Bitterblue, p.21
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       Bitterblue, p.21

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  She ran on.

  TILDA ANSWERED HER knock and pulled her into a room she barely recognized, so full was it of people and noise. Tilda bent down and kissed Bitterblue on the lips, smiling, wearing an ornament in her hair, more like a hat, really, made of hanging, swaying drops of glass.

  "Come kiss Teddy," Tilda said. Or, at least, it was what Bitterblue thought she said, for two young men to her right were singing raucously, arms linked. One of them, seeing Bitterblue, leaned in, pulling the other along, and gave her a peck on the lips. Half of his face was painted with silver glitter, to dazzling effect—he was attractive, they were both attractive—and Bitterblue began to understand that it was going to be an alarming night.

  Tilda led her through the doorway into Teddy and Saf 's apartment, where light blazed on people's jewelry and face glitter, on the golden drinks they held in tumblers. The room was too small for so many people. Bren appeared out of nowhere, took Bitterblue's chin, and kissed her. Flowers were painted all across Bren's cheekbones and down her neck.

  When Bitterblue finally reached Teddy's cot in the corner, she dropped into a chair beside him, breathless, relieved to find him unpainted and dressed just like his usual self. "I suppose I have to kiss you," she said.

  "Indeed," he said cheerily. Pulling on her hand, drawing her near, he gave her a soft and sweet kiss. "Isn't it marvelous?" he said, smacking one last little kiss onto her nose.

  "Well, it's something," said Bitterblue, whose head was spinning.

  "I just love parties," he said.

  "Teddy," she said, noticing the glass in his hand, full of some amber liquid, "should you be drinking that in your condition?"

  "Perhaps not. I'm drunk," he said gleefully, then threw back his glass and held it out to a fellow nearby for a refill. The fellow gave him both a refill and a kiss. Someone took Bitterblue's hand and pulled her up from the chair. Turning, she was kissing Saf.

  It was not like the other kisses, not at all. "Sparks," he whispered into the place beneath her ear, nuzzling her, pulling her hood back, which made her crane her face up and kiss him more. He seemed amenable to more kissing. When it occurred to her that eventually he might stop kissing her, her hands reached to take hold of his shirt and anchor him there, and she bit him.

  "Sparks," he said, grinning, then chuckling, but staying right where he was. His eyelids and the skin around his eyes were painted gold in the shape of a mask, which was startling, and exciting.

  Rough hands yanked them apart.

  "Hello," said a man Bitterblue had never seen before, pale-haired and mean-looking and clearly not sober. He shoved his finger in Saf's face. "I don't think you understand the nature of this holiday, Sapphire."

  "I don't think you understand the nature of our relationship,

  Ander," Saf said with sudden ferocity, then smashed his fist into the other man's face so fast that Bitterblue was left gasping. An instant later, people had grabbed on to both of them and pulled them apart, pulled them away, taken them out of the room, and Bitterblue stood there, dazed and bereft.

  "Lucky," said a voice.

  Teddy was holding his hand out to her from the cot, like a rope to pull her to shore. Going to him numbly, Bitterblue took his hand and sat. After a moment of trying to figure it out on her own, she said, "What just happened?"

  "Oh, Sparks," said Teddy, patting her hand. "Welcome to Sapphire's world."

  "No, seriously, Teddy," she said. "Please don't talk in riddles. What just happened? Was that one of the bullies who like to beat him up?"

  "No," said Teddy, shaking his head ponderously. "That was a different kind of bully. Saf keeps a vast range of bullies on hand at all times. That one seemed to be of the jealous variety."

  "Jealous? Of me?"

  "Well, you're the one who was kissing him in rather a non-holiday manner, weren't you?"

  "But, is that man his—"

  "No," Teddy repeated. "Not now. Unfortunately, Ander is a psychopath. Saf has the most bizarre taste, Sparks, present company excluded, of course, and I really cannot warn you strongly enough against getting involved, but what good will it do?" Teddy flapped his free hand in a gesture of despair, sloshing his drink. "It's clear you're already involved. I'll talk to him. He likes you. Maybe I can get through to him about you."

  "Who else is there?" she heard herself ask.

  Teddy shook his head unhappily. "No one," he said. "But he's not good for you, Sparks, do you understand that? He's not going to marry you."

