The Found Recollections of Revalor’s Last Oracle
In this new fantasy story from Elsa Sjunneson, sometimes even an oracle can discover things they do not know. - Julian Yap and Fran Wilde, November 6, 2022.
The Found Recollections of Revalor’s Last Oracle
By Elsa Sjunneson
The Queen of Revalor appreciates how I always have the right answer, sometimes before she even knows the question.
Unlike my predecessor, she says, I have never failed her.
My name is Oracle. Successor to the previous Oracle. I was born blind, and canny. I am a daughter of no one. The Queen says I was born to serve her because I am the kind of person who can tell the difference between a lie and the truth.
In my cell, I weigh her questions, and my answers, especially today. Where had I gone wrong? For I must have. My pace quickens a tight circuit. Which question was it? Which answer? There must have been one, for I have been given a new duty: choosing a successor.
Was it when she whispered Oracle, with the fervent pitch she acquires only when thinking about power, will the parliament crumble when I will it to? The salt air comes through the cracked window, sharpening my memory.
I knew, because she’d told me of the planned assassinations, the betrayals she committed, that it would. And so I’d told her yes. And it did.
Not wrong then.
Was it when she’d asked with a reverberation in her throat if she would ever bear children, and I’d answered no? I would do so again.
She’d smelled of salt, beyond the gold, the rich perfume, and the dust that billows from her velvet gowns. The truth of her infertility—I can trust that. Feel it.
Had it been then? Or what of the questions I never ask? Had she sensed that I, too, desired answers? Why are only blind women Oracles? Why do we bear the royal questions? Why do we risk Seeing into the soul, but nowhere else?
I have searched in her mind, in others’, too, in the library, in the wind, in my own heart. But the only one who might have known, I was too afraid to ask.
The previous Oracle, before she was found in sheets dyed red with her own blood, might have asked these same questions. But she gave the Queen a wrong answer soon after I arrived. When I walked past her chambers, summoned to give the right answer, I could still taste the iron tang of blood on the air.
An answer is more about what you do not share than about what you do. The previous Oracle taught me that.
These are the truths she also told me, before she died: that the punishment for killing an Oracle, for even touching a hair on an Oracle’s head, is instant death. That I would not die by anyone’s hand.
But I know the truth: Oracles do die. And no one punishes a Queen.
I pace my cell. I practice my answers; I wonder what has doomed me. In the throne room, Potential Oracles await. The Queen of Revalor has brought my replacement. Just as I was brought to my predecessor.
When I choose one, I will promise them that they will die in their sleep, that it is Death to touch a hair on their head.
I will do it with the taste of iron in my mouth.
Did I answer a question incorrectly? Did I miss the tenor in someone’s voice? A clue to their true intentions?
I have no one to ask these questions.
* * *
When I arrive in the throne room, the incense is so thick that I can feel it on my hands.
Once I do this new duty, I will answer more questions, as I must until my successor is ready. I am ready. I have practiced. Oracle, tell me if this man is lying; if he is, we will execute him. Oracle, can you See into this woman’s soul and know if it is my husband’s child that she bears?
But first. Twenty blind women and girls are paraded through the throne room, past where I stand. An older woman makes little sound as she crosses the floor. She smells of dead fish. Her mind is empty of curiosity. No, I say, and I speak the truth.
A teenaged girl, furious at being taken from her home, speaks rapidly at the guards, offering bribes. When she kneels before me, her rage obscures any ability she might have otherwise had. No.
But the child who comes next shakes me. She screams, sobs, and wails.
Mama is the only word that I can clearly hear, and when her tear-soaked hands clutch at my own, I can feel the rattle and shake of her curiosity and insight, the energy fiercely in tune with my own.
I cannot allow this girl to be stripped of her name, to share my future; I will not force her to endure it. I try to shake my head, even though every cell in my body screams yes in line with her energetic force.
Several more girls pass before me. All no. But I cannot shake that little girl from my mind.
The week I became the Queen’s Oracle-to-Be is sharp in my thoughts as I consider my choice: to select a successor or to sift through minds until I find a replacement I can stomach. I remember so clearly when it happened to me.
Our cottage, the sound of sea kissing sand, the rasp of my fingers working a spindle. The cool shadow of my mother kneeling down to take the freshly spun wool from me, the soft hair as my fingers brushed her cheek.
Her thoughts pulsed my fingertips. I’d never heard them before, but I clearly heard He’s not coming home from the sea. A trick of the mind—children overhear things they shouldn’t, and gather up that knowledge with magic.
It will be all right, just the two of us, I said. The wool fell to the ground; my spindle clattered and rolled away.
In that moment I lost everything. My mother told the village priestess, and the village priestess sent away to the capital for guards, for a representative for the Crown. She sent away for my captors. The priestesses who would bring me to my new home. Who dressed me in the softest silk that I could never have imagined in my childhood village. Who washed my hair with perfumes and clad my callused feet in delicate slippers. They took my name, Morvayne, and called me Potential Oracle instead. They deposited me at the back of a line of girls who walked past the Sitting Oracle.
