Bitterblue, p.18
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       Bitterblue, p.18

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  She sent a burst of unpleasantness to Po. You realize he puts himself into danger alongside you, don't you? Shouldn't he know the skills his partner possesses? Do you think he won't find out one day? Or that when he does, he won't mind? Then she dropped her head into her hands and gripped her hair.

  "Lady Queen," Giddon said. "Are you all right?"

  She was not all right; she was having a crisis that had nothing to do with Po's lies and only with her own. "Giddon," she said, "I'm going to try an experiment on you that I've never tried on anyone else."

  "Very well," he said good-humoredly. "Should I wear a helmet?"

  "Maybe," she said, grinning, "if Katsa ever announces that she's trying an experiment. I only meant that I'd like to have someone I never lie to. From now on, you're it. I won't even equivocate to you. I'll either tell you the truth or say nothing at all."

  "Huh," said Giddon, scratching his head. "I'll have to think up a lot of nosy questions."

  "Don't push your luck. I wouldn't even try this if you were in the habit of asking me nosy questions. It also helps that you're not my adviser, my cousin, or my servant; you're not even Monsean, so you've no imaginary moral obligation to interfere with my business. Nor do I think you'll run off and tell Po all I say."

  "Or even think about telling Po all you say," Giddon said, his tone so perfectly nonchalant that it raised hairs on the back of her neck. Po, she thought, shivering, for goodness sake. Tell him what he already knows.

  "For what it's worth, Lady Queen," Giddon continued quietly, "I understand that your trust is a gift, not something I've earned. I promise to guard faithfully, as secret, anything you choose to tell me."

  Flustered, she said, "Thank you, Giddon," then sat there, playing with the ties of The Kissing Traditions of Monsea, knowing that she ought to get up, that Runnemood was stewing somewhere, that Thiel was probably working too hard to deal with the paperwork she had abandoned. "Giddon," she said.

  "Yes, Lady Queen?"

  Trust is stupid, she thought. What's the true reason I've decided I trust him? Certainly his Council work recommends him, his choice of friends. But isn't it just as much the timbre of his voice? I like to hear him say words. I trust the deep way he says "Yes, Lady Queen."

  She made a noise that was part snort, part sigh. Then, before she could ask her question, Runnemood stalked in from the grand foyer, saw her, and crossed to her.

  "Lady Queen," he said sharply, crowding her, so that she had to crane her neck to look up at him. "You have been spending an inordinate percentage of each workday away from your desk."

  He was looking quite sure of himself today, thrusting his jewelringed fingers through dark hair. Runnemood's hair showed no signs of thinning. "Have I?" Bitterblue said warily.

  "I'm afraid I am a less indulgent man than Thiel," said Runnemood, flashing a smile. "Both Darby and Rood are indisposed today, yet I return from the city to find you chatting with friends and dabbling with dusty old manuscripts in a patch of sun. Thiel and I are quite overwhelmed with the work you're neglecting, Lady Queen. Do you take my meaning?"

  Passing The Kissing Traditions to Giddon, Bitterblue stood, so that Runnemood had to jump backward in order to avoid them colliding. She took not just his meaning, but his condescending tone, and it was the tone that offended her. Nor did she like the way his eyes played over the books Giddon was holding, not as if he truly believed them to be harmless, dusty old manuscripts; more as if he were trying to assess each one and disliking all that he saw.

  She wanted to tell him that a trained dog could do the work she was neglecting. She wanted to tell him that she knew somehow, in some way she could neither justify nor explain, that this time she spent outside her office was just as important to the kingdom as the work she did in her tower with charters, orders, and laws. But some instinct told her to protect these thoughts from him. To protect these books Giddon was guarding against his chest.

  "Runnemood," she said instead, "I hear you're supposed to be good at manipulating people. Try a little harder to make me like you, all right? I'm the queen. Your life will be nicer if I like you."

  She had the satisfaction of Runnemood's surprise. He stood with his eyebrows high and his mouth forming a small O. It was pleasant to see him looking silly, pleasant to see him struggling to regain his dignified scorn. Finally, he simply stalked away into the castle.

