مرکزی صفحہ The Poppy War

The Poppy War

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When Rin aced the
Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at
the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who
couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without
cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to
marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself,
who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had
made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite
military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing
at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color,
poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly
power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring
the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and
psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very
much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more
than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at
peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The
militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the
First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And
while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few
are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she
finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix,
she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it
may already be too late.
ناشر کتب:
ISBN 13:
The Poppy War 1
EPUB, 1.94 MB
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اہم جملے


آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔

This is for Iris



Title Page



Part I Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part II Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Part III Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26


About the Author


About the Publisher


Part I

Chapter 1

“Take your clothes off.”

Rin blinked. “What?”

The proctor glanced up from his booklet. “Cheating prevention protocol.” He gestured across the room to a female proctor. “Go with her, if you must.”

Rin crossed her arms tightly across her chest and walked toward the second proctor. She was led behind a screen, patted thoroughly to make sure she hadn’t packed test materials up any orifices, and then handed a formless blue sack.

“Put this on,” said the proctor.

“Is this really necessary?” Rin’s teeth chattered as she stripped. The exam smock was too large for her; the sleeves draped over her hands so that she had to roll them up several times.

“Yes.” The proctor motioned for her to sit down on a bench. “Last year twelve students were caught with papers sewn into the linings of their shirts. We take precautions. Open your mouth.”

Rin obliged.

The proctor prodded her tongue with a slim rod. “No discoloration, that’s good. Eyes wide open.”

“Why would anyone drug themselves before a test?” Rin asked as the proctor stretched her eyelids. The proctor didn’t respond.

Satisfied, she waved Rin down the hallway where other prospective students waited in a straggly line. Their hands were empty, faces uniformly tight with anxiety. They had brought no materials to the test—pens could be hollowed out to contain scrolls with answers written on them.

“Hands out where we can see them,” ordered the male proctor, walking to the front of the line. “Sleeves must remain rolled up past the elbow. From th; is point forward, you do not speak to one another. If you have to urinate, raise your hand. We have a bucket in the back of the room.”

“What if I have to shit?” a boy asked.

The proctor gave him a long look.

“It’s a twelve-hour test,” the boy said defensively.

The proctor shrugged. “Try to be quiet.”

Rin had been too nervous to eat anything that morning. Even the thought of food made her nauseated. Her bladder and intestines were empty. Only her mind was full, crammed with an insane number of mathematical formulas and poems and treatises and historical dates to be spilled out on the test booklet. She was ready.

The examination room fit a hundred students. The desks were arranged in neat rows of ten. On each desk sat a heavy exam booklet, an inkwell, and a writing brush.

Most of the other provinces of Nikan had to section off entire town halls to accommodate the thousands of students who attempted the exam each year. But Tikany township in Rooster Province was a village of farmers and peasants. Tikany’s families needed hands to work the fields more than they did university-educated brats. Tikany only ever used the one classroom.

Rin filed into the room along with the other students and took her assigned seat. She wondered how the examinees looked from above: neat squares of black hair, uniform blue smocks, and brown wooden tables. She imagined them multiplied across identical classrooms throughout the country right now, all watching the water clock with nervous anticipation.

Rin’s teeth chattered madly in a staccato that she thought everyone could surely hear, and it wasn’t just from the cold. She clamped her jaw shut, but the shuddering just spread down her limbs to her hands and knees. The writing brush shook in her grasp, dribbling black droplets across the table.

She tightened her grip and wrote her full name across the booklet’s cover page. Fang Runin.

She wasn’t the only one who was nervous. Already there were sounds of retching over the bucket in the back of the room.

She squeezed her wrist, fingers closing over pale burn scars, and inhaled. Focus.

In the corner, a water clock rang softly.

“Begin,” said the examiner.

A hundred test booklets were opened with a flapping noise, like a flock of sparrows taking off at once.

Two years ago, on the day Tikany’s magistracy had arbitrarily estimated to be her fourteenth birthday, Rin’s foster parents had summoned her into their chambers.

This rarely happened. The Fangs liked to ignore Rin until they had a task for her, and then they spoke to her the way they would command a dog. Lock up the store. Hang up the laundry. Take this packet of opium to the neighbors and don’t leave until you’ve scalped them for twice what we paid for it.

A woman Rin had never seen before sat perched on the guest’s chair. Her face was completely dusted over with what looked like white rice flour, punctuated with caked-up dabs of color on her lips and eyelids. She wore a bright lilac dress dyed with a plum-flower pattern, cut in a fashion that might have suited a girl half her age. Her squat figure squeezed over the sides like a bag of grain.

“Is this the girl?” the woman asked. “Hm. She’s a little dark—the inspector won’t be too bothered, but it’ll drive your price down a bit.”

Rin had a sudden, horrifying suspicion of what was happening. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“Sit down, Rin,” said Uncle Fang.

He reached out with a leathery hand to maneuver her into a chair. Rin immediately turned to flee. Auntie Fang seized her arm and dragged her back. A brief struggle ensued, in which Auntie Fang overpowered Rin and jerked her toward the chair.

“I won’t go to a brothel!” Rin yelled.

“She’s not from the brothel, you idiot,” Auntie Fang snapped. “Sit down. Show some respect to Matchmaker Liew.”

Matchmaker Liew looked unfazed, as if her line of work often involved accusations of sex trafficking.

“You’re about to be a very lucky girl, sweet,” she said. Her voice was bright and falsely saccharine. “Would you like to hear why?”

Rin clutched the edge of her chair and stared at Matchmaker Liew’s red lips. “No.”

Matchmaker Liew’s smile tightened. “Aren’t you a dear.”

It turned out that after a long and arduous search, Matchmaker Liew had found a man in Tikany willing to marry Rin. He was a wealthy merchant who made a living importing pig’s ears and shark fins. He was twice divorced and three times her age.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Matchmaker Liew beamed.

Rin bolted for the door. She hadn’t made it two steps before Auntie Fang’s hand shot out and seized her wrist.

Rin knew what came next. She braced herself for the blow, for the kicks to her ribs where bruises wouldn’t show, but Auntie Fang only dragged her back toward her chair.

“You will behave,” she whispered, and her clenched teeth promised punishment to come. But not now, not in front of Matchmaker Liew.

Auntie Fang liked to keep her cruelty private.

Matchmaker Liew blinked, oblivious. “Don’t be scared, sweet. This is exciting!”

Rin felt dizzy. She twisted around to face her foster parents, fighting to keep her voice level. “I thought you needed me at the shop.” Somehow, it was the only thing she could think to say.

“Kesegi can run the shop,” Auntie Fang said.

“Kesegi is eight.”

“He’ll grow up soon enough.” Auntie Fang’s eyes glittered. “And your prospective husband happens to be the village import inspector.”

Rin understood then. The Fangs were making a simple trade: one foster orphan in exchange for a near monopoly over Tikany’s black market in opium.

Uncle Fang took a long draught from his pipe and exhaled, filling the room with thick, cloying smoke. “He’s a rich man. You’ll be happy.”

No, the Fangs would be happy. They’d get to import opium in bulk without bleeding money for bribes. But Rin kept her mouth clamped shut—further argument would only bring pain. It was clear that the Fangs would have her married if they had to drag her to the bridal bed themselves.

They had never wanted Rin. They’d taken her in as an infant only because the Empress’s mandate after the Second Poppy War forced households with fewer than three children to adopt war orphans who otherwise would have become thieves and beggars.

Since infanticide was frowned upon in Tikany, the Fangs had put Rin to use as a shopgirl and opium runner since she was old enough to count. Still, for all the free labor she provided, the cost of Rin’s keep and feed was more than the Fangs cared to bear. Now was their chance to get rid of the financial burden she posed.

This merchant could afford to feed and clothe Rin for the rest of her life, Matchmaker Liew explained. All she had to do was serve him tenderly like a good wife and give him babies and take care of his household (which, as Matchmaker Liew pointed out, had not one but two indoor washrooms). It was a much better deal than a war orphan like Rin, with no family or connections, could otherwise hope to secure.

A husband for Rin, money for the matchmaker, and drugs for the Fangs.

“Wow,” Rin said faintly. The floor seemed to wobble beneath her feet. “That’s great. Really great. Terrific.”

Matchmaker Liew beamed again.

Rin concealed her panic, fought to keep her breathing even until the matchmaker had been ushered out. She bowed low to the Fangs and, like a filial foster daughter, expressed her thanks for the pains they had gone through to secure her such a stable future.

She returned to the store. She worked silently until dark, took orders, filed inventory, and marked new orders in the ledger.

The thing about inventory was that one had to be very careful with how one wrote the numbers. So simple to make a nine look like an eight. Easier still to make a one look like a seven . . .

Long after the sun disappeared, Rin closed the shop and locked the door behind her.

Then she shoved a packet of stolen opium under her shirt and ran.

“Rin?” A small, wizened man opened the library door and peeked out at her. “Great Tortoise! What are you doing out here? It’s pouring.”

“I came to return a book,” she said, holding out a waterproof satchel. “Also, I’m getting married.”

“Oh. Oh! What? Come in.”

Tutor Feyrik taught a tuition-free evening class to the peasant children of Tikany, who otherwise would have grown up illiterate. Rin trusted him above anyone else, and she understood his weaknesses better than anyone else.

That made him the linchpin in her escape plan.

“The vase is gone,” she observed as she glanced around the cramped library.

Tutor Feyrik lit a small flame in the fireplace and dragged two cushions in front of it. He motioned for her to sit down. “Bad call. Bad night overall, really.”

Tutor Feyrik had an unfortunate adoration for Divisions, an immensely popular game played in Tikany’s gambling dens. It wouldn’t have been so dangerous if he were better at it.

“That makes no sense,” said Tutor Feyrik after Rin recounted to him the matchmaker’s tidings. “Why would the Fangs marry you off? Aren’t you their best source of unpaid labor?”

“Yes, but they think I’ll be more useful in the import inspector’s bed.”

Tutor Feyrik looked revolted. “Your folks are assholes.”

“So you’ll do it,” she said hopefully. “You’ll help.”

He sighed. “My dear girl, if your family had let you study with me when you were younger, we might have considered this . . . I told the Fangs then, I told her you might have potential. But at this stage, you’re speaking of the impossible.”


He held up a hand. “More than twenty thousand students take the Keju each year, and hardly three thousand enter the academies. Of those, barely a handful test in from Tikany. You’d be competing against wealthy children—merchants’ children, nobles’ children—who have been studying for this their entire lives.”

“But I’ve taken classes with you, too. How hard can it be?”

He chuckled at that. “You can read. You can use an abacus. That’s not the kind of preparation it takes to pass the Keju. The Keju tests for a deep knowledge of history, advanced mathematics, logic, and the Classics . . .”

“The Four Noble Subjects, I know,” she said impatiently. “But I’m a fast reader. I know more characters than most of the adults in this village. Certainly more than the Fangs. I can keep up with your students if you just let me try. I don’t even have to attend recitation. I just need books.”

