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Chapter no 5

The Poppy War

Rin stumbled out of the patio door. Jun’s words constantly echoed in his head. She felt suddenly dizzy, her legs wobbled and she stopped seeing for an instant. She slid against the stone wall to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest as blood pumped furiously into her ears.

Then the pressure in her chest burst and she cried for the first time since orientation, sobbing with her hands pressed to her face, so no one could hear her.

He cried because of the pain. She cried out of shame. But above all she cried because those two long years studying for the Keju had meant nothing. She was years behind his companions in Sinegard. He had no experience in martial arts, much less inherited arts, even one as stupid as Nezha’s. He had not trained since childhood, like Venka. And he wasn’t brilliant either, he didn’t have an eidetic memory like Kitay.

And the worst thing was that now he had no way to make up for it. Without Jun’s tutelage, as frustrating as it was, Rin would have no chance of passing the Trials. No master

He would accept an apprentice who couldn’t fight. Sinegard was mainly a military academy, if he couldn’t be on the battlefield, what was he going to do?

Jun’s punishment was worth as much as an expulsion. She was finished. It was over. She would return to Tikany in a year.

But Nezha had attacked first .

The more he thought about it, the faster his desperation crystallized into fury. Nezha had tried to kill her. She had only acted in her own defense. Why had she been expelled from class, while Nezha had been punished with little more than a slap on the hand?

But it was so clear why. Nezha was a Sinegard noble, the son of a Warlord, and she was a country girl with no connections or status. Expelling Nezha would have been problematic and politically controversial. He mattered. She does not.

No, they couldn’t do this to her. They thought they could sweep her up like trash, but she didn’t have to lie down and accept it. She had come from nowhere. He wouldn’t come back to her.

The patio doors opened as class ended. Her companions quickly passed in front of her, as if they had not seen her. Only Kitay stopped.

“Jun will come,” he said.

Rin took his hand and stood up. He wiped his face on his sleeve and inhaled.

“I’m serious,” Kitay said. He put a hand on her shoulder

—. He has only suspended Nezha for one week.

Rin shook his hands violently, still rubbing his eyes furiously.

—That’s because Nezha was born with a gold bar up his ass. Nezha hasn’t been expelled because his father has half the Academy by the balls. Nezha is from Sinegard, so Nezha is special, Nezha belongs here.

—Come on, you belong here too, you passed the Keju…

“The Keju means nothing,” Rin said scathingly. The Keju is a ruse to keep the illiterate peasants right where they have always been. And if you sneak through the Keju, they’ll find a way to expel you anyway. EI Keju keeps the lower classes sedated. It keeps us dreaming. It’s not a social class ladder, it’s a way to keep people like me exactly where they were born. Keju is a drug.

—Rin, that’s not true.

-It is! —She slammed her fist against the stone wall—. But they’re not going to get rid of me like that. Not that easy. I won’t let them. I won’t do it.

He staggered suddenly. Her vision blurred for a moment.

—Great Turtle! Kitay said, “Are you okay?” She turned to him.

-What are you saying?

-You are sweating.

Sweating? She wasn’t sweating.

“I’m fine,” Rin said. Her voice sounded excessively loud, it echoed in her ears. Was he yelling?

—Rin, calm down.

-I am calm! Very calm!

She was far from fucking calm. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to yell at someone. Rage pulsed inside her like waves of lava.

Then her stomach erupted, as if she had been stabbed. She gasped dryly and clutched her belly. She felt like someone was passing a sawed stone through her insides.

Kitay grabbed her shoulders.

—Rin? Rin?

I felt the urge to vomit. Had Nezha’s blows caused him internal damage?

Oh, fantastic , he thought. Now you are humiliated, and also hurt. Wait until they see you limping to class. Nezha is going to love it .

He pushed Kitay away.

—I don’t need… Leave me alone!

-But you are…

-I’m fine!

 

***

Rin woke up that night with an unsettling sticky feeling.

Her sleeping pants felt cold, just like when she was little and wet herself while sleeping. But her legs were too sticky to be covered in urine. Heart racing, she jumped off the bunk and turned on a lamp with trembling fingers.

She looked at her legs and almost screamed. The soft light of the candle had revealed crimson pools everywhere. She was covered in a huge amount of blood.

