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Chapter no 9

The Poppy War

“Fang Runin of Tikany, Rooster Province,” Rin said.

Second year of learning.

The office clerk stamped the Academy crest next to his name on the register, then handed him three sets of apprentice robes.

—What specialty?

“Aquifer,” Rin said. With Master Jiang Ziya. The clerk consulted the parchment again.

-Are you sure?

“Very sure,” Rin said, although her pulse quickened. Had something happened?

“I’ll be right back,” the employee said and disappeared into the office.

Rin waited by the table, more and more anxious as the minutes passed. Had Jiang dropped out of the Academy?

Fired? Suffered a nervous breakdown? Arrested for opium possession outside the Academy? For possession of opium within the Academy?

She suddenly remembered the day she enrolled at Sinegard, when the supervisors had tried to arrest her for cheating. Had she filed a complaint with Nezha’s family over the defeat of her heir in the tournament? Was that even possible?

Finally, the employee returned looking defeated.

“I’m sorry,” he said. But it’s been a long time since anyone studied the Acervo. We’re not sure what color your bracelet is supposed to be.

***

In the end they made him a white armband from the remains of a first-year uniform.

Classes started the next day. Despite studying a specialization, Rin was still going to spend half of his time with the other maesters. As she was the only one in Acervo, she was going to study Strategy and Linguistics alongside Irjah’s trainees, and also discovered to her dismay that, even if she had not chosen Medicine, the second years still had to endure emergency triage classes with Enro. . History had been replaced by Foreign Affairs under Master Yim. And although Jun still didn’t allow him to train under her supervision, she could choose to study weapon combat with Sonnen.

Finally his morning classes were over, and he had to study the rest of the day with Jiang. He climbed the steps toward the Acervo garden. It was time to meet with his Master. It was time to get answers.

***

“Explain to me what we’re studying,” Jiang said. What is Acquis?

Rin was shocked by the question, she was waiting for him to explain it to her.

In these days of rest she had tried many times to rationalize why she had chosen Acervo, surprising herself by reciting vague, circular tautologies.

In the end it came down to intuition. A truth that she knew inside but that she couldn’t prove to anyone. He would study Acquis because he knew that Jiang had another source of power available to her, something ineffable, but real. She had accessed that same source of power on the day of the tournament, and she was consumed by fire. The world had turned red, she had lost control of herself and in the end she had been saved by the same man that everyone in this school thought was crazy.

He had seen the other side of the veil, and now his curiosity was so great that he would go mad unless he understood what had happened.

Which didn’t mean he had the slightest certainty about what he was doing.

“Strange things,” he said. We study very strange things. Jiang raised an eyebrow.

—How elaborate.

“I don’t know,” he said. I’m here because I want to study with you, also because of what happened during the Tests. But I don’t really know what I’m studying.

—Oh, yes you know —Jiang raised his index finger and touched a precise point between his eyes, the same point where he stopped the

fire from within. Deep in your subconscious, you know the truth of things.

-Wanna…

“You want to know what happened to you during the tournament.” Jiang cocked his head to the side. What happened is this: you called out to a god, and the god answered.

Rin grimaced. Again with the gods? She had been waiting for answers during the break, thinking that Jiang would explain everything to her once she returned, but now she was even more confused.

Jiang raised a hand before Rin could protest.

—You still don’t understand what this means. You don’t even know if you can repeat what happened in the tournament. But you do know that if you don’t get answers now, hunger will consume you and your mind will break. You’ve glimpsed the other side and you won’t be able to rest until you find out what happened, right?

-TRUE.

—What happened to you was common in the days before the Red Emperor, when shamans didn’t know what they were doing. If this had continued, you would have gone crazy. But I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m going to keep you sane.

Rin wondered how someone who regularly wandered around the Academy without clothes could say that so seriously.

And he wondered what it said about her that she trusted him.

***

Understanding came, like everything with Jiang, in exasperatingly short steps. Rin had discovered before

You try Jiang’s preferred method of instruction: show first and explain later, if he ever did. She learned quickly that if she phrased the question wrong, she wouldn’t get the answer she wanted. “The fact that you’re asking,” Jiang would say, “is proof that you’re not ready to know yet.”

He learned to shut up and just follow their example.

Although at first it seemed that his demands were meaningless and absurd, in reality Jiang was carefully creating his study foundations. He had her transcribe his history books into the old Nikara language, and back into the current one. He made him spend a cold autumn afternoon squatting over the stream, catching little fish with his hands. He required her to complete the assignments in all classes using only her left hand, so that all of them would take twice as long and also look like a child had written them. She made him live in twenty-five hour days for an entire month. She made him nocturnal for two weeks, so that all she saw was the night sky and the eerily quiet Sinegard. She ignored with absolute indifference her complaints about missing other classes. She made him discover how much she could go without sleeping. She made him discover how much she could last without waking up.

Swallowing his skepticism, he took a leap of faith and decided to follow her instructions, hoping that understanding would not take long to come. However, he did not jump blindly, because he knew what was on the other side. Day by day, he had the proof of enlightenment in front of her.

Because Jiang did things that no human should be able to do.

The first time, he made a bunch of leaves at his feet flutter without moving a muscle.

Rin thought it was a trick of the wind.

And then he did it again, and a third, just to prove that he was in complete control.

“Fuck,” he said. Shit. Shit. Shit. As? As?

“Easy,” was all the response. She was speechless.

— This… this is not martial arts, it is…

-The thing is? —She pressed.

—It’s supernatural.

Jiang looked at him superiorly.

—Supernatural is a word for saying that something doesn’t fit your current understanding of the world. I need you to put aside your disbelief. I need you to simply accept that it is possible.

“Am I supposed to assume you’re a god?”

-Do not be silly. “I am not a god,” he said. I am an awakened mortal, and there is power in being awake.

At his will the wind moved. When he pointed to the trees, they creaked. Without touching the water, it moved, and at a whisper, the shadows writhed and screeched.

He realized that if Jiang was showing him all this, it was because he wouldn’t have believed him if he had just explained it to him. She was creating for him a world full of possibilities, a new network of concepts. Well, how do you explain the idea of ​​gravity to a child, until they know what it means to fall?

Some truths could be memorized, like his history books or his grammar lessons. But others had to be instilled slowly, had to become true because they were an inevitable part of the pattern of all things.

Power dictates acceptability , Kitay had once told him.

Could the same apply to the fabric of the natural world?

Jiang reconfigured Rin’s perception of what was real. With demonstrations of impossible acts he recalibrated his way of relating to the material universe.

