R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War is one of our favorite books of 2018—and now it’s nominated for a Nebula Award! An epic historical military fantasy inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century, The Poppy War is published by Harper Voyager. Read an excerpt below!
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.
Because 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…
“You’re really all better?”
“Near enough,” said Nezha. “They sent me down with the next shipment of soldiers as soon as I could walk.”
The Seventh Division had brought with them three thousand fresh troops and wagons of badly needed supplies from farther inland—bandages, medicine, sacks of rice and spices. It was the best thing to happen at Khurdalain in weeks.
“Three months,” she marveled. “And Kitay said you were never going to walk again.”
“He exaggerated,” he said. “I got lucky. The blade went right in between my stomach and my kidney. Didn’t puncture anything on its way out. Hurt like hell, but it healed cleanly. Scar’s ugly, though. Do you want to see?”
“Keep your shirt on,” she said hastily. “Still, three months? That’s amazing.”
Nezha looked away, gazing over the quiet stretch of city under the wall that they’d been assigned to patrol. He hesitated, as if trying to decide whether or not to say something, but then abruptly changed the subject. “So. Screaming at rocks. Is that, like, normal behavior here?”
“That’s just Suni.” Rin broke a wheat bun in half and offered a piece to Nezha. They had increased bread rations to twice a week, and it was worth savoring. “Ignore him.”
He took it, chewed, and made a face. Even in wartime, Nezha had a way of acting as if he’d expected better luxuries. “It’s a little hard to ignore when he’s yelling right outside your tent.”
“I’ll ask Suni to avoid your particular tent.”
Snideness aside, Rin was deeply grateful for Nezha’s presence. As much as they had hated each other at the Academy, Rin found comfort in having someone else from her class here on the other side of the country, so far away from Sinegard. It was good to have someone who could sympathize, in some way, with what she was going through.
It helped that Nezha had stopped acting like he had a stick up his ass. War brought out the worst in some people; with Nezha, though, it had transformed him, stripping away his snobby pretensions. It seemed petty now to maintain her old grudge. It was difficult to dislike someone who had saved her life.
And she didn’t want to admit it, but Nezha was a welcome relief from Altan, who had taken lately to hurling objects across the room at the slightest hint of disobedience. Rin found herself wondering why they hadn’t become friends sooner.
“You know they think your contingent is a freak show, right?” Nezha said.
But then, of course, he would say things like that. Rin bristled. They were freaks. But they were her freaks. Only the Cike got to speak about the Cike like that. “They’re the best damn soldiers in this army.”
Nezha raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t one of you blow up the foreign embassy?”
“That was an accident.”
“And didn’t that big hairy one choke out your commander in the mess hall?”
“All right, Suni’s pretty weird—but the rest of us are perfectly—”
“Perfectly normal?” Nezha laughed out loud. “Really? Your people just casually ingest drugs, mumble to animals, and scream through the night?”
“Side effect of battle prowess,” she said, forcing levity into her voice.
Nezha looked unconvinced. “Sounds like battle prowess is the side effect of the madness.”
Rin didn’t want to think about that. It was a horrifying prospect, and she knew it was more than just a rumor. But the more terrified she became, the less likely she’d be able to summon the Phoenix, and the angrier Altan would become.
“Why aren’t your eyes red?” Nezha asked abruptly.
He reached out and touched a spot on her temple, beside her left eye. “Altan’s irises are red. I thought Speerly eyes were red.”
“I don’t know,” she said, suddenly confused. She had never once considered it—Altan had never brought it up. “My eyes have always been brown.”
“Maybe you’re not a Speerly.”
“But they were red before.” Nezha looked puzzled. “At Sinegard. When you killed the general.”
“You weren’t even conscious,” she said. “You had a spear in your stomach.”
Nezha arched an eyebrow. “I know what I saw.”
Footsteps sounded behind them. Rin jumped, although she had no reason to feel guilty. She was only keeping watch; she wasn’t barred from idle small talk.
“There you are,” said Enki.
Nezha swiftly stood. “I’ll go.”
She glanced up at him, confused. “No, you don’t have to—”
“He should go,” said Enki.
Nezha gave Enki a stiff nod and disappeared briskly around the corner of the wall.
Enki waited a few moments until the sound of Nezha’s footsteps pattering down the stairs died away. Then he glanced down at Rin, mouth pressed in a solemn line. “You didn’t tell me the Dragon Warlord’s brat was a shaman.”
Rin frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“The insignia.” Enki gestured around to his upper back, where Nezha wore his family crest across his uniform. “That’s a dragon mark.”
“That’s just his crest,” said Rin.
“Wasn’t he injured at Sinegard?” Enki inquired.
“Yes.” Rin wondered how Enki had known. Then again, Nezha was the son of the Dragon Warlord; his personal life was public knowledge among the Militia.
