Bitterblue, p.28
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       Bitterblue, p.28

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  It was the minutes spent in Helda's room, remembering the feeling of a different time, that caused Bitterblue to become curious about another missing piece, and wonder if it might answer any of her questions. She wanted, finally, to see the rooms that had been Leck's.

  THE HORSE IN the sitting room hanging that covered Leck's door had sad green eyes that stared into Bitterblue's. Its forelock hung into those eyes, a more violet blue than the dark, deep blue of its fur, making her think of Saf. Helda helped her push the hanging aside.

  The investigation of the door behind did not take long. It was solid, immovable wood, tight in its frame, and it seemed to be locked. There was a keyhole, and Bitterblue remembered Leck using a key. "Who do we know who can pick locks?" she asked. "I've never seen Saf do it, but I wouldn't put it past him. Or, I wonder if Po could find us the key?"

  "Lady Queen," said a voice behind them, making Bitterblue jump. She turned to find Fox in the doorway.

  "I didn't hear the doors open," said Bitterblue.

  "Forgive me, Lady Queen," said Fox, stepping into the room. "I didn't mean to take you by surprise. If it's any use to you, Lady Queen, I have lock picks that I've been learning how to use. I thought it might be a practical skill for a spy," she said, a bit defensively, when Helda gazed at her with eyebrows raised. "It was Ornik's idea."

  "You seem to be developing a friendship with the handsome young smith," said Helda evenly. "Just remember that while he is a Council ally, Fox, and though he helped us with the matter of the crown, he is not a spy. He has no right to your information."

  "Of course not, Helda," said Fox, sounding mildly offended.

  "Well," Bitterblue said. "Do you have the lock picks with you?"

  Fox produced from her pocket a cord on which hung an assortment of files, picks, and hooks, tied together so they wouldn't jingle. When she pulled away the tie, Bitterblue saw that the metal was scratched and rough in places, rust smoothed away.

  It took Fox several minutes of fiddling, which she performed carefully, on her knees, her ear to the door. Finally, a heavy click sounded. "That's it," she said, standing, grasping a handle, then pushing. The door didn't move. She tried pulling.

  "I remember that it opened in," said Bitterblue. "And I never saw him struggling with it."

  "Well then, something is blocking it, Lady Queen," said Fox, pushing harder on the wood with her shoulder. "I'm quite sure I've unlocked it."

  "Ah," said Helda. "Look." She pointed to a place in the middle of the door where the sharp tip of a nail peeked through the surface of the wood. "Perhaps it's boarded up from the inside, Lady Queen."

  "Boarded and locked," said Bitterblue, sighing. "Is either of you any good at mazes?"

  * * * * *

  AS FOX AND Bitterblue descended the stairway that had dropped Bitterblue into Leck's maze once before, Fox explained her theory about mazes: once inside, one should choose one hand, the left or the right, put it to the wall, then follow the maze all the way through, keeping that same hand to the wall. Eventually, one would reach the heart of the maze.

  "A guard did something like that with me last time," said Bitterblue. "But it won't work if we happen to start against a wall that's an island, detached from the rest of the maze," she added, thinking it through. "We'll put our hands on the right-hand wall. If we end up where we started, then we'll know it's an island. We'll take the next possible left turn, then return to putting our hands on the right-hand wall. That'll work. Oh," she said in dismay. "Unless we come up against another island. Then we'll have to do it all over again, plus, keep remembering what we've already done. Balls. We should've brought markers to put down in the passageway."

  "Why don't we just try it, Lady Queen," Fox said, "and see how it goes?"

  IT WAS QUITE disorienting. Mazes were made for Katsa, with her unreal sense of direction, or Po, who could see through walls. Luckily, Fox had had the foresight to bring a lamp. After exactly forty-three turns with their hands on the right wall, they came upon a door in the middle of a corridor.

  The door, of course, was locked.

  "Well," said Bitterblue as Fox knelt again and began her patient poking, "at least we know this one can't be boarded up from the inside. Unless the person boarded up both doors, then stayed inside to die, and we're about to find his rotted corpse," she said, chuckling at her own morbid joke. "Or unless, of course," she added, groaning, "there's a third way to exit Leck's rooms. A secret passage we don't know about yet."

