Bitterblue, p.27
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       Bitterblue, p.27

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "Do you think he escaped into the east city, then?"

  "I suppose so," Po said. "I'm sorry my range doesn't extend that far. And I'm sorry I never took time to talk to him and pick up that something was wrong. I haven't been much use to you since I got here."

  "Po. You've been ill, and before that, you were busy. We'll find him, and then you can talk to him."

  He didn't respond, just rested his head on her hair.

  She asked, once, whispering, "Have you heard anything from Katsa?"

  He shook his head no.

  "Are you ready for her to come back?"

  "I'm not ready for anything," he said. "But that doesn't mean I don't want things to happen."

  "What's that supposed to mean?"

  "I want her to come back. Is that a good enough answer?"

  Yes.

  "To bed?" he said.

  Yes, all right.

  BEFORE FALLING ASLEEP, she read a fragment of embroidery.

  Thiel reaches his limit every day yet goes on. Perhaps only because I beg him. Most would rather forget and obey unthinking than face truth of mad world Leck tries to create.

  Tries and, I think, sometimes fails. He destroyed sculptures in his rooms today. Why? Also took his favorite sculptor Bellamew away. We'll never see her again. Success at destruction. But failure at something, for he cannot be satisfied. Fits of temper.

  He's too interested in Bitterblue. I must get her away. That's why I beg Thiel to hold on.

  26

  "I'M SURPRISED TO see you," Bitterblue said the next morning to Rood as she entered her tower office. He was quiet and grim in the absence of his brother, but not meek, not shaking. Clearly not in the throes of a nervous episode.

  "I've had a bad twenty-four hours, Lady Queen," he said quietly. "I won't pretend otherwise. But Thiel came to me last night and impressed upon me how much I'm needed right now."

  When Rood suffered, his suffering was present and material; he didn't hide behind emptiness. It was a frankness that made Bitterblue want to trust him. "How much of this did you know?" she ventured.

  "I haven't been my brother's confidant for some years, Lady Queen," he said. "Frankly, it's best that it was Thiel he encountered in the halls that night. He might have walked right past me and never said a word, and it was his speaking that saved your life."

  "Has the Monsean Guard questioned you about where he might have gone, Rood?"

  "Indeed, Lady Queen," he said. "I fear I was useless to them. I, my wife, my sons, and my grandchildren are his only living family, Lady Queen, and the castle is the only home we've ever known. He and I grew up here, you know, Lady Queen. Our parents were royal healers."

  "I see." This man who tiptoed around cringing at everything had a wife, sons, and grandchildren? Were they joys for him? Did he eat with them every night and wake up with them in the morning, and did they comfort him when he was ill? Runnemood seemed so cold and aloof in contrast. Bitterblue couldn't imagine having a sibling and walking past that person blindly in the halls.

  "Do you have family, Darby?" she asked her yellow-green-eyed adviser the next time he came rattling up the stairs.

  "I had family once," he responded, wrinkling his nose in distaste.

  "You . . ." Bitterblue hesitated. "You weren't fond of them, Darby?"

  "It's more that I haven't thought of them in some time, Lady Queen."

  She was tempted to ask Darby what he did think of, ever, while he was running around like a manic apparatus designed for dispensing paperwork. "I confess I'm surprised to see you in the offices today too, Darby."

  Darby looked into her eyes and held them, which startled her, because she couldn't remember him ever having done that before. She saw then how dreadful he looked, his eyes bloodshot and too wide, as if he were forcing them open. A tremor in the muscles of his face that she hadn't noticed before. "Thiel threatened me, Lady Queen," he said. Then he handed her one paper and one folded note, swept up her outgoing pile, and flipped through it with an expression as if he'd like to punish any piece of paper in the stack that was not in perfect order. Bitterblue imagined him poking holes in the papers with a letter opener, then holding them too close to the fire while they screamed.

  "You are an odd bird, Darby," she said aloud.

  "Hmph," Darby said, then left her alone. Being in her tower office without Thiel gave her a strange sense of suspension, as if she were waiting for the workday to begin. For Thiel to walk back in from whatever errand he was on and keep her company. How furi ous she was with him for doing something that had forced her to send him away.