“How badly was he hurt?”
“I don’t know,” Rin said. “I was half-unconscious myself when it happened. The general stabbed him—twice, stomach wounds, probably—why does that matter?” She was confused by Nezha’s rapid recovery herself, but she didn’t see why Enki was interrogating her about it. “They missed his vitals,” she added, though that sounded implausible as soon as the words left her mouth.
“Two stomach wounds,” Enki repeated. “Two wounds from a highly experienced Federation general who was not likely to miss. And he’s up and walking in months?”
“You know, considering that one of us literally lives in a barrel, Nezha getting lucky is not that absurd.”
Enki looked unconvinced. “Your friend is hiding something.”
“Ask him yourself, then,” Rin said irritably. “Did you need something?”
Enki was frowning, contemplative, but he nodded. “Altan wants to see you. His office. Now.”
Altan’s office was a mess.
Books and brushes littered the floor. Maps were strewn haphazardly across his desk, city plans tacked up over every inch of wall. They were covered in Altan’s jagged, messy scrawl, outlining diagrams of strategies that made no sense to anyone but Altan. He had circled some critical regions so hard that they looked like he had etched them into the wall with a knifepoint.
Altan was sitting alone at his desk when Rin entered. His eyes were ringed with such a prominent indigo that they looked like bruises.
“You summoned me?” she asked.
Altan set his pen down. “You’re spending too much time with the Dragon Warlord’s brat.”
Rin bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I won’t allow it,” said Altan. “Nezha’s one of Jun’s people. You know better than to trust him.”
Rin opened her mouth and then closed it, trying to figure out whether Altan was being serious. Finally she said, “Nezha’s not in the Fifth. Jun can’t give him orders.”
“Jun was his master,” Altan said. “I’ve seen his armband. He pledged Combat. He’s loyal to Jun; he’ll tell him anything…”
Rin stared at him in disbelief. “Nezha’s just my friend.”
“No one is ever your friend. Not when you’re Cike. He’s spying on us.”
“Spying on us?” Rin repeated. “Altan, we’re in the same army.”
Altan stood up and slammed his hands down on the table.
Rin flinched back.
“We are not in the same army. We are the Cike. We’re the Bizarre Children. We’re the force that shouldn’t exist, and Jun wants us to fail. He wants me to fail,” he said. “They all do.”
“The other divisions aren’t our enemy,” Rin said quietly.
Altan paced around the room, arms twitching involuntarily, glaring at his maps as if he could will into formation armies that didn’t exist. He looked quite deranged.
“Everyone is our enemy,” he said. He seemed to be talking to himself more than he was talking to her. “Everyone wants us dead, gone… but I won’t go out like this…”
Rin swallowed. “Altan—”
He jerked his head toward her. “Can you call the fire yet?”
Rin felt a twinge of guilt. Try as she might, she still couldn’t access the god, could not call it back like she had in Sinegard.
Before she could respond, though, Altan made a noise of disgust. “Never mind. Of course you can’t. You still think you’re playing a game. You think you’re still at school.”
“I do not.”
He crossed the room toward her, grasped her shoulders, and shook her so hard that she gasped out loud. But he only pulled her closer until they were face-to-face, eye to eye. His irises were a furious crimson.
“How hard could it be?” he demanded. His grip tightened, fingers digging painfully into her collarbone. “Tell me, why is this so hard for you? It’s not like this is new to you; you’ve done it before, why can’t you do it now?”
“Altan, you’re hurting me.”
His grip only tightened. “You could at least fucking try—”
“I’ve tried!” she exploded. “It’s not easy, all right? I can’t just… I’m not you.”
“Are you a toddler?” Altan said, as if curious. He didn’t shout, but his voice took on a strangled monotone, carefully controlled and deadly quiet. That was how she knew he was furious. “Or are you, perhaps, an idiot masquerading as a soldier? You said you needed time. I have allotted you months. On Speer, you would have been disowned by now. Your family would have hurled you into the ocean for the sheer embarrassment.”
“I’m sorry,” Rin whispered, then immediately regretted it. Altan didn’t want her apology. He wanted her humiliation. He wanted her to burn in shame, to feel so miserable with herself that she couldn’t bear it.
And she did. How was it that he could make her feel so small? She felt more useless than she had at Sinegard when Jun had humiliated her before everyone. This was worse. This was a thousand times worse, because unlike Jun, Altan mattered to her. Altan was a Speerly, Altan was her commander. She needed his approval like she needed air.
He pushed her violently away from him.
Rin fought the urge to touch her collarbone, where she knew she would soon have two bruises left by Altan’s thumbs, perfectly formed dents like teardrops. She swallowed hard, averted her eyes, and said nothing.
