Chapter no 7

The Poppy War

Jiang did not appear in the garden the next day, nor the day after that. Rin went every day hoping that she would return, but she knew deep in her heart that Jiang had finished training her.

A week later, she saw him in the dining room. She put down the bowl without a moment’s hesitation and went for it. She had no idea what she was going to tell him, but she needed to talk to him, she would apologize, she would promise to study with him, even if she was Irjah’s apprentice, anything…

But before he could approach him, Jiang threw his tray over a surprised apprentice and ran out the kitchen door.

—Great Turtle! Kitay said. What have you done to him?

-Don’t know.

Jiang was fragile and unpredictable, like a wild, skittish animal. And she hadn’t realized the value of his attention until she had already chased him away.

After that episode, he acted as if he didn’t know her, he continued to see Jiang around the Academy, like the rest of the world, but he refused to react to her.

He should have tried harder to fix things, sought him out more actively, and admitted his mistake, no matter how vague it was.

But he found himself becoming less of a priority as the end of the term approached and the competition between the first years reached its maddening climax.

Throughout the year, the possibility of being expelled from Sinegard hung over them like a sword over their heads. And now that threat was imminent, in two weeks they would undergo a series of exams, the Trials.

Raban explained the rules to them. The tests would be administered and evaluated by the teachers, and depending on the performance they demonstrated, the teachers would issue a learning offer. If a student did not receive any offers, he or she would have to leave the Academy in disgrace.

Enro exempted those who did not opt ​​for Medicine from its exam, but the rest of the subjects (Linguistics, History, Strategy, Combat and Weapons) were mandatory. Of course, there was no exam scheduled for Acervo.

“Irjah, Jima, Yim and Sonnen take oral exams,” Raban said. You will be examined before a tribunal, the teachers will take turns asking you their questions, and if you get a single answer wrong, the exam for that subject will be terminated. The more questions you answer, the more you can demonstrate your knowledge. So study hard, and answer carefully.

Jun did not take any oral exams, the Combat exam consisted of a tournament.

The tournament would last two days of examination, the first years would face each other in the pits, with the same rules as the combats between the apprentices. They would compete in three randomly determined preliminary rounds, and based on their win and loss results, eight would advance to the knockout rounds. Those eight would make a qualifying round, facing each other until the final round.

Reaching the tournament playoffs was no guarantee of getting a proposal, nor was losing at first an expulsion, but those students who went far in the tournament had more opportunities to show how well they fought to the maesters. And the winner of the tournament always received an offer.

“Altan won his course,” Raban said. Kureel won his, both are now apprentices to Sinegard’s most prestigious career. There is no prize for winning, but the maesters like to bet. If you get your ass kicked, no maester will want to have you as his apprentice.


—I want to swear in Medicine, but we have to memorize so many additional lessons, in addition to everything we have read, that I won’t have time to study History… Or do you think I should swear in History? Do you think Yim likes me enough? —Niang kept moving her hands through the air, agitated. My brother says that he shouldn’t count on getting a place in Medicine, there are four of us doing the Enro exam and he will only choose three of us, he might not get it…

“Enough, Niang,” Venka exclaimed. You haven’t stopped repeating yourself for days.

—What are you going to swear? —Niang didn’t stop talking.

“Combat, and this will be the last time we talk about it,” Venka said angrily.

Rin suspected that if Niang opened her mouth again, Venka would start screaming.

But Rin was incapable of blaming Niang or Venka, for anything. The first years never stopped talking about learning, they were obsessed. It was understandable, and at the same time unnerving.

Rin discovered the hierarchy of the maesters by overhearing conversations in the dining room: studying under Jun or Irjah were ideal for those seeking an officer position in the army, Jima rarely accepted apprentices, unless they were from the nobility and destined for a diplomatic career. , and with Enro you would end up being an Army doctor.

“Studying with Irjah would be nice,” Kitay said. Of course, Jun’s trainees can choose whichever division they want, but Irjah can recommend me to the Second Division.

—The division of the Rat province? —Rin wrinkled her nose.

—. Because?

Kitay looked at her suspiciously.

—They are Army Intelligence. I want to serve in Army Intelligence.

Jun was not an option for Rin. And although she hoped Irjah would choose her, she knew that he would not even give her a chance unless she demonstrated a knowledge of martial arts that

will support your ingenuity in Strategy. A strategist who could not fight had no place in the Militia. How was she going to come up with combat plans if she had never been on the front lines of battle? What if she didn’t know what real combat was?

For her, everything would be decided in the tournament.

For the trainees it also seemed like it was the most important event of the entire year. They could be seen speculating about who could win and who would beat whom. They didn’t hide the betting books much from the first years either, and word quickly spread about who the favorites were.

Most of the betting was on the Sinegardians. Venka and Han were solid bets for the semi-finals. Nohai, a huge boy from the fishing islands of Snake Province, was a favorite to reach the semi-finals. Kitay also had his share of support, especially because of his proven ability to dodge blows. He was so good at it that Kitay ended up exhausting and frustrating all of his opponents, who became careless after several endless minutes.

