Claire’s lover has no tongue. A slave liberated from a heathen temple, Aya cannot tell the story of her stolen voice, or of her and Claire’s unfolding love. She cannot speak her pain, her joy, or her sorrow. And if she sees that which eludes the blind goddess of justice, she cannot bear witness. “In the Sight of Akresa” is a tragic fantasy romance from debut author Ray Wood.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.
This is how they took your tongue:
There is a wedge, short and made of steel, used to prise apart the teeth. The skin on your lips splits as the slave-maker pushes it into your mouth. Hard Yovali hands hold you all over, keeping your arms behind your back, your knees on the ground, your face towards the sun. Metal crunches against your teeth, scraping, swiveling, pushing. Your incisors feel like they are bending inwards.
You part your teeth before you lose them and the wedge shoots in, followed by foreign fingers that hook into your cheeks. They taste of rust and salt. The blood-priest finds your tongue between his thumb and forefinger and grips it where it starts to fatten, near the root. He pulls. The slave-maker accepts a slender, silk-wrapped something from a loinclothed woman.
Saliva pools around your bottom lip.
The something is the haraad-kité, the voice-cutter. The slave-maker draws it with a flourish from its half-moon sheath and holds it high, his fingers curled around its spine. He is still, his tall, lean body blocking out the sun. Then, all at once and with a scream, he plunges. The blade dips into the meat of your tongue like a finger into water.
Cecil’s books are vague about the rest. I have lain awake more nights than one wondering about what must have followed: the blood pooling in your mouth; the hollow throb of pain; that terrible emptiness behind your teeth. The heat of the cauterising iron biting at the mess of open flesh.
Forgive me. This story remains the only one I have of you; of your life before me. You must know how it pains me that it comes from Cecil’s library rather than your lips—oh, your sweet, battered lips!—and that it would fit a hundred other slaves as well as it fits you. Perhaps none of the accounts that I have read is even true.
Oh, my love. I know so little of you.
We met on the second Sunday after Harvestfest, when the leaves were browning and the men returned from the Yovali lands. My mother and I watched from the wall as Father’s host approached, feeling the wind whip through our dresses. As the column of knights drew closer I could see the breath fuming from the nostrils of the horses.
We went down in our finery to welcome them. Father came in first, as was customary, with Garrick at his right. Their shields were splattered with mud. My brother seemed taller than he had before going on campaign: newly tanned and mountainous, with fresh muscle packed beneath his skin.
“Claire,” he said by way of greeting once they had dismounted and the ritual welcomes had been spoken. I saw Father looking over at us.
“Welcome home, Garrick.” I touched my lips to both his cheeks. “I hope there’s a gift for me among your spoils.”
“Oh, yes.” He grinned and beckoned a boy over to undo his armour. “These heathen treasures will make you doubt your eyes.”
The great hall was prepared, the fire lit; slopping wineskins were handed round above head height. A singer accompanied herself on a vielle. Father spoke to me briefly, in between carousing with his knights and sitting with my mother. “You’re a young woman, now, Claire,” he said. He drew back and looked me up and down as if my breasts were new developments.
“You sound surprised, Father.” The cheek he bent to me was warm and bristly. “It’s not been so long since you left.”
He nodded sadly and drew me in to walk beside him, his arm around my shoulders. “We brought back wonders,” he said.
Wonders indeed. The revelers were silenced; a circle was cleared in the middle of the crowd as the chests were carried in. Behind me, people jostled for a better view as one of Father’s richer knights knelt to open the first casket. The stones around the fireplace blasted heat into my back.
“Spoils won from the Yovali in the name of King Lucian XXI, awarded by His Majesty to His Grace the Duke of Rouchefort!”
Treasures shone like sugared fruits. The first chest was full of gems and gold, the second bronze and porcelain. There were bulky crescent bangles stained with dye, discs and trinkets patterned after constellations, plump ornamental pots and jars. Another casket held a nest of looted weaponry. Endless spoils were revealed and marveled at: big flasks of wine that smelt of foreign spice; great oiled pipes with bowls like ladles, and the herbs meant to be smoked in them; a set of ceremonial masks; what looked like the bones of some vast lizard dipped in gold. My interest in them shattered the moment you were brought into the hall.
“Liberated by His Grace himself, and granted to his service by His Majesty the King, one slave of the Yovali. Her tongue was ripped from her mouth to prevent blasphemy against their heathen blood-god.”
The last statement drew a collective gasp. My chest was suddenly too tight for my heart; I stood up on my toes as a knight stepped sideways and blocked my view. Shadows danced among the roof beams.
Shall I tell you how you looked to me, that first time? I was expecting a hunched, shrunken creature, grubby head bowed as if in shame at the emptiness behind your mouth, but you stood with your shoulders back. Your mass of unwashed raven hair fell several inches past the base of your neck. Your skin was tanned. I remember how you held your hands: clasped in front of you as if you were in church, in what would have been your lap had you been sitting down. Your breasts pushed against your tunic.
Torches burned behind your eyes.
