"The Huntsman’s Guild was founded during a conclave held at Fort Gradora between Gardara’s thirteen best hunters. Five hundred years later, the number still holds significant meaning, with thirteen Overmasters running the Guild, and thirteen Seniors running each guildhall.
"These seniors are celebrated individuals known for their skill and strategic minds. Each one had an international reputation, except for the mysterious thirteenth of Koryn City. We don’t know why they never revealed their identity or what it would have taken for them to reveal it. Perhaps it’s best we never discovered the truth. It’s more mysterious that way."
Excerpt from ‘The Huntsmen’s Mystery.’
Edyta’s threat had scrambled Esther’s mind and unsettled her stomach. She couldn’t see straight, and her throat burned with thirst. Oblivion called from the bottom of an empty flagon, and she didn’t have the strength to resist.
As she stormed out of the Main Hall, she crashed straight into Esvian. “Watch it,” he growled. Upon realising it was Esther, he dropped his defences. “Oh. You.”
“Get out my way, Esvian. I need a drink.” He didn’t deserve to feel the lashings of her foul temper, but Esther couldn’t stop herself.
“Why are you so angry?” he said, blocking her way with his bulky frame. “You don’t get angry.”
“Fuck off, I get angry all the time! And if you really want to know, ask your bloody father.” Over his shoulder, Esther spotted a red and white demon. She was over by the armoury, flirting with another senior huntsman, no doubt bending them to her will. “Edyta,” Esther growled, clawing her hands into fists. “I’ll kill her!”
Esther barely took one step before Esvian picked her up by the waist and threw her over his shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing! Put me down!” Esther demanded as he carried her into the Drunken Huntsman’s secluded beer garden.
“What are you doing?” Esvian shot back as he lowered her to the ground. “You can’t just fight her in the middle of the Shack. You’re a junior huntsman, for skys sake. You might get demoted.”
Esther pushed away from him. “She said she was going to ruin me,” she said helplessly. “And she’s winning.”
Esvian blinked a few times and then raised his arm. “It will be okay,” he said stiffly. They both watched in suspicion as he slowly patted Esther’s shoulder.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but this is weird.”
“Yeah.” Esvian lowered his arm, which made them both feel better. “Talk.”
Esther sighed and sat down on a nearby bench. Esvian stayed where he was, crossing his arms in case they decided to comfort her again. “Your father refused to sponsor me for the trials. He’s sponsoring Edyta instead. Reeve said it’s because Yarvier hates her.” Esvian didn’t look surprised. Esther let her head fall back. “Why am I always the last to know things?”
“I didn’t know about you and the trials,” he said with narrowed eyes. “Clearly, you’re not the last person to know things.”
Esther felt sheepish. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It was a fast decision.”
Esvian sighed and sat next to her. “I’m not angry. I know you wouldn’t intentionally keep something that big from me. If it makes you feel better, I didn’t know about Edyta, but it makes sense. He hates that bitch. So do I. So do you.”
“Then why didn’t you let me strangle her? It would have made us both feel better.” Esther’s fingers twitched in agreement.
Esvian let out a little huff. “Me, gods yes. You, no. You’re good.”
Esther scowled. “That doesn’t sound like a compliment to me.” She pulled her knees up onto the bench and hugged them. “Unfortunately, there’s more to it than Yarvier’s rejection. I think Edyta is fixing the trials. Five minutes ago, it was just a theory, but now… Now I have evidence.”
Esvian scuffed the wilting grass with his boot. “Was it related to your earlier comment on getting ruined?”
“Yes,” she breathed. “She’s going to tell people I’m a conservator if I talk to the other twelve seniors”
Esvian smiled cruelly, though it was more of a grimace of ill fortune. “So it is happening again. Soon, she’ll have everyone under her control, and there’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it, other than let her win the trials so she can fuck off.”
They sat beside each other in silence, lost in their miserable thoughts. Eventually, the autumn chill became uncomfortable. “Come on,” Esvian said. “There’s one place Edyta doesn’t rule; the godsdamn pub. Let me buy you a drink.”
His offer injected a bit of good humour into her. “Are you sure your tab can handle it after breaking the window? We’re on winter wages from now on, after all.”
Esvian winced. “I’ll make it work. I’ll offer to clean out the beer cellar if that’s what it takes.”
They entered the tavern together and elbowed their way through the crowd that had accumulated around the bar. Esther relished the heat from the fire as it sunk into her body, easing the tension in her jaw and shoulders.
When it was their turn, she expected Jorin to refuse Esvian’s patronage, but he poured them drinks without a word. He had a deep crease between his eyebrows, and he avoided looking at them unless he had to.