And even, a certain number of apprentices had bet a not insignificant amount on Rin, because once it was known that she had trained privately with Jiang, they had all shown great interest in her. It also helped that she followed Kitay’s heels in all the other classes.

This year’s clear favorite, however, was Nezha.

“Jun says he’s the best in his class since Altan,” Kitay said, banging the table vehemently. He doesn’t stop talking about him. You should have seen him destroy Nohai yesterday, he is a threat .

Nezha, who had been a slender, handsome boy at the beginning of the year, had developed an absurd amount of muscle, and had cut his stupidly long hair into a military cut similar to Altan’s. Unlike the rest of them, he already seemed ready to wear a Militia uniform.

He had also earned a reputation for striking first and thinking later. Over the course of the course he had already injured eight fellow trainees, all of them in increasingly severe accidents .

Of course, Jun had never punished him, at least not as severely as he deserved. Why did something as mundane as rules have to apply to the son of the Dragon Warlord?


As exam day approached, the library became oppressively quiet. The only sound was that of the first-year students writing furiously with their paintbrushes, as they tried to memorize the entire year’s lessons. Many of the study groups had dissolved, as any help given to a classmate posed a potential risk to your grades.

But Kitay, who didn’t need to study, helped Rin out of boredom.

—Sunzi’s eighteenth term. —Kitay didn’t even look at the text, he had memorized the entire Art of War the first time he had read it. Rin would have killed for such talent.

Rin closed her eyes to concentrate, she knew she looked stupid that way, but her head started to wander quickly and squinting was the only way to stay focused. She felt freezing and burning at the same time, she hadn’t slept in three days. All she wanted was to collapse on her bunk, but another hour of brooding was worth more than an hour of sleep.

—It’s not one of the seven Considerations… Wait, is it? No, okay. Do you always modify plans according to Circumstances…?

Kitay shook his head.

—That is the seventeenth mandate.

Rin cursed loudly and rubbed his forehead with his fists.

“I wonder how you do it,” Kitay murmured. That thing about having to make an effort to remember things, your lives seem very difficult to me.

“I’ll kill you with this brush,” Rin growled.

—Sunzi’s appendix is ​​about why soft ends are bad weapons. Haven’t you read the additional readings?

-Silence! Venka shouted from the front desk. Kitay looked down from Venka’s gaze and smiled at Rin.

“A clue,” he whispered. He mends in the temple. Rin gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. Oh, sure .

—All war is based on deception.

In their preparations for the tournament, their entire course had taken on Sunzi’s entire eighteenth term. Students had stopped using the practice rooms during free hours, and anyone with an inherited art had stopped using them.

show it off. Even Nezha had abandoned his nightly performances in the studio.

“This happens every year,” Raban said. Honestly, it’s childish, as if a martial artist at your age has something worth copying.

Childish or not, his entire class had their nerves on edge, they were all accused of hiding weapons up their sleeves, and anyone who had never demonstrated an inherited art was said to keep it a secret.

Niang told Rin one night that Kitay was actually the heir to the lost Fist of the North Wind, an art that incapacitated an opponent by touching a few pressure points.

“Maybe I have something to do with that story existing,” Kitay admitted when Rin asked him about it. Sunzi would have called it psychological warfare.

Rin snorted.

—Sunzi would have called him a troll.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to practice after dorm call, so the exam preparation period became a race to find the most creative way to outsmart the teachers. The trainees, of course, began vigilantly patrolling the Academy after curfew to catch the students who had gone out to train. Nohai told them that he had found a sheet in the boys’ dormitory, which detailed the points for the captures.

“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” Rin murmured.

“Of course they enjoy it,” Kitay said. They see us going through the same thing as them, next year we will be just as detestable.

Additionally, learners demonstrated a surprising lack of empathy by taking advantage of their anxiety, creating a diverse market for study aids . Rin had laughed when Niang had returned to the bedroom with a supposed hundred-year-old willow bark.

“That’s ginger root,” Rin said with a giggle. He evaluated the weight of the root in his hands. I mean, I guess it’ll be good in tea.

-How do you know? Niang looked dismayed. I have paid twenty coppers.

“At my house we dug up ginger roots from our garden,” said Rin, “dried in the sun they can be sold to older men looking for cures for virility.” It doesn’t do anything bad, but it makes them feel better. We also sold wheat flour as rhino horn. I bet you the apprentices have been selling barley flour too.

Venka, whom Rin had seen a few nights ago with a bottle of powder under her pillow, coughed and looked away.

The trainees also sold information to the first-year students, mostly false answers to exams, others offered a list of alleged questions, which seemed to be highly plausible, although, of course, they would not be confirmed until after the Tests. …The worst, however, were the trainees who posed as salesmen to expose students willing to cheat.

Menda, a boy from the Caballo province, had agreed to meet with an apprentice at a temple in the fourth stratum to buy a list of Jima’s exam questions. Rin didn’t know how the apprentice had achieved it, but Jima was meditating in that temple right at the agreed time.

The next day, Menda was noticeably absent from the Academy.

