Bitterblue, p.22
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       Bitterblue, p.22

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  Saf.

  Her mother's embroidery, happy fish and snowflakes and castles in their rows, boats and anchors, the sun and stars, filled Bitterblue with loneliness. Before she even laid herself down properly, she was asleep.

  IN THE MORNING, both Thiel and Runnemood were quite taken aback by the scrape on her forehead. Thiel, in particular, acted as if her head were hanging on by a mere thread, until she snapped at him to take hold of himself. Runnemood, seated in the window as usual, pushed his hand through his hair, jeweled rings glinting, eyes glinting. He would not stop staring at her. Bitterblue got the feeling that when she told him the scrape was from practice with Katsa, he didn't believe her.

  When Darby came bounding in, sober, bright-eyed, and alarmed that the queen should exhibit something as dreadful as a scratch, Bitterblue decided it was high time to take a break from her tower. "Library," she said in response to Runnemood's inquiring eyebrow. "Don't get your pants in a knot. I won't stay long."

  Making her way down the spiral steps, leaning on the wall to steady herself, Bitterblue changed her mind. She wasn't spending much time in her High Court these days. There never seemed to be anything interesting going on. But today, she'd like to sit with her judges for just a short while, even if it meant gritting her teeth through a tedious boundary dispute or some such. She'd like to look into their faces and measure their manners, get a feel for whether any of those eight powerful men might be the type to silence the city's truthseekers.

  The city's truthseekers. Whenever she touched them with her thoughts today, her heart was a bright burst of sadness and shame.

  When she walked into the High Court, a trial had already begun. At the sight of her, the entire court stood. "Catch me up," she said to the clerk as she crossed the dais to her chair.

  "Accused of murder in the first degree, Lady Queen," said the clerk briskly. "Monsean name, Birch; Lienid name, Sapphire. Sapphire Birch."

  Her mouth had dropped open and her eyes had whipped to the accused before her brain had even processed what it was hearing. Frozen, Bitterblue stared into the bruised, bloody, and utterly dumbfounded face of Sapphire.

  20

  BITTERBLUE COULD NOT breathe and, for a moment, she saw stars.

  Turning her back to the judges, the floor, the gallery, she stumbled in confusion to the table behind the dais where supplies were kept and where the clerks stood, so that as few people as possible would see her confusion. Clinging to the table so that she wouldn't fall, she reached for a pen, touched it to ink, blotted. She pretended to be jotting something down, something of dire importance that she'd just remembered. She had never held a pen so hard.

  When her lungs seemed to be accepting air again, she said, almost whispering, "Who hurt him?"

  "If you'll sit, Lady Queen," said the voice of Lord Piper, "we'll put the question to the accused."

  Carefully, Bitterblue turned to face the standing court. "Tell me," she said, "this instant, who hurt him."

  "Hmm," Piper said, scrutinizing her in puzzlement. "The accused will answer the queen's inquiry."

  A moment of silence. She didn't want to look at Saf again but it was impossible not to. His mouth was a bloody gash and one eye was swollen almost shut. His coat, so familiar to her, was rent at one of the shoulder seams and spattered with dried blood. "The Monsean Guard hurt me," he said, then stopped, then added, "Lady Queen." Then, "Lady Queen," he repeated in bafflement. "Lady Queen."

  "That will do," Piper said sternly.

  "Lady Queen," Saf said again, suddenly falling into his chair, giggling hysterically, and adding, "How could you?"

  "The queen is not the one who hit you," Piper snapped, "and if she had, it would not be yours to question. Stand up, man. Show respect!"

  "No," Bitterblue said. "Every single person here, sit."

  A suspended moment of silence followed. Then, hastily, hundreds of people sat. She spotted Bren in the audience, golden-haired, tight-faced, sitting four or five rows behind her brother. She caught Bren's eye. Bren stared back at her with a look like she wanted to spit in Bitterblue's face. And now Bitterblue was thinking of Teddy, at home in his cot. Teddy would be so disappointed in her when he heard this truth.

  Holding tight to her own fingers, Bitterblue moved to her seat and also sat; then jumped up, startled; then sat again, this time not on her own sword. Po. Can you hear me? Will you come? Oh, come quickly!