“. . . shall live in the castle as your equal.” Father was addressing the assembly, his hand resting on your shoulder. You looked toned and lean enough to knock him flat, if you so chose. “She is now a free Lucean woman, and free to labour for her bread upon De Rouchefort lands as long as she may live.”
“A whore without a tongue,” Garrick murmured in my ear under the ensuing applause. His breath was spiced with wine. “Now there’s a treasure for you, Claire.”
The hairs lifted from my neck.
Aya. I heard my father call you Aya.
The name burned in me like a flame those first few days. I realised later that it could not have been your real one, but even now it remains the only one I have for you. When I used it for the first time you simply stared at me for a moment and then dipped your head back to your work, as if it didn’t matter what I called you.
Of course, I wondered how my father chose it for you. I did not like my conclusion—that those were the first, desperate syllables that flopped from your tongueless mouth when he first bore down upon you, sword in hand, believing you Yovali—but what else was I to think? He would not tell me where he found you. Had he plucked you from some heathen temple? A blackened, back-breaking mine? The reeking pleasure bed of some Yovali blood-priest? Each was an abhorrent thought.
Not yet having Cecil’s library at my disposal, I obsessed over the mystery of your missing tongue. Had it been ripped out whole, or did some misshapen stump remain for you to gag on? What became of the missing flesh once they took it from you? I examined my own tongue in the glass while Letia brushed my hair. I flexed and wiggled it—strange, throat-filling worm that it was—as I imagined histories for you.
I saw you again three days after the men returned, when Father called a Justice Circle. I suppose you had not been to one before, but they held no novelty for me. Every second month my father and his trusted council would hear testimony and evidence of all the crimes and grievances committed on De Rouchefort lands, and come to an impartial verdict. Attendance was mandatory for all. This time was much the same as any, except that morning I made Letia take extra care with my hair and spent the first two cases writhing in my seat to see if I could spot you.
I picked you out eventually among the stable hands, near the foot of the Akresa statue. I must have seen the marble likeness of the justice goddess a thousand times, but I had never wondered, until I saw her next to you, what lay beneath the sculpted crinkles of her blindfold. Were her eyes meant merely to be closed, or were there gristly, scooped-out hollows in their place?
You had washed, and your dark hair was sleek and lustrous. I stared at the back of your head, willing you to turn around and meet my eyes. I did not look away until Garrick stood to speak for the good character of the accused. One of Father’s lesser knights was standing trial for the rape of a peasant girl. When judgement had been passed and the girl was being led away, I saw Garrick squeeze my father’s shoulder.
After that day I watched for you in the castle, eavesdropping on the servants to see if you featured in their gossip. Once or twice I considered simply asking about you, but I knew how rumours spread and didn’t want anything to get back to Garrick. So I waited. Then, down by the buttery one morning, I overheard Letia whispering to her brother’s sweetheart:
“Hugh says his birds won’t come near him since he took that tongueless witch as an apprentice. Says she’s put her heathen magic on them.”
I was gripped by a desire to have her tongue pulled out for speaking of you that way, but I contented myself with being sullen and contrary when she clothed me that evening, making her lift my arms to get my dress over my head.
Your role among the staff discovered, I needed only to contrive an excuse to speak with you. That afternoon, I told Father that I wished to take up falconry again. He was surprised, I think, but then any interaction between us tended to surprise him. He had a servant bring my bird up from the mews. She was a proud, white, staring thing—I’d forgotten what I’d named her—who twitched her head from side to side and could not sit still on the glove.
I brushed off my mother’s suggestion that hunting was something that Garrick and I might do together and instead went down to the forest on my own, stopping on the way to borrow a small knife from the kitchens. I spent an hour with the falcon tethered to my wrist, cooing and crooning until she grew used to me. When she was settled enough to consent to my touch, I took out the knife and snicked along the roots of several crucial-looking feathers. She jerked as I maimed her: when I released my grip on her wing she flew shrieking to the full length of her tether, squawking panic and displeasure. I batted her away from my face and waited out her pain. Eventually, after a great deal of shushing, she calmed down enough to be taken back to the castle and tied up in my chamber. Her left wing was slick with blood.
“A cat attacked my bird while I was hunting,” I announced at dinner. “I thought I’d take her down to Hugh this evening.”
I knew that Hugh would not be there—I had it from the bucktoothed boy in the stables that he met with a lady in the village tavern every Wednesday after nightfall—and that, with any luck, I would have you to myself. In my chamber, the falcon perched warily on the back of a chair, ducking her head round to pick at her injured wing. I brushed my hair until it shone. Cold air whistled through my sleeves as I crossed the darkened courtyard.
It was never completely silent in the mews: I could always hear the rustling of feathers or the clacking of a beak, or the scratch of claws on wood from within the screened compartments where the falcons slept. My nose wrinkled at the smell of guano.
You stood there with your back to me, humming. I’d heard Hugh sing to the birds before—it was part of a falcon’s training that she be sung to the same way each time she was given food—but the notes echoing in your hollow mouth climbed straight up my spine. I had heard no tune like it.
“My bird,” I said, and your eyes flashed fear at me for a second as you turned. You stared at me. “I think she’s been injured by a cat. I thought that maybe you could examine her.”