“Reading books is one thing,” Tutor Feyrik said. “Preparing for the Keju is a different endeavor entirely. My Keju students spend their whole lives studying for it; nine hours a day, seven days a week. You spend more time than that working in the shop.”

“I can study at the shop,” she protested.

“Don’t you have actual responsibilities?”

“I’m good at, uh, multitasking.”

He eyed her skeptically for a moment, then shook his head. “You’d only have two years. It can’t be done.”

“But I don’t have any other options,” she said shrilly.

In Tikany, an unmarried girl like Rin was worth less than a gay rooster. She could spend her life as a foot servant in some rich household—if she found the right people to bribe. Otherwise her options were some combination of prostitution and begging.

She was being dramatic, but not hyperbolic. She could leave town, probably with enough stolen opium to buy herself a caravan ticket to any other province . . . but where to? She had no friends or family; no one to come to her aid if she was robbed or kidnapped. She had no marketable skills. She had never left Tikany; she didn’t know the first thing about survival in the city.

And if they caught her with that much opium on her person . . . Opium possession was a capital offense in the Empire. She’d be dragged into the town square and publicly beheaded as the latest casualty in the Empress’s futile war on drugs.

She had only this option. She had to sway Tutor Feyrik.

She held up the book she had come to return. “This is Mengzi. Reflections on Statecraft. I’ve only had this for three days, right?”

“Yes,” he said without checking his ledger.

She handed it to him. “Read me a passage. Any will do.”

Tutor Feyrik still looked skeptical, but flipped to the middle of the book to humor her. “The feeling of commiseration is the principle of . . .”

“Benevolence,” she finished. “The feeling of shame and dislike is the principle of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and complaisance is the principle of . . . the principle of, uh, propriety. And the feeling of approving and disapproving is the principle of knowledge.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And what does that mean?”

“No clue,” she admitted. “Honestly, I don’t understand Mengzi at all. I just memorized him.”

He flipped toward the end of the book, selected another passage, and read: “Order is present in the earthly kingdom when all beings understand their place. All beings understand their place when they fulfill the roles set out for them. The fish does not attempt to fly. The polecat does not attempt to swim. Only when each being respects the heavenly order may there be peace.” He shut the book and looked up. “How about this passage? Do you understand what it means?”

She knew what Tutor Feyrik was trying to tell her.

The Nikara believed in strictly defined social roles, a rigid hierarchy that all were locked into at birth. Everything had its own place under heaven. Princelings became Warlords, cadets became soldiers, and orphan shopgirls from Tikany should be content with remaining orphan shopgirls from Tikany. The Keju was a purportedly meritocratic institution, but only the wealthy class ever had the money to afford the tutors their children needed to actually pass.

Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.

“It means I’m very good at memorizing long passages of gibberish,” she said.

Tutor Feyrik was silent for a moment. “You don’t have an eidetic memory,” he said finally. “I taught you to read. I would have known.”

“I don’t,” she acknowledged. “But I’m stubborn, I study hard, and I really don’t want to be married. It took me three days to memorize Mengzi. It was a short book, so I’ll probably need a full week for the longer texts. But how many texts are on the Keju list? Twenty? Thirty?”


“Then I’ll memorize them all. Every single one. That’s all you need to pass the Keju. The other subjects aren’t that hard; it’s the Classics that trip people up. You told me that yourself.”

Tutor Feyrik’s eyes were narrowing now, his expression no longer skeptical but calculated. She knew that look. It was the look he got when he was trying to predict his returns at Divisions.

In Nikan, a tutor’s success was tied to his reputation for Keju results. You attracted clients if your students made it into an academy. More students meant more money, and to an indebted gambler like Tutor Feyrik, each new student counted. If Rin tested into an academy, an ensuing influx of students could get Tutor Feyrik out of some nasty debts.

“Enrollment’s been slow this year, hasn’t it?” she pressed.

He grimaced. “It’s a drought year. Of course admission is slow. Not many families want to pay tuition when their children barely have a chance to pass regardless.”

“But I can pass,” she said. “And when I do, you’ll have a student who tested into an academy. What do you think that’ll do for enrollment?”

He shook his head. “Rin, I couldn’t take your tuition money in good faith.”

That posed a second problem. She steeled her nerve and looked him in the eye. “That’s okay. I can’t pay tuition.”

He balked visibly.

“I don’t make anything at the store,” Rin said before he could speak. “The inventory isn’t mine. I don’t get any wages. I need you to help me to study for the Keju at no cost, and twice as fast as you train your other students.”

Tutor Feyrik began to shake his head again. “My dear girl, I can’t—this is—”

Time to play her last card. Rin pulled her leather satchel out from under her chair and plunked it on the table. It hit the wood with a solid, satisfying smack.

Tutor Feyrik’s eyes followed her eagerly as she slipped a hand into the satchel and drew out one heavy, sweet-smelling packet. Then another. And then another.

“This is six tael worth of premium opium,” she said calmly. Six tael was half of what Tutor Feyrik might earn in an entire year.

“You stole this from the Fangs,” he said uneasily.

She shrugged. “Smuggling’s a difficult business. The Fangs know the risk. Packages go missing all the time. They can hardly report it to the magistrate.”

He twiddled his long whiskers. “I don’t want to get on the Fangs’ bad side.”

He had good reason to fear. People in Tikany didn’t cross Auntie Fang—not if they cared about their personal safety. She was patient and unpredictable as a snake. She might let faults go unacknowledged for years, and then strike with a well-placed poisonous pellet.

But Rin had covered her tracks.

“One of her shipments was confiscated by port authorities last week,” Rin said. “And she hasn’t had time to do inventory yet. I’ve just marked these packets as lost. She can’t trace them.”

“They could still beat you.”

“Not so badly.” Rin forced a shrug. “They can’t marry off damaged merchandise.”

Tutor Feyrik was staring at the satchel with obvious greed.

“Deal,” he said finally, and grasped for the opium.

She snatched it out of his reach. “Four conditions. One, you teach me. Two, you teach me for free. Three, you don’t smoke when you’re teaching me. And four, if you tell anyone where you got this, I’ll let your creditors know where to find you.”

Tutor Feyrik glared at her for a long moment, and then nodded.

She cleared her throat. “Also, I want to keep this book.”

He gave her a wry smile.

“You would make a terrible prostitute. No charm.”

“No,” said Auntie Fang. “We need you in the shop.”

“I’ll study at night,” Rin said. “Or during off-hours.”

Auntie Fang’s face pinched together as she scrubbed at the frying wok. Everything about Auntie Fang was raw: her expression, an open display of impatience and irritation; her fingers, red from hours of cleaning and laundering; her voice, hoarse from screaming at Rin; at her son, Kesegi; at her hired smugglers; at Uncle Fang, lying inert in his smoke-filled room.

“What did you promise him?” she demanded suspiciously.

Rin stiffened. “Nothing.”

Auntie Fang abruptly slammed the wok onto the counter. Rin flinched, suddenly terrified that her theft had been discovered.

“What is so wrong with getting married?” Auntie Fang demanded. “I married your uncle when I was younger than you are now. Every other girl in this village will get married by her sixteenth birthday. Do you think you’re so much better than them?”

Rin was so relieved that she had to remember to look properly chastised. “No. I mean, I don’t.”

“Do you think it will be so bad?” Auntie Fang’s voice became dangerously quiet. “What is it, really? Are you afraid of sharing his bed?”

Rin hadn’t even considered that, but now the very thought of it made her throat close up.

Auntie Fang’s lip curled in amusement. “The first night is the worst, I’ll give you that. Keep a wad of cotton in your mouth so you don’t bite your tongue. Do not cry out, unless he wants you to. Keep your head down and do as he says—become his mute little household slave until he trusts you. But once he does? You start plying him with opium—just a little bit at first, though I doubt he’s never smoked before. Then you give him more and more every day. Do it at night right after he’s finished with you, so he always associates it with pleasure and power.

“Give him more and more until he is fully dependent on it, and on you. Let it destroy his body and mind. You’ll be more or less married to a breathing corpse, yes, but you will have his riches, his estates, and his power.” Auntie Fang tilted her head. “Then will it hurt you so much to share his bed?”

Rin wanted to vomit. “But I . . .”

“Is it the children you’re afraid of?” Auntie Fang cocked her head. “There are ways to kill them in the womb. You work in the apothecary. You know that. But you’ll want to give him at least one son. Cement your position as his first wife, so he can’t fritter his assets on a concubine.”

“But I don’t want that,” Rin choked out. I don’t want to be like you.

“And who cares what you want?” Auntie Fang asked softly. “You are a war orphan. You have no parents, no standing, and no connections. You’re lucky the inspector doesn’t care that you’re not pretty, only that you’re young. This is the best I can do for you. There will be no more chances.”

“But the Keju—”

“But the Keju,” Auntie Fang mimicked. “When did you get so deluded? You think you’re going to an academy?”

“I do think so.” Rin straightened her back, tried to inject confidence into her words. Calm down. You still have leverage. “And you’ll let me. Because one day, the authorities might start asking where the opium’s coming from.”

Auntie Fang examined her for a long moment. “Do you want to die?” she asked.

Rin knew that wasn’t an empty threat. Auntie Fang was more than willing to tie up her loose ends. Rin had watched her do it before. She’d spent most of her life trying to make sure she never became a loose end.

But now she could fight back.

“If I go missing, then Tutor Feyrik will tell the authorities precisely what happened to me,” she said loudly. “And he’ll tell your son what you’ve done.”

“Kesegi won’t care,” Auntie Fang scoffed.

“I raised Kesegi. He loves me,” Rin said. “And you love him. You don’t want him to know what you do. That’s why you don’t send him to the shop. And why you make me keep him in our room when you go out to meet your smugglers.”

That did it. Auntie Fang stared at her, mouth agape, nostrils flaring.

“Let me at least try,” Rin begged. “It can’t hurt you to let me study. If I pass, then you’ll at least be rid of me—and if I fail, you still have a bride.”

Auntie Fang grabbed at the wok. Rin tensed instinctively, but Auntie Fang only resumed scrubbing it with a vengeance.

“You study in the shop, and I’ll throw you out on the streets,” Auntie Fang said. “I don’t need this getting back to the inspector.”

“Deal,” Rin lied through her teeth.

Auntie Fang snorted. “And what happens if you get in? Who’s going to pay your tuition, your dear, impoverished tutor?”

Rin hesitated. She’d been hoping the Fangs might give her the dowry money as tuition, but she could see now that had been an idiotic hope.

“Tuition at Sinegard is free,” she pointed out.

Auntie Fang laughed out loud. “Sinegard! You think you’re going to test into Sinegard?”

Rin lifted her chin. “I could.”

The military academy at Sinegard was the most prestigious institution in the Empire, a training ground for future generals and statesmen. It rarely recruited from the rural south, if ever.

