“We are the cure for death
and the conservators of life.”
There was a conservator in the ballroom. The dancers couldn’t dance, because seeing the woman stiffened their legs. The guests couldn’t eat, because the woman’s aura curdled their stomachs. The servants couldn’t serve, so adamant were they in their attempts to avoid her.
How did she accomplish such a feat, one might ask, when she carried no weapon other than her own wits, when she donned no armour other than a veneer of indifference, and when she wore no sign of rank other than her crimson habit?
The answer was obvious: conservators were portents of death. Nothing spoiled the mood of a party more than that.
The hosts of the ball, who were in the ballroom’s entryway waiting to make their entrance, were none too happy with the woman’s ominous presence.
“Look at it,” Dukess Olga Varson, the host’s wife, hissed. She wore a silken gown in pink, a grand ruff around her neck and shoulders, full skirts, and a waterfall of precious stones that reflected their House’s ancient splendour.
Her words were anything but splendid. “It’s barbaric we had to let it in. Under my volition, I’d never dream of allowing a vessel of corrupted blood to walk free in my household. It clashes with the furnishings and turns my stomach.”
The host, Duke Theodore Varson, placed a timid hand on her arm. He dressed less ostentatiously, in a simple green boned doublet, brown puffy trousers, beige breeches, and a feathered cap. “The conservator is here at Guardian Kessila’s behest should anyone tonight… require her services. The Guardian always has one in her employ and she is our guest, my love. We must accommodate her wishes. But she understands your concerns and has ordered the conservator to keep to herself and her duties.”
His reassurances did little to ease the remainder of his party, who were also rendered skittish by the conservator’s presence. Marca Varson, the ducal heir, struggled to keep her chin up and her eyes averted, and the family retainers had a hard time keeping their attention on their duties.
One member who stood aside and apart seemed unaffected. Compared to the rest of her family, Esther Varson looked dull. Her dress was a dusty blue three shades away from being grey, she wore only one petticoat, and her hair was hidden within a simple beaded hair net. Even her skin was different, a rich olive tone compared to the cool ivory of the rest of her family. The one asset they all shared was the 'Varson eyes;' deep-set, almond-shaped, and a deep shade of brown.
The differences didn’t trouble Esther. She had always known fate had a different road for her, one far removed from the concerns of the dukedom.
Esther watched as Lordess Olga, her aunt, repositioned a gold gemstone over the exposed skin in the hollow of her cousin Marca’s throat. “There,” Lordess Olga said. “Now you are beautiful.”
Marca flushed and stood up straighter. As Lordess Olga attended to her own dress, Marca smuggled a secret grin in Esther’s direction.
“You look divine,” Esther whispered, standing behind Marca and reaching her hand forward as Marca reached hers back. They squeezed each other’s fingers in secret until Lordess finished her preening and regarded the family oddity with her beady eyes.
“Stop slouching, Esther.” She dug a knuckle against her spine, right between her shoulder blades. Esther hissed in pain as her back instinctively straightened. “Something wrong, my dear?” Lordess Olga pursed her lips in anticipation of Esther’s response.
Esther swallowed her pride and said: “I'm sorry, your grace. I won’t let you down.” Lordess Olga nodded and returned to her place beside the duke who had watched the exchange in silence. He offered Esther a sympathetic look, but wiped it off his face as soon as his wife glared at him.
“Let us be announced,” she declared. “I’d say we’re late enough for a fine entrance.”
Upon the duke’s signal, a herald stepped forward and cried: “Ladies and gentlemen of our gathering, please welcome your hosts: the Duke and Dukess of Porthpyre, the esteemed Lord and Lordess Varson. Today they are accompanied by their daughter-heir, Lord Marca Varson, and their house retainers.”
The Varson’s entered the room to an applause fit for their ancient and noble family.
Esther, who was ordinarily forbidden from entering the ballroom, was shocked into muteness at the room’s grandeur. Heavy jade curtains lounged against the windows, which had been fitted with real glass for the occasion. Magnificent tapestries and paintings adorned the walls, depicting hunting scenes, rolling landscapes, and the stoic faces of their Varson ancestors. Hundreds of candles set in the golden chandeliers suspended overhead twinkled like stars. In the middle of the room, couples dressed in a rainbow of colours sought sanctuary from the lady in red by dancing the familiar steps of the ancient Gardaran dances.