My blood thumped as you put down the bird you had been feeding. It was the first time I’d been so close to you; I realised that you stood two inches taller than me, and that your lips were scabbed with scar tissue. You held a hand out for the bird.
“Thank you,” I said. “She’s very dear to me.”
I think you caught the waver in my voice. Your eyes plunged into me, direct as daggers, and I had to let mine drop. My fingers lingered on the leather of your glove as I handed the bird over. I had seen enough, in that look—I had seen, in the way your eyes hesitated on my hair and then my lips, that you shared something of my desire.
“I’m Claire,” I said. “Lord De Rouchefort’s daughter. I . . . I saw you in the great hall.”
Your head was bent over my falcon’s injured wing. In the distance, I heard a bucket clank against the inside of the well.
“You will be well looked after here.”
I knew that I was gabbling, but the emptiness behind your teeth seemed to be sucking the words out of me. “My father treats his villeins fairly, and there are lots of holidays. You—” I stopped. You had the falcon’s wing pinched between your thumb and forefinger. You looked at me and ran the first finger of your other hand along the flat, regular wound inflicted by my knife blade.
“Yes. Um.” I swallowed. “It’s a nasty wound.” Once a few seconds had made it clear that my story about the cat was not going to be believed, you turned away and went to find a salve. I took a step closer. The torchlight rippled in your hair.
“They call you Aya, don’t they?” I said as you dipped your finger into a little cup of unguent. It smelt of vinegar. You flashed a look at me, then bent your head to brush paste onto the injured wing. Your fingers were slenderer than mine, I realised, and more supple. I held my breath as the falcon stood twitching on your wrist.
“Are you finished?”
You lifted the bird towards me, not quite far enough for me to take it without stepping closer. I moved forwards and reached out my hand.
You flinched as I touched you. Some spark jumped between our skins. The falcon squawked and drew its talon through my finger; you jerked back and collided with the bracket of a torch. The torch crashed to the ground, the gravel snuffing out the flame. The slighted bird flapped noisily up to the roof beams. Cold crept up my forearms.
You touched my hand. The room was too freshly thrown in darkness for me to see anything, but I could feel your strong, calloused fingers squeezing each of mine in turn, probing for the wound. You lifted my hand up to your face. Your breath shivered on my broken skin.
I moved the finger to your lips.
“It’s all right,” I whispered. You had gone very still, like an animal backed into a corner. “It’s all right.”
You had more to lose if your instincts were wrong: I had to be the one who crossed the threshold. I slid my free hand behind your neck. “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
Your lips opened like a flower. My finger slipped between them, softly, until it was submerged up to the knuckle in the warm wetness of your mouth. Your damp, empty mouth. My eyes strained in the darkness, but I didn’t need to see. You drew my finger in until I felt the slightest touch of a shrivelled, shorn-off tongue against my fingertip.
Revulsion and desire rose in me like quicksilver.
Oh, my love—the night we passed among the birds still echoes in my dreams. Next morning, when I woke up in my bed and pieced myself together, I thought it was a dream. My stomach tingled when I realised my mistake.
“You look happy this morning, my lady,” Letia said as she helped me dress. At breakfast, Garrick was rather less kind.
“You’ve a grin like a demon.” He’d spent the night drinking with the guardsmen: his eyes were bloodshot, and several of the serving girls looked ashen-faced that morning. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” I said sweetly. “I’m just happy that you’re back with us.”
He grunted and bit into a bruised apple.
Father was preoccupied that morning, as usual, and I wasted no time in putting my plan into action. I’d been so impressed, I told him, with how ably you had mended my falcon, that I had asked you to tutor me in all the outdoor arts: falconry, hunting, fencing, riding. It would save him the expense of a tutor from the capital, I added quickly, as well as keeping you out of Hugh’s way during the afternoons.
“I see no reason why not,” he said, after giving me that same look he had on the night of his return—vague surprise at what his daughter had become in his absence.
If only he knew.
By the time Letia had finished dressing me for the outdoors, the morning had evaporated. I took a servant’s corridor by way of a shortcut to the armoury. It was dimly lit, illuminated only by a slit in the wall that opened out onto the courtyard, and I was already halfway along it by the time I realised I was not alone. A couple stood in the shadow of the far wall, joined at the lips.
The girl was slight and boyish, dressed in servants’ grey, with enviably sleek, chestnut-coloured hair. The man had shoulders like a mountain range.
I immediately regretted speaking. The girl sprang back, hand leaping to her mouth, and dropped her gaze as soon as she realised who I was. Garrick just turned around and stared at me.
“I was, um.” I looked away. “I’m on my way to the armoury.”
I felt Garrick’s eyes on my back all the way along the corridor.
“You are going to tutor me,” I said, and tossed you one of the wooden training swords. You caught it in one hand. The birds were awake and eating, the midday sun throwing light on all the crevices and corners that had been wrapped in darkness during our last encounter. Your fingernails were outlined with dirt.
“I’d like to learn the sword this afternoon, I think.” I smiled at you. You made no response. I thought for a moment that you were going to deny what had happened between us, but then a blush blossomed in your cheeks and you ducked your head.