“Strange,” Esther said as they walked over to their usual table.
“It’s about to get stranger,” Esvian said. “Look.”
Atta and Ignacy sat at the table Esther usually shared with Esvian and Reeve. Atta was slumped over her drink and a small bowl of vittles, while Ignacy sat beside her, occasionally patting her back. They got closer and Esther realised that Atta was crying.
“What’s happened?” Esther asked.
Atta tightened her hands around her flagon. “Jorin betrayed me,” she said weekly.
“What do you mean, ‘betrayed?’ ”
Atta broke out into a fresh wave of tears, so Ignacy spoke for her. “Jorin locked in his sponsor for the trials. He didn’t choose Atta.”
Dread rose in Esther’s veins. “Who did he choose?”
“Onder, that little bastard!” Atta yelled, tossing her flagon at the wall. It exploded in a shower of ale and pottery. Jorin noticed, but turned a blind eye to the commotion.
They waited until Atta cried herself into emotional sobriety. “It can’t all be bad news, can it?” she said, roughly wiping her face. “We saw you on the list, Ignacy. When did that happen?”
“I made a deal with Hàve after we won the trials five years ago.” He said it flatly, careful not to upset Atta with his good fortune. “She promised to sponsor me no matter what, and she was true to her word.”
Despite his careful tone, it made Atta angrier. “Unlike some people,” she said bitterly. “What about you, Esther? You went to ask someone, right? How did that go?”
Esther fidgeted with her sleeve, suddenly nervous. Ignacy coughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, about that… I asked Yarvier, but he’d already sponsored someone.”
Esther didn’t know how it was possible, but Atta looked even more devastated. “Who?”
Atta spat on the floor. “I’m suddenly not so unhappy about Jorin and Onder. Apparently, it could be worse.”
Esther huffed despondently. “Tell me about it.”
They sat, stewing in their misery until Jorin reluctantly moved over to the bar closest to them to serve a customer.
Atta hunched over. “I can’t stand this anymore. I’m leaving.” When she stood up, she grabbed Ignacy’s arm. “Come. I need a distraction, and you’re very good at it.”
He smirked. “Yes ma’am.”
Esvian and Esther watched them leave in discomfort. “I’ll never get used to that,” he said.
Unfortunately for him, ‘that’ was a fact of life. Huntsmen were arrogant in their ability to kill things, had a propensity for drinking too much, were known for having loose morals, and they living in an isolated enclave under the constant threat of death. Combine it all together, and you get a society rife with casual sex and relationships.
“I’m fairly certain we’re the only people here with a problem with it,” Esther said. Esvian set his jaw and tapped the table which usually meant he was preparing for an uncomfortable conversation. Esvian wanted to talk about their love lives? Kill me, she thought.
“I get why I don’t like it. You’re-”
“Going to punch you if you say anything inappropriate?” Esther offered.
He scowled. “A girl. There aren’t as many girls here.”
They were in uncharted waters, and Esther desperately wanted to change the subject. But she trusted Esvian, so what was the harm in confiding in him?
“Esvian, my aunt raised me in the traditional Gardaran way. I thought I’d get married at seventeen and spend the rest of my life with my husband, giving him children until I dried up or croaked out.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I gave that up after I came here, but the idea of monogamy and a family is something that’s never left me.”
Her frankness softened Esvian, and some of his awkwardness melted away. “You could still have a family,” he said with a hint of compassion.
Esther patted his arm. “I love you for saying that, but it’s impossible for me. Unless I get busy with you or Yarvier, no one here would want me when they realised who I am. And second…” She couldn’t believe she was about to say it, but she needed someone to confide in, and Esvian was her closest friend. “The second reason is I’ll put my partner’s life in danger.”
Esvian worked the thought through his head. “If you’re worried about infecting them, or predicting something-”
Esther shut him down before she lost her nerve. “That’s not it.” She dug her knuckles into the table, distracting herself with the pressure. “Esvian, after I saw my first vision, my aunt wanted to kill me.” She saw the anger take hold of him, tensing his solid frame. “I fled to the guild to protect myself. Whenever someone like me dies in service, the family is investigated first, and rather publically too. My aunt wouldn’t care if people knew she killed someone like me. What keeps me safe is the investigation would reveal her daughter is related to someone like me. My aunt doesn’t want my status to reflect badly on my cousin, so she’s happy to leave me be… unless anyone from my former life discovers who I am. If that happens, she’ll kill me regardless of the consequences. If I ever got close to someone, they’d have to deal with all that.”
Esvian picked at a loose grain of wood on the table. “That’s some noble-level shit.”
