Bitterblue, p.12
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       Bitterblue, p.12

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "I've been there, Lady Queen," Giddon said. "It's on the western grounds, north of the stables. Shall I point you in the right direction or would you like company?"

  "Join me."

  "It looks like the entertainment is breaking up, anyway," Lord Giddon said. And indeed, the splashing and the noise seemed to have calmed. Katsa and Po had their arms around each other. It was difficult to tell if they were still wrestling or if the kissing had begun.

  Bitterblue turned away with a small flash of resentment.

  "Wait!"

  It was Katsa's voice; it slapped against Bitterblue's back and spun her around. Katsa had climbed out of the fountain and out of Po's arms. Katsa was running toward her, eyes shining blue and green, clothes and hair streaming. She slammed into Bitterblue and gathered her into a hug. She picked Bitterblue up, put her down, squeezed her harder, kissed the top of her head. Crushed painfully against Katsa, Bitterblue heard the wild, strong thump of Katsa's heart. She held Katsa tight. Tears pricked her eyes.

  Then Katsa was gone, flying back to Po.

  AS BITTERBLUE AND Giddon moved through the western castle to the exit nearest the smithy, Giddon told her that remuneration for a king's thefts was one of the Council's specialties. "It can be quite beautiful in execution, Lady Queen," he said. "Of course, when we do it, it involves trickery, and our thieving kings are still alive. But I think you'll feel the same satisfaction we do."

  He was a big man beside her, as tall as Thiel and broader. "How old are you?" she asked bluntly, deciding that queens had the privilege of asking nosy questions.

  "Twenty-seven last month, Lady Queen," he answered, not seeming to mind the question.

  Then they were all of a similar age—Giddon, Po, Katsa, Bann, and Raffin. "How long have you been Katsa's friend?" she asked, remembering, with mild indignation, that Katsa hadn't greeted him in the courtyard.

  "Oh," he said, calculating, "well, some ten or eleven years? I offered myself to her and Raffin as soon as the Council began. Of course, I knew of her before that; I'd seen her at court many times. I used to watch her practices."

  "Did you grow up at King Randa's court, then?"

  "My family's estate is near to Randa's court, Lady Queen. As a boy, I spent as much time at court as I did at home. My father, while he was alive, was a great friend of Randa's."

  "Your priorities differed from your father's."

  He glanced at her in surprise, then made an unamused noise. "Not really, Lady Queen."

  "Well, you chose the Council over any allegiance to Randa, didn't you?"

  "I joined the Council more out of fascination for its founder than anything else, Lady Queen. Katsa, and the promise of adventure. I don't think I much cared what it was for. At the time, I was one of Randa's most reliable bullies."

  Bitterblue remembered then that Giddon was among those excluded from the truth of Po's Grace. Was this why? Was he a bully? But Giddon was one of Po's closest friends now, wasn't he? How did a man who was crony to a bad king undo that entanglement while the king was still alive?

  "Giddon?" she said. "Do you care about the Council's purpose now?"

  When he looked into her face, she saw his answer before he gave it. "With all my heart."

  They stepped into a dimly lit foyer where tall, gray windows rattled with rain. A pair of Monsean Guards stood to either side of a postern doorway. When Bitterblue passed through, she found herself on a covered slate terrace, looking out over a field of soggy snapdragons. Beyond the flowers sat a squat stone building with smoke rising from several chimneys. The musical clangs of metal, in various pitches and rhythms, suggested that they'd succeeded in their search for the smithy.

  "Giddon," she said. "Wasn't it a bit rude for Katsa not to greet you in the courtyard just now? It's been some time since you've seen each other, hasn't it?"

  His smile was sudden and enormous; he began to chuckle. "Katsa and I don't like each other very much," he said.

  "Why? What did you do?"

  "Why must it be something I did?"

  "Well? Wasn't it?"

  "Katsa will hold a grudge," Giddon said, still grinning, "for years."

  "You're the one who seems to be holding a grudge," Bitterblue said hotly. "Katsa's heart is true. She would not dislike you for no reason."

  "Lady Queen," he said mildly, "I meant no offense to you, or to her. Any courage I have, I learned from her example. I would go so far as to say that her Council has saved my life. I can work with Katsa whether she greets me in the courtyard or not."

