Bitterblue, p.24
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       Bitterblue, p.24

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Bitterblue thought of the printing shop, messy and bright. She thought of the apartments behind, small enough to fit into this room, tidy, walls and floors made of rough-hewn wood. She looked in the mirror at her own gown of pale gray silk, perfectly fitted, beautifully tailored, and thought of Saf 's rougher clothing, the places where his sleeve-ends frayed. She remembered how fond he was of Leck's gold pocket watch. She remembered the choker she had pawned without a second thought, barely caring how much money it made her.

  She did not think that they were poor. They had work, they had food, they threw sparkling parties. But she supposed that she didn't really know what poor would look like, if she saw it. Would she recognize it? And if they weren't poor, what were they? How did it work, to live in the city? Did they pay someone rent? Who decided how much things cost? Did they pay taxes to the crown that were a strain on them?

  Somewhat uncomfortable now, Bitterblue returned to her mother's chest, sat down, and forced herself to touch the edges of the question of just how, exactly, she had marooned Saf. What if the sit- uation were reversed? What if she were the commoner and it had turned out that Saf was the king? Would she have been left marooned?

  It was nearly impossible for her to conceive of such a situation. In fact, it was flatly absurd. But then she began to wonder if her inability even to imagine it had to do with her being too high to see that low, as Saf had said.

  For some reason, her mind kept returning to the night Saf and she had taken a route along the silver docks. They'd talked of pirates and treasure hunting, and they'd run past the looming ships of the queen. The ships had been lined with the queen's fine soldiers who guarded the silver destined for her treasury, her very own fortress of gold.

  * * * * *

  WHEN PO ENTERED the bedroom sometime later, even wetter than before and with mud-streaked clothing, he found Bitterblue sitting on the floor, head in hands.

  "Po," she whispered, looking up at him. "I'm very wealthy, aren't I?"

  Po came and crouched before her, dripping. "Giddon is wealthy," he said. "I'm exceedingly wealthy, and Raffin is more. There's no word for what you are, Bitterblue. And the money at your disposal is only a fraction of your power."

  Swallowing, she said, "I don't believe I quite appreciated it before."

  "Yes," Po said. "Well. Money does that. It's one of the privileges of wealth never to have to think about it, and one of the dangers too." He shifted, sat. "What's wrong?"

  "I'm not sure," Bitterblue whispered.

  He sat quietly, accepting that.

  "You don't seem to have the crown with you," she added.

  "The crown is not in the shop," he said. "Saf has passed it on to the subordinates of a black market underlord who calls himself Spook and is said to live hidden away in a cave, if I was reading him right."

  "My crown is already on the black market?" cried Bitterblue. "But how will we ever exonerate him?"

  "I get the impression that Spook is only involved for safekeeping, Beetle. We may still be able to get it back. Don't despair yet. I'll work on Saf, I'll flatter him with an invitation to a Council meeting or something. When I left, you know, he knelt, kissed my hand, and wished me good dreams. This, after I'd accused him of royal theft."

  "How gratifying for you that it's only the Monsean nobility he hates," she said bitterly.

  "He would hate me well enough if I broke his heart," said Po quietly.

  Bitterblue raised her face to him. "Have I broken his heart, then, Po? Is that what I'm to believe?"

  "That's a question for you to ask him, sweetheart."

  She noticed, then, that Po was shivering. More than that: She saw, as she studied him more closely, something wild and pained flashing in his eyes. Reaching out, she touched his face. "Po!" she said. "You're burning! Do you feel all right?"

  "I feel like my insides are made of lead, actually," he said. "Do you think I have a fever? That would explain why I fell."

  "You fell?"

  "My Grace sort of starts warping things when I have a fever, you know? Without eyesight, it's disorienting." He grabbed his head vaguely. "I think I fell more than once."

  "You're ill," she said, upset, standing up, "and I've sent you twice into the rain, and made you fall. Come, I'm taking you to your rooms."

  "Helda is trying to find some way whereby the fact of my being blind explains what she believes to be the perversity of Katsa and me not having children," he said at random.

