Chapter no 4

The Poppy War

The classes increased in difficulty as the weeks went by. His mornings were dedicated to Combat, Medicine, History and Strategy. Most days, Rin’s head felt like a midday drum, filled with the names of theorems he had never heard of and titles of books he had to read by the end of the week.

Combat classes kept his body as exhausted as his mind. Jun subjected them to twisted sets of calisthenics, regularly running up and down the Academy stairs, doing handstands in the courtyard for endless hours, and rotating between martial arts styles with bags of bricks dangling from their arms. Every week, Jun would take them to a lake deep in the mountain and make them swim its entire length.

Rin, and a handful of other students, had never been taught to swim. Jun showed them the correct way to swim just once. Afterwards, it was up to them not to drown.

Their tasks were heavy and with the clear intention of putting the first-timers to the limit. Thus, when the Master of Arms, Sonnen, taught them the correct proportions of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal needed to create the gunpowder that propelled the

combat rockets, he also had them make other improvised rockets. And when Medicine Master Enro sent them to study all the names of the bones in the human body, he also expected them to know the most common fracture patterns and how to identify them.

However, it was Strategy, taught by Master Irjah, that was the most difficult subject. On the first day of class he gave them a voluminous book, Sunzi’s The Art of War , and announced that they had to memorize it by the end of the week.

-It’s too long! Han complained. How are we supposed to do the rest of our homework?

“Altan Trengsin learned it in one night,” Irjah said.

The class exchanged exasperated glances. The maesters had been praising Altan Trengsin since the course began. Rin learned that he was some kind of genius, apparently the brightest student to come through Sinegard in decades.

Han looked as irritated as she felt.

—Okay, but we are not Altan.

“Then try to be,” said Irjah. The class is over.


Rin settled into a routine of constant study and little rest, the first year schedule giving them no time to do anything else.

Autumn had begun in Sinegard, a gust of wind accompanying them as they climbed the steps one morning, whispering through the trees with a thunderous crescendo. The

The students had not yet received warmer clothing for the winter, and their teeth were chattering in unison as they squeezed together under a large mimosa tree at the other end of the second dais patio.

Despite the cold, Jun refused to move Combat class inside before the snow made it impossible to stay outside. As a teacher he was brutal, as he seemed to delight in his discomfort.

“Pain is good for you,” he told them as he forced them to crouch in slow, tortuous postures of resistance. Martial artists of yesteryear stayed in this position for an hour straight before starting to train.

“Martial artists of yesteryear must have had incredible thighs,” Kitay snorted.

The morning calisthenics were still miserable, but at least they had moved beyond the fundamentals to the first art of weapon fighting: staff techniques.

Jun had just assumed his position at the front of the courtyard when Rin heard a rustle of leaves overhead. A handful fell right on top of Jun.

Everyone looked up.

Perched atop a thick branch of the mimosa tree was their missing Master of Acquis.

He was carrying a pair of large pruning shears, and was happily cutting leaves at random while singing a tune to himself.

After hearing a few words of the song, Rin recognized it as The Guardian’s Touch . Rin knew her from listening to her on her many trips delivering opium in the brothels of Tikany, it was

an obscene melody bordering on the erotic. The Master of Acquis was destroying the melody, but he was singing it out loud in wild abandon.

— I can’t touch you there, miss / or you will perish from bliss…

Niang shuddered, trying to silence some nervous giggles.

And Kitay had his mouth open as he looked at the tree.

“Jiang, I have a class,” Jun interrupted.

“Then teach your class,” said Master Jiang. Leave me alone.

—We need the patio.

—You don’t need the whole yard. “You don’t need this tree,” Jiang said petulantly.

Jun shook his iron rod several times in the air and hit the base of the tree. The trunk shook from the impact and the crunch of dead weight could be heard breaking through several layers of dry mimosa leaves.

Master Jiang fell to the ground like a sack.

The first thing that came to Rin’s mind was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. The second thing was that he must be dead.

But Jiang simply rolled to a sitting position, shook his left leg, and brushed back his shoulder-length white hair.

“You have no manners,” he said absently, blood running down his left temple.

—Do you have to walk around like an idiot? —Jun barked.

“Do you have to interrupt my morning gardening session?” —Jiang replied.

“You’re not gardening,” Jun said, “you’re just here to bother me.”

—I think you’re giving yourself flowers.

Jun slammed the staff on the ground, making Jiang flinch.


Jiang put on a dramatically hurt expression and stood up straight. She strutted out of the garden, moving her hips like a brothel dancer.

— If your heart beats for me / I will lick you like a mooncake…

“You’re right,” Kitay whispered to Rin. He’s been getting high.

-Attention! —Jun shouted to the class that was gaping. She even had a mimosa leaf stuck in her hair. She shook every time she spoke.

The class quickly lined up in two rows in front of him, canes at the ready.

—When I give the signal, you will repeat the following sequence with me.

He demonstrated with his cane as he spoke. Forward. Back. Left high block. Guard. Right high block. Guard. Low left block. Guard. Low right block. Guard. Turn, step behind and guard.