“It is.” She shook out her hands. “So what about you? Why don’t you let loose every once in a while?” It felt great releasing the burden of one of her secrets, but she needed to steer the conversation away from the nobility. Esvian didn’t know that part of her life, and she didn’t intend to let him know.
A muscle in Esvian’s cheek twitched. He wasn’t going to say anything.
“Oh, come on, Esvian! I told you a deep, dark secret. The least you can do is repay in kind.” Esther wouldn’t force him, but she knew he’d feel better for confiding in someone else.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” he said at last.
“Sex, or the casualness of it all?”
Esvian studiously avoided looking at her, but to his credit, he answered. “The casualness. I’m no stranger to intimacy, but like you, I need more.” A menacing grin spread across his face. “I don’t like to share.”
Esther inched away from him. “Can you turn down the homicidal smile?”
Esvian chuckled, releasing the awkward tension.
While Esvian investigated the remains of Atta’s food, Esther noticed that Jorin had finished serving the last of the crowd who’d gathered at the bar. Seeing it as an opportunity for answers, she approached him.
As she arrived, Jorin flinched and then tried to steel himself.
“So,” she drawled, leaning on the bar top. “What happened with Atta?”
“Nothing happened,” he said flatly. “Nothing. Now get gone!”
Her heart rate sped up, and an uncomfortable flush flared up her neck. Being rejected twice in a row made her feel powerless. And that made her angry.
“You promised you’d sponsor her, Jorin. You strung her along for years on that promise, and then you betrayed her.” The more she spoke, the less control she had over what she was saying. “You’re basically like her father, and now you’ve sponsored Onder, of all people. At least Yarvier had the balls to reject me immediately. He didn’t try to hide anything.”
Jorin winced at her comparison and shrunk inwards. “Onder is a good huntsman,” he murmured mechanically. “He deserves a chance to prove himself.”
“Try again,” Esther hissed. “Edyta’s threatened you, hasn’t she?”
His eyes went wide, and in their dark depths, she saw a reflection of her own fear. “How do you know?”
“Because she’s blackmailing me, too.” Esther softened her shoulders and hunched over in defeat. Jorin mimicked her posture instantly, which gave her an idea. Being vulnerable with Esvian had gained his trust and prompted him to be vulnerable in turn. Why wouldn’t it work with Jorin?
“You see, Edyta discovered a secret of mine that would ruin me and have me chased out of the guild.” She spoke in a higher pitch, and let her voice catch. “My profession is everything I have, and I wanted to enter the trials to prove myself. But Edyta, she…” Esther sighed dolefully. “She’s barred me from petitioning the twelve, or she’ll release my secret.” Taking a leaf out of Edyta’s book, she placed her hand on his arm and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I take it she’s doing the same to you?”
Jorin shook his head, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her hand. “You’re right,” he said in a rush. “She… Gods above! Somehow, she learned about my daughter.” He gasped, and then the words started tumbling out. “Seven years ago, I had meself a sweetheart, except she were married to a rich man. We were foolish, and we begat a daughter, except I can never see her. If the husband finds out… He’ll kill her, you understand? He’ll kill my daughter.”
Esther let him gasp and sputter as he tried to contain his emotions. She kept her hand in place. She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t deny that Edyta’s methods worked.
When he breathed more evenly, Esther murmured: “And Edyta knows?” He nodded. “And she threatened to reveal the truth unless you sponsored Onder?” He nodded again.
“It killed me to betray Atta, but I had to. Edyta made me choose between Atta’s happiness or my daughter’s life, and-” he pressed his lips together to suppress a sob.
“I know, Jorin,” Esther cooed. “You made the right choice. Without the trials, Atta has a future of happiness ahead of her. If you chose differently, your daughter wouldn’t have a future at all.” It was a genuine sentiment on Esther’s part, but it felt cheap and fake after immitating Edyta.
The door opened, and Reeve, Edyta, Onder and the rest of her posse entered the crowded tavern. Esther released Jorin’s wrist immediately. He shivered and started scurrying away from her.
“Don’t breathe a word to Atta!”
“I won’t, Jorin. I promise.”
Feeling like a manipulative, worthless person, Esther rejoined Esvian and explained what she’d learned. While she spoke, they both watched as Edyta sandwiched herself between Reeve and the others like a guard dog.
“It’s just like before,” Esvian said. His face changed, becoming infected with hatred. “What were the exact terms she gave you? Maybe we can figure out a loophole.”
“Just that I can’t ask the twelve senior huntsmen for a sponsorship.” An idea came to her, and her spine straightened with excitement. “However… she never said anything about the thirteenth.” It was a desperate plan, but it was her only option.