It was easier with her because she was willing to believe. She could fit those challenges into her conception of her reality without too much trauma. The traumatic event had already occurred, she had been consumed by fire, she had known what it meant to burn. She hadn’t imagined it, it had happened.

He learned to resist his prejudices about what Jiang was teaching him, even if it didn’t fit what he knew about how the world worked. He learned to stop being surprised.

His experience during the tournament had opened a huge tear in his understanding of the world, and he was waiting for Jiang to close it.

***

Sometimes, if she got close to the right question, he would send her to the library to find the answer for herself.

When one day she asked where the Acquisition had been taught before, Jiang sent her on a circle-search after everything strange and cryptic. She had him read texts from ancient dreamwalkers from the southern islands, and their spiritual healing practices with plants. She made him write detailed reports on the shamans of the

people of the Northlands, and how they went into trance and traveled like spirits in the bodies of eagles. He made him read carefully testimonies from villagers from the southern villages of Nikan, who claimed to be clairvoyants.

—How would you describe these people? Jiang asked.

—Singular. People with skills, or who pretend to have skills. —Other than that, Rin didn’t see how these people could be related—. How would you describe them?

“Like shamans,” he said. Those who converse with the gods.

When he asked him what he meant by gods , he made him study religion. Not just the Nikara religion, but all the religions of the world, any religion that has been practiced since the dawn of time.

—What do people mean by gods ? He asked-. Why do we have gods? What purpose do gods serve in society? Look for the common link to those questions, and find the answer for me.

After a week, Rin delivered what she thought was a brilliant report on the differences in religious traditions between Nikan and Hesperia. Proud, she explained her conclusions to him in the Acervo garden.

The Hesperians had only one church, and believed in a single deity, a Sacred Creator, separate and over all mortal matters. They believed that he resembled a man. Rin argued that this god, this Creator, was a means by which the Hesperian government maintained order. The priests of the Order of the Sacred Creator were not politicians, but they exercised more control

cultural than the central government of Hesperia. Since Hesperia was a large country with no Warlords holding absolute power in its provinces, the rule of law had to be strengthened by the propagation of the myth of an invented moral code.

The Empire, in contrast, was a country that Rin called superstitious atheists. Of course, Nikan had gods in abundance, but, like the Fang, most Nikara were only religious when it suited them. The wandering monks of the Empire were a small minority in the population, simple preservers of the past, rather than part of an institution with real power.

The gods in Nikan were the heroes of myths, symbols of culture, icons to venerate during important milestones in life, such as marriages, births or death. They were personifications of the Nikara’s own emotions, but no one seriously believed that they would be unlucky one year if they forgot to burn incense for the Azure Blue Dragon. Nor did anyone think that their loved ones would not be safe unless they prayed to the Great Turtle.

Even so, the Nikara continued to perform these rituals, because they found it comforting, and it was a way of expressing their concerns about the ups and downs of their fortune.

“So religion is a social construct in both the east and the west,” Rin concluded. The difference lies in its usefulness.

Jiang had been listening attentively throughout his presentation. When she finished, she farted her cheeks like a child and rubbed her temples.

—That is, do you think that the Nikara religion is simple superstition?

“The Nikara religion is too chaotic to have any degree of truth,” Rin said. You have four cardinal gods; the Dragon, the Tiger, the Turtle and the Phoenix. Then the local household gods, the guardian gods of the villages, the animal gods, the river gods, the mountain gods…

—He was counting them on his fingers—. How could they all coexist in the same space? How could the spiritual realm exist with all these gods vying for dominance? The best explanation is that when we say gods in Nikan, we mean a story, nothing more.

“So you don’t believe in gods?” Jiang asked.

“I believe in the gods as much as the Nikara do,” he replied. I believe in gods as cultural references, as metaphors. Like something that makes us feel safe because we can’t do anything better, like a manifestation of our neurosis. But I don’t think they’re real, they have no real consequences in the universe.

She said it seriously, but she was exaggerating.

Because I knew there was something real, I knew that somewhere, there was something more to the cosmos than the material world. She wasn’t as skeptical as she was pretending to be.

But the best way to get Jiang to explain something to him was to take a radical position, because when he argued from one extreme, Jiang gave the best answers.

He hadn’t taken the bait yet, so Rin continued.

—If there is a divine creator, a moral authority, then why do bad things happen to good people? And why is that

Would a deity create people, people being such imperfect beings?

—But if nothing is divine, why do we attribute divine status to mythological figures? Jiang counterattacked. Why bow down to the Great Turtle? The Serpent Goddess Nüwa? Why burn incense to the Celestial Pantheon? Believing in any religion implies sacrifice. Why would a poor, penniless, nikara farmer make sacrifices to entities he knows are just myths? Who benefits from that? How did these practices originate?

“I don’t know,” Rin admitted.

“Then find out.” Discover the nature of the cosmos.

Rin thought it was an unreasonable thing to ask for what philosophers and theologians had been trying to answer for millennia, but she returned to the library.

And he came back with even more questions.

—But how does the existence or nonexistence of the gods affect me? Why is it important to know how the universe was created?

—Because you are part of the cosmos. Because you exist. And unless you want to be just a tiny speck of existence that doesn’t understand its relationship to the grand scheme of things, you’ll investigate.

-Because I should?

“Because I know you want power.” He touched her forehead again. But how are you going to use the power of the gods if you don’t understand what they are?

Under Jiang’s orders, Rin spent more time in the library than most fifth-year apprentices. He made him write

daily essays, and the topic to write always derived from a theme they had arrived at after hours of conversation. He made him look for connections between texts from different disciplines that were written centuries apart, and in different languages.

—How are Seejin’s theories about the transmission of ki through the respiratory passages related to the esperli practice of inhaling the ashes of the deceased?

—How have the Nikara gods changed over time, and how does that reflect the eminence of different Warlords at different points in history?

—When did the Federation begin to worship its sovereign as a divine entity, and why?

—How does the separation between church and state affect Hesperian politics? Why is this doctrine ironic?

Jiang took his mind apart and put it back together again, then decided he didn’t like the order and took it apart again. She strained her mental capacity as Irjah. But Irjah stretched Rin’s mind in familiar patterns; her work simply made her more capable and agile in subjects she was already familiar with. Jiang forced her mind to expand directly into new dimensions.

What he did, in essence, was the mental equivalent of making him carry a pig up a mountain.

He obeyed him in every way, and wondered what vision of the alternative world Jiang was trying to create. She wondered what she was trying to teach him, other than that none of his notions about how the world worked were true.

***

Meditating was the worst.

