Bitterblue, p.15
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       Bitterblue, p.15

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  ONE MORE UNSETTLING thing happened before Bitterblue left the library that night. It involved a book she found by accident, while returning to the secret passage. An awkward shape, square and flat, it protruded from a shelf, or perhaps a lantern caught the gleam of its cover; either way, when her eyes lit upon it, she knew, instantly, that she'd seen it before. That book, with the same scratch through the gold filigree on its spine, had used to sit on the bookshelves in her blue sitting room, back when that sitting room had been her mother's.

  Bitterblue pulled the book down. The title on the cover, gold printing on leather, said Book of True Things. Opening it to the first page, she found herself looking at a simple but beautifully rendered drawing of a knife. Underneath the knife, someone had written the word Medicine. Turning the page, memory came to her like a dream, like sleepwalking, so that she knew what she would find: a drawing of a collection of sculptures on pedestals, and underneath, the word Art. On the next page, a drawing of Winged Bridge and the word Architecture. Next, a drawing of a strange, green, clawed, furry creature, a kind of bear, and the word Monster. Next, a person—a corpse? Its eyes were open, painted two different colors, but something was wrong with this person, its face was stiff and frozen—and the word underneath was Graceling. Finally, a drawing of a handsome man with an eye patch and the word Father.

  She remembered an artist bringing this book of pictures to her father. She remembered her father sitting at the table in the sitting room and writing the words in himself, then bringing it to her and helping her read it.

  Bitterblue shoved the book back onto the shelf, suddenly furious. This book, this memory did not help her. She didn't need more bizarre things to make sense of.

  But she couldn't leave it here either, not really. It called itself Book of True Things. True things were what she wanted to know, and this book that she didn't understand had to be a clue to the truth about something.

  Bitterblue reached for the book again. When she returned to her bedroom, she laid it on the table by her bed and stuck her list of puzzle pieces inside.


  IN THE MORNING, Bitterblue pulled her list out of the book and read it again. There were some pieces she'd answered and others that remained unsolved.

  Teddy's words. Who are my "first men"? What did he mean by cutting and stitching? Am I in danger? Whose prey am I?

  Danzhol's words. What did he SEE? What was he trying to say?

  Darby's records. Was he lying to me about the gargoyles never having been there?

  General mysteries. Who attacked Teddy?

  Things I've seen with my own eyes. Why is the east city falling apart but decorated anyway? Why was Leck so peculiar about decorating the castle?

  What did Leck DO? Tortured pets. Made people disappear. Cut. Burned printing shops. (Built bridges. Did castle renovations.) Honestly, how can I know how to rule my kingdom when I have no idea what happened in Leck's time? How can I understand what my people need? How can I find out more? In the story rooms?

  She stopped on this part. Last night, her friends' meeting had brought her to what was, essentially, the kingdom's biggest story room. What if there were more books like the Book of True Things she'd found, but that she could make sense of? Books that could touch her memory and fill in some of these great gaps of meaning? Could she learn more about what Leck had done? If she knew what he'd done and why, mightn't it be easier to understand some of the things people were doing now?

  She added to her list two questions: Why are there so many missing pieces everywhere? Will the library hold any answers?

  When Katsa dragged her out of bed for sword practice, Bitterblue found that she'd dragged not just Raffin and Bann, but Giddon and Po along as well. The lot of them waited in Bitterblue's sitting room, picking at her breakfast while she dressed. Giddon, muddy and rumpled in last night's clothing, showed every sign of having been out all night. Collapsing on her sofa, he actually fell asleep for a moment.

  Raffin and Bann stood together, propped against the wall and against each other, half dozing. At one point, Raffin, not knowing he had one small, curious witness, gave Bann a sleepy kiss on the ear.

  Bitterblue had wondered that about them. It was nice when something in the world became clear. Especially when it was a nice thing.

  "THIEL," SHE SAID in her office later that morning. "Do you remember that mad engineer with the watermelons?"

  "You mean Ivan, Lady Queen?" said Thiel.