The meal became silent and lonely, everyone ate with a book in front of them. If any student tried to start a conversation, they were quickly and forcefully silenced by the rest. In short, they made life miserable for themselves.

“Sometimes I think this is as bad as the esperly massacre,” Kitay said cheerfully. And then I think, nah.

Nothing is as bad as a sudden genocide of an entire race! This is still pretty bad though…

—Kitay, shut up, please .



Rin continued training alone in the gardens. She never saw Jiang again, but that was fine, the maesters were forbidden to prepare the students for the tournament. Although Rin suspected that Nezha was still receiving training from Jun.

One day he heard footsteps as he approached the garden gate.

Someone was there.

At first, he expected it to be Jiang, but when he opened the door he saw a slender, elegant figure with indigo black hair.

It took him a moment to realize who it was.

Altan. He had interrupted Altan Trengsin in his training.

He was brandishing a three-pronged trident, no, he wasn’t just brandishing it, he was holding it intimately, moving it through the air as if it were a ribbon. He was an extension of her arm, and a dance partner.

He should have left, found another place to train, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. He couldn’t look away, from a distance, he was extraordinarily beautiful, up close, he was mesmerizing.

He turned at the sound of her footsteps, saw her and stopped.

“I’m so sorry,” he stammered. I didn’t know you were…

“It’s an Academy garden,” he said without further ado. Don’t go because of me.

His voice was more formal than he had expected, he had imagined a rough and gruff tone, matching his brutal movements in the pit, but Altan’s voice was surprisingly melodious, soft and deep.

His pupils were strangely constricted. Rin couldn’t tell if it was simply because of the garden light, but now she didn’t have red eyes. More like brown, like yours.

“I’ve never seen that shape before,” Rin pronounced.

Altan raised an eyebrow. Rin immediately regretted opening her mouth. Why had he said that? Why did it even exist? He wanted to dissolve into ashes and scatter in the wind.

But Altan only seemed surprised, not irritated.

—Stay close to Jiang long enough and you’ll learn many arcane ways. —He shifted his weight to his back leg and retracted his arms in a fluid motion to the other side of his torso.

Rin’s cheeks burned, he felt very clumsy and huge, as if he were occupying a space that belonged to Altan, even though he was at the other end of the garden.

“Master Jiang never mentioned that anyone else liked coming here.

“Jiang likes to forget a lot of things.” He tilted his head toward her. You must be a unique student if Jiang is interested in you.

Was that bitterness in his voice, or was he imagining it?

He remembered that Jiang had withdrawn his proposal, right after Altan swore him. He wondered what had happened, and if he still affected her. He also wondered if she had minded him talking about Jiang.

“I stole a book from the library,” Rin said. He thought it was funny.

Why was he still talking? Why was she still here?

The corners of Altan’s lips curved into a terribly attractive smile, causing his heart to race.

—What a rebel.

He blushed, but Altan turned around and completed the form.

“Don’t let my presence stop you from training,” he said.

—No, I had come here to think, but if you are here…

-I’m sorry. Can I leave.

“No, it’s okay.” I didn’t know what he was saying. She was going to… I mean, I was just… goodbye.

He quickly backed away from the garden. Altan said nothing more.

Once he had closed the doors, Rin buried his face in his hands, and groaned.


—Is there a place for meekness in battle? Irjah asked. This was his seventh question to her.

Rin was on a roll, seven was the maximum number of questions a maester could ask, and if he got it right, he would have passed the Irjah exam perfectly. And he knew the answer, it was related to Sunzi’s twenty-second term.

Raising his chin, he responded in a clear and strong voice.

—Yes, but only for the purpose of deception. Sunzi tells us that if your opponent has an angry temperament, you should seek to irritate him. Pretend weakness, so that he becomes arrogant. The good tactician plays with the enemy, like a cat plays with a mouse. She feigns weakness and immobility, and then lunges at him.

The seven maesters made some notes on their scrolls, Rin jumping on tiptoe waiting for them to continue.

“Well, I have no more questions.” Irjah nodded and signaled to his colleagues. Master Yim?

Yim pushed his chair back and stood up slowly. He consulted her scroll for a moment, and looked at Rin over her glasses.

—Why did we win the Second Poppy War?

Rin held her breath. He had not prepared himself for this question. It was so basic that he didn’t expect to need it. Yim had asked it on the first day of class, and the answer was a logical fallacy. There was no why , since Nikan had not won the Second Poppy War, the Republic of Hesperia had, and Nikan had simply clung to the foreign coattails in the victory treaty.

He considered answering the question directly, but then thought he might try giving a more original answer. She only had one chance, she wanted to impress the maesters.

“Because we surrendered Esper,” he said.

Irjah snapped his head up from the scroll. Yim raised an eyebrow.

—Do you mean because we lost Esper?

—No, I mean it was a strategic decision to sacrifice the island so that the parliament of Hesperia could decide to intervene. I think the higher-ups at Sinegard knew the attack was going to happen, and didn’t warn the esperlies.

“ I was in Esper,” Jun interrupted. This is trashy historiography at best, defamation at worst.