  "What? What are you talking about? That makes no sense whatsoever. Get up."

  "I really can't stand it sometimes," he said a bit erratically, still sitting on the floor, "hearing other people's thoughts. People are ridiculous. By the way, Saf is not lying about his Grace; he doesn't know what it is."

  He told me so many times that he never lies to me. I suppose I didn't

  want to believe it. "Po." Taking Po's hands and pulling, leaning back, yanking, Bitterblue persuaded him to stand. "I'm going to walk you to your rooms and bring you a healer. You need to sleep."

  "Did you know that Tilda and Bren live as a couple and they want Teddy to give them a baby?" he asked, swaying, wincing at the room as if he couldn't remember how he got there.

  This was too astonishing for words. "I'm bringing you to Madlen," Bitterblue said sternly. "Now, come along."

  BY THE TIME Bitterblue returned to her rooms, the light was fading. The sky was purple like Saf's eyes, and her sitting room glimmered with lamps Helda had taken care to light. In her bedroom, she lit candles for herself, sat on the floor by her mother's chest, and ran her fingers over the carvings on its top.

  How lonely she felt, trying to understand all that had happened today on her own. Mama? Would you be ashamed of me?

  Wiping a tear that had fallen onto the lid of the chest, she found herself peering more closely at the carved designs. She'd noticed before that Ashen had used some of the carvings as models for her embroidery, of course, but she'd never made a study of it. They were arranged in neat rows atop the lid—none repeated—star, moon, candle, sun, for example. Boat, shell, castle, tree, flower, prince, princess, baby, and so on. She knew, from years of staring at the edges of her own sheets, exactly which ones Ashen had borrowed.

  The realization crept into her and all through her. Even before she'd bothered to count, she knew. She counted anyway, just to make sure.

  The carvings on the chest numbered a hundred. The carvings her mother had borrowed for her embroidery numbered twenty-six.

  Bitterblue was looking at a cipher alphabet.

  P A R T T H R E E

  Ciphers and Keys

  (Late September and October)


  IT WAS NOT a straightforward cipher alphabet. When Bitterblue isolated Ashen's twenty-six embroidery designs on the chest and applied the top left-most design, a star, to the letter A, the next in the row, a waning moon, to the letter B, and so on, then tested the resulting symbol alphabet against her mother's sheets, she got nothing but gibberish.

  She tried applying the bottom right-most symbol to the letter A and working her way up the chest backward. She tried running up and down the chest in columns.

  None of it worked.

  Very well, then; perhaps there was a key. What key would Ashen have used?

  Taking a steadying breath, Bitterblue removed the repeating letters from her own name and armed herself with the resulting alphabet.

  B I T E R L U V W X Y Z A C D F G H J K M N O P Q S

  Then she applied it to the symbols on the chest, starting again at the upper left:

  Holding tight to the sheet in her lap, she tried it against Ashen's embroidery.

  When it yielded results, she separated those results into words and sentences, and added punctuation. Where Ashen had skipped letters, presumably for the sake of speed, she added them too.

  Ara comes back limping.

  She can't remember until I show it to her. When she sees then it hurts and she screams.

  Will I stop t
elling Ara then? Is it better she not know?

  Should I kill them when I know he's marked them for death? Would that be merciful or mad?

  HELDA FOUND BITTERBLUE, that first day, in a mountain of sheets on the floor, arms wrapped around herself, shivering. "Lady Queen!" Helda exclaimed, kneeling beside her. "Are you ill?"

  "My mother had a servant named Ara who disappeared," whispered Bitterblue. "I remember."

  "Lady Queen?"

  "She embroidered in cipher, Helda! Mama did. She must have been trying to create a record she could read to remember what was real. It must have taken her hours to write a single small passage! Here, help me. My name is the keyword. A star is a B. A waning moon is an I, a candle a T, the sun an E, a falling star an R, a waxing moon an L, the ring constellation a U. My name is made of light," she cried out. "My mother chose symbols of light for the letters of my name. Is Po—" Po was ill. "Is Giddon truly gone?"

