Chapter 1: A Cup of Fumes

The campfire has relaxed, almost done burning. The dawn was near. Eysin was sitting near the fire, wrapped in a blanket, looking sickly. Calmly watching the flickers, as it was burning out. The old man, who had earlier introduced himself as Vinu Laos, poured from the thermos the last cup of tea and offered it to her.

“You saw him earlier today?” He asks.

“He asked me to deliver a letter,” with a shaky hand she reaches into her pocket and grabs a folded, crumpled envelope. The envelope has bloodstains on it. So does her hand. She unwraps and lifts it between their faces. It’s still unopened.

Eysin handed the bloody envelope to Vinu, as if in exchange for the cup of tea. He takes it, opens it carefully and reads a few lines. He then folds it again and puts the letter back into the envelope.

“How are you feeling?” He asks.

She thinks about it for a little bit and comments, “I’m cold, burns here and there.”

“And how’s the wound?”

Eysin places her hand below her left ribs, she gently presses on it, all dry doesn’t feel anything. She presses a little harder, because it almost felt like it had never been there – and that wasn’t right – she’d been terrified about it past this whole night, “I feel nothing.”

“Then it’s done healing. Hadn’t he used the marbles on you…”

“What exactly healed me?”

“A small pink marble,” Vinu holds another one of them between his fingers, and then it disappears again. “Think of it like stem-cells – your framework started building from that point, so, it was ready to work in that area…”

She can feel something move in her flesh, around her bones – sometimes it hurts, other times it simply itches. Sometimes it hurts like all her nerves are getting strong electric shocks.

“Once the red and the white have integrated, I am going to have to bother you again. The white marble was Andre’s computer, and it has some information on it that will help.”

“Help with what, exactly?”

Vinu didn’t know whether he should elaborate. She needn’t get involved, he thought. But she was involved already, so, maybe she deserved to know what she had been running for during the last day and night.

“RESO is compromised. Some of the upper levels of their guilds are infiltrated by a bunch of Nords. They are gathering information and undermining our region’s security.”

“Is that why Kamille was helping me?” She shakes her shoulders, raises her eyebrows, eyes stuck in the fire.

“She’s a curious case. I guess house Rozenbaers are looking to replace the Nords once they are gone,” Vinu shrugs.

She decides that she doesn’t care about those affairs.

“Andre has asked me to get you back to Perona.”

Without comment, she just drank the tea. It had a pleasant taste, but it had been better one cup before. When it had been hotter. Even so, it felt comforting. But she made the mistake of recalling the last time she had seen him. Andre had been shot dead in his workshop. “They shot him like some dog.”

“And you.” The old man says it without displaying any emotion. He tries to get out the last drops of tea from the thermos, right into his mouth, then closes it and puts it aside. “In any case, you shouldn’t return to Reval. Until we have flushed out all the Nords, it’s not safe for you, as they see in you an accomplice of the so-called crime.”

“Crime,” she mumbles to herself. She hadn’t done anything wrong. That Andre was dead – she had nothing to do with it.

That she was being chased in town – she had nothing to do with it. Eysin didn’t know what she was involved in. Andre had spontaneously involved her in this mess.

And Vinu had thoroughly apologized for it, made her situation as pleasant as currently possible, and promised compensation. She’ll have a place to stay in Perona, she’ll have food, books – and at her own pace, she can return to something resembling a normal life.

“You can keep the place. Your service has been valuable to us. You’ve earned it, it’s yours. There will be a contract to back it all up.”

But it didn’t look like the prize cheered her up in any way at all. She was experiencing a kind of a shock, because until that day, for the last two years – her life in Reval had felt rather peaceful, predictable and secure.

There was something else Vinu hesitated to speak up about for a whole half an hour. Soon it was dawn, the birds started singing – it promised to become a beautiful summer day.

“Alternatively, you can come with me to EESO,” he finally offered. “Continue there what you studied with Andre, in RESO.”

This offer seemed to do something else for her, emotionally. She still felt very sick, there was a silver tree growing inside her, after all. But she felt curious, and for the first time looked into the man’s eyes. His eyes had silver scarring, much more intense than Andre had had. Vinu’s face had the perfect tan, suggesting he spent quite some time outdoors. But not many wrinkles, impressive for his age. And it looked like he shaped his white beard regularly – at this hour, it looked like he soon needed to get back to it.