“No, he wasn’t,” Rin answered before he could stop himself. Jun was hallucinating.


Now all the seven maesters were staring at him, and Rin remembered too late that Irjah didn’t like that.

answer, and that Jun hated him .

But it was too late to stop, and he appreciated what his response could cost him. The maesters rewarded bravery and creativity; If he backed out, it would be a clear sign of insecurity. She had dug this hole for herself, and she could finish it.

He took a breath.

—He couldn’t have been on Esper, I’ve read the reports, no army regulars were on the island the night it was attacked. The first troops did not arrive until dawn, after the Federation had left. After all the esperlies were massacred.

Jun’s face turned the color of a ripe plum.

—How dare you accuse me…?

“You’re not accusing anyone of anything,” Jiang interrupted calmly. It was the first time she had spoken since the beginning of her examination. Surprised, Rin looked at him, but Jiang was scratching her ear, not looking at her. She’s just looking for a smart answer to a stupid question. Honestly, Yim, that question is getting old.

Yim dismissed his comment.

—Okay, I have no more questions. Master Jiang?

All the maesters looked irritated, as far as he knew, Jiang was present for mere formality. She never took a test, as she often made fun of the students when they got stuck on their answers.

Jiang stared into Rin’s eyes.

She swallowed, feeling an unsettling tingle from his penetrating gaze. She felt transparent, like a puddle after the rain.

—Who is imprisoned in Chuluu Korikh? Jiang asked.

He was surprised, not once in the four months he had trained with him had he mentioned Chuluu Korikh. Neither had Maester Yim or Irjah, nor had Jun either. Chuluu Korikh was not a medical term, nor a reference to a famous battle, nor a linguistic term of art. It could be a hidden catchphrase, or it could be bullshit.

So either Jiang was asking her a riddle or he wanted to get rid of her.

But she wasn’t going to admit defeat, she didn’t want to seem useless in front of Irjah. Jiang had asked him a question, and Jiang never asked questions during the Trials. The maesters expected an interesting answer now, she did not want to disappoint them.

What was the smartest way to say I don’t know ?

Chuluu Korikh. He had studied ancient nikara with Jima long enough to know that he alluded to a stone mountain in the ancient dialect; That didn’t give him any clue. None of Nikan’s main prisons were built deep in the mountains, they were in the Baghra Desert or in the dungeons of the Empress’s Palace.

And Jiang hadn’t asked him what Chuluu Korik was, he had asked who was imprisoned there.

What kind of prisoners couldn’t the Baghra Desert hold?

He thought about it until he had an unsatisfactory answer to an unsatisfactory question.

“Unnatural criminals,” he said slowly, “who have committed unnatural crimes?”

Jun snorted audibly, Jima and Yim looked uncomfortable. Jiang made an almost imperceptible gesture.

“Good,” he said. That is all that I have.


The oral exams concluded at mid-morning of the third day. The students then went to eat, although none of them could eat anything. They then headed to the pit for the start of the tournament.

Rin’s first opponent was Han.

When it was his turn to fight, he descended the rope ladder and looked up, and saw the maesters lining up at the railing. Irjah gave him a slight nod, a small gesture that filled him with determination. Jun crossed his arms over her chest, and Jiang looked at his hands.

Rin hadn’t fought anyone of his class since his expulsion from Combat, he hadn’t even seen them fight. The only person he had fought was Jiang, and he had no idea if his way of fighting was even a good approximation of that of his companions.

The tournament started blind.

She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, hoping to at least appear calm.

Han, on the other hand, seemed very puzzled. His eyes darted all over her body and then back to her face as if she were some kind of wild animal he’d never seen before, as if he didn’t quite know what to expect from her.

He’s scared , he thought when he realized.

He must have heard the rumors that he had trained with Jiang, and he didn’t know what to think, or what to expect.

And what’s more, it was assumed that Rin would lose this duel, no one imagined that he would fight well. But Han had trained with Jun all year, and Han was a Sinegardian. Han had to win, or then he wouldn’t be able to look anyone else in the face.

Sunzi had written that one should always identify and exploit the enemy’s weakness. Han’s weakness was psychological, he had much, much more at stake than her, and that made him insecure, made him defeatable .

“What, you’ve never seen a girl before?” Rin asked. Han blushed furiously.

Well, it had made him nervous. He smiled widely, showing his teeth.

“Lucky for you,” he continued. You will be my first.

“You don’t have a chance,” Han snapped. You don’t know any martial arts.

She simply smiled and hunched over at Seejin’s fourth opening. She bent her back leg, ready to jump, and raised her fists to protect her face.

—I don’t know any?

Han’s face was covered in doubt, he saw that his posture was deliberate and trained, not at all the posture of someone without training in martial arts.

Rin lunged at him as soon as Sonnen gave them the order to start.

Han fought defensively from the start, made the mistake of giving him the initiative, and was never able to get it back. From the beginning, Rin controlled every part of the match. He attacked, and he reacted. He made him dance, decided when he let him block, and when he let him go. He fought methodically, from pure muscle memory, he was efficient. She played with him, and confused him.

