A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 2) Shaped of Shadow - Part 2

Hearing the hymns of blood does not make you a monster. You should feel honoured, for the gods saw fit to grant you visions of peoples’ death, and by extension, the pleasure of saving their lives.”

The prospect filled Esther with hope. But common prejudice against conservators quickly robbed Esther of her enthusiasm. “But what about the blood force?” It was the reason people like Lordess Olga hated conservators.

Syr rey-Taleen wrinkled her nose and grimaced. “An abhorrent lie, generated by prejudice and perpetuated by idiots. The blood force is as real as a winged horse; it’s a fallacy created upon baseless evidence and fear, nothing more.”

Esther collapsed against the backrest of her chair. From the moment she was sent to live with her uncle and Lordess Olga, her education had largely focused on the terrors of the old blood mages and how the conservators were no better. Everyone said the blood force was real and that heeding a conservator’s warning sentenced other people to die.

Was it all a lie?

“You were right to come here with Sister Vessany,” Syr rey-Taleen said, cutting through Esther’s astonishment. “But in order to make the most of this second chance, you must set aside old judgements. It will be hard, but under my tutelage, you shall be safe while you learn to listen to the call of blood. Soon, you will soon hear the hymns early enough to save your cynosure’s life.”

“My what?”

“Cynosure is the object of your blood hymns, girl. The word means ‘someone at the centre of our attention.’ ” Syr rey-Taleen reached across the desk and took Esther’s hands in hers. “I will not lie, this is a dangerous world you’ve entered. Some cynosures’ will not want to save themselves. Some you won’t identify or find in time. But those you do have a second chance at life, and they will have you to thank.”

Esther swallowed, mentally exploring the possibility such horrible visions could allow her to help others. Maybe if she went with Syr rey-Taleen and learned more, she could have saved Guardian Kessila?

Her insides crumbled. She had the opportunity to save her. She’d seen the vision but hesitated. Esther could have saved Guardian Kessila, but she’d failed.

Fresh tears formed as she realised how much she craved to distance herself from Guardian Kessila. Maybe using the strange word was the solution? “Does it help?” she asked.

Syr rey-Taleen considered for a moment and then slouched slightly. “No lies,” she breathed. “For some? Yes, using ‘cynosure’ makes everything feel less real. For others, perhaps, like us? No.”

Esther found her frankness quite soothing. “Us? Does that mean you see them too?”

“Heard them,” she corrected. “I too heard them at your age. Most of our sisters only sense or hear the hymn through the medium of sound, with no visual component. Those are not so distressing. But I heard powerful ones. Like you, I saw everything as if I were there.” She closed her eyes against a memory. Esther closed hers too, and for a moment, she felt an overwhelming sense of grief as she watched her husband die, only for time to rewind so she could watch it again for real.

The vision tore away. Esther cried out and clutched her head, mourning his loss.

Wait... she thought, coming back to her senses. I’m sixteen. I’ve never had a husband... When she opened her eyes, everything appeared very far away and Syr rey-Taleen was staring at her in shock. The connection lingered, and Esther felt a foreign flicker of fear, horror, and guilt before it faded away. Esther wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly freezing cold.

“Does this happen often?” Syr rey-Taleen asked, staring at Esther intensely.

She felt naked and vulnerable under the woman’s gaze. She nodded hesitantly. “Sometimes,” she said. “Uncle calls them intrusive thoughts.”

Syr rey-Taleen pressed her hand against Esther’s forehead without ceremony and closed her eyes. A faint tingle danced across Esther’s skin and wriggled behind her eyes.

“It is just as I thought,” Syr rey-Taleen said, keeping her expression carefully blank as she took Esther’s hands in hers. “You have the makings of an excellent conservator.”

“But what does that mean?” Esther asked.

Syr rey-Taleen couldn’t hide her reverent smile. “Like the conservators of old, you may find it possible to track your cynosures without the aid of a dowsing compass. You may even find it easier to deliver the warning because you can feel what they feel and read what they think.” She squeezed Esther’s hands and for a moment, her body flooded with warm comfort. She seemed to know exactly what Esther needed, leaving her wondering if she shared a similar ability. “It is called the conservator’s sight, and you’ll soon see that it is a wonderful gift.”

Syr rey-Taleen rose and dusted off her skirts. “The law is quite clear that you cannot serve this guildhall here in Porthpyre on the chance you hear the death of a friend or family member. I shall take you home with me. And Sister Vessany, I suppose. She may be in danger after failing her duty. Does that agree with you?”

