Chapter 2: Poison

Arkion gently shuts the white double door, resisting the urge to peek behind the curtains. He turns to the room now. Eysin is sitting cross-legged on a tall bar stool, looking at him puzzled. Arkion smiles, steps closer, and then gets on his knee. “My bride, we meet again,” Arkion says, looking up again and wiping off a pretend tear. Eysin, I beg asylum, little master—please—tell her you haven’t seen me!”

Eysin is confused by the request. “Tell who?” 

Just then, someone knocks on the door. 

They both fall as quiet as can be. Eysin holds her breath, looking at the door, and a moment later notices that Arkion is no longer at her feet. 

“Just go,” Arkion whispers from the kitchen corner. “Let’s get this over with. Open the…” Three intense knocks interrupt Arkion. 

Eysin makes her way to the door with four successive intense knocks and opens the door to reveal a freckled woman with a silver-white pixie cut. The woman is dressed entirely in white—her jumpsuit is a fascinating blend of militaristic cuts adorned with high-quality lace. 

Eysin tilts her head to signal that she doesn’t recognise the faction or the woman, “Hello?”

With a tired and annoyed tone, the woman asks, “I know he’s in here. Can I talk to him?”

Eysin tilts her head to the other side, thinking and trying to make sense of the current situation, and then just says whatever comes up from the gut, “Mister Atelbaer wants some privacy now. He’ll seek you out once he’s ready, okay?”

The woman smiles and appears to be chewing a bubblegum, “What, are you his minder or something?”

Eysin laughs nervously, trying to recall again why she is in Imogen’s mansion, trying to adjust her spirit from the lingering anxiety of her afternoon spear-wilding performance, “Oh, no. I’m just here auditioning for the faction.” 

“Oh.” The white woman glances at Eysin’s outfit—rather erotic materials for auditioning for security combatant bands—and grins again, “Is this how you audition?”

The woman then recognises Eysin’s face from before and turns serious. “Oh yeah, you were performing with the Warhammer.” Clarissa saw her showcase earlier and thought the Warhammer had been an interesting choice. Clarissa now remembered her name and connected her to the former student of Andre. The outlier who inherited all of Andre’s Eesian gear, now wielding an extraordinary weapon—remembering all that, Clarissa thought she would have expected someone more skilled. 

Seeing Arkion taking refuge in this girl’s room, some other rumours Clarissa has heard begin to make sense. These realisations make her gut turn. 

Eysin detects the woman’s chewing gum, which is light brown and still smells fresh. She must have popped one right before approaching the door. There has to be nicotine or something in that gum because the woman seemed to be restraining herself from fidgeting with her hands. 

Slightly intoxicated from the herbal session Eysin was enjoying on that bar stool, she now fails to determine whether she should respond to anything said. 

The woman sighs, “Okay, anyway, can you forward a message? The Lady has requested that Arkion meet her to discuss the remaining journey to Lif. We’d like confirmation that the team will go forward, and since Arkion is the one who decides for everyone around here…”

Eysin tilts her head, “Lady?”

“Valen Rozenbaer?” Clarissa says as if Eysin is supposed to know.

Eysin looks up, thinks, nods and smiles, “Got it, okay, I’ll tell him.” Eysin moves the door a little to signal that the discussion is over. 

“Alright,” Clarissa turns to leave and winks at Eysin, “By the way, nice outfit!” The woman shoots a snip from her finger, turns, and steps away.

Eysin feels her body turning heavy. Only a peachy translucent gown with firefly motifs covered her upper body, which was also see-through enough to reveal her black rag underpants and wine-red low socks. 

Eysin sees herself in the door window’s reflection as she removes the curtain to see the white woman leave. Eysin has cleared her performance makeup, and her face is naked – but she has gotten used to it. It’s just not the way she had in mind when presenting herself to Arkion for their first meeting. Eysin combs her hand through her air-dried hair—now cut into a gentle wavy bob, brown with a hint of red. 