  "Yes, Ivan. When I was walking back from that murder trial yesterday, Thiel, I overheard a conversation that concerned me. Apparently, Ivan is in charge of the renovation of the east city and is doing a mad, useless job of it. Could we have someone look into that? It sounds as if there's actual danger of buildings collapsing and so on."

  "Oh," said Thiel, then sat down randomly, rubbing his forehead in an absent manner.

  "Are you all right, Thiel?"

  "Forgive me, Lady Queen," he said. "I'm perfectly all right. This Ivan business is a dreadful oversight on our part. We'll see to it immediately."

  "Thank you," she said, looking at him doubtfully. "And will I be going to another High Court case today? Or will it be some new adventure?"

  "There's not much of interest in the High Court today, Lady Queen. Let me see what other extra-office task I can rustle up."

  "That's all right, Thiel."

  "Oh? Have you lost your wanderlust, Lady Queen?" he asked hopefully.

  "No," she said, rising. "I'm going to the library."

  WHEN APPROACHING THE library in the usual manner, one walked into the north vestibule of the great courtyard, then stepped straight through the library doors. The first room, Bitterblue discovered, had ladders that ran on tracks and led to balconied mezzanines connected by bridges. Everywhere, tall bookshelves cut into the window glare like dark tree trunks. Dust hung suspended in shafts of light from the high windows. As she had the night before, Bitterblue turned in circles, sensing the familiarity and trying to remember.

  Why had it been so long since she'd come here? When had she stopped reading, aside from the charters and reports that crossed her desk? When she'd become queen, and her advisers had taken over her education?

  She walked past Death's desk, covered with papers and one sleeping cat, the skinniest, most wretched creature Bitterblue had ever seen. It lifted its hoary head and hissed at her as she passed. "I expect you and Death get along quite well," she said to it.

  Arbitrary steps, one or two here or there, seemed to be part of the library's design. The farther she advanced into the library, the more steps she descended or climbed. The farther into the shelves, the darker and mustier her landscape, until she needed to backtrack and remove a lantern from a wall to light her way. Entering a nook lit by dim lamps stretching from the walls on long arms, she reached up and traced a carving in the wooden end of a bookcase. Then she realized that the carving was a curiously shaped set of letters that spelled out large, floppy words: Stories and Explorations, Monsea's East.

  "Lady Queen?" said a voice behind her.

  She had been thinking of the story rooms, of tales of strange creatures in the mountains. The sneer of her librarian dragged her unceremoniously back into reality. "Death," she said.

  "May I help you find anything, Lady Queen?" Death asked with an attitude of palpable unhelpfulness.

  Bitterblue studied Death's face, his green and purple eyes that glinted with antagonism. "I found a book here," she said, "recently, that I remember reading as a child."

  "That couldn't surprise me less, Lady Queen. Your father and mother both encouraged your presence in the libraries."

  "Did they? Death, have you been the caretaker of this library all my life?"

  "Lady Queen, I have been the caretaker of this library for fifty years."

  "Are there books here that tell about the time of Leck's rule?"

  "Not a one," he said. "Leck kept no records that I know of."

  "All right, then," she said. "Let's focus on
the last eighteen years. How old was I when I used to come here?"

  Death sniffed. "As young as three, Lady Queen."

  "And what kind of books did I read?"

  "Your father directed your studies for the most part, Lady Queen. He presented you with books of every kind. Stories he himself wrote; stories by others; the journals of Monsean explorers; the written appreciation of Monsean art. Some, he wanted you to read most particularly. I would go to great lengths to find them, or him to write them."

  His words flickered like lights just out of her grasp. "Death," she said, "do you recall which books I read?"

  He had begun to dust the volumes on the shelf before him with a handkerchief. "Lady Queen," he said, "I can list them in the order in which you read them, and then I can recite their contents to you, one after the other, word for word."

  "No," Bitterblue said, deciding. "I want to read them myself. Bring the ones he most particularly wanted me to read, Death, in the order he gave me them."

  Perhaps she could find missing pieces by starting with herself.