“Come for your gyrfalcon, milady?” It was Hugh, bandy limbs twanging as he hurried over, eager to attend to me.
“I’ve come to borrow your apprentice, actually,” I said. He was only too happy to part with you.
I found us a secluded spot just inside the northern wall, beneath a sycamore. I’d really only brought the swords to support my cover story, but you unwrapped one from its sheet as tenderly as if it were an infant and tested its balance in your hand. You began to limber up.
“Be merciful,” I said, once I had watched you flex the long, thick muscles in your thighs and stretch your arms behind your head. With your hair tied in a scarf you looked almost like the statue of Akresa, raising her blade to smite the guilty. My own sword sagged and tilted in my grip.
You came at me like a rush of wind: you fanned my sword aside and touched yours to my throat, just hard enough to be uncomfortable. With the tip you gently lifted my hair away from my cheek. I drew back, breathless.
You did so delightfully. You corrected my posture after each engagement, standing with your body behind mine as your warm, firm hands posed me like a mannequin, your breath fluttering in my ear. Again and again your sword swept through my guard. My back would meet the trunk of the great tree, the bark hard and knotted between my shoulder blades, and you would pin me there and kiss me. Then we would break apart and I would submit again to your manipulation of me: let you lift my hands higher, pull my arms out straighter. I spoke as little as you did. We had another language for that afternoon.
I was glad that Garrick caught us sparring with our swords and not our lips when he came to fetch me for the evening meal.
It is strange—we spent almost every hour that we could between then and Winterfest together, and yet I hardly knew a thing about you. My lessons continued. You taught me how to use a bow, how to hunt, how to ride. How to love my body as much as I loved yours. We fell into each other’s patterns when we were together: either I would talk enough for both of us, telling you about my life before you came and my guesses as to yours, or we would spend hours in your silent world, talking only with a touch on the arm or a stone thrown in the lake.
Every now and then, when the mystery of your past frustrated me, I turned my guesses into direct questions, hoping that if you could not speak then you could try at least to draw or mime. But you only smiled, and kissed me, and gave me other things to occupy my thoughts.
When the leaves had turned entirely yellow, my father announced his intention to host a tournament. It would be held just after Winterfest, and half the knights in Southern Lucea would be invited to attend: the barons Crawdank, De Lyre, Cheal, and Faxsly had already expressed their warmest interest. Several had sons or daughters of marriageable age.
I only half listened. You and I had gone out to the lake the night before, and my head was full of images of moonlight pooling over darkened water. We undressed beneath the stars. Hugging my nakedness, I curled a single toe and placed it in the water, then yelped and drew back from its icy bite. Had you not pushed me in I doubt I would have braved it.
You were easy in the water, and I watched enviously as your limbs slid in and out of it, as you flicked your head with each broad stroke to keep your nose and mouth above the surface. You swam across to me and held me, hands wet and slippery on my arms. Your lips parted as you bent your mouth to mine . . .
“Claire?” My mother was looking at me as though I was sick.
“I’m sorry,” I said, putting down my knife and ignoring Garrick’s frown. “I was just trying to remember the name of Lord Faxsly’s eldest son—I’ve heard he’s quite the scholar.”
My parents shared a smile.
Winterfest drew nearer. Nights began to settle earlier, and what sun we did have hung in the corner of my eye and blinded me. Mist seeped into the mornings. The fires were fed perpetually. I began to swaddle myself in furs whenever I stepped outside and put sheep fat on my lips to keep them moist. When I passed you in the courtyard your hair was sugared with frost.
Tragedy struck in the last week of October: Letia tripped on the stairs down from my chamber and struck her head upon the stone. Her funeral was short. I said some words over the pyre and made sure her family was given enough food and gold to see them through several winters. Ivarus, the god of death, watched unhearing from the shrine. Just as the justice goddess is blind, the god of death is without ears, and cannot be begged or reasoned with.
We prepared for winter. You and I went hunting in the forest, where I managed, with a little luck, to bury an arrowhead in the warm neck of a deer. The blood had frozen by the time we hauled it to the castle, and my fingers were numb from the frost packed into the fur. We ate together for the first time. I watched, openly curious at first, then with acute embarrassment, as you swilled your stew around your mouth and trickled it gently down your throat to avoid choking on your shorn-off tongue.
Later that month you gave me a gift, one which I could not decipher. It was a stone, chipped loose from the mews, I think, and carefully worked smooth and spherical. Into one hemisphere you’d carved a circle with a cross beneath it: I wondered if it was meant to depict a keyhole or an arrow loop, or perhaps the upper body of a stick figure. I thanked you with a kiss and slept that night with the stone held in my fist.
November came. I’d forgotten, by then, about the time I’d interrupted Garrick and the servant girl, but it seemed that their secret had somehow been discovered. Father was furious. The girl was dismissed, of course, and given herbs to flush her womb; Garrick, in turn, was immediately betrothed. Her name was Lila Argeatha, a young noble from the coastal territories whom we had known when we were children. All I could remember about her were her eggy, blinking eyes. Garrick stomped around the castle for days afterwards making his displeasure known, relenting only to work out his frustration in the forest, hunting. He spent every mealtime glaring at me. It was hard to keep my expression sombre: you and I were closer than ever, my love, and the deep, warm secret of our love threatened to well up and capsize me whenever we were together.
