Bitterblue, p.11
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       Bitterblue, p.11

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  If you had any idea what you were asking me, she thought. If you had the slightest idea to whom you were speaking. She could see nothing sentimental or vulnerable in his face. This wasn't his prologue to pouring out the heart-rending tale of a child sailor on a foreign ship who'd yearned for a mother. He was merely curious; he wanted to know about mothers, and Bitterblue was the only one made vulnerable by the question.

  "What do you mean, you want to know about her?" she asked with slightly more patience. "Your question is too vague."

  He shrugged. "I'm not picky. Is it she who taught you to read? When you were young, did you live together in the castle and eat your meals together? Or do castle children live in the nurseries? Does she talk of Lienid? Is she the person who taught you to bake bread?"

  Bitterblue's mind flickered around all the things he said, images coming to her. Memories, some of them wanting precision. "I did not live in the nurseries," she said honestly. "I was with my mother most of the time. I don't think it was she who taught me to read, but she taught me other things. She taught me mathematics and all about Lienid." Then Bitterblue spoke another certainty that came to her like a thunderbolt. "I believe—I remember—my father taught me to read!"

  Grasping her head, she turned away from him, remembering Leck helping her spell out words, in her mother's rooms, at the table. Remembering the feel of a small, colorful book in her hands; remembering his voice, his encouragement, his pride at her progress as she struggled to put letters together. "Darling!" he'd said. "You're fabulous. You're a genius." She'd been so small that she'd had to kneel in the chair to reach the table.

  It was an utterly disorienting memory. For a moment, in the

  middle of the street, Bitterblue was lost. "Give me a mathematics problem, would you?" she said to Saf unsteadily.

  "Huh?" he said. "You mean like, what's twelve times twelve?"

  She glared at him. "That's just insulting."

  "Sparks," he said, "have you quite lost your mind?"

  "Let me sleep here tonight," she said. "I need to sleep here. Can I sleep here?"

  "What? Of course not!"

  "I won't snoop around. I'm not a spy, remember?"

  "I'm not certain you should come in at all, Sparks."

  "At least let me see Teddy!"

  "Don't you want to ask your last question?"

  "You'll owe me one."

  Sapphire considered her skeptically. Then, shaking his head, sighing, he produced a key. He opened the door a Sparks-sized crack and motioned her inside.

  TEDDY LAY FLAT and limp on a cot in the corner, like a leaf in the road that's been snowed on all winter and rained on all spring; but he was awake. When he saw her, the sweetest of smiles spread across his face. "Give me your hand," he whispered.

  Bitterblue gave him her hand, tiny and strong. His own hands were long, beautifully formed, with ink rimming the fingernails. And strengthless. She used her own strength to move her hand where he pulled it. He brought her fingers to his mouth. He kissed them.

  "Thank you for what you did," he whispered. "I always knew you'd be lucky for us, Sparks. We should have called you Lucky."

  "How are you feeling, Teddy?"

  "Tell me a story, Lucky," he whispered. "Tell me one of the stories you've heard."

  There was only one story in her mind: the tale of Princess Bitterblue's escape from the city eight years ago with Queen Ashen, who'd hugged the princess hard and kissed her, kneeling in a field of snow. And then given her a knife and sent her on ahead, telling her that though she was only a little girl, she had the heart and the mind of a queen, strong and fierce enough to survive what was coming.

  Bitterblue pulled her hand away from Teddy's. She pressed her temples and rubbed them, breathing carefully to calm herself.

  "I'll tell you the story of a city where the river jumps into the sky and takes flight," she said.

  SOMETIME LATER, SAF shook her shoulder. She woke, startled, to find herself snoozing in the hard chair, neck twisted and rigid with pain. "What is it?" she cried. "What happened?"

  "Shh!" said Saf. "You were crying out, Sparks. Disturbing Teddy's sleep. I figured it was a nightmare."

  "Oh," she said, becoming conscious of a monumental headache. She reached up to bring down her braids, releasing her hair, rubbing at her aching scalp. Teddy slept nearby, his breath a gentle whistle. Tilda and Bren were climbing the stairs together to the apartments above. "I think I was dreaming that my father was teaching me to read," Bitterblue said vaguely. "It was making my head hurt."

