Chapter no 8

The Poppy War

The Academy gave them four days off to celebrate the Summer Festival. The next course would begin as soon as they were back.

Most of the students took the opportunity to visit their families, but Rin didn’t have enough time to go to Tikany, and it’s not like she wanted to go. She had planned to spend the holidays at the Academy, until Kitay invited her to spend it with him.

“Unless you don’t want to,” Kitay said nervously. I mean, if you already have plans…

“I have no plans,” Rin said. I’d love to.

He gathered his things for the excursion to the city the next morning, it took only a few seconds, as he had very little personal property. He delicately folded two of his school outfits into his old travel bag, hoping that Kitay wouldn’t find it impolite for him to wear his uniform during the festival. He had no other clothes, as he had gotten rid of his old southern robes at the first chance he got.

“I’ll order a rickshaw,” Rin offered when she met Kitay at the school gates.

—Why would we need a rickshaw? —Kitay seemed puzzled.

Rin frowned.

“So how are we going to get there?”

Kitay was about to answer just when a huge carriage with several horses stopped before the doors. The driver, a portly man dressed in opulent gold and burgundy, leaped from the coachman’s seat and bowed profusely to Kitay.

—Master Chen.

He looked at Rin bewildered, as if he didn’t know if he should bow to her as well, and opted for a slight bow of his head.

—Thank you, Merchi —Kitay gave the bags to his servant and helped Rin get into the carriage.


-A lot.

From their vantage point in the carriage, they could see almost the entire city that covered the valley below them. The prominent spiral pagodas of the administrative district rising from a faint layer of fog, white houses on the slopes of the valley with curved tile roofs, and the winding stone walls of the avenues leading to the center.

From the dark interior of the carriage, Rin felt isolated from the dirty streets of the city. She felt clean, for the first time since she came to Sinegard, she felt like she belonged there. She leaned towards him

side and enjoyed the warm summer breeze on his face. She hadn’t rested in a long time.

—We will discuss in detail what happened to you when you return.

—Jiang had told him—. But your mind has just suffered a very particular trauma, the best thing you can do now is rest. Let the experience germinate, let your mind heal.

Kitay had thoughtfully not asked her what had happened, and Rin was grateful.

Merchi quickly took them over the mountain pass, continued along the main street of the city for an hour, and then turned onto an isolated street that took them to the Jade District.

When Rin had arrived in Sinegard a year ago, she and tutor Feyrik had passed through the working-class district, where inns were cheap and there were gambling houses on every corner. And later, on her daily trips to Widow Maung, she had been driven through the dirtiest, noisiest, smelliest parts of the city. What she had seen so far of Sinegard wasn’t that different from Tikany, just louder and more crowded.

But now, in the Chen family carriage, he saw how splendid Sinegard could be. The roads of the Jade District were freshly paved, and shined as if they had been cleaned just this morning. He saw no wooden huts, no obvious urinal dumps. He saw no grumpy housewives steaming bread or grilling dumplings outdoors, too poor to afford an indoor stove, nor did he see beggars.

Rin found that tranquility disturbing, Tikany was always bustling with activity, homeless people collecting trash to

packaging it and selling it, older men sitting outside their homes, smoking or playing mahjong , children dressed in overalls that left their butts in the air, wandering the streets and being chased by their hunched-over grandparents ready to catch them when they tripped. .

He saw nothing similar here, the Jade District was made up of pristine barriers and walled gardens. Except for the carriage, the streets were empty.

Merchi stopped before a huge enclosure, the doors opened heavily, revealing four long rectangular buildings forming a square, and surrounding a huge garden pavilion. Several dogs ran to the entrance, tiny white things whose white paws were immaculately clean, just like the flagstone path they had come down.

Kitay screamed, got out of the carriage and knelt, and the dogs jumped on him, tails wagging in delirious delight.

“This is called the Dragon Emperor,” he said, tickling her chin. They all have names of great rulers.

—Which one is the Red Emperor? —Rin asked.

—The one who’s going to pee on your foot if you don’t move him away.

The housewife was a short, plump woman with freckled, tanned skin named Lan. She spoke with a friendly, childlike voice that contrasted with her wrinkled face. Her Sinegardian accent was so thick that even with all the months of practice with Widow Maung, Rin still could barely decipher it.

