"The Tears of Dealth affected all three of the Natyran countries differently. In Gardara, it created the deadlands and gave it bioconsciousness, bestowing a web of unnatural intelligence upon the land. When a huntsman says the rocks, trees, and mushrooms have memories, you’d best believe them."
Excerpt from ‘Aftermath of the Tears of Dealth.’
That night, Esther dreamed she followed a bird the colour of anthracite through the deadlands. She ran faster and faster until the forest became a senseless blur. When she got close enough to touch its tail feathers, the bird flew into the sky, leaving her helplessly lost amongst the corrupted foliage.
She woke with a start. Her room was dark, her body numb; a breeze had slipped through the opened shutters on her window, carrying with it the first chill of autumn. A single golden leaf rode the cold air, which tasted gritty and earthy, not salty. The wind had come from the Kareshian Plateau, Esther’s hunting ground and the one place she felt free.
Before daring to move, she inventoried her body for signs of a hangover. Her eyes ached and a metallic taste lingered on the back of her tongue, but to her surprise, that was all. In fact, she felt strangely refreshed, if not a little stiff from the cold.
So with the lingering kiss of fatigue muddying her mind and scrambling her balance, she forced herself to hobble to the window. Outside, stars could still be seen, but the distant horizon smouldered with the promise of dawn. The contrast bathed the deadlands in darkness, apart from the distant ruins visible on the Kareshian Plateau. The tops of the broken towers and beaten walls were dusted with snow.
Reeve was right about the weather reports, she thought with despair. The central ruins were always covered with snow, such was the nature of the deadlands in that area. But snow on the peripheral ruins so early in the season was a sure foretaste for premature snowfall and the disappearance of most of Esther’s income.
Heat clutched her lower abdomen. She didn’t want to think about winter rations, not after the events she’d suffered the previous day. What she needed was a distraction and a way to work off her energy.
Before she closed the shutters, her ears awakened enough to take in the silence. The Shack was usually wide awake an hour before dawn, but that morning, the dirt-cold roads were desolate. A smile warmed her chilled body. She knew exactly how to enjoy the lack of crowds.
She spent the next hour engaged with the dummies and targets in the training quarters. Dancing across the sands, she indulged herself in endless fantasies of competing in the trials, becoming the grand champion, and winning enough money to buy herself a new identity beyond her aunt’s and Sassin’s reach.
After the warm-up, she calmed herself and focused on her training. From amongst the well-stocked racks, she chose a training blade that simulated her first sword: a thirty-inch curved blade with a single edge that she wielded with two hands. Her muscles hummed in pleasure as she feigned and lunged at invisible enemies who attacked her from the shadows.
Once she worked up a sweat, she chose a weapon almost identical to her second sword, one with a twenty-inch blade. Huntsmen used their second sword in tight spaces where the first was impractical, so she moved in amongst a crowd of tightly packed dummies. The shorter blade wielded one-handed allowed her the freedom to slash the stoic, stuffed opponents as if she were one with the wind.
True to the bravura required of a huntsman, only the last quarter of her blade, known as the foible, touched the target. When a single drop of blood-cursed bodily fluid could spell the end, survival depended on the correct fighting style. Esther and Esvian survived by moving in circles and attacking with the tip of their blade to bleed out their prey. It took a long time, but it was the only viable way to kill on the Kareshian Plateau. Yes, thrusting with a double-edged sword would be faster, but it relied on moving towards the target. Yes, a pike or poleaxe would be safer, but they were too long to wield in the tightly packed forest. And while she wielded her second sword one-handed, she carried no shield. The Kareshian Plateau didn’t like opponents who hid behind them, so it stole them with a vengeance.
An hour passed, and dawn was readily establishing itself. After Esther cleaved her last imaginary foe in two with a sibilant swish of her blade, she stopped and took stock of her reign of terror. She’d ruptured every dummy and target at least once. For good measure, she’d tossed a few throwing a few knives into the crossbow and archery targets mounted high above her head.
Satisfied and energised, she put her two training swords away. She was going to jog a few laps around the Shack when, through a small gap in the fence, she spied Edyta tiptoeing out of the Lodge’s front door.
It wasn’t Edyta’s secretive way of moving that caught Esther’s attention, but what she wore. She was clad in the brown quilted gambeson and splotched green arming doublet that huntsmen wore under the armour they were famous for, made from steel-plate-lined Kyverian leather. Kyvear leather was extremely resistant to breaking when bitten or scratched, while also retaining flexibility. It wasn’t as strong as metal armour, but metal armour was loud and made blending into the deadlands impossible.