As the Varson’s crossed the ballroom, the conservator watched them with her dark eyes.
Marca shivered. “Isn’t walking past her terrifying?” she whispered to Esther.
Although it was unladylike, Esther shrugged. “I don’t see why it should be.”
Marca’s lips tightened in disapproval. “Cousin, you should know better. Aren’t you worried she’ll conjure a vision of our deaths through boredom?”
The young woman, who had held firm against the criticism of the masses, pulled the hood of her habit down until it covered her eyes. Esther wondered what it was about Marca’s comment that resonated with her so strongly. As a vestigial torchbearer of the extinct school of blood magery, Esther thought such comments would have lost their impact on the girl.
“But Marca, they’re conservators. Isn’t preventing death their reason for being?” Esther said.
Marca quivered. “Mother says that’s a lie. She says the blood force chooses them for their sadistic nature. Once they’re chosen, they invite it in and let it corrupt their blood. Don’t you see: they choose to hear their hymns of blood and death, and they warn people about it for entertainment.”
To Esther, the theory was a disjointed puzzle piece. It didn’t fit into her world view, no matter how many times she rotated it in her head. “That’s nonsensical. If they want people to die, why bother warning them at all?”
“Because they revel in suffering,” Marca exclaimed. “It is known that if their victims save themselves, the blood force claims someone else’s life. Those horrid girls are nothing short of voyeurs! They relish in forcing people to choose between dying or living at someone else’s expense. As mother says - it’s barbaric.”
Esther soon forget about the woman in red because they had arrived at their destination. The duke and dukess had taken them to a secluded balcony on the northern side of the ballroom, overlooking the night-doused city of Porthpyre and the churning black ocean beyond. A man and a woman lounged by the balustrade, whispering between themselves like excited children despite their mature age.
Marca gasped inaudibly, and Esther made sure her back was straight. The people on the balcony were the Crowned Guardian Kessila and her husband, Gardess Nicholas. They were the most powerful people in the realm and the guests of honour at the ball.
“My girls,” Esther’s uncle murmured, “while we greet Guardian Kessila, I’d like you both to wait here. We shall call you over when she’s ready to make your acquaintance.”
He broke away, but Lordess Olga lingered. “Marca, my darling, I’m sure you’ll do perfectly, as always. Esther, this is an important meeting for my husband. I do not know why Guardian Kessila requested to see you as well, but I do know you will not embarrass my family.”
Esther wished to express that House Varson was her family too. Instead, she doused her objection and dipped into an obeisant curtsey.
Yet standing in reserve left the two girls with little to do, other than spy, and young girls regardless of base or birth made excellent spies. While retaining a formal composure, they adjusted their position to better see the two figures on the balcony.
“Oh, you will love Guardian Kessila, Esther,” Marca whispered. “It’s a shame I only saw her once during my debut last month. Caroline saw her six times and had tea with her! It was terribly unfair.”
Esther wanted to point out that at least Marca would see them again, but she was cut off as their esteemed hierarch stepped into the light of the ballroom to greet her uncle and aunt.
Guardian Kessila was beautiful, but not in the way Esther had expected. At first glance, she didn’t look like the ruler of a kingdom in her modest gown of sea blue, decorated with sea-foam green thread and small beads that glowed in the candlelight. Her tawny hair decorated her head in soft, understated ringlets, and her heart-shaped face was soft and welcoming. She looked a world apart from the other nobles sinking under the weight of their finery, but Esther couldn’t deny there was an elegance to her simplicity that spoke of ancient power and responsibility.
Her husband, Guardess Nicholas, was dressed far more splendidly. He was a middle-aged man with hair white as snow, and he wore a golden doublet slashed with pure white. A light fur-lined cloak perched atop his shoulders and cascaded towards the floor, and he wore a gold and brown hat decorated with exotic feathers. Yet he wore it stiffly, betraying his discomfort.
“What a pair,” Esther whispered, not from her own will but from the mesmer that had overtaken her. She watched as her uncle spoke to them easily, as if they’d been friends for years. Guardian Kessila and her husband responded in kind, seeming to enjoy the ease of his company.
The conversation went well until Lordess Olga spoke. Esther and Marca were too far away to hear, but whatever the Dukess asked made Guardian Kessila’s eyes pinch at the corners. Her husband embraced her tenderly from behind and placed a hand on her stomach.