 

Jiang announced in the third month of the course that from now on, Rin would spend an hour each day meditating with him. Rin half expected him to forget, like he sometimes forgot what year it was, or what his name was.

But of all the rules he imposed on him, he chose this one to follow religiously.

—You will sit still for an hour, every morning in the garden, without exception.

Did. She hated him.

—Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Feel the entire length of the spine. Feel the spaces between your vertebrae.

Wake up!

Rin inhaled sharply and shook off sleep. Jiang’s voice, always so calm and calm, had made him sleepy.

The top of her left eyebrow began to itch, and Rin struggled not to move her fingers. Jiang would scold her if she scratched, he raised her eyebrow as high as possible, but her itch intensified.

“Stay still,” Jiang said.

“My back hurts,” Rin complained.

—That’s because you’re not sitting up straight.

—I think I have cramps from training.

—I think you’re talking nonsense.

Five minutes passed in silence. Rin turned his back to one side and then the other. Something creaked, twitching in pain.

I was bored to death. She counted her teeth with her tongue. And then she counted them again starting from the other side. She shifted her weight from one buttock to the other. She felt an intense need to get up, move, jump from side to side, anything.

She opened one eye and found Master Jiang looking directly at her.

-Stay. Quiet.

He swallowed his complaint and obeyed.

Rin, who was used to stress and constant studying, thought that meditating was a huge waste of time. She felt bad sitting still, having nothing to occupy her mind. She could barely endure three minutes of that torture, much less sixty. She was so terrified of the idea of ​​not thinking that she was not capable of achieving it, that she kept thinking about not thinking.

Jiang, on the other hand, could meditate indefinitely. He became a statue, serene and calm. It looked like air, like it could fade away unless Rin didn’t focus on it. It seemed like he had simply left his body behind and gone somewhere else.

A fly landed on his nose. Rin sneezed violently.

“Start counting from the beginning,” Jiang said placidly.

-Damn!

 

***

When spring arrived in Sinegard, and the weather was warm enough for Rin to stop being wrapped in the warm winter clothes, Jiang took her

excursion to the nearby Wudang mountain range. They walked for two hours in silence, until noon, when Jiang decided to stop in a sunny corner from which they could see the entire valley.

—Today’s lesson is plants. —He sat down, took off his travel backpack, and emptied its contents on the grass. He had a large assortment of plants and powders, a branch of a cactus, several bright red poppy flowers, some still in bud, and a handful of sun-dried mushrooms.

—Are we going to get high? Rin said. Oh wow. We’re going to get high, right?

“I’m going to get high,” Jiang said. You are going to observe.

Then he began to talk while crushing the poppy seeds in a small stone bowl with a mortar and pestle.

—None of these plants are native to Sinegard. These mushrooms were grown in the forests of the Hare province. You won’t find them anywhere else, they only grow in tropical climates. This cactus grows best in the Baghra Desert, between our northern border and the Hinterlands. This powder comes from a shrub that is only found in the humid forests of the southern hemisphere. On that bush grow small orange fruits that are tasteless and sticky, but the drug is made from the dried and shredded root of the plant.

“And possession of all this is a capital crime in Sinegard,” Rin said, he thought one of the two should mention it.

—Ah, the law. —Jiang smelled a strange plant and then pushed it away

—. So inconvenient, so irrelevant. —Suddenly he looked at her—.

Why does Nikan disapprove of drug use?

He did this often, throwing impromptu questions at him for which he had no thought-out answer. If he answered too quickly or made a hasty generalization, he would challenge her, cornering her with counterarguments until Rin reasonedly explained and justified her response.

Rin already had enough practice to reason carefully before giving an answer.

—Because the use of psychedelics is associated with broken minds, wasted potential, and social chaos. Because drug addicts can give very little to society. Because it is an uncontrolled plague in our country, caused by the beloved Federation.

Jiang nodded slowly.

-Well explained. Do you agree?

Rin sighed. He had seen the opium houses in Tikany enough to know the effects of addiction, and he understood why the laws were so harsh.

“I agree now,” he said carefully. But I guess I’ll change my mind after what you’re going to say.

Jiang’s mouth curved into a crooked smile.

“It is the nature of things to have a dual purpose,” he said.

—. You have seen what the poppy does to the common man. And given what you know about addiction, your conclusions are reasonable. Opium makes wise men stupid. It destroys the local economy and weakens entire countries.

He weighed another handful of poppy seeds in his palm.

—Something so inherently destructive also has wonderful potential. The poppy flower, more than anything else, shows the duality of hallucinogens. You know the poppy by three names. In its most common form, in pipe-smoked opium nuggets, the poppy renders you useless. It numbs you and closes you off to the world. Then there is the maddeningly addictive heroin, which is extracted as powder from the flower’s sap. But what about the seeds? Seeds are the dreams of shamans. These seeds, used with proper mental preparation, give you access to the entire universe contained in your mind.

He placed the poppy seeds on the ground and pointed to the array of psychedelics before him.

—Shamans on all continents have used plants to alter their state of consciousness for centuries. The healers of the Inland Lands used this flower to fly upward like an arrow and commune with the gods. All these plants make you enter a trance with which you can enter the Pantheon.

Rin’s eyes widened. Here it was, slowly the lines were beginning to connect. He was finally beginning to understand the purpose of the last six months of research and meditation. Until now he had been following two separate lines of research, shamans and their ability, the gods and the nature of the universe.

Now, with the introduction of psychedelic plants, Jiang had united these two seemingly separate lines of research into a single theory. A theory of spiritual connection, through psychedelics, to the dream world where the gods dwelt.

The two concepts began to connect, like a spider web that suddenly appeared in the night. The training Jiang had been giving him suddenly made sense.

I had a sketch, but the image had not yet fully formed. Something didn’t add up.

—Content in my mind? —Rin repeated carefully. Jiang looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

—Do you know what the word entheogen means ? She shook her head.

“It means generating the god within,” he said, extending a hand and tapping him on the forehead. The union between god and person.

“But we are not gods,” he said. He had spent the last week in the library trying to trace the roots of Nikara theology. His mythology was full of encounters between the mortal and the divine, but in the research he conducted, nothing was mentioned about the creation of a god. Shamans communicate with gods, they do not create gods.

—What is the difference between an internal god and an external one?

What is the difference between the universe contained in your mind and the external universe? Jiang touched Rin’s temple. Wasn’t that the basis of your criticism of the theological hierarchy of Hesperia? That the idea of ​​a divine creator separate from us and ruling over us didn’t make sense?

“Yes, but…” Rin stopped, trying to make sense of what he wanted to explain. He didn’t mean that we are gods, I meant

that… —I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say anymore. She looked at Jiang with a plea in her eyes.