“You are deluded.” Auntie Fang snorted again. “Fine—study if you like, if that makes you happy. By all means, take the Keju. But when you fail, you will marry that inspector. And you will be grateful.”

That night, cradling a stolen candle on the floor of the cramped bedroom that she shared with Kesegi, Rin cracked open her first Keju primer.

The Keju tested the Four Noble Subjects: history, mathematics, logic, and the Classics. The imperial bureaucracy in Sinegard considered these subjects integral to the development of a scholar and a statesman. Rin had to learn them all by her sixteenth birthday.

She set a tight schedule for herself: she was to finish at least two books every week, and to rotate between two subjects each day. Each night after she had closed up shop, she ran to Tutor Feyrik’s house before returning home, arms laden with more books.

History was the easiest to learn. Nikan’s history was a highly entertaining saga of constant warfare. The Empire had been formed a millennium ago under the mighty sword of the merciless Red Emperor, who destroyed the monastic orders scattered across the continent and created a unified state of unprecedented size. It was the first time the Nikara people had ever conceived of themselves as a single nation. The Red Emperor standardized the Nikara language, issued a uniform set of weights and measurements, and built a system of roads that connected his sprawling territory.

But the newly conceived Nikara Empire did not survive the Red Emperor’s death. His many heirs turned the country into a bloody mess during the Era of Warring States that followed, which divided Nikan into twelve rival provinces.

Since then, the massive country had been reunified, conquered, exploited, shattered, and then unified again. Nikan had in turn been at war with the khans of the northern Hinterlands and the tall westerners from across the great sea. Both times Nikan had proven itself too massive to suffer foreign occupation for very long.

Of all Nikan’s attempted conquerors, the Federation of Mugen had come the closest. The island country had attacked Nikan at a time when domestic turmoil between the provinces was at its peak. It took two Poppy Wars and fifty years of bloody occupation for Nikan to win back its independence.

The Empress Su Daji, the last living member of the troika who had seized control of the state during the Second Poppy War, now ruled over a land of twelve provinces that had never quite managed to achieve the same unity that the Red Emperor had imposed.

The Nikara Empire had proven itself historically unconquerable. But it was also unstable and disunited, and the current spell of peace held no promise of durability.

If there was one thing Rin had learned about her country’s history, it was that the only permanent thing about the Nikara Empire was war.

The second subject, mathematics, was a slog. It wasn’t overly challenging but tedious and tiresome. The Keju did not filter for genius mathematicians but rather for students who could keep up things such as the country’s finances and balance books. Rin had been doing accounting for the Fangs since she could add. She was naturally apt at juggling large sums in her head. She still had to bring herself up to speed on the more abstract trigonometric theorems, which she assumed mattered for naval battles, but she found that learning those was pleasantly straightforward.

The third section, logic, was entirely foreign to her. The Keju posed logic riddles as open-ended questions. She flipped open a sample exam for practice. The first question read: “A scholar traveling a well-trodden road passes a pear tree. The tree is laden with fruit so heavy that the branches bend over with its weight. Yet he does not pick the fruit. Why?”

Because it’s not his pear tree, Rin thought immediately. Because the owner might be Auntie Fang and break his head open with a shovel. But those responses were either moral or contingent. The answer to the riddle had to be contained within the question itself. There must be some fallacy, some contradiction in the given scenario.

Rin had to think for a long while before she came up with the answer: If a tree by a well-traveled road has this much fruit, then there must be something wrong with the fruit.

The more she practiced, the more she came to see the questions as games. Cracking them was very rewarding. Rin drew diagrams in the dirt, studied the structures of syllogisms, and memorized the more common logical fallacies. Within months, she could answer these kinds of questions in mere seconds.

Her worst subject by far was Classics. It was the exception to her rotating schedule. She had to study Classics every day.

This section of the Keju required students to recite, analyze, and compare texts of a predetermined canon of twenty-seven books. These books were written not in the modern script but in the Old Nikara language, which was notorious for unpredictable grammar patterns and tricky pronunciations. The books contained poems, philosophical treatises, and essays on statecraft written by the legendary scholars of Nikan’s past. They were meant to shape the moral character of the nation’s future statesmen. And they were, without exception, hopelessly confusing.

Unlike with logic and mathematics, Rin could not reason her way out of Classics. Classics required a knowledge base that most students had been slowly building since they could read. In two years, Rin had to simulate more than five years of constant study.

To that end, she achieved extraordinary feats of rote memorization.

She recited backward while walking along the edges of the old defensive walls that encircled Tikany. She recited at double speed while hopping across posts over the lake. She mumbled to herself in the store, snapping in irritation whenever customers asked for her help. She would not let herself sleep unless she had recited that day’s lessons without error. She woke up chanting classical analects, which terrified Kesegi, who thought she had been possessed by ghosts. And in a way, she had been—she dreamed of ancient poems by long-dead voices and woke up shaking from nightmares where she’d gotten them wrong.

“The Way of Heaven operates unceasingly, and leaves no accumulation of its influence in any particular place, so that all things are brought to perfection by it . . . so does the Way operate, and all under the sky turn to them, and all within the seas submit to them.”

Rin put down Zhuangzi’s Annals and scowled. Not only did she have no idea what Zhuangzi was writing about, she also couldn’t see why he had insisted on writing in the most irritatingly verbose manner possible.

She understood very little of what she read. Even the scholars of Yuelu Mountain had trouble understanding the Classics; she could hardly be expected to glean their meaning on her own. And because she didn’t have the time or the training to delve deep into the texts—and since she could think of no useful mnemonics, no shortcuts to learning the Classics—she simply had to learn them word by word and hope that would be enough.

She walked everywhere with a book. She studied as she ate. When she tired, she conjured up images for herself, telling herself the story of the worst possible future.

You walk up the aisle in a dress that doesn’t fit you. You’re trembling. He’s waiting at the other end. He looks at you like you’re a juicy, fattened pig, a marbled slab of meat for his purchase. He spreads saliva over his dry lips. He doesn’t look away from you throughout the entire banquet. When it’s over, he carries you to his bedroom. He pushes you onto the sheets.

She shuddered. Squeezed her eyes shut. Reopened them and found her place on the page.

By Rin’s fifteenth birthday she held a vast quantity of ancient Nikara literature in her head, and could recite the majority of it. But she was still making mistakes: missing words, switching up complex clauses, mixing up the order of the stanzas.

This was good enough, she knew, to test into a teacher’s college or a medical academy. She suspected she might even test into the scholars’ institute at Yuelu Mountain, where the most brilliant minds in Nikan produced stunning works of literature and pondered the mysteries of the natural world.

But she could not afford any of those academies. She had to test into Sinegard. She had to test into the highest-scoring percentage of students not just in the village, but in the entire country. Otherwise, her two years of study would be wasted.

She had to make her memory perfect.

She stopped sleeping.

Her eyes became bloodshot, swollen. Her head swam from days of cramming. When she visited Tutor Feyrik at his home one night to pick up a new set of books, her gaze was desperate, unfocused. She stared past him as he spoke. His words drifted over her head like clouds; she barely registered his presence.

“Rin. Look at me.”

She inhaled sharply and willed her eyes to focus on his fuzzy form.

“How are you holding up?” he asked.

“I can’t do it,” she whispered. “I only have two more months, and I can’t do it. Everything is spilling out of my head as quickly as I put it in, and—” Her chest rose and fell very quickly.

“Oh, Rin.”

Words spilled from her mouth. She spoke without thinking. “What happens if I don’t pass? What if I get married after all? I guess I could kill him. Smother him in his sleep, you know? Would I inherit his fortune? That would be fine, wouldn’t it?” She began to laugh hysterically. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “It’s easier than doping him up. No one would ever know.”

Tutor Feyrik rose quickly and pulled out a stool. “Sit down, child.”

Rin trembled. “I can’t. I still have to get through Fuzi’s Analects before tomorrow.”

“Runin. Sit.”

She sank onto the stool.

Tutor Feyrik sat down opposite her and took her hands in his. “I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “Once, not too long ago, there lived a scholar from a very poor family. He was too weak to work long hours in the fields, and his only chance of providing for his parents in their old age was to win a government position so that he might receive a robust stipend. To do this, he had to matriculate at an academy. With the last of his earnings, the scholar bought a set of textbooks and registered for the Keju. He was very tired, because he toiled in the fields all day and could only study at night.”

Rin’s eyes fluttered shut. Her shoulders heaved, and she suppressed a yawn.

Tutor Feyrik snapped his fingers in front of her eyes. “The scholar had to find a way to stay awake. So he pinned the end of his braid to the ceiling, so that every time he drooped forward, his hair would yank at his scalp and the pain would awaken him.” Tutor Feyrik smiled sympathetically. “You’re almost there, Rin. Just a little further. Please do not commit spousal homicide.”

But she had stopped listening.

“The pain made him focus,” she said.

“That’s not really what I was trying to—”

“The pain made him focus,” she repeated.

Pain could make her focus.

So Rin kept a candle by her books, dripping hot wax on her arm if she nodded off. Her eyes would water in pain, she would wipe her tears away, and she would resume her studies.

The day she took the exam, her arms were covered with burn scars.

Afterward, Tutor Feyrik asked her how the test went. She couldn’t tell him. Days later, she couldn’t remember those horrible, draining hours. They were a gap in her memory. When she tried to recall how she’d answered a particular question, her brain seized up and did not let her relive it.

She didn’t want to relive it. She never wanted to think about it again.

Seven days until the scores were out. Every booklet in the province had to be checked, double-checked, and triple-checked.

For Rin, those days were unbearable. She hardly slept. For the past two years she had filled her days with frantic studying. Now she had nothing to do—her future was out of her hands, and knowing that made her feel far worse.

She drove everyone else mad with her fretting. She made mistakes at the shop. She created a mess out of inventory. She snapped at Kesegi and fought with the Fangs more than she should have.

More than once she considered stealing another pack of opium and smoking it. She had heard of women in the village committing suicide by swallowing opium nuggets whole. In the dark hours of the night, she considered that, too.

Everything hung in suspended animation. She felt as if she were drifting, her whole existence reduced to a single score.

She thought about making contingency plans, preparations to escape the village in case she hadn’t tested out after all. But her mind refused to linger on the subject. She could not possibly conceive of life after the Keju because there might not be a life after the Keju.

Rin grew so desperate that for the first time in her life, she prayed.

The Fangs were far from religious. They visited the village temple sporadically at best, mostly to exchange packets of opium behind the golden altar.

They were hardly alone in their lack of religious devotion. Once the monastic orders had exerted even greater influence on the country than the Warlords did now, but then the Red Emperor had come crashing through the continent with his glorious quest for unification, leaving slaughtered monks and empty temples in his wake.

The monastic orders were gone now, but the gods remained: numerous deities that represented every category from sweeping themes of love and warfare to the mundane concerns of kitchens and households. Somewhere, those traditions were kept alive by devout worshippers who had gone into hiding, but most villagers in Tikany frequented the temples only out of ritualistic habit. No one truly believed—at least, no one who dared admit it. To the Nikara, gods were only relics of the past: subjects of myths and legends, but no more.