“You’ll have the framework fully integrated in a few hours anyway, and you have in your possession a powerful computer – which, no doubt you will quickly learn to use well. Should you choose to go to Perona, I’m going to have to ask you to never touch those things.”

That Zerker could bend bullets with that armour, no one could ever shoot me like that again. Then again, I doubt any spaghetti-armed ragdoll like me could become a Zerker. I’d have to be born into it or something. At least that’s what it was like for anyone in the soldier class in Reval. “Can’t you remove them?”

“Not a great idea,” Vinu rubs his chin and cringes.

“Andre removed them, somehow, didn’t he… So, it should be possible.”

“Oh, it’s not a question of possibility. You’ll be weakened for your whole life, I will not impose such a thing on you. Either way, this will stay with you. Your choice if you go with it to Perona or come with me to Oeselia.”

Eysin had heard a little bit about Oeselia. A large island to the west, a small state of its own, ruled by a bunch of rich people. Old money connected to the Baltic Pirates and new money largely owed to the various orchards. Famous food and drinks on the shelves, Winter Grapes and Winter Olives – right from Osel.

Otherwise, Oeselia was famous for their Eesian Temple and their rapidly growing army of Eesian Zerkers. EESO and the Brotherhood. But unlike the Reval gladiators, calling themselves a military and such, EESO and the Brotherhood preferred to call themselves Security Guilds.

She seems to give it a thought and then feels the heavy pull of this last night, she gently rubs the bandaids over her gunshot wound, “think, I’ve had it with guilds and houses…”

“You’ll see, EESO is nothing like RESO. And Oeselia is nothing like Reval. I think you should come. Unless you have something you want to return to, in Perona.”

A few minutes later – her bones were hurting. The pain came in pinches and waves. She wanted to move, escape from her own body, expel the bones from her skin. But the old man held her still, wrapped tightly in her blanket, “that’s the worst part, it’ll be over, soon.”

And soon it was, all the pain was gone. Her skin was itching here and there, and she scratched it. A speck of dead skin falls off, and a barely visible metallic dot would sprout in place. That’s the nerve-ending of the framework. The Silver Tree, something Eesians called the Framework. These tiny silver dots appeared, sparsely, on her hands, fingers, head, face, everywhere.

For the next phase, her vision got blurry, and she could tell that something was happening with her eyes, but it didn’t hurt. Uncomfortable enough to make someone throw up – Eysin got spared that part, though, as she had not eaten anything for a while.

* * *

Two fully suited Eesian Zerkers return to the campsite – one is bare in his suit – a suit that is very metallic and white – silver-white, and the other is wrapped in black rags. Some of the rags were torn – because they had been used to patch up Eysin. They bring some canned food and canned drinks, a few more blankets for those who plan to stay there for a few more days.

“We heard of your daughter,” said the Zerker with the white suit. He had earlier introduced himself to Eysin as Bartel.

“Then you will stay in Reval and track her down.” Vinu said decidedly, “The Black Rain will offer their help, yes?” He looked at the other black wrapped Zerker, and the Zerker nodded once, in turn. Koi JR, what is it, “junior”? Eysin had always been poor at remembering names, guessing she might meet them again, it would be polite to remember them. Bartel from the Brotherhood, Koi Junior from the Black Rain, Vinu Laos – the big brans of EESO, an advisor for house Atelbaer. Atelbaer – why does that name sound so familiar?

“And has anything come to light about Hel?” He continued talking to the Zerkers.

“Arkion sent a signal.”

“Arkion?”

“Yeah, they got held up in the east. Apparently, a bear had destroyed his vehicle.”

“What the fuck were they doing in the east?” Vinu is applying some pressure to his temples.

“There was a worm,” Bartel shrugs.

“You think Arkion is into worms now? Use your head. It’s where certain plants bloom at this time of the year. So, he went there with Hel?”

“Yes, and he said they are on their way here.”

“Better late than never, I guess.”

 

Vinu returned to Eysin, inspects her eyes and sees that she has regained her vision, her skin colour has returned, no more shivers and cold sweat, but she looks very tired.

“I’ll now extract the information from you and then you get some rest. Sleep for a few hours while I wait on some news…” He takes her hand, and onto his arm, a silver liquid appears from the tiny metallic dots from his skin.

