Bitterblue, p.23
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       Bitterblue, p.23

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Without . . . your freedom?"

  "Without our gold," Po said. "I'll stay in here while you talk to Sapphire. If he touches you, I'll come in and choke him to death."

  SAF 'S GOLD WAS the first thing she saw when she entered the sitting room, sunlit in his ears and on his fingers. She understood all at once that she wouldn't like to see him without it. It would be like seeing him with eyes that weren't his, or hearing him speak in a different voice.

  The gash in his coat broke her heart. She wanted to touch him.

  Then he turned to her and she saw the disgust carried in every feature of his battered face and in every line of his body.

  He dropped to his knees, eyes raised, staring straight into hers— the perfect mockery of subservience, for no man on his knees ever raised his eyes to a sovereign's face. It defeated the purpose of lowering oneself.

  "Stop that!" she said. "Get up."

  "Whatever you wish, Lady Queen," he said sarcastically, leaping to his feet.

  She was beginning to understand the game. "Please don't do this, Saf," she pleaded. "You know it's just me."

  Saf snorted.

  "What? What is it?"

  "Nothing at all," he said, "Lady Queen."

  "Oh, just tell me, Saf."

  "I wouldn't dream of contradicting the queen, Lady Queen."

  In another place, in another conversation between them, she might have slapped his smug face. Perhaps Sparks would have slapped him right now. But Bitterblue couldn't, for Bitterblue, slapping Saf, would only be playing into his game: The mighty queen slaps the lowly subject. And the more like a subject she treated him, the more control he had over the situation. Which confused her, because it made no sense that a queen should transfer power to her subject by mistreating him.

  She just wanted to be able to talk to him. "Saf," she said. "Until now, we've been friends and equals."

  He shot her a look of pure derision.

  "What?" she begged. "Tell me. Please talk to me."

  Saf took a few steps toward the crown on its stand and put his hand full on it, stroking the soft gold of its face, measuring the gems between his fingers. She kept her mouth shut, even though it felt like a bodily assault. But when he went so far as to lift it, placing it on his own head, turning to stare at her balefully, a ruin-eyed, bloody-mouthed, tattered-coat king, she couldn't stop herself. "Put that down," she hissed.

  "Hm?" he murmured as he removed the crown, setting it back on its velvet cushion. "We're not equals after all, then, are we?"

  "I don't care about the stupid crown," she said, flustered. "I only care that my father was the last man I ever saw wear it, and when you put it on, I remember him."

  "Ironic," he said, "for I've been thinking of how much you make me think of him."

  It didn't matter that she'd had the same thoughts herself. It hurt far more coming from Saf. "You have lied just as much as I," she whispered.

  "I have never once lied," he snarled in an ugly voice, taking a step toward her, so that she had to step back, startled. "I've kept things from you when I needed to. But I've never lied!"

  "You knew I wasn't who I said. That was no secret!"

  "You're the queen!" Saf yelled, taking another step forward. "The rutting queen! You manipulated me! And not just for information!"

  Po appeared in the doorway. He took hold of the door frame above his head, casually, with one hand. Raising his eyebrows, he leaned and waited.

  "Forgive me, Lord Prince," Saf said miserably, confusing Bitterblue by lowering his eyes before Po, hanging his head, stepping back from her with no equivocation.

  "The queen is my cousin," said Po calmly.

  "I understand, Lord Prince," Saf said meekly.

  I, on the other hand, do not understand, Bitterblue thought to Po, and I could kick you. I want him angry. When he's angry, we get to the truth.

  Po assumed a bland expression, turned on his heel, and left the room.

  "He has no idea," Saf said, "does he. He has no idea what a snake you are."

  Taking a breath, Bitterblue said quietly, "I didn't manipulate you."

  "Horseshit," Saf said. "You told Prince Po every last detail about me, every minute of everything we've ever done, yet I'm to believe you never told your little people? You think I'm so naïve that I haven't figured out how I got pulled in for a murder I didn't commit, or who's paying that witness to lie? Or who's responsible for the attacks on Teddy and me?"

