(Verse 1, Line 5) Stone Cold
“The only thing more important in Koryn City than money is reputation. Money buys fine swords, locked doors, and public office, but it won’t stop a brigand’s knife from piercing your gullet. On the other hand, reputation buys loyalty, fear, and respect, and no one wants to stab a man they know will stab back.”
- Excerpt from ‘Koryn City: The Arse End of Gardara.’
“You nearly shot me!” Esther stood up. “And you stole my damn kill.”
The stranger narrowed her eyes and waltzed towards their table with the surety of a tigress. Esvian watched her as if she were one, but he held his tongue as usual.
“Are we still stuck on this?” the woman said. She twiddled a stray lock of red hair around her finger. “You had no armour, only one sword, and almost no protective equipment. My dear, you needed the help. And if I ‘stole’ your kill, why was it you who got paid for my good work?”
The huntsmen in earshot, all journeyman, glanced at each other and then at Esther. She was one level higher than them on the hierarchy, which usually kept them off her back. But rank meant nothing if it was unearned or undeserved. After a moment of weighing the consequences, one journeyman allowed himself to snicker while another grumbled in disapproval.
Esther’s toes curled inside her boots as a hot flush of humiliation clawed up her spine. The need to save face and defend herself was staggering. She wanted to slap the stranger and then bash the other huntsmen’s heads against the table so hard they’d see reason.
But she didn’t. What little sense Esther still possessed reminded her it would only make the situation worse.
The woman basked in the silence and Esther wasn’t sure which would kill her first; the humiliation or the tension. Eventually, the woman extended her dainty hand towards her and said, “you may call me Edyta.”
Esther slowly reached out and took her hand. “Esther.”
Edyta shook firmly - too firmly, in Esther’s opinion. When Edyta let go, she allowed the tips of her sharpened nails to caress a line along Esther’s palm. Before she could figure out what the gesture meant, Edyta addressed the watchful huntsmen. “It’s been a long time, ladies and gentlemen. A very long time. So to celebrate my return, all drinks until Jorin calls time are on me!”
The crowd exchanged perplexed glances. When she didn’t rescind her offer, they broke into applause and shouts of gratitude. A few from each table got up and dashed to the bar, overwhelming Jorin with a barrage of orders. As they passed her by, they patted her shoulder and nodded deeply.
“Welcome back, Edyta!”
“We sure missed ya, didn’t we guys?”
“Cheers to Edyta!”
Edyta admired the change in spirit with a critical eye. “As always, the key to a huntsman’s heart is through his cups,” she mumbled. She turned around to face Esther, Esvian, and Reeve, the only three in the tavern who weren’t cheering. Esther hovered by the table in shock, Esvian had a stony expression on his face, while Reeve sat quietly with an odd glimmer in his eye. Edyta inventoried their reactions, but her face was so composed it was hard to tell whether she was pleased.
“Esvian, don’t you look dashing,” she said with no hint of warmth. Esvian regarded her carefully and refused to respond. She nodded to herself as if she expected the silence. When she looked at Reeve, her face broke out in a stunning smile. “It’s good to see you haven’t changed, you little reaver.”
He let his eyes trail across her body. “Likewise.”
Discomfort at their blatant flirting aside, Esther felt as if she were on the outside looking in. Everyone in the room clearly knew her and it left Esther feeling unexpectedly excluded.
Without awaiting an invitation, Edyta sat at their table and took Esther’s usual seat. Esther opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Esvian shook his head. It made something squirm in her belly. If any other huntsman had stolen her seat, he’d kick them off it without hesitation.
Playing along, Esther forced herself to take the remaining next to Edyta.
“So Esther dear, we both know the boys, but we don’t know each other.” She put a hand on Esther’s shoulder and slid it over her back. It was a calculated and mechanical gesture as if she’d read a manual on how to use touch to invoke trust and friendship. “Reeve, Esvian, care to introduce us?”
To everyone’s surprise, Esvian spoke first. “She’s my hunting partner of five years and our friend.” His voice dropped an octave on ‘our friend.’
Reeve caught it but wisely pretended his words had been friendly. “Edyta worked with us for a few years, but she left for family reasons a few months after you joined.” He smirked at her. “She was quite a handful back then if I recall correctly.”
Edyta plastered a fake smile on her face and waved away his response. “Oh, Reeve, please! I’ve matured a lot since then.” Esther didn’t miss the way she pushed her chest out as she said it. “You know, dear Esther, this here used to be my seat.” Her breath came out short and shallow until she forced it to slow down. “I’ll be reclaiming it, of course, but I’m glad these two ruffians found someone to keep it warm in my absence.”
“... Thanks,” Esther said cautiously. She didn’t want to draw up any firm boundaries until she’d spoken to Esvian about their history.
