...before the tapping of a beak upon the glass calls your guards as well.

The one who brings your food is named Osla. My birds are trained well, and this one will have struck at his eyes. Take this parchment quickly, speak his name, and he will fall like the rain outside your window. Like one of the thousands you named from the books I brought you. They stood in rows outside our cities, arrayed in their armies like corn in the fields. Your voice mowed them down like corn indeed.

Osla. When you speak his name the earthen tray will fall, spilling the bread and shattering the stone cup.

You must rise quickly, for the first guard will be at the door. He is deaf, and his tongue has been torn out at the root. He is called Lahtiw. After they fall you must use the shards of the shattered cup and with their blood scrub your name from the stones at your feet, from the oaken plane of the desk where you sit, from the velvet hangings of the wall behind you. Your own name written there has bound you, but blood will dissolve its power. You will be free of the chamber.

It will be raining, as it always is. My bird’s feathers will be slick with it. The king keeps the palace surrounded in perpetual storm. He hoped that if your voiceless guards somehow slipped, if the names that give you power were somehow whispered in its halls, the sound of the unceasing rain on the roof would keep them from reaching your ears.

The king wanted to blind you. He feared perhaps you would one day be reached, as I am reaching you now. We had argued long and hard against that. It was not known whether such a breaking would have broken your power as well, and the king had searched so long for one of your kind that we convinced him not to take the risk. Your eyes remained wide and clear, and they can now fall unhindered on these damp pages.

Beyond your chambers there is an anteroom guarded at all times by a third man, also deaf and mute. For a time it was believed that if one could not hear your naming, they would be protected from your power. Had that been the case, you would have been a weak weapon indeed. The rebellious lords the names of whom the king sent to you on parchment, wooden sheaves, ceramic plate, and painted tile would have had to be in your hearing to die. Not a thousand miles away, where they fell as you called them softly.

The third guard is called Erofereht.

I know that you will want to know the name of the king, he who bought you as a child in the markets of the south so long ago. No one knew then whether your kind was anything more than a myth, but the king had been seeking for years. When I was young in the palace I remember the children that were brought and the rites that were performed over them in an effort to give them the power to speak death. The darkest rites, though—the ones said to be truly necessary to create a speaker of death—the king was fearful to have performed within his walls. I do not know whether they were attempted elsewhere, but if so, as far as anyone knew the effort was never successful.

What black words were spoken over your birth?

The merchant who sold you to the king held a dozen other young women he claimed had the gift, but when you spoke the name of the king’s agent and he fell dead at the king’s side, we knew you to be a deathspeaker true. When you were brought north I was perhaps the age you are now. It was then, through you, that the king’s power became absolute.

As always, there will be no one else in the palace but the two remaining guards who wait at the entrance. Five guards altogether—five of the bravest and truest of the king’s soldiers—to keep one young woman prisoner in a silent palace. It took much to uncover their names.

Pass through the corridors that stand empty but for the constant, wordless voice of the rain. Pass through the courtyard where the king brought all those noble prisoners for whom he wanted a poignant end. He could have killed them any number of ways, but how they must have trembled to see you approach, to watch your lips form their names, that from any other mouth might have been a greeting or a curse but from yours were only death.

It was then that we began to see how black the visage of the king had become, and the lords of the borders began to rise. When they finally broke out in rebellion, the king called on me because I could read the script of those lands and thus the tax ledgers that had been sent to the capital year after year for as long as anyone could remember. I feared for a time that he would take my tongue as well, but you had been taught only the writing of the north, and for the speaking to have its effect you would need to hear the names aloud in that tongue so that you could repeat them.

Then the armies were at our gates, and I became as much a prisoner in your palace as you, sitting for days reading to you from the lists. How did we appear to the mute guards who watched us, our heads close and our lips moving over those long scrolls? You had never named so many, and if the power going out from you taxed you in any way you did not show it. With every name you uttered death stalked the camps outside our cities as silently as plague.

“Who are they?” you would whisper.

But the king had sent in more guards with me, guards who were mute but not deaf, and they were ever watchful. I was to speak no words to you apart from the names.

Did you at any time think to disobey? Did you consider refusing a naming or twisting the syllables so that the name was wrong, so the speaking would have no effect? I know at times I could not meet your eyes, which loomed dark as pools over the pages. Perhaps I feared what I would see in them.

I do not know if you were forced to the namings, if you felt something for those who fell or whether the darkest whispers about you were true. I have no wish to learn.

How many names did the ledgers contain? Certainly not all on those lists could have marched to war with the marshals of the lords of the borders. But I read out the names of every landed man, perhaps every fourth man of those armies, certainly every man that could bear a standard or bring a horse and retainers to battle. And you spoke them, echoing me against the din of the rain on stone roof. We whispered over the lantern and parchment, and outside the walls of the king’s cities the armies were mowed down silently. Even though there were thousands, your lips formed each name like that of a lover.

If my birds have succeeded and you indeed hold this letter, know that though I had no love for the task, those days with you speaking death for the king were the brightest I have had in my long years as scholar in the palace.

Days and days of rain, with my lips always at your ear.

Past the courtyard you will now have come to the outer gate of the palace, where the wide wooden doors are guarded by the brothers Dnaht: Dnaht Fel and Dnaht Hgir. Before their hands have touched the daggers at their sides you will have strode between their fallen forms and into the night.

Will you seek out the king? Will you wish to see his eyes dim before you as you speak his name? You will be free to go where you choose, and beyond the walls of your prison there will be few who know you by sight. Speak his name, there in the rain outside the walls, and the land may again know peace. It is Tsud of the House of Ecnelis. (Let the “T” lie softly on the tongue.)

If you have read this, all is now as good as done, but surely by now I will be broken and bleeding. They watch your walls, and my black birds are known. They will have found me, and they will not make my death swift. You, however, may. Before you have slipped into the night, speak my name as well. Free me as I have freed you.

I, who have loved you,

Yportne Cioreh

Read Comments on this Story (9 Comments)

Stephen Case is a writer of fiction and a historian of science with over forty short stories published in places like Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, and Intergalactic Medicine Show. His latest book is Making Stars Physical: the Astronomy of Sir John Herschel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). You can find him online at www.stephenrcase.com, occasionally tweeting @StephenRCase, and reviewing books at Strange Horizons.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
Return to Issue #81