Edyta had no reason to wear the under layers unless she was going on a hunt. But if that were the case, Edyta would have at least one other companion.
Esther pressed her face against the hole in the fence. She watched Edyta crept past the training quarters and disappeared into the front entrance of the Main Hall. Curious, Esther hurried to the rear entrance and peeked through an open window. Edyta disappeared up the stairs that led to the Senior Huntsman’s offices.
Esther followed her.
Like the rest of the Shack, the Main Hall was dark and empty. Esther stayed light on her toes as she ascended the stairs. It opened onto a long hall with thirteen doors, six on each long side, and Yarvier’s office door at the end. Esther couldn’t help but stare at the door marked ‘thirteen’ to her right. True to their mythic status, the thirteenth huntsman never used their office. It was nothing more than an empty room with an unlocked door, yet it reeked of mystery.
From inside the office at the end of the hall, she heard Yarvier’s stentorian voice and the shrill riposts of a woman. Esther approached, trying to recall the spying techniques all rebellious children eventually learned, when the door burst open.
“I’m tellin’ yer, I can’t let yer go alone,” Yarvier barked. His grey hair was more tousled than usual and he wore a shirt under his leather coat for once.
Edyta followed in his footsteps and let out a frustrated half-sigh. “Syr, I’m no stranger to the Plateau.”
Plateau? The only Plateau she could be talking about was the Kareshian Plateau. Esther snapped to attention, wondering what Edyta could want with her territory.
“Don’t call me Syr!” he snapped. “It’s Yarvier, or if yer must be so damn deferential, Master Yarvier. Master of this guild I may be, but never associate me with the noble riff-raff.”
“Actually,” Esther interrupted, startling the pair. She needed to break up the argument if she wanted to get any information. “Syr’s are part of the knighthood and guildhood, not nobility.”
Yarvier pointed a long finger in Esther’s direction, then restrained himself by curling his hand into a fist. “Did I ask fer yer opinion?”
She held her hands in the air and approached more slowly. “Don’t bite my head off. I’m only here to see what all the commotion’s about. What’s so interesting about the Kareshian Plateau?” Try as she might, Esther couldn’t keep the suspicion and defensiveness from her tone.
Edyta giggled without humour. “Lower the hackles, darling. This is a private conversation between myself and Master Yarvier. Now, move along-”
“Nay, she ain’t moving nowhere,” Yarvier growled. He assessed Esther quickly, the way one would assess the health of an animal. “Girl, how drunk are yer right now?”
He winced slightly at her answer and scratched the edge of his empty eye socket. When Edyta tapped her foot on the ground, he set his jaw resolutely. “Eh, that’s good enough. Yer up fer a hunt?”
“Oh, it’s on,” Esther said without hesitation. It would be an effective distraction, and she couldn’t say no to the extra pay.
“Her?” Edyta gasped. “You can’t be serious? She’s drunk, they all are, and I know the terrain.”
“I’m deadly serious, girl,” Yarvier said. “The deadlands have changed since yer left, so any knowledge yer claim to have is moot. Besides, yer never advanced past journeyman, but Esther is the Junior huntsman for the Plateau.” Edyta turned a dim shade of green. It delighted Esther beyond measure, but she killed any outward reaction. With the knowledge Edyta held, it would be a bad idea to antagonise her.
“Do not try and contradict me, woman,” Yarvier said. “Even if yer were ter best huntsman in ter world, I’d not assign you on solo escort duty.”
Esther deflated and fought the urge to sigh. When he’d said ‘hunt,’ she’d hoped for something action-packed and well paid. Escort duty usually involved protecting a group of city-born foragers who were reluctant to go more than a hundred feet into the deadlands. As Esvian said: Escort duty is two types of shit; it’s dull as shit and it pays like shit.
“Who’s the body?” she asked more reluctantly. “And where are they going?”
Yarvier’s door opened again, and Overmaster Ysim Nazari emerged. For him to be in the Shack before huntsman’s dawn — which was an hour after the sun had risen, and the earliest time anyone could enter or leave the city or the Shack — he must have stayed the night after the announcement. Why would he need to spend so long discussing his trip with Yarvier?
Overmaster Nazari smiled warmly as a humongous condor with black feathers and a wrinkly bald face waddled in his wake. “The body is myself and dear Hethshaw,” he said with a full-bellied chuckle, gesturing at the condor who was almost as tall as him. “Though I’d rather you focus on me. A bird he may be, but Hethshaw can put up more of a fight.”