When she chose me, she told me truths. Made me promises. And whispered to me the lesson that has kept me alive so many years: Blind people cannot see, Oracle-to-Be. Not the way the sighted do. We cannot See, either. We do not carry that magic within us, not as a general population. But we can hear. We can observe. We can gather information to us, and understand the world well enough that by the time we take the mantle of the Oracle, we’ll be safe. Practice this.
When the Oracle accepted me as her successor at the Temple, the Queen was all soft hands and gentle voiced. She said she would be a mother to me, and help raise me to be the kind of lady who could speak with rulers. And report back to her, whispered the Sitting Oracle.
I believed in them. I gave them my trust. And in time, I learned the truth, even without their names.
* * *
There’s a trick to understanding what it is that someone thinks, and pushing past to what someone knows. When someone asks a question before I place my fingers on their temples, they often already know the answer to what they ask. Somewhere, deep in their minds, past the calm waters of their thoughts, there’s always an answer. I just know where to look.
When a woman wonders if her husband will come home from the sea, I look beyond the question for the answer: Where did he go? How long has he been gone? And then I ask questions of myself: Have I overheard news of this ship in the court? Is there word of any shipwrecks in the last few days?
Usually, between the knowledge trapped inside their skulls and the knowledge I have gathered, I have an answer. It isn’t always the answer they want, but it’s the answer that comes to them.
Sometimes the answers are even more obvious. Sometimes the answers come right after the initial question. Sometimes it’s about making people see what they don’t want to see. Those are the wrong answers, though.
After the Potential Oracles are brought before me, it is time for questions.
The man who asks a truth of me now, his head cradled in my hands, always comes in with the same question, the same set of concerns. “Will I attain the position of High Priest?” The Priest of Light knows I’d rather not answer.
He’s asked for years. I’ve sent my spies out to overhear conversations about the conclaves; I’ve sent my people out to understand the interior workings of the Temple. Living here within its cold walls, I’ve found myself hearing more than most people would.
The answer is no.
The answer has always been no.
And every day that he asks, I feed him an untruth. A lie that creates safety for others. Social niceties are the mask he wears because he believes that someone might give him a higher position—a mask he would drop were he given it. If the Priest of Light learned that no one believes in his facade, and none will promote him, would he tell the Queen to replace me? Had he already told her? I can’t guess. I give my practiced answer.
When he goes, the Queen comes to me for her reading. My fingers press against her temples. Her skin is cool, her hair is smooth. I’m told it shines silver in the candlelight at dusk. I know the Queen is aging, have known since I took this post five years ago. I know this Queen is bloodthirsty; I’ve known since she killed my predecessor, since the previous Oracle’s screams echoed into my chamber, next door. I’ve known it since the Oracle’s chambers became mine, the bed barely cold from death. What I don’t know is which question I answered wrong, or how I can keep from answering another incorrectly. I need more time.
The stones always grow cold under my feet when she places her head in my hands. Every time I do this, I consider that I could blind her. Would she then believe she could read minds? Would she understand that there is a weight to the responsibility that we bear? But I know giving her this skill would make her more dangerous. She wouldn’t know how to use it responsibly.
I barely did. Instead I learned too early about what you do and do not share.
Today, I brush past all the worries she has about whether to conquer another duchy. There’s something more important. It itches somewhere at the back of my skull as I peel back the layers of her psyche, diving past the social machinations, the emotional battles, and the casual judgments she makes every day.
She thinks my eyes are too blue. She thinks the Duchess of Hayne’s gowns are cheap. She thinks one of the guards may have fathered a child on one of her lady’s maids. She thinks . . . she thinks . . . Sifting through her thoughts is like wading through quicksand. Thick and viscous and full of hate. They drag me down as I try to find what I need to know.
She’s speaking to me, but I’m too mired in her opinions to make out the question. A waterfall of sound roars between me and the Queen, even though my fingers are locked on her temples, our gowns are pooled at our feet, touching hem to hem. Even though the guards are ever encroaching on us, worried that the intensity of our attachment means I will harm her.
I break free of her thoughts with one deep breath, batting away her opinion of her husband (lazy, unpleasant, asleep) and find the beginnings of her beliefs. They feel solid. Smooth like marble or jade. She holds these beliefs so strongly that they aren’t malleable. No one could change these even if they tried hard enough.
She believes she is the only one that should hold the throne, so much so that the feeling has the grip strength of a child holding to their blanket.
She believes that she was put on this earth to rule. That belief is so solid, I could never shake it. I move on.
My skin chills as the pieces fit together, as I understand what she would never ask, but what she can barely stop from thinking about.