  "You're a strange one," Saf said. "Go sleep on the floor by the fire, Sparks. Dream something nice, like babies. I'll bring you a blanket, and wake you before dawn."

  She lay down and fell asleep, dreaming of herself as a baby in her mother's arms.


  BITTERBLUE RAN BACK to the castle in a thick, gray dawn. She raced the sun, hoping, fervently, that Po wasn't planning to ruin her breakfast again. Find something useful to do with your morning, she thought to him as she neared her chambers. Do something heroic in front of an audience. Knock a child into the river while no one's looking and then rescue him.

  Entering her rooms, she found herself face-to-face with Fox, who stood in the foyer with a feather duster. "Oh," said Bitterblue, calculating fast, but not coming up with much in the way of a creative excuse. "Balls."

  Fox regarded the queen calmly with unmatching gray eyes. She wore a new hood that was just like the old one, the one Bitterblue was wearing at this moment. The difference between the two women was marked: Bitterblue small, plain, guilty, and not particularly clean; Fox tall and striking, with nothing to be ashamed of.

  "Lady Queen," she said, "I won't tell a soul."

  "Oh, thank you," Bitterblue said, almost light-headed with relief. "Thank you."

  Fox bowed her head, stepped aside, and that was that.

  Minutes later, soaking in the bath, Bitterblue heard rain, thudding on the castle roofs.

  She was grateful to the skies for waiting until she'd gotten home.

  * * * * *

  RAIN STREAMED DOWN the canted glass roofs of her tower office and raced into the gutters.


  He was at his stand, pen scritching across paper. "Yes, Lady Queen?"

  "Thiel, Lord Danzhol said some things after he knocked you out that worry me."

  "Oh?" Thiel set his pen down and came to stand before her, all concern. "I'm sorry to hear that, Lady Queen. If you'll tell me what he said, I'm confident that we'll be able to resolve it."

  "He was some sort of crony of Leck's, wasn't he?"

  Thiel blinked. "Was he, Lady Queen? What did he tell you?"

  "Do you know what it meant to be a crony of Leck's?" Bitterblue asked. "I know you don't like questions like that, Thiel, but I must know the basics of what happened, you see, if I'm to know how to help my people."

  "Lady Queen," said Thiel, "my reason for disliking such a question is that I don't know the answer. I had my own run-ins with King Leck, as you know, as I expect we all did, and would all prefer not to talk about. But he would disappear for hours, Lady Queen, and I haven't the foggiest notion where he would go. I know nothing beyond the bare fact that he would go. None of your advisers do. I hope you'll trust me on that, and not trouble the others. We've only just got Rood back into the offices. You know he's not strong."

  "Danzhol told me," Bitterblue lied, "that everything he stole from his people, he stole for Leck's sake, and that other lords stole from their people for Leck too. That means there are other lords and ladies out there like Danzhol, Thiel, and it also means that there are citizens from whom Leck stole who could benefit from remuneration. You do understand that the crown is liable to these

  people, Thiel? It will help us all move forward to settle such debts."

  "Oh, dear," Thiel said, steadying a hand on her desk. "I see," he said. "Lord Danzhol, of course, was mad, Lady Queen."

  "But I've asked my personal spies to make some inqui
ries, Thiel," Bitterblue improvised smoothly. "It seems that Danzhol was right."

  "Your personal spies," Thiel repeated. His eyes were beginning to shift to confusion, then to a kind of blankness, so quickly that she reached out to stop him.

  "No," she said, pleading with the fading feeling in his eyes. "Please, Thiel, don't. Why do you do that? I need your help!"

  But Thiel was wrapped in himself, not speaking, not seeming to hear.

  It's like being left alone in a room with a shell, thought Bitterblue. And it happens so fast. "I'll just have to go down and ask one of the others," she said.

  A rough voice came out of the middle of him somewhere. "Don't leave me quite yet, Lady Queen," he said. "Please wait. I have the right answer. May I—may I sit, Lady Queen?"

  "Of course!"

  Heavily, he did so. After a moment, he said, "The trouble lies with the blanket pardons, Lady Queen. The blanket pardons, and the impossibility of ever proving, beyond doubt, that those who stole, stole for Leck and not for themselves."

