"Gardara was founded upon the principle of fairness and equality for all, regardless of birth or arcane affinity. Gardaran’s lived in such a way for centuries, giving rise to a magnificent kingdom of opportunity.
"The kingdom died when the Tears of Dealth obliterated half their cities, killed over half of the population, and created the deadlands. Then the Blood Queen burned the remains by using blood magery and the blood-curse to subjugate the survivors.
"The Tears dried and the Blood Queen was deposed, but the scars are still visible. Gardara has since become a country in which only the most deprived people can flourish."
Excerpt from ‘History of Gardara.’
“No!” Esther’s insides froze. “Why not? I stand a chance. I have a stellar track record, and you've acknowledged it by promoting me to Junior and giving me the Kareshian Plateau.” Yarvier remained silent. But what hurt the most was that he didn’t look guilty. “Please,” she whispered. “I promise I won’t die.”
“That’s not the reason, girl,” he said wearily. “But the answer won’t change. Now get along. We ‘ave a hunt to plan.”
“You’re going on a hunt?!” An onslaught of anxiety chased away thoughts of his rejection.
Ignacy burst out laughing and clapped her roughly on the back. “Funny lass,” he said, but stopped laughing when he saw Yarvier’s pinched mouth and downturned brows.
“Do you take me for a fool too?” he spat. “Of course I ain’t. Me bones would break the second a mere leaf kissed me. Nay, ‘tis Reeve’s hunt for him and Ignacy. I’m only advisin’.”
Esther sighed in relief. But with relief came more worry. “So why won’t you sponsor me? I thought we were-” What, friends? She’d gone to ask Yarvier under the belief they were close. But the ease with which he’d rejected her was worrying. Did she mean so little to him?
“I wish I could do it, girl,” he said. “But truth is, I’ve already sponsored another.”
“What!” She stood up, recalling the six names on the board. He could have chosen Ignacy, she supposed. But after having won the trials five years ago, Ignacy didn’t need to worry about asking Yarvier after he told people not to bother him. The only reason Esther asked him was that she was desperate and he was the only senior huntsmen she was close to.
What if he’s going senile and sponsored Onder? she thought. No, that’s too far-fetched.
“Who? When?” she demanded.
He didn’t even hesitate. “Edyta asked me yesterday, and I said yes.” When he said it, Reeve looked down at his hands and tensed his jaw.
Esther’s mouth fell open. “Edyta! What? Why her?” She wasn’t sure who she was asking, Yarvier or the universe. What she knew was the question had two meanings: why did he say yes to Edyta, and why did Edyta have to ask him.
“That’s none of yer business. What is yer business is finding someone else since they’ll all ‘ave someone very soon.” He gave Reeve a hard look loaded with meaning Esther couldn’t comprehend. Esther was too preoccupied with her own fears to wonder what was going on.
“How could you do this?” she said. “You knew that I’d ask, don’t deny it, yet you sponsored her anyway. I was counting on you, Yarvier.”
Yarvier rocked back on his stool and massaged the joints of his fingers. “Aye, I’ve known yer’d ask since our mutual friend told me his plans for his ascension.” So Yarvier knew Lord Nazari had invited the royal court to his inauguration. Yarvier didn’t know about Esther’s history with Guardian Kessila or her ties to House Varson. But he’d seen enough on the day they’d met to know she used to run in the upper circles of society and may want to avoid them. “But it's not me yer should be countin' on,” he said, rising before Reeve could offer to help. “Ignacy, come with me. Reeve, come get me when she’s gone." He hobbled to the door. Ignacy rose with surprising grace despite his impressive bulk and opened the door for the Yarvier.
But Esther wasn’t giving up without a fight. Before the door fell shut, she burst out behind them.
“Master Yarvier, wait!” she called. He stopped and swirled around, the hem of his leather coat whipping in the wind. He didn’t look cold, despite his bare chest.
“Ignacy, go on ahead.” With a nod, Ignacy stalked off towards the Main Hall. “Lass, I know what you’re going to say. It’ll change nothing, but I know you have to say it, anyway.”