But Rin wasn’t taking any chances. She stole out of the shop early one afternoon and brought an offering of dumplings and stuffed lotus root to the plinths of the Four Gods.

The temple was very quiet. At midday, she was the only one inside. Four statues gazed mutely at her through their painted eyes. Rin hesitated before them. She was not entirely certain which one she ought to pray to.

She knew their names, of course—the White Tiger, the Black Tortoise, the Azure Dragon, and the Vermilion Bird. And she knew that they represented the four cardinal directions, but they formed only a small subset of the vast pantheon of deities that were worshipped in Nikan. This temple also bore shrines to smaller guardian gods, whose likenesses hung on scrolls draped over the walls.

So many gods. Which was the god of test scores? Which was the god of unmarried shopgirls who wished to stay that way?

She decided to simply pray to all of them.

“If you exist, if you’re up there, help me. Give me a way out of this shithole. Or if you can’t do that, give the import inspector a heart attack.”

She looked around the empty temple. What came next? She had always imagined that praying involved more than just speaking out loud. She spied several unused incense sticks lying by the altar. She lit the end of one of them by dipping it in the brazier, and then waved it experimentally in the air.

Was she supposed to hold the smoke to the gods? Or should she smoke the stick herself? She had just held the burned end to her nose when a temple custodian strode out from behind the altar.

They blinked at each other.

Slowly Rin removed the incense stick from her nostril.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m praying.”

“Please leave,” he said.

Exam results were to be posted at noon outside the examination hall.

Rin closed up shop early and went downtown with Tutor Feyrik half an hour in advance. A large crowd had already gathered around the post, so they found a shady corner a hundred meters away and waited.

So many people had accumulated by the hall that Rin couldn’t see when the scrolls were posted, but she knew because suddenly everyone was shouting, and the crowd was rushing forward, pressing Rin and Tutor Feyrik tightly into the fold.

Her heart beat so fast she could hardly breathe. She couldn’t see anything except the backs of the people before her. She thought she might vomit.

When they finally got to the front, it took Rin a long time to find her name. She scanned the lower half of the scroll, hardly daring to breathe. Surely she hadn’t scored well enough to make the top ten.

She didn’t see Fang Runin anywhere.

Only when she looked at Tutor Feyrik and saw that he was crying did she realize what had happened.

Her name was at the very top of the scroll. She hadn’t placed in the top ten. She’d placed at the top of the entire village. The entire province.

She had bribed a teacher. She had stolen opium. She had burned herself, lied to her foster parents, abandoned her responsibilities at the store, and broken a marriage deal.

And she was going to Sinegard.

Chapter 2

The last time Tikany had sent a student to Sinegard, the town magistrate threw a festival that lasted three days. Servants had passed baskets of red bean cakes and jugs of rice wine out in the streets. The scholar, the magistrate’s nephew, had set off for the capital to the cheers of intoxicated peasants.

This year, Tikany’s nobility felt reasonably embarrassed that an orphan shopgirl had snagged the only spot at Sinegard. Several anonymous inquiries were sent to the testing center. When Rin showed up at the town hall to enroll, she was detained for an hour while the proctors tried to extract a cheating confession from her.

“You’re right,” she said. “I got the answers from the exam administrator. I seduced him with my nubile young body. You caught me.”

The proctors didn’t believe a girl with no formal schooling could have passed the Keju.

She showed them her burn scars.

“I have nothing to tell you,” she said, “because I didn’t cheat. And you have no proof that I did. I studied for this exam. I mutilated myself. I read until my eyes burned. You can’t scare me into a confession, because I’m telling the truth.”

“Consider the consequences,” snapped the female proctor. “Do you understand how serious this is? We can void your score and have you jailed for what you’ve done. You’ll be dead before you’re done paying off your fines. But if you confess now, we can make this go away.”

“No, you consider the consequences,” Rin snapped. “If you decide my score is void, that means this simple shopgirl was clever enough to bypass your famous anticheating protocols. And that means you’re shit at your job. And I bet the magistrate will be just thrilled to let you take the blame for whatever cheating did or didn’t happen.”

A week later she was cleared of all charges. Officially, Tikany’s magistrate announced that the scores had been a “mistake.” He did not label Rin a cheater, but neither did he validate her score. The proctors asked Rin to keep her departure under wraps, threatening clumsily to detain her in Tikany if she did not comply.

Rin knew that was a bluff. Acceptance to Sinegard Academy was the equivalent of an imperial summons, and obstruction of any kind—even by provincial authorities—was tantamount to treason. That was why the Fangs, too, could not prevent her from leaving—no matter how badly they wanted to force her marriage.

Rin didn’t need validation from Tikany; not from its magistrate, not from the nobles. She was leaving, she had a way out, and that was all that mattered.

Forms were filled out, letters were mailed. Rin was registered to matriculate at Sinegard on the first of the next month.

Farewell to the Fangs was an understandably understated affair. No one felt like pretending they were especially sad to be rid of the other.

Only Rin’s foster brother, Kesegi, displayed any real disappointment.

“Don’t go,” he whined, clinging to her traveling cloak.

Rin knelt down and squeezed Kesegi hard.

“I would have left you anyway,” she said. “If not for Sinegard, then to a husband’s house.”

Kesegi wouldn’t let go. He spoke in a pathetic mumble. “Don’t leave me with her.”

Rin’s stomach clenched. “You’ll be all right,” she murmured in Kesegi’s ear. “You’re a boy. And you’re her son.”

“But it’s not fair.”

“It’s life, Kesegi.”

Kesegi began to whimper, but Rin extracted herself from his viselike embrace and stood up. He tried to cling to her waist, but she pushed him away with more force than she had intended. Kesegi stumbled backward, stunned, and then opened his mouth to wail loudly.

Rin turned away from his tear-stricken face and pretended to be preoccupied with fastening the straps of her travel bag.

“Oh, shut your mouth.” Auntie Fang grabbed Kesegi by the ear and pinched hard until his crying ceased. She glowered at Rin, standing in the doorway in her simple traveling clothes. In the late summer Rin wore a light cotton tunic and twice-mended sandals. She carried her only other set of clothing in a patched-up satchel slung over her shoulder. In that satchel Rin had also packed the Mengzi tome, a set of writing brushes that were a gift from Tutor Feyrik, and a small money pouch. That satchel held all of her possessions in the world.

Auntie Fang’s lip curled. “Sinegard will eat you alive.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Rin said.

To Rin’s great relief, the magistrate’s office supplied her with two tael as transportation fare—the magistrate had been compelled by Rin’s imperial summons to cover her travel costs. With a tael and a half, Rin and Tutor Feyrik managed to buy two places on a caravan wagon traveling north to the capital.

“In the days of the Red Emperor, an unaccompanied bride carrying her dowry could travel from the southernmost tip of Rooster Province to the northernmost peaks of the Wudang Mountains.” Tutor Feyrik couldn’t help lecturing as they boarded the wagon. “These days, a lone soldier wouldn’t make it two miles.”

The Red Emperor’s guards hadn’t patrolled the mountains of Nikan in a long time. To travel alone over the Empire’s vast roads was a good way to get robbed, murdered, or eaten. Sometimes all three—and sometimes not in that order.

“Your fare is going toward more than a seat on the wagon,” the caravan leader said as he pocketed their coins. “It’s paying for your bodyguards. Our men are the best in their business. If we run into the Opera, we’ll scare them right off.”

The Red Junk Opera was a religious cult of bandits and outlaws famous for their attempts on the Empress’s life after the Second Poppy War. It had faded to myth by now, but remained vividly alive in the Nikara imagination.

“The Opera?” Tutor Feyrik scratched his beard absentmindedly. “I haven’t heard that name for years. They’re still out and about?”

“They’ve quieted down in the last decade, but I’ve heard a few rumors about sightings in the Kukhonin range. If our luck holds, though, we won’t see hide or hair of them.” The caravan leader slapped his belt. “I would go load up your things. I want to head out before this day gets any hotter.”

Their caravan spent three weeks on the road, crawling north at what seemed to Rin an infuriatingly slow pace. Tutor Feyrik spent the trip regaling her with tales of his adventures in Sinegard decades ago, but his dazzling descriptions of the city only made her wild with impatience.

“The capital is nestled at the base of the Wudang range. The palace and the academy are both built into the mountainside, but the rest of the city lies in the valley below. Sometimes, on misty days, you’ll look over the edge and it’ll seem like you’re standing higher than the clouds themselves. The capital’s market alone is larger than all of Tikany. You could lose yourself in that market . . . you will see musicians playing on gourd pipes, street vendors who can fry pancake batter in the shape of your name, master calligraphers who will paint fans before your eyes for just two coppers.

“Speaking of. We’ll want to exchange these at some point.” Tutor Feyrik patted the pocket where he kept the last of their travel money.

“They don’t take taels and coppers in the north?” Rin asked.

Tutor Feyrik chuckled. “You really have never left Tikany, have you? There are probably twenty kinds of currency being circulated in this Empire—tortoise shells, cowry shells, gold, silver, copper ingots . . . all the provinces have their own currencies because they don’t trust the imperial bureaucracy with monetary supply, and the bigger provinces have two or three. The only thing everyone takes is standard Sinegardian silver coins.”

“How many can we get with this?” Rin asked.

“Not many,” Tutor Feyrik said. “But exchange rates will get worse the closer we get to the city. We’d best do it before we’re out of Rooster Province.”

Tutor Feyrik was also full of warnings about the capital. “Keep your money in your front pocket at all times. The thieves in Sinegard are daring and desperate. I once caught a child with his hand in my pocket. He fought for my coin, even after I’d caught him in the act. Everyone will try to sell you things. When you hear solicitors, keep your eyes forward and pretend you haven’t heard them, or they’ll hound you the entire way down the street. They’re paid to bother you. Stay away from cheap liquor. If a man is offering sorghum wine for less than an ingot for a jug, it’s not real alcohol.”

Rin was appalled. “How could you fake alcohol?”

“By mixing sorghum wine with methanol.”


“Wood spirits. It’s poisonous stuff; in large doses it’ll make you go blind.” Tutor Feyrik rubbed his beard. “While you’re at it, stay away from the street vendors’ soy sauce, too. Some places use human hair to simulate the acids in soy sauce at a lower cost. I hear hair has also found its way into bread and noodle dough. Hmm . . . for that matter, you’re best off staying away from street food entirely. They sell you breakfast pancakes for two coppers apiece, but they fry them in gutter oil.”

“Gutter oil?”

“Oil that’s been scooped off the street. The big restaurants toss their cooking oil into the gutter. The street food vendors siphon it up and reuse it.”

Rin’s stomach turned.

Tutor Feyrik reached out and yanked on one of Rin’s tight braids. “You’ll want to find someone to cut these off for you before you get to the Academy.”

