. Raise your hand.
Almost the entire class raised their hands. Rin looked around the courtyard, with a wave of panic. Had so many trained before the Academy? Where had they trained? How advanced were they? What if I couldn’t keep up with them?
Jun pointed at Venka.
-How many years?
“Twelve,” said Venka. I have trained in the Gentle Fist style.
Rin’s eyes widened. That meant Venka had been training almost since he could walk.
Jun pointed to a wooden doll.
—Crescent backward kick. Take his head off.
Take his head off? Rin looked doubtfully at the mannequin. Her head and his torso had been carved from the same piece of wood. His head had not been screwed on, it was solidly connected to the torso.
Venka, however, seemed completely unfazed. She positioned her feet, narrowed her eyes, and then swung her leg back in a twist that brought her foot over her head. Her heel cut the air in a lovely, precise arc.
Her foot connected with the mannequin’s head and she was launched, tracing a clean arc over the yard. His head hit the corner of the wall and rolled to the side.
Rin’s jaw dropped.
Jun nodded sharply in approval and dismissed Venka.
She returned to her place in the ranks, pleased.
—How did you do it? Jun asked.
Magic , Rin thought.
Jun stopped in front of Niang.
-You. You seem bewildered. How do you think she did it? Niang became nervous.
—Ki ? _
—What is ki ? Niang blushed.
— Ummm . Internal energy. Spiritual energy?
“Spiritual energy…” Master Jun repeated, snorting. Village charlatanry. Those who raise ki to the level of mystery or supernatural harm the martial arts. Ki is nothing more than pure energy. The same energy that flows through your lungs and blood vessels. The same energy that moves rivers downstream and causes the wind to blow.
He pointed to the bell of the tower on the fifth level.
—Two soldiers installed a newly cast bell last year. Alone, they would never have been able to raise the bell all that distance. But with cleverly positioned ropes, two ordinary men were able to lift something several times their weight.
»The same principle works in reverse in martial arts. You have a limited amount of energy in your body. No training will allow you to perform superhuman feats. But with the right discipline, knowing where and how to hit…
Jun slammed his fist into the mannequin’s torso. It exploded, forming a perfect circle of splinters around his fist.
He withdrew his arm. The mannequin’s torso collapsed in pieces to the ground.
—You will be able to do what ordinary humans believe impossible. Martial arts are action and reaction. Angles and trigonometry. The exact amount of force applied with the vector
appropriate. Your muscles contract and exert force, and that force is dissipated by your target. If you gain muscle mass, you will be able to exert more strength. If you train good technique, your force will be transferred concentrated and with superior effectiveness. Martial arts are no more complicated than pure physics. If this confuses you, then follow the advice of the great teachers: Don’t question it. Obey.
History was a lesson in humility. Maester Yim, stooped and bald, began exposing Nikan’s military embarrassments before they had even finished entering the classroom.
“In the last century, the Empire has fought five wars,” Yim said, “and we have lost all of them.” That is why we named the last century the Age of Humiliations.
“How optimistic,” murmured a boy with bushy hair in front.
If Yim heard it, he didn’t show it. He pointed to a large parchment map of the eastern hemisphere.
—This country used to cover half of the Red Emperor’s continental territory. The ancient Nikan Empire was the cradle of modern civilization. The center of the world. All inventions originated in Ancient Nikan, including the magnet, the parchment press, and the blast furnace. Envoys from Nikan brought culture and methods of government to the islands of Mugen in the east and Esper in the south.
»But empires fall. The old Empire was a victim of its own splendor. The Warlords, enraged by their
victories after expansion in the northern Hinterlands began to fight among themselves. The death of the Red Emperor led to a series of wars of succession with no clear resolution. And so Nikan was divided into twelve provinces, each ruled by a Warlord. For most of recent history, Warlords have dedicated themselves to fighting among themselves. Until…
“The Poppy Wars,” said the bushy-haired boy.
-Yeah. The Poppy Wars. —Yim pointed to a country on the edge of Nikan, a small island shaped like a long arc—. Without warning, Nikan’s little eastern brother, his former tributary nation, turned against the country that had given him his civilization. You already know the rest, surely.
Niang raised a hand.
—Why did relations between Nikan and Mugen deteriorate? The Federation was a peaceful tributary country in the days of the Red Emperor. What happened? What do they want from us?
“Relations were never peaceful,” Yim corrected him. And they are not today either. Mugen have always wanted more, even when they were tributaries. The Federation is an ambitious, fast-growing country, on a small island teeming with population. Imagine you are a highly military country with more people than your country can support, and nowhere to expand. Imagine that your rulers have propagated an ideology in which you are gods, and that you have the divine right to expand your empire throughout the eastern hemisphere. Suddenly, the vast land on the other side of the Nariin Sea seems like a perfect target, right?