Her heart dropped. “I saved you,” she muttered flatly. “I thought that meant something.”
Yarvier moved closed and placed a warm hand on her shoulder. Esther couldn’t look him in the eye. “Tell me true, lass: do your cynosure’s owe you anything for saving their lives?”
It shocked Esther how easily he called himself her cynosure.
She shook her head. “No. Saving them is my duty. They owe me nothing.”
Yarvier squeezed her shoulder. “Yer saved Esvian and me from our hymn and fer that I’m eternally grateful. In fact, t’was the first time I realised hiring you was a good idea. But as yer said, it was yer duty and I own yer nothing in return.”
Sorrow settled against her heart and her eyes prickled. Yarvier pulled her into a brief hug. “I don’t understand why yer in such a hurry to enter the trials,” he murmured into her ears. “Yer don’t need to tell me why if yer promise to be careful.”
“I promise,” she whispered, leaning into his embrace. She couldn’t remember how it felt to be hugged by her father.
He released her and went off after Ignacy, leaving Esther feeling lost and hopeless. She retreated back into Yarvier’s hut. She wanted the warmth of his heath and the spirit of his paternal affection to chase away the chill of autumn and rejection.
Reeve hadn’t moved. Esther fell into her chair, retrieved her mug, and stared into the dark contents. “Why do you think Yarvier sponsored Edyta if he knew I’d ask him?” She took another sip of the brew, only to gag again. “I don’t know why I thought it would taste any different.”
He thought for a moment, his eyes locked on the maps of the Dark Wood. “I think he did it because he knew you’d ask him.”
She looked up, confused. Reeve shrugged both his shoulders and took a deep breath. When he released it, the nurturing side Yarvier’s presence invoked slipped away. “It’s quite simple,” he said as he rested his feet on the table, but his posture had an edge of deception about it. “He didn’t like Edyta before she left, so he’s sure as hell not gonna like her now. He saw sponsoring her as an attempt to get rid of her.”
“Why didn’t he like her?” Esther said, although she was certain she knew the answer.
“Because she’s spoiled, entitled, and difficult to deal with?” he said casually. “Take your pick.”
Esther grimaced. “Then why do you like her?”
Reeve grinned. “Because she’s spoiled, entitled, and difficult to deal with.”
Staying and discussing Edyta with Reeve wouldn’t get her anywhere. She got up without responding, but as she reached the door, a half-formed idea bubbled to the surface of her mind.
“She did it on purpose.”
Esther looked at him without seeing, her mind focused on Edyta. “Edyta arrives back on the day Yarvier announces we’re hosting the trials. Despite only being here for a day, she has people like Onder eating from her hand. Now they and three others besides Ignacy have sponsors. Reeve, you know her better than me: is she friends with the other people on the list?” Esther recited their names from memory.
Reeve nodded, trying to hide his disdain. “So what, Esther? What are you getting at?” he said stiffly.
“The people with sponsors so far, besides Ignacy, aren’t good huntsmen. I’m positive Edyta has been getting her friends’ sponsors, because how would people like Onder get one on their own?” But what does she stand to gain from it? They were low ranked journeymen. If Lord Nazari chose her to represent the guild, they’d only drag the team down, lowering her chance of victory.
But what if that wasn’t her motive?
Suddenly, a new theory made itself known to her. “What if Edyta didn’t help Onder and the others’ gain sponsors to gain their alliance? What if she did it because they’re weak huntsmen and she knew she’d be chosen over them? It lines up with her insecurity, and don’t try to deny that much,” she said as Reeve started to protest. “Because she doesn’t think she can get in on merit. She’s fixing the trials so she’s sure to get selected. That sirrah!”
Reeve sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “Be careful,” he warned, his face a mask of stone. “Don’t get pulled into her games.”
“What do you mean?” His change in tone worried her. “Is everything okay?”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “You should go.”
“Just go!” he barked.
“But I want to help,” Esther said. His face hardened and his lip curled. “You know what, it doesn’t matter. Deal with it on your own.” She hurried to the door, but Reeve sprung up and held it shut.