“You call yourself a Sinegard-trained soldier?” Altan’s voice had sunk to barely more than a whisper, and it was worse than if he were shouting. She wished he were shouting. Anything would be better than this cold evisceration. “You’re no soldier. You’re deadweight. Until you can call the fire, you’re fucking useless to me. You’re here because you’re purportedly a Speerly. So far I have seen no proof that you are. Fix this. Prove your worth. Do your fucking job or get out.”
She saved her tears for after she was out of the office. Her eyes were still red when she entered the mess hall.
“Have you been crying?” Nezha demanded as he sat down across from her.
“Go away,” she mumbled.
He didn’t go away. “Tell me what happened.”
Rin bit her lower lip. She wasn’t supposed to speak to Nezha. It would have been a double betrayal to complain to him about Altan.
“Was it Altan? Did he say something?”
She looked away pointedly.
“Wait. What’s that?” Nezha reached for her collarbone.
She slapped his hand away and yanked at her uniform.
“You’re just going to sit there and take it?” Nezha asked in disbelief. “I remember a girl who punched me in the face for uttering an ill word about her teacher.”
“Altan’s different,” Rin said.
“Not so different that he gets to talk to you like that,” Nezha said. His eyes slid over her collarbone. “It was Altan. Tiger’s tits. They’re saying he’s gone mad in the Fifth, but I never thought he’d actually resort to this.”
“You don’t get to talk,” Rin snapped. Why did Nezha think he could now take on the role of confidant? “You made fun of me for years at Sinegard. You didn’t say a kind word to me until Mugen was at our doorstep.”
To his credit, Nezha actually looked guilty. “Rin, I’m—”
She cut him off before he could get a word in. “I was the war orphan from the south, and you were the rich kid from Sinegard, and you tormented me. You made Sinegard a living hell, Nezha.”
It felt good to say it out loud. It felt good to see Nezha’s stricken expression. They had skirted around this since Nezha had arrived, had acted as if they had always been friends at the Academy, because theirs had been such a childish feud compared to the very real battles they were fighting now. But if he wanted to malign her commander, then she would remind him exactly whom he was talking to.
Nezha slammed a hand on the table, just as Altan had, but this time she didn’t flinch.
“You weren’t the only victim!” he said. “The first day we met you punched me. Then you kicked me in the balls. Then you tackled me in class. In front of Jun. In front of everyone. How do you think that felt? How fucking embarrassing do you think that was? Look, I’m sorry, all right? I’m really sorry.” The remorse in Nezha’s voice sounded genuine. “But I saved your life. Doesn’t that make us at least a little square?”
Square? Square? She had to laugh. “You almost got me expelled!”
“And you almost killed me,” he said.
That shut her up.
“I was scared of you,” Nezha continued. “And I lashed out. I was stupid. I was a spoiled brat. I was a real pain in the ass. I thought I was better than you, and I’m not. I’m sorry.”
Rin was too stunned to come up with a response, so she turned away. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” she said stiffly to the wall.
“Fine,” Nezha snapped. “Sorry I tried. I’ll leave you alone, then.”
He grabbed his plate, stood up, and walked briskly away. She let him.
Night watch was lonely and boring without Nezha. All of the Cike had watch duty on rotation, but at that moment Rin was convinced Altan had placed her there as punishment. What was the point of staring down at a coastline where nothing ever happened? If another fleet did show up, Qara’s birds would see it days in advance.
Rin twisted her fingers irritably together as she huddled against the wall, trying to warm herself. Stupid, she thought, glaring at her hands. Probably she wouldn’t feel so cold if she could just summon a bit of flame.
Everything felt awful. The mere thought of both Altan and Nezha made her cringe. She knew vaguely that she’d fucked up, that she’d probably done something that she shouldn’t have, but she couldn’t reason a way out of this dilemma. She wasn’t even sure precisely what the matter was, only that both were furious with her.
She heard then a droning noise; so faint at first she thought she was imagining it. But then it increased quickly in volume, like a fast-approaching swarm of bees. The noise reached a peak and clarified into human shouts. She squinted; the commotion wasn’t coming from the coastline but from the downtown districts behind her. She jumped down from her perch and ran to look down the other side. A flood of civilians streamed into the alleyways, a frantic stampede of bodies. She searched the crowd and saw Qara and Unegen emerging from their barracks. She scaled down the wall and wove through the flood of bodies, pushing against the crowd to reach them.
“What’s going on?” She grabbed Unegen’s arm. “Why are they running?”
“No clue,” Unegen said. “Find the others.”
A civilian—an old woman—tried to push past Rin but stumbled. Rin knelt to help her, but the woman had already picked herself up, scurrying along faster than Rin had ever seen an old person move. Men, women, and children streamed around her, some barefoot, some only half-dressed, wearing identical expressions of terror in their frenzy to flee out the city gates.