He quietly mumbles some words Eysin does not understand, as if, calls out something similar from Eysin’s hand, too. It startles her, “Easy, I’m just taking the information we need…”

It only takes a few seconds. He lets go of her hand and helps her stand up. On her way to the tent, he stops her for a moment and puts the envelope back into her hand, “looks like he wrote the letter for you.”

 

A few hours later, when she had still failed to fall asleep, she could hear a conversation between Vinu, a woman named Hel and a man they called Ark. Vinu tried to keep it quiet, but he was furious with them.

“Well, had anyone told me what this was about, I wouldn’t have gone,” Hel protested. “Why wouldn’t you tell me this was the nature…”

“Dear, none of us knew what this was going to be about. Andre couldn’t tell what it was. So, I can’t hold you to any fault either. Suppose I just need to rethink your degree of reliability.”

“Did I get the meet killed?”

“She’s sleeping in the tent. Listen, you best not return to Reval.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Hel answers, “I’ve asked Arkion to take me to Germany.”

Vinu sighs, “Arkion cannot take you to Germany.” He turns to the man and reminds him, “you know it, boy, it’s either Reval or you pick up the new class.”

“Class won’t start in another 3 months, I’ll make it back on time.”

“Now, if I’m not going to see any evidence of bear on your vehicle…”

* * *

A few months passed, and a question prompted her to think back to the day she was freezing in a tent. She was far from it now – cosy on a very much used leather couch, a warm fuming cup filled with red liquid, in her hands. The white fumes smelled of watermelon.

“So, why did you join EESO?”

Eysin couldn’t tell the young Zerker the real story. She had made up a shorter one in case people asked, so, her answer would always be, “I joined out of spite. They wouldn’t give me a promotion at RESO, so, I came here, instead.”

But the real story had been quite something else.

“You got in here through Andre?”

“Yes, he was my teacher back at RESO, taught me all the basics about Eesian. The language, code. And he was a damn good teacher, too.”

* * *

Eysin had met Andre under dire consequences. At Reval, in the darker streets – Eysin had no business being there, guaranteed to get in trouble – but it also happened to be the fastest way out of the city. Andre had been in the area on some strange sort of assignment of his own. He’d seen Eysin walk alone on the street, and anticipated if she went ahead, she’d be approached by the local thugs, so, he took it upon himself to help her get through the street safely.

So, an old thin man, hair browner than normal for a man at his age, took next to her and scolded, although calmly, with a heavy accent, “it’s not a good area, you will get in trouble.”

And while his accent hinted at West-Evropean, her way of speaking was something of a local stray, “yeah, no shit, sir.”

They kept the pace and walked through the dark alley.
Andre was curious, “what are you doing here?”

“I’m leaving.” Had it with this shithole. “I’m out of leads, old-timer,” she sighs, “and I lost all my shit.”

Andre takes a closer look at her – a small woman, hair painted red, wearing black rags. Three pieces of jewellery stand out to him most – three thin silver-white bracelets.

“I could offer you a place in my guild if you like. I am a teacher, I can teach you about these,” he points his finger at the bracelets.

Eysin raises her hand to her eye level and suspiciously looks at the bracelets, “you’re in a jewellery making guild?”

“No, nothing of the sort.” He says with a smile, “what you wear are Eesian arm rings. You must have heard of it.”

“Eesian” was all over the news. Most news was about the catastrophe around the Black Sea. The video footage and the photography of a gigantic fountain now in place of the sea – a large hurricane of muddy waters.

Millions of people in exile, many hunting worms and laying waste to the temples they had built. And on the other hand – the bandits over the Silk Road are learning to use this technology to their advantage. The worst cutthroats and murderers on the continent were on their way to becoming the most dangerous force down in Evropa. The New Pulse.

And then there was more recent news of a rabid wolf monster, causing trouble at a village nearby, killing 34 people. Apparently, it had licked the toxic liquid that the worms bring up with themselves. People who have come in touch with it say that it smells like fresh meat.

And the worms – now, they were something else altogether.

A strange phenomenon that was attempted to keep hidden at first – a few hundred years ago, boring holes underground, accidentally creating sinkholes and swallowing whole villages.

Soon, the big worms – big as big apartment buildings – were revealed to the world, and humans began studying them with greater interest. Over a few hundred years humans learned a lot, and the possible applications around the worms all turned out connected to warfare.