For once, Jiang gave him a simple answer.

—You must combine both concepts. The god outside of you, and the god within you. Once you understand that both are one and the same, once you understand both concepts in your head and know that they are true, you will be a shaman.

“But it can’t be that simple,” Rin stammered, her mind still processing all the information. He struggled, trying to formulate his thoughts. If this is so… then… then why doesn’t everyone do it? Why doesn’t anyone in the opium houses meet the gods?

—Because they don’t know what they’re looking for. The Nikara don’t believe in their deities, remember?

“Okay,” Rin said, rejecting the bait of being refuted with her own words. But why not? She had thought Nikan’s religious skepticism was reasonable, but not in that people like Jiang could do impossible things. Why aren’t there more believers?

“There were a long time ago,” Jiang said, and Rin was surprised by the bitterness in his voice. Once upon a time this country was full of monasteries. And then the Red Emperor, in his quest for unification, burned them all. The shamans lost their power. And the monks, the only ones with real power at least, died or disappeared.

-Where are you now?

“Hidden,” he said. Forgotten. In recent history, only the nomadic clans of the Hinterlands and the tribes of the

Esper could communicate with the gods. It’s not a coincidence. The nation’s mission to modernize and mobilize entails faith in one’s own ability to control the world order, and when that happens, you lose your connection to the gods. When man begins to think that he is responsible for writing the history of the world, he forgets the forces that dream our reality. Once upon a time, this Academy was a monastery, now it is a military training ground. You will discover that the same pattern has been repeated with all the great powers that have entered the so-called era of civilization. There are no shamans in Mugen. Not in Hesperia either. They worship men who believe they are gods, not gods.

—What about the superstitions of the Nikara? Rin asked. I mean, in Sinegard, where people are educated, there is no religion, but what about the small villages? What about popular religion?

“The Nikara believe in symbols, not gods,” Jiang said. They do not understand what they are worshiping, they have prioritized ritual over theology. Sixty-four gods? How convenient and how absurd! It is not possible that a religion can be ordered in such a convenient way. The gods are not so well organized.

“I don’t understand,” he said. Why have shamans disappeared? Wouldn’t the Red Emperor be more powerful with shamans in his army?

-No. In fact, it’s the opposite. The creation of an empire requires slavish and uniform obedience. It requires teachings that can be taught en masse throughout the country. The army is a bureaucratic entity only interested in results. What I teach is impossible to do in a class

of fifty, much less in a division of thousands of soldiers. The military is mainly made up of people like Jun, who think that only what matters is what gives immediate results, results that can be duplicated and repeated. But shamanism is and always has been a vague art. How could it be any other way? It is about the fundamental truths that exist in each of us, about how we relate to the phenomenon of existence. Of course it is imprecise, if we understood it completely, we would be gods.

Rin wasn’t convinced.

—But surely some teachings could be spread.

—You overestimate the Empire. Think martial arts. Why were you able to defeat your classmates in the Trials? Because they learned a sweetened, distilled, packaged version for convenience, the same can be said for religion.

“But they can’t have completely forgotten,” Rin said. This class still exists.

“This class is a joke,” Jiang said.

—I don’t think it’s a joke.

“You and no one else,” Jiang said. Even Jima doubts the value of this instruction, but he cannot bring himself to abolish it. At some point, Nikan has never given up hope of finding his shaman again.

“But he has them,” he said. I will bring shamanism back to this world.

She looked hopefully at Jiang, but he was frozen, looking over the edge of the cliff as if his mind were far away. He seemed very sad.

“The age of the gods is over,” he said finally. The Nikara may speak of shamans in their legends, but they cannot bear the prospect of the supernatural. “To them, we’re crazy,” he swallowed. We’re not crazy, but how can we convince anyone when the rest of the world believes it? Once an empire has been convinced of its worldview, anything that shows otherwise must be eradicated. The Hinterlands were banished to the north, cursed and accused of witchcraft. The esperlies were marginalized, enslaved, thrown into battle like wild dogs, and finally, sacrificed.

“Then we’ll teach them,” Rin said. We will make them remember.

—No one would have the patience to learn what I have taught you. It’s our job to remember it. I have searched for an apprentice for years, and only you have understood the truth of the world.

Rin felt a pang of disappointment at those words, not for herself, but for the Empire. It was hard to believe that she lived in a world where humans had once spoken freely with the gods, but that was no longer the case.

How could an entire nation simply forget about the gods, who could also grant them unimaginable power?

Easy, here’s how.

The world was simpler when what exists is only what you can perceive in front of you. It was easier to forget the underlying forces that built the dream, easier to believe that the

reality only existed on one plane. Rin had believed it up until that very moment, and his mind was still struggling to readjust.

But now he knew the truth, and that gave him power.

Rin stared silently at the valley below the cliff, still absorbing the magnitude of what she had learned. Meanwhile Jiang put the powder in his pipe, lit it, and took a long, deep drag.

He closed his eyes, a serene smile spreading across his face.

“Here we go,” he said.

The problem with watching someone get high if you didn’t do it too, was that it all got very boring very quickly. Rin probed Jiang after a few minutes, and when she saw that she didn’t move, she returned from the mountain alone.

***

If Rin had thought that Jiang would let her take hallucinogens to meditate, she had been dead wrong. She let her work in the garden, water the cactus and grow mushrooms, but she was strictly prohibited from taking hallucinogens until she gave him permission.

“Without proper mental preparation, psychedelics will have no effect,” he said. You will only become terribly annoying for a while.

At first, Rin had accepted it, but it had been weeks.

—When will I be mentally prepared?

“When you can sit still and not open your eyes for five damn minutes,” he said.

—I can stay still! I’ve been sitting still for almost a year! This is all I’ve been doing!

Jiang brandished his garden shears at her.

—Don’t use that tone with me.

Rin slammed the tray of cactus clippings against the shelf.

—I know there are things you’re not teaching me. I know you’re holding me back on purpose. And I do not understand why.

“Because I worry about you,” Jiang said. You have an aptitude for Heritage like no one I have ever met, not even Altan. But you are impatient. You are careless. And you don’t meditate.

He had been avoiding meditating. He was supposed to keep a record of the meditations, of every time he successfully completed an hour. But as the other classes’ homework piled up, Rin had been neglecting that daily requirement of doing nothing.

—I can concentrate on anything. But empty my mind? Empty her of all thoughts? Even from myself? What god does that serve?

“It serves to separate you from the material world,” Jiang replied.