“What the hell is going on?” Baji, bleary-eyed and shirtless, pushed through the crowd toward them. “Great Tortoise. Are we evacuating now?”
Something bumped into Rin’s knee. She looked down and saw a small child—tiny, half Kesegi’s age. He wasn’t wearing any pants. He groped blindly at her shin, bawling loudly. He must have lost his parents in the confusion. She reached down and picked him up, the same way she used to hold Kesegi when he cried.
As she searched through the mob for anyone who looked like they were missing a child, she saw three great spouts of flame appear in the air, in the shape of three small dragons flying upward at the sky. It had to be Altan’s signal.
Through the noise Rin heard his hoarse yell, “Cike, to me!”
She placed the child in the arms the first civilian she saw and fought her way through the masses to where Altan stood. Jun was there, too, surrounded by about ten of his men. Nezha stood among them. He didn’t meet her eyes.
Altan looked more openly furious than she had ever seen him. “I warned you not to evacuate without giving notice.”
“This isn’t me,” said Jun. “They’re running from something.”
“Damned if I know,” Jun snapped.
Altan heaved a great sigh of impatience, reached into the horde of bodies, and pulled someone out at random. It was a young woman, a little older than Rin, wearing nothing but a nightgown. She screeched loudly in protest, then clamped her jaw shut when she saw their Militia uniforms.
“What’s going on?” Altan demanded. “What are you all running from?”
“A chimei,” she said, out of breath and terrified. “There’s a chimei downtown, near the town square…”
A chimei? The name was vaguely familiar. Rin thought back to where she had last seen it—somewhere in the library, perhaps, in one of the absurd tomes Jiang had made her read when conducting a thorough investigation on every piece of arcane knowledge known to mankind. She thought it might be a beast, some mythological creature with bizarre abilities.
“Really,” Jun said skeptically. “How do you know it’s a chimei?”
The girl looked him straight in the eyes. “Because it’s tearing the faces off corpses,” she said in a wavering voice. “I saw the bodies, I saw…” She broke off.
“What does it look like?” Altan asked.
The woman shivered. “I didn’t get a close look, but I think… it looked like a great four-legged beast. Large as a horse, arms like a monkey’s.”
“A beast,” Altan repeated. “Anything else?”
“Its fur was black, and its eyes…” She swallowed.
“Its eyes were what?” Jun pressed.
The woman flinched. “Like his,” she said, and pointed to Altan. “Red like blood. Bright as flame.”
Altan released the young woman back into the crowd, and she immediately disappeared into the fleeing mass.
The two commanders faced each other.
“We need to send someone in,” Altan said. “Someone has to kill that beast.”
“Yes,” Jun agreed immediately. “My people are tied up with crowd control, but I can gather a squadron.”
“We don’t need a squadron. One of my people should be fine. We can’t dispatch everyone. Mugen could use this chance to attack our base. This could be a diversion.”
“I’ll go,” Rin volunteered immediately.
Altan frowned at her. “You know how to handle a chimei?”
She didn’t know. She’d only just remembered what a chimei was—and that was only from Academy readings that she barely remembered. But she was sure that was more than anyone else in the divisions or the Cike knew, because no one else had been forced to read arcane bestiaries at Sinegard. And she wasn’t about to admit incompetence to Altan in front of Jun. She could handle this task. She had to.
“As well as anyone else does, sir. I’ve read the bestiaries.”
Altan considered for a short moment, then nodded curtly. “Go against the grain of the crowd. Keep to the alleys.”
“I’ll go, too,” Nezha volunteered.
“That’s not necessary,” Altan said immediately.
But Jun said, “She should take a Militia man. Just in case.”
Altan glared at Jun, and she realized what this was about. Jun wanted someone to accompany her, just in case she saw something that Altan didn’t report to Jun.
Rin couldn’t believe that division politics were at play even now.
Altan looked like he wanted to argue. But there was no time. He shoved past Nezha toward the crowd and seized a torch from a passing civilian.
“Hey! I need that!”
“Shut up,” Altan said, and pushed the civilian away. He handed the torch to Rin and pulled her into a side alley where she could avoid the traffic. “Go.”
Rin and Nezha couldn’t reach downtown by fighting the stampede of bodies. But the buildings in their district had low, flat roofs that were easy to climb onto. Rin and Nezha ran across them, their torches bobbing in the light. When they reached the end of the block, they dropped down into an alley and crossed another block in silence.
Finally Nezha asked, “What’s a chimei?”
“You heard the woman,” Rin said curtly. “Great beast. Red eyes.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Probably shouldn’t have come along, then.” She turned a corner.
“I read the bestiaries, too,” Nezha said after he had caught up to her. “Nothing about a chimei.”
