Bitterblue, p.16
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       Bitterblue, p.16

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  Somehow, she managed to inject sarcasm into her question. "What's wrong with you?"

  He grinned. "You've got ink under your fingernails, baker girl," he said, "not flour. Your hand smells like ink. It's too bad," he said. "If your hand smelled like flour, I was going to tell you what we're printing."

  Bitterblue snorted. "Your lies aren't usually so obvious."

  "Sparks, I don't lie to you."

  "Oh? You were never going to tell me what you're printing."

  He grinned. "And your hand was never going to smell like flour."

  "Of course not, when I made the bread some twenty hours ago!"

  "What are the ingredients of bread, Sparks?"

  "What is your Grace?" Bitterblue countered.

  "Oh, now you're just hurting my feelings," said Saf, not looking remotely hurt about anything. "I've said it before and I'll say it again: I do not tell you lies."

  "That doesn't mean you tell the truth."

  Saf leaned back comfortably, smiling, cradling his injured forearm and chewing on more bread. "Why don't you tell me who you work for?"

  "Why don't you tell me who attacked Teddy?"

  "Tell me who you work for, Sparks."

  "Saf," Bitterblue said, beginning to be sad and frustrated about all the lies and wanting very much, suddenly, to get past his willfulness that was keeping her questions from being answered. "I work for myself. I work alone, Saf, I deal in knowledge and truth and I have contacts and power. I don't trust you, but it doesn't matter; I don't believe that anything you're doing could make us enemies. I want your knowledge. Share what you know with me and I'll help you. We could be a team."

  "If you think I'm going to jump at a vague offer like that, I'm insulted."

  "I'll bring you proof," Bitterblue said, with no idea what she meant by it, but certain, desperately, that she would figure it out. "I'll prove to you that I can help you. I've helped you before, haven't I?"

  "I don't believe you work alone," Saf said, "but I'm corked if I can place who you work for. Is your mother part of this? Does she know you come out at nights?"

  Bitterblue thought about how to answer that. Finally, she said in a sort of a hopeless voice, "If she knew, I'm not sure what she would think."

  Sapphire considered her for a moment, the purples of his eyes soft and clear. She considered him in return, then looked away, wishing she weren't so conscious of certain people sometimes, people who were more alive to her, somehow, more breathing, more invigorating, than other people. "Do you suppose that if you bring proof that we can trust you," Saf said, "you and I will start having conversations that move in straight lines?"

  Bitterblue smiled.

  Grabbing another handful of food, shooting to his feet, Saf cocked his head at the shop door. "I'll walk you home."

  "There's no need."

  "Think of it as my payment for the medicines, Sparks," he said, bouncing on his heels. "I'll deliver you safely to your mother."

  His energy, and his words, too often, brought to mind things she wanted and couldn't have. She had nothing left to argue with.

  * * * * *

  IT WAS A great relief to leave Leck's stories behind and move on to the journals of Grella, the ancient Monsean explorer. The volume she was reading was called Grella's Harrowing Journey to the Source of the XXXXXX, and the name of the river, clearly the Dell by context, was obliterated every time it appeared. Odd.

  She entered the library one day in mid-September to find Death scribbling at his desk, the cat glaring at his elbow. As Bitterblue stopped before them, Death pushed something toward her without looking up.

  "The next book?" she asked.

  "What else would it be, Lady Queen?"

  The reason she'd asked was that the volume appeared to be not a book but a stack of papers, wrapped in a length of rough leather, tied shut. Now she read the card secured under its leather tie: The Book of Ciphers.

  "Oh!" Bitterblue said, the hairs of her body suddenly standing on end. "I remember that book. Did my father really give it to me?"

  "No, Lady Queen," said Death. "I thought you might like to read a volume your mother chose for you."

  "Yes!" Bitterblue said, unfastening the ties. "I remember that I read this with my mother. 'It will keep our minds sharp,' she said. But—" Bitterblue flipped through the loose, handwritten pages, confused. "This is not the book we read. That book had a dark cover and was typeset. What is this? I don't know the handwriting."

  "It is my handwriting, Lady Queen," said Death, not looking up from his work.

  "Why? Are you the author?"

  "No."