  "What?" she cried. "Saf! No! How can you think I'm behind all those things when Po and I just saved you? You're not thinking!"

  "And that last little bit of fun—did you enjoy that? Do you get a kick out of debasing yourself with commoners and then telling others? I cannot believe how much feeling I wasted in worry," he said, voice going low, stepping toward her again. "Fearing I would injure you somehow. Thinking you were innocent!"

  Knowing it was a wild and unwise thing to do, she took hold of his arm. "Saf, I swear to you, I'm not your villain. I'm as baffled about that as you are. I'm on your side! I'm trying to find the truth! And I've never told anyone your every last detail—anyone but Po," she amended desperately, "and even he doesn't know the private things. Hardly anyone else even knows I go out at night!"

  "You're lying again," he said, trying to push her off. "Let go."

  She clung to him. "No. Please."

  "Let go," he said between his teeth, "or I'll punch you in the face and shame myself before my prince."

  "I want you to punch me in the face," she said, which wasn't true, but at least it would be fair. Her guards had punched him in the face.

  "Of course," he said, "because then I'll land right back in prison." He twisted his arm away and she gave up, turned her back to him, wrapping arms around herself, hugging herself desolately.

  Finally, she said in a small, clear voice, "I have lied, Saf, but never with the intention of hurting you or your friends, or any truthseekers, or anyone, I swear it. I only ever went out to see what my city was like at night, because my advisers keep me blind in a tower and I wanted to know. I never meant to meet you. I never meant to like you and I never meant to become your friend. Once I did, how was I to tell you the truth?"

  She couldn't see him, but he seemed to be laughing. "You're unbelievable."

  "Why? What is it? Explain what you mean!"

  "You seem to have this daydream," Saf said, "that when we were spending time together and I didn't know you were the queen, we were friends. Equals. But knowledge is power. You knew you were the queen and I didn't. We have never once been equal, and as far as friendship goes," he said—then stopped. "Your mother is dead," he said in a different kind of voice, bitter, and final. "You've lied to me about everything."

  "I told you things that were more precious to me than the truth," she whispered.

  A silence stretched between them, empty. A distance. It lasted a long, long time.

  "Let's suppose for a minute that you're telling the truth," he finally said, "about not being the person behind the attacks."

  "I am telling the truth," she whispered. "Saf, I swear it. The only thing I lied about is who I am."

  Another short silence. When he spoke again, it was with a sadness and a quietness that she did not know how to associate with the Saf she knew. "But I don't think you understand who you are," he said. "I don't think you realize how big it is, or how it maroons me. You're so high in the world that you can't see down as far as me. You don't see what you've done." And Saf moved around her, vanishing into the foyer without leave, shouldering through the outside doors, so abruptly that, finding herself alone, she made a small noise of surprise.

  Slowly, Bitterblue unfolded herself, turning to take in the room, the midday light. She searched for the clock on the mantel, to see how many hours of this day were left to live through before she could hide in the covers of her bed.

  Her eyes didn't make it as far as the clock, for the crown was missing from its velvet cushion.

  Bitterblue spun fr
antically, her body refusing her mind's immediate comprehension, but of course, the crown was nowhere else in the room either. Hissing Saf 's name, she ran after him, burst through her outside doors, and found herself staring into the faces of two very startled Lienid guards.

  "Is anything wrong, Lady Queen?" the guard to the left inquired.

  And what was she going to do, anyway? Race through the castle, higgledy-piggledy, having no idea of his route, in the hopes that she'd cross his path in a courtyard somewhere? And then what? Ask him, before an audience of passersby, to please give back the crown he was hiding in his coat? Then, when he refused, grapple with him for it? He'd be arrested all over again, and this time for a crime he had committed.

  "Everything is marvelous," Bitterblue said. "This is the best day of my life. Thank you for asking."

  Then she went to kick in her bedroom door and demand of Po why he'd let this happen.

  The answer was straightforward enough. Po was asleep.


  WHEN PO BURST back into her rooms an hour later, he was not carrying the crown.

  "Where is it?" Bitterblue hissed from her place on the sofa, where she'd spent the hour pushing away the food Helda pressed on her, fending off visits from her puzzled advisers, and pulling at her cuticles.

