Bitterblue, p.17
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       Bitterblue, p.17

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  SHE WENT TO the library next, stopping in her rooms to glare at her list of puzzle pieces. Snatching it out of the strange picture book and reading it again, she supposed that the list was a sort of cipher too, in the sense that each part of it meant something it wasn't saying yet. Fighting tears and fed up with worry, fed up with people who made no sense and lied, she wrote "BALLS" in big letters across the bottom, a general expression of dissatisfaction with the state of all things. It could be a cipher, and "balls" could be the key. Wouldn't that be blessedly simple?

  Po, she thought as she stomped away to the library, the list clenched in her hand. Are you around? I have questions for you.

  In the library, no one was at Death's desk except for the cat, curled tight in a ball, every vertebra sharp and visible. Bitterblue gave it a wide berth. Wandering room to room, she finally found Death standing between two rows of shelves, using a blank shelf before him as a desk for his furious scribbling. Pages and pages. He came to the end of one page, lifted the paper, shook it around to dry the ink, and pushed it aside, his writing hand already zipping across the next page before the last was disposed of. She almost couldn't believe how fast he was writing. He came to the end of that page and began another without pause. At the end of that page he began the next, then dropped his pen suddenly and stood with eyes closed, massaging his hand.

  Bitterblue cleared her throat. Death jumped, flashing wide, uneven eyes at her. "Ah, Lady Queen," he said, not unlike the way someone checking a hole in an apple might say, "Ah, worms."

  "Death," Bitterblue said, waving her list at him, "I have a list of questions. I want to know if you, as my librarian, know the answers or how to find them."

  Death looked thoroughly put out by this, as if she weren't asking him to do his precise job. He continued rubbing his hand, which she hoped was in an agony of cramps. Finally, wordlessly, he reached out and snatched the paper from her.

  "Hey!" Bitterblue said, startled. "Give that back!"

  He glanced at it front and back, then returned it to her, not even looking at her, not seeming to look at anything, brow creased in thought. Bitterblue, remembering with alarm that once Death read something, he would recall it forever and never need to refer to it again, reread both sides of the paper herself, trying to assess the damage.

  "A number of these questions, Lady Queen," Death said, still peering into empty air, "are a bit general, wouldn't you say? For example, the question 'Why is everybody crackpots?' and the question about why you're plagued by missing pieces everywhere—"

  "That's not what I've come to you about," said Bitterblue testily. "I want to know if you know anything about what Leck did, and who, if anyone, is lying to me."

  "Regarding the middle question, about man's reasons for stealing a gargoyle, Lady Queen," Death continued, "criminality is a natural form of human expression. We are all part light and part shadow—"

  "Death," Bitterblue interrupted. "Stop wasting my time."

  "Is 'BALLS' a question, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue was now dangerously on the verge of doing something she would never forgive herself for: laughing. She bit her lip and changed her tone. "Why did you give me that map?"

  "Map, Lady Queen?"

  "The little, soft leather one," said Bitterblue. "Why, when your work is so important and can bear no interruption, did you make a special trip to my office to deliver that map?"

  "Because Prince Po asked me to, Lady Queen," said Death.

  "I see," Bitterblue said. "And?"

  "And, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue waited patiently, holding his eyes.

  Finally, he relented. "I have no idea who might be lying to you, Lady Queen. I have no reason to think that anyone would, beyond that it is a thing people do. And if you're asking me what King Leck did in secret, Lady Queen, you would know better than I. You spent more time with him than I did."

  "I don't know his secrets."

  "Nor do I, Lady Queen, and I've already told you that I know of no records he kept. Nor do I know of records kept by anyone else."

  She didn't like to give Death the satisfaction of knowing he'd caused her disappointment. She tried to turn away before he could see it in her face.

  "I can answer your first question, Lady Queen," he said to her back.

  Bitterblue stopped in her tracks. The first question was Who are my "first men"?

  "The question refers, quite conspicuously, to the words written on the back of your list, doesn't it, Lady Queen?"

  Teddy's words. "Yes," said Bitterblue, turning to face him again.