Rin touched her hair protectively. “Sinegardian women don’t grow their hair out?”

“The women in Sinegard are so vain about their hair that they’ll imbibe raw eggs to maintain its gloss. This isn’t about aesthetics. I don’t want someone yanking you into the alleys. No one would hear from you until you turned up in a brothel months later.”

Rin looked reluctantly down at her braids. She was too dark-skinned and scrawny to be considered any great beauty, but she had always felt that her long, thick hair was one of her better assets. “Do I have to?”

“They’ll probably make you shear your hair at the Academy anyway,” said Tutor Feyrik. “And they’ll charge you for it. Sinegardian barbers aren’t cheap.” He rubbed his beard as he thought up more warnings. “Beware of fake currency. You can tell a silver’s not an imperial silver if it lands Red Emperor–side up ten throws in a row. If you see someone lying down with no visible injuries, don’t help them up. They’ll say you pushed them, take you to court, and sue you for the clothes off your back. And stay away from the gambling houses.” Tutor Feyrik’s tone turned sour. “Their people don’t mess around.”

Rin was starting to understand why he had left Sinegard.

But nothing Tutor Feyrik said could dampen her excitement. If anything, it made her even more impatient to arrive. She would not be an outsider in the capital. She would not be eating street food or living in the city slums. She did not have to fight for scraps or scrounge together coins for a meal. She had already secured a position for herself. She was a student of the most prestigious academy in all of the Empire. Surely that insulated her from the city’s dangers.

That night she cut off her braids by herself with a rusty knife she’d borrowed from one of the caravan guards. She jerked the blade as close to her ears as she dared, sawing back and forth until her hair gave way. It took longer than she had imagined. When she was done, she stared for a minute at the two thick ropes of hair that lay in her lap.

She had thought she might keep them, but now she could not see any sentimental value in doing so. They were just clumps of dead hair. She wouldn’t even be able to sell them for much up north—Sinegardian hair was famously thin and silky, and no one wanted the coarse tresses of a peasant from Tikany. Instead, she hurled them out the side of the wagon and watched them fall behind on the dusty road.

Their party arrived in the capital just as Rin was starting to go mad from boredom.

She could see Sinegard’s famous East Gate from miles off—an imposing gray wall topped by a three-tiered pagoda, emblazoned with a dedication to the Red Emperor: Eternal Strength, Eternal Harmony.

Ironic, Rin thought, for a country that had been at war more often than it had been at peace.

Just as they approached the rounded doors below, their caravan came to an abrupt halt.

Rin waited. Nothing happened.

After twenty minutes had passed, Tutor Feyrik leaned out of their wagon and caught the attention of a caravan guide. “What’s going on?”

“Federation contingent up ahead,” the guide said. “They’re here about some border dispute. They’re getting their weapons checked at the gate—it’ll be a few more minutes.”

Rin sat up straight. “Those are Federation soldiers?”

She’d never seen Mugenese soldiers in person—at the end of the Second Poppy War, all Mugenese nationals had been forced out of their occupied areas and either sent home or relocated to limited diplomatic and trading offices on the mainland. To those Nikara born after occupation, they were the specters of modern history—always lingering in the borderlands, an ever-present threat whose face was unknown.

Tutor Feyrik’s hand shot out and grabbed her wrist before she could hop out of the wagon. “Get back here.”

“But I want to see!”

“No, you don’t.” He gripped her by the shoulders. “You never want to see Federation soldiers. If you cross them—if they even think you’ve looked at them funny—they can and will hurt you. They still have diplomatic immunity. They don’t give a shit. Do you understand?”

“We won the war,” she scoffed. “The occupation’s over.”

“We barely won the war.” He shoved her back into a sitting position. “And there’s a reason why all your instructors at Sinegard care only about winning the next one.”

Someone shouted a command at the front of the caravan. Rin felt a lurch; then the wagons began to move again. She leaned over the side of their wagon, trying to catch a glimpse up ahead, but all she could see was a blue uniform disappearing through the heavy doors.

And then, at last, they were through the gates.

The downtown marketplace was an assault on the senses. Rin had never seen so many people or things in one place at one time. She was quickly overwhelmed by the deafening clamor of buyers haggling with sellers over prices, the bright colors of flowery skeins of silk splayed out on grand display boards, and the cloyingly pungent odors of durian and peppercorn drifting up from vendors’ portable grills.

“The women here are so white,” Rin marveled. “Like the girls in wall paintings.”

The skin tones she observed from the caravan had moved up the color gradient the farther north they drove. She knew that the people of the northern provinces were industrialists and businessmen. They were citizens of class and means; they didn’t labor in the fields like Tikany’s farmers did. But she hadn’t expected the differences to be this pronounced.

“They’re pale as their corpses will be,” Tutor Feyrik said dismissively. “They’re terrified of the sun.” He grumbled in irritation as a pair of women with day parasols strolled past him, accidentally whacking him in the face.

Rin discovered quickly that Sinegard had the unique ability to make newcomers feel as unwelcome as possible.

Tutor Feyrik had been right—everyone in Sinegard wanted money. Vendors screamed at them persistently from all directions. Before Rin had even stepped off the wagon, a porter ran up to them and offered to carry their luggage—two pathetically light travel bags—for the small fee of eight imperial silvers.

Rin balked; that was almost a quarter of what they’d paid for a spot on the caravan.

“I’ll carry it,” she stammered, jerking her travel bag away from the porter’s clawing fingers. “Really, I don’t need—let go!”

They escaped the porter only to be assaulted by a crowd, each person offering a different menial service.

“Rickshaw? Do you need a rickshaw?”

“Little girl, are you lost?”

“No, we’re just trying to find the school—”

“I’ll take you there, very low fee, five ingots, only five ingots—”

“Get lost,” snapped Tutor Feyrik. “We don’t need your services.”

The hawkers slunk back into the marketplace.

Even the spoken language of the capital made Rin uncomfortable. Sinegardian Nikara was a grating dialect, brisk and curt no matter the content. Tutor Feyrik asked three different strangers for directions to the campus before one gave a response that he understood.

“Didn’t you live here?” Rin asked.

“Not since the occupation,” Tutor Feyrik grumbled. “It’s easy to lose a language when you never speak it.”

Rin supposed that was fair. She herself found the dialect nearly indecipherable; every word, it seemed, had to be shortened, with a curt r noise added to the end. In Tikany, speech was slow and rolling. The southerners drew out their vowels, rolled their words over their tongues like sweet rice congee. In Sinegard, it seemed no one had time to finish his words.

Even with directions, the city itself was no more navigable than its dialect. Sinegard was the oldest city in the country, and its architecture bore evidence of the multiple shifts in power in Nikan over the centuries. Buildings were either of new construction or were falling into decay, emblems of regimes that had long ago fallen out of power. In the eastern districts stood the spiraling towers of the old Hinterlander invaders from the north. To the west, blocklike compounds stood wedged narrowly next to one another, a holdover from Federation occupation during the Poppy Wars. It was a tableau of a country with many rulers, represented in a single city.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Rin asked after several minutes of walking uphill.

“Only vaguely.” Tutor Feyrik was sweating profusely. “It’s become a labyrinth since I was here. How much money have we got left?”

Rin dug out her coin pouch and counted. “A string and a half of silvers.”

“That should more than cover what we need.” Tutor Feyrik mopped at his brow with his cloak. “Why don’t we treat ourselves to a ride?”

He stepped out onto the dusty street and raised an arm. Almost immediately a rickshaw runner swerved across the road and halted jerkily in front of them.

“Where to?” panted the runner.

“The Academy,” said Tutor Feyrik. He tossed their bags into the back and climbed into the seat. Rin grasped the sides and was about to pull herself in when she heard a sharp cry behind her. Startled, she turned around.

A child lay sprawled in the center of the road. Several paces ahead, a horse-drawn carriage had veered off course.

“You just hit that kid!” Rin screamed. “Hey, stop!”

The driver yanked the horse’s reins. The wagon screeched to a halt. The passenger craned his neck out of the carriage and caught sight of the child feebly stirring in the street.

The child stood up, miraculously alive. Blood trickled down in tiny rivulets from the top of his forehead. He touched two fingers to his head and glanced down, dazed.

The passenger leaned forward and uttered a harsh command to the driver that Rin didn’t understand.

The wagon turned slowly. For an absurd moment Rin thought the driver was going to offer the child a lift. Then she heard the crack of a whip.

The child stumbled and tried to run.

Rin shrieked over the sound of clomping hooves.

Tutor Feyrik reached toward the gaping rickshaw runner and tapped him on the shoulder. “Go. Go!”

The runner sped up, dragged them faster and faster over the rutted streets until the exclamations of bystanders died away behind them.

“The driver was smart,” said Tutor Feyrik as they wobbled over the bumpy road. “You cripple a child, you pay a disabilities fine for their entire life. But if you kill them, you pay the funeral fee once. And that’s only if you’re caught. If you hit someone, better make sure they’re dead.”

Rin clung to the side of the carriage and tried not to vomit.

Sinegard the city was smothering, confusing, and frightening.

But Sinegard Academy was beautiful beyond description.

Their rickshaw driver dropped them at the base of the mountains at the edge of the city. Rin let Tutor Feyrik handle the luggage and ran up to the school gates, breathless.

She’d been imagining for weeks now what it would be like to ascend the steps to the Academy. The entire country knew how Sinegard Academy looked; the school’s likeness was painted on wall scrolls throughout Nikan.

Those scrolls didn’t come close to capturing the campus in reality. A winding stone pathway curved around the mountain, spiraling upward into a complex of pagodas built on successively higher tiers. At the highest tier stood a shrine, on the tower of which perched a stone dragon, the symbol of the Red Emperor. A glimmering waterfall hung like a skein of silk beside the shrine.

The Academy looked like a palace for the gods. This was a place out of legend. This was her home for the next five years.

Rin was speechless.

Rin and Tutor Feyrik were given a tour of the grounds by an older student who introduced himself as Tobi. Tobi was tall, bald-headed, and clad in a black tunic with a red armband. He wore a dedicatedly bored sneer to indicate he would rather have been doing anything else.

They were joined by a slender, attractive woman who initially mistook Tutor Feyrik for a porter and then apologized without embarrassment. Her son was a fine-featured boy who would have been very pretty if he hadn’t had such a resentful expression on his face.

“The Academy is built on the grounds of an old monastery.” Tobi motioned for them to follow him up the stone steps to the first tier. “The temples and praying grounds were converted to classrooms once the Red Emperor united the tribes of Nikan. First-year students have sweeping duty, so you’ll get familiar with the grounds soon enough. Come on, try to keep up.”

Even Tobi’s lack of enthusiasm couldn’t detract from the Academy’s beauty, but he did his best. He walked the stone steps in a rapid, practiced manner, not bothering to check whether his guests were keeping pace. Rin was left behind to help the wheezing Tutor Feyrik up the perilously narrow stairs.