  Po collapsed beside her, rumpled and soaking wet. "I lost him."

  "You lost him! How?"

  "He had a head start, Bitterblue, and his sister met him just outside, and they ran together, splitting up sometimes. And it's raining, which makes things harder for me. And I cannot keep all your streets in my mind, and all the houses, and all the moving people, while also focusing on someone who grows farther and farther away; I got lost, I had to backtrack. And all the hundreds of folk who saw me were having dramatic reactions at me, wanting to know why I was running around like a lunatic, and I cannot even begin to describe how distracting that is. The power of the rumor mill, if you could feel it as I do, would boggle your mind. Too many people out there know, somehow, that Katsa left abruptly in the middle of the night, sobbing her eyes out, wearing Raffin's clothing, and taking a horse over Winged Bridge. Every one of them who looked at me wanted to know what horrible thing I'd done to her."

  "In addition to that," a dignified voice said from the doorway, "look at what a sight he is, Lady Queen. I've never tried running after young men through the city streets myself, but I expect it's difficult with heavy legs and tired eyes. He looks as if he hasn't slept in days, and who can blame him, with his lady up and leaving him?" Coming into the room, Helda went to a side table, poured a cup of cider, and brought it to Po.

  "She left because I asked her to, Helda," he said quietly, accepting the cup.

  Sitting down across from them, sniffing, Helda said, "Who's going to tell me what's going on?"

  Bitterblue was lost. Had Po told Helda his truth, then? Or was he revealing it to her this very moment? Had he even meant to, or had she snuck up on him somehow? If one of the Lienid guards stepped in, or one of the spies, would Po reveal it to them too? Why not hang a banner from the windows?

  She tore a hangnail too close to the root and sucked her breath in through her teeth. "Well," she said to Helda, watching the bead of blood grow. "Today, a city person I know was arrested for a murder he didn't commit. He was acquitted. Then Po brought him here so that I could talk to him."

  "I saw him when he came in, Lady Queen," Helda said severely, "before Prince Po shooed me back to my rooms and told me to stay there. He looked like an incurable ruffian. And when he began yelling at you, and I came out to knock some sense into him, Prince Po shooed me away again."

  "His name is Sapphire," Bitterblue said, swallowing, "and he didn't know until he saw me in the High Court today that I was the queen. I'd told him that I worked in the kitchens."

  Helda narrowed her eyes. "I see."

  "He's a friend, Helda," Bitterblue said hopelessly. "Except that on the way out, he stole the crown."

  Settling herself more firmly into her chair, Helda said again, dryly, "I see."

  "I can't see with my eyes," Po said to Helda, perhaps a bit out of the blue, thrusting a hand through his soggy hair. "I believe you've gathered the rest, but if you're to know the whole truth, I should tell you I lost my eyesight eight years ago."

  Helda opened her mouth; closed it.

  "I sense things," Po went on. "Not just thoughts, but objects, bodies, force, momentum, the world around me, and so my blindness, much of the time, is not the hindrance it would otherwise be. But it's the reason I can't read. I can't see color; the world is gray shapes. The sun and moon are too far away for me to sense and I can't see light."

  Still working her mouth, Helda reached into her pocket for a handkerchief, which she handed to Bitterblue. After a moment, she extracted another handkerchief, then set to folding it precisely, as if matching corner to corner were the day's most critical task. When she pressed it to her lips, then dabbed her eyes, Po's head dropped. "Regarding the crown," he said, clearing his throat. "They seemed to be heading east, perhaps toward the silver docks, before I lost them."

  "Did you go to the shop?"

  "I don't know the location of the shop, Bitterblue. No one's thought the map straight at me. Do it yourself and I'll go there now."

  "No," she said, "I'll go."

  "I don't advise that."

  "I must."

  "Bitterblue," Po said, beginning to lose his patience, "I advised you against meeting him the first time and he stole your crown. What do you think he'll do the second time?"