  IN THE NEXT few days, reading whenever she could, staying in at night and stealing time from her sleep, Bitterblue worked her way fast through a number of books in which pictures outnumbered words. Lots of them, as she reread them, climbed into her and spread to her edges in a way that felt obscurely familiar, as if they were comfortable inside her, as if they remembered being there before; and when this happened, she kept the book in her sitting room for the time being, rather than returning it to the library. Very few of them were as obscure as the Book of True Things. Most were educational. One described, in simple words, on thick, cream colored pages, each of the seven kingdoms. It had a page with a colored illustration of a Lienid ship cresting a wave, from the up- high perspective of a sailor in the riggings—every sailor on the deck below with rings on each hand and studs in each ear, painted with the world's tiniest brush, the paint burnished with real gold. Bitterblue could remember having read it, over and over, and having loved it, as a child.

  Unless it was her own journey on a Lienid ship, fleeing Leck, that touched something comfortable inside her? How frustrating to feel a familiarity yet not be able to trace the feeling back to why. Did this happen to everyone, or was it one of Leck's special bequests? Bitterblue squinted at the empty shelves lining the walls of this room, certain too that when these rooms had been her mother's, the shelves had not been empty. What books had her mother kept on these shelves, and where were they now?

  The library became Bitterblue's default extra-office destination every day for a week, for Rood had no interesting High Court cases to offer and she didn't feel like inspecting the drains with Runnemood, or seeing the rooms where Darby filed paperwork, or whatever other task Thiel suggested.

  She walked into the library on the fourth day to find the cat guarding the entrance. It bared its teeth at the sight of her, its hair standing in a ridge on its back, its ragged coat a mix of blotches and stripes that seemed to sit wrong, somehow, on its body. As if it were wearing a coat that was the wrong shape for it.

  "It's my library, you know," Bitterblue said, stamping her foot. The cat shot away in alarm.

  "Nice cat you have," she said to Death when she reached his desk.

  Death extended a book toward her, dangled between two fingers as if it smelled.

  "What is that?" asked Bitterblue.

  "The next volume in your rereading project, Lady Queen," Death said. "Stories written by your father the king."

  After the briefest hesitation, she took the book from him. Leaving the library, she found herself carrying it in the same manner, some distance from her body, then placing it at the farthest edge of her sitting room table.

  She could only absorb it in small portions. It gave her nightmares, such that she stopped reading it in bed or keeping it at her bedside, as she was wont to do with the other books. His handwriting, with its large, slightly off-kilter letters, was so organically familiar that she had dreams that every word she'd ever read had been written in that handwriting. Dreams too of the veins of her own body standing blue under her skin, turning and looping into that handwriting. But then she had another dream: Leck big like a wall bent over his pages, writing all the time in letters that wound and dipped and, when she tried to read them, weren't actually letters at all. That dream was more than a dream: It was a memory. Bitterblue had thrown her father's strange scribbles into the fire once.

  The stories in the book included the usual nonsense: colorful, flying monsters that tore each other apart. Colorful caged monsters that screamed for blood. But he'd written true stories too. He'd written down stories of Katsa! Of broken necks, broken arms, choppedoff fingers; of the cousin Katsa had killed by accident when she was a child. He'd written them with transparent awe for what Katsa could do. It made Bitterblue shudder to feel his reverence for things Katsa was so ashamed of.

  One of his stories was about a woman with impossible red, gold, and pink hair who controlled people with her venomous mind, living her life forever alone because her power was so hateful. Bitterblue knew this could only be the woman in the hanging in the library, the woman in white. But that woman had no venom in her eyes; that woman wasn't hateful. It calmed Bitterblue to stand before the hanging and gaze at her. Either Leck had described her wrong to the artist or the artist had changed her on purpose.

  When she lay down at night to sleep, sometimes Bitterblue would comfort herself with that other dream she'd had, the night she'd slept in Teddy and Saf 's apartment, about being a baby in her mother's arms.