  His tone, and his words, brought her back to herself. She unclenched her fists and wiped her hands on her skirts. "Giddon. Forgive my temper."

  "Katsa is fortunate to have your loyalty," said Giddon.

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, confused, then gesturing through the downpour to the smithy, more than ready to put an end to the conversation. "Shall we make a dash for it?"

  Within seconds, she was soaked through. The snapdragon bed was a swamp and one of her boots sunk deep in the mud, nearly toppling her. When Giddon came to her and took her arms in an attempt to pull her free, his own boots stuck. With a vague expression of impending disaster, he plummeted backward into the flowers, his falling momentum popping her out of the mud but also sending her sprawling.

  On her stomach amidst snapdragons, Bitterblue spat out dirt. And there really wasn't any use for decorum after that. Covered with mud and snapdragon carcasses, they dragged each other up and staggered, gasping with laughter, into the lean-to that comprised the front half of the smithy building. A man came stomping out whom Bitterblue recognized, small, with a sharp, sensitive face, dressed in the black of the Monsean Guard with distinctive silver chains on his sleeves. "Wait," Bitterblue said to him, trying to wipe mud from her skirts. "You're my Captain of the Monsean Guard, aren't you? You're Captain Smit."

  The man's eyes flicked across her bedraggled appearance, then absorbed Giddon's as well. "I am, Lady Queen," he said with crisp correctness. "It's a pleasure to see you, Lady Queen."

  "Indeed," said Bitterblue. "Is it you who decides the number of guards patrolling the castle walls?"

  "Ultimately, yes, Lady Queen."

  "May I ask why you've increased their number recently?"

  "Of course, Lady Queen," he said. "It was in response to the news of unrest in Nander. In fact, now that we've heard that the Nanderan king is deposed, I may increase their number even more, Lady Queen. Such news has the potential to encourage unruly behavior. The castle's security—and yours, Lady Queen—are among my highest priorities."

  When Captain Smit had gone, Bitterblue frowned after him. "That was a perfectly reasonable explanation," she said grumpily. "Perhaps my advisers don't lie to me."

  "Isn't that what you'd want?" asked Giddon.

  "Well, yes, but it doesn't elucidate my puzzle!"

  "If I may say so, Lady Queen," said Giddon, "it's not always easy to follow your conversation."

  "Oh, Giddon," she said, sighing. "If it's any comfort, I don't follow it either."

  A second man came from inside the smithy then, and stood blinking at them. He was youngish and sooty, his sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular forearms, and he held in both hands the most massive sword Bitterblue had ever seen, dripping with water from the slack trough and gleaming like lightning.

  "Oh, Ornik," Giddon said, going to the smith, trailing snapdragons and slime. "This is good work." He took the sword from the man carefully, balanced it, and held the hilt out to Bitterblue. "Lady Queen?"

  The sword was nearly Bitterblue's height and so heavy that she needed to throw her shoulders and legs into the lifting of it. She muscled it gamely into the air and gazed at it in admiration, liking its fine, simple hilt and its even gleam; liking the solid, steady weight of it pushing her into the floor. "It's beautiful, Ornik," she said. And then, "We're muddying it up, which is shameful." And finally, "Help me, Giddon," because she didn't trust herself to lower it without crashing the tip into the stone floor. "Ornik
," she said, "we've come about a sword for myself."

  Ornik stood back, hands on hips, looking her small frame up and down in a way only Helda ever did, and then only when Bitterblue was trying a new gown.

  She said defensively, "I like heft, and I am not weak."

  "As I saw, Lady Queen," Ornik said. "Allow me to present you with a few possibilities, Lady Queen. If we have nothing to suit you, we'll design something that does. Excuse me."

  Ornik bowed and went inside. Alone with Giddon again, Bitterblue considered him, rather liking the mud streaks on his face. He looked like a handsome sunken rowboat. "How is it that you know my smiths by name, Giddon? Have you been ordering swords?"

  Giddon glanced at the door to the inner forge. He lowered his voice. "Has Po spoken to you yet about the situation in Estill, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue narrowed her eyes. "Nander, yes. Estill, no. What's going on?"