  "Then why—"

  "I have been rewriting, by hand, the books King Leck burned, Lady Queen."

  Something tightened in Bitterblue's throat. "Leck burned books?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  "From this library?"

  "Yes, and other libraries, Lady Queen, and private collections. Once he'd decided to destroy a book, he sought out every copy."

  "What books?"

  "A variety. Books on history, the philosophy of monarchy, medicine—"

  "He burned books about medicine?"

  "A select few, Lady Queen. And books on Monsean tradition—"

  "Such as burying the dead instead of burning."

  Death managed to combine his nod with a frown, thus maintaining, in agreement, the appropriate level of disagreeableness. "Yes, Lady Queen."

  "And books on ciphers that I read with my mother."

  "It would seem so, Lady Queen."

  "How many books?"

  "How many books what, Lady Queen?"

  "How many books did he destroy!"

  "Four thousand thirty-one unique titles, Lady Queen," Death said crisply. "Tens of thousands of individual volumes."

  "Skies," Bitterblue said, breathless. "And how many have you managed to rewrite?"

  "Two hundred forty-five titles, Lady Queen," he said, "over the past eight years."

  245, out of 4,031? She calculated: just over six percent; some thirty books a year. It meant that Death took an entire book down by hand, more than an entire book, every two weeks, which was a mammoth feat, but it was absurd; he needed help. He needed a row of printers at nine or ten presses. He needed to recite ten different books at once, feeding each typesetter one page at a time. Or, one sentence? How fast could a setter lay down type? How fast could someone like Bren or Tilda print multiple copies and move to the next page? And—oh, this was dreadful. What if Death took ill? What if he died? There were . . . 3,786 books that existed nowhere, no place but in the Graceling mind of this man. Was he getting enough sleep? Did he eat well? How old was he? At this rate, it was a project that would take him . . . over 120 years!

  Death was speaking again. With effort, she pulled her thoughts back. "In addition to the books King Leck obliterated," he was saying, "he also forced me to alter one thousand four hundred fortyfive titles, Lady Queen, removing or replacing words, sentences, passages he considered objectionable. The rectification of such errors waits until I've completed my current, more urgent project."

  "Of course," Bitterblue said, barely hearing, progressing unstoppably to the conviction that no books in the kingdom were more important for her to read right now than the 245 that Death had rewritten, 245 books that had offended Leck so deeply that he'd destroyed them. It could only be because they'd contained the truth, about something. About anything; it didn't matter. She needed to read them.

  "Grella's Harrowing Journey to the Source of the River XXXXXX," she added, suddenly realizing. "Leck forced you to cross out the word Dell throughout."

  "No, Lady Queen. He forced me to cross out the word Silver."

  "Silver? But the book is about the River Dell. I recognize the geography."

  "The true name of the River Dell is the River Silver, Lady Queen," Death said.

  Bitterblue stared at him, not comprehending. "But, everyone calls it the Dell!"

  "Yes," he said. "Thanks to Leck, almos
t everyone does. They are wrong."

  She leaned both hands against the desk, too overwhelmed, suddenly, to stand without support. "Death," she said with her eyes closed.

  "Yes, Lady Queen?" he asked impatiently.

  "Are you familiar with the library alcove that has a hanging of a red-haired woman and a sculpture of a child turning into a castle?"

  "Of course, Lady Queen."

  "I want a table moved into that alcove, and I want you to pile all the volumes you've rewritten on that table. I wish to read them and I wish that to be my workspace."

  Bitterblue left the library, holding the cipher manuscript tight to her chest as if it might not actually be real. As if, if she stopped pressing it to herself, it might disappear.

  14

  THERE WAS LITTLE information in The Book of Ciphers that Bitterblue didn't already know. She wasn't sure if this was because she remembered it from reading it before or simply because ciphers, of various kinds, were part of her daily life. Her personal correspondence with Ror, Skye, with her Council friends, even with Helda was routinely ciphered. She had a mind for it.

