Bitterblue, p.26
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       Bitterblue, p.26

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "What'll we do with all these bodies?" someone else whispered, a female voice.

  "Help me get them inside and my friends and I will deal with

  them," said a third voice that made Bitterblue want to cry out again, for it was Saf.

  "Some of the Lienid Guard will stay and help you," said the original male voice firmly. "I'm taking the queen home."

  "Do you know who they are?" asked Saf. "Should the bodies go with you in case castle people can identify them?"

  "Those aren't my instructions," said the male voice.

  Recognizing that voice now, Bitterblue croaked out a name. "Holt."

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said her Graceling guard, leaning over her, coming into view. "How are you, Lady Queen?"

  "I don't consent to die," she whispered.

  "You're far from dead, Lady Queen," Holt said. "Can you manage some water?"

  Holt passed a flask to someone above Bitterblue. Only then did Bitterblue realize that her head was cradled in a person's lap. Moving her eyes up to look into the face of that person, for an instant, she saw a girl. Then the girl transformed into a marble statue of a girl, and Bitterblue was rocked with dizziness.

  "Hava," said Holt sharply. "Stop that. You'll give the queen a headache."

  "I think someone else should take over," said the statue hastily. Then she was a girl again and extricating herself from Bitterblue, thunking the queen's head on the ground. As Bitterblue gasped at this new pain, there was the sound of feet scurrying away.

  Holt came quickly to Bitterblue's aid, supporting her head and bringing the flask to her lips. "I apologize for the behavior of my niece, Lady Queen," he said. "She assisted you quite bravely until you noticed her."

  Swallowing water was like swallowing fire. "Holt," whispered Bitterblue. "What happened?"

  "A team of thugs was waiting outside the shop to kill you, Lady Queen," said Holt. "Hava and I were here at Prince Po's request. We did what we could. That friend of yours heard the noise and came out to help. But we were strapped, Lady Queen, if I may say so, until half a dozen of your Lienid Door Guard came running onto the scene."

  "My Lienid Door Guard?" said Bitterblue in bewilderment, registering now the sound of boots on pavement, grunts as men lifted bodies. "How did they know to be here?"

  Holt put the flask away somewhere. Then, carefully, he lifted her in both arms. Being carried by him was like gliding. The parts that hurt did so floatingly, without a single jolt. "As I understand it, Lady Queen," he said, "Thiel came running to your rooms tonight to check on you. When he found you gone, he exhorted Helda to send a contingent of your Lienid Door Guard after you."

  "Thiel?" said Bitterblue. "Thiel knew I was in danger?"

  "Hey," said Saf 's voice, suddenly near. "I think that's her own blood—your sleeve is turning black with it, man." A hand explored her back, her shoulder, and Bitterblue cried out. "She's been stabbed," said Saf as the world went dark.

  SHE WOKE AGAIN to the murmuring voices of Helda and Madlen. All of her parts felt stuffed with wool, especially her head. A cast of some kind immobilized her left wrist and forearm, and the back of her left shoulder was on fire. Blinking her eyes, she saw the red and gold stars of her own bedroom ceiling. Through the window, light was just beginning to build. It was a new day.

  It seemed safe now, with Madlen and Helda near, to believe that

  she really wasn't going to die. The moment it seemed safe, it also seemed impossible that she should have survived. A tear made a single track into her hair, and then that was that, for crying meant gasping and deep breaths, and it only took one deep breath to remember how much breathing hurt.

  She whispered, "How did Thiel know?"

  The murmuring voices stopped. Both Helda and Madlen came and leaned over her, Helda's face tight with tension and relief, her hand reaching down to stroke the hair at Bitterblue's temples. "It's been quite a night, both in and out of the castle, Lady Queen," she said quietly. "What a fright Madlen had when Holt came running into the infirmary with you, and I didn't fare much better when Madlen brought you to me."

  "But how did Thiel know?" she whispered.

  "He didn't say, Lady Queen," said Helda. "He came here frantic, looking like he'd been fighting with a bear, and told me that if I knew where you were and what was good for me, I'd send your Lienid Guard to you."

  "Where is he now?" Bitterblue whispered.

  "I've no idea, Lady Queen."