Later that week you took me by the hand to the mews and planted me in front of a healthy, twitching falcon.
“This is mine?” I held out an arm for her to hop onto, but she just twitched her head onto one side and clacked her beak. You stroked two fingers down the back of her skull to soothe her.
“She’s healed beautifully,” I said. “I’m sure she’d like to stretch her wings.”
Hugh was skulking in the background, sweeping. I’d seen the way he looked at you when he thought I couldn’t see him. Children made the sign to ward off witches as you led me through the courtyard.
We left the castle, heading south. When we reached the forest you showed me how to use the bird to hunt, after which we fed her water from our mouths, as was the falconer’s way. You spat yours clumsily, slopping it from your lips and flicking your head up to give it lift. Red with embarrassment, I used the pink tip of my tongue to sprinkle a perfect jet into the bird’s open beak.
We left the falcon tethered to a branch and made love beneath the trees. Afterwards we lay against the damp moss on a tree trunk, your arm around me. We stayed there, listening to the noises of the forest and the rhythms of each other’s hearts, for what might have been an hour. Eventually I leaned my lips to your ear.
“Show me who you are,” I whispered. “Please.”
You sat still for a moment, then slid your arm out from my waist. For a second I thought you were about to leave me, but you just stood and picked a twig up from the forest floor. You broke the end off and began to scratch at the moss covering the tree trunk.
I still remember them, those strange pictograms you scored into the moss. Half a dozen stick figures in a line, then one inside a box. A set of rectangles that might have been a temple, or a staircase. A crescent moon. There were others. You drew until all that you could reach was covered, then stood in the middle of your strange creation and looked at me expectantly. Perhaps it was the fervour in your eyes, or the way your makeshift pen nestled potently in your hand, but I was afraid of you just then.
It was dark when we returned. We led the horses to the stables as quietly as we could, patting their necks to keep them calm, and I offered to return the falcon. Hugh wouldn’t dare say anything to me as he might to you if he were awake. We parted with a kiss behind the stable doors. Crossing the mews I saw a shadow on the eastern wall.
Hugh had retired by the time I got there. The mews was empty but for the birds, or so I thought—as I placed my falcon on her perch I heard the gravel crunch behind me.
“I know what you’re doing.”
Garrick’s lip was curled in disgust.
“I’m returning my falcon,” I said. I hoped he wouldn’t notice that my hands had started shaking.
“I should tell Father.” He came closer. “Tell him what you’ve been doing in the woods with that woman. Just like you told him about me and Gwen.”
“I didn’t tell anyone about—” I stopped. A sneer spread across his face.
“That’s not the part that you should be denying,” he said, and left me with my heart kicking in my throat.
The next morning, the first families arrived for the great Winterfest tournament. Pennants snapped in the wintry air; the lords and ladies of each house were followed by processions of men, horses, handcarts, beasts, and banners. They filled the courtyard with their clamour. My father formally offered the hospitality of his hall for the evening feast, and I had my hand kissed more times than I could count.
The great hall throbbed with heat and noise that evening. By no accident, I am sure—I could smell my mother all over it—I was shown to a seat next to Lord Faxsly’s eldest son. He was a slight, unassuming boy a year my junior who seemed unable to sit still for nerves when he discovered that he was to cut my meat.
“Lady Claire,” he said, sliding his blond hair out of his eyes. “I see your beauty has not been exaggerated. I’d be grateful if you called me Cecil.”
“I should like nothing better,” I said distractedly, catching sight of Garrick glaring at me from across the table. I looked towards the kitchens in search of the servant who was to fill our cup. You can imagine my surprise, my love, when I saw you in her place. I suppose I should have guessed that Father’s kitchen staff would not have been sufficient to entertain so large a party unbolstered—yes, there was Hugh, bent over a knight’s wine cup—but the sight of you with your fine eyes lowered to the flagstones, your fingers wrapped around the handle of a wine jug, was enough to give me a jolt. Garrick followed the trail of my eyes.
You came closer, oblivious to the danger, clearly intending to cross to my side of the table and serve us. I saw several ladies whispering behind their hands—Lady Cheal visibly shuddered as you poured for her. Garrick’s fist tightened around his knife. My stomach turned to water.
“. . . wouldn’t you say so, Lady Claire?”
I blinked and turned back to Cecil. “Forgive me,” I said, feeling panic climb my chest. “The heat . . .”
“Of course.” He sucked nervously on his bottom lip and raised the wine cup to indicate that we needed serving. “I’m sure some wine will cool you. The fire is a little overpowering . . .”
I felt you sidle in behind us—I swear your hair brushed my shoulder as you bent to pour. Wine lapped into the cup.
“Thank you, Cecil,” I said loudly. I felt you straighten. I did not dare turn to look at you—I risked the smallest glance when you had crossed back towards the kitchens and saw your eyes flick in my direction. I tried to signal without moving that Garrick watched our every step.