  "'I suppose the little queen is safe without you today, for her first men can do what you would,'" Death recited. "'Once you learn cutting and stitching, do you ever forget it, whatever comes between? Even if Leck comes between? I worry for her. It's my dream that the queen be a truthseeker, but not if it makes her someone's prey.' Were these words addressed to one of your healers, Lady Queen?"

  "They were," whispered Bitterblue.

  "May I assume then, Lady Queen, that you are unaware that forty-some years ago, before Leck came to power, your advisers Thiel, Darby, Runnemood, and Rood were brilliant young healers?"

  "Healers! Trained healers?"

  "Then Leck murdered the old king and queen," Death went on, "crowned himself, and made the healers part of his advising team— perhaps 'coming between' the men and their medical profession, if you will, Lady Queen. These words seem to suggest that a healer some forty years ago is still a healer today, rendering you safe in the company of your 'first men,' your advisers, Lady Queen, even when your official healers are unavailable."

  "How do you know this about my advisers?"

  "It's not a secret, Lady Queen, to anyone who can remember. My memory is aided by medical pamphlets in this library, written long ago by Thiel, Darby, Runnemood, and Rood, when they were students of the healing arts. I gather that they were, all four of them, considered to be stellar prospects, very young."

  Bitterblue's mind was full of the memory of Rood and Thiel, moments ago, both staring at Thiel's wound. Full of her argument with Thiel, who'd first claimed to have dealt with the injury himself and then claimed to have brought it to a healer for stitching.

  Could both claims have been true? He wouldn't have stitched it himself, would he? And then hidden his skill from her, as he had done for as long as she could remember?

  "My advisers were healers," she said aloud, suddenly deflated. "Why would Leck choose healers to be his political advisers?"

  "I haven't the foggiest notion," Death said impatiently. "I only know that he did. Do you wish to read the medical pamphlets, Lady Queen?"

  "Yes, all right," she said with no enthusiasm.

  Po appeared through the bookshelves then, carrying the cat and, of all things, making smooching noises into its crooked fur. "Death," he said, "Lovejoy is smelling excellent today. Did you bathe him?"

  "Lovejoy?" Bitterblue repeated, staring at Death incredulously. "The cat's name is Lovejoy? Could you have named him anything more ironic?"

  Death made a small, scornful noise. Then he took Lovejoy gently from Po's arms, scooped his papers up, and marched away.

  "You shouldn't insult a man's cat," said Po mildly.

  Ignoring this, Bitterblue rubbed her braids. "Po," she said. "Thank you for coming. May I use you?"

  "Possibly," said Po. "What do you have in mind?"

  "Two questions," Bitterblue said, "for two people."

  "Yes?" said Po. "Holt?"

  Bitterblue let out a short sigh. "I want to know what's wrong with him. Will you ask him why he was perched in my tower window today, and see what you think of his answer?"

  "I suppose," said Po. "Perched how, exactly?"

  Bitterblue opened the memory to Po.

  "Hm," he said. "That is very odd, indeed." Then his eyes flashed at her, gentle lights. "You're not certain what question you want me to ask Thiel."

  "No," she admitted. "I'm at a bit of a loss with Thiel. I'm finding
him unpredictable. He's rattled too easily, and today he had the most horrific cut on his arm that he wouldn't be straight with me about."

  "I can tell you he cares for you deeply, Beetle. But if you're finding yourself with actual reason to doubt his trustworthiness, I'll ask him an entire book of questions, whether you want me to or not."

  "It's not that I don't trust him," said Bitterblue, frowning. "It's that he worries me, but I'm not sure why."

  Po removed a small sack from his pocket and held it open to her. She reached in and pulled out a chocolate peppermint.

  "I've learned that Danzhol had family and connections in Estill, Beetle," said Po, rocking on his heels and also eating a peppermint. "What do you think of that?"

  "I think he's dead," Bitterblue said dully. "I think it doesn't matter."

  "It does matter," said Po. "If he was thinking of selling you to someone in Estill, it means you have enemies in Estill, and that matters."