  "Send someone to bring him to me," said Bitterblue. "Is everyone else all right?"

  "Prince Po had a terrible night, Lady Queen," said Madlen. "Agitated and inconsolable. I had to drug him when Holt came in with you, for he was wild. He put up a fight; Holt had to hold him down for me."

  "Oh, poor Po," said Bitterblue. "Is he going to be all right, Madlen?"

  "He's in the same shape you're in, Lady Queen, which is to say that I firmly believe he'd be on the mend if he would only consent to rest. Here, Lady Queen," she said, pressing a folded note into Bitterblue's good hand. "Once we'd gotten the medicine into him and he knew he was a lost cause, he went to great effort to dictate this to me. He made me promise to give it to you."

  Bitterblue opened the note one-handed, trying to remember the key she was using with Po these days. Poppyseed cake? Yes. With that key, Po's ciphered message in Madlen's loopy hand showed itself to say, more or less: Runnemood went to prisons eleven o'clock stabbed nine sleeping prisoners in one room then set room on fire. In and out through secret passage. I wasn't hallucinating. One was Saf's lying witness. One was that mad murderer you asked Madlen to examine. Later, Runnemood and Thiel entered another passage that led down and under east wall. I lost them.

  WHEN HER LIENID Guard could not find Runnemood, Bitterblue called in the Monsean Guard. They couldn't find him either. He was nowhere to be found in the castle, nor were they having any luck in the city.

  "He's run for it," said Bitterblue in frustration. "Where is his family? Have you talked to Rood? Runnemood's supposed to have a thousand friends in the city. Find out who they are, Captain, and find him!"

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Captain Smit, standing before her desk, looking appropriately stern but also befuddled. "And you have definite reason to believe that Runnemood was behind the attack on your person, Lady Queen?"

  "He is certainly behind something," said Bitterblue. "Where's Thiel? Where is everybody? Send someone up, will you?"

  The person the captain sent up was, in fact, Thiel. His hair was worried into a vertical arrangement and his color was gray. When he saw her arm and the purple marks on her throat, he began to blink with bright, wet eyes. "You should be in bed, Lady Queen," he said hoarsely.

  "I had to get out of it," said Bitterblue flatly, "to deal with the question of why Runnemood murdered nine of my prisoners, then snuck into a passage under the east wall with you."

  Thiel collapsed, shaking, into a chair. "Runnemood murdered nine prisoners?" he said. "Lady Queen, how do you know all this?"

  "We're not discussing what I know, Thiel. We're discussing what I don't. Why did you go into a secret passage with Runnemood last night, how did you know to send my Lienid Guard to my rescue, and what does one have to do with the other?"

  "It's because he told me, Lady Queen," said Thiel, sitting hopeless and confused in his chair. "I came upon him very late. He didn't seem himself, Lady Queen. He was wild-eyed, smiling too much, making me nervous. I followed him into that passage, hoping that if I stayed with him, I could learn what was wrong. When I pressed him, he told me he'd done something brilliant, but of course I didn't know about the prisoners. Then he told me you'd gone out into the city and he'd sent a team to kill you."

  "I see," said Bitterblue. "Just like that, he told you?"

  "He was nothing like himself, Lady Queen," Thiel said again, grasping his hair. "He seemed to have some crazy idea that I'd be pleased to hear what he was saying. Truly, I believe he'd gone mad."

  "And were you surprised?"

l, of course, Lady Queen. I was flabbergasted! I left him and ran back, straight to your rooms, hoping he'd lied and I'd find you safely there!"

  "Where is Runnemood, Thiel?" said Bitterblue. "What's going on?"

  "I don't know where he is, Lady Queen," said Thiel in amazement.

  "I don't even know where that passage leads. Why do I feel you don't believe me?"

  Bitterblue shot up from her seat, unable to contain her heartache. "Because Runnemood did not suddenly go mad," she said, "and you know it. He's the most sane of you all. And you've been telling me not to speak out loud about Leck's time, you've been telling me to bring my worries about the past to you before anyone else. You've been at odds with him, and giving me subtle warnings. Haven't you? What's your reason for those things if you didn't know he had a vendetta against truthseekers?"