  "He is, Lady Queen. What in the world are you going on about?"

  "Tell no one else," Bitterblue said. "Helda. Until we know what it means, tell no one, and help me arrange them."

  They pulled the sheets out of her closets and off her bed and took an inventory: 228 sheets with embroidery lining the edges; 89 pillowcasings. Ashen seemed not to have dated anything; there was no way to determine the order to place them in, so Bitterblue and Helda arranged them in neat, arithmetically divided piles on her bedroom floor. And Bitterblue read and read and read.

  Certain words and phrases recurred often, sometimes filling up an entire sheet. He lies. He lies. Blood. I can't remember. I must remember. I must kill him. I must get Bitterblue away.

  Tell me something helpful, Mama. Tell me what happened, tell me what you saw.

  IN HER OFFICES, Bitterblue's advisers, as requested, had begun to educate her about the lords and ladies of her kingdom. They began with those who lived the farthest away: their names, their property, families, tax paid, their particular personalities and skills. None of them were introduced to her as "the lord with a predilection for murdering truthseekers"—none, in fact, were remarkable at all— and Bitterblue knew she would get nowhere this way. She wondered if she could ever ask Teddy and Saf for a list of the lords and ladies who'd stolen most grievously from their people. Could she ever ask Teddy and Saf for anything again?

  Then, as the days led to October, there was an explosion of urgent paperwork in the offices. "What on earth is going on?" she asked Thiel as she signed work orders blearily, pushed charters about, and fought with piles of paper that grew faster than she could keep up with them.

  "It's always like this in October, Lady Queen," Thiel reminded her sympathetically, "as everyone across the kingdom tries to wrap up their business and prepare for the freeze of winter."

  "Is it?" Bitterblue couldn't remember an October like this one. Then again, particular months were so hard to isolate in her memory; every month was the same. Or, every month had been, until the night she'd stepped into the city and changed a hundred facets of her life.

  She tried again one day to broach the topic of truthseekers being killed. "That trial I went to," she said, "with the Lienid-Monsean who turned out to have been framed—the one who was friends with Prince Po—"

  "The trial you went to without informing us, Lady Queen, then invited the accused to your rooms afterwards," Runnemood said in an oily voice.

  "I invited him because my court had wronged him and he was a friend of my cousin's," Bitterblue said calmly. "And I went because it's my right to go wherever I like. His trial has gotten me thinking. In my High Court, I want witnesses to the witnesses from now on. In my prisons, I want everyone retried. Everyone, you understand? If this Lienid-Monsean was nearly convicted of a murder he didn't commit, so could everyone else in my prisons have been. Couldn't they?"

  "Oh, of course not, Lady Queen," said Runnemood with a weariness and an exasperation that Bitterblue had no sympathy for. She was also weary and exasperated, her mind returning too often to bright little pictures on sheets that revealed too little that was helpful, and too much pain.

  I wish I'd given my child a kind father. I wish I'd been unfaithful then. Such choices don't occur to a girl of eighteen when Leck has chosen her. Choice vanishes in his fog. How can I protect her in this fog?

  One day at her desk, Bitterblue lost her breath. The room was tilting, she was falling; she could not get the air she needed into her throat and lungs. Then Thiel was kneeling beside her, holding tight to her hands, instructing her to take one slow breath after another.

  "Lorassim tea," he said firmly to Darby, who'd just climbed the stairs with a stack of correspondence, his footsteps pounding like the hammer blows that would bring her tower down.

  "Lady Queen," Thiel said after Darby had gone. His distress was clear in his voice. "Something is wrong in recent days; I can tell that you're suffering. Has someone hurt you? Are you injured, or ill? I beg you to tell me what I can do to help you. Give me a task, Lady Queen, or tell me what to say."

  "Did you ever give comfort to my mother?" she whispered. "I remember you were there sometimes, Thiel, but I can't remember much beyond that."

  A moment passed. "When I was lucid," he said, his voice a deep well of sadness, "I tried to give comfort to your mother."