He faced his panic, and forced his numb mind to think rationally. She didn’t feel sharp pain, just deep discomfort and great irritation. She hadn’t been stabbed, nor had she expelled all of her internal organs. A fresh flow of blood trickled down her leg at that moment, and she traced it to find the source with her fingers soaked in it.

So she was just confused.

Going back to bed to sleep was not an option, he wiped himself with the part of the sheet that was not soaked in blood, put a piece of cloth between his legs, and ran out of the bedroom directly to the infirmary before the rest of the people. the Academy woke up.

***

Rin arrived at the infirmary sweaty, bloody, and pretty close to a nervous breakdown. The doctor on duty took a look and called the female assistant.

“One of those situations,” he told her.

-Of course. —The assistant looked as if she was fighting not to laugh. Rin didn’t see anything remotely funny about the situation.

The assistant took Rin behind a curtain, gave her new clothes and a towel, and then made her sit with a detailed diagram of the female body.

That Rin did not know about menstruation until this morning attested, perhaps, to the lack of sexual education in Tikany. For the next fifteen minutes, the assistant explained in detail the changes that were happening in Rin’s body, pointing to various places on the diagram and making vivid gestures with his hands.

“So you’re not dying, dear, your body is just shedding the uterine lining.”

Rin had been speechless for a whole minute in surprise.

—What the hell?

 

***

He returned to the bedroom with a terribly uncomfortable sash tied under his pants and with a sock full of hot uncooked rice. She put the sock on her belly to relieve the pain, but the cramps were so bad that she couldn’t even crawl out of bed when classes started.

—Do you want me to call someone? Niang asked.

“No,” Rin murmured. I’m fine. Go away.

She lay in bed all day, desperate for all the classes she was missing.

I’ll be fine . She told herself over and over again so as not to panic. A lost day shouldn’t do much harm. The students often got sick. Kitay would leave her notes to him if she asked him to. Surely she could get it back.

But this was going to happen every month. Every damn month his womb would tear itself into pieces, sending waves of fury through him.

all over her body, making her clumsy, dazed, swollen, and worst of all, weak. No wonder women rarely stayed in Sinegard.

I had to solve this problem.

I wish it wasn’t so terribly embarrassing, I needed help. Venka looked like someone who had started menstruating, but Rin would rather die than ask him how he was doing. Instead, he murmured his questions to Kureel after making sure that Niang and Venka had fallen asleep.

Kureel laughed out loud in the dark.

—Take the sash to class, you’ll be fine. You will eventually get used to the cramps.

—But how often do I have to change? What if it leaks in class? What if it stains my uniform? What if someone sees it?

“Don’t worry,” Kureel said, “it’s hard the first time, but you’ll adapt.” Keep track of your cycle, so you’ll know when it’s coming.

That wasn’t what Rin wanted to hear.

—Is there no way to eliminate the cycle forever?

“Not unless you rip out your uterus,” Kureel scoffed, but stopped before Rin’s gaze. He was joking. It is not possible, in fact.

“It’s possible,” Arda, a medical apprentice, silently interrupted. There is a procedure they offer in the infirmary. At your age, it doesn’t even require open surgery. They will give you a concoction, and it will stop the process practically forever.

-Really? —Hope burned in Rin’s chest. He looked at the two apprentices. Well, why haven’t you taken it?

The two looked at her in disbelief.

“Destroy your womb,” Arda finally said. It basically kills one of your internal organs, you won’t be able to have children after that.

“And it hurts like hell,” Kureel said. Not worth it.

But I don’t want to have children , Rin thought, I want to stay here .

If that process could prevent her from menstruating, if it helped her stay in Sinegard, it was worth it.

***

As soon as the bleeding stopped, Rin returned to the infirmary and told the doctor what she wanted. He didn’t argue with her, in fact, he seemed pleased.

“I’ve been trying to convince girls here to do it for years,” she said. No one listens. It is not surprising that very few make it past the first year. They should make it mandatory.

She made him wait while she disappeared into the back room, where she mixed all the necessary medicines. Ten minutes later, she returned with a steaming cup.

—Drink it.

Rin took the cup. It was black porcelain, so he couldn’t tell the color of the liquid inside. He wondered if he should feel something, this was important, wasn’t it? There would be no children for her. No one would want to marry her. Shouldn’t it matter?