  Bitterblue sat down again beside Giddon, who seemed to be having some trouble subduing an amused expression.

  "I was about to ask you something unpleasant," Bitterblue said, "when he came along."

  "Lady Queen," he said, still fighting with his face, "I'm all yours."

  "Can you think of a reason why Leck would have chosen four healers as his advisers?"

  Giddon thought about this for a moment. "Well," he said. "Yes."

  "Go on," she said miserably. "It's nothing I'm not already thinking."

  "Well," said Giddon again, "Leck is well known for his behavior with his animals. Cutting them, letting them heal, then cutting them again. What if he liked to hurt people, then let them heal? If it was a part of the way he liked to conduct his politics—as sick as it sounds—then it would've made sense for him to have had healers at his side all the time."

  "They've lied to me, you know," whispered Bitterblue. "They've told me they don't know the secret things he did, but if they were mending his victims, then they saw, plainly, what he did."

  Giddon paused. "Some things are too painful to talk about, Lady Queen," he said quietly.

  "I know," she said. "Giddon, I know. Asking would be unpardonably cruel. But how can I help anyone now if I don't understand what happened then? I need the truth, don't you see?"


  IT WAS SAF who came barreling straight at her in an alleyway that night, Saf, who, gasping, grabbed her and hoisted her through some sort of broken doorway into a rank-smelling room and smashed her against a wall; Saf, who, through the entire enterprise, whispered to her fiercely, "Sparks, it's me, it's me, I beg you, don't hurt me, it's me"—but still, she'd whipped her knives out and also kneed him in the groin before she'd entirely comprehended what was happening.

  "Arrhhlglm," he said, more or less, doubling over, still crushing her.

  "What the high skies are you doing?" Bitterblue hissed, trying to wriggle out of his grip.

  "If they find us," he said, "they're going to kill us, so shut your mouth."

  Bitterblue was shaking, not just from her own shock and confusion, but from fear of what she could have done to him in those first moments, had he provided her with room to drive a knife. Then footsteps slapped in the alley outside and she forgot all that.

  The footsteps pattered past the broken doorway, continued on, slowed. Stopped. When they reversed direction, creeping back toward the building where they hid, Saf swore in her ear. "I know a place," he said, hauling her across the dark room. When a low, deep, living exhalation of breath nearby caused her to jump nearly out of her wits, he whispered, "Climb." Bewildered, she groped forward and discovered a ladder. The smell of the place made sense to her suddenly. This was a barn of some sort, the thing that had breathed was a cow, and Saf wanted her to climb.

  "Climb," he repeated when she hesitated, pushing her forward. "Go!"

  Bitterblue reached up, took an iron grip, and climbed. Don't think, she said to herself. Don't feel. Just climb. She couldn't see where she was headed or how many rungs were left to climb. Nor could she see how high she'd gone so far, and she imagined only empty space below her.

  Saf, at her heels, finally scuttled up around her and spoke low in her ear. "You don't like ladders."

  "In the dark," she said, humiliated. "In the—"

  "All right," he said. "Quick," and then he hoisted her up, turning her so that he was carrying her like a child, front to front. She wrapped her arms and legs around him as if he were the earth's pillar, because there did not seem to be any other alternative. He sped up the ladder. It was only when he lowered her onto som
e sort of solid ground that she was able to contemplate her outrage. And then there was no more time for that, because he was pulling her across what she suddenly recognized as a roof. He was pushing her up onto the higher roof of a higher building, and tugging her, running, they were swarming up a tinny, slippery slant, over an apex, down its opposite side, then down onto another roof, then up onto another and another.

  He dragged her up the slant of the sixth or seventh roof to an adjoining wall and crouched against the siding. She dropped beside him, pressing up against the beautiful, solid wall, shaking.

  "I hate you," she said. "I hate you."

  "I know," he said. "I'm sorry."

  "I'm going to kill you," she said. "I'm going—"

  She was going to vomit. She turned her back to him, lopsided on her knees across the roof, hands clinging to slippery tin, trying to push the sourness down. A minute passed in which she successfully managed not to throw up. Miserably, she said, "How do we get down from here?"