—What would you like to eat? I will cook whatever you want. I know all the culinary styles of the twelve provinces. Except for the

Mono province, too spicy and not good for you. I don’t cook stinky tofu either, my only condition is what’s on the market, but I can find almost anything at the import store. A favorite recipe? Lobster? Or water chestnuts? You name it, tell me and I’ll cook it.

Rin, who was used to the tasteless food in the Academy canteen, didn’t know how to respond. How did she explain to him that she had no idea about Lan’s repertoire? In Tikany, the Fang were experts at cooking whatever , which was literally whatever was left in the store, usually fried eggs and glass noodles.

“I want the Seven Treasures Soup,” Kitay interjected, leaving Rin wondering what the hell that was. And lion’s head.

Rin was stunned.


Kitay was having fun.

—Oh, you’ll see.



—You could try not to act like a delusional yokel,

You know? Kitay said, as Lan served them a variety of quail, quail eggs, shark fin soup in turtle shells, and pig intestines. It’s just food.

But only food was rice porridge, and maybe some vegetables. And when I was lucky, a piece of fish, pork or chicken.

Nothing on the table was just something.

The Seven Treasures Soup turned out to be a delicious sweet concoction of rice with red dates, honey chestnuts, lotus leaves, and four other ingredients that Rin couldn’t identify. He discovered, to his relief, that lion’s head was not a real lion’s head, but a ball of meat mixed with flour and boiled with strips of white tofu.

“Kitay, I’m a crazy rube.” Rin tried unsuccessfully to pick up a quail egg with her chopsticks, finally giving up and using her hands. Do you always eat this well?

-You get used to it. —Kitay blushed—. I had a very bad time the first week at the Academy, the canteen is terrible.

It was hard not to be jealous of Kitay, her private bathroom was bigger than the bedroom she shared with Kesegi. The estate’s library rivaled Sinegard’s. Everything Kitay had was replaceable, if her shoes got muddy, she would throw them away. If her shirt was torn, she would have a new, freshly sewn one tailored to her.

Kitay had had a childhood surrounded by comfort and luxury, with nothing to do but study for the Keju. For him, passing Sinegard was not a pleasant surprise, but rather confirmation of what he had always known was his destiny.

-Where’s your father? —Rin asked.

Kitay’s father was the Empress’s defense minister. Rin, not to mention it, was relieved to not have to talk to him yet. Just imagining it was terrifying, although she couldn’t help but be curious. Would he be an aged version of Kitay, with curly hair, just as shiny, and exponentially more powerful?

Kitay grimaced.

—Defense Meeting, you may not know it, but the entire city is in a state of maximum alarm. All city guards will be on duty this entire week, we don’t need another Opera incident.

“I thought the Red Reed Opera was dead,” Rin said.

—Almost dead, you can’t kill a movement. “Somewhere far from here, some religious lunatics are planning to kill the Empress.” Kitay skewered a piece of tofu. Father will be in the palace until the parade is over. He is directly responsible for the Empress’ safety, if something goes wrong, father’s head will be the first to fall.

“Aren’t you worried?”

—Not really, he’s been doing it for decades. It will be fine, besides, the Empress is a martial artist, she is not an easy target.

Then Kitay told him a series of anecdotes from his father about what it was like to serve in the palace, funny encounters with the Empress and the twelve Warlords, rumors from the court and about provincial politics.

Rin listened in amazement. What must it have been like to grow up knowing that your father served as the Empress’s right-hand man? What a difference the place of birth can make! In another world, Rin could have grown up in a mansion like this, with all his desires at his fingertips. In another world, he would have been born with power.


Rin spent the night in a huge room that she had to herself. She had not slept so long and so well since she had arrived in Sinegard. It was as if her body had given up after weeks of abuse. She woke up feeling better and more clear-headed than she had in months.

After a delicious breakfast of sweet rice and spiced goose eggs, Rin and Kitay headed downtown to the market.

Rin had not returned to the center since arriving in Sinegard with Tutor Feyrik a year ago. Widow Maung lived on the other side of town, and her strict academic schedule had not given her time to explore Sinegard.