  "I don't want him to marry me," said Bitterblue.

  "Whatever you want him to do to you," Teddy said flatly, "I beg you to remember that he is reckless." Then, taking another big sip of his drink, he added, "I fear that you're the one who's drunk."

  SHE LEFT THE party with the feeling, physical and painful, that something was unfinished. But there was nothing to be done about it. Saf had not returned.

  Outside, she pulled her hood close, for the night air held a chill and the promise of rain. When she stepped into the graveyard, a shape moved in the shadows. She reached for her knives—then saw that it was Saf.

  "Sparks," he said.

  As he moved toward her, she understood something all at once, something that had to do with his gold, his recklessness, the mad sparkle of his face paint. His aliveness and roughness and realness that reminded her too much, suddenly, of Katsa, of Po, of everyone she loved and fought with and worried about.

  "Sparks," he said breathlessly, stopping before her. "I've been waiting for you so I can apologize. I'm sorry for what I did in there."

  She looked up at him, unable to answer.

  "Sparks," he said. "Why are you crying?"

  "I'm not."

  "I made you cry," he said in distress, closing the space between them and gathering her into a hug. Then he began kissing her and she lost her hold on what had been making her cry.

  It was different this time, because of the silence and because

  they were alone. Standing in the graveyard, they were the only two people on earth. He shifted and began to be more gentle, too gentle, on purpose. He was making her crazy, on purpose, with want, teasing her, she knew it from his smile. Vaguely she was conscious that their clothing was in the way of the kind of touching she wanted.


  He'd murmured something she hadn't heard. "Huh?"

  "Teddy's going to kill me," he said.


  "The thing is, I like you. I know I'm a mess, but I like you."


  "I know you don't trust me."

  Thoughts came slowly. "No," she whispered, understanding, grinning. "You're a thief."

  Now he was smiling too much to kiss properly. "I'll be the thief," he said, "and you can be the liar."


  "You're my liar," he whispered. "Will you tell me a lie, Sparks? Tell me your name."

  "My name," she whispered, began to speak, then caught herself. Froze and stopped kissing him. She'd very nearly said her name aloud. "Saf," she said, jangling with the pain of abruptly, jaggedly becoming conscious. "Wait," she said, gasping. "Wait. Let me think."


  She struggled against his hold; he tried to stop her, then he too came awake and understood. "Sparks?" he said again, releasing her, blinking, confused. "What is it?"

  She stared at him, sober now to what she was doing in this graveyard with a boy who liked her and had no idea who she was. No idea of the magnitude of the lie he was begging her to tell.

  "I have to go," she said, because she needed to be where he couldn't see her comprehension.

  "Now?" he said. "What's wrong? I'll walk with you."

  "No," she said. "I have to go, Saf." She turned and ran.

  NEVER AGAIN. I must never even visit them again, no matter how much I want to.

  Am I mad? Am I positively mad? Look at the kind of queen I am. Look what I would do to one of my own people.

  My father would be pleased with my perfect lie.<
br />
  SHE WAS BEYOND any care as she ran with her hood low, beyond taking notice of anything around her. And so she was woefully unprepared when a person reared out of a dark doorway just outside the castle and clamped a hand to her mouth.


  TRAINING KICKED IN. Bitterblue did what Katsa had taught her and dropped like a stone, surprising her assailant with her sudden weight, then connecting her elbow to some soft part of a torso. The person lost his balance and she fell with him, scrabbling for her knives, cursing, shouting, gasping. And then a small cart parked across the street transformed into something with shrouded arms and legs that burst toward them, flapping, swinging, knife flashing, chasing her assailant away.

  Bitterblue lay in the gutter where she'd been flung, stunned, slowly realizing that she was alone. What in the skies just happened?

  Shoving herself to her feet, she assessed the damage. Aching head and shoulder and ankle. But nothing broken or unworking. When she touched her stinging forehead, blood came away on her fingers.

  Paying much greater attention now, she ran the rest of the way to the castle and, once inside, set out to find Po.

  HE WAS NOT in his rooms.