“You didn’t read the old texts. Archive basement,” she said. “Red Emperor’s era. It only gets a few mentions, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s depicted as a child with red eyes. Sometimes as a black shadow. It tears the faces off its victims but leaves the rest of the corpse intact.”
“Creepy,” Nezha said. “What’s its deal with faces?”
“I’m not sure,” Rin admitted. She searched her memory for anything else she could remember about chimeis. “The bestiaries didn’t say. I think it collects them. The books claim that the chimei can imitate just about anyone—people you care about, people you could never hurt.”
“Even people it hasn’t killed?”
“Probably,” she guessed. “It’s been collecting faces for thousands of years. With that many facial features, you could approximate anyone.”
“So what? How does that make it dangerous?”
She shot him a glance over her shoulder. “You’d be fine stabbing something with your mother’s face?”
“I’d know it wasn’t real.”
“You’d know in the back of your mind it wasn’t real. But could you do it in the moment? Look in your mother’s eyes, listen to her begging, and put your knife to her throat?”
“If I knew there was no way it could be my mother,” Nezha said. “The chimei sounds scary only if it catches you by surprise. But not if you know.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” said Rin. “This thing didn’t just frighten one or two people. It scared off half the city. What’s more, the bestiaries don’t tell us how to kill it. There isn’t a defeat of a chimei on record in history. We’re fighting this one blind.”
The streets in the middle of town were still—doors closed, wagons parked. What should have been a bustling marketplace was dusty and quiet.
But not empty.
Bodies were littered around the streets in various states.
Rin knelt down by the closest one and turned it over. The corpse was unmarked except for the head. The face had been chewed off in the most grotesque manner. The eye sockets were empty, the nose missing, lips torn clean off.
“You weren’t kidding,” Nezha said. He covered his mouth with a hand. “Tiger’s tits. What happens when we find it?”
“Probably I’ll kill it,” she said. “You can help.”
“You are obnoxiously overconfident in your combat abilities,” said Nezha.
“I thrashed you at school. I’m frank about my combat abilities,” she said. It helped if she talked big. It made the fear go away.
Several feet away, Nezha kicked another body over. It wore the dark blue uniform of the Federation Armed Forces. A fivepointed yellow star on his right breast identified him as an officer of rank.
“Poor guy,” he said. “Someone didn’t get the message.”
Rin walked past Nezha and held her torch out over the bloody walkway. An entire squadron of slain Federation forces was littered across the cobblestones.
“I don’t think the Federation sent it,” she said slowly.
“Maybe they’ve kept it locked up all this time,” Nezha suggested. “Maybe they didn’t know what it could do.”
“The Federation doesn’t take chances like that,” she said. “You saw how cautious they were with the trebuchets at Sinegard. They wouldn’t unleash a beast they couldn’t control.”
“So it just came on its own? A monster that no one’s seen in centuries decides to reappear in the one city under siege?”
Rin had a sinking suspicion of where the chimei had come from. She’d seen the monster before. She’d seen it in the illustrations of the Jade Emperor’s menagerie.
I will summon into existence beings that should not be in this world.
When Jiang had opened that void at Sinegard, he had ripped a hole in the fabric between their world and the next. And now, with the Gatekeeper gone, demons were climbing through at will.
There is a price. There is always a price.
Now she could see what he meant.
She pushed the thoughts from her mind and knelt down to examine the corpses more closely. None of the soldiers had drawn their weapons. This made no sense. Surely they couldn’t all have been caught off guard. If they’d been fighting a monstrous beast, they should have died with their swords drawn. There should be signs of a struggle.
“Where do you think—” she began to ask, but Nezha clamped a cold hand over her mouth.
“Listen,” he whispered.
She could hear nothing. But then, across the market square from where they stood, a faint noise came from within an overturned wagon, the sound of something shaking. Then the shaking stilled, giving way to what sounded like high-pitched sobbing.
Rin walked closer with her torch held out to investigate.
“Are you mad?” Nezha grabbed her arm. “That could be the beast itself.”
“So what are we going to do, run from it?” She shook him off and continued at a brisk pace toward the wagon.
Nezha hesitated, but she heard him following. When they reached the wagon, he met her eyes over the torchlight, and she nodded. She drew her sword, and together they yanked the cover off the wagon.
The thing under the cover wasn’t a beast. It was a tiny girl, no taller than Nezha’s waist, curled up in the back end of the wagon. She wore a flimsy blood-covered dress. She shrieked when she saw them and buried her head in her knees. Her entire body convulsed with violent, terrified sobs. “Get away! Get away from me!”
“Put your sword down, you’re scaring her!” Nezha stepped in front of Rin, blocking her from the little girl’s view. He shifted his torch to his other hand and put a hand softly on the girl’s shoulder. “Hey. Hey, it’s okay. We’re here to help you.”