If I had thought last year that the market was overwhelming, now, in the middle of the Summer Festival, it seemed as if the city had exploded. There were street vendors everywhere, and buyers had to walk through the market in a line. But the views, oh what a panorama! Rin saw piles of pearl necklaces and jade bracelets, set with smooth stones the size of an egg with carved characters, and some could only be read if you put them in water. Master calligraphers who wrote your name on large, beautiful fans wielding their brushes with the care and style of a swordsman.

Rin stopped at a shelf that was filled with some wooden statues of small, fat children.

-What is this?

The boys had their robes on the floor, exposing their penises.

He couldn’t imagine something so obscene was for sale.

“Oh, these are my favorites,” Kitay said.

By way of explanation, the seller took a teapot and poured water on top of the statues. The clay darkened as the statues became wet, and water began to ooze out of the penises, as if they were spreading urine.

Rin laughed.

-How much they cost?

—Four silver for one. I offer you two for seven.

Rin turned pale. She only had a single rope of imperial silver and a handful of copper coins from the money Tutor Feyrik helped her exchange. She had never had to spend money at the Academy, and she hadn’t considered how expensive everything in Sinegard could be living off the Academy.

-You want it? Kitay asked. Rin waved his hand in denial.

—No, I’m fine, it’s not like I can… Understanding dawned on Kitay’s face.

-My gift.

He handed a rope of silver to the merchant.

—A peeing statue for my easy-to-entertain friend. Rin blushed.

—Kitay, I can’t.

—It doesn’t cost anything.

“It costs a lot to me,” Rin said. Kitay placed the statue in her hands.

—If you mention anything else about money, I’m going to let you get lost.

The market was so crowded that Rin was reluctant to go too far from the entrance. If you got lost on those winding roads,

How was I going to find the way out? But Kitay moved through the market with the ease of a local, pointing out the stores he liked and those he didn’t.

Kitay’s Sinegard was full of wonders, wide open, and packed with things that belonged to him. Kitay’s Sinegard wasn’t terrifying, because Kitay had money. If he stumbled, half the store owners would help him, hoping for some kind of tip. If they cut his purse, he would go to his house and have another purse. Kitay could allow himself to be a victim of the city, because he had room to make mistakes.

Rin couldn’t, and she had to remind herself that, despite Kitay’s absurd generosity, none of this was hers. His only entry into this city was through the Academy, and he would have to work hard to maintain it.


At night, the market was illuminated with lanterns, one for each vendor. All the lanterns together looked like a horde of fireflies, casting shadows on everything their light illuminated.

—Have you ever seen shadow puppets? —Kitay stopped in front of a large canvas tent. A line of children were lining up and handing out copper shells to enter. I know it’s for little kids, but…

—Great Turtle! —Rin’s eyes widened. In Tikany, he had been told stories about shadow puppets. He took money out of his wallet. I pay.

The store was full of children. Kitay and Rin stood at the back, trying to disguise the fact that they were at least five years older than the rest of the audience. In front, a huge silk screen hung from the ceiling of the store, lit from behind with a soft yellow light.

—Listen, dear children, I am now going to tell you about the birth of our nation.

The puppeteer spoke from a kind of box next to the screen, so that even his silhouette was invisible. His voice, deep, soft, and resonant, filled the packed tent.

—This is the story of the salvation and unification of Nikan. This is the story of the Triumvirate, the three warriors of legend.

The light behind the screen dimmed and suddenly lit up bright scarlet.

-The warrior.

The first shadow appeared on the screen. It was the silhouette of a man with a huge sword, almost as tall as him. He wore strong armor, with pointed shoulder pads. The feather of his helmet folded in the air.

—The Viboratrix.

The slender figure of a woman appeared next to the Warrior. Her head was tilted to the side coquettishly, with her left arm folded behind her back, as if she were hiding something. A fan, perhaps, or a dagger.

-The Guardian.

The Guardian was the skinniest of the three, a puny figure wrapped in clothing. Next to him, walked a large turtle.

The scarlet hue of the screen turned into a soft yellow that flickered like heartbeats. The shadows of the Triumvirate grew larger and then disappeared. In its place, the silhouette of a mountain appeared.

—Sixty-five years ago, in the wake of the First Poppy War, the people of Nikan suffered under the weight of the Federation oppressors. Nikan was sick, feverish under the clouds of the poppy drug—translucent ribbons fluttered, giving the illusion of smoke. People were dying of hunger. Mothers sold their babies for a piece of meat, for a roll of clothes. Parents killed their children so as not to see them suffer. Yes, that’s true. Children like you!