Seeming pleased at Esther’s lack of resistance, Edyta pulled her closer in a shallow attempt at a one-armed embrace. “Oh, we shall become fast friends. But now that the introductions are out of the way, it looks like Reeve needs a bath.” Her eyes flickered to Esther before they settled on him. “Let’s go together, so we can get to know each other again. I’m due in the city later, but I have time for a bit of sport.”
“It would be my pleasure.” Reeve stood up and smoothed his hair down. “Esvian, Esther, before I go, Yarvier’s making an announcement this evening. Make sure you’re here. I’ll see you then.” Edyta draped herself across his broad chest, and Reeve eagerly pulled her outside.
When they left, Esther slumped over. “What just happened?” she asked.
Esvian scratched the scar on his right cheek. “You survived your first encounter with a she-devil.” He gently pounded the table with the side of his fist. “I’m surprised she even spoke to me. She used to treat me like I was invisible.”
Esther stared at the door they left through, perplexed. The woman’s every action and word seemed calculated, manufactured, and stiff. It didn’t fit with the huntsmen she’d grown to love, who were extremely loose with their inhibitions and affections. Even though Esther had only known her for a few seconds, the woman reeked of insecurity.
“Why did she leave in the first place?” she asked. “By the looks of it, she loves being the centre of attention, and she’s definitely not lacking for that here.”
Esvian shrugged and slumped back heavily in his chair. “Don’t know, don’t care. What I do care about is your timeliness. Aren’t you late for your meeting?”
Esther glanced out the window at the sun. It was near mid-day.
“Weeping skies!” she shot upright, almost tripping on the bench. Esvian chuckled.
“Who said leading a double life would ever be easy?” he muttered as she fled from the Drunken Huntsman.
Esther’s feet were light and barely kissed the floor as she dashed through the Shack’s northern gate. The large satchel containing her conservator’s habit bounced against her back in a regular rhythm, narrowing her vocabulary to only five words: Vera’s going to kill me.
Esther was late on two counts. The first was the guildhall-wide meeting Vera always hosted at the end of each week. Attendance was mandatory for all, even though Esther had been to so many she could lead them in her sleep. She was late for it and not dressed appropriately, but her impromptu hunt could justify that.
What she couldn’t justify was delaying her debriefing to feast with Esvian. By law, a conservator’s sacanda — the ceremony surrounding the finding and warning of the cynosure — must follow the Six Sacred Steps. They were the hearing of the hymn, the declaring of the hymn, the donning of the robes, the seeking of the cynosure, the warning of the cynosure, and the debriefing of the conservator.
The debriefing was essential so that the guildmaster knew the conservator had safely delivered their warning. Over the years, Esther had earned a reputation for finding and warning her cynosure’s quickly because her sight gave her an edge. Where other conservators spent hours following their unreliable dowsing compasses, Esther always knew exactly where her cynosure was. She still carried her compass and pretended to consult it for appearance’s sake, but she didn’t need it.
It had been hours since she’d informed Vera of the hymn and set out to find the blind boy. For all Esther knew, Vera could have spent the entire time thinking she’d been stabbed and left for dead.
Vera was definitely going to kill her.
Unlike the Porthpyre guildhall where she’d got her first taste for life as a conservator, the Koryn guildhall was made of stone and in marginally better shape. It was an old chapel whose followers were wiped out during the Tears of Dealth. The disappearance of its former congregation’s love could be seen in the weathered slate roof, the worn stone walls, and the patchy pine trees flanking the perimeter. Other than that, it had aged rather well for a pre-Tears building.
The only colour came from the flower beds where Esther had secretly planted rurik and matari to make the place feel more welcoming. The azure rurik flowers and burgundy matari leaves glistened in the midday sun, giving off the sweet and sour smells she associated with belonging. However, no amount of homely herbs could lift the despair that settled on the guildhall like a layer of thick ash.
Taking precautions to avoid an early grave, Esther approached the guildhall from the rear entrance to avoid being seen. She crept in through the thick wooden door, leaving her in a narrow corridor with two doors and a staircase. She wanted to lessen Vera’s ire by putting on a few layers of her habit, and the back entrance was the only place to do it in secret.
Seeing how helplessly late she was, Esther the Six Sodding Step’s sacred dressing protocols out the window. She tipped her habit on the floor, threw the bag aside, and began to rummage through the pile. As the knapsack’s metal buckle hit the stone wall, something squeaked by the other door.
Immediately, Esther straightened and drew her knife. Blood roared in her ears as Sassin stepped out of the shadows, her full face covered in a red hood…
Esther relaxed her stance. It wasn’t Sassin. For one, the girl was too short and too young, around the age of fourteen; secondly, Sassin would never wear red; and thirdly, she wouldn’t make a noise. Esther knew so because she’d woken up to find hand-written notes on her pillow saying just that several times.