The girl sniffled. “Horrible monster…”
“I know. The monster isn’t here. We’ve, uh, we’ve scared it away. We’re not here to hurt you, I promise. Can you look at me?”
Slowly, the girl lifted her head and met Nezha’s gaze. Her eyes were enormous, wide and scared, in her tear-streaked face.
As Rin looked over Nezha’s shoulder into those eyes, she was struck with the oddest sensation, a fierce desire to protect the little girl at all costs. She felt it like a physical urge, a foreign maternal desire. She would die before letting any harm come to this innocent child.
“You’re not a monster?” the girl whimpered.
Nezha stretched his arms out to her. “We’re humans through and through,” he said gently.
The girl leaned into his arms, and her sobs subsided.
Rin watched Nezha in amazement. He seemed to know exactly how to act around the child, adjusting his tone and his body language to be as comforting as possible.
Nezha handed Rin his torch with one arm and patted the girl on the head with the other. “Will you let me help you out of this thing?”
She nodded hesitantly and rose to her feet. Nezha grasped her waist, lifted her out of the broken wagon, and set her gently on the ground.
“There. You’re all right. Can you walk?”
She nodded again and reached shakily for his hand. Nezha grasped it firmly, wrapped his slender fingers around her tiny hand. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. Do you have a name?”
“Khudali,” she whispered.
“Khudali. You’re safe now,” Nezha promised. “You’re with us. And we’re monster killers. But we need your help. Can you be brave for me?”
Khudali swallowed and nodded.
“Good girl. Now can you tell me what happened? Anything you remember.”
Khudali took a deep breath and began to speak in a halting, trembling voice. “I was with my parents and my sister. We were just riding the wagon back home. The Militia told us not to be out too late so we wanted to get back in time, and then…” Khudali began to sob again.
“It’s okay,” Nezha said quickly. “We know the beast came. I just need you to give me any details you can. Anything that comes to mind.”
Khudali nodded. “Everyone was screaming, but none of the soldiers did anything. And when it came near us, the Federation just watched. I hid inside the wagon. I didn’t see its face.”
“Did you see where it went?” Rin asked sharply.
Khudali flinched and shrank back behind Nezha.
“You’re scaring her,” Nezha said in a low voice, gesturing again for Rin to stand back. He turned back to Khudali. “Can you show me what direction it ran in?” he asked softly. “Where did it go?”
“I… I can’t tell you how to get there. But I can take you,” she said. “I remember what I saw.”
She led them a few steps toward a corner of the alley, then paused.
“That’s where it ate my brother,” she said. “But then it disappeared.”
“Hold on,” said Nezha. “You said you came here with your sister.”
Khudali looked up at Nezha, again with those wide, imploring eyes.
“I suppose I did,” she said.
Then she smiled.
In one instant she was a tiny girl; the next, a long-limbed beast. Except for its face, it was entirely covered in coarse pitch-black fur. Its loping arms could have reached the ground, like Suni’s, a monkey’s arms. Its head was very small, still the head of Khudali, which made it all the more grotesque. It reached for Nezha with thick fingers and lifted him into the air by his collar.
Rin drew her sword and hacked at its legs, its arms, its torso. But the chimei’s bristly fur was like a coat of iron needles, repelling her sword better than any shield could.
“Its face,” she yelled. “Aim for the face!”
But Nezha wasn’t moving. His hands dangled uselessly at his sides. He gazed into the chimei’s tiny face, Khudali’s face, entranced.
“What are you doing?” Rin screamed.
Slowly, the chimei turned its head to look down at her. It found her eyes.
Rin reeled and stumbled backward, choking.
When she gazed into those eyes, its entrancing eyes, the chimei’s monstrous body melted away in her vision. She couldn’t see the black hair, the beast’s body, the rough torso matted with blood. Only the face.
It wasn’t the face of a beast. It was the face of something beautiful. It was blurry for a moment, like it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and then it turned into a face she hadn’t seen in years.
Soft, mud-colored cheeks. Rumpled black hair. One baby tooth slightly larger than the rest, one baby tooth missing.
“Kesegi?” Rin uttered.
She dropped her torch. Kesegi smiled uncertainly.
“Do you recognize me?” he asked in his sweet little voice. “After all this time?”
Her heart broke. “Of course I recognize you.”
Kesegi looked at her hopefully. Then he opened his mouth and screeched, and the screech wasn’t anything human. The chimei rushed at her—Rin flung her hands up before her face—but something stopped it.
Nezha had broken free of its grasp; now he held on to its back, where he couldn’t see its face. Nezha stabbed inward, but his knife clattered uselessly against the chimei’s collarbone. He tried again, aiming for its face. Kesegi’s face.