They nodded silently. No one dared to admit that they had missed almost the entire sequence. Jun’s displays were normally swift, but she had moved so fast that no one could keep up with her.

“Very well,” Jun tapped his cane against the ground.

Get started.

It was a failure. They moved without rhythm or purpose. Nezha aced the sequence, at twice the speed of the rest of the class, and was one of the few who could do it in its entirety. The rest either skipped half of the sequence or confused the guidelines.


Kitay, blocking when he should have turned, hit Rin in the back. She stumbled forward, hitting Venka in the head by accident.

—Stop! —Jun shouted.

His shaking stopped.

—I’m going to tell you a story about the great strategist Sunzi.

—Jun walked through the rows, breathing deeply. When Sunzi finished writing his great treatise, The Art of War , he presented it to the Red Emperor. The Emperor decided to test Sunzi’s wisdom by having him train a group of people with no military experience: the Emperor’s concubines. Sunzi accepted and gathered the women at the palace gates. He told them: “When I say, eyes forward , you will look ahead. When I say, left turn , you will turn left. When I say, turn right , you will turn right. When I say, half turn , you will turn one hundred and eighty degrees. Is it clear? The women nodded. Sunzi then gave the signal, right turn . But the women burst out laughing.

Jun stood in front of Niang, visibly agitated.

—Sunzi told the Emperor, “If the word of command is not clear and distinctive, if it is not understood directly, then the general is to blame.” He turned to the concubines and repeated his

instructions. “Right turn,” she ordered. Again, the women burst out laughing.

Jun moved his head slowly, looking each of them in the eyes.

—This time, Sunzi told the Emperor, “If the word of command is not clear, then the general is to blame. But, if the word of command is clear, the order is not executed, the troop leaders are blamed. He proceeded to select the two oldest concubines of the group, and had them beheaded.

Niang’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her face.

Jun stepped back to the front of the courtyard and raised his staff. As they watched in terror, Jun repeated the sequence, this time more slowly, naming the movements as he performed them.

—Clearer now? They nodded.

He slammed his staff against the ground.

—Then start.

They executed her. They were impeccable.


The combat was an ordeal that destroyed the spirit and exhausted the soul, but at least it was interesting that they were night sessions. They consisted of periods of training supervised by two of Jun’s apprentices, Kureel and Jeeha. The trainees were lazy like teachers, and disproportionately enthusiastic at the prospect of inflicting as much pain as possible on an imaginary opponent. Thus, the training periods

They often bordered on disaster, with Jeeha and Kureel milling around, shouting advice as the students clashed.

—Unless you have a gun, don’t point it at the face. Jeeha guided Venka’s hand downward so that his stab hit Nezha’s throat, instead of his nose. Aside from the nose, his face is practically made of bone. You will only bruise your hand. The neck is a better target. With enough force, you could lethally crush his windpipe. At the very least, you’ll cause him trouble breathing.

Kureel knelt next to Kitay and Han, who were rolling on the ground holding each other’s heads.

—Bite is an excellent technique if you’re in a pinch. A moment later, Han screamed in pain.

A handful of first years stood around a wooden dummy while Jeeha showed them a proper knife stroke.

—The Nikara monks believed that this point was a major center of ki . —Jeeha pointed under the mannequin’s stomach, giving it a dramatic punch.

Rin took the bait to speed up the topic.

-And it is?

—Nah, there is no such thing as ki centers . But this area under the ribcage has a lot of vital organs that are exposed. Also, it is where you have the diaphragm. Hah! — Jeeha hit the doll with her fist. That should immobilize any opponent for a few seconds. It will give you time to gouge out his eyes.

“It seems vulgar,” Rin said. Jeeha shrugged.

—We are not here to be sophisticated. We’re here to screw people.

“I’m going to show you one last shot,” Kureel announced as the session was ending. This is the only kick you’ll need, in fact. A kick to knock down the strongest warriors.

Jeeha looked at him confused. He turned his head to ask her what she meant. And Kureel raised his knee and pressed his heel into his crotch.


Mandatory training sessions lasted only two hours, but freshmen began staying long after class ended to practice the form.

The only problem was the students who had previously received training, who took this opportunity to show off. Nezha performed a series of aerial pirouettes in the center of the room, attempting spinning kicks that became progressively more extravagant. A small group of students gathered around him to watch.

—Admiring our prince? —Kitay walked around the classroom to stand next to Rin.

“I don’t see how this could be useful in battle,” Rin said.

Nezha was now doing 540 degree turns in the air before delivering the kick. Very nice, but also useless.

—Oh, it’s not. A lot of ancient arts are like that, cool to look at, but useless in practice. Martial lineages were adapted for stage opera, not combat, and then adapted back. That’s where the Red Reed Opera got its name, you know? The founding members were martial artists who posed as street performers to get closer to their targets. You should read the history of the inherited arts at some point, it’s fascinating.

—Is there anything you haven’t read about? Rin asked. Kitay seemed to possess encyclopedic knowledge of almost any subject. That same day, at lunch, he gave Rin a class on the differences in gutting fish between provinces.

“I have a weakness for martial arts,” Kitay said. Either way, it’s depressing to see people unable to differentiate between self-defense and performance art.