And Han’s attacks followed such predictable patterns, if one of his kicks missed, he would back away and try again, again, and again, and again, until she forced him to change direction.

Finally he let his guard down, and letting her come closer, he stuck his elbow into Han’s nose. There was a satisfying crack . Han fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Rin knew he hadn’t hurt him that much, Jiang had already punched him in the nose at least twice. Han was more stunned than hurt, he was able to get up. He did not do it.

“Stop,” Sonnen ordered.

Rin wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked at the railing,

There was a great silence in the room, her classmates looked at her the same as on her first day, surprised and disconcerted. Nezha was dumbfounded.

Then Kitay started clapping. He was the only one.


He fought twice more that day. Both matches were two variations of his confrontation with Han, predictable patterns, confusion, and a final blow. He won both.

Over the course of the day, Rin went from an underdog to a top contender. All those months of her carrying that stupid pig she had given him a resistance superior to that of her companions. Those long, frustrating hours with Seejin’s ways had given him impeccable footwork.

The rest of the class had learned the fundamentals from Jun. They moved the same way, falling into the same predetermined patterns when they were nervous. But Rin didn’t, his great advantage was his unpredictability. He fought like no one expected, he made them lose their rhythm, and so he continued to win.


By the end of the first day, Rin and six others, including Nezha and Venka, had advanced undefeated to the knockout rounds. Kitay had finished the day with a score of two to one, but he had shown good technique.

The quarterfinals would be the second day. Sonnen prepared the next day’s list at random and hung it on a scroll at the door of the main room. In the morning, Rin would have to fight Venka.

Venka had trained in martial arts for years, and it showed. It was all quick attacks, and fluid, impeccable footwork. She fought with savage violence, her technique was precise to the centimeter, she attacked at the right moment. She was as fast as Rin, maybe faster.

Rin’s only advantage was that Venka had never fought with an injury.

“He’s practiced a lot,” Kitay said. But no one really wants to hurt her. Everyone stops before hitting her, even Nezha. She’ll bet you that none of the tutors in her house hurt her either. Nobody. They would have been fired immediately, not to mention that they could end up in jail.

“You’re staying with me,” Rin said.

—I know that I have never hit him. Rin rubbed his fist with his hand.

—Then maybe it will go well for you.

However, hurting Venka was not easy, more by chance than anything else, Rin managed to land a blow at the beginning of the confrontation. Venka, underestimating Rin’s speed, had gotten into guard too slowly after Rin’s failed attempt at a left hook. Rin then took advantage of the opening and hit him on the nose with the back of her hand.

The bone broke with Rin’s fist with an audible sound.

Venka immediately backed away. With a hand on her face, she felt her nose that was swelling. She looked at her blood-covered fingers and looked back at Rin. Her face swelled, and her cheeks turned a ghostly white.

-Any problem? —Rin said.

The look Venka gave him was one of pure venom.

“You shouldn’t even be here,” he snapped.

“Tell it to your nose,” Rin answered.

Venka was visibly upset, her contempt already gone. Her hair was tangled, her face was bloody, and her eyes were wild and unfocused. She was on edge, out of rhythm, she tried several wild attacks until Rin landed a solid spinning kick against the side of her head.

Venka flew towards the wall and stayed on the ground. Her chest rose and she fell very quickly. Rin couldn’t tell if it was because she was crying or panting.

Not that he cared.

The applause, when Rin emerged from the pit, was scarce. The crowd had been cheering for Venka, Venka was supposed to make it to the final.

Rin didn’t care, she was used to it by now. And Venka was not the victory she craved.


Nezha swept through his combat with ruthless efficiency, his matches were always scheduled in the other pit at the same time as Rin’s, and invariably ended sooner. Rin had never seen Nezha in action, only seeing his opponents carried away on stretchers.

Among Nezha’s opponents, only Kitay had emerged unscathed, having held out for a minute and a half before giving up.

There were rumors that Nezha would be disqualified for intentional crippling, but Rin was wary. The faculty wanted to see the heir of the House of Yin in the finals, from what Rin knew,

Nezha could even kill without repercussions. Jun would allow it, of course.

No one was surprised when Rin and Nezha won the semi-final rounds. The final was postponed until after dinner so that the trainees could come too.

Nezha disappeared at some point during the dinner, probably receiving private advice from Jun. Rin considered reporting it, so that Nezha would be disqualified, but she knew it would be a hollow victory, and she wanted to see this through to the end.

He played with his food, he knew he needed energy, but the thought of eating made him want to vomit.

Halfway through the break, Raban approached his table. He was sweating heavily, as if he had come running from the lower level. He thought he was going to congratulate her for making it to the finals, but all he said was:

—You should give up.

“You’re kidding,” Rin replied, “I’m going to win.”

—Look, Rin, you haven’t seen any of Nezha’s fights.

—I’ve been a little worried with mine.

—Then you don’t know what he’s capable of. “I just dealt with your semi-final opponent, Nohai, in the infirmary.” Raban sounded deeply upset. They are not sure if he will be able to walk again, Nezha has shattered his kneecap.