They seemed to be of alien origin, but evidence also indicated they had been around this planet for thousands of years. For all this, while the humans were on the planet, in all the recorded history – the worms had escaped them. Or maybe someone had worked hard to keep them hidden?

These days, the only way the worms’ existence and mysterious business would affect a layperson is when said layperson found an emerged worm on their territory, self-activated. They could sell off the marbles the worms carried for a small fortune. Buyers were guilds like EESO or FRSO – or any other Eesian Guild.

Which usually meant: a guild rich enough to be able to afford running in the Eesian arms race.

And there of course were other parties interested in it, but without making it a fair trade – started raiding places where the worms showed up. That’s the daily life of Silk Road for you.

* *

“I am headed to some friends, right now.” Said Andre, “I will take you to them and they will safely take you anywhere you wanted to go.”

They had made it to the end of the dark alley. Reached the edge of Reval. It was quiet, the wide, high road ahead, headed south, was empty, the big lights were on – like a big stage inviting for a long walk.

The road south was one lifted above the grounds – because the grounds below had turned into marshlands – but the road itself had been important enough for hundreds of years to maintain it – even with a high cost as it was. But currently, the roads were quiet – no transit – there had been another accident that blocked off the whole trade route somewhere down in Latvia. The roads had been closed for a few weeks now.

Eysin didn’t know if it was safe to go with this guy – to his friends, “who are your friends?” But when she looked at that wide, dark road, disappearing into the distance – that didn’t spell exactly “safe” either.

“A smaller security guild, the Black Rain, they call themselves. They often happen to help people find their way back home.”

“What business do you have with them?”

“I can’t talk about that. In any case – I can’t let you go out there on your own like this. So, please, come with me, you’ll get home safe.”

Home – she hadn’t been back home in years. Didn’t even know if there was anything left of it. No contact with anybody, no news. She had no idea if her absence had even been noticed. They abandoned me far before I had abandoned them. She dreaded finding out she’s not welcome back. These thoughts made her nervous and she wanted to get her mind off it.

Eysin started fidgeting with the bracelets. Compared to these thoughts, compared to the menacing road – this man indeed seemed like a lucky straw. “What are they?”

“They could be a few things,” he says, almost whispering, “they can be unpacked. They can contain information, they can be devices, they can be parts of a larger device. There is a way to read them, like a blueprint.”

Eysin takes one off and hands it to him, “can you read it for me?”
“I can try,” as he holds the bracelet, from a few points on his hand, a silver liquid starts surfacing, it flows towards the bracelet, moves around, feeling what there is to feel, and then he hands it back, “it’s encrypted.”

“Can’t you unlock it?”

“I could… But maybe better if you do so yourself.”

“I don’t have that stuff,” she responds.

“I wouldn’t mind taking you on as a student. I could teach you.”

“Where do you teach?”

“RESO.”

Eysin knew what RESO was. A large guild at the other side of the wall in Reval. The other Reval. RESO was a guild that accepted only rich locals. Outsiders only if they were from well-known households. RESO was a guild for rich people, established by some of the richest houses in the Reval. But not rich enough to afford Eesian technology to the point that they could clothe their whole staff in it.

Even though there was a Temple on their territory, there was only one family that was taking care of it – the Rozenbaers – and even though they were interested in it, they alone could not afford Eesian technology, and the other guilds were being stingy – more interested in trade with the Nords and such.

In any case – there was no way for her or the likes of her to ever get over that side of the wall, and now, this man was offering just that. “I’m a stray, they’ll kick me out as soon as I get in.”

“I can get you to RESO, that’s a small challenge.”

* * *

All that had taken place a couple of years ago. Eysin had accepted Andre’s offer and a few days after hanging out at the Black Rain holdout – where she also had first seen Koi Jr, but didn’t care to memorise any names, she put on some rich people clothes and wore a classy looking wig. Someone from RESO came to pick her up from the Black Rain Headquarters, she got to take a ride in a cool car, and that car would take her to the other side of the wall.

Andre was there to greet her. The sights bedazzled, her, however – the buildings were grand, and everyone looked so good. The streets were beautifully maintained – full of flowers and exotic trees – and soon she found out that they persisted even through the winter.

“Reval Security Organ” spelt the monument in front of the building that they were going to enter.