Nezha landed in an impressive crouching pose after a particularly high jump. Some of his companions, absurdly, began to applaud.

Nezha stood up straight, ignoring the applause, and looked Rin in the eyes.

“These are the family arts,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“I’m sure you’ll be the terror of the school,” Rin said.

You could dance for donations. I would give you a bullion.

Disdain covered Nezha’s face.

—You’re jealous that you don’t have inherited arts.

—I’m glad I don’t have them, if they all seem as absurd as yours.

“The House of Yin innovated the technique with the strongest kicks in the Empire,” Nezha said angrily. Let’s see if you would like to receive one.

“I think it would tickle me,” Rin said. Although it would be a dazzling visual spectacle.

“At least I’m not an artless commoner, ” Nezha blurted out. You had never done martial arts in your life. You only know one kick.

—And you continue to call me a commoner . Like you only know one insult.

“Fight me, then,” Nezha said. Fight to incapacitate for ten seconds or first blood. Here and now.

“Okay…” Rin started to say, but Kitay put his hand over her mouth.

-Oh no. “Oh, no, no,” Kitay pulled Rin back. You heard Jun, you shouldn’t…

But Rin shook Kitay off of him.

“Jun’s not here, is he?” Nezha smiled evilly.

—Venka! Come here!

Venka left her conversation with Niang at the other end of the classroom and came with fuss, blushing at Nezha’s summons.

“Be our referee,” Nezha said without taking his eyes off Rin.

Venka put his hands behind his back, imitating Maester Jun, and raised his chin.


The rest of the class had formed a circle around Nezha and Rin. Rin was too furious to notice their stares. She only had eyes for Nezha who began to move around her, stepping back and forth in quick, graceful movements.

Kitay was right , Rin thought. Nezha looked like he was performing a stage opera. He didn’t seem particularly lethal, just ridiculous.

She narrowed her eyes, and crouched hunched over, following Nezha’s movements carefully.

There, a clear opening. Rin raised one leg and kicked hard.

His leg caught Nezha in the air with a satisfying flop .

Nezha bellowed an unnatural growl and clutched his crotch, moaning.

The entire classroom fell silent as everyone looked at each other.

Nezha stood up, blushing.

—You, how dare you…?

—Just like you said. Rin lowered his head in a mocking tilt. I only know one kick.


Humiliating Nezha felt very good, but the social repercussions were immediate and brutal. It didn’t take long

until the class formed alliances. Nezha, mortally offended, made it clear that associating with Rin meant social exclusion. He deliberately refused to talk to her or acknowledge her existence, except to make fun of her accent. One by one the class members, terrified by the possible deal, followed Nezha.

Kitay was the only exception. He had grown up with Nezha’s low opinion, he explained to Rin, and he wasn’t going to start worrying about that now.

“Also,” he said, “the face he made?” It was priceless.

Rin was grateful for Kitay’s loyalty, but was amazed at how cruel the other students could be. It seemed like they would never run out of reasons to make fun of Rin: her dark skin, her lack of status, her indoor accent. It was annoying, but Rin was able to ignore her teasing, until her classmates started laughing at her every time she spoke.

—Is my accent that obvious? —He asked Kitay.

“It’s getting better,” he said. She tries to lengthen the words, shortening the vowels. And adding r where it doesn’t exist is a good rule of thumb.

— Ar. “Arrr, ” Rin joked. Why do the inhabitants of Sinegard sound like they are ruminating?

“Power dictates what is acceptable,” Kitay reflected. If the capital had been built in Tikany, I’m sure we would all be as brown as the bark of a tree.


In the following days, Nezha did not speak a word to Rin, because he no longer needed him. His worshipers did not miss a single opportunity to mock Rin. Nezha’s manipulations had turned out brilliantly: once it was established that Rin was the main target, he could just sit back and watch.

Venka, who was obsessively attached to Nezha, actively belittled Rin whenever she could. Niang was better, she didn’t associate with Rin in public, but at least she talked to her in the privacy of the bedroom.

“You could try to apologize,” Niang whispered one night, after Venka had fallen asleep.

Apologizing was the last thing on Rin’s mind. She was not willing to accept defeat by flattering Nezha’s ego.

“The duel was his idea,” Rin spoke with disgust. It’s not my fault he got what he deserved.

“It doesn’t matter,” Niang said. Just apologize to her, and then she will forget about you. Nezha just wants to be respected.

—Respected for what? Rin demanded. He has done nothing to earn my respect. All he’s done is come off as important and powerful, as if being from Sinegard made him so special.

“Apologizing won’t help,” interrupted Venka, who apparently hadn’t been asleep after all. And being from Sinegard does make us special. Nezha and I—for Venka, it was always Nezha and I —have trained for the Academy since we could walk, it’s in our blood. But you? You are nothing . You’re just a slut from the south, you shouldn’t be here.

Rin sat up in bed, burning with anger.

—I took the same exam as you, Venka. I have every right to be in the Academy.

“You are only here to fill the quota,” Venka replied.

I mean, the Keju has to look fair.