As the pair got closer, Esther’s conservator’s sight stirred. Through it, she detected a vast power pulsing under his skin, reminiscent of wind and whispers that purred her name.
It wasn’t a novel sensation to her. As a member of both the huntsman’s and conservator’s guild, she’d interacted with him many times over the past five years. She’d grown used to the strange aura of power he exuded, to the point where she often forgot it was there.
That wasn’t the case for everyone, and it worked against Overmaster Nazari. Gardara wasn’t friendly towards mages, and it didn’t take a historian to understand why. The island’s first settlers were non-mages who were fleeing the mage-ruled Crematia in search for more equal opportunities. The Blood Queen’s tyrannical rule, in which she turned hundreds of dissenters into mindless slaves with her blood magery, only fanned anti-mage sentiments and mage hunts. After her downfall, Gardara burned, hung, drowned, and shot so many blood mages that they had gone extinct.
But try as they might, Gardara couldn’t make mages disappear. So instead of banning them and therefore inviting reprisals, Gardara controlled mage immigration with stringent rules.
Chief among them was the Mage Settlement Act. It required them to serve a decade in the military to induce loyalty to crown and country; to enter a morganatic marriage with a non-mage and lower member of the nobility so they couldn’t hide in obscurity; and to promise that any mage-born children they produced would also comply with the Mage Settlement Act or face exile.
In theory, the perks sounded attractive, but it was a veneer. ‘Minor nobility’ didn’t mean money and power, and hardly anyone respected mage military veterans. Few chose to sign the deal, and even if they fulfilled all the criteria, living in Gardara was the hardest part due to the prejudices they faced. Overmaster Nazari being unable to hide his power put him at a distinct social disadvantage. Esther had always suspected he had friends in high places to earn his position as Overmaster of the City.
Esther didn’t care about his magery. He knew the importance of pretending she wasn’t a conservator, and that was enough for her.
“Syr Nazari, it’s nice to see you again,” Esther greeted with a slight bow of her head.
“Alas,” he said sombrely, “I am no longer a Syr.”
“What!” she exclaimed. “Surely they didn’t demote you?”
“Quite the opposite,” he said with a grimace. “After Duke Stratton misplaced his head last month over all those pesky charges of treason, I got promoted. I’m now Lord Nazari.”
Esther stopped breathing. Then she almost laughed hysterically. He couldn’t be a duke! It was surely a joke? Esther couldn’t associate with anyone capable of tracing her lineage to House Varson, or she’d face the sting of Sassin’s blade. He couldn’t do that as Overmaster. But he could as a duke. So he couldn’t be one.
But he was. From the set of his shoulders and the softness of his eyes, she knew he told the truth.
Something primal simmered from a forgotten corner of her mind. He knew she was a conservator. From his access to the conservators guild’s records, he knew she came from Porthpyre. Those two facts known by the same person were a dangerous combination. As duke, he ran in the same social circle as her former family. What if he realised the similarities she shared with her uncle and cousin, and spoke too liberally about it? Sassin would descend on Esther without remorse.
He couldn’t be a duke…
The air behind Yarvier and Lord Nazari swished and churned, taking on a solid form.
Sassin, her face hidden by a dark hood, watched her from the shadows…
She rubbed her eyes with tingling fingers. When she stopped, the image of Sassin flickered. As Esther deepened and slowed her breathing, it faded away. It was a fictitious image, not Sassin.
You saw such hallucinations all the time when you first arrived in Koryn City, she told herself. You know the difference. You can handle it. The only reason it seemed so real is because you haven't seen one in a long time.
Despite her internal assurances, her conservator’s sight pushed against the back of her eyes in a futile attempt to defend her from the non-existent danger. Being so close to Lord Nazari’s power didn’t help the situation, either.
“Alright, enough gossiping,” Yarvier said, completely unaware of Esther’s state of mind for she stood paralysed and reticent. “Let’s get down to business. Ysim, tell ‘em both what you told me yesterday.”
Esther forced herself to swallow and focus on the emerald tones in Lord Nazari’s eyes. Observing the things she knew were real would chase away the fear and the sights that weren’t real.