The first thing Arkion notices when they face each other again is that Eysin’s eyes are no longer as blue as they used to be, and the silver-white creeping up shows she’s done intense work. 

Eysin looks at Arkion, who is looking at her now. Eysin remembers holding a great-smelling herbal stick while lightly releasing relaxing scents.

“Am I, uh, interrupting something?” Arkion points to the stick and the revealing outfit and then turns back into the kitchen.

Eysin hears Arkion put the stove on; he’s planning to stay for a few moments.

Eysin extinguishes the herbal stick and stands with a bit more self-awareness, trying to cover her visible upper body. “Just, uh, trying to unwind from the showcase.”

Arkion says, almost as if congratulating Eysin, “Yeah, I saw your performance.” And then he mumbles, “I know what to do with you.”

Eysin doesn’t react to Arkion’s commentary; she plans to hide behind the curtains to go to her sleeping space.

“Since I’m here, we have some catching up to do anyway…” Arkion notices Eysin’s nervous look and figures out what she wants to do, “If you want to go change, just go change.”

Eysin pulls on an oversized sweater and leggings and joins Arkion in the kitchen. Arkion pours hot water into cups filled with whatever herbs he finds. The mix starts smelling sweet right away, a real thirst-quencher.

While awkwardly standing around the kitchen table for the tea to brew, Arkion breaks the silence, “Were you meditating?”

Eysin stares at the floor, “Oh… Never mind that…”

“It’s fine if you don’t want to tell.” Arkion shrugs, picks up his cup, and finds a different spot to stand in the room.

“Can’t bother you with that.” Eysin leans toward the kitchen table and picks up the cup meant for her. The tea must be a mix of fresh mint and anise.

Arkion lets it go and changes the subject. “I couldn’t make the calls for a while there… There was nothing I could do about that…”

“I know.” Eysin also finds another spot to stand in to see each other while talking, “But yeah… When did you arrive?” Eysin takes a few small sips and then continues holding the cup, even though it’s unbearably hot.

Arkion says, “Early in the morning last night. Ships docked, clients, transported – hence all these extra people here for this fest…”

“Yeah, I heard we’ll be having guests from Reval.” Eysin puts the cup on a shelf next to her and then, referring to the violent revolution in Reval, asks, “Did you see any of the damage?”

Thinking about Reval made Arkion twitch a bitter smile, “Reval was, how to put it – a complete hellhole. They’ve been transporting exotic terrorists into Reval and Novigrad for a while now. The Headmaster has her hands full and requested help – but in all likelihood, we will not be getting involved.”

On their way back, the Baltikons were asked to help a long-time client evacuate from the walled city. Valen Rozenbaer, her performance troupe of five—no, seven—, twelve guards, three servants, and two children. Valen had also hired the Black Rain, but since the Black Rain, too, had to evacuate from Reval. Their new headquarters wasn’t ready to host this many people, so they all asked for temporary shelter—at least for the Autumn Lockdown—with EESO or the Brotherhood on Ceremony or Osel. 

“Phew…” Eysin feels relief. She’d been dreading the idea of having to return to Reval. “So… Who’s the lady?” Eysin is referring to the Rozenbaer, who is looking for Arkion. “I mean, you heard the message, right?”

“Right, Valen.” Arkion takes a few steps around the room, noticing on the table a pair of silvery white specs that Eysin had promised to buy and a stack of old books. “The woman you saw is Clarissa—Valen’s security chief.”

Eysin watches him and grins with a suspective note, “Why are you dodging her?”

Arkion is not ready to talk about it. Back in Reval, he had taken a slight detour to check out the revolutionaries and met Erika—Eysin’s former collaborator on the Red Flag project—Now a legendary revolutionary, to negotiate for a peaceful passage. As soon as they reached a deal and Arkion caught up with the rest of the Baltikons in the Rozenbaer mansion, Valen threw herself in Arkion’s arms and smooched a kiss*.