  "Yes," said Bitterblue, sighing again. "I know."

  "You know, but you don't care."

  "I care, Po. It's just, I've got other things to worry about as well. If you wouldn't mind . . ."

  "Yes?"

  "Ask Thiel why he's limping."

  15

  THE NEXT DAY, Bitterblue found evidence of her usefulness to give to Saf.

  She was in the library—again—wondering how many more times she could abandon her office for this alcove before her advisers lost their patience completely. On the alcove table were 244 handwritten manuscripts, stacked in towering piles, each manuscript enclosed in a soft leather wrapping and tied with soft leather strings. Under the ties of each book, Death had tucked a card with scribbles that indicated the book's title, author, date of first printing, date of destruction, and date of restoration. Bitterblue moved the manuscripts around, pushing and re-piling and lugging, reading all the titles. Books about Monsean customs and traditions, Monsean holidays, recent Monsean history pre-Leck. Books by philosophers who argued the merits of monarchy versus republic. Books about medicine. An odd little biographical volume about a number of Gracelings who were famous for having concealed their true Graces from the world, until their truths were discovered.

  It was hard to know where to start. Hard because I don't know what I'm looking for, she thought, in the very moment that she found something. Not a big, mysterious something, just a small thing, but important, and she gaped at it, hardly believing she'd found it at all. The Kissing Traditions of Monsea.

  That title had been on the list Saf had shown her, the list of items

  he was trying to recover for the people of Danzhol. And here that book was, sitting before her, returned to life.

  I may as well take a look, she thought, unwinding the leather ties. Clearing a space in a patch of sunlight, she sat down and began to read.

  "LADY QUEEN."

  Bitterblue jumped. She'd been absorbed in a description of Monsea's four celebrations of darkness and light: the equinoxes in spring and fall and the solstices in winter and summer. Bitterblue was used to a party around the time of the winter solstice to celebrate the return of the light, but apparently, before the time of Leck, all four occasions had been times of festival in Monsea. People had used to dress up in bright clothing, decorate their faces with paint, and, traditionally, kiss everybody. Bitterblue's imagination had snagged itself on the kissing everybody part. It was less than delightful to look up into Death's sour face.

  "Yes?" she said.

  "I regret that I am unable to lend you the medical pamphlets written by your advisers after all, Lady Queen," he said.

  "Why not?"

  "They are missing, Lady Queen," he said, enunciating each syllable.

  "Missing! What do you mean?"

  "I mean that they're not on the shelves where they belong, Lady Queen," he said, "and now I shall have to take time away from my more important work to locate them."

  "Hm," Bitterblue said, suddenly not trusting him. Perhaps the pamphlets had never existed. Perhaps Death had read her list of puzzle pieces and made up the entire tale for his own amusement. She certainly hoped not, since he claimed to be restoring—accurately—truths Leck had erased.

  * * * * *

  THE NEXT TIME Death interrupted her, Bitterblue had dozed off, her cheek pillowed on The Kissing Traditions.

  "Lady Queen?"

  Gasping, Bitterblue shot upright too fast, so that a muscle in her neck pulled and tightened. Ow. Where—

  She'd been dreaming. As she woke, the dream fled, as dreams do, and she grabbed at it: her mother, embroidering, reading. Doing both at once? No, Ashen had been embroidering, her fingers like lightning, while Bitterblue had read aloud from a book Ashen had chosen, a difficult book, but fascinating in the moments that Bitterblue understood it. Until Leck had found them sitting together and asked about the book, listened to Bitterblue's explanation, then laughed and kissed Bitterblue's cheek and neck and throat and taken the book away and thrown it into the fire.

  Yes. Now she remembered the destruction of The Book of Ciphers.

  Bitterblue wiped at her throat, which felt dirty. She massaged the sore knot of muscle in her neck, slightly drunk with departing sleep and with the sense that she wasn't entirely attached to the earth. "What is it now, Death?"

  "Pardon me for interrupting your nap, Lady Queen," he said, looking down his nose.

  "Oh, don't be a twit, Death."