“Hi, I am Kamille,” a tall woman reacher her hand for shaking. She wasn’t so much tall as she impressed Eysin by the way she held herself and walked. Kamille looked like a goddess, and Eysin felt a little intimidated by it.
“Oh Andre, you think I cannot see through this little play,” Kamile turns to him, smiling. She had a strong Nord accent. “When the leading house finds out you bring in strays, they won’t take it well.”

“There’s got to be something we can do for her,” Andre pleads.

“Andre, there are thousands and thousands of strays out there, do you intend to bring them all in and teach them coding?”

“I can’t bring them all. But you know I would.”

“This isn’t EESO, you know the supremacist shit that goes on here. You are free to send them all to EESO, if you so wish, I heard they are still accepting new people. But when the shitheads here find out where she comes from, it’s not going to be pretty for her.”

“Her movements will be limited, she will not be changing any guilds here, I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“And when you leave?”

“She’ll leave.”

“Why not just send her to EESO?”

“Perhaps, in time.” EESO was also going through troubled times, Andre didn’t know whether he could entrust any student of his to go there at this time. For the same reason, he had recently left them.

In a while, Eysin integrated into this new life quite well, with the few other people in the guild – slightly younger men and women than herself, they got along well. One year in, she did run into a little bit of trouble, though – one of her guildmates found out it had been a wig all along, and that she even had some kind of a tattoo.

Soon, all 5 in the small guild, Andre’s students knew, and Andre knew they knew – but surprisingly, they made no big deal out of it. These people weren’t like their parents – Andre had spoiled them a little bit. By taking them to the temple, in the evenings, and offering them wine, telling them nasty stories and having a laugh.

Andre would never, but Eysin would – also take them on a tour to the dirty city on the other side of the wall. Clubs, drugs, black rags, insane colours of hair and make-up resembling more a tribal warpaint than something that was supposed to make someone look a little more attractive.

Fun times and loads of innocent trouble.

* * *

Now, sitting there with this young Zerker who had introduced himself as Raynar, smelling the bottom half of the watermelon scented cup of fumes, she realized, she missed these people, a little bit. But thinking about them had also made her bitter – even though they had fun together, she could never really join their world.

It had become apparent to her after a small flame with one of her guildmates. The romance she had with him was short-lived and not to her advantage. She’d never be accepted if her origins were found out – and he’d never leave with her. And that realization stung like a bitch.

That cut-off part of Reval had been romantic and beautiful. These people did not skimp on building their streets and houses. They had beautiful parades, theatre events – and these people could talk! You’d never run out of things to talk with them – for they had read a lot and they were skilled in keeping conversations interesting. And that she could never join it as her true self made it all the more frustrating.

Oeselia, too, was a cut-off part of the region. It was on an island, also titled the Westmost of The Regalion, because the next potential king lived here. The head of EESO – the man Vinu Laos was in service to.

And indeed, as promised, this place had been nothing like Reval – not in any part of it. Here they had managed to preserve very old nature, most of the land was covered by a pine forest, hundreds of years old. The fresh air, the small houses – and people all around who seem to know each other, and for the most part – get along well, too. Eysin’s hands were stained blue – she’d gone to pick blueberries earlier that day.

Zerker Raynar said he came here a few years ago, Eysin had been there for just a few months.

“So, if you were in RESO, you’re a noble?” For a moment, the young man’s attention shifts from Eysin to the almost empty glass that he’s holding. It’s not releasing any fumes anymore, so he drinks up the liquid in the bottom – and his face immediately expresses regret. It’s bitter – he had expected it to taste somewhat as pleasantly as it had smelled.

“No, I had some documents forged for it.” Based on what she saw in his face, Eysin did not dare to drink up the bottom of the glass and added hers to the large collection of empty glasses on the table before them.

“What guild are you in?” He asks and then spots a woman coming in with fresh drinks on a tray, “oh, hold that one, you liked the red?” Raynar got up and went to the woman.

He smoothly picked a couple of fresh fume cups.

The red one – watermelon – a delicious smell, she smells it when he hands it over to her, and answers his question,

“Temple.”

“Aw, Leon…” Raynar is referring to the guild master.

“Don’t like him?” Eysin smiles an ironic smirk.

“You do? He is one supremacist shithead!”

No comment, but Eysin snorts a laugh. It was true – Leon had a special attitude towards those who did not come from any grand house.