The interaction captivated Esther, immersing her so entirely she gradually lost the power of agency. It left her in a slavish stupor until the rest of the world shifted out of focus and an ominous, arcane pressure nudged against the back of her eyes.
Oh no, she thought. Not now! Please, not now!
The pressure mounted, leaving Esther’s consciousness adrift and her mind entangled with a kaleidoscope of images. There was a woman in bed, struggling to birth. A still child wrapped in fine silk. A few scattered words, distant, and almost unintelligible.
“Stillborn, just like the others.”
Esther let out a muffled cry and squeezed her eyes shut. The images trickled away and in their wake, a metallic taste blossomed over her tongue. It curdled her stomach and caused a wave of dizziness to bleed across her skull. She wobbled on the spot and placed a hand on the cool wall behind her.
“Esther, are you well?” Marca asked, placing an unsure hand on her shoulder.
“I am,” Esther said, squeezing the words out from between her teeth. She straightened her back and shoulders, where she could still feel the sting of Lordess Olga’s knuckles. No matter what, she would not embarrass her family.
“It was the intrusive thoughts again, wasn’t it?” Marca said, her eyes going wide. “Are they getting worse? Shall I tell father?”
“I am well,” Esther hissed again. In truth, the intrusive thoughts were never so direct or coherent. But if Marca uttered a word to her uncle, he would call for the physician who would diagnose her with hysteria again. He would prescribe tonic and rest, which Lordess Olga would force Esther to take in a cold, locked, and lonely room.
The thought terrified her, so she cooled her shaking hands on the stone wall and tried to break free of the trance-like state that lingered in the corners of her psyche. In the distance, cathedral bells tolled. Esther counted the bells to centre herself, expecting to only hear nine to mark the late hour. Yet they continued, and with each additional strike, they grew louder and decreased in pitch.
“Marca,” she whispered, her body growing hot from the inside of her head. “Aren’t they supposed to stop ringing the bells? It hurts.”
Marca looked out at the city. “No one's ringing any bells,” she said. “All I can hear are seagulls and sails.”
For Esther, the bells grew louder still, sending shock waves of fear through her limbs. She gritted her teeth and fought the urge to run away. No one else reacted to the sound, which had become so low in pitch it made Esther’s ears throb.
“Marca,” she whispered desperately. “I-” But the words evaporated from her tongue as the world became hot around her. She heard the lone voice of a woman singing a haunting melody:
“Blood on the breeze, death in the air.
Hear my song, and hear my prayer,
Foretelling a life trapped in death’s snare.”
The world crashed and distorted. Her body grew so hot her blood felt as if it were boiling. Pain lanced across her forehead from the inside of her skull. The surrounding sounds dilated and died, replaced with the foreboding chanting. The air snapped painfully at her ears and foreign images, sounds, and sensations briefly took over her mind.
She was in an empty room by an open window, holding something heavy in her left hand...
“Marca, something is wrong,” she gurgled, but the vision pulled her under again.
The body she inhabited wasn’t that of the sixteen-year-old girl she remembered, but trapped within the frame and form of a man in his forties.
She was in a tall tower, overlooking the northern face of the Varson Estate. She had been there for hours, patiently awaiting the moment Guardian Kessila came into her line of sight on the balcony. Guardess Nicholas embraced her, obscuring the shot. Finally, he released his wife, and the moment she waited for arrived.
One with the darkness, she shifted into position. As non-Esther noched the arrow onto her bowstring with spindly, masculine fingers, her lips curved into a cruel smile. They’d all warned her it would be an impossible endeavour, yet there she was, making the impossible possible.
Guardian Kessila stepped away from Guardess Nicholas and placed her hands on the marbled balustrade, exposing her chest to the arrow. Non-Esther’s muscles coiled tight while she slowed her breath and stilled her heart. There would be no mistakes or misses that night.
She rose, inviting the bowstring back to its anchor at the corner of her jaw. Half a breath later, she released, sending the arrow splitting through the air towards the usurper. She watched eagerly as it smashed into Guardian Kessila’s chest, burying deep into her beating heart. The monarch staggered back, stunned as the blood flowed from her chest wound.
Her work done, she disappeared into the darkness that waited to claim her as its own.
