Bitterblue, p.25
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       Bitterblue, p.25

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  A tsk came from the table where Madlen was mixing one of the vile concoctions she liked to make Po gag down. "Let's ask him about it again when he's not raving, Lady Queen."

  "When will that be, Madlen?"

  Madlen added a sour-smelling paste to the bowl, mashed it in with the rest, and didn't answer.

  HELDA, IN THE meantime, had employed Ornik the smith to make a replica crown. He did this so effectively that Bitterblue's heart surged with relief the first moment she saw it, thinking that the real crown had returned—until she realized that it lacked the solidness and the luster of the true crown, and that the jewels were painted glass.

  "Oh," Bitterblue said. "Goodness, Ornik is good at his job. He must have seen the crown before."

  "He hadn't, Lady Queen, but Fox has, of course, and Fox described it to him."

  "And so we've pulled Fox into this fiasco?"

  "She saw Saf, of course, Lady Queen, on the day of the theft, and went to finish polishing the crown again the day after. Remember? There was no way not to involve her. And she's useful as a spy. I'm using her to locate this Spook character who supposedly has the crown."

  "And what have we learned?"

  "Spook specializes in royal contraband, Lady Queen, all kinds of noble treasure. It's been his family's business for generations. Right now, he's keeping silent on the matter of the crown. It's said that no one but his subordinates know the location of this cave he lives in. Good for our own need for silence; bad for our need to locate him and figure out what the hills is going on."

  "Saf will know what's going on," said Bitterblue grudgingly, watching as Helda covered the fake crown with a cloth. "What's the punishment for royal theft, Helda?"

  Sighing shortly, Helda said, "Lady Queen, perhaps it has not occurred to you that stealing a monarch's crown is more than royal theft. The crown isn't just an ornament; it's the physical manifestation of your power. Stealing it is treason."

  Treason?

  Death was the punishment for treason. "That's ridiculous," Bitterblue hissed. "I would never let the High Court condemn Saf to death for stealing a crown."

  "For treason, you mean, Lady Queen," said Helda. "And you know as well as I do that even your own rulings may be overturned by a unanimous vote from your judges."

  Yes. It was another of Ror's funny provisions, this one to put a check on the monarch's absolute power. "I'll replace my judges," she said. "I'll make you a judge."

  "A person Middluns-born cannot be a judge on the Monsean High Court, Lady Queen. I don't need to tell you that the requirements for such an appointment are particular and extreme."

  "Find Spook," Bitterblue said. "Find him, Helda."

  "We are doing the best we can, Lady Queen."

  "Do more," she said. "And I'll go to Saf, soon, and—I don't know—beg. Perhaps he'll give it back when he understands the implications."

  "Do you really think he hasn't worked it out, Lady Queen?" asked Helda soberly. "He's a professional thief. He's reckless, but he's not actually stupid. He may even be enjoying this bind he's put you in."

  HE ENJOYS PUTTING me in a bind.

  Why am I so afraid of going to see him?

  In bed that same night, Bitterblue reached for paper and pen and began a letter to Giddon. It was a letter she had no intention of ever actually showing Giddon. It was only to straighten her thoughts, and it was only addressed to him because he was the person she told the truth to, and because whenever she imagined him listening and asking questions, his questions were less worried, less fraught than anyone else's.

  Is it because you're in love with him? Giddon asked.

  Oh, balls. How can I even begin to think about that, she wrote, with all that's on my mind?

  It is a rather simple question, actually, he said crisply.

  Well, I don't know, she wrote impatiently. Does that mean I'm not? I liked kissing him an awful lot. I liked going out into the city with him and the way we trusted each other without trusting each other at all. I would like to be his friend again. I would like him to remember that we got along, and to realize that he knows my truths now.

  Giddon said, You told me once that you sat on a roof with him, hiding from killers. And now you've told me about the kissing. Can't you imagine how much trouble a townsman could get into if he were caught involving the queen in such things?

  No trouble, if I forbade it, she wrote. I would never allow him to be blamed for a thing he did in innocence, not knowing who I was. Frankly, I don't intend him to be blamed for stealing the crown either, and he is not innocent of that crime.