  The piece of paper Darby had brought listed the results of Runnemood's latest literacy survey. In both castle and city, the statistics hovered around eighty percent. Of course, there was no earthly reason to believe that they were accurate.

  The note, written in graphite, was in Po's large, careful hand. Briefly, it told her that Teddy and Saf had been summoned and would meet her in her library alcove at noon.

  She went to an east-facing window, worried, suddenly, about how Teddy was going to manage the trip. Leaning her forehead against the glass, she breathed through pain and dizziness. The sky was the color of steel, a late-autumn sky, though it was only October. The bridges stood like mirages, gorgeously grand as they reached across the river. Squinting, she understood what was happening with the air that seemed to change color and move. Snowflakes. Not a storm, just a spitting, the first of the season.

  Later, when she left for the library, she stopped in the lower offices to look out over all the clerks who worked here every day. She supposed they numbered thirty-five or forty at any time, depending on . . . well, she didn't really know what it depended on. Where did her clerks go when they weren't here? Did they march around the castle checking on . . . things? A castle was chock-full of things to check on, wasn't it?

  Bitterblue made a mental note to ask Madlen whether the medications she was taking for pain were dulling her intellect or whether she actually was stupid. A youngish clerk named Froggatt, perhaps thirty years old with bouncy dark hair, stood bent over a table nearby. He straightened himself and asked her if she needed anything.

  "No, thank you, Froggatt," she said.

  "We're all extremely relieved that you survived the attack, Lady Queen," said Froggatt.

  Surprised, she looked into his face, then studied the other faces in the room. They'd all stood, of course, when she'd walked in, and now stared back at her, waiting for her to go, so that they could get back to work. Were they relieved? Really? She knew their names, but nothing about their lives, their personalities, or their histories, other than that they had all worked in her father's administration, for varying lengths of time, depending on their ages. If one of them disappeared and no one told her, she might never notice. If told, how much would she feel?

  And it wasn't relief she saw in their faces. It was a blankness, as if they didn't see her, as if their lives existed only inside the paperwork each of them was waiting to return to.

  NO ONE WAS in her library alcove except for the woman in the hanging and the young, castle-turning version of herself.

  It seemed ironic, somehow, to stand before the sculpture in the state Bitterblue was in now. The sculpture girl's arm was turning into a rock tower with soldiers, strengthening itself, becoming its own protection. Bitterblue's real-life arm was affixed to her side with a sling. Like a reflection in a depressing, distorted mirror, she thought.

  She heard steps. Then Holt appeared through the bookshelves, one hand clamped on Teddy's arm and the other on Saf 's. Teddy kept turning in circles and, whenever he reached the end of his tether, spinning back again, eyes big as saucers. "The Linguistic Geography of Estill, East and Far East !" he exclaimed, reaching to the shelves for that title, then grunting as Holt tugged him on.

  "Easy with the manhandling, Holt," Bitterblue said, a little alarmed. "Teddy doesn't deserve it. And I expect Saf gets too much pleasure out of it," she added, taking in Saf 's righteous
indignation as he tried to shake Holt off. Saf had fresh bruises. They gave him the look of a hooligan.

  "I'll be within calling distance, Lady Queen, should you need me," Holt said. With one last, silver-gray glare at Saf, he stalked away.

  "Did you get here all right, Teddy?" she asked. "You didn't walk?"

  "No, Lady Queen," Teddy said. "We were picked up in a lovely carriage. And you, Lady Queen? You're all right?"

  "Yes, of course," Bitterblue said, moving to the table, pulling out a chair for him one-handed. "Sit down."

  Teddy sat carefully, then touched the leather of the manuscript on the table before him. His eyes widened as he read the label. Then filled with wonder as he began to read more labels.

  "You may take as many of them as you like, Teddy," Bitterblue said. "I hoped to hire you to print them. If you have friends with presses, I'd like to hire them too."

  "Thank you, Lady Queen," Teddy whispered. "I accept gladly."

  Bitterblue dared a glance at Saf, who stood with his hands in his pockets, carefully looking bored. "I understand that I owe you my gratitude," she said to him.

  "I like a fight," he said shortly. "Are we here for a reason?"