»The Nikara thought that the gods had abandoned them,

How else could the barbarians of the east have caused such destruction?

The screen turned the same sickly yellow as the cheeks of opium addicts. A row of Nikara peasants fell to their knees with their heads bowed to the ground, as if they were crying.

—The people found no protection in the Warlords. The rulers of the twelve once powerful provinces were now weak and disorganized. Occupied by old feuds, they wasted time and pitted their soldiers against each other instead of uniting to expel the invaders from

Mugen. They wasted gold on drinks and women. They breathed the poppy drug as if it were air. They imposed exorbitant taxes on the provinces, and gave nothing in return. Even when the Federation destroyed their villages and raped their women, the Warlords did nothing. They couldn’t do anything.

»People prayed for heroes. They prayed for twenty years, and finally, the gods sent them.

A silhouette of three children, holding hands, appeared in the lower left corner of the screen. The boy in the center was the tallest. The one on his right had long, flowing hair. The third boy, further back than the other two, was in profile looking at the end of the screen, as if he were seeing something that the other two couldn’t.

—The gods did not send these heroes from the heavens. No, they chose three children, war orphans, peasants whose parents had been killed in raids on their villages. They were born from humble beginnings, but were destined to walk with the gods.

The boy in the center walked determinedly to the middle of the screen. The other two followed him at a distance, as if he were the leader. The shadows moved so smoothly that it seemed as if there were little men behind the screen, not puppets made of paper and string. Even absorbed in the story, Rin marveled at the technique.

—When their village burned, the three children made a pact to take revenge on the Federation and free their country from the invaders, so that there would be no more children who suffered like them.

»They trained for many years with the monks of the Wudang temple. When they grew older, their martial arts skill was prodigious, rivaling even men who had trained for decades. At the end of their apprenticeship, they traveled to the top of the highest mountain in the country: Tianshan.

A huge mountain appeared, taking up almost the entire screen. The shadows of the three heroes were tiny next to him. But as they headed up the mountain, the top became smaller and smaller, flatter and flatter, until the heroes stood at the top.

—There are seven thousand steps on the way to the top of Tianshan Mountain. And at the top, so high that the most powerful eagle is not able to reach, there is a temple. From there, the three heroes walked towards the sky and entered the Pantheon, the house of the gods.

The three heroes were now approaching an entrance similar to that of the Academy. The doors were twice as tall as the heroes, and were decorated in intricate patterns intertwining butterflies and tigers. She was guarded by a large turtle who bowed his head when she let them pass.

—The first hero, the strongest among his companions, was summoned by the Dragon Lord. That hero was a head taller than his friends. His back was broad, and his arms were like tree trunks. He had been chosen by the gods to be the leader of the three. “If I am to lead the armies of Nikan, I must have a formidable sword,” he said and knelt at the feet of the Dragon Lord. He ordered him to stand up, and gave him a great sword. Thus he became the Warrior.

The figure of the Warrior brandished the great sword in a great arc and made it fall to the ground. Sparks of gold and red flew out where the sword hit.

—The second hero was a woman between two men. She passed by the Dragon Lord, the Tiger Lord and the Lion Lord, because they were gods of war and therefore gods of men. And she said:

«I am a woman, and a woman needs different weapons than men. The woman’s place is not at the center of the battle. “A woman’s battlefield is deception and seduction.” And she knelt before the pedestal of the Serpent Goddess Nüwa. The goddess Nüwa was pleased with her words, and made the second heroine as deadly as a snake, as bewitching as the most hypnotic of snakes. And thus the Viboratrix was born.

A large snake slithered down the Viboratrix’s dress and coiled around her body, coiling until it rested on her shoulders. The audience applauded the puppet’s elegant trick.

—The third hero was the most humble among them. Weak and sickly, he had never been able to train as much as his two friends. But he was loyal and had an unwavering devotion to the gods. He did not beg for a gift from any god in the Pantheon, for he knew that he was not worthy. Instead, he knelt before the humble turtle who had let them in. “I just wish I had the strength to protect my friends and the courage to defend my country,” he said. And the turtle answered: «That and more will be given to you. Take the chain of keys around my neck. For from this day on, you will be the Guardian of the Gate. You have the means to open the House of Celestial Menagerie, where there are beasts of all kinds, creatures of great beauty and monsters that were defeated by past heroes. You will direct them as you deem necessary.