How do you expect to reach the spiritual world when you are obsessed with what is in front of you? I know it’s hard for you. You like to beat your classmates. You like to cultivate your resentment. It feels good to hate, right? Until now you have kept your anger and used it as fuel. But unless you learn to let it be, you will never find your way to the gods.

“Then give me psychedelics,” Rin suggested. Make me let it be.

—Now you’re being reckless, I’m not going to let you get involved in things you barely understand. It’s too dangerous.

—How dangerous can it be to sit still?

Jiang stood up straight. The hand holding her scissors fell to her side.

—This is not a children’s story where you wave your hand and ask the gods for three wishes. We’re not making a fool of ourselves. These are forces that could break you.

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” he snapped. Nothing has happened to me in months. You keep talking about seeing the gods, but all that happens when I meditate is that I get bored, and my nose itches, and every second lasts forever.

Rin went to get the poppy plants. Jiang slapped his hand.

—You’re not ready. You’re not even close to being ready. Rin blushed.

-They’re just drugs…

—Only drugs? just drugs ? Jiang’s voice rose in pitch. I’m going to give you a warning. And I’m only going to do it once. You are not the first student to choose Acervo, as you know. Oh, Sinegard has been trying to produce a shaman for years. But do you want to know why no one takes this class seriously?

—Why do you keep farting at Academy meetings?

Jiang didn’t even laugh, which meant it was much more serious than he had thought.

Jiang, in fact, looked hurt.

“We’ve tried,” he said. Ten years ago. I had four students as brilliant as you, but without Altan’s rage or your impatience. I taught them to meditate, and I told them about the Pantheon, but those apprentices only had one thing on their minds, and that was to call upon the gods and use their powers. Do you know what happened to them?

—Did they call upon the gods and become great warriors? —Rin said hopefully.

Jiang stared at her with his pale, suffocating gaze.

—Everyone went crazy. Each of them, two of them, ended up calm enough to be locked up in an asylum for the rest of their lives. But the other two were too dangerous, both to themselves and to others, so the Empress sent them to Baghra.

Rin stared at him, having no idea what to say.

“I have encountered spirits unable to find his body,” Jiang said, suddenly looking very old. I have met men halfway to the spirit world, caught between our world and the next. And what does all this mean? It means that. Leave. Of doing. The cocoon She hit his forehead with each point. If you don’t want that brilliant little mind of yours to be shattered, you’ll do what I tell you.

***

The only time Rin felt like he was back in real life was during his other classes. And although the subjects were taught twice as fast as during the first year and Rin was barely able to keep up due to the absurd load of homework that Jiang also assigned him, it was great for him to study something that made sense for a change.

Rin had always felt like an outsider among her classmates, but as the year progressed, she began to feel like she lived in a completely different world from them. She was incessantly drifting further and further away from the world where things worked as they should, and where reality was not constantly changing, where she knew the shape and nature of things instead of constantly remembering that she actually knew nothing at all. .

-Oh really? —Kitay asked him one day, during lunch.

What are you learning?

Kitay, like everyone else in his class, thought that Acervo was a specialty in religious history, a mix between anthropology and popular mythology. Rin hadn’t bothered to correct them. It was easier for them to believe a lie than to convince them of the truth.

“That none of my beliefs about the world are true,” Rin answered dreamily. That reality is malleable. That there is a hidden connection in every living being. That the world is just a thought, the dream of a butterfly.

—Rin?

-Yeah?

—Your elbow is in my porridge.

Rin was startled.

-Oh I’m sorry.

Kitay moved the bowl out of arm’s reach.

—They talk about you, you know? The other apprentices.

-And what they say? —Rin crossed her arms. Kitay was silent for a moment.

—You can imagine it, more or less. It’s not, ah, good.

Had you expected something different? Rin put on a patient face.

-They do not like it. Great discovery.

“It’s not that,” Kitay said. They are afraid of you.

—Why did I win the tournament?

—Because you barged in here from a rural town no one has ever heard of, and you gave up one of the Academy’s most prestigious instructions to go study with the Academy’s madman. They can’t understand you. They don’t know what you’re doing. —Kitay brought his head closer to hers—. What are you doing?

Rin hesitated. She knew Kitay’s gaze, she was giving it more often lately, but as her own studies progressed, it took her further and further away than she could easily explain to a layman. Kitay hated not having access to all the information, and she hated having to hide anything from him. But how was she going to explain to him why she studied the Acquis, when she could barely understand it?

“Something happened to me that day at the tournament,” he finally said. And I’m trying to find out.

He had prepared himself to meet her skepticism, but Kitay simply nodded.

—And you think Jiang has the answer? Rin exhaled.

—If he doesn’t have it, no one has it.

—You’ve heard the rumors, however…

-The crazy ones. The expelled. The prisoners of Baghra,” Rin said. Everyone had their own scary stories about Jiang’s previous apprentices. I know, believe me, I know.

Kitay looked at her for a long moment carefully. He finally nodded, and pointed to the bowl of oatmeal that he hadn’t touched. Rin had been studying for Jima’s test and had forgotten to eat.

“Just take care of yourself, Rin,” Kitay said.

***

The second year students were given the opportunity to fight in the pit.

Now that Altan had graduated, Nezha became the star of the pit, and under Jun’s brutal training, he also became an even more formidable fighter. Within a month he was challenging a student two or three years older than him. And in his second spring at the Academy he became the undefeated champion.

Rin had been excited to participate in combat, but a conversation with Jiang put an end to her aspirations.

“You don’t fight,” he said one day while they were swinging on some poles over the river.

Rin immediately fell into the water.

-That? —He stammered, once he had climbed the pole.

—Combats are only accessible to apprentices whose masters have given them consent to fight.

“Then give it to me!”

Jiang dipped his big toe into the water and carefully pulled it out.

—Nah.

—But I want to fight.

—Interesting, but irrelevant.

-But…

—No more buts. I am your teacher. Don’t question my orders, obey.

“I obey orders that make sense,” he replied as he teetered dangerously on the pole.

Jiang snorted.

—Combats are not about winning, they are demonstrations of new techniques. What are you going to do, burst into flames in front of the entire student body?

Rin didn’t press the issue further.

***

Aside from battles, which Rin went to regularly, she rarely saw her roommates. Niang was always

working overtime with Enro, and Venka spent his waking hours patrolling with the city guards or training with Nezha.

Kitay began studying with her in the women’s dormitory, since it was the only place in the Academy where no one was ever there. There were no girls among the new first-year students, and Kureel and Arda had left the Academy at the end of Rin’s first year. The two had been offered prestigious positions as official trainees, in the Third and Eighth divisions.