  "I have news to tell you about my adviser Runnemood."

  "We know it," said Saf.

  "How?"

  "When the Monsean Guard, the Queen's Guard, and the Lienid Door Guard are scouring the city for a queen's man who tried to have her killed, people tend to hear about it," said Saf coldly.

  "You always know more than I expect."

  "Don't condescend," Saf snapped.

  "I would very much like if we could talk," she said tightly, "rather than fight. Because you tend to know so much, I wonder what else you might be able to tell me about Runnemood. Namely, how much crime he's responsible for, why on earth he's doing it, and where he's gone. I've learned that he's the one who arranged to have you framed, Saf. What else can you tell me? Was he behind your stabbing, Teddy?"

  "I've no idea, Lady Queen," said Teddy. "About that or about all the rest of the killing. It is a bit difficult to believe that one man could be behind it all, isn't it? We're talking about dozens of deaths in the last few years, and when I say that, I mean all kinds of victims. Not just thieves or other criminals like us; people whose greatest crime is teaching others to read."

  "Teaching others to read," said Bitterblue desolately. "Truly? Then you were hiding those reading lessons from me. It's dangerous for you to print them, I suppose? But I don't understand. Aren't people taught to read in the schools?"

  "Oh, Lady Queen," said Teddy, "the city schools, with few exceptions, are in a shambles. The court-appointed teachers aren't qualified to teach. The children who can read are taught at home, or by people like me, or Bren or Tilda. History is also neglected—no one is taught Monsea's recent history."

  Bitterblue fought down a rising fury. "As usual, I had no idea," she said. "And schooling in the city does fall under Runnemood's jurisdiction. But what can it mean? It almost seems like Runnemood took the policy of forward-thinkingness and ran completely amok with it. Why? What do we know of him? Who could have influenced him?"

  Teddy reached into a pocket. "That reminds me, Lady Queen. I made you a list again, in case you lost yours when you were attacked."

  "A list?"

  "Of lords and ladies who stole most grievously for Leck's sake, Lady Queen. Remember?"

  "Oh, yes," said Bitterblue. "Of course. Thank you. And Teddy, anything you can tell me to keep me appraised of the situation in the city will help me, do you understand? I can't see it from my tower," she said. "The truth of the lives of my people is never in any of the papers that cross my desk. Will you help me?"

  "Of course, Lady Queen."

  "And the crown?" she asked, resting her eyes again on Saf 's hard face.

  He shrugged. "I can't find Gray."

  "Are you looking?"

  "Yes, I'm looking," he said peevishly. "It's not my biggest worry at the moment."

  "What worry could be greater?" she snapped at him.

  "Oh, I don't know," he said, "perhaps your insane adviser who tried to kill me once and is now loose in the east city somewhere?"

  "Find Gray," Bitterblue ordered.

  "Of course, Your Royal Majestic Highness."

  "Saf," said Teddy quietly. "Think about whether you're being fair when you continue to punish our Sparks."

  Saf turned and marched to the hanging, where he glared at the strange-haired lady with his arms crossed. And it took Bitterblue a moment to catch her breath, for she hadn't dreamed she'd ever be allowed to hear that name again.

  After a moment, she said, "Will you take a few of the books, then, Teddy?"

  "We'll take them all," Teddy said, "every one, Lady Queen. But perhaps only two or three at a time, for Saf is right. I don't want to attract the wrong kinds of attention. I've had enough of fire."

  AFTER THEY'D GONE, Bitterblue sat for a few moments with Death's rewritten manuscripts, trying to decide which one to start next. When Death stumped along and waved a reread at her, she said, "What is it about?"

  "The artistic process, Lady Queen," he said.

  "Why did my father want me to read about the artistic process?"

  "How should I know, Lady Queen? He was obsessed with art and his artists. Perhaps he wanted you to be too."

  "Obsessed?" she said. "Really?"

  "Lady Queen," said Death, "do you walk around the castle with your eyes closed?"

  Bitterblue grasped her temples and counted to ten. "Death," she said, "what would you say to my giving a few of these rewrites to a friend who has a printing press?"