  Then, Giddon said, isn't it possible that a person who thought you a commoner might feel betrayed to learn that you have so much power over his fate?

  Bitterblue didn't write anything for a while. Finally, the pen held tight and the letters small, as if she were whispering, she wrote: I have been thinking about power a great deal lately. Po says that one of the privileges of wealth is that you don't need to think about it. I think it's the same with power. I feel powerless more often than I feel powerful. But I am powerful, aren't I? I have the power to hurt my advisers with words and my friends with lies.

  Those are your examples? said Giddon, with a small touch of amusement.

  Why? she wrote. What's wrong with those examples?

  Well, he said, you risked the well-being of every citizen in your kingdom when you invited the Council to use your city as a base for the overthrow of the Estillan king. Then you sent King Ror a letter asking him for the support of the Lienid Navy in the case of war. You do recognize these things for what they are, don't you? They are power in the extreme!

  Do you mean you think I shouldn't have done it?

  Well, perhaps you shouldn't have done it so lightly.

  I did not do it lightly!

  You did it so your friends would stay near! Giddon said. And you have not seen war, Lady Queen. Could you have understood the decision you made? Did you truly comprehend its implications?

  Why are you telling me this now? You were at that meeting, she wrote. You were practically in charge of that meeting! You could have objected!

  But this is a conversation you're having with yourself, Lady Queen, Giddon said. I'm not actually here, am I? I'm not the one objecting.

  And Giddon faded away. Bitterblue was left with herself again, holding her strange letter to the fire, wound up in too many different kinds of confusion. Knowing that in the end, she needed Saf 's help finding out who was targeting truthseekers, whether or not he could ever forgive her abuses of power.

  Ashen had made bad choices because of Leck's fog. Bitterblue didn't have that excuse; her bad choices were all her own doing.

  With that depressing thought in mind, Bitterblue went to the dressing room and pulled out her hood and trousers.

  24

  TILDA ANSWERED HER knock. Seeing the queen on her doorstep, Tilda stood there surprised, but gentle-eyed. "Come in, Lady Queen," she said.

  It was a reception Bitterblue hadn't been expecting, and one that stabbed her with shame. "I'm sorry, Tilda," she whispered.

  "I accept your apology, Lady Queen," said Tilda simply. "We're heartened to realize that all this time, the queen has been on our side."

  "You do realize that?" said Bitterblue.

  Stepping inside, she found herself exposed in a pool of light. Bren was at the press, looking back at her levelly. Saf was perched on a table behind Bren, glaring, and Teddy stood in the doorway to the back room. "Oh, Teddy," she said, too pleased to check herself. "I'm so happy to see you standing on your own."

  "Thank you, Lady Queen," he said with a small smile that made her know she was forgiven.

  Tears choked her eyes. "You're too kind to me."

  "I always trusted you, Lady Queen," said Teddy, "even before I knew who you were. You're a person of generosity and feeling. It warms my heart to know that such a person is our queen."

  Sapphire snorted dramatically. Bitterblue forced herself to look at him. "I'm s
orry," she said. "I imposed myself on your lives here and I lied. I'm sorry for tricking all of you."

  "That's not much of an apology," said Saf, sliding down from his table, crossing his arms.

  Antagonism was helpful. It gave her guilt something solid and sharp to throw itself against. Bitterblue set her chin and said to Saf, "I apologize for the things I did wrong, but I won't apologize for my apology. I'd like to talk with you alone."

  "That's not going to happen."

  Bitterblue shrugged. "Then I suppose everyone will get to hear my side of things. Where should we start? With your upcoming trial for treason, where I'll be called to testify that I saw you steal the crown?"

  Sapphire walked right up to her. "I look forward to explaining why I was in your rooms in the first place," he said calmly. "It'll be fun to ruin your reputation. This is a boring conversation. Are we done?"

  Bitterblue slapped him, as hard as she could. When he grabbed her wrists, she kicked him in the shin, then kicked him again, until finally, swearing, he let her go. "You're a bully," he spat out.