  "Are you going to disappear from your eyes now?" she asked accusingly, glaring into those eyes.

  "Lady Queen," he said, "it's no use if we both disappear. I'm still here with you. Please tell me what's going on, Lady Queen. Is it to do with that fellow who was wrongly tried? Have you become friends with him?"

  Rood came into the office then, carrying a cup of tea, which he brought to her, kneeling as well. "Tell us what we can do, Lady Queen," he said to her, wrapping her hands around the cup with his own.

  You can tell me what you saw, she responded mutely to the kindness in his eyes. No more lying. Just tell me!

  Runnemood came in next. "What's all this?" he demanded at the sight of Thiel and Rood on their knees beside Bitterblue's chair.

  "Just tell me," Bitterblue whispered.

  "Tell you what?" snapped Runnemood.

  "What you saw," said Bitterblue. "Stop torturing me and just tell me. I know you were healers. What did he do? Just tell me!"

  Rood backed away from her and found a chair.

  "Lady Queen," said Runnemood grimly, squaring his feet. "Do

  not ask us to call those things to mind. It was years ago and we have made our peace."

  "Peace!" Bitterblue cried. "You have not made your peace!"

  "He cut them," Runnemood said through gritted teeth, "often until they were dying. Then he brought them to us to mend. He thought himself a medical genius. He thought he was turning Monsea into a land of medical marvels, but all he was doing was hurting people until they died. He was a madman. Are you happy? Is this information worth forcing us to remember? Worth risking our sanity and even our lives?"

  Runnemood went to his brother, who was shaking and crying now. Runnemood helped Rood up, then practically carried him out the door. And then she was alone with Thiel, who had turned into a shell after all, still kneeling beside her, cold, stiff, and empty. It was her fault. They'd been talking of something real and she'd ruined it with questions she'd never meant to ask. "I'm sorry," she whispered to him. "Thiel. I'm sorry."

  "Lady Queen," he said after a moment. "These are dangerous topics to speak aloud. I beg you to be more careful in what you say."

  TWO WEEKS PASSED and she did not go to see Saf. There was too much, with the embroidery, with her mountains of work, with Po ill. Also, she was ashamed.

  "I've been having the most wonderful dreams," Po told her when she visited him in the infirmary. "But not the kind that are depressing to wake from when you realize they're not true. You know what I mean?"

  He lay on sheets soaked with sweat, the covers thrown back, fanning himself with his own open shirt. As Madlen had instructed her to do, Bitterblue dipped a cloth in cold water, wiped his sticky face, and t
ried not to shiver, for the fire was kept low in this room. "Yes," she said, lying, because she didn't want to burden her sick cousin with the terrible dreams she'd been having, dreams of Ashen being shot in the back by Leck's arrow. "Tell me your dreams."

  "I'm myself," Po said, "and I'm as myself, with all the same powers and limitations and secrets. But there's no guilt about my lies, no doubt, because I've made a choice, and it's the best choice available to me. When I wake, everything feels a bit lighter, you know?"

  His fever lingered; seemed to improve; then flared up again worse than it had been before. Sometimes when she checked in on him, he shivered and thrashed and said the strangest things, things that made no sense whatsoever. "He's hallucinating," Madlen told her once when Po had grabbed Bitterblue's arm and cried out that the bridges were growing and the river was swimming with the dead.

  "I wish his hallucinations could be as pleasant as his dreams," she whispered, touching Po's forehead, stroking his sweaty hair, trying to shush him. And she wished for Raffin and Bann, who were better at sickbeds than she. She wished for Katsa, who would surely lose her anger if she saw Po like this. But Katsa was in a tunnel somewhere, and Raffin and Bann were en route to Sunder.

  "It was Randa's order," Po cried, bundled under blankets this time, violently shivering. "Randa sent Raffin to Sunder to marry Murgon's daughter. He will come back with a wife and babies and grandbabies."

  "Raffin marry the Sunderan king's daughter?" Bitterblue exclaimed. "Not in a million years."

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