What other choice did Esther have? She couldn’t go back to the estate, and she didn’t have anywhere else to turn. She didn’t like the idea of working as a conservator, but when the alternatives were death at the order of Lordess Olga or death by starvation as a homeless outcast, the prospect of indentured service seemed luxurious.

“I’m terrified... but I’ll do it,” she said in a small voice. “My name is Esther. Esther Varson.”

“Esther Varson? As in the former Duke’s daughter?” Syr rey-Taleen said. Esther nodded shallowly, worried she’d somehow given the wrong answer. Syr rey-Taleen noticed her fear and gave her a warm smile. “Do not be afraid, my child. I once knew your parents, is all.”

Syr rey-Taleen shimmied out from behind the desk and pulled the pins and braids out of Esther’s hair until the brunette mess fell onto her shoulders. “Where we’re going, tell no one which family you belong to, and certainly not that you predicted the Guardian’s death. Do you understand?” Esther nodded, even though she didn’t understand why she needed to keep it a secret. “Good. Now, since I know your familiar name, you must use mine, too. From now on, you may call me Vera. But first, we must discuss the issue of your apprenticeship.”

Vera left the small room and Esther followed with alarm. “Apprenticeship?” she said. “I thought I was going to be a conservator?”

“You are,” Vera said over her shoulder as they walked down the stairs. “But you must also get an apprenticeship and learn a trade. Your wages will cover your conservator guild fees and allow you to build a new life for when your visions stop. You see, not many girls are welcomed back by their families and few men are willing to marry or sponsor an ex-conservator. Learning a trade to support yourself is essential. Fortunately for you, I know someone who will have you.”

“Already? But we’ve only just met!”

“And you’re about to meet your new master,” Vera said as they re-entered the parlour where the two men and Vessany were waiting. “Esther, this old man is Syr Yarvier, though you’d best drop the title when speaking to him unless you want a clap around the ear. This younger one is his son, Esvian.” The two men nodded sceptically, wondering what game Vera was playing. “I’m willing to bet Yarvier will pay very highly to have an apprentice with the conservator’s sight.”

To Esther’s horror, the old man widened his single eye in excitement. “You’re sure of it, Vera,” he grunted, standing up to examine Esther more critically.

“As sure as can be. What do you think of her?”

Yarvier stood up with the grace of a gazelle, despite his grey hair and wrinkled skin. He examined her, prodding her occasionally. “She’s about as strong as sneeze, but she seems well fed and hale.”

The younger man, whose name Esther recalled was Esvian, stood up and picked at a small section of lace on her dress. “She comes from money. Could be good if it means she’s educated. Bad if it means she’s arrogant.”

“I’m not arrogant, you ass!” Esther protested.

“I’m not an ass, you harvel.” Esther had never heard the word before but guessed it was an insult based on the context.

“Trap it shut, ter pair of yer.” Yarvier stepped back and crossed his arms over his broad chest, which was naked under the long leather coat he wore. “I don’t care either way. If she’s got an empty head, we’ll fill it; if she’s arrogant, we’ll train it outta her. Skies Vera, she could be a three-headed ogre who bathed in chicken blood for all I care. Yer know me. E’er since yer told me about the sight, I’ve bin dying to pit it against the blood-curse and see which one comes out on top.”

The gleam in Yarvier’s eye made Esther’s stomach cramp. “Wait,” she cried. “Vera, you can’t want me to become a huntsman! I’m terrified of mice. Seeing a blood-cursed creature may give me a heart attack.” Everyone knew the disease was highly infectious and infallibly deadly. If a single drop of blood or bodily fluid from an infected creature entered a wound or orifice, the victim died within days.

“Girl, listen to me,” Vera said firmly. “You must give this opportunity a chance. Being a conservator is hard. Very few people won’t hold your nature against you, and even fewer are like Yarvier, who secretly celebrate its potential. This is your only chance to gain an apprenticeship with a master who won’t hate you.”

Vessany crept forward. “As much as they terrify me,” she whispered into Esther’s ear, “Vera is right. And you’ll need to learn to defend yourself. Taking his offer may help with that.”

Yarvier shifted his weight, and Esther’s eyes were drawn to the two swords of different lengths he carried at his hip, with the hilt of the longer sword angled higher than the shorter one. Upon closer inspection, she realised the man was armed to the teeth with a dagger at his right hip and a small knife with a thin, pointed blade strapped securely to the outside of his right calf.