  Thiel was beginning to recede from her. She recognized the signs. He was pulling into himself, drawing his arms close, and he hadn't risen when she'd done so. "Now I don't know what you're talking about, Lady Queen," he whispered. "You're confusing me."

  There was a knock at that moment. Fox poked her red head into the room. "Lady Queen," she said, "forgive me."

  "What is it?" Bitterblue cried in vexation.

  "The scarf Helda promised, Lady Queen, to hide your bruises," said Fox.

  Bitterblue waved her inside impatiently, then gestured her away. And then she stared in wonderment at the scarf Fox had left on her desk. Memories flashed through her, for this scarf had belonged to Ashen. It was soft gray with flecks of silver and she hadn't thought of it once, not once in eight years; but now she remembered Ashen counting Bitterblue's fingers and kissing them. She remembered Ashen laughing—laughing! Bitterblue had said something funny and made Ashen laugh.

  Lifting the scarf with utter gentleness, as if a breath could blow it apart, Bitterblue wrapped it twice around her neck, then sat down. Patted it, smoothed it.

  She looked up at Thiel and found him gawking at her with stricken eyes.

  "That was your mother's scarf, Lady Queen," he said. Then tears began to run down his face. Something within his eyes seemed to collapse, but it was a living thing in there—not emptiness, but life struggling with pain. "Forgive me, Lady Queen," he said, crying harder now. "I have known since that trial two weeks ago that Runnemood was involved in something terrible. He'd framed that young LienidMonsean, you see. I walked in on his anger after it failed, and forced the truth from him. I've been trying to deal with it myself. He was my friend for fifty years. I thought that if I could try to understand why he would do such a thing, then I could bring him to his senses."

  "But, you hid it from me?" cried Bitterblue. "You knew what he'd done, and you hid it?"

  "I have always wanted your path to be easy, Lady Queen," he said hopelessly, dashing his tears away. "I've wanted to shield you from any more pain."

  THERE WASN'T A great deal more that Thiel could tell her.

  "But why did he do it, Thiel? What was he trying to achieve? Was he working for someone? Was he, perhaps, working with Danzhol?"

  "I don't know, Lady Queen. I couldn't get him to tell me any of that. I could make nothing logical of it at all."

  "I can see some logic," she said grimly. "He had a logical understanding of the need to go into the prisons and stab the innocent, and all those he'd paid to lie or kill. Especially after I'd ordered that everyone be retried. Then he set the place on fire to hide what he'd done. He was cleaning up after himself, wasn't he? I wonder, was he responsible for the attack on me that left that scrape on my head? And did he know who I was?"

  "Lady Queen," said Thiel, alarmed. "You're speaking of a great many things I know nothing about and am distressed to hear of. You never told us you were attacked before this. And Runnemood never spoke of paying people to kill other people."

  "Until tonight," Bitterblue said, "when he told you he'd hired people to kill me."

  "Until tonight," Thiel whispered. "He told me that you'd made friends with the wrong sorts of people, Lady Queen. Do not ask me to explain it beyond that, because all I can think is that he was mad."

  "Madness is such a convenient explanation," Bitterblue said sarcastically, rising to her feet again. "Where is he, Thiel?"

  "Truly, I don't know, Lady Queen," Thiel said, beginning to rise. "I didn't see him again after I left him in the passage."

  "Sit down," Bitterblue snapped, wanting to be taller than him, wanting to be able to look down on him. He sat abruptly. "Why did you send no one after him? You let him go!"

  "I was thinking of you, Lady Queen," he cried. "Not him!"

  "You let him go!" she said again in frustration.

  "I'll find out where he is, Lady Queen. I'll find out about all these things you've said, all these crimes you think he's been committing."

  "No," she said. "Someone else will find out for me. You're no longer in my employ, Thiel."

  "What?" he exclaimed. "Lady Queen, please. You can't!"

  "Can't I? Can't I really? Do you understand what you've done? How can I trust you if you shield me from the atrocities of my own advisers? I'm trying to be a queen here, Thiel. A queen, not a child to be protected from the truth!" Her voice, rough and broken, forced its way out of her injured throat. He'd hurt her with this thing, more than she'd thought it possible for a stiff, emotionless old man to do. "You lied to me," she said. "You led me to believe that I could count on you to help me be a righteous queen."