  The Book of Ciphers seemed to be a history of ciphers through time, beginning with the Sunderan king's secretary, centuries ago, who'd noticed one day that the unique designs in the molding along the wall of his office numbered twenty-eight, as did the letters in the alphabet at that time. This led to the world's first simple substitution cipher, one design assigned to each letter of the alphabet—and worked successfully for only as long as it took someone to notice the way the king's secretary stared at the walls while writing. Next came the notion of a scrambled alphabet that substituted for the real alphabet, and which required a key for decipherment. This was the method Bitterblue used with Helda. Take the key SALTED CARAMEL. First, one removed any repeating letters from the key, which left S A L T E D C R M. Then, one continued forward with the known twenty-six-letter alphabet from the place where the key left off, skipping any letters that had already been used, starting again at A once one had reached Z. The resulting alphabet, S A L T E D C R M N O P Q U V W X Y Z B F G H I J K, became the alphabet for use in writing the ciphered message, like so—

  —such that the secret missive "A letter has arrived from Lady Katsa," became "S P E B B E Y R S Z S Y Y M G E T D Y V Q P S T J O S B Z S."

  Bitterblue's ciphers with Ror began with a similar premise but operated on a number of levels simultaneously, several different alphabets in use in the course of one message, the total number in use and the order in which they were used depending on a changing series of keys. Communicating these keys to Bitterblue in a subtle manner only she would understand was one of the jobs of Skye's own ciphered letters.

  Bitterblue was astonished—utterly—at Death's Grace. She supposed she'd never quite considered before what Death could do. Now she held it in her hands: the regeneration of a book that introduced some ten or twelve different kinds of ciphers, presenting examples of each, some of which were dreadfully complicated in execution, most of which looked to the reader like nothing more than a senseless string of random letters. Does he understand everything he reads? Or is it just the look of the thing he remembers—the symbols, and how they sit on the page in relation to each other?

  There seemed to be little in this rewritten book worth study

  ing. And still, she read every line, letting each one linger, trying to resurrect the memory of sitting before the fire with Ashen, reading this book.

  WHEN SHE COULD make the time, Bitterblue continued her nightly excursions. By mid-September Teddy was doing better, sitting up, even moving from room to room, with help. One night, when nothing was being printed, Teddy let Bitterblue come into the shop and taught her how to set type. The tiny letter molds were awkward to manage.

  "You pick it up quickly," Teddy mused as she fought with an i that would not land base side down in the tray.

  "Don't flatter me. My fingers are clumsy as sausages."

  "True, but you have no trouble spelling words backwards with backward letters. Tilda, Bren, and Saf have good fingers, but they're always transposing letters and mixing up the ones that mirror each other. You haven't once."

  Bitterblue shrugged, fingers moving faster now with letters that had a bit more heft, m's and o's and w's. "It's like writing in cipher. Some part of my brain goes quiet and translates for me."

  "Write in cipher much, do you, baker girl?" Saf asked, coming through the outside door, startling her, so that she dropped a w in the wrong place. "The castle kitchen's secret recipes?"

  ON A MORNING a week later, Bitterblue climbed the stairs to her tower, entered, and found her guard Holt standing balanced inside the frame of an open window. His back to the room, he leaned out, nothing but a casual handhold on the molding keeping him from falling.

  "Holt!" she cried, convinced, in that first irrational moment, that

  someone had fallen out the window and Holt was looking down at the body. "What happened?"

  "Oh, nothing, Lady Queen," Holt said calmly.

  "Nothing?" Bitterblue cried. "You're certain? Where is everyone?"

  "Thiel is downstairs somewhere," he said, still leaning perilously out of the window, speaking loudly, but evenly, so that she could hear. "Darby is drunk. Runnemood is in the city having meetings and Rood is consulting with the judges of the High Court about their schedule."

  "But—" Bitterblue's heart was trying to hammer its way out of her chest. She wanted to go to him and yank him back into the room, but she was afraid that if she got too close, she would touch him in the wrong way and send him plummeting. "Holt! Get down from there! What are you doing?"

  "I was just wondering what would happen, Lady Queen," he said, still leaning out.

  "You come back into this room this instant," she said.

  Shrugging, Holt stepped down onto the floor, just as Thiel pushed into the room. "What is it?" Thiel asked sharply, looking from Bitterblue to Holt. "What's going on here?"

  "What do you mean," said Bitterblue, ignoring Thiel, "you were wondering what would happen?"