Our conversationalists appear to be at a sort of a large house party. Eysin’s bunkmate brought her to this place. As soon as she sat down on that couch, this guy just started talking to her.

Raynar, a young, strong man – silver scarring in his eyes – something Eysin kept seeing around the island – knowing they must be Zerkers, from the so-called Gladiator Guild – where they trained actual guards and warriors – the security that EESO guild was known for.

Raynar had seen her around with Denea – and they had arrived together, but Denea had disappeared right after, so, he thought he’ll get to know her a little, maybe she’s someone interesting.

“What do people do at Temple Guild anyway?”

“Trying to study how they build all this, how it works.” The temples consisted of self-extracting blocks – the guild was studying how it’s possible, and why some temples are different, and why and how some blocks are special. Unique blueprints exist – and one of the largest temples in the known world – the one in Paris, holds hundreds of them. “We use these,” she raises her left hand and a silver-white glove appears on it – a liquid material coming out from a few pores of her skin, turning into a handy machine. “We take up a block… Or a marble with a blueprint on it, and sit with it…”

“You go in and you explore…”

“That’s right.” What the Eesian Scribes do – they sit with it – pick up the piece or touch it, close their eyes, and see what’s inside. Streaming as if a visual dream, thanks to an extra nervous system implemented within. “Which is pretty cool, but…” Eysin frowns now, “it’s slow and kinda boring after the first few times. I found it a little too manual. So – I figured out how to get the blocks done way faster – but Leon told me to scrap it… Which has turned me completely off…”

Eysin was quite disappointed – ever since she had joined, she had gotten ideas for experiments she wanted to try – see if she can capture a drone from the quarantine swarms by sending it some orders, hasten the block creation or copies, study more of the pinks and the blues – but soon she realized that no matter what she proposed, Leon blocked her. Eysin did entertain the chance that he may have had a little more generous reasons for doing so – but her primary suspicion was that he was a supremacist shithead and simply thought Eysin couldn’t possibly have the brain capacity to take on any serious projects.

Her few first months there had been beautiful, but also stressful. She had problems with sleeping. Denea had taken her to pick the berries thinking this would help her stress somehow. Eysin didn’t think it would do, but she went anyway because the berries tasted good.

She still had bad sleep and nightmares from her last events in Reval. She’d been sure she’d die – and those moments returned in her dreams very strongly.

“Thought to try any other guild?”

Changing guilds wasn’t an option in RESO. She assumed that to be the case there, too. She recalled what she had seen the Zerker do that got her out from the park – the suit stopped the bullets! No one could even lay a finger on that man.

“Do you think I could become a Zerker?” She asked.

Raynar pretends to take an analytical look at her.

She had found out that here it wasn’t considered a class, and Zerkers were all kinds of different people with different backgrounds. But they all were physically fit and strong.

The only way into the gladiator guild on RESO was if you were taken to that guild right at birth. The learning started in early childhood. But the early learning wasn’t the most important aspect – these children were brought up exclusively by a house – to ensure their house was the only one they knew to be loyal to. Any outsiders would possibly get the idea to betray them, to return to their other homes…

Raynar shrugs, “Can’t see why not. We could always use more people who know how to do the scribe stuff…”

Eysin snorts a laugh, trying to imagine herself a gladiator, a Zerker. “Even with the spaghetti that my arms are?”

“You’ll train, you’ll get over it.”

“I’ve never trained. Last in class. No knack for it, sir.” She takes a deep whiff of the watermelon smell, and now thinks she may want something sourer, instead.

“I wouldn’t worry about that. No one would expect you to become a combatant. You do know that Denea comes with us half-time, right?”

“Maybe. But she’s physically strong, too.”

“She wasn’t like that at the start.”

“Ah, never mind,” Eysin almost changed her mind about wanting to join. She imagined the physical work she’d have to go through to get anywhere near Denea’s level would be impossible for her.

* * *

But the stress and the nightmares kept her on her toes. She became more easily irritated and even more quickly fed up with Leon’s attitude. It took only one more small disagreement with Leon to make Eysin change her guild out of spite.