  "You are a righteous queen, Lady Queen," he said. "Your mother would be—"

  "Don't you dare," she hissed, talking over him. "Don't you dare use the memory of my mother to call on my mercy."

  There was a moment of silence. He hung his head, seeming to understand. "You must consider, Lady Queen," he whispered, "that we were students together. He was my friend long before Leck. We suffered a great deal together. You must also consider that you were ten years old. Then before I knew it you were a woman of eighteen, going around on your own, discovering perilous truths, and, apparently, running through the streets at night. You must allow me time to adjust."

  "I'm going to allow you plenty of time," she said. "Stay away until you've decided to make a habit of the truth."

  "I decide it now, Lady Queen," he said, blinking back his shocked tears. "I will not lie to you again. I swear it."

  "I'm afraid I don't believe you."

  "Lady Queen," he said, "I beg you. Now that you're injured, you'll have even greater need of help."

  "Then I shall only wish to be surrounded by those who are helpful," she said to the man who kept everything running. "Get out," she said. "Go to your rooms and think things through. When you suddenly remember where Runnemood went, send us a note."

  He pushed himself to his feet, not looking at her. Quietly, he left the room.

  "WHILE I HAVE this horrible cast on my arm," she said that night to Helda, "I need to be able to dress and undress without this rigmarole."

  "Yes," Helda said, breaking the seam of Bitterblue's sleeve and easing the garment over the cast. She'd had to sew Bitterblue into her dress that morning. "I've a few ideas, Lady Queen, to do with open sleeves and buttons. Sit down, my dear. Don't even move; I'll untie this scarf and deal with all these underthings. I'll put you into your shift."

  "No," Bitterblue said. "No shift."

  "Far be it from me, Lady Queen, to stop you if you wish to sleep with nothing on, but you have a small fever. I do believe you'll be more comfortable with an extra layer of warmth."

  She wasn't going to fight with Helda about the shift, because she didn't want Helda to suspect her reason for not wanting it. But, oh, how much she ached, and how wearying to add removing the rutting shift to the list of impossible tasks she was going to have to complete in order to sneak out tonight. When Helda began to pull her hairpins out and unravel her hair, Bitterblue stopped herself again from arguing, and said, "Would you braid it in one long braid for me, please, Helda?"

  Finally, Helda was gone, the lamps were extin
guished, and Bitterblue lay on her right side in bed, throbbing so mightily that she wondered if it was possible for one small queen in one big bed to start an earthquake.

  Well. No point in delaying.

  Sometime later, with gasping breath and a pounding head, Bitterblue left her rooms and began the long trek through corridors and down stairways. She wouldn't think about her one-armedness, or the lack of knives in her sleeves. There were a great many things she wouldn't think about tonight; she would trust to luck and hope she encountered no one.

  Then, in the great courtyard, a person stepped out of the shad

  ows and stood in her path. He let off gleams of light, softly visible in the torches, as he always did.

  "Please don't make me stop you," Po said. It wasn't a joke or a warning. It was a true plea. "I will if I have to, but it'll only make both of us more sick."

  "Oh, Po," she said, then went to him and hugged him with her one good arm.

  He put his arm around her uninjured side, held her tight, and sighed, slowly, into her hair, balancing himself against her. When she rested her ear against his chest, she could hear his flying heartbeat. Slowly, it calmed. He said, "Are you determined to go out?"

  "I want to tell Saf and Teddy about Runnemood," she said. "I want to ask if anything's changed with the crown, and I need to tell Saf again that I'm sorry."

  "Will you wait until tomorrow, and let me send someone to bring them to you?"

  It was bliss, the very idea of being allowed to turn around and go back to her bed. "Will you do it early?"

  "Yes. Will you sleep, so that when they come, it won't exhaust you to talk to them?"

  "Yes," she said. "All right."

  "All right," he said, sighing again above her. "When Madlen stepped out for a moment today, Beetle, I followed the tunnel under the east wall."

  "What? Po, you'll never get healthy!"

  Po snorted. "Yes, we should all take your advice on such matters. It starts at a door behind a hanging, in an east corridor on the ground floor. It lets out into a teeny, dark alleyway in the east city, near the base of Winged Bridge."

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