As irritating as Venka was, Rin barely had the time or energy to pay much attention to her. They stopped attacking each other after several days, but only because they were too exhausted to speak. When the week’s training sessions were over, they limped to the bedroom with muscles so sore they could barely walk. Without a word, they threw away the uniform and collapsed onto the bunks.

They woke up immediately when there was a knock on the door.

“Get up,” Raban ordered Rin, throwing open the door.

-But what…?

Raban looked over her at Venka and Niang, who answered incoherently from their beds.

-They also. Hurry.

-What’s going on? Rin murmured, rubbing his eyes.

We have cleaning task in six hours.

—Just come.

Still grumbling, the girls slipped into their robes and met Raban outside, where the boys had already gathered.

—If this is some hazing of the first years, am I allowed to go to bed? Kitay asked. consider me

scared and intimidated, just let me sleep.

-Be quiet. Follow me —Without another word, Raban led them towards the forest.

They had to jog to keep up with him. At first, Rin thought he was taking them to the forest inside the mountain, but it was just a shortcut, a minute later they emerged in front of the main training room. It was lit from the inside, and they could hear loud voices from inside.

-More classes? Kitay asked. Great Turtle! I declare myself on strike.

—This is not class. For some reason, Raban seemed very excited. Come in.

Despite the audible screams, the room was empty. His class moved around the room in confusion until Raban told them to follow him down the stairs to the basement. The basement was filled with apprentices crowded around the center of the room. Whatever was in the center of attention, it seemed extremely exciting. Rin stretched to see something above the trainees’ heads, but he couldn’t see anything.

“First-timers coming in,” Raban shouted, leading them through the crowd. Through vigorous use of his elbows, Raban cleared a path through the apprentices.

The centerpiece consisted of two circular pits dug deep into the ground, each at least three meters in diameter and two meters deep. The pits were adjacent, and were surrounded with a metal ring at waist height to prevent spectators from falling. a grave

It was empty. Maester Sonnen stood in the center of the other, his arms crossed over his beefy chest.

“Sonnen always referees,” Raban said. He takes the short branch because he is the youngest.

—What referee? Kitay asked. Raban smiled widely.


The basement door opened. Even more trainees began to enter, filling the already packed room. The pressure from all of them pushed the first years dangerously close to the pits. Rin held on tightly to the bar to keep from falling.

-What’s going on? —Kitay asked the apprentices as they tried to get closer to the pits. There were so many people in the room that the trainees at the back had brought stools to stand on.

“Altan is here tonight,” Raban said. Nobody wants to miss Altan.

It must have been the twelfth time this week that Rin had heard that name. The entire Academy seemed obsessed with him. The fifth year student, Altan Trengsin, was associated with all the school records, the favorite student of all the teachers, the exception to every rule. It had become a running joke in his class.

Can you piss over the wall into the city? Altan can.

A tall, athletic figure fell into Maester Sonnen’s pit without bothering to use the rope ladder. As his opponent struggled down, the figure stretched his arms behind the

back, with his face looking at the ceiling. Her eyes reflected the light from the lamps above.

They were crimson.

—Great Turtle! Kitay said. It’s a real stunner .

Rin looked over the wall. Kitay was right, Altan was nothing like a nikara. Her skin was several shades darker than any of the other students, darker skin even than Rin’s. But while Rin’s tanned skin brutalized her, Altan’s skin gave her a unique and regal bearing. His hair was the color of wet ink, closer to violet than black. Her face was angular, expressionless, and tremendously handsome. And those eyes, scarlet, fiery red.

“I thought the esperlies were dead,” Rin said.

“Mostly dead,” Raban said. Altan is the last one.

“I am Bo Kobin, apprentice of Master Jun Loran,” his opponent announced. I challenge Altan Trengsin to a fight to incapacity.

Kobin must have been twice Altan’s weight and several inches taller than him, although Rin suspected it wouldn’t be a particularly close fight.

Altan gestured indifferently. Sonnen looked bored.

“Okay, go ahead,” he said.

The trainees adopted an open position.

—How, without introduction? Kitay asked. Raban seemed to be having fun.

—Altan needs no introduction.

Rin wrinkled her nose.

—You believe it a little, don’t you?

“Altan Trengsin,” Kitay mused. Is Altan the name of the clan?

—Trengsin. “Esperlies put their clan name at the end,” Raban explained quickly. He pointed to the pit. Shhh , you’re going to miss it.

They had already missed it.

They had not heard Altan move, they had not even seen the fight begin. But by the time they had looked again, Kobin was already pinned to the ground, his arm twisted behind his back in an unnatural position. Altan drove a knee into him, slowly increasing the pressure on Kobin’s arm. He seemed impassive, indifferent, almost apathetic.

Rin squeezed the railing.

—When, when did you do it…?

“It’s Altan Trengsin,” Raban said, as if that were a sufficient explanation.

“I surrender,” Kobin shouted. I give up, damn it!

“Let go,” Sonnen said, yawning, “Altan wins.” Following. Altan released Kobin and offered him a hand. Kobin let

Altan pulled him to his feet, then shook his hand. Kobin had accepted his defeat with grace. There was no shame, it seemed, in being defeated by Altan Trengsin in less than three seconds.

-That’s it? —Rin asked.