  "I think it's time we included you in a Council meeting. Perhaps tomorrow's, if your schedule allows it."

  "When is it?"

  "Midnight."

  "Where do I go?"

  "Katsa's rooms, I believe, now that she's here."

  "Very well. What's the situation in Estill?"

  Giddon glanced again at the doorway and pitched his voice even lower. "The Council anticipates a popular uprising against King Thigpen, Lady Queen."

  She stared at him in astonishment. "As in Nander?"

  "As in Nander," he said, "and the rebels are asking the Council for help."

  10

  THAT NIGHT, PADDING through the great courtyard, Bitterblue tried to come to terms with her own unease.

  She trusted her friends in their work. But, for a group of people who claimed to be concerned for her safety, they did seem to have developed rather a habit of encouraging uprisings against monarchs. Well, she would see what they meant by it tomorrow at midnight.

  The rain had turned to mist by the time she knocked on the door at Tinker Street, infinitesimal beads soaking her clothing and hair so thickly that she dripped like a forest of trees. It was some time before her knock was answered—by Saf, who hauled her across the shop by one arm. "Hey! Hands off!" she said, trying to get a good look at the room, which was lit so violently that it hurt her eyes. He had rushed her through this room on her way out that morning as well. Tonight she glimpsed paper, everywhere, rolls of it, sheets of it; high tables cluttered with mysterious objects; a row of jars containing what must be ink; and that large, oddly shaped structure in the middle of the room that creaked and thumped and stank of grease and metal and was so enthralling that Bitterblue actually kicked Saf—not hard—to make him stop pulling her away.

  "Ow!" he yelled. "Everyone abuses me!"

  "I want to see the press," she said.

  "You're not allowed to see the press," he said. "Kick me again and I'll kick you back."

  Tilda and Bren stood together at the press, working companionably. Turning their faces in tandem to see what the fuss was about; rolling their eyes at each other.

  A moment later, Saf had yanked her into the back room and shut the door; and finally, she took a good look at him. One of his eyes was swollen half shut, blackish purple. "Balls," she said. "What happened to you?"

  "Street fight."

  She squared her shoulders. "Tell the truth."

  "Why? Is it your third question?"

  "What?"

  "If you must go out again, Saf," said Teddy's voice weakly from the bed, "avoid Callender Street. The girls told me a building came down and brought two others with it."

  "Three buildings down!" Bitterblue exclaimed. "Why is the east city so fragile?"

  "Is that your third question?" asked Saf.

  "I'll answer both your questions, Lucky," said Teddy. In response to this, Saf stormed into another room and slammed the door in disgust.

  Bitterblue went to Teddy's corner and sat with him in his little circle of light. Papers were strewn all over the bed where he lay. Some had found their way to the floor. "Thank you," he said as Bitterblue collected them. "Did you know that Madlen stopped in on me this morning, Lucky? She says I'm going to live."

  "Oh, Teddy," said Bitterblue, hugging the papers to herself. "That's wonderful."

  "Now, you wanted to know why the east city is falling apart?"

  "Yes—and why there are some strange repairs. Broken things repainted."

  "Ah, yes. Well, it's the same answer for both questions. It's the crown's ninety-eight percent employment rate."

  "What!"

  "You're aware that the queen's administration has been aggressive about finding people work? It's part of their philosophy for recovery."

  Bitterblue was aware that Runnemood had told her that nearly everyone in the city had work. These days, she wasn't so quick to believe any of his statistics. "Are you saying that the ninety-eight percent employment rate is real?"

  "For the most part, yes. And some of the new work has to do with repairing structures that were neglected during Leck's reign. Each part of the city has a different team of builders and engineers assigned to the job, and, Lucky, the engineer leading the team in the east city is an absolute nutpot. So is his immediate underling and a few of his workers. They're just hopeless."

  "What's the leader's name?" asked Bitterblue, knowing the answer.

  "Ivan," said Teddy. "He was a phenomenal engineer once. He built the bridges. Now it's lucky if he doesn't kill us all. We do what we can to repair things ourselves, but we're all working too, you know. No one has time."

  "But, why is it allowed to go on?"