  "Don't you ever wonder what would happen if you jumped out a high window, Lady Queen?" asked Holt.

  "No," cried Bitterblue, "I don't wonder what would happen! I know what would happen. My body would be crushed to death. Yours would too. Your Grace is strength, Holt, nothing else!"

  "I wasn't planning to jump, Lady Queen," he said with a nonchalance that was beginning to make her furious. "I only wanted to see what would happen."

  "Holt," said Bitterblue through gritted teeth. "I forbid you, absolutely forbid you, to climb into any more window frames and look down, wondering what would happen. Do you understand me?"

  "Honestly," said Thiel, going to Holt and grabbing his collar, then pushing Holt to the door in a manner that was almost comical, as Holt was bigger than Thiel, almost twenty years younger, and enormously stronger. But Holt just shrugged again, making no protest. "Pull yourself together, man," said Thiel. "Stop giving the queen frights." Then he opened the door and shoved Holt through it.

  "Are you all right, Lady Queen?" said Thiel, slamming the door shut, turning back to her.

  "I don't understand anyone," Bitterblue said miserably, "or anything. Thiel, how am I to be queen in a kingdom of crackpots?"

  "Indeed, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "That was an extraordinary display." Then he picked up a pile of charters from his stand, dropped them on the floor, picked them up again, and handed them to her with a grim face and shaking hands.

  "Thiel?" Bitterblue said, seeing a bandage peeking out of one sleeve. "What did you do to yourself?"

  "It's nothing, Lady Queen," he said. "Just a cut."

  "Did someone competent look at it?"

  "It doesn't warrant a healer, Lady Queen. I dealt with it myself."

  "I'd like Madlen to examine it. It might need stitches."

  "It needs nothing."

  "That's a question for a healer to decide, Thiel."

  Thiel made himself tall and straight
. "A healer has already stitched it, Lady Queen," he said sternly.

  "Well, then! Why did you tell me you'd dealt with it yourself?"

  "I dealt with it by bringing it to a healer."

  "I don't believe you. Show me the stitches."

  "Lady Queen—"

  "Rood," Bitterblue snapped at her white-haired adviser who'd just entered the room, puffing from the effort of the stairs. "Help Thiel unwrap his bandage so that I may see his stitches."

  Not a little confused, Rood did as he was told. A moment later, the three of them gazed down upon a long, diagonal slice across Thiel's inner wrist and the base of his hand, neatly stitched.

  "How did you do this?" Rood asked, clearly shaken.

  "A broken mirror," Thiel said flatly.

  "A wound like this left unattended would be quite serious," Rood said.

  "This particular wound is rather over-attended," said Thiel. "Now, if you'll both allow me, there is much to do."

  "Thiel," Bitterblue said quickly, wanting to keep him here beside her, but not knowing how. Would a question about the name of the river make things better or worse? "The name of the river," she ventured.

  "Yes, Lady Queen?" he said.

  She studied him for a moment, searching for an opening in the fortress of his face, the steel traps of his eyes, and finding nothing but a strange, personal misery. Rood put a hand on Thiel's shoulder and made tut-tut noises. Shaking him off, Thiel went to his stand. She noticed now that he was limping.

  "Thiel?" said Bitterblue. She'd ask something else.

  "Yes, Lady Queen?" whispered Thiel with his back to her.

  "Would you happen to know the ingredients of bread?"

  After a moment, Thiel turned to face her. "A yeast of some kind, Lady Queen," he said, "as a leavening agent. Flour, which is, I believe, the ingredient with the largest share. Water or milk," he said, gaining confidence. "Perhaps salt? Shall I find you a recipe, Lady Queen?"

  "Yes, please, Thiel."

  Thiel went off to find Bitterblue a recipe for bread, which was a ridiculous task for the queen's foremost adviser. Watching him as he limped through the door, she noticed that his hair was thinning on top. She'd never noticed that about him before, and it was somehow unbearable. She could remember Thiel dark-haired. She could remember him bossy and confident; she could also remember him broken and crying, confused, bleeding, on her mother's floor. She could remember Thiel a lot of ways, but she had never thought of him before as a man growing old.

 

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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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