“No!” Rin screamed. “Kesegi, no—”
Nezha missed—his blade ricocheted off iron fur. He raised his weapon for a second blow, but Rin dashed forward and shoved her sword between Nezha’s blade and the chimei.
She had to protect Kesegi, couldn’t let Nezha kill him, not Kesegi … he was just a kid, so helpless, so little…
It had been three years since she’d left him. She had abandoned him with a pair of opium smugglers, while she left for Sinegard without sending so much as a letter for three years, three impossibly long years.
It seemed like so long ago. An entire lifetime.
So why was Kesegi still so small?
She reeled, mind fuzzy. Answering the question was like trying to see through a dense mist. She knew there was some reason why this didn’t make sense, but she couldn’t quite piece together what it was… only that there was something wrong with this Kesegi in front of her.
It wasn’t her Kesegi.
It wasn’t Kesegi at all.
She struggled to come to her senses, blinking rapidly like she was trying to clear away a fog. It’s the chimei, you idiot, she told herself. It’s playing off your emotions. This is what it does. This is how it kills.
And now that she remembered, she saw there was something wrong with Kesegi’s face… his eyes were not soft and brown, but bright red, two glaring lanterns that demanded her gaze…
Howling, the chimei finally succeeded in flinging Nezha off its back. Nezha jerked through the air and crashed against the alley wall. His head thudded against the stone. He slid to the ground and did not stir.
The chimei bolted into the shadows and disappeared.
Rin ran toward Nezha’s prone form.
“Shit, shit …” She pressed her hand to the back of his head. It came away sticky. She probed around, feeling for the contours of the cut, and was relieved to find it was fairly shallow—even light head wounds bled heavily. Nezha might be fine.
But where had the chimei gone… ?
She heard a rustling noise above her. She turned, too slowly.
The chimei jumped straight down to land on her back, seizing her shoulders with a horrifically strong grip. She wriggled ferociously, stabbing backward with her sword. But she attacked in vain; the chimei’s fur was still an impenetrable shield, against which her blade could only scrape uselessly.
With one massive hand the chimei seized the blade and broke it. It made a disdainful noise and flung the pieces into the darkness. Then it encircled Rin’s neck with its arms, clinging to her back like a child—a giant, monstrous child. Its arms pressed against her windpipe. Rin’s eyes bulged. She couldn’t breathe. She fell to her knees and clambered desperately over the dirt toward the dropped torch.
She felt the chimei’s breath hot on her neck. It scratched at her face, pulled at her lips and nostrils the way a child might.
“Play with me,” it insisted in Kesegi’s voice. “Why won’t you play with me?” Can’t breathe…
Rin’s fingers found the torch. She seized it and jabbed it blindly upward.
The burning end smashed into the chimei’s exposed face with a loud sizzle. The beast screeched and flung itself off Rin. It writhed in the dirt, limbs twitching at bizarre angles as it keened loudly in pain.
Rin screamed, too—her hair had caught fire. She pulled up her hood and rubbed the cloth over her head to smother the flames.
“Sister, please,” the chimei gasped. In its agony it somehow managed to sound even more like Kesegi.
She crawled doggedly toward it, pointedly looking away from its eyes. She clutched the torch tightly in her right hand. She had to burn it again. Burning it seemed to be the only way to hurt it.
This time it spoke in Altan’s voice.
This time she couldn’t stop herself from looking.
At first it only had Altan’s face, and then it was Altan, lying sprawled on the ground, blood dripping from his temple. It had Altan’s eyes. It had Altan’s scar.
Raw, smoking, he snarled at her.
Staving off the chimei’s attempts to claw off her face, she pinned it against the ground, jamming down its arms with her knees.
She had to burn its face off. The faces were the source of its power. The chimei had collected a mass of likenesses from every person it had killed, every face it had torn off. It sustained itself on human likenesses, and now it tried to obtain hers.
She forced the torch into its face.
The chimei screamed again. Altan screamed again.
She had never heard Altan scream, not in reality, but she was certain that it would have sounded like this.
“Please,” sobbed Altan, his voice raw. “Please, don’t.”
Rin clenched her teeth and tightened her grip on the torch, pressed it harder against the chimei’s head. The smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils. She choked; the smoke made her tear up but she did not stop. She tried to rip her gaze away, but the chimei’s eyes were arresting. It held her eyes. It forced her to look.
“You can’t kill me,” Altan hissed. “You love me.”
“I don’t love you,” Rin said. “And I can kill anything.”
It was a terrifying power of the chimei’s that the more it burned, the more it looked like Altan. Rin’s heart slammed against her rib cage. Close your mind. Block out your thoughts. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t…
But she couldn’t detach Altan’s likeness from the chimei. They were one and the same. She loved it, she loved him, and he was going to kill her. Unless she killed him first.