  "You're a brat," she said, shoving at him, tears spilling onto her cheeks. "What good is it for both of us to be ruined? What utter, useless good? Treason, Saf? Why did you have to do something so blazingly stupid?"

  "You played with me!" he said. "You humiliated me and you insulted my prince by compelling him to lie for me!"

  "And so you committed a hanging crime?"

  "I only took the rutting thing to spite you," he said. "That there are consequences that make you unhappy is just a bonus! I'm glad it's a hanging crime!"

  The room had emptied around them; they were alone. Too close to his hard-breathing body, she pushed past him toward the press and clung to it, trying to think. There was something underneath the words he'd said that she needed to get straight.

  "You understand that I'm unhappy," she said, "because you know that I'm frantic for your safety."

  "Mmph," he said, close behind her. "Who cares?"

  "You know that the nearer you get to danger, the more unhappy I'll be and the harder I'll work to protect you. Which is apparently a thing you find amusing," she added bitterly. "But your joy over this delightful situation presupposes how much I care about you."

  "So?"

  "So," she said, "that means that you know perfectly well that I care about you. You know it so well that you're getting pleasure out of hurting me with it. And since you already know it, there's nothing I need to convince you of and nothing I need to prove." Turning to face him, she said, "I'm sorry I lied. I'm sorry I humiliated you and I'm sorry I compelled your prince to lie for you. I did wrong and I won't make excuses. You can decide whether to forgive me or not. You can also decide whether to reverse this stupid thing you've done."

  "It's too late to reverse it," Saf said. "Other people know."

  "Get the crown back from this Spook person and give it to me. If I can show that I have it, no one's going to look me in the face and accuse me of lying when I go on to say I've always had it."

  "I don't think I could get it back," Saf said after a moment's pause. "I'm told that Spook has sold it to her grandson. My agreement was with Spook as a caretaker, to hide it for me, but Spook broke that agreement when she sold it. I have no agreement with the grandson."

  "It doesn't sound as if you had much of an agreement with Spook either," said Bitterblue, trying to navigate through all the surprising things he'd just said. Spook was a woman? "What are you talking about, she sold the crown to her grandson? What does that mean?"

  "Spook has a grandkid, apparently, that she's bringing up in the business."

  "The business of black-market thievery?" said Bitterblue scornfully.

  "Spook is more of a manager and dealer than a thief. Other people do her thieving for her. So, she's sold the crown to the grandkid, probably for almost nothing, and now the kid gets to decide what to do. It's like a test, see. It'll make him a name."

  "If he publicizes his possession of it, it'll also get him arrested and hanged."

  "Oh, you won't find him. I don't even know who he is and I'm much closer to their world than you could ever be. He's called Gray, apparently."

  "What will he do with it?"

  "Whatever he likes," Saf said carelessly. "Maybe put it up for public auction? Hold it for ransom? Spook's family has a lot of expertise at exploiting the nobility, at no harm to themselves. If your detectives poke so hard that they manage to find Gray and put him on trial, a dozen of his grandmother's women and men will vouch for him."

  "How, exactly? Maybe by incriminating someone else instead? You, for example?"

  "I suppose so, now that you mention it."

  Bitterblue took a deep, angry breath. At this moment, she hated his smirking face; she hated him for the enjoyment he was getting out of this. "Find out how much Gray wants for it."

  "You would buy back your own crown?"

  "Rather than see you hanged?" Bitterblue said. "This surprises you?"

  "More like, disappoints me," he said. "It's not very interesting, is it? Throw money at the problem? Anyway, if it came to that, I wouldn't hang. I'd run. It's time I left anyway."

  "Oh, fabulous," Bitterblue sputtered. "You'll leave. What a stupendous solution to a blazingly stupid problem you created for both of us. You're sick, you know that?" she said, turning away from him again. "And you're wasting my time with this. Time is the thing I have least of."

  "How onerous for you to be so important," Sapphire said caustically. "Go home to your gold rooms and sit on a silk cushion while servants bring you every pleasure and Graced guards keep you safe."

  "Right," Bitterblue said, touching the place on her forehead where the scrape from the attack outside the castle had only just healed. "Safe."