  "Wasn't the very reason for the blanket pardons the assumption that Leck was the true cause of all crime?"

  "No, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "The reason for the blanket pardons was the acknowledgment of the impossibility of our ever knowing the truth about anything."

  What a depressing notion. "Nonetheless, someone needs to provide reparation to those who were victimized."

  "Don't you think, Lady Queen, that if citizens wished your reparation, they would tell you so?"

  "Do they have means?"

  "Anyone may write the court a letter, Lady Queen, and every letter is read by your clerks."

  "But do they know how to write?"

  The eyes Thiel trained on her face were awake now, and filled with a perfect comprehension of her meaning. "After yesterday's argument, Lady Queen," he said, "I challenged Runnemood on the matter of the literacy statistics. I'm sorry to say that he admitted that he has, in fact, been embellishing them. He has a habit of . . . erring on the side of optimism in his representations. It is," said Thiel, clearing his throat delicately, "one of the qualities that makes him a valuable agent of the court in the city. But of course, he must be transparent with us. He will be from now on. I've made that plain to him. And, yes, Lady Queen," Thiel added firmly. "Enough of your citizens know how to write; you've seen the charters. I maintain that if they wished reparation, they would write."

  "Well then, I'm sorry, but it's not good enough, Thiel. I can't bear to walk around knowing how much this court owes people. I don't care whether they want it from me or not. It's not fair for me not to give it."

  Thiel considered her silently, hands folded before him. She didn't understand the peculiar hopelessness in his eyes. "Thiel," she said, almost begging. "Please. What is it? What's wrong?"

  After a moment, he said quietly, "I understand you, Lady Queen, and I'm pleased you came to me about this. I hope you always will come to me first with such matters. Here is what I recommend: Write to your uncle and ask his advice. When he visits, perhaps we can discuss the way to proceed."

  It was true that Ror would know what to do and how best to do it. It wasn't terrible advice. But Ror's visit was scheduled for January, and it was only just September.

  Perhaps, if she wrote to him, he could send suggestions ahead of his visit, in letters.

  THE RAIN WAS soporific, throwing itself against her glass roof and the stone of her round walls. She wondered what it was like in the great courtyard today, where water pounded on the glass ceilings and overflow from the gutters poured into a fat rain pipe that snaked down the courtyard wall, ending with a gargoyle that vomited rainwater into the fountain pool. On days like this, the pool overflowed onto the courtyard floor. No water was wasted: It found drains in the floor that led to cisterns in the cellars and the prison.

  It was impractical, the courtyard flood that accompanied rainy days. It was a strange design, easy enough to reverse. Except that it did no structural damage in a courtyard that had originally been built to be rained on; and except that Bitterblue loved it, on the rare occasions when she was able to escape her office to see it. The tiles on the floor surrounding the fountain were adorned with mosaics of fish that seemed to flop and swim under the sheen of water. Leck had intended the courtyard to be dramatic in the rain.

  When Darby pushed into the room with a pile of papers so high that he needed both arms, Bitterblue announced that she was taking a walk to the royal smithy to order a sword.

  But good heavens, they responded, did she realize that to reach the smithy, one must cross the grounds, in the rain? Had it not occurred to her that it would save time to summon a smith to her tower, rather than go herself? Had she not considered that it might be viewed as unusual—

  "Oh, for mercy's sake," Bitterblue snapped at her advisers. "I'm proposing a walk to the smithy, not an expedition to the moon. I'll be back in a matter of minutes. In the meantime, you can all return to work and stop being annoying, if such a thing is possible."

  "At least take an umbrella, Lady Queen," pleaded Rood.

  "I won't," she said, then swept out of the room as dramatically as possible.

  STANDING IN THE east vestibule, peeking through an arch at the pounding water of the fountain, the swirling water on the floor, the gurgling water in the drains, Bitterblue allowed the noise and the earthy smell of it all to soothe her irritation.

  "Lady Queen," said a quiet voice to her side. "How are you?"

  Bitterblue was mildly embarrassed to find herself in the company of Lord Giddon. "Oh," she said. "Giddon. Hello. I'm all right, I suppose. I'm sorry about the other night. The falling asleep, I mean," she bumbled, "and—the hair."