  "Secret passage, Lady Queen?" said Fox absently, her ear to the door.

  "The castle seems to be full of them, Fox," said Bitterblue.

  "I had no idea, Lady Queen," said Fox. A quiet click sounded. When Fox grasped the door handle and pushed, the door swung open.

  Holding her breath, not certain what to steel herself against, but steeling herself nonetheless, Bitterblue stepped into a dark room full of tall shadows. The shadows were so human in form that she let out a gasp.

  "Sculptures, Lady Queen," said Fox calmly, behind her. "I believe they're sculptures."

  The room smelled of dust and had no windows. It was cavernous and square with no furniture, except for a single, massive, empty bed frame in the center of the room. The sculptures, on pedestals, filled the rest of the space; there must have been forty of them. Walking among them with Fox and the lantern was a bit like walking among the shrubberies of the great courtyard at night, for they loomed in just the same way, all seeming as if they were about to come alive and start striding around.

  She could see that they were the work of Bellamew. Animals turning into each other, people turning into animals, people turning into mountains or trees, all with a vitality, a sense of movement and feeling. Then the lamp caught a strange blotch of color and Bitterblue realized something was peculiar about these sculptures. Not just peculiar, but wrong: They were slapped over with gaudy, bright paint of every color, paint that made spatters all across the rug.

  She had expected weapons of torture in this room, perhaps. A collection of knives, stains of blood. But not ruined art arranged on a ruined rug, surrounding the skeleton of a bed.

  He destroyed the sculptures in his rooms. Why?

  The walls all around were covered with continuous hangings. A field of grass, turning to wildflowers, then into a thick forest of trees that gave way to wildflowers again, then to the field of grass it had started with. Bitterblue touched the forest on the wall, just to assure herself that it wasn't real, only a hanging. Dust rose; she sneezed. She saw a tiny owl, turquoise and silver, sleeping in the limbs of one of the trees.

  Built into the back wall of the room was a door. It led to nothing more than a bathing room, functional, cold, ordinary. Another door opened to a closet space, empty and choked with dust. She could not stop sneezing.

  A third doorway in the back wall, this one a simple opening with no door, led to a spiral staircase climbing up. At the top of the stairs was a door so thoroughly nailed over with boards that it was difficult to catch a glimpse of the door itself. Bitterblue pounded and called Helda's name. When Helda responded, her question was answered: This was the staircase that led up to Bitterblue's sitting room and the blue horse hanging.

  Down the steps again, Bitterblue said to Fox, "It's creepy, isn't it?"

  "It's fascinating, Lady Queen," said Fox, stopping before the room's tiniest sculpture, staring at it, mesmerized. It was a human child, perhaps two years old, kneeling with arms outstretched. A girl with something knowing in her eyes. Her arms and hands were turning to wings. Her wispy hair was sprouting feathers, her toes turning into talons. Leck had slapped a streak of red paint across her face, but it didn't manage to deaden the expression in her eyes.

  Why would he try to ruin something so beautiful? What is the world he was trying, and failing, to create?

  What is the world Runnemood is trying to create? And why must they both create their worlds by destroying?


  IN THE MORNING, Madlen arrived, rebandaged B
itterblue's shoulder wound, gave her medicines, and commanded her, with clear and specific instructions, to take them, even the bitter ones that were nauseating to swallow. "They will help your bones knit together, Lady Queen," she said, "faster than they could on their own. Are you doing the exercises I prescribed?"

  The sun rose while Bitterblue grumbled over breakfast, but dimly. When she dragged herself to the windows in search of light, she discovered a world of fog. Fighting to make out the back garden through the whiteness, she thought she saw a person standing on the garden wall. The person threw something into the garden, a small, slender, gliding thing, bright white and slashing a streak through the thick air.

  It was Po with his stupid paper glider. As she recognized him, he raised an arm in greeting to her, then lost his balance, spun both arms like a windmill, and promptly fell off the wall. Somehow he managed to propel himself into the garden rather than into the river. Most certainly Po, and most certainly not well enough to be doing gymnastics in the back garden.