No. No, of course not. If she had wanted to get fat on screaming brats, she would have stayed in Tikany. She had come to Sinegard to escape that future. Why would she hesitate now?

He searched inside for some trace of regret. Nothing. She felt absolutely nothing, exactly like the day she left Tikany, when she felt nothing, watching as the dusty town disappeared forever into the distance.

“It will hurt,” the doctor warned. Much more than when you had your period. Your matrix will self-destruct in the next few hours. Afterwards, it will no longer fulfill its function. When your body has fully matured, you can have surgery to remove the entire womb, but this should solve your problem in the meantime. You won’t be able to go to classes for at least a week. But afterward, you will be free forever. Now, I’m forced to ask you once again if you’re sure this is what you want.

-I’m sure.

Rin didn’t want to think about it much more. He held his breath and lifted the cup to his mouth, grimacing at the taste.

The doctor had added honey to cover up the bitterness, but the sweet only made it more horrible, it tasted like opium smelled. He had to swallow many times before emptying the entire cup. When he finished, his stomach felt numb and strangely satiated, bloated and rubbery. After a few minutes he felt a strange itching at the base of his torso, as if someone was sticking tiny needles into him from the inside.

“Go back to your room before it starts to hurt,” the doctor warned him. I will tell the maesters that you are ill.

Tonight the nurse will come to check on you. You won’t want to eat, but I’ll have one of your companions bring you some food just in case.

Rin thanked him and ran unsteadily, clutching her belly, as she returned to her room. The itch had turned into a sharp pain that spread through his belly. He felt as if he had swallowed a knife and was making a circle inside of him.

Somehow he managed to get back to his bed.

Pain is just a mental thing , she told herself. She could choose to ignore him. She could…could…

It was terrible. She moaned loudly.

She didn’t sleep, she just lay there suffering from fever and dizziness. She was delirious in bed, dreaming of misshapen aborted babies, of Tobi digging his five claws into her stomach.

—Rin. Rin?

Someone was hovering over her. It was Niang, with a wooden bowl.

—I brought you some winter melon soup.

Niang knelt next to Rin and brought the bowl to her face. Rin took a sip of the soup, his stomach aching like hell.

“I’m fine,” he said weakly.

“I also bring a sedative.” Niang handed him a cup. The doctor told me it’s safe to take it now if you want, but it’s not necessary.

—Are you kidding? Give me that.

Rin grabbed the cup and drank it all. Instantly her head began to spin, the room became wonderfully blurry, the stab wounds in her abdomen disappeared. She then noticed how something was going up her throat, she Rin turned to the side of the bed and vomited into the basin she had there. Blood filled the porcelain.

He looked at the basin with unhinged satisfaction. Better to draw the blood this way , she thought, all at once, rather than slowly, every month, for years .

As he continued to vomit, he heard the bedroom door open.

Someone came in and stopped in front of her.

“You’re sick in the head,” said Venka.

Rin watched her, blood dripping from his mouth, and smiled.

***

Rin spent four days delirious in bed before she was able to return to classes. When she crawled out of bed, against the recommendation of both the doctor and Niang, she discovered that she was terribly behind.

He had missed an entire unit of Mugenese verb conjugations in Linguistics, the chapter on the fall of the Red Emperor in History, Sunzi’s analysis of geographical forecasting in Strategy, and the most important points in fitting a splint in Medicine. He expected no leniency from the maesters and received none.

The teachers treated her as if the classes she had missed were her fault, and it was. She had no excuses, she had to accept the

consequences.

He failed every time a maester asked him. His score was the last of each exam. She didn’t complain. All week, he silently endured his maesters’ condescension.

Curiously, she did not feel discouraged, rather, as if a veil had been removed. The first weeks in Sinegard had been like a dream, dazzled by the magnificence of the city and the Academy, and she had let herself drift.

And then he had been painfully reminded that his place here was not permanent.

The Keju meant nothing, the Keju had proven his ability to recite poems like a cockatoo. How had she come to imagine that she would be prepared for a school like Sinegard?

But if the Keju had taught him anything, it was that pain was the price of success.

And she hadn’t burned herself in a long time.

She had become complacent with the Academy, she had become lazy, she had lost sight of what was at stake. She had had to be reminded that it was nothing, that she could be sent back to her house at any time. As miserable as she was in Sinegard, what awaited her in Tikany was much, much worse.