“It’s not over,” Raban said. Altan has a lot of challenges tonight.

The next contender was Kureel. Raban shuddered, shaking his head.

—They shouldn’t have given him permission for this fight.

Rin found that assessment unfair. Kureel, who was one of Jun’s most valued Combat trainees, had a reputation for being fierce. Kureel and Altan seemed to have the same height and strength, surely he could defend himself.


Kureel charged towards Altan immediately.

—Great Turtle! —Rin murmured.

He had a hard time following Kureel and Altan’s movements as soon as they began exchanging hand-to-hand blows. They exchanged multiple strikes and blocks every second, dodging and ducking as if they were dance partners.

After a minute, Kureel began to lose steam, his blows became sloppy, overextended, and every time he moved, beads of sweat shot from his forehead. But Altan seemed unfazed, still moving with the same feline grace he had from the beginning of the fight.

“He’s playing with her,” Raban said.

Rin couldn’t look away from Altan. His movements were like a dance, hypnotic. With every action he denoted pure power, not the muscular strength that Kobin had, but a compact energy, as if at every moment Altan were a tightly coiled spring about to spring.

“It will be over soon,” Raban predicted.

In the end it turned out to be a game of cat and mouse. At no point had Kureel been a contender for Altan, he was fighting on a completely different level. He had acted as if he were her counterpart to please her at first, and then to exhaust her. Kureel’s movements slowed with each passing second. And, mockingly, Altan also slowed him down to match Kureel’s pace. Finally, Kureel lunged desperately, trying to hit Altan in the gut. Instead of blocking it, Altan jumped to the side, ran toward the earthen wall of the pit, pushed himself off, and spun in the air. His foot caught Kureel on the side of the head. She collapsed.

She was unconscious before Altan hit the ground behind her, crouched like a cat.

—By the Tiger’s tits! —Kitay said.

—By the Tiger’s tits! —Raban repeated.

Two apprentices in Medicine orange immediately jumped into the pit to pull Kureel out. A stretcher was already prepared next to the pit. Altan stood in the center, arms crossed, waiting patiently for them to finish. While they were carrying Kureel out of the basement, another student climbed down the rope ladder into the pit.

“Three challenges in one night,” Kitay said. Is that normal?

“Altan fights a lot,” Raban said. Everyone wants to be the one to defeat him.

—Has it ever happened? Rin asked. Raban just laughed.

The third opponent raised his shaved head in the light of the lamps, and Rin realized that it was Tobi, the apprentice who gave them the tour of the Academy.

Good , Rin thought, I hope Altan destroys it .

Tobi introduced himself loudly, encouraging the shouts of his fellow Combatants. Altan touched his sleeves and again, said nothing. Maybe he had rolled his eyes, but in the dim light, Rin couldn’t tell for sure.

“Get started,” said Sonnen.

Tobi flexed his arms and squatted down. Instead of balling her hands into fists, she entwined her gnarled fingers tightly, as if wrapping an invisible ball.

Altan tilted his head as if to say: Well, let’s see what you have .

The fight quickly lost its elegance, it was a constant struggle of takedowns, bloody knuckles and no pause. Very rough and abrupt, and full of brute, animal force. Nothing was off limits. Tobi clawed furiously at Altan’s eyes. Altan lowered his head and nudged Tobi’s belly with his elbow.

Tobi staggered back, gasping for air. Altan slapped him with the back of her hand, as if she were disciplining a child. Tobi rolled on the ground, recovering in a complicated movement and launched himself towards Altan. Altan raised his fists in anticipation, but Tobi threw himself at his waist, carrying them both across the ground again.

Altan hit the ground. Tobi pulled his right arm away and dug his fingers like a claw into Altan’s stomach. Altan’s mouth opened in the form of a silent scream. Tobi dug

his fingers deeper and twisted them. Rin could see the veins that stood out on his forearm, his face turned into the growl of a wolf.

Altan convulsed under Tobi’s grip and coughed, blood pouring from his mouth.

Rin’s stomach churned.

“Shit,” Kitay said, “shit, shit, shit.”

“That’s Tiger Claws ,” Raban said. Tobi’s special technique. Inherited arts. Altan won’t be able to shit properly for a week.

Sonnen leaned forward.

—Very well, stop…

But then Altan grabbed Tobi’s neck with his free hand and slammed Tobi’s face into his own forehead. A. Twice. Tobi’s grip loosened.

Altan threw Tobi and charged at him. Half a second later, their positions were reversed, Tobi lay limp on the ground as Altan knelt on top of him, his hands firmly around his neck. Tobi frantically patted Altan on the arm.

Altan threw Tobi away from him lazily. He looked at Maester Sonnen as if he were awaiting instructions.

Sonnen looked at him.

—End of combat.

Rin let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.

The medical apprentices jumped into the pit and took Tobi away. He was moaning, and blood was pouring from his nose.

Altan stayed behind, leaning against the earthen wall. He seemed bored, disinterested, as if his stomach hadn’t been twisted into a horrible knot, as if he hadn’t been touched at all. He had blood dripping from his chin. Rin watched, partly fascinated and partly horrified, as Altan’s tongue licked the blood from his upper lip.