Altan was also gone. Although no one knew which division he had joined. Rin had expected it to be the talk of the Academy. But Altan had vanished as if he had never been in Sinegard. The legend of Altan Trengsin had already begun to fade with his class and when the next group of first years had arrived at Sinegard, none of them even knew who Altan was.

As the months passed, Rin discovered that as the only apprentice Acervo had chosen, she was no longer directly competing with the rest of her classmates.

It hadn’t made them any friendlier, but at least the jokes about her accent had stopped, and Venka had stopped wrinkling her nose every time they were together in the girls’ dormitory. The Sinegardians, one by one, had become accustomed, albeit half-heartedly, to her presence.

Nezha was the only exception.

They shared all classes except Combat and Heritage. Each one did their best to ignore the existence of the other. Many of his advanced classes were so small that it often became incredibly awkward, but cold indifference was much better than active intimidation.

Even so, Rin did pay attention to Nezha. How could he not? He was clearly the star of his class, inferior perhaps to Kitay only in Strategy and Linguistics, but otherwise, Nezha had essentially become the new Altan of the Academy. The maesters worshiped him, and the first-year class thought he was a god.

“It’s not that special,” Rin growled at Kitay. He hasn’t even won his year’s tournament. Do any of them know?

“Surely so,” Kitay said, still looking at his language homework, speaking with the exasperating patience of someone who has had this conversation many times.

“Then why don’t you worship me?” —Rin complained.

“Because you don’t fight in the pit,” Kitay filled in a blank space on the table of Hesperian verbal conjugations. And also because you’re weird and not as pretty as him.

In general, the childish infighting of his class had disappeared. Partly it was because they were getting older, and partly because the stress of the Tests had already disappeared (the trainees were now safe in the Academy, as long as they maintained good grades). Although it was also because their classes had become so difficult that they couldn’t be bothered with petty rivalries.

But near the end of his second year, the class began to divide again, although this time along a political line between provinces.

The first was over a diplomatic crisis with Federation troops on the border of Caballo Province, a fight at the outpost between Muganese merchants and Nikara workers that had turned deadly. The Mugeneses had sent armed police to kill the instigators. And the border patrol of the province of Caballo did the same.

Maester Irjah was immediately summoned to a diplomatic meeting with the Empress, which meant Strategy was canceled for two weeks. The students did not find out until they found a hastily written note, which Irjah had left behind when he left.

—I don’t know when I’ll be back. Fire on both sides. “Four civilians dead,” Niang read from Irjah’s note. Damn, this is war, right?

—Not necessarily —Kitay was the only one who seemed calm

—. There are always skirmishes.

—But there have been casualties…

“There are always casualties,” Kitay said. This has been going on for almost two decades. We hate them, they hate us, and a bunch of people die.

—Nikara civilians are dead! —Nezha exclaimed.

—Sure, but the Empress is not going to do anything about it.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Han interrupted. The Horse Province does not have enough troops to maintain a front. Our population is very small, and there is no one to recruit. The problem is that there are some Warlords who do not know that the interest of the nation comes first.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nezha said.

“What I know is that my father’s men are dying at the border,” Han said. The sudden venom in his voice surprised Rin. While your father is sitting comfortably in his small palace, turning a blind eye, safe behind two provinces that protect him.

Before anyone could move, Nezha grabbed Han by the back of his head and slammed his face into the table.

The class fell silent.

Han looked up, too stunned to defend himself. His nose had broken with a rather loud sound. Blood ran down his chin.

Nezha let go of Han’s neck.

—Don’t even think about talking about my father.

Han spat out something that looked like a fragment of a tooth.

—Your father is a fucking coward.

—I told you to shut up.

“You have the largest surplus of troops in the Empire and yet you don’t deploy them,” Han said. Why, Nezha? Do you plan to use them for anything else?

Nezha’s eyes flashed.

—Do you want me to break your neck?

“The Mugenese are not going to invade us,” Kitay interrupted quickly. They are making noise in the Horse province, but they will not dare bring in ground troops. They don’t want to upset Hesperia…

“Hesperians don’t give a shit,” Han said. They haven’t cared about the Eastern Hemisphere for years. There are no ambassadors, no diplomats…

“For the armistice,” Kitay said. They think it is not necessary. But if the Federation breaks the balance, they will have to intervene. And Mugen leaders know it.

“They also know that we have no organized border defense or navy,” Han replied. Don’t be delusional.

“A land invasion would not be rational on their part,” Kitay insisted. The armistice benefits them. They do not want to lose thousands of men inside the Empire. There will be no war.

“Sure,” Han crossed his arms. So what are we training for?

The second crisis came two months later. Several border cities in the province of Caballo began to boycott Muga goods. The Mugenese governor-generals responded by closing, looting and burning any nikara businesses located on their side of the border.

When the news arrived, Han abruptly left the Academy to join his father’s battalion. Jima threatened him

with a permanent ban if he left without permission and Han responded by throwing his bracelet on his desk.

The third crisis was the death of the Federation Emperor. The Nikara spies reported news that deeply disturbed all the Academy maesters. Crown Prince Ryohai, successor to the crown, young, hot-headed and violently nationalist, was a leading member of the Mugen military faction.

“He’s been calling for a land invasion for years,” Irjah explained to the class. Now you have the opportunity to do it.

The next six weeks were terribly tense. Even Kitay had stopped arguing that Mugen wouldn’t do anything. Several students, mostly from the north, requested permission to return home. His request was denied without exception. Some left anyway, but most obeyed Jima’s order. If there was going to be a war, then some affiliation with Sinegard was better than nothing.

The new Ryohai Emperor did not declare war. The Empress sent a party of diplomats to the arch-shaped island, and against all odds, they were received very politely by the new Mugen administration. The crisis passed. But a cloud of anxiety still hung over the entire Academy, and nothing could assuage the growing fear that their class might be the first to graduate in a war.

***

The only person who was apparently not interested in the new news of Federation politics was Jiang. If she asked her about Mugen, she would grimace and drop the topic of

side, and if I pressed him, he would close his eyes tightly, shake his head, and start singing out loud like a child.

“But you fought against the Federation,” Rin exclaimed.

How can you not care?

“I don’t remember,” Jiang said.

—How can you not remember it? Rin demanded, “you were in the Second Poppy War, all of you were!

“That’s what they tell me,” Jiang said.

-So…

“Well, I don’t remember,” Jiang said, and his tone became fragile and tremulous, and it made Rin think that it was better to leave the topic aside, otherwise it could lead to Jiang being absent for a week or exhibiting erratic behavior.