He looks at you and licks his lips. She carries you to the bed, forces a hand between your legs. You scream, but no one hears you .

He would stay. She would stay in Sinegard even if it killed her.

***

He threw himself into his studies. Classes became a war, every interaction a battle. In every show of hands and every assigned task, he competed against Nezha and Venka and every other Sinegardian. He had to prove that he deserved to be here, that he had merit for more training.

It had taken failure to be reminded that she was not like those of Sinegard, that she had not grown up speaking Hesperian naturally, that she was not familiar with the command structure of the Imperial Militia, that she did not know the political relations between the twelve Lords of the War like the back of his hand. The Sinegardians had this knowledge learned from childhood. She would have to develop it.

Every hour I didn’t spend in class was in the files. He read the assigned texts aloud, practicing Sinegard’s strange dialect, until he eradicated all traces of his southern accent.

He burned again, he found release in the pain, it was comforting, familiar. It was a sacrifice he knew very well. Success required sacrifice. Sacrifice meant pain. Pain meant success.

He stopped sleeping. She sat in the front row so there was no way for her to fall asleep. She had a constant headache, she always felt like vomiting. She stopped eating.

She made herself miserable. But hey, all options involved misery. She could run away, she could get on a boat and escape to another city. She could smuggle drugs for another opium smuggler. She could, if everything went wrong, return to Tikany, get married, and hope that no one found out that she couldn’t have children until it was too late.

But the misery he felt now was good misery. He delighted in her, because he had chosen her for himself.

***

A month later, Rin earned the highest score on one of Jima’s frequent exams in Linguistics, beating Nezha by two points. When Jima announced the top five scores, Rin sat up, happily surprised.

He had spent the entire night gorging himself on Hesperian tenses, which were infinitely confusing. Modern Hesperian was a language that had neither rhythm nor reason. Their rules were almost random, their pronunciation guides were chaotic and full of exceptions.

He couldn’t reason in Hesperian, so he memorized it, the way he memorized everything he didn’t understand.

“Good,” Jima said resolutely as he handed the test to Rin.

Rin was surprised at how great a good made her feel.

She discovered that the praise from her maesters fueled her, the praise meant that she was finally, finally receiving validation that she was simply nothing. She could be brilliant, she could deserve someone’s attention. She loved praise, she craved it, she needed it and she realized that she only found relief when she finally got it.

He realized, too, that how he felt about the praise was the way addicts felt about opium. Every time he received a fresh infusion of praise, he only thought about how to get more. Her achievements made her high, and her failures were worse than the monkey. His good scores were only a relief.

momentary pride and a passing pride, I enjoyed these grace periods for several hours before I began to feel the panic of the next exam.

He craved praise so deeply that he felt it in his bones. And like an addict, he would do anything to get them.

***

Over the next few weeks, Rin slowly rose from the bottom of the leaderboard to the top of each class. She regularly competed with Nezha and Venka for the highest score in almost every subject. In Linguistics, she was only behind Kitay.

I particularly enjoyed Strategy.

The grey-whiskered Master, Irjah, was the first teacher I knew who didn’t rely primarily on memory as a teaching method. He had students solve logical syllogisms. He made them define concepts they had taken for granted, concepts like advantage, victory, and war. It forced them to be precise and rigorous in their answers. He rejected answers formulated in a vague way or with multiple interpretations. He pushed their minds to the limit, shattering their preconceptions of logic, and rebuilding them.

He rarely gave praise, but when he did, he made sure everyone in the class heard it. Rin craved his approval more than anything.

Now that they had finished analyzing Sunzi’s Book of War , Irjah spent the second half of class posing hypothetical military situations, challenging them to think about how to get out of various jams . Sometimes the simulations were

logistics issues (calculate how much time and how many supplies you need to move a force of this size through this strait). Other times he drew them maps, indicating with symbols how many troops they had to work with, and urged them to make a battle plan.

“You are trapped behind this river,” Irjah said. Your troops are in a prime position for a ranged assault, but your main column has run out of arrows. What would you do?

The majority of the class suggested raiding the carriages where the enemies had their weapons. Venka preferred to abandon the idea of ​​a ranged attack directly and make a frontal attack. Nezha suggested that nearby farmers mass produce arrows all night.

“Collect scarecrows from nearby farmers,” Kitay said.

-That? —Nezha snorted.