There were seven tiers to the Academy. Each curve of the stone pathway brought into view a new complex of buildings and training grounds, embedded in lush foliage that had clearly been carefully cultivated for centuries. A rushing brook sliced down the mountainside, cleaving the campus neatly in two.

“The library is over there. Mess hall is this way. New students live at the lowest tier. Up there are the masters’ quarters.” Tobi pointed very rapidly to several stone buildings that all looked alike.

“What about that?” Rin asked, pointing to an important-looking building by the brook.

Tobi’s lip curled up. “That’s the outhouse, kid.”

The handsome boy snickered. Cheeks burning, Rin pretended to be very fascinated by the view from the terrace.

“Where are you from, anyway?” Tobi asked in a not-very-friendly tone.

“Rooster Province,” Rin muttered.

“Ah. The south.” Tobi sounded like something made sense to him now. “I guess multistory buildings are a new concept to you, but try not to get too overwhelmed.”

After Rin’s registration papers had been checked and filed, Tutor Feyrik had no reason to stay. They said their goodbyes outside the school gates.

“I understand if you’re scared,” Tutor Feyrik said.

Rin swallowed down the massive lump in her throat and clenched her teeth. Her head buzzed; she knew a dam of tears would break out from under her eyes if she didn’t suppress it.

“I’m not scared,” she insisted.

He smiled gently. “Of course you’re not.”

Her face crumpled, and she rushed forward to embrace him. She buried her face in his tunic so that no one could see her crying. Tutor Feyrik patted her on the shoulder.

She had made it all the way across the country to a place she had spent years dreaming of, only to discover a hostile, confusing city that despised southerners. She had no home in Tikany or Sinegard. Everywhere she traveled, everywhere she escaped to, she was just a war orphan who was not supposed to be there.

She felt so terribly alone.

“I don’t want you to go,” she said.

Tutor Feyrik’s smile fell. “Oh, Rin.”

“I hate it here,” she blurted suddenly. “I hate this city. The way they talk—that stupid apprentice—it’s like they don’t think I should be here.”

“Of course they don’t,” said Tutor Feyrik. “You’re a war orphan. You’re a southerner. You weren’t supposed to pass the Keju. The Warlords like to claim that the Keju makes Nikan a meritocracy, but the system is designed to keep the poor and illiterate in their place. You’re offending them with your very presence.”

He grasped her by the shoulders and bent slightly so that they were eye to eye. “Rin, listen. Sinegard is a cruel city. The Academy will be worse. You will be studying with children of Warlords. Children who have been training in martial arts since before they could even walk. They’ll make you an outsider, because you’re not like them. That’s okay. Don’t let any of that discourage you. No matter what they say, you deserve to be here. Do you understand?”

She nodded.

“Your first day of classes will be like a punch to the gut,” Tutor Feyrik continued. “Your second day, probably even worse. You’ll find your courses harder than studying for the Keju ever was. But if anyone can survive here, it’s you. Don’t forget what you did to get here.”

He straightened up. “And don’t ever come back to the south. You’re better than that.”

As Tutor Feyrik disappeared down the path, Rin pinched the bridge of her nose, willing the hot feeling behind her eyes to go away. She could not let her new classmates see her cry.

She was alone in a city without a friend, where she barely spoke the language, at a school that she now wasn’t sure she wanted to attend.

He leads you down the aisle. He’s old and fat, and he smells like sweat. He looks at you and he licks his lips . . .

She shuddered, squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again.

So Sinegard was frightening and unfamiliar. It didn’t matter. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.

She squared her shoulders and walked back through the school gates.

This was better. No matter what, this was a thousand times better than Tikany.

“And then she asked if the outhouse was a classroom,” said a voice from farther down in the line for registration. “You should have seen her clothes.”

Rin’s neck prickled. It was the boy from the tour.

She turned around.

He really was pretty, impossibly so, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a sculpted mouth that looked good even twisted into a sneer. His skin was a shade of porcelain white that any Sinegardian woman would have murdered for, and his silky hair was almost as long as Rin’s had been.

He caught her eye and smirked, continuing loudly as if he hadn’t seen her. “And her teacher, you know, I bet he’s one of those doddering failures who can’t get a job in the city so they spend their lives trying to scrape a living from local magistrates. I thought he might die on the way up the mountain, he was wheezing so loud.”

Rin had dealt with verbal abuse from the Fangs for years. Hearing insults from this boy hardly fazed her. But slandering Tutor Feyrik, the man who had delivered her from Tikany, who had saved her from a miserable future in a forced marriage . . . that was unforgivable.

Rin took two steps toward the boy and punched him in the face.

Her fist connected with his eye socket with a pleasant popping noise. The boy staggered backward into the students behind him, nearly toppling to the ground.

“You bitch!” he screeched. He righted himself and rushed at her.

She shrank back, fists raised.

“Stop!” A dark-robed apprentice appeared between them, arms flung out to keep them apart. When the boy struggled forward anyway, the apprentice quickly grabbed his extended arm by the wrist and twisted it behind his back.

The boy stumbled, immobilized.

“Don’t you know the rules?” The apprentice’s voice was low, calm, and controlled. “No fighting.”

The boy said nothing, mouth twisted into a sullen sneer. Rin fought the sudden urge to cry.

“Names?” the apprentice demanded.

“Fang Runin,” she said quickly, terrified. Were they in trouble? Would she be expelled?

The boy struggled in vain against the apprentice’s hold.

The apprentice tightened his grip. “Name?” he asked again.

“Yin Nezha,” the boy spat.

“Yin?” The apprentice let him go. “And what is the well-bred heir to the House of Yin doing brawling in a hallway?”

“She punched me in the face!” Nezha screeched. A nasty bruise was already blossoming around his left eye, a bright splotch of purple against porcelain skin.

The apprentice raised an eyebrow at Rin. “And why would you do that?”

“He insulted my teacher,” she said.

“Oh? Well, that’s different.” The apprentice looked amused. “Weren’t you taught not to insult teachers? That’s taboo.”

“I’ll kill you,” Nezha snarled at Rin. “I will fucking kill you.”

“Aw, shut it.” The apprentice feigned a yawn. “You’re at a military academy. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to kill each other throughout this year. But save it until after orientation, won’t you?”

Chapter 3

Rin and Nezha were the last ones to the main hall—a converted temple on the third tier of the mountain. Though the hall was not particularly large, its spare, dim interior gave an illusion of great space, making those inside feel smaller than they were. Rin supposed this was the intended effect when one was in the presence of both gods and teachers.

The class of first-years, no more than fifty in total, sat kneeling in rows of ten. They twisted their hands in their laps, blinking and looking around in silent anxiety. The apprentices sat in rows around them, chatting casually with one another. Their laughter sounded louder than normal, as if they were trying to make the first-years feel uncomfortable on purpose.

Moments after Rin sat down, the front doors swung open and a tiny woman, shorter even than the smallest first-year, strode into the hall. She walked with a soldier’s gait—perfectly erect, precise, and controlled.

Five men and one woman, all wearing dark brown robes, followed her inside. They formed a row behind her at the front of the room and stood with hands folded into their sleeves. The apprentices fell silent and rose to their feet, hands clasped behind them and heads tilted forward in a slight bow. Rin and the other first-years took their cue and hastily scrambled to their feet.

The woman gazed out at them for a moment, then gestured for them to sit.

“Welcome to Sinegard. I am Jima Lain. I am grand master of this school, commander of the Sinegardian Reserve Forces, and former commander of the Nikara Imperial Militia.” Jima’s voice cut through the room like a blade, precise and chilly.

Jima indicated the six people arrayed behind her. “These are the masters of Sinegard. They will be your instructors during your first year, and will ultimately decide whether to take you on as their apprentices following your end-of-year Trials.”

The masters were a solemn crowd, each more imposing than the last. None of them smiled. Each wore a belt of a different color—red, blue, purple, green, and orange.

Except one. The man to Jima’s left wore no belt at all. His robe, too, was different—no embroidery at the edges, no insignia of the Red Emperor stitched over his right breast. He was dressed as if he’d forgotten orientation was happening and had thrown on a formless brown cloak at the last minute.

This master’s hair was the pure white of Tutor Feyrik’s beard, but he was nowhere near as old. His face was curiously unlined but not youthful; it was impossible to tell his age. As Jima spoke, he dug his little finger around in his ear canal, and then brought his finger up to his eyes to examine the discharge.

He glanced up suddenly, caught Rin staring at him, and smirked.

She hastily looked away.

“You all are here because you achieved the highest Keju scores in the country,” said Jima, spreading her hands magnanimously. “You have beaten thousands of other pupils for the honor of studying here. Congratulations.”

The first-years cast awkward glances at one another, uncertain of whether they should be applauding themselves. A few tentative claps sounded across the room.

Jima smirked. “Next year a fifth of you will be gone.”

The silence then was acute.

“Sinegard does not have the time nor resources to train every child who dreams of glory in the military. Even illiterate farmers can become soldiers. But we do not train soldiers here. We train generals. We train the people who hold the future of the Empire in their hands. So, should I decide you are no longer worth our time, you will be asked to leave.

“You’ll notice that you were not given a choice of a field of study. We do not believe this choice should be left in the hands of the students. After your first year, you will be evaluated for proficiency in each of the subject tracks we teach here: Combat, Strategy, History, Weaponry, Linguistics, and Medicine.”

“And Lore,” interrupted the white-haired master.

Jima’s left eye twitched. “And Lore. If, in your end-of-year Trials, you are found worthy of one track of study, you will be approved to continue at Sinegard. You will then attain the rank of apprentice.”

Jima gestured to the older students surrounding them. Rin saw now that the apprentices’ armbands matched the masters’ belts in color.

“If no master sees fit to take you on as an apprentice, you will be asked to leave the Academy. The first-year retention rate is usually eighty percent. Look around you. This means that this time next year, two people in your row will be gone.”

Rin glanced around her, fighting a rising swell of panic. She had thought testing into Sinegard was a guarantee of a home for at least the next five years, if not a stable career afterward.

She hadn’t realized she might be sent home in months.

“We cull out of necessity, not cruelty. Our task is to train only the elite—the best of the best. We don’t have time to waste on dilettantes. Take a good look at your classmates. They will become your closest friends, but also your greatest rivals. You are competing against each other to remain at this academy. We believe it is through that competition that those with talent will make themselves known. And those without will be sent home. If you deserve it, you will be present next year as an apprentice. If you aren’t . . . well then, you should never have been sent here in the first place.” Jima seemed to look directly at Rin.

“Lastly, I will give a warning. I do not tolerate drugs on this campus. If you have even so much as a whiff of opium on you, if you are caught within ten paces of an illegal substance, you will be dragged out of the Academy and thrown into the Baghra prison.”

Jima fixed them with a last, stern look and then dismissed them with a wave of her hand. “Good luck.”