But no, that didn’t make sense…
She tried to focus again, to still her terror and regain her rationality, but this time what she concentrated on was not detaching Altan from the chimei but resolving to kill it no matter who she thought it was.
She was killing the chimei. She was killing Altan. Both were true. Both were necessary.
She didn’t have the poppy seed, but she didn’t need to call the Phoenix in this moment. She had the torch and she had the pain, and that was enough.
She smashed the blunt end of the torch into Altan’s face. She smashed again, with a greater force than she knew she was capable of. Bone gave way to wood. His cheek caved in, creating a cavernous hole where flesh and bone should be.
“You’re hurting me.” Altan sounded shocked.
No, I’m killing you. She smashed it again and again and again. Once her arm started going, she couldn’t stop. Altan’s face became a mottled mess of fragmented bone and flesh. Brown skin turned bright red. His face lost shape altogether. She beat out those eyes, beat them bloody so she wouldn’t have to look into them anymore. When he struggled, she turned the torch around and burned him in the wounds. Then he screamed.
Finally the chimei ceased its struggles beneath her. Its muscles stopped tensing, its legs stopped kicking. Rin lurched forward over its head, breathing heavily. She had burned through its face to the bone. Underneath the charred, smoking skin lay a tiny, pristine white skull.
Rin climbed off the corpse and sucked in a great, heaving breath. Then she vomited.
“I’m sorry,” said Nezha when he awoke.
“Don’t be,” Rin said. She lay slumped against the wall beside him. The entire contents of her stomach were splattered on the sidewalk. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is my fault. You didn’t freeze when you saw it.”
“I did freeze. An entire squadron froze.” Rin jerked her thumb back toward the Federation carcasses in the market square. “And you helped me snap out of it. Don’t blame yourself.”
“I was stupid. I should have known that little girl—”
“Neither of us knew,” Rin said curtly.
Nezha said nothing.
“Do you have a sister?” she asked after a while.
“I used to have a brother,” Nezha said. “A little brother. He died when we were young.”
“Oh.” Rin didn’t know what to say to that. “Sorry.”
Nezha pulled himself to a sitting position. “When the chimei was screaming at me it felt like—like it was my fault again.”
Rin swallowed hard. “When I killed it, it felt like murder.”
Nezha gave her a long look. “Who was it for you?”
Rin didn’t answer that.
They limped back to the base together in silence, occasionally ducking around a dark corner to make sure they weren’t being followed. They did so more out of habit than necessity. Rin guessed there wouldn’t be any Federation soldiers in that part of the city for a while.
When they reached the junction that split the Cike headquarters and the Seventh Division’s base, Nezha stopped and turned to face her.
Her heart skipped a beat.
He was so beautiful then, standing right in the space of the road where a beam of moonlight fell across his face, illuminating one side and casting long shadows on the other.
He looked like glazed porcelain, preserved glass. He was a sculptor’s approximation of a person, not human himself. He can’t be real, she thought. A boy made of flesh and bone could not be so painfully lovely, so free of any blemish or flaw.
“So. About earlier,” he said.
Rin folded her arms tightly across her chest. “Not a good time.”
Nezha laughed humorlessly. “We’re fighting a war. There’s never going to be a good time.”
He put his hand on her arm. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Yes, I do. I’ve been a real dick to you. And I had no right to talk about your commander like that. I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” she said cautiously, and found that she meant it.
Altan was waiting in his office when she returned to base. He opened the door even before she knocked.
“It’s gone,” Rin confirmed. She swallowed; her heart was still racing. “Sir.”
He nodded curtly. “Good.”
They regarded each other in silence for a moment. He was hidden in the shadow of the door. Rin couldn’t see the expression on his face. She was glad of that. She couldn’t face him right now. She couldn’t look at him without seeing his face burning, breaking under her hands, dissolving into a pulpy mess of flesh and gore and sinew.
All thoughts of Nezha had been pushed out of her mind. How could that possibly matter right now?
She had just killed Altan.
What was that supposed to mean? What did it say that the chimei had thought she wouldn’t be able to kill Altan, and that she had killed him anyway?
If she could do this, what couldn’t she do? Who couldn’t she kill?
Maybe that was the kind of anger it took to call the Phoenix easily and regularly the way Altan did. Not just rage, not just fear, but a deep, burning resentment, fanned by a particularly cruel kind of abuse.
Maybe she’d learned something after all.
“Anything else?” Altan asked.
He took a step toward her. She flinched. He must have noticed it, and still he moved closer. “Something you want to tell me?”
“No, sir,” she whispered. “There’s nothing.”
Excerpted from The Poppy War, copyright © 2018 by R.F. Kuang.