“Why does competing mean so much to you?” Reeve’s shoulders were hunched, his eyebrows furrowed, and his eye contact was too intense. Was he concerned? Ashamed? Worried? Esther couldn’t tell because her sight was still in recovery. Its absence made her feel blind.
“It’s nothing,” she imitated fiercely. “I should go.” It was too much. Esther had too many things to deal with, and Reeve’s behaviour wasn’t at the top of her list. She knocked his hand aside and burst out the door. Yarvier’s rejection had drained all the fight out of her, but she forced herself to walk back to the Main Hall. She needed to find another sponsor, and fast.
A group of seven huntsmen she didn’t recognise emerged from the rear entrance, armed and armoured for a hunt. Two of them bore insignia’s that showed they were of higher rank than Yarvier. Each of them had a grizzled, reproachable expression on their face.
One of them was stuffing a knapsack full of old-looking books while Hàve the librarian hovered to the side. Esther walked over.
“Hàve, what’s going on? Who are they?” she asked.
“The vanguard of Lord Nazari’s research project. Their brilliant plan involves camping outside the ruins of Al Karesh and trying to get inside.”
Esther’s fight returned in a blaze of fire. “And who approved such a fool’s errand? I wasn’t consulted, even though the whole Plateau’s mine. The weather reports say the snow’s coming in early. If they camp out there, they’ll get stuck. They’ll run out of food and freeze to death, if the blood-curse doesn’t get them first.”
Hàve twisted her hands together. “Honey, if they can take my books without permission, they can hunt on your territory without permission. Trust me, none of us like it. Yarvier threw a fit earlier, but their commander outranks his boss.”
Helplessness dampened her spirit and made it impossible for the anger to spread further. With shoulders sagged, Esther stumbled into the Main Hall like a husk of herself, planning to check the senior’s offices. Yet when she entered the building, she found herself drawn back to the list. She was staring at Edyta’s name when she was jumped.
“What a surprise to see you here,” the she-demon herself said. She stood next to Esther with the elegance of a tigress. “Tell me, how did your chat go with Master Yarvier?”
“You know exactly how it went,” Esther hissed, hating Edyta for her confidence.
“Poor little mouse. From what dear Onder has told me, that man’s fulfilled all your hopes and dreams since you arrived here. That won’t be the case any longer.”
Esther’s body went cold. “What do you mean?”
“One day, he won’t be ‘Master’ of anything, once the truth comes out. You know how he became the guildmaster, don’t you?”
“Former Master Sudarmir died,” Esther said, pinching her lips together. He’d died in the ruins of Al Karesh, and since then, Yarvier had forbidden anyone from entering them.
Edyta smiled. “You know who else was on his team? You know who was supposed to protect him, but failed?” Esther didn’t, but based on her tone, she could make a very good guess. But she said nothing, not wanting to give Edyta the satisfaction.
“Your silence speaks volumes, Esther. Both Sudarmir and Yarvier entered the ruins, but only Yarvier came out.” Edyta tapped her lip, pretending to sort out a difficult puzzle. “Sounds like the ploy of a savage radge to me, doesn’t it? Lure Master Sudarmir into the ruins and kill him. Except it didn’t work out in Yarvier’s favour, did it? Sudarmir carved into his face and took his eye.”
Esther’s fingers twitched, unsure whether to curl into fists or reach for her dagger. ‘Radge’ was the derogatory term used against those who were both west of the Paravian Wall. Defensiveness reared up inside her. “The scars on his face were made by claws. Former Master Sudarmir didn’t have claws, did he?” she growled.
Edyta shrugged nonchalantly. “You should ask Yarvier what happened,” she said. “You two are close, after all. Skys, perhaps he views you as a daughter, since you work so closely with his son. Maybe he’ll tell you the truth. I don’t think he will, though. After all, he sponsored me, not you. Perhaps you’re not as close as you thought.”
Esther’s frustration was strong enough to overcome her common sense. “That’s not what Reeve told me. He said Yarvier chose you to get rid of you.”