  "Don't apologize, Lady Queen," he said. "An ordeal like the one with Danzhol is bound to be exhausting; it was the end of an extraordinary day."

  "That it was," she said, sighing.

  "How is your puzzle going?"

  "Dreadfully," she said, grateful to him for remembering. "I have lords like Danzhol, who stole for Leck, connecting with thieves who are stealing the things back, connecting with a strange piece of misinformation about gargoyles my advisers gave me, connecting with other kinds of knowledge my advisers seem to prefer to discourage, connecting with knowledge the thieves would like to keep from me as well, such as why someone would stick knives in their guts. I don't understand the courtyard decoration either," she said grouchily, glaring at the shrubberies that a moment before had been delighting her.

  "Hm," said Giddon. "I confess, it doesn't sound very illuminating."

  "It's a disaster," Bitterblue said.

  "Well," said Giddon with mild amusement. "Your great courtyard is lovely in the rain."

  "Thank you. Did you know that my being here to look at it, alone, in the middle of the day, requires a lengthy debate? And I'm not even alone," she added, indicating, with a nod, the man tucked behind an arch in the south vestibule. "That's one of my Graced guards, Alinor, pretending not to watch us. I bet you my crown that they sent him along to spy on me."

  "Or perhaps to keep an eye out for your safety, Lady Queen?" suggested Giddon. "You were recently attacked while in their care. They might be feeling a bit twitchy, not to mention guilty."

  "It's just—I did something today that I should be happy about, Giddon. I proposed a policy of remuneration from the crown for those who were robbed during Leck's reign. But all I feel is impatience, fury for the opposition I anticipate and the lies I'm going to have to tell to make it happen, and frustration that I can't even take a walk without them sending someone to hover. Attack me," she said.

  "I beg your pardon, Lady Queen?"

  "You should attack me, and we'll see what he does. He's probably quite bored—it'll be a relief to him."

  "Mightn't he run me through with his sword?"

  "Oh." Bitterblue chuckled. "Yes, I suppose he might. That would be a shame."

  "I'm gratified that you think so," said Giddon dryly.

  Bitterblue squinted at a mu
ddy person wading into the courtyard from the west vestibule, which was the route from the stables. Her heart leapt; she jumped forward. "Giddon!" she cried. "It's Katsa!"

  Suddenly Po shot into the courtyard from the north vestibule, whooping. Katsa, seeing him, broke into a run and they tore at each other through the wash. Just before the moment of impact, Po shifted to one side, crouched, scooped Katsa up, and, with admirable precision, propelled them both sideways into the pool.

  THEY WERE STILL thrashing around and laughing and screaming, and Bitterblue and Giddon were still watching, when a stiff little clerk spotted Bitterblue, trotted up to her, and said, "Good day, Lady Queen. Lady Katsa of the Middluns has arrived at court, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue raised an eyebrow. "You don't say?"

  The clerk, who seemed not to have risen to his position on the merits of his powers of observation, confirmed his announcement humorlessly, then added, "Prince Raffin of the Middluns has accompanied her this time, Lady Queen."

  "Oh! Where is he?"

  "He is finding his rooms, Lady Queen."

  "Is Bann with him?" asked Giddon.

  "He is, My Lord," said the clerk.

  "They'll be exhausted," said Giddon to Bitterblue as the clerk slipped away. "Katsa'll have ridden them hard through the rain."

  Katsa and Po were trying to drown each other and, judging from their hoots of laughter, enjoying it immensely. People had begun to gather in archways and on balconies—servants, guards—pointing, staring.

  "I expect this will make a good story for the rumor mills," Bitterblue ventured.

  "Another chapter in The Heroic Adventures Of ?" Giddon asked quietly. Then he shot her a grin that reached all the way to his very nice, but ordinary, matching brown eyes, and Bitterblue had the feeling suddenly of not being so alone. She'd forgotten, in her first joy, what this was always like. Preoccupied with Po, Katsa hadn't even noticed her.

  "I was actually headed to the royal smithy," Bitterblue said to Giddon, in the way of also having preoccupations and places to go, "but the truth is that I'm not certain where it is. I wasn't going to admit that to my advisers, of course."

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