Bitterblue, p.10
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       Bitterblue, p.10

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  The question seemed both to startle Thiel and bewilder him. He sat down hard in one of the chairs before her desk and did not answer.

  "King Leck burned Queen Ashen's body," announced Death the librarian, "at the top of the high walkways on Monster Bridge at night, Lady Queen. It was how he preferred to perform such ceremonies. I believe he liked the grandness of the setting and the spectacle of the bridges lit up with fire."

  "Was anyone there who actually cared?" she asked.

  "Not that I know of, Lady Queen," said Death. "I, for one, was not."

  It was time to change the subject, for Thiel was worrying her, sitting there with that empty look in his eyes. Like his soul had gone away. "Why are you here, Death?" Bitterblue snapped.

  "Many people have forgotten the Monsean ways, Lady Queen," said Death obstinately. "Especially inhabitants of the castle, where Leck's influence was strongest, and especially the many in both city and castle who cannot read."

  "Everyone in the castle can read," said Bitterblue.

  "Can they?" Death dropped a small roll of leather onto her desk and, in the same motion, bowed, somehow making a mockery of the gesture. Then he turned and left the room.

  "What has he given you?" asked Runnemood.

  "Have you been lying to me about literacy statistics, Runnemood?" Bitterblue countered.

  "Of course not, Lady Queen," said Runnemood in exasperation. "Your castle is literate. What would you like? Another survey on the matter?"

  "Yes, another survey, of both the castle and the city."

  "Very well. Another survey, to dispel the slander of an antisocial

  librarian. I hope you won't expect us to furnish evidence every time he makes an accusation."

  "He was right about the burying," said Bitterblue.

  Releasing a breath, Runnemood said patiently, "We've never denied the truth about the burying, Lady Queen. This is the first we've ever discussed it. Now, what has he given you?"

  Bitterblue pulled at the tie that held the small roll closed. The leather flattened itself before her. "Just another useless map," she said, rolling it up again and shoving it aside.

  Later, when Runnemood had gone to an appointment somewhere and Thiel stood stiffly at his stand, his back to her and his mind somewhere else, Bitterblue slipped the little map into the pocket of her gown. It wasn't a useless map. It was a lovely, soft miniature of all the major streets in the city, perfect for carrying on one's person.

  IN THE EAST city that night, she sought out the graveyard. The paths were lit, but dimly, and there was no moon; she couldn't make out the inscriptions. Walking among the nameless dead, she tried to find a way to fit "burning versus burial" onto her list of puzzle pieces. It was starting to seem to her that being "forward-thinking" too often involved avoiding any kind of thought at all—especially about things that might benefit from a great deal of thinking. What had Danzhol said about the town charters being a promise of the queen's considerate inattention? Clearly, her inattention to Danzhol had led to disastrous results. Were there people at whom she should be looking more closely?

  She stumbled across a grave with loose soil in the shape of a mound. Someone newly dead. How sad, she thought. There's something horribly sad, but also right, about the body of someone who has died disappearing into the ground. Burning a body was sad too. And yet Bitterblue felt deeply that burning was also right.

  No one who loved Mama was there to mark her passing. She burned alone.

  Bitterblue felt her feet planted in the ground of this graveyard, as if she were a tree, unable to move; as if her body were a gravestone, dense and heavy.

  I left her behind, for Leck to pretend to mourn. I shouldn't still feel this way, she thought with an unexpected flash of fury. It was years ago.

  "Sparks?" said a voice behind her. She turned to find herself staring into the face of Sapphire.

  Her heart flew into her throat. "Why are you here?" she cried. "Not Teddy!"

  "No!" Saf said. "Don't worry. Teddy's well enough, for a man who's been cut open."

  "Then why?" she said. "Are you a grave robber?"

  He snorted. "Don't be daft. It's a shortcut. Are you all right, Sparks? I'm sorry if I interrupted something."

  "You didn't."

  "You're crying."

  "I'm not."

  "Right," he said mildly. "I suppose you got rained on."