But as long as he didn’t bring it up, Jiang continued to conduct the lessons in the same incoherent and careless manner. Rin did not learn to meditate for an hour without moving until the end of the first year of learning, and once she knew how to do it, Ella Jiang demanded that she meditate for five more hours. That meant another year. When she finally got it, Jiang gave her a small opaque flask, the same one as the sorghum wine, and ordered her to take it with her to the top of the mountain.

—There is a cave near the top. You’ll know her when you see her. Drink the bottle and then start meditating.

—What’s in the bottle? Jiang examined his nails.

-This and that.

-For how long?

-All the time needed. Days. Weeks. Months. You can’t know until you start.

Rin told his other teachers that he would be absent from classes for an indefinite period of time. The maesters had already resigned themselves to Jiang’s absurdities, said goodbye to her and asked her to try not to leave for more than a year. Rin hoped they were joking.

Jiang did not accompany him to the top. He said goodbye to her from the highest level of the Academy.

—Here, a layer in case you get cold. There’s not much there to shelter from the rain. I’ll see you on the other side.

It rained all morning, Rin walked around feeling miserable, scraping the mud off his shoes every few steps. When he reached the cave, he was shaking so hard, that he almost dropped the jar.

He looked inside the mud-filled cave. He would have liked to make a fire to warm himself, but he found nothing that was not already damp. So he took shelter at the far end of the cave, as far from the rain as he could, and sat cross-legged. Then, he closed his eyes.

He thought of the warrior Bodhidharma, meditating for years while listening to the cries of ants. He suspected the ants wouldn’t be the only ones screaming when she was done.

The contents of the jar turned out to be a slightly bitter tea. He thought it might be a distilled hallucinogen, but hours passed and her mind remained as clear as ever.

The night arrives. She meditated in the dark.

At first it was horribly difficult.

I couldn’t stay still. She was hungry after six hours of meditating. All she could think about was her stomach. But after a while, the hunger was so great that she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been so hungry.

On the second day she felt dizzy. She was dazed with hunger, so hungry that she could no longer feel her stomach.

Did she have a stomach? What was a stomach?

On the third day his mind felt wonderfully illuminated. It was just air, just breathing, just an organ to breathe. A fan. A flute. In, out, in, out and so on.

By the fifth day everything was moving too fast, or too slow, or not at all. She felt enraged by the slow passage of time. Her brain was going too fast, and he didn’t calm her down, she felt as if her heartbeat was now faster than that of a hummingbird. How come it hadn’t dissolved? How come it hadn’t vibrated until it disappeared into nothingness?

On the seventh day he overturned into the void. Her body went very still, so still that she forgot she had one. Her left finger itched and she was amazed at the sensation. She did not scratch it, but she observed the itch from afar and marveled how after a long time, it went away on its own.

He learned how his breath moved through his body as if it were an empty house. He learned how to place his

vertebrae on top of each other, so that his spine formed a perfectly straight line, a perfect canal.

His motionless body became heavy, and as it became heavy, it became easier to forget it, and move upward, weightless, toward that place he could only glimpse behind closed eyelids.

On the ninth day he suffered a geometric assault of lines and figures without form or color, without any aesthetic value, except chance.

Stupid ways , he thought over and over like a mantra.

Stupid shit ways .

On the thirteenth day she had the horrible sensation of being trapped, as if she were buried inside a stone, as if she were covered in mud. She was as light as a feather, but she had nowhere to go, she was spinning around inside that strange vessel called a body like a trapped firefly.

On the fifteenth day she was convinced that her consciousness had expanded to encompass all life on the planet. The germination of the smallest flower until the final death of the largest tree. She saw an endless process of energy transfer, growing and dying, and she was a part of each stage.

He saw bursts of colors and animals that probably no longer existed. They weren’t exactly visions, because they would have been much more vivid and concrete. But those apparitions weren’t just thoughts either. They were like dreams, an uncertain plane of unreality somewhere in between, and it was only by removing every other thought from his mind that she could perceive it clearly.

He stopped counting the days. She had traveled somewhere beyond time, a place where a year and a minute were the same.

Was there any difference between the finite and the infinite? There was being and not being, and that was all. Time was not real.

The appearances became solid. Either she was dreaming, or she had transcended somewhere, for when she took a step forward, his foot touched cold stone. She looked around her and saw that she was in a tiled room, no bigger than a bathroom. There were no doors.

A shape appeared before her, dressed in a strange outfit. At first she thought it was Altan, but the figure’s face was softer, and her crimson eyes were rounder and kinder.

“They said you would come.” The voice belonged to a woman, and it was deep and sad. The gods knew you would come.

Rin was speechless. There was something about the woman that was deeply familiar, and it wasn’t just because of her resemblance to Altan. The shape of her face, the clothes she was wearing… woke up memories she didn’t know she had, of sand and water and open skies.

“You will be asked to do what I refused,” the woman said. You will be offered power beyond your imagination. But I’m warning you, little warrior. The price of power is pain. The Pantheon controls the fabric of the universe. To alter the established order you have to give something in return. And for the gifts of the Phoenix, you must pay the maximum. The Phoenix wants suffering. The Phoenix wants blood.

“I have plenty of blood,” Rin answered. She had no idea what made him say that, but he continued. I can hit the Phoenix

what you want, if the Phoenix gives me power.

The woman’s tone became agitated.

—The Phoenix doesn’t give. Not permanently. The Phoenix takes, and takes, and takes… Fire is insatiable, unique among the rest of the elements… it will devour you until you are nothing…

“I’m not afraid of fire,” Rin said.

“You should have it,” the woman hissed. She slowly glided towards Rin, but she didn’t move her legs, she didn’t walk, she just seemed to get bigger and closer, with each passing moment.

Rin couldn’t breathe. He didn’t feel calm at all, this wasn’t the peace he was supposed to achieve, it was terrible… Suddenly he heard a cacophony of screams ringing in his ears, and then the woman began to scream and howl, writhing around. the air in a macabre dance, even as he approached Rin and grabbed her arm.

Images spun around Rin, dark-skinned bodies, dancing around a bonfire, mouths open in malicious and grotesque smiles, shouting words in a language that sounded like a dream he no longer remembered… The bonfire lit up brighter and The bodies receded, burned, charred, disintegrated into nothing more than glistening white bones, and Rin thought this was the end, death was the end of everything, but the bones jumped again and continued dancing… One of the Skeletons looked at her with a naked, toothy smile and beckoned with a fleshless hand.

—From the ashes we come and to the ashes we return…

The woman’s grip around her shoulders tightened, and she leaned toward her and whispered fiercely, Come back .