  Death blinked. "Lady Queen," he said, "these manuscripts, like everything else in this library, are yours with which to do whatever you like." He was silent for a moment. "I can only hope that you'll find yourself wishing to give all of them to this friend."

  Bitterblue peered at him. "I would like to keep the transfer secret," she said, "for my friend's sake, at least until Runnemood is found and all this mystery is cleared up. You'll keep the secret, won't you, Death?"

  "Of course I will, Lady Queen," said Death, clearly insulted by the question. He dumped the book about the artistic process onto the table and retreated in a huff.

  * * * * *

  "I'M WORRIED ABOUT Teddy and Saf," Bitterblue said to Helda later. "Would it be unreasonable to ask my Lienid Door Guard to spare a few men to keep an eye out for them?"

  "Of course not, Lady Queen," said Helda. "They'd do anything you ask."

  "I know they'll do what I order. That doesn't make my order reasonable."

  "I meant they'll do it out of loyalty, of course, Lady Queen," Helda chided her, "not obligation. They worry about you and your worries. You realize that they're the reason I've always known about your sneaking out, don't you? They're the ones who always told me."

  Bitterblue absorbed this with some embarrassment. "They weren't supposed to have recognized me."

  "They've been guarding you for eight years, Lady Queen," said Helda. "Do you really think they haven't learned your stance, your walk, your voice?"

  I've walked past them countless times, Bitterblue thought, thinking of them as nothing more than bodies standing beside a door. Liking their presence because they look and sound like my mother. "When will I truly wake up?"

  "Lady Queen?"

  "How much more is there that I'm not seeing, Helda?"

  Bitterblue was in Helda's rooms because she wanted to take a look at all of the scarves Helda kept producing from the back of her wardrobe to hide Bitterblue's bruises. "I don't understand," Bitterblue went on as Helda pushed the doors open further, revealing shelves full of fabrics that slung little arrows of memory into Bitterblue's heart. "I didn't know you had them. Why do you have them?"

  "When I came to serve you, Lady Queen," said Helda, pulling

  scarves out and handing them to Bitterblue to touch, to wonder at, "I found that the servants assigned to the task had done rath
er an over-zealous cleaning of your mother's cabinets. King Ror had saved a few things he'd recognized as Lienid, like the scarves, and anything very valuable, Lady Queen. But the rest, her gowns, her coats, her shoes, were all gone. I took what was left. I put the jewelry in your chest, as you know, and decided to keep the scarves for you until you were older. I'm sorry it was the need to hide the marks of an attack that brought them to mind again, Lady Queen," she added.

  "But that's how memory works," Bitterblue said quietly. "Things disappear without your permission, then come back again without your permission." And sometimes they came back incomplete and warped.

  There was an aspect of memory that Bitterblue had been trying to come to terms with lately, one so hurtful that she had not managed yet to face it full on. Her memories of Ashen were a series of snippets. Many of them were moments that had transpired in Leck's presence, which meant that Bitterblue had not even been in her right mind. When they'd been without Leck, they'd spent much of that time fighting Leck's brain fog away. Leck hadn't just stolen Ashen from Bitterblue by killing her. He'd stolen her before that, as well. Bitterblue could not imagine the person Ashen would be today, were she alive. It was not fair that she should find herself doubting, at times, how well she'd ever known her mother.

  Even Helda's rooms, the simple, small bedroom in green and the bathing room in turquoise, disconcerted Bitterblue, for they had been her own bedroom and bathing room while Ashen was alive. Bitterblue's current bedroom had been Ashen's. Ashen had bathed her in what was now Helda's turquoise tub, locking the door against Leck, talking with her about all kinds of things. Ror City, where she'd lived in the king's castle, the most massive building in the world, its domes and turrets high in the sky above the Lienid Sea. Ashen's father, her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Her oldest brother, Ror, the king. The people she missed who'd never met Bitterblue but would someday. Her rings, flashing in the water.

  All of that was real, thought Bitterblue stubbornly.

  She remembered a rough spot on one of the tiles of the tub that had scraped her arm from time to time. She remembered pointing it out to Ashen. Marching now to the tub, she was able to find the sharp little spot immediately. "There," she said, fingering it with a furious sort of triumph.

 

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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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