  Somewhere, one of the city clocks began to strike midnight. "Where are you going?" Bitterblue asked.


  "Let's go, then," she said.

  "Sparks," he said, "you're not invited."

  "Do you burn your dead," she said, ignoring this, leading him out of the graveyard, "or bury them?"

  "Well, it depends where I am, doesn't it? It's Lienid tradition to

  bury people at sea. In Monsea, it's tradition to bury them in the ground."

  "How do you know the old Monsean traditions?"

  "I could ask you the same question; I wouldn't have expected you to know. Except that I never expect the expected from you, Sparks," he added, a tired sort of dreariness coming over his voice. "How is your mother?"

  "What?" she said, startled.

  "I hope the tears are nothing to do with your mother. Is she well?"

  "Oh," Bitterblue said, remembering that she was a castle baker girl. "Yes, she's well. I saw her tonight."

  "Then that's not what's wrong?"

  "Saf," she said. "Not everyone who lives in the castle can read."


  She didn't know why she was saying this now; she didn't know why she was saying it at all. She hadn't even realized until this moment that she believed it. It was just that she had the need to tell him something honest, something honest and unhappy, because cheerful lies tonight were too depressing and too sharp, turning in on her like pins. "I said before that everyone under the queen's roof reads," she said. "I've—developed doubts."

  "All right," he said warily. "I knew that for a corker when you first said it. So did Teddy. Why are you admitting it now?"

  "Saf," she said, stopping in her tracks in the middle of the street to face him, needing at this moment to know. "Why did you steal that gargoyle?"

  "Hm," he said, amused in an unamused sort of way. "What's your game tonight, Sparks?"

  "I don't have a game," Bitterblue said miserably. "I just want things to start making sense. Here," she said, pulling a small parcel from her pocket and shoving it into Saf's hand. "These are from Madlen."

  "More medicines?"


  Musing over the medicines, his feet square in the street, Saf seemed to be considering something. Then he glanced at her. "What about a game of trading truth for truth?" he said.

  This struck her as a terrible idea. "How many rounds?"

  "Three, and we must both swear to be honest. You must swear on your mother's life."

  Well then, she thought. If he presses me too hard, I can lie, for my mother is dead. He would lie, if pressed, too, she added stubbornly, arguing with the part of her that rose up to insist that a game like this should be played in good faith. "All right," she said. "Why did you steal the gargoyle?"

  "No, I go first, because the game was my idea. Are you a spy for the queen?"

  "Great seas!" Bitterblue said. "No."

  "That's all I get? A 'no'?"

  She glared into his grinning face. "I'm not anyone's spy but my own," she said, realizing, too late, that her own spy would inevitably be the queen's spy. Annoyed to find herself lying already, she said, "My turn. The gargoyle. Why?"

  "Hm. Let's walk," he said, motioning her up the street.

  "You're not allowed to avoid my question."

  "I'm not avoiding it. I'm just trying to come up with an answer that doesn't incriminate others. Leck stole," he said, startling her with the randomness of it. "Anything he wanted—knives, clothing, horses, paper—he took. He stole people's children. He destroyed people's property. He also hired people to build the bridges and n
ever paid them. He hired artists to decorate his castle—never paid them either."

  "I see," said Bitterblue, working through the implications of his statement. "Did you steal a gargoyle from the castle because Leck never paid the artist who made it?"

  "Essentially," said Saf.

  "But—what did you do with it?"

  "We return things to their rightful owners."

  "So, there's a gargoyle artist somewhere and you're bringing him back his gargoyles? What possible use could he have for them now?"

  "Don't ask me," said Saf. "I've never understood the use of a gargoyle. They're creepy."

  "They're lovely!" said Bitterblue in indignation.

  "All right!" said Saf. "Whatever. They're creepily lovely. I don't know what he wants with them. He only asked us for a few of his favorites."

  "A few? Four?"

  "Four from the east wall. Two from the west and one from the south that we haven't managed to steal yet, and possibly won't, now. The guard presence on the walls has increased since we stole the last one. They must've finally noticed that gargoyles are going missing."