I can feel her shift uncomfortably under my fingertips. The dull thud of her words asking if we are done.
We are not.
Her secrets flit from my grasp, trying to hide in the farthest shadows of her mind.
But I’m better at control than she is. Better at finding the secrets of the mind than anyone ever should have a right to be.
There, right at the deepest point of her psyche, right there is the secret that she doesn’t want me to find. It rests somewhere at the back of her skull, hiding behind every other secret that she keeps, behind every belief and every thought. Tangled up in her fear of being deposed is the secret she has kept for a lifetime.
A long time ago, she heard a prophecy. The words rattle in my brain, they chatter my teeth in my skull, perhaps I heard it once by the sea of my childhood. A prophecy that told her a blind woman would someday be her downfall. A blind Oracle . . . like me. Or . . . not like me. The voices are strange, there’s one name, then two, then a dozen more.
I grasp onto that knowledge as she shoves me away from her, because at the same time I realize what she’s done, she realizes what I’ve found.
It is possible to throw someone out of your mind; after all, it is your mind to share. It is possible to slam the gates once they’ve been opened, and that’s precisely what the Queen did. Her hands shove mine off of her head, her fingernails digging into my wrists.
I can feel them, suddenly, their energy calling out to mine. I can feel the swirling pings of every single one of their minds, in dozens of cells just like mine. The Queen tries to speak. . . .
But I get the first words in:
“Where are the rest of us?”
* * *
I get up first, untangling my skirts from hers, and brush past her. My fury covers me like a heavy cloak. The pieces of the puzzle of my entire life have fit together into one ugly truth. The Queen didn’t bring me here alone. No. She kidnapped dozens of blind girls, all of us meant to serve as Oracles. The ones who died? They’re the ones who didn’t learn how to speak truth cautiously, who didn’t learn how to read minds accurately.
They may not have had skills, they may not have listened to Loranne, they may not have paid attention to the strict lessons that were afforded to them. Some may never have gotten lessons alone.
What I know, what the Queen appears not to know, is that this lie, the lie that only blind people can See the future, is built upon a truth. All people can learn to read and sort through the minds of others. It is a magic that any person can hold in their hands with enough training. Of course, not all people are born with the skills to use it properly, and many only have the ability to break a mind rather than to sift through carefully and learn from it. The art of mind reading is perilous at best, and children should never be expected to do it to keep themselves alive.
But that’s what the Queen did.
She told herself so many lies to do it. I saw them all as I sifted through her mind. That the blind girls of Revalor were safest within the confines of a castle, where they could be educated and protected. That no one would love them as much as she did (even though her love was manufactured in response to fear of a prophecy). That money was the only obstacle to happiness for the blind children she collected. That they would serve Revalor faithfully and that that would be their place in society.
Yet she kept us apart.
Because she knew that if we banded together, if the blind women of Revalor found one another, we would seek the truth, and the truth would be her downfall.
For I am the prophecy.
My hands slide across doorways, my feet trip up stairs, my voice rattles down doors and commands the guards to get out of my way. All the power I have gathered to me over my years of service comes to bear as I search the Palace and the Temple grounds.
The Queen catches up to me, her strong hands clasping their way around my wrists like manacles.
“You cannot disobey me,” she snarls, her voice a whip that cracks across my mind. For a moment I am cowed. For a moment I believe that she is right, that no, I cannot disobey her. After all, she has fed me, she has clothed me, she has given me shelter. She kept me here for my own safety, didn’t she?
As surely as those thoughts creep into my mind, the other thoughts do, too: that I have taught myself how to use a stick to navigate the Temple and the Palace by myself. That no one gave me the freedom to venture outside these walls except myself.
Until now, I have never met another blind person, because she has kept me from them, because she believes that our presence in this world will hurt her.
“Let go of me,” I snap, using my voice against her for the first time. “Let go of me, or I will not name my successor.”
It’s a lie, because of course I’d never allow anyone to take my place.
But it’s a lie she buys, because she believes that she owns my loyalty. The manacles unlatch, falling back to her sides.
And one by one, I find them. I find them locked in cells, I find them placed in their own apartments—mere doors down from my own chambers. I find them praying in the Chapel.
We were all hidden from one another by nature of our inability to see, by the strict vows of silence that Oracles must take to only speak when they are giving voice to the truth, to the future. But now my voice finds itself unburdened from rules that serve only to bind me to the Queen.
When I have freed all of my blind sisters, I come to the last door, the door behind which the little girl has been kept. I take her out into the gardens, I lead her away from the Palace. I take her where she belongs: with her mother, by the sea.
Thank you for joining us on the journey this week!
Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author, editor, and activist. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and her memoir Being Seen won the Washington State Book Award in 2022.
“The Found Recollections of Revalor’s Last Oracle,” © Elsa Sjunneson, 2022.
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Oh yes. This will keep singing in my head for the next several years...