When the girl flattened against the wall, Esther said, “my apologies, I mean you no harm.” She put away her knife and held her hands up. “I won’t hurt you. But you better go inside, Girl I Don’t Recognise. You’re late enough for the meeting as it is.” Without giving her another thought, Esther bent down and worked through the pile of crimson cotton she’d bled onto the floor. Changing into the entire habit would take too long, so she decided to only wear the outer layers.
“What are you doing?” the girl whimpered, her hazel eyes wide. “You’re not following the proper ceremony. You put on your skirts first… Oh, so you’re just not wearing them, is that it? No, wait, the scapula is supposed to go over your cassock, which goes over the tunic, not your underclothes… Oh, you’re not supposed to put your cincture on yourself, someone else should do it… Now what are you doing?”
Fed up, Esther shoved the coif and veil on her head and finished by wrapping the thick crimson cloak around her shoulders. “Why are you lecturing me?” she demanded. “I know the bloody order to dress in, I’ve been doing it for long enough.” To the girl’s horror, Esther gathered her unworn skirts, cassock, and tunic, and shoved them back into the bag. “I don’t have time to put it all on properly because I’m late, which you are too, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
The girl took a deep breath, trying not to look as Esther threw the knapsack outside into a bush to conceal it. If Vera knew it was there, she’d make Esther change properly. “I’m not late,” the girl squeaked. “Syr re-Taleen told me to stand out here until she came and got me.”
“So you’re new,” Esther surmised as she pulled the edges of her cloak closed to hide her lack of under layers. “Oh, this is just my weeping luck! Not only have I threatened a New Girl with a knife, but you’re a goody-two-shoes to boot.” Esther believed there was no doubt the new girl would tell Vera she hadn’t followed the correct dressing rituals, putting her in even deeper trouble. “Okay, New Girl, let’s come to an understanding-”
She wrinkled her nose. “My name’s not ‘New Girl’.”
“I know it’s not,” Esther snapped. “Because that’d be a stupid name.” As Esther walked closer, racking her brain for something she could offer to keep the girl quiet, the new girl sniffed the air and took a tentative step back.
Self-consciously, Esther sniffed herself. She reeked of dirt, smoke, accelerant oil, and blood. Now she must think I work at a crematorium for an apprenticeship, Esther thought. Though she supposed it wasn’t too far from the truth. But after Esther had threatened her with a knife and blatantly flouted dress etiquette, all while honking like an undertaker, she doubted the new girl would listen to her pleas for secrecy. “I can explain-”
“It’s rurik and matari, isn’t it?” she said.
In truth, Esther had forgotten how strongly the herbal and spicy ‘huntsmen stench’ often overpowered everything else, even oil, blood, and smoke. “You have a well-developed nose, New Girl,” Esther said.
“-I honestly don’t care what your name is,” Esther cut in. The new girl’s lips quivered, so Esther quickly added: “It’s nothing personal, kid. I’ve been here for a long time, and I’ll be here longer still. On principle, I don’t make friends amongst the hymnody.”
Since her arrival in Koryn City, she’d been determined to start a life of exceeding expectations. She wanted to master her conservator’s sight, be the best at hacking monsters to pieces, and know everything possible about the local deadlands and the denizens that prowled within.
Unfortunately, she had also exceeded expectations in the conservator department. Even though blood hymns usually stopped after six to eight months, Esther’s hadn’t slowed after five years of service.
“That’s a sad way to live,” the new girl uttered. “But surely exchanging names doesn’t count as friendship?”
She had a point. Besides, it wasn’t Esther’s goal to make an enemy, only to avoid making a friend. “I suppose it wouldn’t kill me to tell you. I’m Esther.”
The new girl smiled and crept out from the shadows. She was lame in her right leg and made no attempt to hide it. “It’s nice to meet you, Sister Esther. My name is Kessila, but you can call me Kessi.”
Esther’s heart faltered. A vivid recollection overcame her, of a regal woman on a balcony, blood running down her chest. Breathing became difficult.
“I know, it’s not the best name,” she said. “That’s why I make everyone call me Kessi.”
Esther didn’t hear a thing. Every time the new girl moved, she saw Guardian Kessila and her bloody hands. Five years had passed, but she could still smell the blood and hear the arrow ripping through the air.
Breathe. She told herself to breathe. They were memories. They weren’t real.
She tried to focus on the cold rising from the slate floor and the sound of the wind worming its way through the rafters. But the anxiety clutching at her heart refused to let go.
The door leading to the asp crashed open with an ancient groan. Sister Vessany appeared, looking wan and haggard.
The years hadn’t been kind to Sister Vessany. She was beautiful when they’d met, with healthy raven hair, radiant skin, and a shapely face. But since she fled to Koryn’s guildhall in the wake of Guardian Kessila’s death, her cheeks had hollowed and her hair had thinned. The guild had sapped the life out of her, leaving her broken and tired.