“Oh, yes,” she chuckled. “Darling Reeve. You two are so very much alike.” She examined Esther from head to toe, taking her time. “People like you are all the same. Tough talkers, that’s for sure, but there’s always something fragile to break, always a secret to find. I’m so very good at extracting them. So good, in fact, I can make people beg for more.”
Edyta dropped her volume and tone. “Take Reeve, for example. The last time I was here, I discovered he has a lot of secrets. He fought so hard to keep them at first, but I worked at him for years. After I gained his trust, they all came pouring out. He couldn't stop himself, the little wastrel. He acts tough and strong, but I think he loves to be vulnerable. He loves to be dominated.” She twiddled a stray piece of Esther’s hair around one of her long fingers. Esther shuddered and a malicious look illuminated Edyta’s face. “I wonder whether you’ll like it as much as he does.”
“I have no secrets,” Esther breathed.
“We both know that’s not true,” Edyta said. “As an example, your reaction to Lord Nazari mentioning the royal visit was suspicious for someone with nothing to hide.”
She released Esther’s hair and backed away. With the same distant and calculating air, she scanned the list pinned up on the board. “Easy competition thus far. I like my chances of being named grand champion.”
“I agree,” Esther shot back, mimicking her casual tone. “Looks like I’ll win easily once I find a sponsor.”
Edyta’s face became a portrait of what Esther could only describe as calculated insanity. “That will not happen,” she said levelly.
Esther straightened, trying to gather every spare inch to tower over her adversary. “If you think you can scare me into throwing this opportunity, then you’ll have to try harder.”
Edyta laughed. “You think I need to scare you to win?” she scoffed. “I left this guildhall to prepare for this very competition. I spent years training under the best huntsmen in the world. Yet here you are, a whelp from nowhere with secrets aplenty waiting to destroy her.”
“I’m no whelp. I don’t need expert trainers to beat you.”
Edyta smirked. “Threatening the person who holds all the cards… I may not like you, little mouse, but I admire your veracity. But even if you’re right, it won’t get you anywhere. Secrets are a currency. People believe their value is proportional to the number of people who know them. But that’s true only for the spymaster. In my experience, secrets are far more devastating and valuable once they’ve been released into the world. A private secret can be used to threaten. But one made public can be used to destroy.
“In my hands, I hold your dirty red secret, and you know how devastating such a secret would be for you. Unless you want me to ruin you and your pathetic reputation, you won’t ask the twelve senior huntsmen for a sponsorship. Do we understand each other?”
Esther had seen it coming, but a powerful wave of shock still hit her all the same, taking her breath away. She was thankful her sight was out of action because it could have made things a lot worse.
“I understand,” she whispered.
“Good girl,” she cooed, stroking Esther’s cheek. Esther was too numbed to flinch out of her reach. After giving her one final, glassy look, Edyta walked away while quietly singing a dreadfully familiar tune.
“Flee, flee, flee, conservator girl
And weep tears of blood
As I run, run, run
And snap at your heels.”
The song faded away as she disappeared out of the Main Hall. When the door shut behind her, Esther’s heart twisted as she remembered her hymn from earlier. Edyta was her cynosure. She needed to warn her about her death.
But how could she warn her after such a threat? Edyta wouldn’t believe her, and would most likely think Esther made it up as revenge.
Besides, a small voice inside her head purred, what about the things she said about Reeve? And calling Yarvier a savage radge? Does she even deserve to know after that?
She ignored the thought, but as she fell into a nearby chair and tried not to weep, it popped up again and again. Did Edyta deserve to know? Maybe the blood force was real, and it sang her death because she deserved to die. The thought was more attractive than Esther cared to admit.
What was it Marca had said when Esther heard her first hymn? ‘Reject its call and let her die.’ Except in that moment, Esther didn’t see the refusal as a way of rejecting the blood forces taint. She saw it as a way to embrace it. If allowing the blood force to corrupt her spared her the pain of telling Edyta about her hymn, was it worth it?
Esther needed to stop thinking that way. She needed to think of a plan, and fast.
But first, she needed another drink.
Edyta has left Esther in a tricky situation. Can she get out without exposing herself?