  Keeping a channel open to Po but directing her attention to the large guard presence in the prisoner's hold with Saf, she said, "Which of you soldiers would care to explain the Monsean Guard's abuse of this man?"

  One of the soldiers stood, squinting at her through two impressively bruised eye sockets. "Lady Queen," he said, "I am the captain of this unit. The prisoner resisted arrest, to the extent that one of our men is in the infirmary with a broken arm. We wouldn't have touched him otherwise."

  "You little bitch," Saf said wonderingly.

  "Don't!" Bitterblue yelled, rising, extending a finger at the guard, who'd drawn a fist back to strike Saf again. "I don't care what he calls you," she said to the guard, knowing perfectly well whom Saf had meant. "There will be no striking of prisoners, except in selfdefense." Oh, Po, he's not making this easy. If he starts telling the truth, I don't know what I'll do. Pretend he's insane? Insanity won't help to free him. And everyone was half standing again, which made her want to scream. Dropping into her seat once more, she said, "What evidence have I missed? Who's he supposed to have murdered?"

  "An engineer in the east city named Ivan, Lady Queen," Piper said.

  "Ivan! The one who built the bridges and stole the watermelons? He's dead?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen. That Ivan."

  "When did it happen?"

  "Two nights ago, Lady Queen," said Piper.

  "Two nights ago," Bitterblue repeated, then understood what that meant. Her eyes bored into Piper's. "The night before last night? At what time?"

  "Just before midnight, Lady Queen, under the clock tower on Monster Bridge. There is a witness who saw everything. The hour struck moments later."

  Her heart sinking into her boots, into the floor, into the earth beneath her castle, Bitterblue forced herself to look at Saf. And yes, of course he stared back at her with crossed arms and a nasty, twisted smirk to his broken mouth, for Saf knew perfectly well that just before midnight the night before last, he'd been holding her hands on the roof of the shop, answering her third question, and keeping her from feeling that she would fall off the face of the earth. He'd tossed her his watch to comfort her height sickness. They'd heard the clock chime together. Oh, Po, I don't understand what's happening here. Someone is lying. What am I to do? If I tell the truth, my advisers will know I've been sneaking out, and I can't bear them knowing, I just can't, they'll never trust me again, they'll fight me on everything, they'll try to control me. And the whole kingdom will speculate about whether I'm having a secret affair with a Lienid sailor who's a thief. I'll lose my credibility with everyone. I'll shame myself and everyone who supports me. What do I do? What's the way out of this?

  Where are you?

  You don't hear me, do you. You're not coming.

  "The accused has offered an alibi, Lady Queen," Piper continued. "He claims to have been stargazing with a friend on his roof. He further claims that his friend lives in the castle but that he doesn't know the friend's true identity. Perversely, he then refuses to describe the friend for us so that we might produce him. Which is all in the way of saying that he has no alibi at all."

  Which is all in the way of saying that even when faced with the charge of murder, Saf protects the secrets of the people he considers to be friends. Even when he doesn't have the privilege of knowing those secrets himself.

  Saf 's expression hadn't changed, except to grow harder, tighter, more bitterly amused. She saw no softness for herself there. The softness had been for Sparks, and Sparks was gone now.

  Po. I have no choice.

  Bitterblue rose and said, "Ever
yone remain seated." She couldn't control her trembling. To stop herself from hugging her own arms, she took hold of her sword hilt. Then she looked into Saf 's face and said, "I know his companion's true name."

  The doors at the back of the courtroom crashed open and Po exploded through so forcefully that the audience spun around on their benches, craning to see what the ruckus was. Standing in the center aisle, himself bruised and gasping, Po called up to Bitterblue, "Cousin! Sticky door you've got there!" Then he pretended to pass his eyes over the people in the room. What followed was the most masterly impression of shocked recognition that Bitterblue had ever seen. Po's body went still and his face registered perfect amazement. "Saf," he said. "Great seas, is that you? You're not accused of something, are you?"

  Bitterblue's relief was premature, she knew that. Still, it was the only emotion she could feel as she fell into her chair. She wasn't going to say a thing until she understood exactly what Po was up to, other than, perhaps, the single word Piper, so that Piper would know to run through the charges against Saf once more and Po could go through the dramatics of pretending to be astonished and appalled.

