One of my favorite books that I’ve read this year is definitely Kate Cudahy’s Hal. It is a fantasy novel set during the times of royalty and duels. And it just happens to have a lesbian main character (Hal) who is a duellist, which is unheard of at the time, and she just happens to have fallen in love with the daughter (Meracad) of a wealthy (and dangerous) merchant.
The excerpt below is taken from a little ways into the novel (if you prefer to see how the novel begins, take a look at the excerpt on our sister site). By this point in the story, Hal and Meracad have noticed, and flirted, with each other. However, Hal is attempting to keep her distance since she’s been advised that Meracad’s father is not someone whom you want to make cross, for the outcome could be very unfavorable – not just to Hal, but Meracad.
Chapter Nine excerpt
These early morning trips to the public baths had become something of a personal ritual for Meracad. She threaded her way along half-awakened streets, anticipating with a thrill of pleasure the prospect of submerging herself beneath the chill water, the splash of her own limbs as she swam across its surface, and above all the absence of other human beings.
At such an hour the place was often empty, and her maid Agata would never accompany her inside, preferring instead to catch up on some gossip at the bakery around the corner. And so she often had the place to herself, enjoying a few precious solitary moments before returning to the beautiful, jewel-encrusted cage which was her father’s house.
She watched Agata disappear around the corner and then pushed back the heavy, oak-panelled door leading to the women’s pools. Once inside, the silence seemed dense, thick – almost solid. The shouts and chatter of the street were gone, and she stood, listening to the slow, inconstant drip of water.
Turning to her left, Meracad continued down a short corridor into the main chamber, and was on the verge of removing her dress when she noticed that she was not alone. Clothes had been folded in a neat pile at the water’s edge, and she looked down to see a figure gliding along beneath the surface. Meracad drew away as the swimmer kicked out with arms and legs, propelling her way upwards before rising to stand at chest height in the water, gasping for air and rubbing her eyes.
Meracad stared for a few moments, unsure if she should run, or make a pointed display of bathing in proud silence. Finally, her resolve crumbling, she turned around and headed back to the doors, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.
“Meracad!” Hal’s voice echoed around the still, stone chamber. Meracad halted, but she did not turn round.
“Just let me explain.”
She continued to hesitate, the open corridor beckoning her back to her old life.
Biting her lip, she hugged her arms around her own waist, common sense screaming at her to leave. And it was almost in a trance that she turned round towards Hal, who was leaning against the edge of the pool with her head resting on the backs of her hands.
“I don’t think you need to explain, Hal. You made your position very clear.” Her voice quavered and shook.
“I was only thinking of you. I was trying to protect you.” Hal gazed up at her then. Meracad could not fail to notice the intense blue of her eyes, the way in which Hal seemed to look inside her, not at her. She turned away, embarrassed.
“I don’t need protecting, Hal! I’ve been protected all my life. It’s freedom I crave. And if that freedom is possible for you, why not for me as well?”
“Do you not believe that such freedom may come at a price?”
Meracad was quiet for a moment, attempting to read in Hal’s face the experiences which could have prompted such a confession. “I’m prepared to pay any price for it, Hal, believe me. I’m not afraid,” she said at last.
“You should be.”
Meracad made no reply, and the place was plunged into silence once again, saving the erratic drips of water as it condensed on the ceiling above them and fell, hitting the surface of the pool. It trickled, she noticed, down Hal’s back and from her arms and hair. Hal’s words after the duel repeated over and over in her mind: Go home, Meracad. She flinched, the wound still open, raw and bleeding.
“What are you doing here? I expected to be alone.” Her own voice mocked her as it echoed around the walls: “Alone, alone, alone.”
Hal released her grip on the pool’s edge, swimming away on her back. “These are public baths, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes, they are, but…” her voice trailed away, hopeless.
“But what?” The duellist smiled that lop-sided grin she had displayed to Agata in the market place and then dived beneath the surface, rising suddenly again at Meracad’s feet. She gasped in surprise and took a step backwards.
“Did you follow me here?” she asked, immediately regretting the question. Fool! Opening herself up to further humiliation – the idea that Hal would have followed her: that Hal might genuinely have wanted to meet her here. This was just a coincidence, surely.
“Yes, I did.”
“I said yes, I followed you here. That is, I noticed you come in here once or twice when I was on my way to the academy.”
Meracad opened her lips and then closed them again a few times. Somehow her mouth was full of words and yet she found she could not express them. She knew then that something was about to give, something must change. She had heard that when people began to drown, their entire lives were said to pass before their eyes. Now the days and years flew past her like pages from a book she might have skimmed through, and she saw nothing but a monotonous tale of her father’s brute power and her own submission to it. But here, before her now, it seemed as if Hal might be stretching out her hands and inviting her to step beyond all of that into a world of passion and love and freedom.
“Aren’t you going to bathe?” Hal cocked her head on one side and stared up in expectation. Meracad dipped a hand in the water.
“No, I don’t think so. It’s freezing,” she lied.
“It’s not so bad once you’re in.”
Meracad raised her dress slightly and sat down, lowering her feet and ankles just below the surface. “That’s as far as I’m going.”
“Suit yourself.” Hal ducked her head beneath the water to hide her expression. When she rose to the surface again, her eyes were serious, questioning. “I know I hurt you, Meracad. And I’m sorry for it. More than you can imagine. But your father, I’ve heard, is a powerful man. I could cause you a lot of problems.”
Her hand moved, hesitantly, towards Meracad’s. Hal’s skin felt cool, her fingers slim and wiry as they weaved between her own. Thrilled and terrified, Meracad drew her own hand away.
“A life in which I’m not free to make my own decisions is no life at all. That much I’ve learnt from you, Hal. And if I were to confess how I feel at this moment, I would run out of words.”
Hal’s face softened. She moved closer towards Meracad, placed her hands around the back of the girl’s calves, and leaning forward, kissed her knees. The hem of Meracad’s dress trailed below the surface, absorbing water, soaking her through the material, but she did not care.
Hal looked up at her again. “You should also know that I have never done what I do for anyone else’s sake. I live as I live to please myself. I’ve never had any intention of proving something to other people.”
“Well, maybe it’s time you tried.”
Hal began to reply, but then seemed to think better of it. Instead, sinking beneath the water level once more, she gently kissed Meracad’s foot.
Then she rose, and as she did so, Meracad leant down and brought her hands together behind Hal’s head. They drew closer until their foreheads were touching.
“My father is leaving tomorrow on business. He’ll be gone for a month, to the North. It is a gift, Hal. Let us take it.”
In answer, Hal raised her lips to Meracad’s. They were warm, silk-like and tasted of the salt water of the pool. Meracad touched Hal’s shoulders, catching the rivulets of water as they ran down the duellist’s naked back. The thin cotton of her own dress now sodden from the touch of Hal’s wet hands. Finally, they broke apart, staring at each other, shocked.
“When does your father leave?” Hal asked, her voice shaking.
“If you may leave his house for some time, you know where to find me.”
“So you’ve changed your mind about me?” Meracad asked, smiling at last.
“I’ve never changed my mind about you,” she replied.
Meracad rose, dimly aware that the hem of her dress now sagged as she walked, its hem soaked. Her eyes seemed wet too, although she could not tell why that should be. For her heart seemed full of fire, not water. The shape and form of the chamber blurred and disappeared behind the wall of her own tears.
She turned back, but Hal had sunk beneath the surface again, like some strange, mythic character from a fable of the sea. Clutching at the sides of the corridor for support, Meracad pushed herself outside onto the street, and into the sunlight.
If you enjoy fantasy novels, then I highly recommend checking this one out! Click here to view the book on Amazon.