But Rin was mesmerized by the fire…she looked past the bones to the flames, which were crackling upward like something living, taking the form of a living god, an animal, a bird…

The bird lowered its head towards them. The woman burst into flames.

Then, Rin was floating upwards again, flying like an arrow in the sky towards the Pantheon of Gods.

***

When she opened her eyes, Jiang was crouching in front of her, watching her carefully with his pale eyes.

-What have you seen?

Rin took a deep breath, and remembered what it was like to have a body again. She felt clumsy and heavy, like a poorly made puppet of clay.

“A large circular room,” he said hesitantly, squinting to remember his last vision. He didn’t know if he was having trouble finding the words, or if it was just that his mouth was refusing to obey. Every order she gave to his body, he responded after a delay. It was formed like a set of trigrams, but with thirty-two points divided into sixty-four. And there were creatures on pedestals around the entire circle.

“Pillars,” Jiang corrected.

—You’re right, they were pillars.

“You saw the Pantheon,” he said. You found the gods.

“I guess,” his voice trailed off. She felt somewhat confused.

Had he found the gods? Or had she only imagined those sixty-four gods, spinning around her like glass beads?

“You seem skeptical,” he said.

“I was exhausted,” she answered. I don’t know if it was real, or… I mean, she could have been dreaming.

How were your visions different from your imagination?

Had he seen that just because he wanted to?

-Ringing? Jiang cocked his head. Have you seen anything like the Pantheon before? In a diagram? Or in a painting?

Rin frowned.

-No but…

-The pillars. Did you expect them?

“No,” he said, “but I’ve seen pillars before, and it’s not that difficult to conjure up the Pantheon in your imagination.”

—But why that dream in particular? Why has your sleeping mind chosen to extract those images from your memory? Why not a horse, or a field of jasmine, or Master Jun riding naked on top of a tiger?

Rin was puzzled.

—Is that what you dream about?

“Answer the question,” he said.

“I don’t know,” Rin said frustratedly. Why do people dream what they dream?

From the way he was smiling, it seemed as if that was what he had wanted to hear.

“Why, actually?”

I had no answer. She stared blankly at the cave entrance, pondering those thoughts, and realized that she had awakened in more ways than one.

His map of the world, his understanding of reality had changed. He could see the outline, even if he didn’t know how to fill in the blanks. He knew that the gods existed and that they spoke and that was enough.

It had taken him a long time, but he finally understood the meanings of what he was learning. Shamans: those who communicate with the gods. Gods: forces of nature, entities as real and yet as ephemeral as wind and fire. Beings inherent to the existence of the universe.

When the Hesperians wrote about God , they were referring to the supernatural.

When Jiang spoke of gods , he spoke of the eminently natural.

Communicating with the gods was walking through the world of dreams, the world of spirits. It was abandoning what she was and being one with the fundamental state of things. The space in limbo where matter and action was not yet determined, the fluctuations of darkness where the physical world had not yet been dreamed of existing.

The gods were simply the beings that lived in that space. They were forces of creation and destruction, love and hate, breeding

and abandon, darkness and light, cold and heat… they opposed each other and complemented each other. They were fundamental truths.

They were the elements that made up the universe itself.

Now he saw that reality was an appearance, a dream evoked by the undulating forces beneath a thin surface. And by meditating, by ingesting hallucinogens, by forgetting her connection to the material world, she had been able to wake up.

“I understand the truth of things,” he murmured. I know what it means to exist.

Jiang smiled.

—It’s wonderful, isn’t it?

He understood, then, that Jiang was far from crazy.

He was probably, in fact, the sanest person I had ever met.

He had an idea.

—So what happens when we die? Jiang raised an eyebrow.

—I think you know the answer.

Rin pondered for a moment.

—We return to the spirit world. We abandon the illusion. We wake up.

Jiang nodded.

—We do not die, as much as we return to the void. We dissolve. We lose our ego. We change from being just something to being everything. Most of us, at least.

He opened his mouth to ask what she meant, but Jiang reached out and touched his forehead.

-How do you feel?

“Incredible,” he said. She felt more lucid than she had in months, as if all this time she had been trying to look through a fog and suddenly she had disappeared. She was ecstatic, she had solved the riddle, she knew the source of her power, and now all that was left was to learn how to use that power at will.

—Well, what now?

“Now we have solved your problem,” Jiang said. Now you know how you are connected to a larger network of cosmological forces. Some martial artists who are particularly in tune with the world find themselves overwhelmed by one of these forces. They suffer from an imbalance, a greater affinity with one god than with the others. That’s what happened to you in the pit. But now you know where those flames came from, and when it happens to you again, you can travel to the Pantheon to find your balance. Now you are cured.

Rin shook his head at his master.

Cured?

Cured ? _

Jiang seemed pleased, relieved and composed, but Rin only felt confused. She had not studied Acquis to be able to extinguish her flames. Yes, the fire had been horrible, but she had also felt powerful. She had felt powerful .

I wanted to learn how to channel it, not suppress it.

-Any problem? Jiang asked.

-No I do not…

He bit his lip before the words came out of his mouth. Jiang was violently averse to any discussion about the war; if she continued to ask about the military use of it, then Jiang might disappear like she had done before the Trials. She already thought she was too impulsive, too reckless and impatient, she knew how easily she could scare him.

It did not matter. If Jiang wasn’t going to teach her how to use that power, then she would find out for herself.

“So what’s the point of all this?” —She finally asked.

—. Feel good?

-The objective? What objective? You are enlightened! You have a better understanding of the cosmos than many theologians alive! Jiang waved his hands around his head.

Do you have any idea what you could do with this knowledge? The Hinterlands have been interpreting the future for years, reading the cracks in turtle shells to divine events that will happen. They can cure diseases of the body by healing their spirit. They can talk to plants, cure mental illnesses…

Rin wondered why the Hinterlands managed to do all that and didn’t put their abilities to military use, but held her tongue.

“So how long would it be?”

“There’s no point in talking for years,” Jiang said. The Inner Lands do not allow the interpretation of divinations until

that you have trained at least five years. Learning to become a shaman is a lifelong process.

Rin couldn’t accept that either. He wanted power, and he wanted it now, especially if they were on the brink of war with the Mugenese.

Jiang looked at her curiously.

Be careful , she reminded herself. She still had a lot to learn from Jiang. She had to play along.

-Anything else? Jiang asked after a while.

He thought about the esperli woman’s warnings. He thought of the Phoenix and the fire and the pain.

-Did not say-. Nothing else.

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