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.