“Ay, the raven-haired lass tells it true. Yer may not look like much, but yer sight gives yer potential. And I admire yer self-preservation instincts. Many a’ girl would rather face homelessness or imprisonment after hearing a hymn, but yer came here. Yer decided yer’d rather be hated than dead. I can mould that into the type of fightin’ spirit we need, just as I’ve done dozens of times before. It’ll be a hard life, granted, but it’ll give yer a type of freedom yer’ll get nowhere else.”

Shyness overcame Esther. “But what if I’m no good?”

Yarvier snorted. “If yer not any good, that’ll be mine and Esvian’s failing as your tutors. Just don’t mind Esvian’s gruff nature. He gets that from his mother, for as yer can see, I’m a ray of sunshine. Yer can be sure he’ll look after yer as if yer were his own sister.” Yarvier clapped Esther on the shoulder, so hard it made her bones rattle. “Ter conservator’s sight... What a marvel. Vee, let’s leave the youngin’s to it. We ’ave a return trip ter plan.”

⋅☾ ⚔ ☽⋅

Left alone and in silence with Vessany and Esvian, Esther’s panic caught up with her. Her life had changed too quickly for her to comprehend, so she made her excuses and fled outside.

Once away from the eyes of strangers, she cried again. Not because her life was changing, but because Marca, her best friend and confidant, had abandoned her. In Esther’s hour of need when Lordess Olga called for her death, Marca didn’t even think to defend her.

“You need to forget her,” Esther hissed to herself. “She’s gone now. Be a big girl and get over it.”

Esther sat outside for hours, welcoming the chilly night air which numbed her. At some point, Vera wrapped her in a cloak and washed the remaining traces of blood from her hands. She gave Esther a bowl of steaming vittles and a cup of warm milk, promising that a bed awaited her inside.

Esther ate and drank, but wasn’t ready to sleep. She wanted to stay with the city she’d called her home for as long as she could. She didn’t want her memories of her childhood home spoiled by the chase through the city and her aunt’s hunger for her death.

Sometime after midnight when Esther was half-drunk with fatigue and grief, a girl dressed in a black uniform stepped out from the inky shadows of the charred building. She moved like a ghost, blending with the darkness around her as if the night ran in her blood. The girl had a curved nose, dimpled chin, and cheeks that still held their childhood fullness. She was of a similar age to Esther, yet her eyes held a menacing look, one of death and suffering.

Esther wrapped the blanket more firmly around herself and watched the stranger glide through the shadows. The girl reached into her pocket. Esther was sure she would draw out a knife, but it was a folded up letter.

The shadow thrust the letter in Esther’s direction. Esther was too shocked to do anything but read it.

Niece,” the letter opened with. The blood in Esther’s veins ran cold.

This is Sassin, which is what I call all my deadly pets.” Esther looked up in shock, and the girl in black returned the look with serene indifference. “Remember her face, for she is your destiny; the person who will kill you if you break the rule. Now, be polite and ask her what the rule is.

“Rule?” Esther whispered, too dumbfounded to think of the meaning behind what she had read.

Sassin spoke with a raspy voice. It sounded like she was reciting a deeply personal prayer. “No one should learn your last name, nor your nature.”

Esther went back to reading. “My guards failed to stop you from reaching the conservators guild, so I cannot harm you without arousing suspicion onto myself. But mark my words: You corrupted blood jeopardises Marca’s future, and I would rather die than let that happen. To protect my daughter, Sassin will live near you, and I will pay for her to watch you until the end of your days. If you break the rule, Sassin will know, and she will strike. But if you obey, she’ll be nothing more than a persistent shadow.

“I am not bluffing. This girl is the seventh to bear her name, and she shan’t be the last. They’re a family tradition, so to speak, not of the Varson’s, but of my House of birth. Death and deception are the only ways to get by in this world, and I will use them to the fullest extent to protect my daughter.

“May it appease your filthy soul that should you die, I shall also. Family is always the first to be investigated upon a weeping woman’s death, but I am willing to risk my life on the chance you would rather live to spread misery than die to spite me. Such a risk is worth it if there’s a chance Marca can succeed her father without scandal.

“Goodbye, niece. You better pray this is the last time I hear of you. Be a dear and allow Sassin to take this letter when you’re done.”

Esther looked up, confused. Sassin snatched the letter from her hand.

“I’ll always be there,” she promised. “I will follow you to the end of the world, and I shall love you in the only way I know how; with death and shadow.” Very gently, Sassin stepped forward and kissed Esther’s cheek, careful to take a long inhale of her scent. “I shall live in your conscience forever. Never forget, my sister.”

Sassin disappeared into the night, as did Esther’s childhood. Suddenly, the prospect of training as a huntsman and learning to defend herself seemed very desirable.

Up Next: A lot can change in five years…

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