  Death cleared his throat noisily. "Lady Queen," he said. "Is the rereading of your childhood books a project you still wish to pursue? If so, I have here a collection of tall tales about fabulous medical recoveries."

  "From my father?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue sat up straight and shuffled through the manuscripts

  on the table, looking for the two books about medicine that Death had rewritten. The rewritten books were not tall tales, but factual. "And so, he obliterated some medical books from existence but encouraged me to read others?"

  "If it exists in my mind, Lady Queen," Death said, offended, "then it is not obliterated."

  "Of course," she said, sighing. "Very well. I'll find time for it. What time is it now? I'd better go back to my office, before they come looking for me."

  But when Bitterblue stepped into the great courtyard, she saw Giddon sitting on the edge of the pool, hands propped on knees. He was talking easily to a woman who seemed to be shaping the rump of a rearing shrubbery horse with shears. Dyan, the head gardener. Not far from them, Fox dangled from the high limbs of a tree, pruning the flowering ivy, dropping a shower of dark, overripe petals. "Fox," said Bitterblue, walking over with a pile of books and papers in her arms, craning her neck. "You work everywhere, don't you?"

  "Wherever I'm useful, Lady Queen," said Fox, blinking down at her with those uneven gray eyes, her hair bright against the leaves. She smiled.

  The green horse Dyan was working on rose from the bases of two shrubberies planted close together. Flowering ivy swirled across its rearing chest and trailed down its legs. "No, don't get up," Bitterblue said to Dyan and Giddon as she reached them, but Giddon already had, holding out a hand to help her with her armload. "Very well— here," she said, passing him the two medical rewrites and the reread, then sitting so that she could bind the pages of The Kissing Traditions safely back into their leather cover. "Are the shrubberies your design, Dyan?" she asked, glancing at the horse, which really was rather impressive.

  "They were the design of King Leck's gardener, Lady Queen," Dyan said shortly, "and of King Leck himself. I merely maintain them."

  "You were not King Leck's gardener?"

  "My father was King Leck's gardener, Lady Queen. My father is dead," Dyan said, then gave an oof as she rose and stumped across the courtyard to a man-shaped shrubbery with flowering blue hair.

  "Well," Bitterblue said to Giddon, a bit deflated. "It's always nice to hear of someone new one's father has murdered."

  "She was rude to you," said Giddon apologetically, si
tting back down beside her.

  "I hope I didn't interrupt anything."

  "No, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "I was only telling her about my home."

  "You come from the grasslands of the Middluns, don't you, Giddon?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen, west of Randa City."

  "Is it very nice, your home?"

  "I think so, Lady Queen. It's my favorite patch of land in all seven kingdoms," he said, leaning back, beginning to smile.

  His face was transformed and quite suddenly, the more pleasant traditions of Monsea's light festivals came to her mind. She wondered if Giddon shared a woman's bed here at court, or a man's. Flushing now, she asked hastily, "How is your planning going?"

  "It's coming along," Giddon said, pitching his voice low, directing his eyebrows significantly to where Fox was still pruning. The noise of the fountain muffled his voice. "We're going to send someone through Piper's tunnel to make contact with the Estillan rebels who asked for our help. And there may be a second tunnel that leads to a place near one of Thigpen's army bases in the eastern Estillan mountains. One of us is going to see if that tunnel is a reality. It's been poked at from both ends, but no one seems to have followed it all the way through from one end to the other."

  "Katsa?" said Bitterblue. "Or Po?"

  "Katsa will search for the second tunnel," said Giddon. "Po or I will head through the first tunnel to make contact. More likely, we'll both go together."

  "Is Po going to be a bit conspicuous, appearing suddenly in Estill, meeting with commoners and asking pointed questions? He's a bit of a glowing Lienid peacock, isn't he?"

  "Po is impossible to disguise," he said. "But he also has a knack for sneaking around. And he's oddly good at getting people talking," he added, with something significant in his voice that made Bitterblue watch her hands for a beat, rather than his eyes, afraid of what her own eyes might convey.

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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