Raban, the apprentice who had broken up Rin and Nezha’s fight, led them out of the main hall to the dormitories on the lowest tier.

“You’re first-years, so you’ll have sweeping duties starting next week,” Raban said, walking backward to address them. He had a kind and soothing voice, the sort of tone Rin had heard village physicians adopt before amputating limbs. “First bell rings at sunrise; classes begin half an hour after that. Be in the mess hall before then or you miss breakfast.”

The boys were housed in the largest building on campus, a three-story structure that looked like it had been built long after the Academy grounds were seized from the monks. The women’s quarters were tiny in contrast, a spare one-story building that used to be a single meditation room.

Rin expected the dorm to be uncomfortably cramped, but only two other bunks showed signs of habitation.

“Three girls in one year is actually a record high,” Raban said before he left them to settle in. “The masters were shocked.”

Alone in the dorm, the three girls warily sized one another up.

“I’m Niang,” offered the girl to Rin’s left. She had a round, friendly face, and she spoke with a lilting accent that belied her northern heritage, though it was nowhere as indecipherable as the Sinegardian dialect. “I’m from the Hare Province.”

“Pleased,” the other girl drawled. She was inspecting her bedsheets. She rubbed the thin off-white material between her fingers, made a disgusted face, and then let the fabric drop. “Venka,” she said begrudgingly. “Dragon Province, but I grew up in the capital.”

Venka was an archetypical Sinegardian beauty; she was pretty in a pale way, and slim as a willow branch. Rin felt coarse and unsophisticated standing next to her.

She realized both were watching her expectantly.

“Runin,” she said. “Rin for short.”

“Runin.” Venka mangled the name with her Sinegardian accent, rolled the syllables through her mouth like some bad-tasting morsel. “What kind of name is that?”

“It’s southern,” Rin said. “I’m from Rooster Province.”

“That’s why your skin’s so dark,” Venka said, lip curling. “Brown as cow manure.”

Rin’s nostrils flared. “I went out in the sun once. You should try it sometime.”

Just as Tutor Feyrik had warned, classes escalated quickly. Martial arts training commenced in the second-tier courtyard immediately after sunrise the next day.

“What’s this?” Master Jun, the red-belted Combat instructor, regarded their huddled class with a disgusted expression. “Line up. I want straight rows. Stop clumping together like frightened hens.”

Jun possessed a pair of fantastically thick black eyebrows that almost met in the middle of his forehead. They rested on his swarthy face like a thundercloud over a permanent scowl.

“Backs straight.” Jun’s voice matched his face: gruff and unforgiving. “Eyes forward. Arms behind your backs.”

Rin strained to mirror the stances of her classmates in front of her. Her left thigh prickled, but she didn’t dare scratch it. Too late, she realized she had to pee.

Jun paced to the front of the courtyard, satisfied that they were standing as uncomfortably as possible. He stopped in front of Nezha. “What happened to your face?”

Nezha had developed a truly spectacular bruise over his left eye, a bright splotch of violet on his otherwise flawless mien.

“Got in a fight,” Nezha mumbled.


“Last night.”

“You’re lucky,” Jun said. “If it had been any later, I would have expelled you.”

He raised his voice to address the class. “The first and most important rule of my class is this: do not fight irresponsibly. The techniques you are learning are lethal in application. If improperly performed, they will cause serious injury to yourself or your training partner. If you fight irresponsibly, I will suspend you from my class and lobby to have you expelled from Sinegard. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they answered.

Nezha twisted his head over his shoulder and shot Rin a look of pure venom. She pretended not to see.

“Who’s had martial arts training before?” Jun asked. “Show of hands.”

Nearly the entire class raised their arms. Rin glanced around the courtyard, feeling a swell of panic. Had so many of them trained before the Academy? Where had they trained? How far ahead of her were they? What if she couldn’t keep up?

Jun pointed to Venka. “How many years?”

“Twelve,” said Venka. “I trained in the Gentle Fist style.”

Rin’s eyes widened. That meant Venka had been training almost since she could walk.

Jun pointed to a wooden dummy. “Backward crescent kick. Take the head off.”

Take the head off? Rin looked doubtfully at the dummy. Its head and torso had been carved from the same piece of wood. The head hadn’t been screwed on; it was solidly connected to the torso.

Venka, however, seemed entirely unperturbed. She positioned her feet, squinted at the dummy, and then whipped her back leg around in a twist that brought her foot high up over her head. Her heel cut through the air in a lovely, precise arc.

Her foot connected with the dummy’s head and lobbed it off, sent it flying clean across the courtyard. The head clattered against the corner wall and rolled to one side.

Rin’s jaw fell open.

Jun nodded curtly in approval and dismissed Venka. She returned to her place in the ranks, looking pleased.

“How did she do that?” Jun asked.

Magic, Rin thought.

Jun stopped in front of Niang. “You. You look bewildered. How do you think she did that?”

Niang blinked nervously. “Ki?”

“What is ki?”

Niang blushed. “Um. Inner energy. Spiritual energy?”

“Spiritual energy,” Master Jun repeated. He snorted. “Village nonsense. Those who elevate ki to the level of mystery or the supernatural do a great disservice to martial arts. Ki is nothing but plain energy. The same energy that flows through your lungs and blood vessels. The same energy that moves rivers downstream and causes the wind to blow.”

He pointed up to the bell tower on the fifth tier. “Two servicemen installed a newly smelted bell last year. Alone, they never would have lifted the bell all that distance. But with cleverly placed ropes, two men of average build managed to lift something many times their weight.

“The principle works in reverse for martial arts. You have a limited quantity of energy in your body. No amount of training will allow you to accomplish superhuman feats. But given the right discipline, knowing where to strike and when . . .” Jun slammed his fist out at the dummy’s torso. It splintered, forming a perfect radius of cracks around his hand.

He pulled his arm away. The dummy torso shattered into pieces that clattered to the ground. “You can do what average humans think impossible. Martial arts is about action and reaction. Angles and trigonometry. The right amount of force applied at the proper vector. Your muscles contract and exert force, and that force is dispelled through to the target. If you build muscle mass, you can exert greater force. If you practice good technique, your force disperses with greater concentration and higher effectiveness. Martial arts is no more complicated than pure physics. If that confuses you, then simply take the advice of the grand masters. Don’t ask questions. Just obey.”

History was a lesson in humility. Stooped, balding Master Yim began expounding on Nikan’s military embarrassments before they had even finished filing into the classroom.

“In the last century, the Empire has fought five wars,” Yim said. “And we’ve lost every single one of them. This is why we call this past century the Age of Humiliation.”

“Upbeat,” muttered a wiry-haired kid in the front.

If Yim heard him, he didn’t acknowledge it. He pointed to a large parchment map of the eastern hemisphere. “This country used to span half the continent under the Red Emperor. The Old Nikara Empire was the birthplace of modern civilization. The center of the world. All inventions originated from Old Nikan; among them the lodestone, the parchment press, and the blast furnace. Nikara delegates brought culture and methods of good governance to the islands of Mugen in the east and to Speer in the south.

“But empires fall. The old empire fell victim to its own splendor. Flush with victories of expansion in the north, the Warlords began fighting among themselves. The Red Emperor’s death set off a series of succession battles with no clear resolution. And so Nikan split into the Twelve Provinces, each headed by one Warlord. For most of recent history, the Warlords have been preoccupied with fighting each other. Until—”

“The Poppy Wars,” said the wiry-haired kid.

“Yes. The Poppy Wars.” Yim pointed to a country on Nikan’s border, a tiny island shaped like a longbow. “Without warning, Nikan’s little brother to the east, its old tributary nation, turned its dagger on the very country that had given it civilization. The rest you know, surely.”

Niang raised her hand. “Why did relations sour between Nikan and Mugen? The Federation was a peaceful tributary in the days of the Red Emperor. What happened? What did they want from us?”

“Relations were never peaceful,” Yim corrected. “And are not to this day. Mugen has always wanted more, even when it was a tributary. The Federation is an ambitious, rapidly growing country with a bulging population on a tiny island. Imagine you’re a highly militaristic country with more people than your land can sustain, and nowhere to expand. Imagine that your rulers have propagated an ideology that they are gods, and that you have a divine right to extend your empire across the eastern hemisphere. Suddenly the sprawling landmass right across the Nariin Sea looks like a prime target, doesn’t it?”

He turned back to the map. “The First Poppy War was a disaster. The fractured Empire could never stand up against well-trained Federation troops, who had been drilling for decades for this enterprise. So here’s a puzzle for you. How did we win the Second Poppy War?”

A boy named Han raised his hand. “The Trifecta?”

Muted snickers sounded around the classroom. The Trifecta—the Vipress, the Dragon Emperor, and the Gatekeeper—were three heroic soldiers who had unified the Empire against the Federation. They were real—the woman known as the Vipress still sat on the throne at Sinegard—but their legendary martial arts abilities were the subject of children’s tales. Rin had grown up hearing stories about how the Trifecta had single-handedly flattened entire Federation battalions, leveraging storms and floods with their supernatural powers. But even she thought it sounded ridiculous in a lecture about history.

“Don’t laugh. The Trifecta were important—without their political machinations, we might never have rallied the Twelve Provinces,” said Yim. “But that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

Rin raised her hand. She had memorized this answer from Tutor Feyrik’s history primers. “We razed the heartland. Pursued a strategy of slash and burn. When the Federation army marched too far inland, their supply lines ran out and they couldn’t feed their armies.”

Yim acknowledged this answer with a shrug. “Good answer, but false. That’s just propaganda they put in the countryside textbooks. The slash-and-burn strategy hurt the rural countryside more than it hurt Mugen. Anyone else?”

It was the wiry-haired boy in the front who got it right. “We won because we lost Speer.”

Yim nodded. “Stand up. Explain.”

The boy shoved his hair back and stood. “We won the war because losing Speer made Hesperia intervene. And, uh, Hesperia’s naval abilities were vastly superior to Mugen’s. They won the war over the ocean theater, and Nikan got looped into the subsequent peace treaty. The victory wasn’t really ours at all.”

“Correct,” Yim said.

The boy sat, looking immensely relieved.

“Nikan did not win the Second Poppy War,” Yim reiterated. “The Federation is gone because we were so pathetic that the great naval powers to the west felt bad for us. We did such a terrible job defending our country that it took genocide for Hesperia to intervene. While Nikara forces were tied up on the northern front, a fleet of Federation ships razed the Dead Island overnight. Every man, woman, and child on Speer was butchered, and their bodies burned. An entire race, gone in a day.”

Their class was silent. They had grown up hearing stories about the destruction of Speer, a tiny island that punctuated the ocean between the Nariin Sea and Omonod Bay like a teardrop, lying just beside Snake Province. It had been the Empire’s only remaining tributary state, conquered and annexed at the height of the Red Emperor’s reign. It held a fraught place in Nikan’s history, a glaring example of the massive failure of the disunited army under the Warlords’ regime.