  Bitterblue glanced at Madlen and Helda, who sat at the sitting room table murmuring over their morning cups. If Po had escaped from the infirmary again, she didn't want to give him away. "I feel like a bit of air before I go to my office," she said. "If Rood or Darby come for me, tell them to stuff themselves."

  A grand production followed this announcement. The choosing and placement of a scarf, the positioning of her sword, the draping of a cloak over her bound arm. Finally, feeling like a moving coatrack, Bitterblue left them. Helda had altered her skirts so that they made wide, flowing trouser legs like Fox's, and found time yesterday, somehow, to fit the left sleeve of this particular gown with buttons. It seemed that Bitterblue had only to mention a species of attire she liked, and Helda would hand it to her a few days later.

  Except, of course, the crown.

  IN THE GARDEN, the sculpture of the woman turning into a mountain lion stood stark, screaming. Patches of fog hugged her and drifted away. How did Bellamew make her eyes so alive? Then recognition settled into Bitterblue. She registered the shape of the face, the eyes full of determination and pain. This figure was her mother.

  For some reason, the fact of it didn't surprise her. Neither did the sadness of it. It seemed right to her; the sculpture didn't just look, but felt, like Ashen. She was grateful to it for grounding her in the certainty that she had indeed, at least some of the time, known her mother.

  "What are you holding there?" Po called to her, for Bitterblue had brought Teddy's list of guilty lords and ladies.

  "What are you holding?" she asked him as she approached him, meaning the paper glider. "Why are you throwing that thing around my garden?"

  He shrugged. "I wondered how it would do in cold, wet air."

  "Cold, wet air."


  "How it would do what, exactly?"

  "Fly, of course; it's all about the principles of flight. I study birds, especially when they're gliding, and this paper thing is my attempt to study it further. But my progress is slow. My Grace isn't so finely tuned that I can grasp all the details of what happens in the few seconds before it crashes."

  "I see," Bitterblue said. "And you're doing this why?"

  He propped his elbows on the wall. "Katsa has wondered if a person could ever build wings to fly with."

  "What do you mean, to fly with?" said Bitterblue, suddenly irate.

  "You know what I mean."

  "You'll only encourage her to believe it can be done."

  "I have no doubt it can be done."

  "To what purpose?" snapped Bitterblue.

  Po's eyebrows rose. "Flying would be its own purpose, Cousin. Don't worry, no one would ever expect the queen to do it."

  No, I'll be left with the honor of planning the funerals.

  The smallest grin lighting his face, Po said, "Your turn. What did you bring me?"

  "I wanted to read the names on this list to you," she said, shaking the paper open one-handed, "so that if you ever hear anything about any of them, you can tell me."

  "I'm listening," he said.

  "A Lord Stanpost who lives two days' ride south from the city collected more girls from his town for Leck than any other person," said Bitterblue. "A Lady Hood came in a close second, but she is dead now. In central Monsea, townspeople starved to death in a town governed by a lord named Markam who taxed them cruelly. There are a few more lords' names here"—Bitterblue listed them— "but half of them are dead, Po, and none of them are names I know, beyond useless statistics given me by my advisers."

  "None of the names are familiar to me either," said Po, "but I'll make a few inquiries, when I can. Who've you shared the list with?"

  "Captain Smit of the Monsean Guard. I've told him to look for connections between Runnemood and these names, and also try to find if Runnemood arranged Ivan's murder, or just Saf's framing."


  "The engineer Runnemood framed Saf for killing. I shared it with my spies too, just to see if they came back with information that matches Smit's."

  "Don't you trust Smit?"

  "I'm not sure I trust anyone, Po," said Bitterblue, sighing. "Though it is a relief to be talking with the Monsean Guard about the truthseeker killings, and finally have their help."

  "Give the list to Giddon too, when he gets back from Estill. He's been gone nearly three weeks; he should return soon."

  "Yes," said Bitterblue. "I do trust Giddon."

  Po paused. "Yes," he said, a bit gloomily.