He turned back to the map.
—The First Poppy War was a disaster. The fractured Empire could never have faced off against the well-trained Federation troops who had been preparing for this invasion for decades. Well, a question for you: How did we win the Second Poppy War?
A boy named Han raised his hand.
Silent giggles were heard around the classroom. The Triumvirate: The Viboratrix, the Dragon Emperor and the Guardian, three heroic soldiers who unified the Empire against the Federation. They were real, the woman known as Viboratrix still sat on the throne of Sinegard, but her legendary martial arts skills belonged to children’s stories. Rin had grown up hearing stories about how the Triumvirate had single-handedly crushed entire Federation battalions, using storms and floods with his supernatural powers. Even Rin felt like he was ridiculous for a history class.
—Don’t laugh. The Triumvirate was important, without their political machinations we would not have been able to unify the twelve provinces,” Yim said. But that’s not the answer I’m waiting for.
Rin raised her hand.
—We devastated the interior, frantically following a strategy of burning the earth. When the Federation advanced too far into the interior, their supply lines were depleted and they were unable to feed their armies.
Yim dismissed his response with a gesture.
—Good answer, but false. It’s just propaganda they put in the history books of rural areas. The scorched earth strategy does more damage to rural areas than to Mugen.
It was the boy with the bushy hair who got the answer right.
—We won because we lost Esper. Yim nodded.
—Get up, and explain yourself.
The boy brushed his hair back and stood up.
—We won the war because losing Esper caused Hesperia to intervene. And, ah, Hesperia’s naval skills far surpassed Mugen’s. They won the war on the ocean, and then Nikan was in the subsequent peace treaty. The victory was not really ours.
“Right,” Yim said.
The boy sat up, looking immensely relieved.
“Nikan did not win the Second Poppy War,” Yim reiterated. The Federation is gone because we were so pathetic that we gave pity to the great naval powers of the west. We did such a terrible job defending our country that it took a genocide for Hesperia to intervene. While Nikan’s forces were busy on the northern front, a fleet of Federation ships swept across Dead Island during the night. Every Esper man, woman and child was slaughtered, and their bodies burned. An entire race, gone in one day.
The class fell silent. They had grown up hearing stories about the destruction of Esper, a tiny island, like a drop between the Nariin Sea and the Omonod Sea, located next to the Serpent Province. It was the last tributary state of the Empire, conquered and annexed at the height of the Red Emperor’s reign. It was a troubled place in the history of Nikan, a blatant example of the great failure of the disunited army in the time of the Warlords.
Rin had always wondered if Esper’s loss had been a mere accident. If any other province had been destroyed like Esper was , a peace treaty would not have been enough for the Nikan Empire. They would have fought until the Mugen Federation was reduced to ashes.
But the esperlies were not nikara at all. Tall and dark, they were an island people who had been ethnically separated from the Nikan mainlanders. They spoke their own language, had their own writing, and their own religion. They had joined the Imperial Militia under the threat of the Red Emperor’s sword.
All of this led to tense relations between the Nikara and Esperlies since the Second Poppy War. So, Rin figured, if any Nikan territory had to be sacrificed, Esper would be the obvious choice.
“We’ve survived the last century with nothing but luck, and the charity of the West,” Yim said. But even with Hesperia’s help, Nikan was barely able to drive out the Federation invaders. Under pressure from Hesperia, the Federation signed the Non-Aggression Pact at the end of the Second Poppy War, and Nikan has maintained its independence ever since. The Federation has been relegated to the positions of
trade on the edge of the province of Caballo, and more or less they have behaved for the last two decades.
“But the Mugenese are restless, and Hesperia’s promises have never been reliable. The heroes of the Triumvirate have been reduced to one, the Emperor is dead, the Guardian is lost, and only the Empress remains on the throne. Perhaps worse, we have no esper soldiers. —Yim paused—. Our best fighting force is gone. Nikan no longer possesses the items that helped him survive the Second Poppy War. We can’t trust Hesperia to save us again. If the past centuries have taught us anything, it is that Nikan’s enemies never rest. But this time, when they come, we intend to be prepared.
The noon bell signaled time to eat.
Food was served from giant cauldrons lining the far wall, congee, fish stew and sweet rice flour loaves, handed out by cooks who seemed totally indifferent to their work.
The students were given minimally large portions to satisfy their roaring stomachs, but not so large that they felt completely satisfied. Students who tried to get back in line were sent back to their tables empty-handed.
For Rin, the prospect of regular meals was more than generous; she had frequently found herself without dinner at the Fang household. But his classmates complained to Raban about the individual portions.
—Jima’s philosophy is that being hungry is a good thing. “He keeps you awake, focused,” Raban explained.