“I want my reign to mean something,” he said. “This city has a history of rulers who turned criminal. I want House Nazari to break that pattern; I want to lift the common man, and to do that, one of my long-term goals is to build a university.” His face was animated and his tone reverent. Esther knew it should make her feel excited, but it didn’t. “We’re the only city in Gardara that doesn’t have one, you know. But I need an area of research that will attract potential professors, and I believe the deadlands hold the answer. The lands around the city are so steeped in hidden ancient history, and I want to start by researching the ruins of Al Karesh.”
Al Karesh. It was a place Esther knew well, so she clutched at her knowledge to keep her mind from fixating on Sassin. It was an old temple that sat in the middle of the Kareshian Plateau. The ruins were a dangerous and mysterious place that had captured the imaginations of historians, playwrights, poets, and skalds for centuries. Esther had to admit that Lord Nazari’s plan might be attractive enough to lure esteemed professors to their unpleasant city. Cracking the secrets of Al Karesh would earn someone serious scholarly esteem.
“He’s doing so at my urging,” Edyta cut in, puffing out her chest. “I know dear Lord Nazari through my family. I told him about the ruins and insisted I accompany him.”
“Aye, she did,” Yarvier grumbled. “She were in such a hurry ter leave, she wanted me ter let them go alone. It’s a good thing yer showed up when yer did.” He gripped Esther’s shoulder and squeezed it meaningfully. It gave her another conundrum to keep her mind from spiralling: why would Edyta want to go out alone with Lord Nazari?
“It’s not my fault everyone else was drunk,” she said innocently.
Esther’s eyes narrowed. The comment was enough to break through the haze. “That’s funny, considering you were the one who paid for the open bar.”
Edyta’s mouth flattened into a jagged line, contorting her otherwise beautiful lips. Lord Nazari looked between the two women, his eyebrow slightly quirked and his mouth contracted in a slight smile.
“So it’s settled, Yarvier said. “Yer will take Ysim as close as is safe. Don’t spend too long out there, as he has an appointment at noon. And no one is to act like a child, especially yer, Ysim.”
Lord Nazari chuckled and stroked the condor’s neck. “We shall be on our best behaviour.”
“See to it,” Yarvier said firmly. “And listen to Esther. When yer out there, her word is law. Consider her yer new Crowned Guardian until yer get back ‘ere.” Yarvier slapped Ysim’s shoulder, nodded at Esther and disappeared back into his office.
Yarvier’s off-handed comparison twisted the old knife in Esther’s gut. Something about it also made Edyta’s mood turn so foul Esther’s sight recoiled.
Lord Nazari forced out a sigh at Yarvier’s abrupt exit. “One day, I’ll teach him a bit of dramaturgy. Maybe then he’ll finally begin to use pleasantries?” Edyta faked a giggle, but Esther couldn’t even fake a smile.
Lord Nazari quirked an eyebrow. “Oh Esther, do lighten up,” he said. He elbowed her arm, and the instant he made contact, Esther jolted backwards. The physical contact allowed her to feel the sheer strength of his magery. It didn’t roar like a tempest but sang like a siren. Her sight flared in response, spiking uncomfortably in her head.
Lord Nazari widened his eyes in delighted curiosity. The conservator's sight! It is nice to see such an old power alive and well. His voice boomed from every direction. Esther was horrified he’d say something so damning out loud until she realised his lips hadn’t moved. Had he spoken into her head?
Thought projection is one of my talents as a mage, he confirmed. Once her sight understood what was going on, it burst into a frenzy of excitement, pushing against the back of her eyes as it tried to rush towards him. She could barely hold it back.
Oh my, you have yourself a bolshie sight! Do you use it while you hunt? No wonder Yarvier speaks so highly of you.
It was too much. Esther backed away involuntarily and Lord Nazari smiled softly in understanding.
Too many bad things had happened at once, and she couldn’t deal with it. She rushed ahead, setting a path for the armoury and allowing Edyta to hang back and talk to the man she’d put so much effort into getting alone.
He was a duke, and he knew her personally. Her aunt’s demands hadn’t forbidden her from interacting with the nobles and peers of the realm, so as things were, Esther was safe from her mortal shadow.
But it wasn’t all bad, she reminded herself. The chances of Lord Nazari, or anyone else, discovering who she was were slim. Only Vera and Sister Vessany knew her real identity. Neither would betray her, so all she had to do was get through the job and then spend the rest of her life avoiding Lord Nazari. Then she could work on gaining Edyta’s trust so she wouldn’t ruin her career, and everything would go back to normal.
She hugged herself and squeezed her ribs, mentally preparing herself for the rough few days she had ahead of her. At least it couldn’t possibly get any worse... Right?
How will they fare in the deadlands?