—It seems like a Nohai problem—Rin didn’t want to hear anything about Nezha’s victories, she was already restless enough without help. The only way she could get through the finals was by convincing herself that Nezha was defeatable .

“I know he hates you,” Raban continued. It could leave you paralyzed for life.

“He’s just a boy,” Rin said with a confidence he didn’t really feel.

—You’re just a girl! said Raban agitatedly. I don’t care how good you think you are. Nezha has six inches and ten kilos of muscle on you, and I swear she wants to kill you.

“He has weaknesses,” Rin said, stubbornly, because it had to be true, right?

—And what does that matter? What does this tournament mean to you? Raban asked. It is impossible for them to discard you now, any maester will offer you to be his apprentice. Why do you have to win?

Raban was right, now Irjah would have no reservations in making him an offer. Rin’s place in Sinegard was assured.

But now it was not about getting a place, but about pride. By power. If he surrendered to Nezha, he would remind him of it for the rest of his years at the Academy. No, it would be something he would remember about her for the rest of her life.

“Because I can,” he said, “because he thought he could get rid of me.” And because I want to break her stupid face.


The basement remained silent as Rin and Nezha descended into the pit. The air was thick with anticipation, with a bloodthirsty morbidity. Months of hateful rivalry were reaching their peak, and everyone wanted to see the consequences of their collision.

Both Jun and Irjah had a deliberately neutral expression, giving nothing away. Jiang was absent.

Nezha and Rin bowed briefly, never taking their eyes off each other, and both instantly stepped back.

Nezha kept his gaze focused on Rin, his almond-shaped eyes narrowed. Her lips pursed in concentration. No mockery, no ridicule. Not even a grunt.

Rin realized that Nezha was taking her seriously, recognizing her as an equal. For some reason, she felt fiercely proud.

They looked at each other, daring each other to break eye contact.

“Get started,” said Sonnen.

She jumped at him immediately, her right leg striking again and again, forcing him back.

Kitay had spent most of lunch helping him with a strategy. He knew that Nezha could be blindingly fast. As soon as he gained momentum, he would not stop until his opponent was incapacitated or dead.

Rin needed to overwhelm him from the start, she needed to constantly put him on the defensive, because being on the defensive against Nezha was certain defeat.

The problem was that Nezha was terrifyingly strong, he didn’t have the raw strength of Kobin, or even Kureel, but he was so precise in his movements that it didn’t matter. He channeled his ki from him with brilliant precision, concentrating it to release it at the minimum pressure point, to create maximum impact.

Unlike Venka, Nezha could take hits and keep going, he hurt him once or twice. He would adapt and hit back, and

His blows hurt .

They had been two minutes, Rin had lasted longer than the rest of Nezha’s opponents, and something had become clear to him. He was not invincible. Techniques that had seemed impossibly difficult to him were now transparent and conquerable. When Nezha kicked, his movements were wide and obvious, like those of a wild boar. His kicks had terrifying power, but only if they hit.

Rin made sure they never hit.

There was no way she was going to let him cripple her, she wasn’t here to survive. She was here to win.

Explosive Dragon . Crouching tiger . Extended crane . He rotated through the movements of Seejin’s Revelry as needed. The moves he had practiced so many times before, linked one after the other in that damned way, automatically came into play.

But if Nezha was taken aback by Rin’s fighting style, he didn’t show it. He remained focused and calm, attacking with methodical efficiency.

Four minutes had now passed. Rin’s lungs felt tight, trying to pump oxygen into his tired body. But he knew that if she was tired, Nezha was too,

“He gets desperate when he’s tired,” Kitay said. And it’s more dangerous when he’s desperate.

Nezha was getting desperate.

There was no control in his ki anymore . He threw blow after blow in his direction, not caring about the rule about crippling, if he threw it in the

ground, I would kill her.

Nezha kicked him low on the back of his knees. Rin made a frantic decision and let him connect, sinking onto her back, pretending to have lost her balance. Nezha immediately advanced, looming over her. She braced herself against the ground and kicked up.

The blow hit him directly in the solar plexus with more force than he had ever done before, and he could feel the air leaving his lungs. Rin stood up from the ground, and was shocked to find Nezha still staggering backwards, searching for air.

He lunged forward and punched him in the head. Nezha fell to the ground.

Murmurs of surprise ran through the audience.

Rin circled around Nezha, hoping he wasn’t going to get up, and knowing he would. He wanted to finish, to dig his heel into the back of her neck. But the maesters cared about honor, if he attacked Nezha while he was on the ground, she would be expelled from Sinegard instantly.

Although if he did it, he doubted anyone would even blink.

Four seconds passed. Nezha raised a trembling hand and stabbed it into the ground. He crawled. His forehead was bleeding, scarlet dripping into his eyes, and he blinked it away and stared at her.

His look promised death.

“Continue,” said Sonnen.

Rin carefully surrounded Nezha, he crouched down like an animal, like a wounded wolf rising on its paws.