  "But, this is extraordinary," Po said, walking up the aisle, coming alongside the prisoner's hold, where Saf sat gaping at Po as if Po were a dancing bear that had just jumped out of a cake. In one easy motion, Po swung himself over the gate, pushed through Saf 's startled, rising guards, and took Saf 's shoulder. "Why are you protecting me, man? Don't you know what happens to murderers in Monsea? Lady Queen, he didn't murder that man. He was on the roof that night, just as he says, and I was with him."

  THANK YOU, PO. Thank you. Thank you.

  She was like the paper glider she'd watched Po fling into the wall. She thought she might slide right off the edge of her chair and crumple onto the floor.

  A furious argument had begun between Po and her judges.

  "My business is none of your business," Po said flatly when Lord Quall asked, with a smarmy smile, why he'd been stargazing on a roof with a sailor in the east city at midnight. "Nor does it have anything to do with whether Saf is innocent or guilty." And later, "What do you mean, how long have I been friends with him? Haven't you asked him?" I don't know if they've asked him, Bitterblue thought to him; but apparently Po had already determined that they hadn't—which was lucky—for he continued without missing a beat. "We met for the first time that night. Can you wonder that I fell in talking with him? Look at him! I don't ignore my own people!"

  Don't draw any more attention to him than you need to, Po. He's not coping well. For if Po's apparent surprise at finding his new best friend on trial for murder was well acted, it paled in comparison to Saf 's confoundedness at finding the Graceling prince of Lienid at his side, knowing who he was, claiming to be his friend, knowing obscure details about his whereabouts two nights ago, and lying to the High Court on his behalf.

  Quall asked Po if he could furnish any other witnesses.

  Po took a step to the front of the hold. "Am I on trial here? Perhaps you think the two of us killed the man together."

  "Naturally not, Lord Prince," said Quall. "But you'll understand our hesitation in trusting a Lienid Graceling who claims to have no Grace."

  "When have I ever claimed to have no Grace?"

  "Not you, of course, Lord Prince. The accused."

  Po spun back to Saf. "Saf? Did you tell these judges that you have no Grace?"

  Saf swallowed. "No, Lord Prince," he whispered. "I only claimed not to know my Grace, Lord Prince."

  "You do perceive the difference?" Po asked, rather sarcastically, turning back to Quall.

  "And still, it's certain that the accused lied, Lord Prince, for he also claimed not to know your true identity."

  "It's obvious he lied to protect me and my business," Po said impatiently. "He is loyal to a fault."

  "My Prince," Saf piped up miserably, "I would rather be convicted of a crime I didn't commit than put you in jeopardy."

  Oh, finish this, Po, please, thought Bitterblue. I cannot bear how pathetic he is.

  And then Po shot Bitterblue the briefest of sardonic expressions. Bitterblue, hardly able to believe it, studied Saf more closely. Surely his humility wasn't an act? Could Saf act in a moment like this?

  "He is proud of lying!" Quall said triumphantly.

  Bitterblue had given up on identifying the authenticity of anyone's emotions. She only knew that Po seemed genuinely fed up with Quall. Swinging himself over the gate of the hold—not quite as smoothly as he had before—he came to stand before the dais. "What is your problem?" he asked Quall. "Do you doubt the truth of my testimony?"

  Quall worked his mouth. "Not at all, Lord Prince."

  "Then you acknowledge that he must be innocent; but still, you can't let it go. Why don't you like him? Is it because he's Graced? Or might it be because he's Lienid?"

  "He's a funny sort of Lienid," said Quall, with a touch of contempt that suggested some personal disregard.

  "To your eyes, perhaps," Po said coolly, "but he would not be wearing those rings or that gold in his ears if the Lienid didn't consider him to be Lienid. Many Lienid look just like him. While your Monsean king was murdering people indiscriminately, our Lienid king was opening his arms to Gracelings seeking freedom. A Lienid is the reason your queen is alive today. Her Lienid mother had a mind stronger than any of the rest of you. Your Monsean king killed my father's Lienid sister. Your own queen is half Lienid!"