“Let him speak,” Irjah said.

“Dress them in spare uniforms, put them on a boat, and send them down the river,” Kitay continued, ignoring Nezha. This area is a mountainous region known for heavy rainfall. We can assume that it has rained recently, so it should be foggy. This makes it difficult for the enemy to see clearly what is happening in the river. The archers will mistake the scarecrows for soldiers, and shoot them until they look like pincushions. So we send our men down the river to collect the arrows, we will use their arrows to kill our enemies.

Kitay won that time.

Another day Irjah showed up with a map of the Wudang mountain region, marked with two red crosses to indicate two Federation battalions, surrounding the Nikara army from both ends of the valley.

—You are trapped in the valley. Most of the villagers have evacuated, but the Federation generals are holding a school full of children hostage. They say they will release the children if your battalion surrenders. You have no guarantee that they will honor the agreed terms. How would you respond?

They analyzed the map for several minutes, their troops had no advantage, no easy way out.

Even Kitay was puzzled.

—Attempt an assault on the left flank? The suggested-.

Evacuate the children while they are distracted by a small guerrilla force?

“They are on high ground,” Irjah said. They will shoot you before you have a chance to draw your weapons.

“Light the valley on fire,” Venka tried. Distract them like that with smoke?

“A good way to set yourself on fire to death,” Irjah scoffed. Remember, you are not on high ground.

Rin raised her hand.

—Surround the second army and go to the dam. Release the dam, leaving everyone in the valley to drown.

Her companions looked at her in horror.

“Abandon the children,” he added. There is no way to save them. Nezha laughed out loud.

—We’re trying to win this simulation, idiot. Irjah motioned for Nezha to remain silent.

—Runin. Please continue.

“It’s not a victory by any means,” Rin said. But if the cost is that high, I would risk everything. This way they die, and we lose half our troops, but no more. Sunzi says no battle happens in isolation. This is just a small move in the grand scheme of war. From the numbers you’ve given us Irjah, these Federation battalions are enormous. I assume they make up a large percentage of the Federation military. So, by abandoning some of our troops, we diminished their advantage in any subsequent battle.

—Would you rather kill your own people than allow the opponent’s army to leave? Irjah asked.

“Killing is not the same as letting them die,” Rin objected.

—They are low, however. Rin shook her head.

—You don’t let your enemy leave if he will be a sure threat later. You get rid of them, if they are so far into the country, they know the layout of most of the terrain, they will have a geographical advantage. This is our only chance to eliminate the enemy’s largest fighting force.

—Sunzi says that we must always leave a way out for the enemy

—Irjah said.

Rin thought to herself that this was one of Sunzi’s stupidest principles, but she quickly found a counterargument.

—But Sunzi doesn’t mean that you have to let them go. The enemy just has to think that the situation is less serious than it is, so that they don’t despair and commit stupid things of mutual destruction —Rin thought for a moment—. I guess they could try swimming.

—You’re talking about decimating entire towns! Venka protested. You can’t just break a dam. Dams take years to rebuild. The entire river delta would be flooded, not just that valley, you’re talking about famine, dysentery. You would destroy the agriculture of the entire region, creating a huge pile of problems that will mean decades of suffering later…

“Those problems can be solved,” Rin stubbornly maintained his argument. What was your solution, let the Federation roam freely into the interior of the country? You would be doing the agricultural regions a disservice, offering the entire country on a platter.

“Enough, enough,” Irjah slammed the table to silence the class. Nobody wins this one, class is over for today. Runin, I want to talk to you, in my office.

***

—How did you arrive at that solution? —Irjah held up a notebook. Rin recognized his name handwritten on the header.

Last week, Irjah had them write an essay about another predicament, a hypothetical scenario where the Militia had lost popular support in a war of resistance against the

Federation. They could not rely on peasants to supply food to soldiers or food to animals, nor to use citizens’ houses as accommodation without forcing entry. In fact, outbreaks of rebellion in rural areas added more complications to coordinating troop movements.

Rin’s solution had been to burn one of the villages on the smaller islands.

The key was that the island in question belonged to the Empire.

“The first day in Yim’s class we talked about how the loss of Esper marked the end of the Second Poppy War,” he said.

Irjah became serious.

—Have you based your plan on the Esper massacre? Rin nodded.