*Half a lifetime ago, Arkion and Valen had a bit of an adventure around taking down Hector’s underground sector and saving Valen’s family’s power over the temple and the Reval Basin Control Room. By the end of that saga, Arkion was set to marry Valen for diplomatic reasons, but since Hector murdered all of Valen’s sisters, it turned out Valen was no longer open to such a deal. Despite now being married to August Nergal von Baer—the Fin Lord to whom her parents had promised one of Valen‘s late sisters as a diplomatic deal—Valen still takes liberties with lovers—possibly because so does Dux August.  

Arkion doesn’t feel like telling Eysin any of this right now—Arkion doesn’t intend to hide it from her. Still, having learned about Eysin’s sensitivities over their letters and conversations, he knew this could deliver the wrong message. Besides, Arkion sees Eysin for the first time in a long time and would instead focus on things more relevant to the two.

Similarly, Arkion is running away from Valen because he is unsure how Valen will take the news that Arkion is about to get married to Eysin, especially since they are all now stuck under the same roof for the lockdown. 

Arkion plans to sort it out but believes there must be a better moment. “I need a few days off, and then I’ll consider a meeting with Valen.” Arkion then points to the books, “What’s that? Andre’s Koans?” Arkion leans closer and picks one up to read the title.

“Yes.” Eysin smiles, retelling the short poem that sent her to the desert—not just the poem alone but also a mix of dried herbs from last year’s harvests. Atlas told me I could gain something from it…”

Arkion recognises the book. Years ago, their teacher Andre gifted it to a dozen students—Arkion and Atlas were two of them. Seeing it brings back memories. Arkion remembers a few conversations with Andre about those poems in a flash: “Did Atlas also offer a dokusan?”

“An interview?” Eysin was new to the practice and didn’t feel so sure. 

Arkion nods, then pages through the book to find a few poems he thinks he can still remember. 

“I’ve only just started,” Eysin said, not knowing if there would be a discussion. 

“Sorry,” Arkion shrugs. “Should I come back later?”

“Well, it’s you. The most welcome interruption.” Eysin finishes her tea and brings her cup to the sink. She lets the tap run and feels the cool spring water on her fingers. The coolness invites her to drink it; she leans over and does just that, right from the tap until she’s full.

Meanwhile, Arkion finds the bookmarked koan. 

Q: Where will I find the love and attention I deserve? 

A: In the vast emptiness of The Desert, in the freedom reflected in a jackal’s eyes. 

“Poetry is no substitute for all the missed dancing lessons, you know,” Arkion comments between the lines. Arkion can guess why Atlas had her read it. Arkion’d seen problems in her movements during her performance that afternoon. And Arkion had also seen it earlier, back when Arkion tutored Eysin.

“He believes that my quirky bones can be healed.” Eysin feels heat rushing into her face, and a knot forms in her throat. “I disagree.” She thinks she will never move as elegantly as the masters she learns from. Eysin suspects that something must have gone wrong when she was very young. During her training with Atlas, she discovered that her fine motor skills were abnormal. Eysin has been compensating for these deficiencies with other muscles all along.

“Dancing lessons are what you’ll need – poetry won’t fix this.” Arkion puts the book back on the table. “If you had ballet lessons, you’d not have any problems.”

Eysin doesn’t even hear the bit about ballet – that’s how unacceptable this idea is to her. “Well, that koan did trigger something.” Eysin started to see some of her unresolved issues in a new light. “I guess when I go through the motions of contemplating them, I’ll achieve greater clarity of mind… And then maybe I won’t be as resistant to new approaches, new tricks,” Eysin smiles for Arkion, “Including dancing lessons.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Arkion offers. “There’s a long, cold, dark winter ahead, and we’ll have all the halls and music.” 

After washing his cup and cleaning up his tea-making setup, Arkion takes a few steps and makes it to the curtained, white double door. He lifts the curtain to take a swift peak outside and sees that the ghost is clear. Arkion addresses Eysin: “I’ve got no plans before lights out. What do you say? Let’s go check out how they’ve been keeping my greenhouse?”