Altan closed his eyes for a long time, and then raised his head, and exhaled slowly through his mouth.

Raban was smiling looking at their expressions.

—Do you understand now?

“That was…” Kitay waved his hands. As? As ? _

—Don’t you feel pain? Rin asked. He is not human.

“It’s not,” Raban said. He’s a stud.


At lunch the next day, all the first years could talk about was Altan.

The entire class had fallen in love, to a greater or lesser extent, but Kitay was especially infatuated with him.

—The way he moves , it’s just… —Kitay waved his arms in the air, unable to give words to his thoughts.

—He doesn’t talk much, does he? Han said. He didn’t even show up.


“You don’t need to introduce yourself,” Kitay scoffed. Everyone knows who she is.

“Strong and mysterious,” Venka said dreamily. She and Niang shared a giggle.

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to talk,” Nezha suggested. You know what the Esperlies were like, wild and bloodthirsty. They barely knew what to do for themselves unless they had received orders.

“The Esperlies weren’t idiots,” Niang protested.

—They were primitive. “Hardly smarter than a child,” Nezha insisted. I have heard that they are more related to monkeys than to humans. Their brains are smaller.

Did you know that they had no written language before the Red Emperor? They were good at fighting, but not much else.

Several of the classmates nodded as if that made sense, Rin had a hard time believing that anyone who was as graceful and precise in fighting as Altan had the cognitive ability of a monkey.

Since she had arrived in Sinegard, she had been judged stupid because of her skin tone, and it infuriated her. She wondered if Altan suffered from the same thing.

—You must have heard wrong. “Altan is not stupid,” Raban said. He is the best student in our course. Possibly the entire Academy. Irjah says that he has never had such a brilliant apprentice.

“I heard he has a guaranteed position in the command when he graduates,” Han said.

“I heard he takes drugs,” Nezha said, clearly unaccustomed to not being the center of attention. He seemed determined to undermine Altan’s credibility in any way possible. He takes opium, it shows in his eyes, bloodshot all the time.

“His eyes are red because he’s stupid, idiot,” Kitay said.

—. All esperlies have crimson eyes.

“No, they don’t,” Niang said. Only the warriors.

—Well, Altan is clearly a warrior. “And the irises of his eyes are red,” Kitay said. Not his veins, he’s not an addict.

Nezha’s lips curled.

—You’ve spent a lot of time looking into Altan’s eyes, haven’t you? Kitay blushed.

“You haven’t heard what the apprentices say,” Nezha continued speaking in a smug manner, as if he was aware of special information that they didn’t have. Altan is an addict. I heard that Irjah gives him poppies every time he wins. That’s why he works so hard in the fight. Opium addicts do anything.

“That’s absurd,” Rin said. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

She knew what an addict looked like, opium smokers turned into useless, yellowish bags of bones. They didn’t fight like Altan. They didn’t move like Altan. They were not perfect, nor lethal animals of graceful beauty.

Big Turtle! Rin thought when she realized, I’m just as obsessed with him as Kitay .


—Six months after the Non-Aggression Pact was signed, Empress Su Daji issued a ban on the possession and use of any psychedelic substances within the borders of Nikan, and established a series of severely retributive punishments in an attempt to eliminate the use of illegal drugs. Obviously, the opium black market continues to thrive in many provinces, sparking debates about the efficiency of such policies. —Maester Yim looked at his class. They were invariably tense, writing frantically in their notebooks. Or looking out the window. Am I teaching a cemetery?

Kitay raised a hand.

—Can we talk about Esper?

-That? Yim frowned. Esper has nothing to do with what we are… Ah,” he sighed, “you just met Trengsin, right?

“It was amazing,” Han said fervently, echoing with nods from the class.

Yim looked exasperated.

“Every year,” he murmured, ” every year .” “Okay,” she tossed her class notes aside. You want to talk about Esper, we will talk about Esper.

The class was now excited, paying attention. Yim rolled his eyes as she searched through a thick stack of maps in her desk drawer.

—Why was Esper bombed? Kitay asked impatiently.

“First things first,” Yim said. He flipped through several scrolls until he found what he was looking for: a crumpled map of Esper and the southern border of Nikan. “I will not tolerate hasty historiography,” he said as he put the map on the board. We will start with an appropriate political context. Esper became a Nikara colony during the reign of the Red Emperor. Who can tell me about the Esper annexation?

Rin thought annexation was a nice way to define what happened. The truth was not so clear. Centuries ago, the Red Emperor had conquered the island and forced them to serve in the army, making the island’s warriors the most feared contingent of the Militia until they were annihilated in the Second Poppy War.

Nezha raised his hand.

—Esper was annexed after the last Esper queen, Mai’rinnen Tearza. The former Nikan Empire asked him to abdicate the throne and pay tribute to Sinegard. Tearza agreed, mostly because she was in love with the Red Emperor or something, but she was opposed by the Esper Council. Legend has it that Tearza stabbed herself out of desperation, and that final act convinced the Esper Council of her passion for Nikan.

The classroom was silent for a moment.

“That,” Kitay muttered, “is the stupidest story I’ve ever heard.”