—Losing Esper during the Second Poppy War pushed Hesperia to the limit, it made them so uncomfortable that they did not want Mugen to expand further into the continent. I thought that destroying another minor island would do the same thing to the Nikara population, convince them that the real enemy is Mugen. Remind them what the threat is.

“Surely army troops attacking a province of the Empire would give the opposite message,” Irjah objected.

“They wouldn’t know it was army troops,” he said. We’d be posing as a Federation squad, I guess I should have been clearer about that. It would be better if Mugen went there and attacked the island for us, but you can’t leave these things to chance.

Irjah nodded slowly as he carefully read his dissertation.

-Cruel. Cruel, but intelligent. Do you think that’s what happened? It took her a moment to understand the question.

—In this simulation or in the Poppy War?

—The Poppy War —Irjah tilted his head, watching her carefully.

“I’m not sure this isn’t what happened,” Rin said. There is some evidence to indicate that the attack on Esper was allowed to succeed.

Irjah’s expression showed nothing, but his fingers tapped thoughtfully on the wooden desk.

-Explain yourself.

—I find it very difficult to believe that the Militia’s strongest fighting force was wiped out so easily. That, and the island was so suspiciously poorly defended.

—What are you suggesting?

“Well, I’m not sure, but it seems as if, I mean, maybe one of our people, a Nikara general, or someone else who had knowledge of certain information, knew about the attack on Esper and didn’t alert anyone.”

—Now, why would we have wanted to lose Esper? Irjah asked quietly.

He took a moment to formulate a coherent argument.

“Maybe they knew Hesperia wouldn’t tolerate it.” Perhaps they wanted to generate popular support to distract them from the Opera de los Juncos

Reds. Maybe because we needed a sacrifice and Esper was expendable, more so than the other regions. We couldn’t let any nikara die. But esperlies? Why not?

He had been speculating when he began to speak, but the moment he said it, his answer sounded completely plausible.

Irjah looked deeply uncomfortable.

“You have to understand that this is a very strange part of Nikan’s history,” he said. The way the esperlies were treated was… unfortunate. They were used and exploited by the Empire for centuries. Their warriors were considered little more than ferocious dogs. Wild. Until Altan came to study at Sinegard, I don’t think anyone really thought that esperlies were capable of elaborate thinking. Nikan doesn’t like to talk about Esper, and for good reason.

-Yes sir. It was just a theory.

“In any case,” Irjah leaned back in his chair. There is something else I wanted to discuss. Your strategy in the valley would work for the purpose of the exercise, but no competent leader would give those orders. You know why?

He meditated in silence for a minute.

“I confused tactics and grand strategy,” he finally said. Irjah nodded.

-Explain yourself.

—The tactic would have worked. We could have won the war. But no ruler would have made this decision

because the same country would have collapsed later. My tactics do not allow the option of peace.

-Because? Irjah pressed.

—Venka was right about agriculture being destroyed. Nikan would suffer famine for years. Uprisings like the one at the Red Reed Opera would arise everywhere. The population would think that because of the Empress they are dying of hunger. If we apply my strategy, what would happen next would probably be a civil war.

“Good,” Irjah said. She raised an eyebrow. Very good. You know, you’re absolutely brilliant.

Rin tried to hide her delight, though she felt a wave of warmth spreading through her body.

“If you do well in the Trials,” Irjah continued, “you could also do well as a Strategy apprentice.”

Under any other circumstances, his words would have moved her. Rin barely managed a resigned smile.

—I don’t know if I can go that far, sir. His brow sank.

-Why do you think that?

—Master Jun expelled me from his classes. I probably won’t pass the Trials.

—How the hell did that happen? Irjah demanded.

Rin summarized her last disastrous class with Jun without bothering to modify the story.

—He left Nezha with a suspension, but he told me not to come back.

“Ah,” Irjah frowned. Jun didn’t punish you because you were fighting. Tobi and Altan were much worse in their first year. He has punished you because he is an Academy purist; he thinks that any student who is not a descendant of a Warlord is not worth his time. You’re smart, you’ll learn any technique they did this month without much trouble.

Rin shook her head.

—That won’t help much, it won’t let me go back to class.

-That? Irjah was outraged. That’s absurd. Does Jima know?

—Jima cannot intervene in a Combat matter. Or he doesn’t want to, I asked him.” Rin stood up. Thank you for your time, sir. If I can pass the Tests, it will be an honor to study with you.