  Po, Bitterblue thought, beginning to be thoroughly confused. We're getting off course here, don't you think?

  "Your Monsean witness is the one who's a criminal liar," Po said, extending his hand toward a broad, handsome man in the first row of the audience.

  Po! No one's told you which one is the witness! Bitterblue jumped to her feet so that everyone would have to focus on figuring out whether to rise or remain seated, rather than on Po's strange perceptiveness. Pull yourself together, she snapped at him. "Arrest the witness," she snapped at the guards around Sapphire, "and release the accused from the hold. He's free to go."

  "He did break the arm of a member of the Monsean Guard, Lady Queen," Piper reminded her.

  "Who was arresting him for a murder he didn't commit!"

  "Nonetheless, Lady Queen, I don't believe we can tolerate behavior like that. He also lied to the court."

  "I sentence him to the black eye and bloody mouth he already has," Bitterblue said, gazing at Piper squarely. "Unless every one of you objects to that, he's free to go."

  Piper cleared his throat. "That's acceptable to me, Lady Queen."

  "Very well," Bitterblue said. She turned and, without another glance at Saf or Po or any of the gaping audience, marched to the exit at the back of the dais.

  Po, don't let him get away. Bring him somewhere where I can talk to him privately. Bring him to my rooms.

  21

  WHEN BITTERBLUE BURST into her sitting room, Fox was polishing the royal crown.

  "Shall I come back later, Lady Queen?" she asked, with one glance at the queen.

  "No. Yes. No," said Bitterblue, a bit wildly. "Where is Helda?"

  "Lady Queen?" Helda's voice came from the doorway behind her. "What on earth is the matter?"

  "Helda," said Bitterblue, "I did something terrible. Don't let anyone in but Po and whoever he brings, all right? I can't talk to anyone else."

  "Of course, Lady Queen," said Helda. "What happened?"

  Bitterblue began to pace. She couldn't begin to explain. To get away from the need to do so, she waved her hands hopelessly, then pushed past Helda to the foyer and her bedroom and shut the door. Inside, she commenced pacing again, her sword slamming against her leg every time she turned.

  Where is Po? Why must they take so long?

  Not certain when or how she'd crossed the room, she found herself bent over her mother's chest, clinging to its edges. The figures carved into its lid blurred with her tears.

  Then the door opened and Bitterblue scrambled to her feet, turned, trip
ped, sat down hard on the trunk. Po came in and shut the door behind him.

  "Where is he?" Bitterblue asked.

  "In your sitting room," Po said. "I've asked Helda and that girl to step out. Is there any way I can convince you not to do this now? He's had an awful lot thrown at him and no time to absorb it."

  "I need to explain."

  "I really think that if you gave him some time—"

  "I promise I'll give him cartloads of time, after I explain."

  "Bitterblue—"

  Bitterblue stood, swept toward Po, and stopped before him, chin raised, staring at him.

  "Yes, all right," Po said, rubbing his face with both ring-covered hands, defeated. "I'm not leaving," he added flatly.

  "Po—"

  "Be as queeny as you like, Bitterblue. He's angry, he's hurt; he's clever and slippery; this morning he broke someone's arm. I will not leave you alone in these rooms with him."

  "Can't you just extract some sort of Lienid oath of honor from him or something?" she shot at him sarcastically.

  "I already have," Po said. "I'm still not leaving." Marching to the bed, he sat, crossing legs and arms.

  Bitterblue watched him for a moment, knowing that she was releasing feelings of one kind or another to him, not knowing herself exactly what they were. Managing, through some heroic effort of will, to contain how much she wished he would get past this addleheaded crisis about his Grace. Po said, "That ass Quall on your High Court hates the Lienid. He tells himself he thinks that we're inbred, over-muscled simpletons, but really what bothers him is that, in his opinion, we're better looking than he is. There's no logic to it, either, for he's lumped Saf into it, even though, as he himself pointed out, Saf doesn't look Lienid. He's jealous of how well Saf and I look in our gold. Can you believe that? If he could've convicted us both of murder and taken our freedom away by virtue of that alone, he would have. He kept trying to imagine us without it."

 

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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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