  A WEEK OF reading went by before she went out into the city again. Bitterblue had been trying to use the reading to get Saf out of her mind. It hadn't really worked. There was something Bitterblue was undecided about, something vaguely alarming, though she wasn't sure what it was.

  When she finally returned to the shop, it wasn't because she'd decided anything; she just couldn't help herself any longer. Staying inside night after night was claustrophobic, she didn't like being out of touch with the night streets, and anyway, she missed Teddy.

  Tilda was working at the press when she arrived. Saf was out, which was a tiny dart of disappointment. In the back room, Bren helped Teddy drink from a bowl of broth. He smiled beatifically at Bren when she caught the dribbles on his chin with a spoon, causing Bitterblue to wonder what feelings Teddy had for Saf 's sister, and whether Bren returned them.

  Bren was gentle, but firm, with Teddy's dinner. "You will eat it," she said flatly when Teddy began to shift and sigh and ignore the spoon. "You need to shave," she said next. "Your beard makes you look like a cadaver." Not particularly romantic words, but they brought a grin to Teddy's face. Bren smiled too, and, rising, kissed his forehead. Then she went to join Tilda in the shop, leaving them alone.

  "Teddy," Bitterblue said to him, "you told me before that you were writing a book of words and a book of truths. I would like to read your book of truths."

  Teddy grinned again. "Truths are dangerous," he said.

  "Then why are you writing them in a book?"

  "To catch them between the pages," said Teddy, "and trap them before they disappear."

  "If they're dangerous, why not let them disappear?"

  "Because when truths disappear, they leave behind blank spaces, and that is also dangerous."

  "You're too poetic for me, Teddy," said Bitterblue, sighing.

  "I'll give you a plainer answer," said Teddy. "I can't let you read my book of truths because I haven't written it yet. It's all in my head."

  "Will you at least tell me what kind of truths it's going to be about? Is it truths of what Leck did? Do you know what he did with all the people he stole?"

  "Sparks," said Teddy, "I think those people are the only ones who know, don't you? And they're gone."

  Voices rose in the shop. The door opened, filling the room with light, and Saf stepped in. "Oh, wonderful," he said, glaring at the bedside tableau. "Has she been feeding you drugs, then asking you

  "I did bring drugs, for you, actually," said Bitterblue, reaching into her pocket. "For your pain."

  "Or as a bribe?" Saf said, disappearing into the small closet that served as a pantry. "I'm ravenous," came his voice, followed by a considerable clatter.

  A moment later, he popped his head out and said with utter sincerity, "Sparks, thank Madlen, all right? And tell her she needs to start charging us. We can pay."

  Bitterblue put her finger to her lips. Teddy was asleep.

  LATER, BITTERBLUE SAT with Saf at the table while he spread cheese on bread. "Let me do that," she said, noticing his gritted teeth.

  "I can manage," he said.

  "So can I," Bitterblue said, "and it doesn't hurt me." In addition to which, it gave her something to do with her hands, something to occupy her attention. She liked Saf too much as he sat there bruised and chewing; she liked being in this room too much, both trusting and not trusting him, both prepared to tell him lies and prepared to tell him the truth. None of what she was feeling was wise.

  She said, "I'd very much like to know what Tilda and Bren are printing in there every night that I'm not allowed to see."

  He held a hand out to her.

  "What?" she asked, suspicious.

  "Give me your hand."

  "Why should I?"

  "Sparks," he said, "what do you think? I'm going to bite you?"

  His hand was broad and calloused, like every sailor's hand she'd ever seen. He wore a ring on every finger—not fine, heavy rings like Po's, not a prince's rings, but true Lienid gold nonetheless, just like the studs in his ears. The Lienid didn't skimp on those things. He'd extended his injured arm, which had to be aching, waiting like that.

  She gave him her hand. He took it in both of his and set to inspecting it with great deliberation, tracing each finger with the tips of his, examining her knuckles, her nails. He lowered his freck led face to her palm and she felt herself held between the heat of his breath and the heat of his skin. She no longer wanted him to give her hand back—but, now he straightened and let her go.

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