  "The queen has no time," said Teddy simply. "The queen is at the helm of a kingdom that's waking up from the thirty-five-year spell of a madman. She may be older now than she was, but she still has more headaches and more complications and confusions to deal with than the other six kingdoms combined. I'm sure she'll get to it when she can."

  She was touched by his faith, but baffled by it too. Will I? she thought numbly. Do I? I'll grant that I'm dealing with confusions. The confusions push themselves in from everywhere, but I don't particularly feel like I'm dealing with anything; and how can I correct problems I don't even know about?

  "As far as Saf 's injuries go," Teddy continued, "there's this group of four or five idiots we cross paths with now and then. Brains the size of buttons. They never liked Saf to begin with, because he's Lienid and has those eyes and, well, has some tendencies they don't like. And then one night they told him to demonstrate his Grace, and of course he couldn't demonstrate a thing. So they decided he's hiding something. That he's a mind reader, I mean," Teddy explained. "Whenever they see him now, they punish him as a matter of course."

  "Oh," whispered Bitterblue. She couldn't stop her mind from playing it out for her, the punching and kicking that probably constituted their kind of punishment. Punching and kicking of Saf, of his face. She pushed it away. "So then—it wasn't the same people who attacked you?"

  "It wasn't, Lucky."

  "Teddy, who did attack you?"

  Teddy answered this with a quiet smile, then said, "What did Saf mean about you asking your third question? Are you two playing a game?"

  "Sort of."

  "Sparks, if I were you, I wouldn't agree to play Saf 's games."

  "Why?" asked Bitterblue. "Do you think he lies to me?"

  "No," said Teddy. "But I think there are ways in which he could be dangerous to you without ever telling a single lie."

  "Teddy," said Bitterblue, sighing. "I don't want to talk riddles with you. Could we please not talk riddles?"

  Teddy smiled. "All right. What should we talk about?"

  "What are these papers?" she asked, passing them to him. "Is this your book of words or your book of truths?"

  "These are my words," said Teddy, holding the papers to his chest, hugging them protectively. "My dear words. Today I was thinking about the P's. Oh, Lucky, how will I ever think of every word and every definition? Sometimes, when I'm having a conversation, I be
come unable to pay attention, because all I can do is tear apart other people's sentences and obsess over whether I've remembered to include all their words. My dictionary is destined to have great gaps of meaning."

  Great gaps of meaning, thought Bitterblue, taking a breath, breathing air through the phrase. Yes. "You're going to do a wonderful job, Teddy," she said. "Only a person with the true heart of a dictionary-writer would be lying in bed, three days after being stabbed in the gut, worrying about his P's."

  "You only used one word beginning with P in that sentence," said Teddy dreamily.

  The door opened and Saf stuck his head in, glaring at Teddy. "Have you divulged our every secret yet?"

  "There were no P-words in that sentence," said Teddy, half asleep.

  Saf made an impatient noise. "I'm going out."

  Teddy woke right up, tried to sit up, then winced. "Please don't go out if it's only to look for trouble, Saf."

  "When do I ever have to look for it?"

  "Well, at least bandage that arm," he insisted, proffering a bandage from the small table beside his bed.

  "Arm?" said Bitterblue. "Did they hurt your arm?" She saw, then, the way he was holding his arm close to his chest. She got up and went to him. "Let me see," she said.

  "Go away."

  "I'll help you bandage it."

  "I can do it."

  "One-armed?"

  After a moment, with an irritated snort, Saf stalked to the table, hooked his foot around a chair leg, yanked the chair out, and sat. Then he pushed his left sleeve to his elbow and scowled at Bitterblue, who tried to keep her face from showing what she felt at the sight of his arm. The entire forearm was bruised and swollen. A long, even cut, fully the length of her hand, ran along the top, neatly stitched together with thread, the dark reddish tinge of which came, she knew, from Saf 's own blood.

  So, pain was at the base of Saf's fury tonight. And perhaps humiliation? Had they held him down and cut him deliberately? The incision was long and neat.

  "Is it deep?" Bitterblue asked as she bandaged it. "Did someone clean it properly and give you medicines?"

  "Roke may not be a queen's healer, Sparks," Saf said sarcastically, "but he does know how to keep a person from dying of a flesh wound."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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