  The door opened suddenly. Teddy stuck his head in. "Forgive me," he said sheepishly. "I felt the need to check that everything was all right."

  "You don't trust me," said Saf to him, disgusted.

  "Should I, when you're like this?" Teddy came a bit farther into the room and rested his eyes on Bitterblue. "I'll leave if I'm in the way," he said.

  "We're not getting anywhere," Bitterblue responded wearily. "You're not in the way, and Teddy, you remind me that I'd like your help."

  "What can I do for you, Lady Queen?"

  "Could you tell me which lords and ladies in my kingdom stole the most for Leck's sake? Do you have that kind of information? It would give me a place to start as I try to find out who's behind the killing and framing of truthseekers."

  "Ah," said Teddy, sounding pleased. "I could come up with a

  few people who have reason to be ashamed of themselves. But it wouldn't be a complete list, Lady Queen. There are plenty of towns we haven't heard from. Would you like the list nonetheless?"

  "Yes, please," said Bitterblue. If I could leave with a list, then maybe this visit could be more than a heartbreaking waste of time.

  And so Teddy went to a desk to cobble together a list. Bitterblue stared at the table beside the press, not really seeing it, trying not to look at Saf. He stood too near her, glaring at the floor with his arms crossed, sullen and silent.

  Then, gradually, the stacks of paper before her came into focus. It was printed material, but not Death's Kissing Traditions or Teddy's dictionary. As she began to understand what she was looking at, she said out loud, "This cannot possibly be what you've been hiding from me all this time. Teddy? Can it?" Taking one of the top sheets in her hand, she noted that the page beneath was identical.

  "Hello," Saf said, reaching out, pushing against her, trying to take the paper from her.

  "Oh, let her have it, Saf," Teddy said tiredly. "What does it matter now? We know she's not going to try to hurt us for printing it."

  "Find out how much Gray wants for the crown, Saf. And get off me," Bitterblue said, giving him such a ferocious look that he actually stopped trying to grab at the paper and backed away, momentarily confused.

  Bitterblue took a sample from e
ach of the piles on the table. Rolling them up in one hand, she went to Teddy and accepted the short list of names he proffered. Then she left the shop.

  OUTSIDE, SHE STOPPED under a light. Unrolling the papers, she leafed through them, studying each carefully. They all had the same title, "Reading and Writing Lesson," and each lesson was numbered. The Number Ones contained, in large type, the letters of the alphabet and the numerals zero through ten. The Number Twos contained a scattering of simple words, such as cat, pan, cart, rat. The words increased in complexity, and more numerals were introduced, as the lesson numbers rose. At the bottom corner of each page was printed a tiny geographic identifier: Flower District, East City. Monster Bridge, East City. Winter Park, Fish Dockyards. Castle's Shadow, West City.

  Reading lessons? So much secrecy over reading lesson—

  Something whacked Bitterblue so hard in the back of her shoulder that it spun her around. Someone tackled her and papers went flying. Falling, crashing awkwardly against the rise of the gutter, her arm broke beneath her and she screamed in pain.

  25

  THE THOUGHTS CAME clearly and with an astonishing calm. Bitterblue was being choked by a woman with iron strength who sat on her and pinned her to the ground. There were others too, other small battles exploding around them, cries and grunts, flashes of steel. I do not consent to die, thought Bitterblue, desperate for air, but she couldn't reach the woman's eyes or throat and she couldn't reach the knives in her boots, and she tried to find the one in the sleeve of her broken arm but the pain undid her. Suddenly she understood what that burning pressure was in the back of her shoulder: a knife. If only she could reach it with her good hand—she tried, scrabbled, found the hilt and pulled. The knife came away with a blast of pain that was almost unendurable but she slashed wherever she could at her attacker. Her head was going to burst, but she kept slashing. Her vision went black. She lost consciousness.

  SHE WOKE TO pain. When she tried to cry out, there was more pain, for her throat was ragged.

  "Yes, that woke her," a deep male voice said. "I'm sorry for it, but it has to be done with broken bones. It will make for less pain later."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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