Eysin knows where the greenhouse is in the building but hasn’t been there yet. “Sure.”

Arkion’s sixty-square-foot glass garden is in Imogen’s Mansion. Arkion had it there because this mansion used to belong to their (Arkion and Arthur) mother. They used to spend a quarter of their years there unless they were away on missions. Arkion built the Glass Garden to grow some plants and algae. Imogen inherited the house upon Arthur’s death and has promised to look after Arkion’s algae tanks.

The algae tanks are doing fine. Tomorrow is the perfect day to harvest. But the rest of the garden had grown either wild or withered, and a sweet, aggressive peppermint spread. Arkion finds something among the other wild plants, naturally dried, that he can pestle into a finer compound and mix with a dash of some other spice. “The smell will mix nicely with the mint,” he comments, lighting it up. 

They get on lying couches, dim the purple lights and dive into the cloudless night sky.  

Arkion repeats the koan, “In the vast emptiness of The Desert, in the freedom reflected in a jackal’s eyes.”

“I don’t see the point to this exercise,” Eysin says after a long sigh. 

Arkion recalls, “Andre sat with us once weekly for several years. He said he thought these exercises might bleed over to other areas in our lives, help us stay grounded during mimetic storms so that we wouldn’t lose our heads to bigger whimsical forces than ourselves and our code.”

“Well, does it work?” Eysin asks. 

Arkion shrugs, “If anything, it gives you something to do.” Arkion remembered what Andre had asked him during their dokusan about Eysin’s current koan, and he voiced it, “What do you think of the jackal?”

Eysin has an answer, “The jackal would rather take poison than be domesticated.”

Arkion finds it a familiar idea and nods in agreement.

After a few hours under the glass ceiling and the stars, aided with herbs and a gift from the house’s hostess—a bubbly light wine—they mull about jackals, the desert, poison, and domestication. Arkion holds Eysin’s hand to wrap up for the night. “I’ll walk you back to your room.”

In silence, they walk, and when they reach the door, Arkion stops from walking in, resisting Eysin’s gentle hand-pull with a frown, “Don’t take this the wrong way. I’ll need to sleep tonight. I’ll be a bit busy during the day tomorrow—I’ll finish the work on reports and all that crap so that for the rest of the fest if you like, I can spend it with you.”

Eysin smiles, “That’s alright. When do I see you?”

Arkion thinks for a moment, “Tomorrow evening, there’s a feast in Gen’s mess hall. I’d like to go with you. I’ll come by—I’ll try to make it by five tomorrow if that’s fine by you?”

* * * 

“I saw Bratka’s dogs on the way here…” Arkion speaks to a man across the heavy dining table. 

The hall bustles with people, noise, and echoes from a stage being set for a performance. Heavy old oak tables are arranged in an arc around the floor stage. The lights are dim and warm in the crowd, while the stage awaits illumination by flames and stage lighting. Long, white, translucent, silky curtains hang from the ceiling, gently waving in the breeze from hidden fans in the walls. A sequence of squeaking sounds begins as the heavy red curtains in front of the stage are pulled, allowing the performers to set up.

As the curtains obscure the view, more noise emerges behind them as performers and props are arranged. The man from the other side of the table where Arkion and Eysin sit shouts, “Yeah, I heard Bubby broke out of his cage a few days ago. They looked for him for as long as they could. And they don’t have the umbrellas…”

Sitting to Arkion’s left, Imogen comments, “Poor Atlas, his favourite. Old dog, probably went off to die somewhere…”

An announcer appears in front of the red curtain and, with a nasal voice, introduces, “Lady Valen Rozenbaer.” The crowd quiets down and focuses their attention on the stage. Arkion, Imogen, and Eysin simultaneously turn around on their long bench and lean against the table behind to watch the performance.