—Why would he commit suicide? Rin asked out loud. Wouldn’t she have been more able to convince them if she was alive?

Nezha looked at them with disdain.

—Another reason why women should not be in charge of a small island.

That provoked a hubbub of responses. Yim silenced them by raising a hand.

—It wasn’t that simple. Legend, of course, has blurred the facts. The tale of Tearza and the Red Emperor is a romance, not a historical anecdote.

Venka raised his hand.

—I heard that the Red Emperor betrayed her. She promised him that she would not invade Esper, but he did not keep her word.

“It’s a popular theory,” Yim replied. The Red Emperor was famous for his cruelty, such a betrayal would not be out of place. The truth is that we don’t know why Tearza died, or if anyone killed her. We only know that she died, and that the tradition of Esper warrior monarchs disappeared, and the island was annexed to the Empire until the Second Poppy War.

»Now, economically, Esper could barely support itself as a colony. The island exported almost nothing of value to the Empire except soldiers. There is evidence that the Esperlies could have been unaware of agriculture. Before the influence of the Red Emperor, the Esperlies were a primitive people who practiced vulgar and barbaric rituals. They had little to offer culturally or technologically, in fact, they seemed to be centuries behind the rest of the world. Militarily, however, they were worth their weight in gold.

Rin raised her hand.

—Were esperlies really fire shamans?

Snickers were heard around the class, and Rin immediately regretted having spoken.

Yim looked amazed.

—Do you still believe in shamans in the south in Tikany?

Rin felt her cheeks burn. He had grown up hearing stories and stories about Esper. Everyone in Tikany was morbidly obsessed with the Empire’s frantic war forces and their supposed supernatural abilities. Rin knew very well that he shouldn’t take those stories as truth, but he was still curious.

And she had spoken without thinking, of course the myths that had captivated her in Tikany seemed backward and provincial here in the capital.

“No, I mean, I don’t…” Rin stammered, “it’s something I read, I was just wondering…”

“Don’t pay attention to him,” Nezha said. In Tikany they still believe that we lost the Poppy War.

More giggles. Nezha leaned back, smug.

—But the esperlies had some strange abilities,

TRUE? —Kitay quickly came to Rin’s defense—. Why else would Mugen attack Esper?

“Because it was a convenient target,” Nezha said. It was an appetizer between the Federation archipelago and the Serpent province. Because otherwise?

“That doesn’t make sense,” Kitay shook his head. From what I’ve read, Esper is an island of little strategic value. It’s not even useful

as a naval base, the Federation would have been better off sailing directly through the strait to Khurdalain. Mugen would only have cared about Esper if the esperlies could do something that would terrify them.

“The esperlies were terrifying,” Nezha said. Primitives, drug lovers. Who wouldn’t want them to disappear?

Rin couldn’t believe that Nezha could be so horribly insensitive in describing what was a tragic massacre, and was amazed at how Yim nodded in approval.

“The Esperlies were a barbaric race, obsessed with war,” he said. They trained their children for war as soon as they could walk. For centuries, they subsisted by regularly raiding the coastal villages of Nikan, because they had no agriculture of their own. Now, the rumors of shamanism probably have more to do with their religion. Historians believe that they had bizarre rituals in which they consecrated themselves to their god, the Red Phoenix of the South. But it was just a ritual, not a martial skill.

“The esperlies’ affinity for fire is well documented, however,” Kitay said. I have read war reports. There are quite a few generals, both from Nikan and the Federation, who believed that esperlies could manipulate fire to their will.

“All myths,” Yim said disdainfully. The esperlies’ ability to manipulate fire was a ploy to terrify their enemies. It probably originated from the use of flaming weapons in night raids. Currently, most academics believe that the skill of esperlies is

a consequence entirely of their social conditioning and hostile environment.

—Then why couldn’t our forces imitate them? Rin asked. If the esperlie warriors were so powerful, why couldn’t we emulate their tactics? Why did we have to enslave them?

—Esper was a tributary colony. “Not a slave colony,” Yim said impatiently. And we were able to recreate his training, but I repeat, his methods were barbaric. According to Jun, you’re already having a hard time with general training as it is. I doubt you would want to subject yourself to an esperli regime.

—And what about Altan? Kitay pressed. He didn’t grow up in Esper, he trained in Sinegard…

—Have you ever seen Altan summon fire to his will?

—Of course not, but…

“Has the mere sight of him made you go crazy?” Yim demanded. I’ll be perfectly clear. There are no shamans, nor are there any more esperlies. Altan is human like the rest of you, without any magic or divine abilities. He fights well because he has trained since he could walk. Altan is the last scion of a dead race. If the esperlies prayed to his god, it is clear that he did not save them.


His obsession with Altan was not a constant obstacle in lessons. After having witnessed the apprentices’ fights, the first years redoubled their efforts in Jun’s classes. They wanted to become lethal and graceful warriors like Altan. But Jun was still a meticulous trainer. He refused to

teach them the ostentatious techniques they had seen in the pit until they mastered the fundamentals.

“If you tried to make Tobi’s Tiger Claws, you couldn’t kill a rabbit,” he mocked. At most you would break your fingers. It will be months before you can channel the ki necessary for these types of techniques.