  Katsa's rooms seemed particularly far away in the dead of night. By the time Bitterblue got there, her head was splitting with pain and consumed with a specific question: Had the person who attacked her known whom he was attacking, or had it been a random attack on a stranger? And if he had known, what had he known? Had he thought himself to be attacking the queen, or merely the queen's spy? Or perhaps a miscellaneous friend of Saf and Teddy's? Had their struggle on the ground elucidated her identity to him? She had not recognized him. Nor had she heard him speak, so she couldn't say if he was Monsean. She knew nothing at all.

  Bitterblue tapped Katsa's door.

  The door shot open partway and Katsa slammed herself into the crack, torso wrapped in a sheet, eyes glaring, bare shoulders blocking ingress.

  "Oh, hello," she said, letting the door go. "What happened? Are you all right?"

  "I need Po," Bitterblue said. "Is he awake?"

  The door swung open to reveal the bed, where Po lay sleeping. "He's exhausted," said Katsa. "What happened, sweetheart?" she asked again.

  "Someone attacked me outside the castle," Bitterblue said.

  Katsa's eyes blazed blue and green and Po sat up in bed like a mechanical doll. "What is it?" he said blearily. "Wildcat? Is it morning?"

  "It's the middle of the night and Bitterblue's been attacked," Katsa said.

  "Seas," Po said, launching himself out of bed, dragging his sheet with him, knotting it around his waist and blundering back and forth like he was still half asleep. His bruised face looked thoroughly disreputable. "Who? Where? Which street? Did they speak with an accent? Are you all right? You seem all right. Which way did they go?"

  "I don't even know if the attack was meant for me or for the spy I was pretending to be," Bitterblue said. "Nor do I know who it was. It was no one I recognized and he didn't speak. But I believe that the Graceling was there, Po. Holt's niece, with the Grace of disguise. I believe she may have come to my aid."

  "Ah," Po said, going still all of a sudden, then placing his hands on his hips and taking on a bizarre expression. A sort of studied nonchalance.

  "Holt's niece?" Katsa said, peering at Po, puzzled. "Hava? What about her? And why do you have sparkly stuff all over your face, Bitterblue?"

  "Oh." Bitterblue found a chair and sat, rubbing randomly at the paint she couldn't see on her face, the entire unhappy night flowing into her at once. "Don't ask me about the paint while Po is here, Katsa, please," she said, fighting tears. "The paint is private. It has nothing to do with the attack."

  Katsa seemed to understand this. Going to a side table, she poured water into a bowl. Then, kneeling, she stroked Bitterblue's face with the soft cloth and cool water, patted her stinging forehead. This gentleness was too much. Big, seeping tears began to run down Bitterblue's cheeks, which Katsa accepted in stride, patting them away.

  "Po," Katsa said in a measured voice, "why are you standing there trying to look innocent? What's going on with Hava?"

  "I am innocent," Po said indignantly. "A week or so ago I met her, is all."

  "Ah," said Bitterblue, Po's perfect comprehension of the Holtsculpture debacle last night finally making sense. "You're friends with my kidnapper. Lovely."

  "She was in the castle sneaking around," Po went on, waving this away, "trying to visit Holt. I sensed her pretending to be a sculpture in one of the hallways and apprehended her. We had a little chat. I trust her. She was very out of the loop that day with Danzhol, Bitterblue. She didn't realize, until it all happened, that he'd been intending to go so far as to kidnap you. She feels awful about it. Anyway, she agreed to spend some time in the wee hours of the morning keeping an eye out for your safety. I worry that she hasn't contacted me," he added, rubbing his face with both palms, "because I asked her to get in touch if anything ever happened. How far from the castle did the attack take place, Bitterblue? I can't find her anywhere outside."

  "Get in touch how?" Katsa asked, absently passing the cloth to Bitterblue.

  "It was near to the east wall," Bitterblue said, "not in view of it, but one street beyond. What exactly are you doing, asking her to keep an eye out for me, Po? She's a wanted fugitive! And does this mean you've told her I go out nights?"

  "How was she supposed to get in touch with you?" Katsa asked.

  "I told you," Po said to Bitterblue, "I trust her."

  "Then trust her with your secrets, not mine! Po! Tell me she doesn't know!"

  "Po," Katsa said, in such a strange voice that both Po and Bitterblue stopped, turning to look at her. She had backed away nearly to the door and wrapped her bare arms around her sheet dress, as if she were cold. "Po," she said again, "how was Hava to get in touch with you? Was she to come knocking on our doors?"