Rin had always wondered whether the loss of Speer was purely an accident. If any other province had been destroyed the way Speer had, the Nikara Empire wouldn’t have stopped with a peace treaty. They would have fought until the Federation of Mugen was in pieces.

But the Speerlies weren’t really Nikara at all. Tall and brown-skinned, they were an island people who had always been ethnically separate from the Nikara mainlanders. They spoke their own language, wrote in their own script, and practiced their own religion. They had joined the Imperial Militia only at the Red Emperor’s sword point.

This all pointed to strained relations between the Nikara and the Speerlies all the way up through the Second Poppy War. So, Rin thought, if any Nikara territory had to be sacrificed, Speer was the obvious choice.

“We have survived the last century through nothing more than sheer luck and the charity of the west,” said Yim. “But even with Hesperia’s help, Nikan only barely managed to drive out the Federation invaders. Under pressure from Hesperia, the Federation signed the Non-Aggression Pact at the end of the Second Poppy War, and Nikan has retained its independence since. The Federation has been relegated to trading outposts on the edge of the Horse Province, and for the past nearly two decades, they’ve more or less behaved.

“But the Mugenese grow restless, and Hesperia has never been good about keeping its promises. The heroes of the Trifecta have been reduced to one; the Emperor is dead, the Gatekeeper is lost, and only the Empress remains on the throne. Perhaps worse, we have no Speerly soldiers.” Yim paused. “Our best fighting force is gone. Nikan no longer possesses the assets that helped us survive the Second Poppy War. Hesperia cannot be relied upon to save us again. If the past centuries have taught us anything, it is that Nikan’s enemies never rest. But this time when they come, we intend to be ready.”

The noontime bell marked lunch.

Food was served from giant cauldrons lined up by the far wall—congee, fish stew, and loaves of rice flour buns—distributed by cooks who seemed wholly indifferent to their jobs.

The students were given portions just large enough to sate their growling stomachs, but not so much that they felt fully satisfied. Students who tried to pass through the line again were sent back to their tables empty-handed.

To Rin, the prospect of regular meals was more than generous—she’d frequently gone without dinner in the Fang household. But her classmates complained to Raban about the single portions.

“Jima’s philosophy is that hunger is good. It’ll keep you light, focused,” explained Raban.

“It’ll keep us miserable,” Nezha grumbled.

Rin rolled her eyes but kept her mouth shut. They sat crammed in two rows of twenty-five along the wooden table near the end of the mess hall. The other tables were occupied by the apprentices, but not even Nezha had the nerve to attempt to sit among them.

Rin found herself crammed between Niang and the wiry-haired boy who had spoken up in History class.

“I’m Kitay,” he introduced himself, once he’d finished inhaling his stew.

He was one year her junior and looked it—scrawny, freckled, with enormous ears. He also happened to have achieved the highest Keju score in Sinegard Municipality, by far the most competitive testing region, which was especially impressive for someone who had taken it a year early. He had a photographic memory, he wanted to study Strategy under Master Irjah once he got past the Trials, and didn’t she think Jun was kind of an asshole?

“Yes. And I’m Runin. Rin,” she said, once he let her get a word in.

“Oh, you’re the one Nezha hates.”

Rin supposed there were worse reputations to have. In any case, Kitay didn’t seem to hold it against her. “What’s his problem, anyway?” she asked.

“His father is the Dragon Warlord and his aunts have been concubines to the throne for generations. You’d be a prick too if your family was both rich and attractive.”

“Do you know him?” Rin asked.

“We grew up together. Me, Nezha, and Venka. Shared the same tutor. I thought they’d be nicer to me once we were all at the Academy.” Kitay shrugged, glancing at the far end of the table, where Nezha and Venka appeared to be holding court. “Guess I thought wrong.”

Rin wasn’t surprised that Nezha had cut Kitay out of his social circle. There was no way Nezha would have stuck around anyone half as witty as Kitay—there were too many opportunities for Kitay to upstage him. “What’d you do to offend him?”

Kitay pulled a face. “Nothing, except beat him on the exam. Nezha’s prickly about his ego. Why, what did you do?”

“I gave him that black eye,” she admitted.

Kitay raised an eyebrow. “Nice.”

Lore was scheduled for after lunch, and then Linguistics. Rin had been looking forward to Lore all day. But the apprentices who led them to the class looked like they were trying not to laugh. They climbed the winding steps to the fifth tier, higher up than any of their other classes. Finally they stopped at an enclosed garden.

“What are we doing here?” Nezha asked.

“This is your classroom,” said one of the apprentices. They glanced at each other, grinned, and then left. After five minutes, the cause of their amusement became clear. The Lore Master didn’t show. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty.

The class milled around the garden awkwardly, trying to figure out what they were supposed to do.

“We’ve been pranked,” suggested Han. “They led us to the wrong place.”

“What do they grow in here, anyway?” Nezha pulled a flower down to his nose and sniffed it. “Gross.”

Rin took a closer look at the flowers, then her eyes widened. She’d seen those petals before.

Nezha recognized it at the same moment that she did.

“Shit,” he said. “That’s a poppy plant.”

Their class reacted like a startled nest of dormice. They scurried hastily away from the poppy plant as if mere proximity would get them high.

Rin fought the absurd urge to burst out laughing. Here on the other side of the country was at least one thing she was familiar with.

“We’re going to be expelled,” Venka wailed.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s not our poppy plant,” Kitay said.

Venka flapped her hands around her face. “But Jima said if we were even within ten paces of—”

“It’s not like they can expel the entire class,” Kitay said. “I bet he’s testing us. Seeing if we really want to learn.”

“Or testing us to see how we’ll react around illegal drugs!” Venka shrilled.

“Oh, calm down,” Rin said. “You can’t get high just by touching it.”

Venka did not calm down. “But Jima didn’t say she had to catch us high, she said—”

“I don’t think it’s a real class,” Nezha interrupted. “I bet the apprentices are just having their bit of fun.”

Kitay looked doubtful. “It’s on our schedule. And we saw the Lore Master, he was at orientation.”

“Then where were his apprentices?” Nezha shot back. “What color was his belt? Why don’t you see anyone walking around with Lore stitched into their armbands? This is stupid.”

Nezha stalked out through the gates. Encouraged, the rest of the class followed him out, one by one. Finally Rin and Kitay were the only ones left in the garden.

Rin sat down and leaned back on her elbows, admiring the variety of plants in the garden. Aside from the blood-red poppy flowers, there were tiny cacti with pink and yellow blossoms, fluorescent mushrooms glowing faintly in the dark corners under shelves, and leafy green bushes that emitted a tealike odor.

“This isn’t a garden,” she said. “This is a drug farm.”

Now she really wanted to meet the Lore Master.

Kitay sat down next to her. “You know, the great shamans of legend used to ingest drugs before battle. Gave them magical powers, so the stories say.” He smiled. “You think that’s what the Lore Master teaches?”

“Honestly?” Rin picked at the grass. “I think he just comes in here to get high.”

Chapter 4

Classes only escalated in difficulty as the weeks progressed. Their mornings were devoted to Combat, Medicine, History, and Strategy. On most days Rin’s head was reeling by noon, crammed with names of theorems she’d never heard and titles of books she needed to finish by the end of the week.

Combat class kept their bodies exhausted along with their minds. Jun put them through a torturous series of calisthenics—they regularly ran up the Academy stairs and back down, did handstands in the courtyard for hours on end, and cycled through basic martial arts forms with bags of bricks hanging from their arms. Every week Jun took them to a lake at the bottom of the mountain and had them swim the entire length.

Rin and a handful of other students had never been taught to swim. Jun demonstrated the proper form exactly once. After that, it was up to them not to drown.

Their homework was heavy and clearly meant to push the first-years right up against their limits. So when the Weapons Master, Sonnen, taught them the correct proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal necessary to mix the incendiary fire powder that powered war rockets, he also had them create their own impromptu missiles. And when the Medicine Master, Enro, assigned them to learn the names of all the bones in the human body, she also expected them to know the most common patterns of breakage and how to identify them.

It was Strategy, though, taught by Master Irjah, that was their hardest course. Their first day of class he distributed a thick tome—Sunzi’s Principles of War—and announced that they were to have it memorized by the end of the week.

“This thing is massive!” Han complained. “How are we supposed to do the rest of our homework?”

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

The class exchanged exasperated looks. The masters had been singing the praises of Altan Trengsin since the start of the term. Rin gathered he was some kind of genius, apparently the most brilliant student to come through Sinegard in decades.

Han looked as irritated as she felt. “Okay, but we’re not Altan.”

“Then try to be,” said Irjah. “Class dismissed.”

Rin settled into a routine of constant study and very little sleep; their course schedules left the first-years with no time to do anything else.

Autumn had just started to bite at Sinegard. A cold gust of wind accompanied them as they raced up the steps one morning. It rustled through the trees in a thunderous crescendo. The pupils had not yet received their thicker winter robes, and their teeth chattered in unison as they huddled together under a large mimosa tree at the far end of the second-tier courtyard.

Despite the cold, Jun refused to move Combat class indoors before the snowfall made it impossible to hold outside. He was a brutal teacher who seemed to delight in their discomfort.

“Pain is good for you,” he said as he forced them to crouch in low, torturous endurance stances. “The martial artists of old used to hold this position for an hour straight before training.”

“The martial artists of old must have had amazing thighs,” Kitay gasped.

Their morning calisthenics were still miserable, but at least they had finally moved past fundamentals to their first weapon-based arts: staff techniques.

Jun had just assumed his position at the fore of the courtyard when a loud shuffle sounded above his head. A smattering of leaves fell down right over where he stood.

Everyone glanced up.

Perched high up on a thick branch of the mimosa tree stood their long-absent Lore Master.

He wielded a large pair of gardening shears, cheerfully clipping leaves at random while singing an off-key melody loudly to himself.

After hearing a few words of the song, Rin recognized it as “The Gatekeeper’s Touches.” Rin knew it from her many trips delivering opium to Tikany’s whorehouses—it was an obscene ditty bordering on erotica. The Lore Master butchered the tune, but he sang it aloud with wild abandon.

“I can’t touch you there, miss / else you’ll perish from the bliss . . .”

Niang shook with suppressed giggles. Kitay’s jaw hung wide open as he stared at the tree.

“Jiang, I’ve got a class,” Jun snapped.

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

“We need the courtyard.”

“You don’t need all of the courtyard. You don’t need this tree,” Jiang said petulantly.

Jun whipped his iron staff through the air several times and slammed it against the base of the tree. The trunk actually shook from the impact. There was the crackling noise of deadweight dropping through several layers of dry mimosa leaves.

Master Jiang landed in a crumpled heap on the stone floor.

Rin’s first thought was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Her second thought was that he must be dead.

But Jiang simply rolled to a sitting position, shook out his left leg, and brushed his white hair back past his shoulders. “That was rude,” he said dreamily as blood trickled down his left temple.

“Must you bumble around like a lackwit?” Jun sn