  Noticed, because Bitterblue had pointed it out? Were her advisers the ones who'd arranged for more guards? Why would they do that, unless they believed the gargoyles actually were being stolen? And if they believed it, why had they lied?

  "Where's your mind, Sparks?" asked Saf.

  "So, people ask you for things," Bitterblue repeated. "They make requests for specific items Leck stole, and you steal the items back for them?"

  Saf considered her. There was something new in his expression

  tonight. For some reason, it frightened her. His eyes, which used to be hard and suspicious, were softer, touching her face and hood and shoulders, wondering something about her.

  She recognized what was happening. He was deciding whether or not to trust her. When he reached into the pocket of his coat and handed her a small bundle, she found that suddenly, whatever it was, she didn't want it.

  "No," she said, pushing it back at him.

  Stubbornly, he pressed it back into her hands. "What's wrong with you? Open it."

  "It'll be too much truth, Saf," she insisted. "It'll make us unequal."

  "Is this an act?" he said. "Because it's a stupid one. You saved Teddy's life: We'll never be equal. It's not any deep, dark secret, Sparks. It won't tell you anything I haven't already said."

  Uncomfortable, but counting on this promise, she untied the bundle. It contained three papers, folded small. She moved closer to a streetlamp. Then she stood there, in rising distress, as the papers told her a thousand things Saf hadn't said, immediately.

  It was a chart, three pages long, composed of three columns. Running down the left column was an alphabetical list of names, straightforward enough. The right-hand column listed dates, all falling in the years of Leck's reign. The items in the middle column, each one presumably corresponding to the name on the left, were more difficult to characterize. Across from the name "Alderin, farmer" was written, "3 farm dogs, 1 pig." Across from the second instance of the name "Alderin, farmer" was written, "Book: The Kissing Traditions of Monsea." Across from the name "Annis, teacher" was written "Grettel, 9." Across from "Barrie, ink-maker": "Ink, every kind, too much to quantify." Across from "Bessit, scribe": "Book: Monsean Ciphers and Codes; paper, too much to quantify."

  It was an inventory. Except that the middle column of inventoried items seemed to be as crowded with people—"Mara, 11," "Cress, 10"—as it was with books, paper, farm animals, money. Almost all of the people named as inventory were children. Girls.

  And that wasn't all this paper told her, not by a far shot, for Bitterblue recognized the handwriting. The paper, even, and the ink. One remembered such particulars when one had killed a lord with a knife; one remembered accusing the lord, before killing him, of stealing his people's books and farm animals. She drew the list to her nose, knowing how the paper would smell: just like the charter of the people from the town of Danzhol.

  One lonely puzzle piece clicked into place. "This is an inventory of items Leck stole?" asked Bitterblue shakily.

  "In this case, someone else stole them, but it's clear that it was on Leck's behalf. Those are the types of things Leck liked to collect, and the little girls clinch it, wouldn't you say?"

  But—why hadn't Danzhol simply told her that he'd stolen from his townspeople on Leck's behalf? That his ruin had begun with Leck's greed? Why hide behind hints when he could have defended himself with that truth? She would have listened to that defense, no matter how mad or disgusting he was. And why had the people of Danzhol mentioned missing farm animals in their charter, but not their missing daughters? She had imagined that Leck had taken castle people, city people. Those were the people the fablers talked about in their stories. She hadn't known that his reach had extended to the distant country estates of his lords.

  And that wasn't all. "Why would you be stealing these things back?" she asked, almost frantically. "Why would this list make its way to you, not to the queen?"

  "What could the queen do?" asked Saf. "These items were stolen

  during Leck's reign. The queen has issued blanket pardons for all crimes committed during Leck's reign."

  "But, surely, she hasn't pardoned Leck's crimes!"

  "What did Leck ever do for himself? You don't think he marched around smashing windows and grabbing books? I told you, these things were stolen by someone else. That lord who just tried to kidnap the queen, actually, and ended up poked in the gizzard," he added, as if this piece of trivia should amuse her.