At least he had finally gotten bored of instructing them in the way. His class was already able to use the staff with reasonable skill, at least the accidental injuries were minimal. One day, near the end of class, Jun lined them up and ordered them to fight.

“Responsibly,” he emphasized. At half speed if necessary. I have no patience for stupid injuries. Practice the attacks and blocks that you have practiced in form.

Rin found herself in front of Nezha, it couldn’t be any other way. He smiled unpleasantly at her.

He briefly wondered how they were going to finish the fight without getting hurt.

“On my notice,” Jun said. One, two,… Nezha lunged forward.

The force of the blow stunned her. She barely raised the cane in time to block a blow to her head that would have knocked her unconscious, the impact sending tremors down her arm.

But Nezha continued to move forward, ignoring Jun’s instructions completely. He wielded the staff with wild abandon, but also with impressive precision. Rin’s grip was still clumsy, she still didn’t feel comfortable with the staff in her hands, nothing like the blurry whirlwind in Nezha’s hands.

He could barely keep the cane under control, and it nearly slipped out of his hands twice. Nezha landed more blows than she blocked. The first two, blows to her elbow and upper thigh, hurt. And then she Nezha hit her so many times that she couldn’t feel them anymore.

She had been wrong about him. She had been showing off that time, but her mastery of martial arts was prodigious and real. The last time they had fought, she had been teasing him, his lucky attack had been a fluke.

He wasn’t pimping now.

His cane hit his kneecap with a sickening crunch. Rin’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets and he collapsed to the ground.

Nezha didn’t even bother with the staff anymore, and kicked him while he was on the ground, each kick more ferocious than the last.

“This is the difference between us,” Nezha muttered. I’ve trained for this my entire life. You can’t show up here and embarrass me. Do you understand? You are nothing.

Is going to kill me. He’s really going to kill me.

Enough with the cane. He could not defend himself with a weapon that he did not know how to use, he left him and threw himself around Nezha’s waist to knock him down. Nezha let go of her staff and fell back, and she climbed on top of her. He attacked her face, she crushed his nose with her palm. They furiously hit each other, in a chaotic tangle of arms.

Then something tugged at the collar of his uniform, cutting off his breathing. Jun separated them with an impressive display of strength, leaving them suspended in the air for a minute, then throwing them to the ground.

—What part of stopping and blocking is not clear? – She growled.

“She started it,” Nezha said quickly. She sat up and pointed at Rin. He let go of hers…

“I know what I’ve seen,” Jun cut him off. And I’ve seen you rolling around on the floor like idiots. If he preferred to train animals, he would be with Cike. Should I make you a recommendation?

Nezha lowered his gaze.

-No sir.

—Put down the weapon and leave my class. You are suspended for a week.

“Yes, sir.” Nezha stood up, left his staff on the weapons rack and left.

Jun then turned his attention to Rin. Blood was dripping from his face, a stream from his nose, and a trickle from his forehead. She wiped her chin as best she could, too nervous to look Jun in her eyes.

He towered over her.

-You. Stand up.

He struggled to his feet, his knee screaming in protest.

—Take that mask of pathos off your face. You won’t get any sympathy from me.

I didn’t expect his sympathy, but I also didn’t expect what happened.

“That was the most miserable display I have seen from a student since I left the Militia,” Jun said. Your

Fundamentals are horrible, you move like a paraplegic. What did I just witness? Have you been asleep all month?

He was moving too fast, I couldn’t keep up with him. I don’t have the years of training that he has . Even as these words came to mind, they already sounded like the pathetic excuses they were. She opened her mouth and closed it, too stunned to respond.

“I hate students like you,” Jun continued relentlessly. The clash of canes had long since stopped; the entire class was listening. You sneaked into Sinegard from your little village, thinking it would be the best, that you’ve made it, that you’ve made your mommy and daddy proud. Maybe you were the smartest girl in your village. Maybe you were the best test taker your tutor has ever seen in his entire life. But you know what? It takes more than memorizing a few Classics to be a martial artist.

»Every year we have someone like you, a country bumpkin who thinks that because he did well on some exams, he deserves my time and attention. Get this, Southerner. The exam proves nothing. Discipline and competition, that’s the only thing that matters in this school. That boy—Jun pointed his thumb in the direction Nezha had gone—he may be an idiot, but he has what it takes to be a commander. You, on the other hand, are just commoner trash.

The entire class was staring at her now. Kitay’s eyes were moist with sympathy. Even Venka looked stunned.

Rin’s ears were ringing, drowning out Jun’s words. She felt so small, she felt like she was going to crumble into dust. Don’t let me cry , her eyes were throbbing with the pressure of holding back the tears. Please don’t let me cry .

“I don’t tolerate troublesome students in my class,” Jun said. I do not have the happy privilege of expelling you, but as a Combat Master I can do this: From now on you are prohibited from accessing the practice facilities. You will not touch the weapons rack, You will not train in the studio during off hours. You won’t set foot here while I’m teaching. You will not ask older students to teach you. I don’t need you to cause any more problems in my studio. Now, get out of my sight.

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