She took a whole evening to mull over the kinds of disagreements she and Leon had. She started trying to understand what she was feeling at all – being in this place, and she decided, this has been a real disappointment, so far. If things aren’t going to improve in any way at all – I’m just gonna leave and see what I’ll come across while trying to retire in Perona. There is no way that I am going to feel any better in that particular guild… And if the dude said, and Denea confirmed – that I could apply to any other guild that I like – and I will most likely be given a chance to join.
So, what is there me to choose from? Would I like to become a tailor? A shoemaker? A key master? An accountant, a janitor? A baker? A tree shaper? A forest guardian! Or… No, never mind anything that has anything to do with the sea. I do love to eat fish, but I’ll never go to the sea for fishing.

If there was anything she could choose from – anything that there was to do in this little island society – what would she most likely enjoy? She tried imagining what life could be for her if she went to work for one of the orchards. She’d have to take care of the trees and the field, and pick the fruit just when they got ripe. There’d be a small community of us, caretakers, and we’d have a house of our own – where we live, sleep, dine and why not also have some fun, special events. Birthdays, births, deaths, funerals… Or drama between people – there was lots of potentials. And she would have loved to have belonged to such a community – but for some reason, she thought she’d not be fit for it.

She was afraid that any community that she picks will end up disliking her. And in time – she’d have to move out because no one would rather be around her. The typical repertoire of dramatic thoughts for a stray. It’s why the strays tend to remain strays – they don’t like to take any chances. And they don’t think they have the worth with them to be worthy of getting to bother a stranger – a stranger who has it all together.

* * *

“No, they don’t always have it together. All these communities have their little problems. Between agreements, between people, due to the rules, due to any recent traumatic events… And sure, this place has seen plenty of trauma.” She’d gone over to a bar that she’d been passing for weeks, now. She spoke to the barkeep. The barkeep seemed to have thought along, he seemed engaged enough to carry on.

“That’s right, there are so many small communities here, little networks – you just have to find one that is most agreeable to you. Maybe you don’t want to join the Orchards guild, because you don’t like their certain rules. For example, they have recently made a rule in which they forbid having romantic relationships within the guild – and they were also forbidden to have those kinds of relationships from some particular guilds. Their rivals, perhaps – either for capital competition – or maybe sometimes it’s personal.”

“I can’t believe you have thought about that,” Eysin shrugs and raised her eyebrows at her cocktail glass – as if she was showing it to some other character in the scene. It was a drink that was sweet and sour, and at the end, it also brought a spicy sting. She loved the taste. This barkeep was on another level.

“I could come to this bar, work here, right?”

“Well, not exactly – see, this bar isn’t a separate business. I’m neither the owner in it, neither a worker. This is a club – we don’t usually welcome strangers, but I let you in any way because I heard you were thinking to switch…”

“Why is that so interesting to you? What does it matter to you…”

“See, we can talk to each other – I am having fun talking to you, you are having fun talking to me… You pick a guild, and you are still welcome to come here, but when you do, you also give me some information.”

“What guild do you have in mind?”

“The florists.”

“Excuse me? Really? You’d see ME becoming a dress-wearing happy flower-lady?”
He must have tried to imagine it – it manifested and he just shrugged, “can’t see why not, but that’s not my point. You will go there to inform me about some people who are in that guild.”

“Oh? Are you trying to sneak your way into some girl?” Eysin slammed the unbreakable glass onto the table. As if she figured it out, she even pointed a finger at him, bang. She would have snipped her finger, but she knew she wouldn’t successfully make the snip now. Her hands were too moist.

“No, not me. I’m married. But my buddy is interested in one of them, yes.”

“You’d advise me to pick my future calling just so your horny friend can get some…” Eysin looked if there was still anything to drink from the glass. It was empty.

And the barkeep noticed it and started making another cocktail. “This one will be a little more different.” He starts making it, and in between switching the shaking, he comments on their previous topic, “listen, pick whatever you like. Most will give you a chance. There are no safe or risky bets. It’s all the same. What do you do?”

“I’d drop out from Gladiators…”

20 seconds and he finished to cocktail, he drops in a small olive and puts a tiny umbrella on it, et voila, Eysin has a new interesting drink in front of her.

And after taking away his hands from the presentation, “what makes you think that?” He didn’t even pretend to be surprised, but he wanted her to say it out.

And she understood – she had to say it out loud just once, “I am a weak sack of shit.” She said it with a big smile, and she was smiling at the cocktail – because it looked so pretty, and it was promising to be super delicious.