“You will find a way,” Irjah said. Her eyes sparkled.

Sunzi would do it.

 

***

Rin hadn’t been completely honest with Irjah, he was right, she would find a way.

Starting with the fact that he had not abandoned martial arts.

Jun had expelled her from her classes, but had not banned her from the library. Sinegard’s shelves contained a fortune in martial arts training tomes, the collection

largest in the Empire. Rin had the secrets of most of the family arts at his disposal, except for those jealously guarded techniques like those of the House of Yin.

***

In the course of his research, Rin discovered that the existing literature on martial arts was enormously comprehensive and tremendously complex. He learned that martial arts revolved largely around lineages: different styles that belonged to different families, the same techniques that had been learned and improved by students who had shared the same teacher. Most of the time, the schools had broken up due to rivalries or splits, and thus the techniques broke off, developing independently.

The martial arts story was very funny, almost more entertaining than the novels. But practicing the techniques proved to be devilishly difficult. Most of the tomes were too dense to serve as useful manuals. Most assumed that the student was reading the book with a teacher, and that he would demonstrate the techniques. Other books explained for pages the breathing techniques and fighting philosophy of certain schools, but only sporadically mentioned things like kicks and punches.

“I don’t want to read about balance in the universe,” Rin grumbled, putting aside what seemed to be the hundredth text he had looked at. I want to know how to beat up someone.

He tried to ask the apprentices for help.

“I’m sorry,” Kureel said without meeting her eyes. Jun told us that teaching first years outside of the classrooms

training was against the rules.

Rin doubted it was a real rule, but he should have known that asking one of Jun’s apprentices was a mistake.

Asking Arda was not an option, she spent all her time in the infirmary with Enro and never made it to the dorms before midnight.

Rin was going to have to learn on her own.

A month and a half later, he finally found a gold mine of information in the texts of Ha Seejin, mayor of the Red Emperor’s time. The Seejin manuals were beautifully illustrated, filled with detailed descriptions and clearly labeled diagrams.

Rin perused the pages with glee, she already had it.

This was what I needed.

“You can’t take this book outside,” said the apprentice at the counter.

-Why not?

“It’s from the restricted shelves,” the apprentice said, as if it were obvious. First years don’t have access to those.

-Oh I’m sorry. I will return it.

Rin went to the back of the library. He glanced furtively to make sure no one was watching, and hid the book under his shirt. He then turned around and left the library.

***

Alone in the patio, with the book in hand. Rin learned to fight. He learned to shape the air with his fists, to imagine a large rotating ball in his arms to guide the shape of his movements. He learned to root her legs against the ground so that she couldn’t be thrown , not even by opponents twice her weight. He learned to form a fist without a thumb, to always keep the guard around his face, and to change his balance quickly and smoothly.

She became very good at hitting stationary objects.

He attended duels regularly. He would get to the basement early and secure a spot in the ring so he wouldn’t miss a single kick or throw. He hoped that by watching the trainees fight, he would be able to absorb their techniques.

In fact, it helped her, to some extent. By closely examining the trainees’ movements, Rin learned to identify the right place and time for various techniques. When to kick, when to dodge, when to roll wildly on the ground to evade… wait, no, that was an accident, Jeeha had tripped. Rin didn’t have the muscle memory to train with another person, so he had to keep those contingencies in his head. Indirect training was better than nothing.

He also attended the battles to see Altan.

You would be lying if you didn’t accept that it was a great pleasure to look at him. With his lithe, athletic form, and his chiseled jaw, Altan was undoubtedly beautiful.

But he was also the model of good technique. Altan did everything that the Seejin texts recommended. He never let his guard down, never allowed an opening, never got distracted. Never

He made his next move clear, he didn’t jump erratically or put his heels down to advertise to his opponent where he was going to kick. He always attacked from an angle, never from the front.

Rin had initially thought that Altan was simply a good and strong combatant. He could now see that he was, in every way, a genius. His fighting technique was a study in trigonometry, a beautiful composition of balanced trajectories and forces. He won consistently because he had perfect control of distance and torque. He had turned the mathematics of combat into a science.

He fought very often. During the semester his rivals only grew in number, it seemed that all of Jun’s apprentices wanted to try.

Rin saw Altan fight twenty-three battles before the end of autumn. He never lost.

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