  "But if I keep trying—"

  "While I stand outside ready to come bursting in to cover for you when he, oh, I don't know, gets it into his head to drag you into the street and start screaming that the boy in the hood is really the queen of the kingdom? I don't have time for this, Bitterblue, and I don't have the energy to keep straightening your tangles!"

  White-lipped, Bitterblue rose to her feet. "Shall I stop straightening your tangles, then, too, Po? How often do I lie for your sake? How often did you lie to me in the first years of our acquaintance? You, who are immune to being lied to yourself. How inconvenient it must be when you have to complicate your peace by lying for the sake of others."

  "Sometimes," Po said with bitterness, "you are utterly without pity."

  "I'd say you've enough pity for yourself," said Bitterblue. "You, of all people, should understand my need for Saf's forgiveness. What I've done to him, you do to everyone all the time. Help me or don't help me; fine. But don't talk to me as if I'm a child who trips around carelessly making messes. There are situations in my city and my kingdom that you know nothing about." Then she sat down again, suddenly, dismal and deflated. "Oh, Po," she said, dropping her face into her hands. "I'm sorry. Please, give me your advice. What should I say to him? What do you say when you've hurt someone with a lie?"

  Po was quiet for a moment. Then he almost seemed to be laughing, mournfully, under his breath. "I apologize."

  "Yes, I've done that," Bitterblue said, her mind running through

  the horrible conversation she'd had with Saf. Then running through it again. "Oh." She stared at Po in dismay. "I never once said I was sorry."

  "You must," Po said, gently now. "Beyond that, you must tell him as much of the truth as you possibly can. You must ensure, by whatever means necessary, that he doesn't use it to ruin you. And then you must let him be as angry as he'll be. That's what I do."

  And so I must throw myself into my own guilt, and into the hatred of a person I've grown fond of.

  Bitterblue contemplated her ruined cuticles. She was beginning to better understand, starkly, Po's crisis. Leaning into him, she touched her head to his shoulder. He put a wet arm around her and held on.

  "Helda," Bitterblue said, "how long do you think we can keep everyone from noticing that the crown is missing?"

  Helda pursed her lips. "A good long time," she decided with a staunch nod. "I don't anticipate anyone caring about the crown until your unc
le's visit, do you, Lady Queen? It's only your spies, your servants, your Council friends, and I in these rooms, and of those, it's only one or two of the servants I'd rather not trust. I'll construct something and throw a cloth over the cushion so it looks like nothing's amiss."

  "Don't forget that it depends on Saf as well," Po said. "He's perfectly capable of making it known citywide in any number of ways that your crown is not where it should be, Bitterblue, and plenty of people saw him and me walking to your rooms together after the trial."

  Bitterblue sighed. She supposed it was the sort of thing he would do, if he were angry enough. "We've got to find out who framed him for the murder," she said.

  "Yes," Po said. "That's an important question. Let me go confront

  him about the crown, won't you? Please? I'll see if I can learn anything about the framing as well. I also think I should talk to that false witness, don't you agree?"

  "Yes. All right." Bitterblue let go of him, sighing. "I'll stay here. I've some things I need to think through. Helda, will you continue to chase my advisers away?"

  IN HER BEDROOM, she paced.

  Could Saf really, truly, honestly think I'm behind the silencing of the truthseekers? Behind all of it? When I ran with him over the roofs? When I brought Madlen to them! Could he honestly—

  Numbly, she sat on the chest, pulling hairpins out. Could he honestly think I would want misfortune to befall him?

  Massaging her scalp, working her newly freed hair into a rat's nest, she found herself at a panicky dead end with that question. She had no control over what Saf thought.

  He said that I don't see what I've done or how high I am in the world. That I marooned him. He said we've never been friends, never been equals.

  Crossing to the vanity where she sat when Helda did her hair, Bitterblue threw her hairpins into a silver bowl and glared into the mirror. Sunken circles stood like bruises under her eyes, and her forehead, still raw from the attack last night, was purple and grisly. Behind her was reflected the enormity of the room, the bed high and big enough to be a dining table for all her friends, the silver, gold, scarlet walls. The dark ceiling dotted with stars. Fox, or someone, must clean away my cobwebs, she thought. Someone must care for this beautiful rug.

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