Her hymns had finished four years before, but she stayed to serve as a senior conservator. Few knew why she stayed, but all knew it wasn’t by choice. As a result, she wore her ornate habit with disgust, despite the embellishments being a sign of power. Esther didn’t blame her; flaunting one’s high rank amongst conservators was like showing off the muck on one’s boots.
“Esther!” she gasped, her voice ghostly. Then she noticed Esther’s pale face and the close proximity of Sister Kessi. “Skies above, I am so sorry, we should have warned you-”
Esther pressed herself against the stone wall. Her conservator’s sight bulged against the back of her eyes, urging her to run in the opposite direction. But she was stuck in place. Being in trouble for missing her debriefing no longer seemed such a terrifying prospect.
The three of them remained locked in a silent standoff until a fourth person entered the corridor.
“Vessany, what is the meaning of this delay?” Vera demanded.
Unlike Vessany and Esther, Vera looked identical to how she had five years prior. She still covered every inch of her skin in a black dress, her hair was styled in the same simple twist at the back of her neck, and her eyes hadn’t lost an ounce of their ferocity. While Vessany’s shoulders stooped and sagged under her the weight of her duties, Vera still stood proudly and defiantly.
Vera took in the scene and cursed under her breath.
“Sister Vessany, Sister Kessi, leave.” There was no mistaking the iron in her tone. The pair obeyed without question, leaving Vera and Esther alone in the dingy hallway.
Vera inhaled in preparation to speak. The hiss snapped Esther out of her reverie. “If you’re going to apologise, I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped. “Save your breath and skip to the explanation.”
Vera nodded subtly and clasped her hands in front of her, refusing to react to Esther’s anger. “As a huntsman, I’m sure you know today is the equinox and the sacanda moon.”
Esther did. The deadlands were at their most deadly around the full moon, so all huntsmen needed to keep track of them. Hunting during an ordinary full moon was possible, so long as no novice huntsmen were on the team.
The sacanda moon was the exception to that rule. It was the closest moon to the autumnal equinox, and it exacerbated the deadlands wildness. The effect was amplified if the sancanda moon occurred on the day of the equinox, leaving the deadlands intoxicated with death. No one would enter the deadlands that night, and only the most important of hunts would be green-lit the following day.
But Esther didn’t see how it could relate to Vera failing to warn her about the new conservator’s name. “What of it?” she asked.
“Well, tonight the heavens seek to bless us,” Vera said scathingly. “Because tonight is also a total lunar eclipse.”
The solstices, equinoxes, and moons affected not only the deadlands but magery and magic too. The sacanda moon occurring on the autumnal equinox boosted magery and magical power tenfold. On its own, it meant nothing for conservators, who weren’t mages. It wouldn’t even affect Esther’s sight.
The only celestial events that made a difference for conservators were the total lunar eclipses, otherwise known as blood moons. Around the time of a blood moon, latent conservators were marginally more likely to hear their first hymn, but the difference was so small it was almost statistically insignificant. Vera had long suspected a total lunar eclipse boosted by the power of a sacanda moon on the equinox could cause an outbreak of conservators.
“The theories are correct,” Vera said. “New conservators have been popping out of the ground like rutting melivors, and it’s been chaos.”
Esther blinked in confusion. “What’s a melivor?” Knowing Vera, they were an extremely obscure foreign creature or a made-up mythical monster.
Vera gave Esther her hard look, the one which told her to shut up without Vera needing to say anything. Apparently, melivors weren’t important enough to interrupt their conversation.
“We’ve been inundated with new recruits, and our Overmaster has been shipping them to guildhalls without any former warning. Sister Kessi arrived rather unexpectedly after you left on your sacanda to find Mavias Undercroft. Since you didn’t arrive for your debriefing, I had no time to warn you.” Her composure broke and she rubbed her temples. “Child, if it was permitted, I’d allow you to skip the meeting. But if an inspector walked in and noticed you were missing without a good enough excuse-”
“I know,” Esther whispered. She may have felt free amongst the huntsmen, but she was still an indentured servant. If she skipped her conservator duties and was caught, she’d be sent straight to the dungeons.
Esther squeezed her hands together and tried to soothe herself with empty sounding affirmations and prayers. They did nothing to quell her desire to flee. What did, though, was pragmatic thinking. The new girl wouldn’t be reassigned to a different guildhall just to make Esther more comfortable, which meant she wasn’t going anywhere for a while. If Esther didn’t face her then and there, she never would.
“I’ll go without protest,” she said, trying to summon her courage. “After all, I’m a huntsman. We stand and fight, we don’t turn and run.” Vera nodded, but Esther could tell from her narrowed eyes and down-turned lips that she didn’t believe her.
Up Next: After the new girl reopens old wounds, someone else arrives to create new ones.