“It’ll keep us miserable,” Nezha complained.
Rin rolled her eyes, but kept her mouth shut. They sat tightly packed in two rows of twenty-five along the wooden table near the end of the dining room. The other tables were occupied by apprentices, but not even Nezha had the courage to sit among them.
Rin found herself sitting between Niang and the bushy-haired boy who had spoken in history class.
“My name is Kitay,” he introduced himself, after gobbling down his stew.
He was a year younger than her and looked it, skinny, freckled and with huge ears. He also happened to have obtained the highest Keju score in Sinegard Municipality. By far the most competitive region, really impressive for someone who had done the Keju a year earlier. She had an eidetic memory, and she wanted to study strategy with Maester Irjah once she’d passed the Trials, and didn’t she think Jun was a bit of an asshole?
-Yeah. And my name is Runin…Rin,” she told him, once she gave him time to speak.
—Oh, you’re the one Nezha hates.
Rin supposed there were worse reputations. In any case, it seemed like Kitay had nothing against her.
-What’s your problem? —Rin asked.
—His father is the Dragon Warlord and his aunts have been concubines to the throne for generations. You’d be a jerk too if your family was rich and attractive.
-Do you know him? —Rin asked.
-We grew up together. Nezha, Venka and me. We share the same tutor. He thought they would be nicer to me once we were all at the Academy. —Kitay shrugged, looking at the other end of the table where Nezha and Venka seemed to focus all the attention—. He seems like he was wrong.
Rin wasn’t surprised that Nezha hadn’t included Kitay in his social circle. There was no way Nezha would have dated someone half as smart as Kitay, it would mean plenty of opportunities for Kitay to outshine him.
—What could you have done to offend him? Kitay grimaced.
—Nothing, except beating him in a test. Nezha is very picky about his ego. Why? What did you do to him?
—That black eye. Kitay raised an eyebrow.
Acervo was scheduled for after lunch, and then they would have Linguistics. Rin had been looking forward to this subject all day. But the trainees who had brought them to class seemed to be holding back their laughter. They climbed the steps
winding up to the fifth level, higher than any of the other classes. Finally they stopped in front of a closed garden.
-What are we doing here? Nezha asked.
“This is your class,” said one of the apprentice students. They looked at each other, smiled and left. After five minutes, the cause of his amusement became clear. The Master of Acquis did not appear, ten minutes passed, and then another twenty.
The class walked around the garden timidly, trying to figure out what they had to do.
“It’s hazing,” Han suggested. They have brought us to the wrong place.
—What will they grow here? —Nezha brought a flower to his nose and smelled it—. Gross.
Rin looked closer at the flowers, and her eyes widened.
I had seen those petals before.
Nezha recognized them at the same moment she did.
“Shit,” he said, “they’re poppy plants.”
The class reacted like a nest of startled dormice. They hurried away from the poppies as if they could be placed by their mere proximity.
Rin fought the sudden urge to laugh. Here, on the other side of the country, there was at least something she was familiar with.
“They’re going to expel us,” Venka moaned.
“Don’t be stupid, this poppy plant is not ours,” Kitay said.
Venka waved his hands around his face.
—But Jima said that if we were ten steps away from…
“They can’t expel the whole class,” Kitay said. I bet he’s testing us. Seeing if we really want to learn.
—Or seeing how we react to illegal drugs! Venka screamed.
“Calm down,” Rin said. You can’t get high just by touching it.
Venka did not calm down.
—But Jima didn’t say they had to catch us high, she said…
“I don’t think this is real class,” Nezha interrupted.
I bet the trainees just wanted to laugh at us.
Kitay looked doubtful.
—It’s on our schedule. And we saw the Master of the Collection, he was at the orientation.
“So where were his apprentices?” —Nezha replied.
—. What color was his belt? Why haven’t we seen anyone walking around with the Acervo sewn bracelet? It’s stupid.
Nezha slipped out the door. Encouraged, the rest of the class followed him, one by one. Finally, Rin and Kitay were the only ones left in the garden.
Rin sat down and put her elbows on the ground, admiring the variety of plants in the garden. Apart from the blood red poppy flowers, there were tiny cacti with pink and yellow flowers,
fluorescent mushrooms glowing faintly in the dark corners under the shelves, and green-leaved bushes that gave off a tea-like smell.
“This isn’t a garden,” Rin said, “it’s a drug farm.” Now she really wanted to meet the Master of Acquis.
Kitay sat next to him.
—You know, the great shamans of legends used to take drugs before battle. It gave them magical powers, or so the stories say—he smiled—. Do you think that’s what the Master of Acquis teaches?
-Honestly? Rin said, pulling up the grass. I think he just comes here to get high.