The Burning God

R. F. Kuang

“I want fresh troops when we get to the Beehive,” Rin said. “If we take the pace down to four-fifths our usual marching speed, we can still get there in twelve days. We’ll take detours here and here to avoid known Mugenese outposts. It adds distance, but I’d prefer to keep the element of surprise as long as we can. It’ll cut down their preparation time.”

She spoke with more confidence than she felt. She thought her voice sounded inordinately high and squeaky, though she could barely hear it, her blood was pumping so hard in her ears. Now that she’d finally gotten what she wanted, her giddiness had died away, replaced by a frightful mix of exhaustion and nerves.

Night had fallen on their first day of marching out of Ruijin. They’d stopped to make camp in the forest. A circle of soldiers—Kitay, Zhuden, Souji, and a smattering of officers—sat clustered in Rin’s tent, watching with rapt attention as she drew thick, inky lines across the maps before them.

Her hand kept shaking, scattering droplets across the parchment. It was so hard to write with her left hand. She felt as if she were taking an exam she hadn’t studied for. She should have been relishing this moment, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a fraud.

You are a fraud. She had never led a proper campaign by herself before. Her brief stints as the commander of the Cike had always ended in disaster. She didn’t know how to manage logistics on this scale. And worst of all, she was currently describing an attack strategy that she wasn’t at all sure would work.

Altan’s laughter echoed in her mind.

Little fool, he said. Finally got yourself an army, and now you don’t know what to do with it.

She blinked and forced his specter to disappear.

“If all goes according to plan,” she continued, “Leiyang will be ours by the next moon.”

Leiyang was the biggest township in northern Rooster Province. She’d passed through there only once in her life, nearly five years ago when she’d made the long caravan trip north to start school at Sinegard. It was a central trading hub connected to dozens of smaller villages by two creeks and several wide roads so old they’d been paved in the days of the Red Emperor. Compared to any northern capital it was a shoddy, run-down market in the outskirts of nowhere, but back then Rin had found it the busiest market town she’d ever seen.

Kitay had dubbed the network around Leiyang the Beehive. Mugenese troops exercised some control over all villages in northern Rooster Province, but based on their troops’ patrol and travel patterns, Leiyang was the central node.

Something important lay in that township. Kitay thought it was likely a high-ranking general who, after his homeland’s demise, continued to wield regional authority. Or, as Rin feared, it was a weapons base that they didn’t know about. Leiyang could be sitting on cans of yellow gas. They had no way of knowing.

That was the root of their problem. Rin’s intelligence on Leiyang was terrible. She’d updated her maps with Souji’s detailed descriptions of the surrounding terrain, but everything else he knew had been outdated for months. A handful of Iron Wolves were escaped survivors from Leiyang, but their reports of Mugenese troop presence varied wildly. They’d been the opposite of helpful. Survivors almost always gave them bad information—either their terror made them exaggerate the threat, or they downplayed it in hopes they could entice a rescue force to help their village.

The Burning God