At Rin’s next punch, Nezha grabbed her arm and pulled her back. Her breathing stopped. He swiped his paw across her face, up to her collarbone.

She released her arm from his grasp and backed away quickly. She felt a sharp sting under her left eye, across her neck. Nezha had drawn blood.

“Get a grip, Yin,” Sonnen warned.

They both ignored him. As if a warning would make any difference , Rin thought. At Nezha’s next attack, he lunged at her and knocked her to the ground with him. They rolled on the ground, each trying to grab the other and failing.

Nezha punched the air like crazy, throwing rhythmless punches towards his face.

She dodged the first one, he swung his arm back and hit her with a backhand that left her breathless. The lower half of her face went numb.

He had slapped him. She had slapped him .

A kick he could tolerate, a stab he could also accept. But a slap was fiercely intimate, and with a trace of superiority.

Something in Rin broke.

I couldn’t breathe. The edges of her vision turned black, black, then scarlet. A terrible rage filled her, she consumed her

thoughts. She needed revenge as much as she needed to breathe. She wanted to hurt Nezha . He wanted to punish Nezha.

It responded to his blow, fingers curled into claws. Nezha let go of her to jump after her, but she followed him, redoubling her frantic attacks. She wasn’t as fast as him. He counterattacked, but she was too slow to block him, and he hit her thigh, her arm, but her body didn’t register the damage. The pain was a message she was ignoring, only to feel it later.

No, pain led to success.

He hit her in the face once, twice, three. He beat him up like an animal and still Rin continued to fight.

-But what’s wrong with you? Nezha hissed.

More important was what was happening to him . Fear. She could see it in his eyes.

He backed her against the wall, with his hands around her neck, but she grabbed his shoulders, kneed him in the ribs, and drove her elbow into the back of his neck. She collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. She then threw herself to the ground, and slammed his elbow into the small of her back. Nezha screamed, and arched in agony.

Rin blocked Nezha’s left arm on the ground with his foot and held his neck with his right elbow. When he struggled, he struck her with his fist on the back of the head, and he buried her into the ground until it was clear that he would not get up.

“Stop,” said Sonnen.

But Rin could barely hear him. The blood resonated in his ears with a rhythm similar to war drums. His vision

It was filtered by a red lens that registered only enemies.

Grabbing him by the hair, he lifted Nezha’s head to smash it against the ground.


Sonnen’s arms went around her neck, holding her, pulling her away from Nezha’s motionless figure.

He stumbled away from Sonnen. Her body was burning, feverish. She staggered, suddenly dizzy. She felt like she was going to burst from the heat. She had to disperse him, force him into something or he was going to die without a doubt. But the only place seemed to be in everyone else’s bodies.

Something deep in his rational mind began to scream. Raban approached her as he emerged from the pit.

—Rin, what…?

He pushed her hand.

“Move,” she gasped, “move!”

But the maesters surrounded her, a cacophony of voices, hands reaching for her, mouths moving. Her presence was suffocating. She felt that if she screamed she could disintegrate them completely. She wanted to disintegrate them, but the tiny part of her that was still rational overpowered her, sending her stumbling toward the exit.

Miraculously they made way for him. She pushed through the crowd of apprentices and ran to the stairs. She bolted upstairs, pushing the door open to the cold air, and she took a deep breath.

It wasn’t enough, it was still burning.

Ignoring the cries of the maesters behind her, she began to run.


Jiang was in the first place he looked, the Acervo garden. He was sitting cross-legged and eyes closed, still as the stone he was sitting on.

Rin crawled through the garden doors, holding on to the frame. The world was spinning for him. Everything was red, the trees, the stones, and especially Jiang. He shone before her like a torch.

He opened his eyes to the sound of her rushing through the door.


He had forgotten how to speak. The flames in her extended towards Jiang, they felt her presence like a fire senses firewood and wants to consume it.

He became convinced that if he didn’t kill him, he would end up exploding.

It moved to attack him. He stood up, dodged her hands, and threw her to the ground with a deft maneuver. He fell onto her back, and pinned her to the ground with her arms.

“You’re burning,” he said, surprised.

“Help me,” he murmured. Aid.

He leaned forward, taking his head in his hands.

-Look at me.

Rin obeyed with great difficulty. Her face danced before her.

—Great Turtle! —He murmured, and let go of her.

She rolled her eyes and made indecipherable sounds, syllables that were unlike any language she knew.

Then he opened his eyes, and pressed the palm of his hand against Rin’s forehead.

His hand felt like ice. A searing cold flowed from his palm to his forehead and to the rest of his body, along the same trails that the flames followed, stopping the fire, immobilizing it in his veins. He felt as if he had been extinguished by a cold bath. He writhed on the ground, breathing hard, shaking, as the fire drained from his blood.

Then everything was calm.



Jiang’s face was the first thing he saw when he regained consciousness. Her clothes were wrinkled and she had deep circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in days. How long had she been asleep? Had Jiang been there the entire time?

He raised his head. She was lying on a stretcher in the infirmary, but she was not injured, as far as she could see.