  "What is it, Po?" Bitterblue asked softly. "You know he'll forgive you in time."

  Po snorted. "Oh, Beetle," he said. "I'm scared to death to tell my father and brothers about it. They'll be even more angry than Giddon."

  "Hm," said Bitterblue. "Have you decided for certain to do so?"

  "No," he said. "I want to talk it over with Katsa first."

  Bitterblue took a moment to take better hold of all the opinions and anxieties she knew she was flinging at him, including her worries over how a talk like that would go, and why Katsa wasn't back yet if all she was doing was exploring a tunnel somewhere. "Well, Ror knows about you and the Council," she said, "doesn't he?"


  "And he's learned about Skye's preference for men. Hasn't he made his peace with those surprises?"

  "It wasn't a small matter in either case," Po said. "There was a great deal of yelling."

  "You seem like a person who can handle a bit of yelling," she said lightly.

  His smile was both hopeless and teary. "Ror and me yelling and Katsa and me yelling are two different creatures entirely," he said. "He's my father, and a king. And I've been lying to him for my entire life. He's so proud of me, Bitterblue. His disappointment is going to be crushing, and I'll feel it in his every breath."



  "When my mother was eighteen and Leck chose her, who gave permission for the match?"

  Po considered. "My father was king. It would have been him, at Ashen's request."

  "I think Ror must know how it feels to have betrayed someone he loves, Po."

  "But of course, it wasn't his fault. Leck came to his court and manipulated everyone there."

  "How much comfort do you suppose Ror gets from that?" she asked quietly. "He was her king and her older brother. He sent her away to be tortured."

  "I expect you're trying to comfort me," Po said with slumped shoulders. "But all I can think is that if Ror had known I was a mind reader at the time, he could have introduced me to Leck during that visit, for the purpose of investigating his sister's potential husband. And maybe I could have prevented the entire thing."

  "How old were you?"

  Po took a moment to calculate. "Four," he said, seeming surprised by the answer.

  "Po," she said. "What do you think Leck would have done to a four-year-old who knew his secret and was trying to get others to see it too?"

  Po didn't answer.

  "It was your mother who compelled you to lie abo
ut your Grace, wasn't it?"

  "And my grandfather," Po said. "For my own safety. They feared my father would use me."

  "They did right," Bitterblue said. "If they hadn't, you'd be dead. When Ror thinks all this through, he will see that everyone has done the best they could think to do at every moment. He'll forgive you."

  IN HER OFFICE, there were certain things Bitterblue no longer felt the need to pretend she didn't know. Rood and Darby might not know the origins of her friendship with Teddy and Saf, but the fact that she might be privy to the things they knew was no longer a secret.

  "I understand that Runnemood has made a shambles of the city schools," she said to Rood and Darby both. "I understand that hardly anyone is taught history or how to read, which is an utter disgrace, and a problem we're going to address immediately. What do the two of you suggest?"

  "Forgive me, Lady Queen," said Darby, who was sweating, his face clammy and wet. As he spoke, he began to tremble. "I feel terribly ill." He turned and ran out the door.

  "What is wrong with him?" asked Bitterblue pointedly, knowing the answer.

  "He's trying not to drink, Lady Queen, now that Thiel's absence makes a necessity of our presence," said Rood in a calm voice. "The sickness will pass once he succeeds."

  Bitterblue studied Rood. His sleeve-ends were stained with ink, and his white hair, combed carefully across the bald part of his head, was slipping out of place. His eyes were quiet and sad. "I wonder why I haven't worked more closely with you, Rood," she said. "I think you pretend less than the others."

  "Then perhaps, Lady Queen," said Rood, with a small hesitation that she took for modest embarrassment, "we can work closely on this matter of the schools. What if we were to create a new ministry, dedicated to education? I could present you with suitable candidates to fill the role of minister."

  "Well," said Bitterblue, "I can see that it would make sense to assemble a dedicated team, though perhaps we're already getting ahead of ourselves." She glanced at the tall clock against the wall. "Where's Captain Smit?" she added, for Smit had promised a report to her on the Runnemood search in person every morning. The morning was nearly past.

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