The wine seemed to settle Cecil’s nerves, and we soon fell to comparing libraries. Reading was something in which I had never managed to interest you, my love—you preferred the world beyond the page, I think—but he had grown up with the same poems and stories that had shaped my girlhood. His father’s castle, he told me, had an entire tower filled with volumes in every language. I made sure everyone at the table noticed how engrossed we were in conversation when you brought over the joint of meat we were to share.
“You and my sister get on well,” Garrick said to Cecil as you laid the cooked flesh on the plate of day-old bread. “But I wouldn’t want to falsely raise your hopes—I think her eye has already fallen on another.”
My mother’s food stopped halfway to her mouth. One of the other ladies coughed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Cheal glance up at you.
“You must forgive my brother,” I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “He is so enamoured of his newly betrothed, Lady Lila Argeatha, that he imagines love in everyone around him. My eye has not yet fallen anywhere.”
I took a breath and laid my hand on Cecil’s arm. “I hope we can be friends.”
After that it became impossible to see you: I could barely venture as far as the courtyard without hearing the tread of Garrick’s boot behind me. Father called a Justice Circle, ostensibly to purify his halls before the tournament, but really to demonstrate his trust in lords Cheal and Faxsly. I sat next to Cecil. Neither of us paid full attention: I was too busy combing the crowd for a glimpse of you, and he seemed unable to stop his eyes from dropping guiltily to my neckline or following my fingers as I fiddled with my dress. It actually seemed an interesting hearing. A secret lover came forward to provide an alibi for the accused at the last minute, her voice trembling under the council’s gaze. You were not among the crowd.
I resorted to asking Hugh for news of you. He ignored me as long as he was able, staring directly ahead and prodding food into a falcon’s grasping beak, but my ladylike coughs eventually broke him.
“She’s in the stables, seeing to riding equipment for His Grace’s tournament. Much good may that knowledge bring you.”
And he was hobbling away before I could rebuke him.
You were working by candlelight, the stable hands having long since turned in, wearing down a strip of leather with a stone—for what purpose, I could not guess. Flex, rub, scrape, bend. The motion was hypnotic.
After you had put aside the leather and turned those hard, strong hands on me, I tried to read to you. The book was one that Cecil had lent me on the Yovali. You listened for a while, your face betraying nothing, then went back to your work. I looked up every now and then when I came to passages about Yovali customs and the role of slaves, hoping to spot a reaction.
Flex, rub, scrape, bend. I wondered sometimes if you even understood our language.
Tournament day came at last. Pavilions had been erected in the village, where hooves and boots had already squelched the fields to seas of mud. Stallions reared and snorted; children shrieked; squires buckled knights into their armour. The smell of cooked meat drifted on the wind. Cecil led me to my seat, managing to look vaguely handsome in a turquoise tunic trimmed with gold.
“You are not competing?” I said as he helped me up into the stalls. My hair had been an undertaking for the maid that morning.
“Not today,” he said. “I find my talents lie elsewhere. How did you find the book?”
I must admit, my love, I found his conversation pleasant. He told me he had actually been to the Yovali lands, and I tried to probe for information that might help me know you. He was vague in some places and verbose in others: he had heard a lot about the slaves, he said, but never seen one; he had studied the construction of the temples, though, with their thick grey blocks of stone and carvings across every wall. His father had a haraad-kité, the ceremonial blade they used to cut out tongues, displayed above the hearth in his great hall.
“That’s her over there, isn’t it?” he said, after a while. “The tongueless slave.”
I followed the line of his finger. You were down near the front of the crowd, standing up and facing backwards, looking for someone. Our eyes met. A hot, dirty blush ran up my face.
“She makes my skin crawl,” Cecil said, apparently not noticing my distress. “How do you bear having her around the castle every day?”
I looked away and mumbled a reply.
The tournament got underway. I had never derived much pleasure from jousting, or the mock battles and mêlées that were to follow, but with Cecil’s whispered commentary in my ear and a bright sky overhead I found I was enjoying myself. My mother sat a few places down the row, smiling indulgently in our direction every now and then, and there was no Garrick in the crowd to make me uneasy—he was in a tent somewhere, being packed into a suit of mail. I avoided looking at you entirely.
Garrick’s turn came: our house fanfare struck up at the far end of the field and he emerged, a mountain of plate mail on a soot-black horse. Even I had to admit he looked impressive. The De Rouchefort crest, an eagle with its wings held wide, blazed upon his shield. His horse cantered round the grass while his opponent weighed his lance.
“I would not like to be the one to face your brother,” Cecil muttered. Garrick bounded to the middle of the field and raised his visor, ready to salute my father. His horse reared, his fist came up, he tugged the reins with his free hand—
The leather snapped. His hand flew upwards and he fell out of the saddle, his foot caught in a stirrup. His helmet smacked into the mud. A lady screamed. The horse panicked, spluttered, and started running down the field, dragging Garrick behind it by his ankle.