The thick red curtains draw back to reveal the star and her dancers performing a theatrical piece. Valen, wearing a light blue, gigantic dress, stands at the centre, playing a beautiful tune on an ancient, expensive-looking dulcimer. The dancers move gracefully around her, mimicking the motions of water, wind, and fire. As Valen sings a romantic French tune, the dancers’ movements intensify – transforming the peaceful elements into a storm and conflagration, culminating in a dramatic finale that leaves Valen alone to perform a few more songs.

“She’s incredible!” The tunes and the singing move Eysin. She makes the mistake of putting herself in the middle of this, and the experience of this talent makes her feel inadequate. 

Arkion, witnessing her performance for the first time, is also slightly impressed. “I never knew.”

“Why do you hide from her again – ?” Eysin asks.

“Flirts too much,” Arkion rubs the bridge of his nose, sensing this conversation could breed trouble, ”And she’s married…”

The man sitting behind Arkion, who had spoken earlier, laughs, “And mind you, slightly haltlose!” Half the table roars with laughter, but Arkion shoots him a disapproving look. The man turns quiet and bobs his head to encourage the rest to quiet down.

Sometime later, as a group of musicians plays folk instruments on stage and people begin rising from their tables to join in dancing, games, or conversations, Valen approaches Eysin, Arkion, Imogen, and the rowdy locals.

“Missed you at the afternoon meeting,” Valen says, her voice as sweet as honey and her lashes fluttering like butterfly wings. “Have you made a decision?”

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” Arkion replies with a diplomatic smile. “I won’t be thinking about it today either.” Arkion raises his chalice filled with cherry ale to his lips for a quick sip.

In return, Valen offers a polite smile and graciously lets him off the hook. “At least you got rid of that hideous beard…”

“Oh, that was just smuggling in a few exotic birds…” Arkion jokes.

But something in the joke catches Valen off guard. She’s no longer poised and radiant. Her mouth gapes open as if she wants to speak, but no words emerge. Valen appears shocked and taken aback.

Arkion leans closer to Valen and gently shakes her shoulder. “It’s a joke…” Arkion then stands up, preparing to introduce Valen to the table, and asks, “Would you like to join us? They’re about to bring out the pig.”

Valen is flattered and can’t help but flash her perfect teeth in a smile. She chuckles, then takes a half-step back from him. “Thank you, but I should get back to the kids… Please reconsider meeting me tomorrow.” Valen turns away before Arkion can decline.

“Do I have to worry about her?” Eysin feels intimidated by Valen and the casual way she and Arkion interact.

“No,” Arkion answers firmly and asks with genuine concern, “Why?”

“I felt threatened…” Eysin speaks without eye contact, fidgeting with the specs in her hand. “And so did she.” Eysin quickly looks at Arkion’s eyes and sees his raised eyebrows and how serious he is about it, which calms her somewhat. “If you have unfinished business with her, you should deal with it. I don’t want to compete for your attention…”

“Oh, slap you!” Arkion growls and then leans closer to Eysin, “The only possible business we have with Valen is getting her from here to Lif. And I see no reason why I should personally attend to that. I want to enjoy my time. With you, if possible, even if we’re stuck here for the remainder of the lockdown.”

Eysin looks at him again, “Where would you rather be then?”

Arkion reveals, “I’d hoped to spend this festival at Atlas’ place, not here.”

*

They dance, get drunk, and wander around the mansion until the cold becomes unbearable. “I’m running out of steam,” Eysin says, “I think I’ll head back to my room.” They take the stairs and stop before Arkion’s hallway – Clarissa, the security chief, appears to be waiting for him there.

Arkion growls silently, “Ugh, the sooner I face it, the better, I guess…”

Eysin stops him from showing up there. “Forget about them. Come crash on my couch. I’ll even light the fireplace for you. And you can make some more of that tea.”

Arkion shakes his head, “I don’t want to invade your privacy.”

Eysin smiles, “The couch. And I’ll kick you out in the morning.”