“But why would you want to join the Gladiators?” Another question only intended as a neatly reflecting soundboard.

He was good, slow and compassionate – a very interesting barkeep, indeed.

“It would be crazy… I think if it is going to happen anywhere – then learning what they do is going to make me as robust against the shit that’s coming as possible… I need protection, I need to be able to protect myself.” And she wished that one day there will be someone else she would want to protect or aid, too… “But physically – I am a weak sack of shit. The exercise was painful for me, I tried a few times – and right at the start – I was pushed to do so much that it broke me – physically. Day one, oops, hip injury…”

“You shouldn’t overdo like that… That’s why you need…”

“A coach? It was the coach who basically told me to not pay any attention to what my own body was screaming.”

“No good coach would do that…”

“Well, he was a piece of shit rapist pig anyway.”

“Condolences,” the barkeep started cleaning her previous glass.

“And joining the Gladiators will not be like going to the gym with an idiot. I went to the gym for the looks, mostly… I guess you can’t prepare for what’s possibly coming in a dumb gym anyway… But a guild like that… But I think I can’t possibly qualify. My weakness has reached pathological levels – I can’t get in the needed form… I wouldn’t be able to participate in any of the drills, because I could die in them.”

“Sweety…” The barkeep raised his hand to stop her, “you will get a personal agenda when you join, and you will have proper masters – who are interested in getting to know your strengths and weaknesses, and see what to boost and decide what to leave behind… The base training with others, of course, can be a little jarring – there indeed is a baseline… But see, you’ll be formed into teams – and if your team has to carry you halfway back – and they successfully do so – they will have proven themselves good comrades.

You will personally meet some of the Exos and they will work out with you what you do. You said you’re currently at the Temple Guild, and you have a computer… And the guild is looking for people well versed in that. They have other applications on those computers that security can leverage well. So, you won’t be the one who manages to keep running for the longest time or wins most duels, but you’ll be taught how to usefully operate the computer – to guide your team, transpose the map, read the field. Maybe you won’t be a good footsoldier, but they will have other good uses for you.”

“I wouldn’t even have imagined…” What she heard made her shy away from the guild, again. Suddenly – what the Gladiator Guild was about, seemed so much more impressive than she had suspected it to be.

“Well, do you have anyone you want to spy on in Gladiator guild?” She asked with a theatrical low voice. She took another sip of the strawberry tasting cocktail after that.

“The club you are in, sweetie, is the Gladiator guild’s.”

* * *

Eysin went to Leon the day after, to inform him of her decision.

Leon had a conflicting aura about him – half the girls in the guild saw nothing but genius, and the other half often had to bite their tongue, because they had pointed out something surprisingly hurtful to him before – and the consequences to that were never graceful. A strange sort of an anti-charm.

To Eysin – that anti-charm felt concernedly familiar. Even the way he spoke, his accent – in some strange way sounded much like a man unpleasant she’d had to deal with in the past – even before she had gone to RESO.
But because Eysin had respect for Vinu Laos – and Vinu Laos had approved of this guy for some reason – there has to be something good about him, too, right?

And when Eysin told Leon of her plans, he burst into a loud, forced, and ridiculing laughter. After he signed the release document, he said, “alright, see you back here in a month.”

“Why’d I come back here?”

“You’ll drop out. Look at you! You think you come from Reval or whatever place and know how life works? Do you understand what loyalty means? Will you keep hopping around places as soon as you feel things get a little too difficult for you? You strays are a little too fickle to handle that kind of work. But that’s okay, I’ll let you back in.” It wasn’t his call, really, but he liked to say it anyway.

“No… I mean… What makes you think I would come back here…”

He snorts another laugh, puts away the tablet, and coughs, “good luck with your experiment.”

As soon as she stepped out from those rooms, a heavy burden as if had lifted from her, and on her walk towards the Terratorium – where older Security members were currently having a fun match, and she looked down on it, and saw figures in silver-white suits running around silver-white blocks, shouting, screaming and knocking each other out – another weight snuck in.

She receives a message that her application to join has been approved, and the training starts in a week. And so, bullets become a problem of history.

And if you want to know how Eysin does at the gladiator guild – you’re going to have to keep reading.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 1: A Cup of Fumes

  1. matios says:

    I am at a loss and so excited. BEAUTIFUL WORLD BUILDING.

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