Father sprang from his seat and roared for assistance. Lord Crawdank’s son clambered from the stands and began to chase Garrick’s horse around the field. There was only one head not turned towards the chaos that followed: you were standing facing backwards again, your eyes threatening to swallow me. It was not until much later that I considered that the leather strap you had been working on the night before might have been a bridle.
Garrick would recover, the physician told us, although several bones were broken and it took him two days to regain consciousness. I had never seen him so diminished. I didn’t have sympathy to spare for long, however: not three hours passed between my seeing him awake and my having an accident of my own. I tripped on the staircase to my chamber, on the same little malformed snag of stone that had tumbled Letia to her death that autumn. Thankfully I was ascending rather than descending. My shin crunched against the apex of a step and I felt something give within the bone. I was ordered to keep to my bed until it healed.
Maybe that was when things changed. I felt the turn of winter into spring not in the taste of the air or the changing colours of the trees, as you must have, but in the minute variations in the breakfasts that the maids prepared for me. I saw nothing of you. What excuse could I have found, after all, for the falconer’s apprentice to visit the duke’s daughter in her chamber? I had already heard the maids whispering outside my door.
The families who had attended the tournament left one by one, after each lord was satisfied that no blame was placed on him for Garrick’s injury. Cecil stayed behind. He came blushing to my chamber every afternoon, a different book under his arm, and he would read to me for hours, or we would play chess, or talk. The carved stone you had given me before Winterfest, which I had until then kept with me when I slept, began to dig into my flesh whichever way I lay. I put it on my dressing table, where it was soon hidden by gifts of books and fresh-cut flowers.
Oh, my love! You must forgive me. I know that we had our own tongue, you and I—a language of glances and touches, heat and quiet—but I had forgotten how much real conversation could excite me. The novelty of having another voice to spar with mine, someone who could speak back when I spoke to him, someone who would spill himself to me—I grew giddy on it. Words, wonderful words! He admitted, after a week or two, that he was in love with me. I looked demurely at my hands and told him that his company warmed my heart.
Eventually my leg grew well enough for me to walk around the castle with Cecil’s support, treading with the utmost caution down the stairs that had precipitated my injury. He did not complain of my weight upon his shoulder.
“You are so perfect, Claire,” he said, on one of our evening walks. I leaned my head against him and thought of you, and how the nights we had spent together felt like someone else’s dreams. I saw you the very next morning, through my window. You were riding, and I witnessed for the first time how ugly and ungainly you were in the saddle: you kept your head forward, your neck tight, conscious of your half tongue bouncing in your throat. I turned back to my book and you were gone before I looked again.
“Your brother hates me,” Cecil said one morning, peeling fruit. Garrick had been up and limping around the castle for the past few days, roaring like a stricken bear. His head was still a mess of bruises. “And that tongueless slave,” Cecil said. “I’m sure she’s been following me.”
“Garrick hates everyone.” I was fiddling with the stone that you had given me, turning it over and over in my hands. It refused to grow warm no matter how long I held it.
“Kiss me,” I said suddenly, and reached for Cecil like I used to for you. The stone dropped onto the bedclothes as I slid my hand behind his neck. His lips were like a girl’s. I pushed my tongue inside his mouth, wanting to find his, but he broke away.
“Wait.” He was breathing heavily. “Claire, we should wait until we’re married. Betrothed, at least.” He closed his eyes until he had regained his composure and went back to reading me a chapter on the Siege of Rhye.
He glanced up every now and then as though he were afraid of me.
Father came to my chamber the day after, looking even greyer than he had done in the winter. It was obvious that there was a purpose to his visit, but he made sure to talk of nothing but my health and my reading until he could restrain himself no longer.
“Claire.” He took my hand. “Lord Faxsly tells me that his son’s letters are of nothing but you. Tell me that you share his feelings. Tell me that there isn’t—that there wasn’t—” He stopped and rubbed his forehead. “Your brother has been . . . concerned for you.”
I went very still. “You don’t need to worry,” I said slowly. “Cecil and I—we are betrothed.”
Warmth rushed back into his face. My mother was fetched and told the news. The three of us shared an awkward embrace, after which I asked to see Cecil in private—I needed to tell him that he had proposed to me, after all. I heard the “good news” fanfare buzzing in the air below my window. I wondered where you would be when you were told of my betrayal.
Someone knocked on my door a few minutes later. I sat up, expecting Cecil, but my heart went cold when I saw that it was Garrick.
“Congratulations,” he said. He opened his arms as wide as they could go. I didn’t move. He limped over to me and grabbed me in a hug.
“If you think you’ll go unpunished for the mockery you’ve made of me,” he said, “then you are very, very wrong.”
Part of me feared that Cecil might be angry, but I need not have worried. He said that the fact that it had been me who had proposed marriage to him was perfectly in keeping with my character, and that the sooner our families knew of our love, the better. I didn’t have to wonder long about when you would hear the news. The next morning, Cecil complained of being followed through the castle by “that tongueless witch.” There would be no one like you, he said, at Castle Faxsly.