Reality slapped Esther with crisp clarity. The chanting ceased, and the strange scene vanished. Through the fog of fear and terror, Esther realised she had half fallen and was drenched in sweat.
Yet Guardian Kessila and Guardess Nicholas were still embracing, a few strides away from the balustrade. Kessila laughed at something Lord Varson said, and she stepped away from her husband. An icy fear gripped the sides of Esther’s head as Kessila turned to grasp the balustrade.
Possessed by emergent instinct, Esther took a hesitant step forward. However, Marca’s instincts were stronger. She grasped Esther’s arm and pulled her back.
Esther didn’t know, but in that moment, history dithered on its axis. It paused in indecision, awaiting one of two inevitable actions that would send it spinning in a new direction. Both paths led to the same conclusion, but one would be harder to walk than the other. Which way will the scales tip? it mused.
It wasn’t Marca’s actions which were the fulcrum, but Esther’s. She could have jumped away and ran straight to Guardian Kessila, but she hesitated. Esther allowed Marca to hold her back for one simple reason: she was afraid. She had predicted a death, and that made her like the woman in red hiding in the ballroom’s corner. It made her a conservator, a daughter of death, a sister of evil.
Her skin crawled with contempt, disgust, and self-loathing. Until that moment, she’d believed she held no fear against the conservators. As it turned out, she was wrong.
“What are you doing?” Marca hissed, gripping Esther’s arm with all her strength.
“Guardian Kessila is going to die!” Esther whispered.
Marca’s face drained of colour and turned ashen. She looked at the conservator in the distance, then tugged her cousin back. “Say nothing!” she ordered. “Pretend it didn’t happen!”
“W-what!” Esther stammered.
“You heard me!” Marca grasped Esther’s face. “Don’t let the blood force take you! Reject its call and let her die! Do not leave me, or shame this family!”
Conflict roared and warred within Esther’s head, tumbling over and devouring itself. She did not know what she wanted to do. As a citizen of Gardara, it was her duty to save the Crowned Guardian’s life. But Marca’s order was equally appealing; conservators were indentured servants, forced to live a life of service and discrimination. To save Guardian Kessila, Esther needed to sacrifice her freedom, family, and worst of all — if Lordess Olga was to be believed — her soul. Esther couldn’t save Guardian Kessila without letting the blood force take root in her heart, where it would stay forever.
The choice was agony, a dull knife thrust into her gut. The dull edge created a red-hot wave of excruciating heat that wouldn’t cease until the decision was made.
In the end, her uncertainty became her decision. Esther lacked the strength to pull away from the pain, so she neither submitted to Marca’s attempts to restrain her nor broke free. She offered a half-resistance and was forced to watch in horror as Guardian Kessila grasped the balustrade with both hands, exposing her chest to the distant tower. Something sliced through the air and landed in her chest. Crimson blood poured from the wound, soaking her dress and the surrounding floor.
A lamenting scream ripped from Esther’s throat, and sounds of confusion and panic bubbled from within the ballroom. Guardess Nicholas gaped at his wife, who somehow remained standing. She touched the shaft and then lifted a bloody hand to her face. She rubbed her wet fingers together and collapsed onto the floor.
Her fall shattered the tableau of shock, and everyone near the balcony rushed into some sort of action at once. Marca ran to her mother and began wailing into her chest. Guardess Nicholas staggered backwards as if drunk. Only Esther’s uncle, a war veteran and no stranger to death, acted with practical intention. He ripped the hat from his head and pressed it around the arrow’s shaft.
“Esther, here, now!” he barked, summoning a volume that sounded alien compared to his usual soft manner of speaking. “Apply pressure while I rouse the guards.”
Esther’s limbs had gone numb. She obeyed the order, except she felt as if someone else was acting on her stead. She watched as her hands surrounded the arrow and pressed down on their own accord.
“I saw it, uncle,” a stranger muttered through Esther’s lips as sparkling blood seeped between her fingers. “I saw it happen, but I… I did nothing. I could have saved her, but I hesitated.”
“What are you muttering about, girl?” he demanded. “I can’t hear you.”
“I hesitated, uncle!” the stranger shrieked. “I could have saved her, but I hesitated. I saw it all, and I failed! I failed to save her!”
Lordess Olga understood at once. Her face paled and her hands shook. “The blood bred true,” she uttered. She gripped Marca tighter and backed away.