The silhouette of the Guardian raised his hands slowly, and a multitude of shadows of different sizes and shapes unfolded from his back. Dragons, demons, and beasts, surrounding the Guardian like a shroud of darkness.

—When they came down from the mountain, the monks who had long trained them realized that the three of them had surpassed even the oldest master in skill. Word spread, and martial artists from all over the country bowed to the prodigious skill of the three heroes, and the reputation of the Triumvirate grew. Now that their names were known throughout all twelve provinces, the Triumvirate sent an invitation to each of the Warlords to a grand banquet at the base of Tianshan Mountain.

Twelve figures, each representing a different province, appeared on the screen. Each one wore a feather on his helmet in the shape of the province from which he came: Rooster, Ox, Hare, Monkey and so on.

—The Warlords, who were very proud, were furious that the other eleven had been invited. Each of them thought that only he had been summoned by the Triumvirate. And since plotting is what Warlords do best, they immediately planned to take revenge on the Triumvirate.

The screen turned a hazy, eerie purple. The shadows of the Warlords gathered together and bowed their heads as if conducting evil negotiations.

—But halfway through the banquet, they realized that they couldn’t move. The Viboratrix had poisoned the drinks with a numbing plant, and the Warlords had drunk many bowls of the sorghum wine. While they remained

As they sat incapacitated in their seats, the Warrior stood before them and announced: “Today I declare myself Emperor of Nikan. If you oppose me, I will kill you and your lands will be mine. But if you swear to serve me as allies, and fight as generals under my command, I will reward you with status and power. Never again will you fight to defend your borders from another Warlord. There will never again be wars to conquer territory. You will all be equal under my command and I will be the greatest leader this nation has ever seen since the Red Emperor.”

The shadow of the Warrior raised his sword towards the sky. Lightning bolts erupted from the tip of the sword, a symbol of the very blessing of the heavens themselves.

—When the Warlords regained control of his body, each of them agreed to serve the new Dragon Emperor. And so Nikan was unified without shedding a single drop of blood. For the first time in centuries, the Warlords fought under the same banner, meeting under the Triumvirate. And for the first time in recent history, Nikan presented a united front against the Federation invaders. At last, we expelled the oppressors, and the Empire was once again free.

The mountainous silhouette of the country returned again, now full of spiral pagodas, with temples and many towns. It was a country free of invaders. It was a country blessed by the gods.

“Today we celebrate the unification of the Twelve Provinces,” said the puppeteer. We celebrate the Triumvirate. And we pay homage to the gods who gave them their gifts.

The children burst into applause.

*** Kitay was frowning as they left.

“I never realized how horrible this story is,” he said quietly. When you’re little, you think the Triumvirate was very clever, but in reality this is a story about poison and coercion. The usual nikara politics.

“I don’t know anything about Nikara politics,” Rin said.

“I do,” Kitay grimaced. My father explains to me everything that happens in the Palace. It’s just as the puppeteer says. Warlords are always at each other’s throats, competing for the Empress’s attention. It’s pathetic.

-What do you mean? Kitay looked anxious.

—Do you know how the Warlords were so busy fighting each other that they let Mugen destroy the country during the Poppy Wars? Father is convinced it’s happening again. Do you remember what Jima said on the first day of class? He was right. Mugen is not living peacefully on his island, my father thinks it is only a matter of time until they attack again, and he is very worried that the Warlords are not taking this threat seriously enough.

The fragmentation of the Empire seemed to be a concern shared by all the Academy’s maesters. Although the Militia was technically under the control of the Empress, the Twelve Divisions were formed primarily from soldiers from her home provinces, and were under the direct command of her Warmaster. And the relations between the provinces had never been

hello good. Rin hadn’t realized how deep the North’s contempt for the South was until he had arrived in Sinegard.

But Rin didn’t want to talk about politics. This break was the first he had had in a long time and he wanted to relax. He didn’t want to have to worry about an impending war that he could do nothing to stop. She was still amazed by the visual spectacle of the shadow puppets, and she wished Kitay would stop talking about such serious matters.