“Well, it is a comfy couch…” Arkion knows, as he spent a few festivals in that room.

* * *

Eysin and Arkion sit in the kitchen that morning, sipping tea and gazing out the window. Eysin is speaking about fame through heroism and other similar achievements. The idea of doing something grand with her newfound powers has been on her mind.

“Grand, if you think you have it in you,” Arkion says, perhaps teasing, perhaps sceptical.

Eysin doesn’t appreciate the discouragement. “They were all nobodies until they wore it—and like all of them, I’ll get my chance,” she says, referring to all the people who have worn the framework before her.

“Opportunity is just one part of the story – you will know what to do with that opportunity once it’s time.” Arkion lets himself loose, “You might surprise yourself and live out the rest of your days shell-shocked – that is, if you don’t die in the process of your grand martyrdom. Better to keep a low profile.”

“It sounds like you think I don’t have it in me.” Eysin feels an unwelcome weight on her shoulders.

“You know, Andre first brought the framework to us.” Arkion goes back in time, “I don’t know where he came from – he was already there when I was a kid. Andre taught me some literacy and social manners. What he did for me was a welcome foundation for everything else I’ve pursued. 

So, ever since I was a boy, I, too, wanted to become a hero. But they don’t hand me a legendary suit, and they refuse to wear them too – and they’re expensive to come by—so I need to make myself—make myself do something—be strong and act. 

Andre used to say a hero is someone who proves excellent things can be done. But most people wait around and see whether someone like them does it. There’s no use sitting around and waiting, watching what others do.“

Eysin notes, “You’re already a hero…” 

Arkion shakes his head, “We won’t see statues raised in our names. Remember that—and it’s for the better. I’m not dead yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I, too, still have plenty of opportunities to become the next dumbass villain.”

Eysin protests, “You can sink ships with a punch—You’ve taken down fleets with just your small crew. You already have a name along the entire Nordic coastline. I wouldn’t be surprised to find leaflets with your face on them, wanted for x amount of credits.”

Arkion hesitates momentarily, unsure whether discussing this is a good idea, not wanting to appear too self-congratulatory. “The highest bid on my head, zerk, and weapon collection: 20 billion.”

Eysin finds that statement appropriate to be teased, “Ah, the misfortunes of important people. You could get one of the smaller countries around here to assemble an army just to capture you – to buy something nice for their people—like a functional water infrastructure.”

Arkion is classified as a Potentially Destructive Force of Nature in some parts around the Baltic Sea.

“See, that’s why I won’t so freely decide whether you want to partner up for this.” Arkion referred to a different partnership here, and Eysin understood it – marriage.

Eysin says, “I can handle a small country coming after us.”

“Ooh.” Arkion puffs his chest, teasing in return.

“But—I can’t handle the competition.” Eysin refers to other potential brides, considering Valen or the Security Chief from earlier, Arkion’s close ties with Hel, or different shared histories with the women in the Faction—who was he to Sylrissa? Who was he to Imogen? They all seemed to know him quite well—and not as their sergeant.

Arkion repeats, “No competitors.”

A long stretch of silence follows, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire in the oven.

“Is there anything you want to do today?” Arkion asks. 

Eysin thinks briefly and then nods, “There’s something I’ve meant to do, but I keep forgetting.” Eysin gets up, disappears into the other room, and returns with something. It is a small device that resembles half of an old, robust key.

Arkion recognises the shape. “Oh, is that a compact server?”

“How could you possibly guess that?” Eysin thought it didn’t look like your regular compact servers—the design was unique.

Arkion says, “I’ve seen one just like it.”

“That’s impossible!”

Arkion shrugs. “What do you want to do with it?”

Eysin explains, “This key holds a library – old digitised books, research, documents. This mansion has a library and a server – so I’ll take a look and share a copy.”

Arkion says, “Alright, I’ll take you there and let you in. You should get your access card since you’re now in our faction anyway. Do you want to go there now?”


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