I had been foolish, I suppose, to think I would remain at Rouchefort when Cecil and I married—or that I might take you with me. Of course that was nonsense. We would be wed at Castle Faxsly, and would begin the journey west as soon as my leg was well enough to travel. I was up and walking within days of our betrothal.
A stone struck my window on the eve of our departure. I put aside the book I had been reading and sat very still, trying to work out if it was an accident of the wind. When it came again I slid out of the bedclothes and padded to the window. I cupped my hands and peered out through the glass.
Below, in the darkness, I caught a glimpse of raven hair.
I signaled for you to come up and retreated from the window. It was foolish to invite you up, I knew—what if a servant saw you climb the stairs, or Cecil came to say goodnight and found you with me?—but it didn’t seem to matter. I had to see you. I paced my chamber in my nightdress.
You knocked. I answered, and there you stood: silent, looming, bewitching. The minutiae of your face had been lost to me while we were apart. You had a new scar, a tiny one along the bottom of your chin, and the peculiar shape of your lips seemed strange and wonderful again. I drew you inside and closed the door.
“I’m sorry.” Tears were already ripening in the corners of my eyes. “Oh, Aya, my love, I am so sorry.”
You took my index finger in both hands and brought it to your lips.
I heard a distant cry halfway through our lovemaking. I ignored it, absorbed in you and confident in the bolt on my chamber door. A little later my ears picked out the tail of a scream, and then the sound of footfalls coming closer. Someone battered the door.
“Hide!” I hissed to you, and you slid out of my bed and began to squeeze in underneath it. I threw my nightdress on as the knocking increased in fervour.
“What is it?” I flung back the door. “I was aslee—”
“Oh, Lady Claire—it’s Master Faxsly. That tongueless witch has—she’s—oh, my lady!”
“What is it?” I grabbed the fat flesh of the servant’s wrist. “Speak clearly. What’s happened?”
“Master Faxsly, my lady. Your brother found him at the bottom of the stairs. Your brother said—he said—”
“That the tongueless witch pushed Master Faxsly down the stairs, my lady!”
My heart fell through my stomach.
“You may go,” I said, hearing myself say the words as if from the other end of a long corridor. “I’ll be right down.” I made sure she was all the way down the stairs before I shut the door. I leaned against it, too faint to stand. Would it give you any sense of triumph, to know that it was you I worried for, and not Cecil?
This, I realised, was Garrick’s plan. Kill Cecil, and have you take the blame for it. Rob me of both of you at once. I stared at you as you climbed out from underneath the bed.
“Run,” I said, after a breathless minute. “For the gods’ sake, run!”
I don’t know how far you got. I wasn’t witness to your capture, although I have imagined it a hundred times: the ring of soldiers spreading out around you, breath frosting on their swords; your hair catching the moonlight as you turn. Did you try to fight, my love? To escape? I hope they did not hurt you.
The justice hall was thronged. I sat just behind Father, next to Cecil. Dear, shattered Cecil: his mind was mercifully intact, but his body was considerably the worse for being tumbled down the stairs than Garrick’s had been for being dragged behind his horse. His legs were smashed and useless, and there was now an ugly kink all along his shoulders. His right hand trembled on a cane. High above the crowd, the statue of Akresa loomed, unseeing.
You were bound when they brought you in. Your bottom lip was freshly scabbed, and you seemed shrunken, your straight-backed posture replaced with the hunch of an injured animal. Your eyes struck mine.
“Aya of the Yovali lands,” the duke’s justice said. “You are accused of attempting to take the life of Lord Cecil Faxsly.”
The crowd hissed.
“This Circle will now hear evidence.”
It began. Cecil stood, with my help, and explained that he had been descending the staircase from the eastern tower when someone pushed him from behind. He fell and cracked his head—he lifted his hair to show the crusted flesh—and it was only the work of my father’s physicians that had saved his life. He told the Circle how the tongueless witch had followed him for days beforehand, stalking him through the castle whenever he went to visit Lady Claire. He had little doubt that she was his attacker.
Next was Garrick’s turn. He lied without a flicker of remorse, and the pit of my stomach was hot with hate by the time he had finished.
I listened to the other witnesses as if miles underwater. Hugh stood up and testified that you had not been in the mews at the time of the attack, and that it was not the first time you had shirked your duties. I looked up at the Akresa statue, unable to listen any longer. My tongue was stuck to the bottom of my mouth.
Oh, my love, what could I have done?
I could have spoken. I know. I could have risen to my feet, heedless of the eyes that would have turned on me, and told them everything. You were with me, in my bedchamber, at the time of the attack. You were innocent. I told myself a dozen times that I would do it. I would stand up at the count of five . . . of ten . . . fifteen . . .
You looked at me. Your eyes seemed to grow until they took up the entire hall, until they were the hall and the Akresa statue loomed inside them. Your eyes and the eyeless visage of the justice goddess were all that I could see. You opened your mouth and I felt all the air within the hall disappear inside it.
“If any man or woman here wishes to speak for the accused, let it be now.”
Oh, my love, my heart, my Aya. I am so very sorry.
“In the Sight of Akresa” copyright © 2014 by Ray Wood
Art copyright © 2014 by Karla Ortiz