“I liked the part about the Pantheon,” she said after a while.

—Well, of course, it’s the only part that is pure fiction.

—Is it really? Rin asked. Who says that the Triumvirate were not shamans?

—The Triumvirate were martial artists. Politicians. Immensely talented soldiers, no doubt, but them being shamans is just an exaggeration,” Kitay said. Nikan loves to embellish war stories, you know that.

—But where do the stories come from? Rin persisted. The powers of the Triumvirate are very specific for children’s stories. If his powers were just a myth, why is it always the same myth? In Tikany we have heard the same thing about the Triumvirate. In all provinces, the story has not changed. They are always the Guardian, the Warrior and the Viboratrix.

Kitay shook his shoulders.

—Some poet got creative, and those characters took root. It’s not that hard to believe, at least it’s more credible than the existence of shamans.

“But there were shamans before,” Rin said. Before the Red Emperor conquered Nikan.

—There is no clear evidence. Just anecdotes.

“The Red Emperor’s scribes have even accounted for every imported bunch of bananas,” Rin objected. They were hardly going to exaggerate about their enemies.

Kitay was still skeptical.

—Sure, but that doesn’t mean the Triumvirate were really shamans. The Dragon Emperor is dead, and no one has heard from the Guardian since the Second Poppy War.

—Maybe he’s just hiding. Maybe it’s still out there, waiting for the next invasion. Or, what if the Cike are shamans? —The idea had just occurred to Rin—. That’s why we don’t know anything about them. Maybe they are the last shamans…

“The Cike are simple murderers,” Kitay mocked her.

They stab, murder and poison. They do not invoke the gods.

“As far as you know,” Rin said.

—You’re really crazy about the idea of ​​shamans, aren’t you? Kitay asked. They’re just stories for children, Rin.

—The Red Emperor’s scribes wouldn’t have done extensive documentation on children’s stories, right?

Kitay sighed.

—Is that why you chose Acervo? Do you think you can become a shaman? What can you invoke a god?

“I don’t believe in gods,” Rin said. But yes in power. And I think that shamans have a source of power that the rest of us don’t know how to access, and I think, it’s still possible to learn it.

Kitay shook his head.

—I’ll tell you what shamans are. At some point in history, some martial artists became very powerful, and the more battles they won, the more stories spread about them. They probably also incited those stories thinking they would terrify their enemies. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Empress had made up those stories about the Triumvirate being shamans. She surely helps him maintain Power, something he needs now, more than ever. The Warlords are very active, I bet we are just a few years away from a revolution. But if she really is the Viboratrix, then how come she hasn’t summoned giant snakes to subdue the will of the Warlords?

Rin couldn’t think of any argument to counter his theory, so he stayed silent. Debating with Kitay was always useless. He was so convinced of his own reasoning, of the encyclopedic knowledge he possessed of most things, that it was difficult to find gaps in his concepts.

“I’ve noticed how the puppeteer has overlooked how we won the Second Poppy War,” Rin said after a while. You already know. Wait. Slaughter. Thousands of deaths in a single night.

“Well, it’s a children’s story, after all,” Kitay said.

—. And a genocide is a depressing thing.


Rin and Kitay spent the next two days resting and lazing around, as they had not been able to do at the Academy. They played chess, were in the garden, looked at the clouds and gossiped about their companions.

“Niang is quite pretty,” Kitay said. Like Venka.

“Venka has been obsessed with Nezha since day one,” Rin said. Even I have noticed.

Kitay raised his eyebrows.

—You could say that you have been obsessed with Nezha.

—Don’t be unpleasant.

—You are, you’re always asking me about him.

—Because I’m curious———Rin said—. Sunzi tells us that we must know our enemies.

—Fuck Sunzi, you just think he’s handsome. Rin threw the chess board at his head.

At Kitay’s insistence, Lan cooked them a spicy pepper pot, and although it was delicious, Rin had the unique experience of crying while eating. And he spent most of the next day squatting over the toilet with his rectum on fire.

“Do you think that’s how the Esperlies felt?” Kitay asked. What if burning diarrhea is the price of lifelong devotion to the Phoenix?

“The Phoenix is ​​a vengeful god,” Rin growled.

They tried all the wines of Kitay’s father’s liquors, ending up wonderfully drunk.