Just as her uncle began to understand, Guardian Kessila’s breaths became shaky. She coughed, and blood spurted from her lips. “Th...eo…” she whispered.
“I’m here,” he said quietly.
“S-save t-the...m.” She swallowed and her eyes lost focus. “Pr- pr- protect...”
Before she could finish, she let out a last breath and went still. Her husband let out a gut-wrenching howl. Esther staggered backwards and fell to the floor. Her hands were covered in blood. Guardian Kessila’s blood.
Immediately and with a mighty roar, Lord Varson barked out orders to his guards to secure the estate, catch the murderer, and summon a medic even though everyone knew it was far too late for that.
Esther watched through a lens of distortion as Guardess Nicholas crawled towards Kessila and cradled her in his arms. Numbly, Esther struggled to her feet and stumbled away from the balcony, clutching her stomach with her bloodied hands. Seeking comfort, she walked towards Marca who still wailed in her mother’s arms.
Lordess Olga retreated, shielding Marca with her body. “You insolent little girl,” she spat. “You let it taint you!”
“I didn’t,” Esther protested in the tiny voice of a mouse trapped between a cat’s paws. “I didn’t let it in, I swear to you. Marca! Marca, tell her I didn’t let it in! Tell her!”
Marca looked between her mother and her cousin, faced with a decision nearly as painful as the one Esther had faced. Unlike Esther, she made it with certainty and ease, and demonstrated her answer by burying her face against her mother’s shoulder.
“You are a disgrace,” Lordess Olga sneered. “Guards,” she yelled. “Seize her! Kill her!”
A large retinue of armed guards with crowns adorning their chests rushed into the room, pushing past the panicked and fleeing guests. Esther was seized from behind and dragged backwards into the shadows behind a large potted tree.
“Be silent,” a woman hissed into her ear as the guards split in two groups. Half headed for the balcony where Guardess Nicholas cradled his dead wife, and the other half split apart and shepherded the straggling guests out of the ballroom. Lordess Olga attempted to redirect them towards Esther, but she was too hidden and the guards were too disciplined to break orders. They pulled her away.
Esther flailed against her captor, whose hold gave way quickly. She spun around, preparing to flee, when she realised it wasn’t a guard who had grabbed her, but the conservator. Her hood had fallen, revealing a thin, pretty face and raven hair.
“You saw it, didn’t you?” she whispered urgently, grabbing Esther’s shoulders. “You saw her die?”
Esther didn’t have the words to answer. All she could do was look down at her hands. So enchanted she was by the red marks of her failure, she couldn’t find the strength to fear the conservator.
Even without a reply, the conservator understood. “It won’t be long until the others figure it out. You need to come with me.” As she applied pressure on Esther’s shoulders, she stiffened and resisted.
“I can’t,” she said. “If I go with you… they’ll make me a conservator. People will hate me.”
The conservator bit her lip and glanced at the guards gathered by the balcony. “Would you rather people hate you, or lynch you? Because if those guards take you into custody for failing to save their Guardian, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever come out.”
“I… I…” Esther choked and then rubbed her nose against her sleeve. Indecision paralysed her again, and she didn’t know how to fight it.
“Listen, girl,” the conservator growled. “If I can get you to my conservator's guildhall, the law will protect you, and your family can’t hurt you. Look at me!” She gripped Esther’s chin like a vice, forcing the terrified girl to look away from the dead body on the balcony. “The most dangerous time in a conservator’s life is immediately after their first hymn. Only half make it to a guildhall safely. The question is: What half of that statistic do you want to be part of?”
“Do I deserve to live?” Esther asked in a hollow voice. “I was too scared to save her…”
“But you can save others! See, we have an old proverb: ‘Life is hard for those who prophesy death // but the burden must be bore // so none need fall into the dark.’ You will hate yourself for failing and others will hate you for trying, but we have a duty to help regardless of the consequences, see? Think, girl! Do you want to die with this failure being your last action, or do you want to live and redeem yourself?”
The conservator’s passion and reverence for her duty gave Esther the strength to choose. Even though she thought she deserved it, she didn’t want to die. “What’s your name?” she asked.
The conservator smiled solemnly. “I am Sister Vessany. Now, I hope you know how to get out of this estate without being seen, because you won’t like what happens if we’re caught.”
In the wake of Guardian Kessila’s death, Esther makes a decision that changes her life forever.