-How do you feel? Jiang asked in a low voice.

—Sore, but fine.

He sat up slowly and winced. Her mouth felt like it was full of cotton. She coughed and rubbed her throat, frowning.

-What happened?

Jiang offered her the glass of water that was next to the bed, which she accepted gratefully. The water slid down her dry throat with a wonderful sensation.

“Congratulations,” Jiang said. You are this year’s champion.

It didn’t sound at all like he was congratulating her.

Rin didn’t feel any of the joy he should feel, he couldn’t even taste the satisfaction of his victory over Nezha. He didn’t feel even an ounce of pride, only confusion and fear.

-What have I done? —She whispered.

“You’ve stumbled upon something you’re not prepared for,” Jiang said, upset. I should never have taught you the Five Jolgories. From now on, you are going to be a danger to yourself and everyone around you.

“Not if you help me,” he said. Not if you teach me.

—I thought you just wanted to be a good soldier.

“It’s what I want,” she said. But more than that, she wanted power.

She had no idea what had happened in the pit, she would be a fool not to feel terrified, and yet she had never felt such a power. At that time, she believed that she could defeat anyone. Kill anything.

I wanted that power again. He wanted what Jiang could teach him.

“I was ungrateful that day in the garden,” she said, choosing her words carefully. If she spoke too obsequiously, then it would scare Jiang away. But if she didn’t apologize, then Jiang would think that she hadn’t learned anything since the last time they spoke. I wasn’t thinking, I apologize.

Rin watched his eyes apprehensively, searching for that distant expression that would indicate she had lost him.

Jiang’s features didn’t soften, but he didn’t get up to leave either.

-No. It was my fault, I didn’t realize how similar you were to Altan.

Rin raised her head at the mention of Altan.

“He won the tournament in his year, as you well know,” Jiang said monotonously. She fought Tobi in the finals, it was a fight full of grievances, like yours with Nezha. Altan hated Tobi. Tobi had made fun of the esperlies the first week at the Academy, and Altan never forgave him. But he wasn’t like you, he didn’t make trouble with Tobi all year like a hen pecking. No, Altan swallowed his anger, cloaking it in a mask of indifference, until the very end, in front of an audience that included six Warlords and the Empress herself, he unleashed a power so potent that it required Sonnen, Jun, and me. himself to contain it. By the time everything calmed down, Tobi was so badly injured that Enro did not sleep for five days while he watched over him.

“I’m not like that,” he said. She hadn’t hit Nezha that hard,

No? It was difficult to remember through the fury that had overcome her. I’m not, I’m not like Altan.

“You are precisely the same.” Jiang shook his head. You are too reckless, you hold on to grievances, you cultivate your fury and let it explode. You are careless with what you are taught. Training you would be a mistake.

She felt faint, suddenly, she was afraid of going crazy. She had been able to taste incredible power, but was this the end of the road?

“So, is that why you withdrew your offer to Altan?” “He,” he asked, “is that why you refused to teach him?”

Jiang looked confused.

“I didn’t withdraw my offer,” he said. I strongly insisted that he be left in my care. Altan was a creep, already predisposed to rage and disaster. He knew that he was the only one who could help him.

—But the apprentices say…

“Apprentices don’t know shit,” Jiang interrupted. I asked Jima to let me train him, but the Empress intervened. She knew the military value of an esperli warrior, she was so excited … In the end, national interests had more weight than a boy’s sanity. They placed him under Irjah’s tutelage, and honed his anger like a weapon, rather than teaching him to control it. You’ve seen him in the pit, you know what he is like.

Jiang leaned forward.

“But you… The Empress doesn’t know anything about you.” He spoke more to himself than to her. You’re not safe, but you will be… They won’t intervene, not this time…

Rin looked at Jiang’s face, not daring to expect anything.

—Then that means… Jiang stood up.

—I will take you as my apprentice. I hope I don’t have to regret it.

He extended a hand toward her. Rin reached out and picked her up.


Of all the fifty students who had enrolled at Sinegard at the beginning of the course, thirty-five received an offer. The maesters sent their scrolls to the office in the main hall, for the students to choose from.

Those students who did not have any scrolls were asked to hand in their uniforms and prepare to leave the Academy immediately.

Most students only received one scroll. Niang, to her delight, together with two other students, managed to become a medical apprentice. Nezha and Venka swore Combat.

Kitay, convinced that he had lost all the offers when he had surrendered to Nezha, did not stop pulling his hair all the way to the main room. Rin was afraid that he was going to go bald.

“It was stupid,” Kitay said. Coward. No one has given up unscathed in the last two decades. Nobody is going to offer me an apprenticeship now.

Until the tournament he had been waiting for an offer from Jima, Jun and Irjah, but now there was only one scroll.

Kitay unfolded it, and his face broke into a bright smile.

—lrjah thinks giving up was brilliant. I’m going to swear Strategy!

The registrar of the main hall handed two scrolls to Rin. Without opening them, he knew that they were from Irjah and Jiang. He could choose between Strategy and Acquis.

Sworn Acquis.


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