—Nezha and I spent most of our childhood raiding this little closet. “Try this,” Kitay handed him a small ceramic bottle, “white sorghum wine.” Fifty percent alcohol.

Rin had a hard time swallowing the wine that slid down her throat, burning her pleasantly.

“It’s liquid fire,” Rin said. The sun in a bottle, this is the drink of the esperlies.

Kitay laughed.

—Do you want to know how they do it? -asked-. The secret ingredient is urine.

Rin spit out the wine and Kitay laughed again.

—Now they use alkaline powder, but the story goes that a disgruntled officer peed in one of the Red Emperor’s distilleries. Probably the best accidental discovery of the Red Emperor era.

Rin turned to look at him.

—Why aren’t you in Yuelu Mountain? You should be a scholar, a wise man. You know a lot about everything.

Kitay could talk about any topic for hours, and yet he showed little interest in his studies. He had passed the Trials because his eidetic memory made it unnecessary for him to study, but he had surrendered to Nezha the moment the tournament match seemed dangerous. Kitay was brilliant, but he didn’t belong at Sinegard.

“I wanted to,” Kitay admitted. But I am my father’s only son, and my father is the defense minister. So what choice did he have?

Rin played with the bottle.

“So you’re an only child?” Kitay shook his head.

—I have an older sister, Kinata. She’s now in Yuelu studying geomancy or something.


“The artistic placement of buildings and objects.” Kitay waved his hand in the air. All aesthetics are supposedly important, if your greatest aspiration is to marry someone important.

—Haven’t you read any books about it?

“I only read about interesting things,” Kitay turned to Rin.

And you? Any brother?

“None,” he said, then frowned. No, actually I do have one. I don’t know why I said no. I have a brother, well, stepbrother: Kesegi. He’s ten years old, I guess he’ll be eleven now.

—Do you miss him?

Rin hugged her knees to her chest, not liking the sudden feeling in her stomach.

-No. I mean, I don’t know. He was very little when I left.

I used to take care of him. I guess I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore .

Kitay raised an eyebrow.

—Have you written to him?

“No,” he hesitated. I don’t know why, I guess I assumed the Fang wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Or maybe I thought I’d be better off if he forgot about me.

He had wanted to at least write to tutor Feyrik at the beginning of the course, but things had been so bad at the Academy that he couldn’t bear to have to explain it to him. Then, as time had passed, and his work at the Academy had become more exhausting, thinking about his home had become so painful that he stopped doing it.

—You didn’t like being at home, did you? Kitay asked.

“I don’t like to think about it,” he murmured.

He didn’t want to think about Tikany anymore. She wanted to pretend that she had never lived there, no, that it had never existed. Because if she could eliminate her past, then she could rewrite herself into whoever she wanted to be in the present. Student, scholar, soldier. Anything except who she used to be.


The Summer Festival culminated in a parade in downtown Sinegard.

Rin arrived at the place with the members of the House of Chen, Kitay’s father and his graceful mother, his two uncles with their wives, and his older sister. Rin had forgotten how important Kitay’s father was, until he saw the entire clan dressed in the colors of his house, burgundy and gold.

Kitay suddenly grabbed Rin’s elbow.

—Don’t look to your left, pretend you’re talking to me.

—But I’m talking to you.

Rin immediately looked to his left.

And he saw Nezha, surrounded by a group of people dressed in silver and light blue colors. A huge dragon was embroidered on the back of his robe, the emblem of the House of Yin.

“Oh,” he shook his head. Can we get there?

-Yeah come on.

Once sheltered behind Kitay’s native second uncle, Rin glanced askance at the members of the House of Yin. He found himself staring at two older versions of Nezha, a man and a woman. They were both in their twenties and unfairly attractive. Nezha’s entire family, in fact, looked like something out of a painting, idealized versions of humans rather than real people.

“Nezha’s father is not here,” Kitay said. Interesting.


“It’s the Dragon Warlord,” Kitay said. One of the twelve.

“Maybe he’s sick,” Rin said. Maybe he hates the parade as much as you do.

—But I’m here, right? —Kitay folded his sleeves—. Don’t miss the summer parade. It is a sample of the unity of the twelve provinces. Once my father broke his leg the day before and he still came, stuffed with sedatives. If the House of Yin hasn’t come, that means something.