  "This is the shop," he said. "We step right through that window there into Bren and Tilda's bedroom. No more ladders, I promise. All right?"

  The shop. Taking a gulp of air, she found that the tin of the roof seemed less like it was trying to buck her off. Shifting carefully, so that her back was to the wall, she sat, adjusting the Kissing Traditions manuscript, which was hanging in a bag across her front. Then she glanced over at Sapphire. He lay on his back, dark in profile, knees bent, considering the sky. She caught the faintest gleam in one of his ears.

  "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I'm not rational about heights."

  He tilted his head to her. "No worries, Sparks. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. Mathematics?" he suggested brightly, perking up, then reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a gold disc she recognized. "Here," he said, tossing the heavy watch into her lap. "Tell me what time it is."

  "I thought you were supposed to return this to the family of the watchmaker," said Bitterblue.

  "Ah," he said, looking sheepish. "I was, and no doubt I will. It's just, I'm rather fond of that one."

  "Fond of it," said Bitterblue, snorting. She opened the watch, read a time of half past fourteen, sat in an empty room with the numbers for a moment, then announced to Saf that it would be midnight in twenty-four minutes.

  "It seems that the whole city got started early tonight," said Saf to that, dryly.

  "I assume they didn't hear us? We wouldn't be sitting here stargazing if they were still after us, would we?"

  "I threw a few chickens around before I came up that ladder," he said. "You didn't hear them making a racket?"

  "I was distracted by the conviction that I was going to die."

  A smile. "Well, they covered our noise, and the dogs were awake too by the time we reached the roof, which is what I was counting on. No one will have gotten past the dogs."

  "You know that barn."

  "It belongs to a friend. It was where I was headed when you appeared."

  "I very nearly stuck a knife into you."

  "Yes, I recall. I should've left you there in the alley. You could've driven them off for me all by yourself."

  "Who were they? It wasn't just bullies this time, was it, Saf? It was the people who tried to kill Teddy."

  "Let's talk about what's in the bag you're carrying tonight instead," said Saf, propping one ankle on the other knee and yawning at the stars. "Did you bring me a present?"

  "I did, actually," she said. "It's something to prove that if you'll help me, I can help you."

  "Oh? Bring it here, then."

  "If you think I'm leaving this spot, you're mad."

  He rolled to his feet on the uneven tin so fast, so easily, that she closed her eyes against the dizziness. When she opened them again, he'd settled down beside her, leaning his back against the wall, as she was doing.

  "Perhaps your Grace is fearlessness," she said.

  "I'm afraid of plenty of things," he said. "I just do them anyway. Let me see what you've got."

  She extracted The Kissing Traditions of Monsea from the bag and placed it into his hands. He blinked at it. "Papers bound in leather?"

  "It's something for you to make lots of copies of," she said. "A manuscript of a book called The Kissing Traditions of Monsea."

  Humphing in surprise, he brought it closer to his nose to inspect the label in the dark.

  "It was handwritten by the queen's own librarian," Bitterblue continued, "who's Graced with fast reading and with remembering every book and sentence and word—every letter—he's ever read. Did you know of his Grace?"

  "We have heard of Death," Saf said, pulling the leather ties loose, throwing the leather flaps aside and flipping through the pages, squinting hard. "Are you telling me truth? This is what you say it is—and Death is rewriting the books King Leck made disappear?"

  She thought that perhaps Sparks the baker girl wouldn't know too much about the business of the queen's own librarian. "I don't know what Death is doing. I don't know him personally. This was lent me by the friend of a friend. Death relinquished it only because he was promised that the person who wanted it was a printer who would make copies. Those are the conditions, Saf. You may borrow it, if you'll make copies. Death will see that you're paid for your labor and expenses, of course," she added, cursing herself for thinking up that sudden complication, but not certain how she could avoid it. It couldn't be cheap to print a book, and she couldn't expect them to finance the restoration of the queen's library, could she? Would it be so outlandish for a baker girl who'd never met Death to be the courier of the queen's money? And did this mean she was going to have to pawn more of her own jewelry?