Esvian grinned. “It’s crazy, but it might just work. But no one knows who the thirteenth is. What chance do we have of finding out?”
“Yarvier will know,” Esther said confidently.
“Aye, he will. But what if he won’t tell you?”
“Then… Then I’ll tell him everything.” It was a risk, but Esther was willing to come clean about Guardian Kessila, her aunt, and Sassin if it got Yarvier on her side.
Esvian looked sceptical. But when Edyta laughed loudly and grabbed Reeve around the waist in a possessive gesture, his expression hardened. “Well, it’s either go with you or stay and watch that.” Edyta started kissing Reeve passionately, and it almost made Esther throw up in her mouth. “I’d choose you any day.”
Despite her exhaustion, some perverse humour rose inside her. “You sure know how to proposition a girl, Esvian.” She said it louder than she’d intended. Someone one table over wolf-whistled.
“Let’s get out of here,” Esvian growled, flushing at their misinterpretation.
Together, they made their way out of the Drunken Huntsman, walking the long way around and hugging the walls so they didn’t need to walk past Edyta and Reeve.
But they saw them leave together. Edyta whispered something in Reeve’s ear. She laughed but Reeve went rigid and stared at them with an expression Esther couldn’t read.
⋅☾ ⚔ ☽⋅
They found Yarvier in his office, alone and glaring at a letter on his desk. To Esther’s surprise, he barked: “I wondered what took yer so damn long. Sit down, the pair of yer, and say what yer need to say. Though yer should know there ain’t nothing yer can say that’ll change me mind.”
“I’m not here to change your mind,” Esther said as they sat down. “I’m here to cut you a deal.”
Yarvier narrowed his remaining eye. “A deal eh? Then let’s do it in traditional Paravian fashion. Name yer price, and if I agree, I’ll name mine.”
Esther started to speak, but Esvian got in first. “Wait,” he said while glowering at his father. “Paravian deals are non-negotiable. Once you name your price, you have to agree to his before he says it out loud. If you don’t, he owns you.”
“It’s okay, Esvian,” Esther said calmly. “I trust him not to take advantage. I also don’t have another choice.” She took a deep breath. “Yarvier, my price is the identity of the thirteenth huntsman.”
The working side of Yarvier’s mouth twitched upward in a terrifying smile. “You’re a wily one, I’ll give yer that,” he said. “Seniors are locking in left and right. I think I know the reason they’re not holding out, and who’s pullin’ their strings. Unfortunately, there’s shit all I can do about it. But that bein’ said, this’ll give me a way to get some revenge. I accept your deal.”
Shock overtook her. “You will? Thank you!”
“Don’t be so happy yet, lass, you’ve not heard my conditions.”
Yarvier settled back in his chair and crossed his arms. “First, yer need prove to me yer trial material. Reeve and Ignacy ‘ave a hunt in three days, but the infestation has grown too large for them to handle on their own. Convince Reeve ter take yer both, and survive the ordeal, and yer’ll ‘ave completed the first condition.”
An icy wave contracted all the muscles across Esther’s back. “You think we’re ready for that?” Reeve was a legend for a reason, and the Dark Woods were half of that reason.
“That’s for yer to prove,” he said. “The second condition is what I really want yer for.” He tapped the letter on his desk. “Did either of yer see that bunch of foreign huntsmen harvels that arrived earlier?”
“I did,” Esther said. “They took Hàve’s books.”
“Aye. They arrived in the city this morning, which means Ysim called them down weeks ago without telling me. When they got ‘ere, they immediately pulled rank and helped themselves to whatever they wanted. They claim they’re ‘ere to investigate ter ruins for Ysim’s university, but I don’t trust ‘em. I need yer to spy on them. Yer’ll need to go right up to ter front gates to do so.”
Esther swallowed. “But you-”
“But I said never to get that close? I know I did - I was the one who said it, wasn’t I? Well, now I’m telling yer different. Report yer findings back to me and I’ll tell yer who the thirteenth huntsman is.”
Everyone was obsessed with the ruins of Al Karesh, even Edyta. Yarvier’s deal offered an opportunity to discover what was going on. Despite the danger, it appealed to Esther almost as much as the thirteenth’s identity.
His second condition also offered the perfect segue to ask about Former Master Sudarmir, but Esther held her tongue. Edyta was fixing the trials in her favour by using blackmail. Was it possible she was lying about the circumstances of Sudarmir’s death to sow distrust between her and Yarvier?
Later. She’d ask about it later. At that moment, only one thing mattered.
“It’s a deal.” Yarvier and Esther shook hands while Esvian shook his head.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he asked himself.
Can Esvian and Esther convince Reeve to bring them on a hunt of epic proportions?