  "It makes no sense, Saf," she said. "If these people sent this list to the queen, she would find some legal way to provide remuneration."

  "The queen is looking ahead," Saf said glibly, "haven't you heard? She has no time for all the lists she would receive, and we manage it quite well, you know."

  "How many lists are there?"

  "I expect every town in the kingdom could provide one, if pressed," he said. "Don't you?"

  The names of children crowded thick before her eyes. "It's wrong," she insisted. "There must be a legal recourse."

  Saf took the papers from her hands. "If it's any comfort to your law-abiding heart, Sparks," he said, folding the papers up again, "we cannot steal what we cannot find. It's rare that we locate any of the items on these lists."

  "But you just told me that you manage it quite well!"

  "Better than the queen could," he said, sighing. "Have I answered your question?"

  "What question!"

  "We're playing a game, remember?" said Saf. "You asked me why I stole a gargoyle. I told you. Now I believe it's my turn. Were your people part of the resistance? Is that how your father was killed?"

  "I don't know what you're talking about. What resistance?"

  "You don't know about the resistance?"

  "Perhaps I call it by a different name," she said, doubting this but not caring, for her mind was still wrapped up in the last matter.

  "Well, it's no secret," he said, "so I'll explain it for free. There was a resistance movement in the kingdom while Leck was alive. A small group of people who knew what he was—or who knew it part of the time, at least, and kept it in writing—tried to spread the word, remind each other of the truth whenever his lies grew too strong. The most powerful among them were mind readers, who had the advantage of always knowing what Leck was trying to do. A lot of the members of the resistance were killed. Leck knew they existed and was always trying to stamp them out. Especially the mind readers."

  Bitterblue was paying attention now.

  "You really didn't know," Saf said, noting her surprise.

  "I had no idea," she said. "That's why Leck kept burning Teddy's parents' print shop, isn't it? And that's how you knew about burying. Your family was part of this resistance and kept written records of the old traditions, or something. Right?"

  "Is that your second question?" asked Saf.

  "No. I'm not wasting a question on someth
ing I already know the answer to; I want to know why you grew up on a Lienid ship."

  "Ah. That's an easy one," he said. "My eyes settled when I was six months old. Leck was king then, of course. Gracelings in Monsea were not free, but as you've already guessed, my mother and father were in the resistance. They knew what Leck was, most of the time. They also knew that Gracelings in Lienid were free. So they took me south to Monport, snuck me aboard a Lienid ship, and left me on the deck."

  Bitterblue's mouth dropped open. "You mean they abandoned you. To strangers who could've decided to throw you overboard!"

  He shrugged, smiling lightly. "They saved me from Leck's service, Sparks, in the best way they could manage. And after Leck died, my sister went to great lengths to find me—even though all she knew about me was my age, my eye colors, and the ship they'd left me on. Also, Lienid sailors do not throw babies overboard."

  They turned onto Tinker Street and drew up outside the shop door. "They're dead now, aren't they," she said. "Your parents. Leck killed them."

  "Yes," he said, then reached out to her when he saw her expression. "Sparks, hey—it's all right. I never really knew them."

  "Let's go in," she said, pushing him off, too frustrated with her own helplessness to show him the sorrow she felt. There were crimes for which a queen could never provide enough remuneration.

  "We've got one more round of questions, Sparks," he said.

  "No. No more."

  "I'll ask a nice one, Sparks, I promise."

  "A nice one?" Bitterblue snorted. "What's your idea of a nice question, Saf?"

  "I'll ask about your mother."

  It was the very last thing she had the energy to lie about. "No."

  "Oh, come on. What's it like?"

  "What's what like?"

  "To have a mother."

  "Why should you want to ask me that?" she snapped at him, exasperated. "What's wrong with you?"

  "Why are you biting my head off, Sparks? The closest thing I ever had to a mother was a sailor named Pinky who taught me to climb a rope with a dagger in my mouth and piss on people from the topmast."

  "That's disgusting."

  "Well? That's my point. Your mother probably never taught you anything disgusting."

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