“Maybe he’s embarrassed,” Rin said. Furious that his son lost the tournament. Too embarrassed to show his face in public.

He made Kitay smile.

A bugle sounded through the cold morning air, and a servant asked all members of the procession to get in order.

Kitay turned to Rin.

—Well, I don’t know if you can…

“No, it’s okay,” he said. Of course she wouldn’t go with the House of Chen. Rin was not Kitay’s family, she had no place in the procession. She saved him the embarrassment of saying it. I’ll see you from the market.

After elbowing her way through the crowd, Rin emerged from the crowd. She found a spot on top of a fruit stand where she would have a good view of the parade, and she wouldn’t be crushed mercilessly by the horde of Sinegardians who had gathered to watch the procession. As long as the thatched roof did not collapse, the owner of the fruit shop would not have to know.

The parade began with a tribute to the House of Celestial Menagerie, the series of mythical creatures that existed in the era of the Red Emperor according to legend. Giant dragons and lions snaked through the crowd, moving up and down on sticks held by dancers hidden below. The firecrackers exploded at the rhythm of their passage, like controlled bursts of thunder. Then he saw a massive scarlet effigy held carefully on long sticks set alight, it was the Red Phoenix of the South.

Rin looked at the Phoenix curiously. According to the history books, this was the god that the Esperlies had worshiped above all others. In fact, the esperlies had never

worshiped the enormous Pantheon of Nikara gods. The esperlies had only worshiped their Phoenix.

The creature following the Phoenix was like nothing Rin had ever seen. It had the head of a lion, horns like a deer, and the body of a four-legged creature, perhaps a tiger, although its feet ended in hooves. He moved silently through the parade, the puppeteers had no drums, they did not sing, nor did they ring a bell to announce their arrival.

Rin was puzzled about the creature, until she realized that it fit the description of a story she had heard in Tikany. It was a kirin , the noblest of earthly beasts. The kirin only walked the lands of Nikan when a great leader had died, and when times were of great danger.

The procession continued with the display of illustrious houses, and Rin quickly lost interest. Aside from seeing Kitay’s downcast face, there was nothing fun about seeing palanquin after palanquin filled with important people dressed in the colors of his house.

The sun was shining brightly overhead, and sweat dripped down Rin’s forehead. Wishing he had something to drink, he covered his face with his sleeve, waiting for the parade to end so he could go look for Kitay.

Then the crowd around her began to scream, and Rin realized with a start that the one who was in a golden silk palanquin, surrounded by a group of musicians and bodyguards, was the Empress. She had arrived.

The Empress had many flaws.

His face was not perfectly symmetrical. Her eyebrows were not finely arched, one was slightly above the other, giving her an expression of constant disdain. Even her mouth was uneven, one side of her mouth was curved higher than the other.

And yet, she was without a doubt the most beautiful woman Rin had ever seen.

It wasn’t enough to describe her hair, which was darker than night and brighter than a butterfly’s wings. Or his skin, which was paler and softer than any Sinegardian could wish for. Or his lips, which were the color of blood, as if he had just sucked on a cherry. All of this could apply in the abstract to a woman, even being noteworthy independently. But in the Empress, they were simply inevitable, tautological.

Venka would have paled in comparison.

Youth, Rin thought, was an amplification of beauty. It was a filter, it could hide what was missing, improve even the most normal faces. But beauty without youth was dangerous. The beauty of the Empress did not require the full, soft lips of youth, the rosy cheeks, nor the delicacy of her young skin. The beauty of her cut deeply, like sharp glass.

Her beauty was immortal.

Afterwards, Rin would not have been able to describe what the Empress was wearing. He couldn’t remember whether the Empress had spoken or not, or whether she had waved in her direction. He wasn’t able to remember anything he had done.

He only remembered those eyes, two large black pools that made him feel like he was drowning, like with Master Jiang. But if she was drowning, Rin didn’t want air, she didn’t need it, as long as she could look into those glowing obsidian eyes.

I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t even imagine not looking at her.

When the Empress’s palanquin disappeared from sight, Rin felt a strange pang in her heart.

I would destroy kingdoms for this woman. He would follow her to the gates of hell. She was the ruler of it. And she was the one she was destined to serve.

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