  "Sparks," Saf said. "Tie me with twine and mail me to Ror City. If this really is what you say it is—let's bring it down to the shop, shall we? I'm going blind here."

  "Yes, all right," she said, "but . . ."

  He looked up from the pages into her face. His eyes were black and full of stars. "I never wished I was a mind reader before I knew you," he said. "You know that, Sparks? What is it?"

  "I'm frightened to move," she said, ashamed of herself.

  "Sparks," Saf said. Then he slapped the Kissing Traditions manuscript shut and took hold of both of her small, cold hands. "Sparks," he said again, looking into her eyes, "I'll help you. I swear to you, you will not fall. Do you believe me?"

  She did believe him. There on a roof with his familiar silhouette, his voice, all the things about him she was used to, holding tight to his hands, she believed him completely. "I'm ready to ask my third question," she said.

  He exhaled. "Oh, weaselbugger," he said grimly.

  "Who's trying to kill you and Teddy?" she asked. "Saf, I'm on your side. Tonight, I became their target too. Just tell me. Who is it?"

  Saf didn't answer, just sat there, playing with her hands. She thought he wasn't going to answer. Then, as the moments passed, she stopped caring so much, because his touch began to seem more important than her question.

  "There are people in the kingdom who are truthseekers," he finally said. "Not many people, but a few. People like Teddy and Tilda and Bren—people whose families were in the resistance and who place the highest value on knowing the truth of things. Leck is dead now, but there's still so much truth to uncover. That's their business, you understand, Sparks? They're trying to help people figure out what happened, sometimes reassemble memories. Return what Leck stole, and, when they can, undo what Leck did, through thievery, through education—however they can."

  "You too," Bitterblue interjected. "You keep saying 'they,' but it's you too."

  Saf shrugged. "I came to Monsea to know my sister better, and this is who my sister turned out to be. I like my friends here and I like to steal. While I'm here, I'll help. But I'm Lienid, Sparks. It's not my cause."

  "Prince Po would be disgusted with that attitude."

  "If Prince Po told me to fall off the earth, Sparks, I would," said Saf. "I told you. I'm Lienid."

make no sense whatsoever!"

  "Oh?" said Saf, pulling on her hands, grinning wickedly. "And you do?"

  Flustered, Bitterblue said nothing, just waited.

  "There's a force in the kingdom working against us, Sparks," said Saf quietly. "The truth is that I can't answer your question, because we don't know who it is. But someone knows what we're doing. There's someone out there who hates us and will go to any length to stop us and people like us. Remember the new grave I found you standing in front of that night in the graveyard? That was our colleague, stabbed to death in broad daylight by a hired killer who's in no state to tell us who hired him. Our people are murdered. Or sometimes they're framed for crimes they didn't commit and get thrown into prison, where we'll never see them again."

  "Saf!" Bitterblue said, appalled. "Are you serious about this? Are you sure?"

  "Teddy was stabbed and you're asking me if I'm sure?"

  "But, why? Why would someone go to so much trouble?"

  "For silence," Saf said. "Is it really so surprising? Everyone wants silence. Everyone is happy forgetting Leck ever hurt anyone and pretending Monsea was born, fully formed, eight years ago. If they can't get their own heads to be silent, they go to the story rooms, get drunk, and start a fight."

  "That's not why people go to the story rooms," Bitterblue protested.

  "Oh, Sparks," Saf said, sighing, tugging at her hands. "It's not why you, I, or the fablers go to the story rooms. You go to hear the stories. Other people go to drown out the stories with drink. Remember, you asked me before why lists of stolen items make their way to us instead of to the queen? Often it's because no one ever even thinks about cataloging their losses until someone like Teddy comes around and suggests it. People aren't thinking. They want silence. The queen wants silence. And someone out there needs silence, Sparks. Someone out there is killing for it."

  "Why haven't you taken this to the queen?" asked Bitterblue, trying to swallow the distress in her voice so that he wouldn't sense its extent. "People murdering people to silence the truth are breaking the law. Why haven't you taken your case to the queen!"

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