  "What do you mean?" he asked; then swallowed; then rubbed the back of his neck, looking uncomfortable.

  "How," Katsa said, "did you explain to her that you knew she was a person, not a sculpture?"

  "You're jumping to conclusions," Po said.

  Katsa stared at Po with an expression on her face Bitterblue didn't often see. The look of a person who's been punched in the gut. "Po," Katsa whispered. "She's a total stranger. We don't know the first thing about her."

  Hands on hips, head hanging, Po blew a breath of air at the floor. "I don't need your permission," he said, rather helplessly.

  "But you're being reckless, Po. And devious! You made a promise that you would tell me whenever you decided to tell someone new. Don't you remember?"

  "Telling you would have meant fighting a war with you about it, Katsa. I should be able to decide about my own secrets without having to go into battle with you every single time!"

  "But if you've changed your mind about a promise," Katsa said desperately, "you must tell me. Otherwise, you're breaking the promise, and I'm left feeling that you've lied. How is it that I should need to explain this to you? This is the sort of thing you usually have to explain to me!"

  "You know what?" said Po suddenly, forcefully. "I can't do this with you around. I can't work through this thing when I know every moment how much it frightens you!"

  "If you imagine that I'm going to leave you while you're in this mind-set—"

  "You have to leave. It's been agreed. You go north to look for the tunnel to Estill."

  "I won't go. None of us will! If you're determined to ruin your own life, at least your friends will be here for you when it happens!"

  Katsa was yelling now; they were both yelling, and Bitterblue had made herself small in her chair, flinching at the terrible noise, clutching the damp cloth to her chest with both hands. "Ruin my life?" Po cried. "Perhaps I'm trying to save my life!"

  "Save your life? You—"

  "Remember the deal, Katsa. If you won't leave, then I will, and you'll let me go!"

  Katsa was holding th
e door handle, her fingers so tight that Bitterblue half expected the handle to snap off. Katsa stared at Po for a long time, saying nothing.

  "You were leaving anyway," Po said quietly, taking a step toward her, reaching out a hand. "Love. You were leaving, and then you were going to come back. That's all I need right now. I need time."

  "Don't come any closer," Katsa said. "No. Don't say any more," as he opened his mouth again to speak. A tear slid down Katsa's face. "I understand you," she said, "completely." And she pulled on the door, slipped through the crack, and was gone.

  "Where is she going?" Bitterblue asked, startled. "She's not dressed."

  Po sank onto the bed. Dropping his head into his hands, he said, "She's going north to search for the tunnel to Estill."

  "Now? But she has no supplies! She's wearing a sheet!"

  "I've located Hava," he said roughly. "She's hiding in the art gallery. She has blood on her hands and she's telling me that your attacker is dead. I'll get dressed and go up to her to see what she knows."

  "Po! Will you let Katsa go like this?"

  He made no response. She understood, from the tears he was trying to hide from her, that he had no wish to discuss it.

  Bitterblue watched him for a moment. Then, going to him, she touched his hair. "I love you, Po," she said. "Whatever you do."

  Then she left.

  A LAMP WAS lit in her sitting room. The blue of the room was swallowed in darkness and a silver sword lay gleaming on the table, seeming to hold all the light.

  Beside it was a note.

  Lady Queen,

  It's been decided I must leave for Estill in the morning, but I wanted to deliver this from Ornik first. I hope you're as pleased with it as I am and will have no cause to use it while I'm gone. I'm sorry I won't be around to help you with your various puzzles.

  Yours, Giddon

  Bitterblue lifted the sword. It was a solid shaft, weighty and wellbalanced, well-fitted to her hand, her arm. Simple in design, dazzling in the darkness. Ornik did well, she thought, holding it aloft. I could have used it tonight.

  In her bedroom, Bitterblue made a place for the sword and belt on her bedside table. The mirror showed her a girl with a scrape on her forehead, raw and ugly; a girl who was tear-stained, paint-smudged, chap-lipped, messy-haired. All that she'd done tonight was visible on her face. She almost couldn't believe that the morning had started with her dream, her visit to Madlen. That only last night, she'd run with Saf across the city roofs and learned about the truth killers. Now Katsa was gone, on her way to some tunnel. Giddon was soon to leave too, and Raffin and Bann. How did so much happen in so little time?

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