Bitterblue, p.29
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       Bitterblue, p.29

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "Shall I seek him out, Lady Queen?"

  "No. Let's discuss this more. Will you start by explaining to me the way the schools are run now?"

  It was a bit odd to spend such focused time with a person who was liable, at unexpected moments, to bring Runnemood sharply to her mind. Rood's unassuming personality could not have been more different, but the timbre of his voice was similar, especially when he began to feel confident about a thing. So was his face, from certain angles. She glanced at her empty windows now and then, trying to absorb how a man who'd sat in those windows so many times could have been capable of stabbing people to death in their sleep and trying to kill her.

  WHEN NOON CAME and Smit had not yet arrived, Bitterblue decided to go looking for him herself.

  The barracks of the Monsean Guard were just west of the great courtyard, on the castle's first level. Bitterblue swept in.

  "Where is Captain Smit?" she demanded of a tense young man who sat at a desk inside the door. He gawked at her, leapt up, then shuffled her through another door into an office. Bitterblue found herself staring at Captain Smit, who was leaning across an extraordinarily tidy desk and talking to Thiel.

  Both men rose hastily. "Forgive me, Lady Queen," said Thiel in embarrassment. "I was just leaving." And Thiel faded from the room before she was even able to gather how she felt about finding him there.

  "I hope he's not interfering," said Bitterblue to Smit. "He's no longer my adviser. As such, he has no power to compel you to do anything, Captain Smit."

  "On the contrary, Lady Queen," said Captain Smit, bowing neatly. "He was not interfering or commanding, merely answering some questions I had about how Runnemood spent his time. Or rather, trying to answer, Lady Queen. One problem I'm coming up against is that Runnemood was highly secretive and told conflicting stories about where he was going at any given time."

  "I see," said Bitterblue. "And your reason for not reporting to me this morning?"

  "What?" said Captain Smit, glancing at the clock on his desk;

  then startling her by pounding on the top of it with his fist. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Lady Queen," he said in vexation. "My clock keeps stopping. As it happens, I've little to report, but that's no excuse, of course. We've made no progress in the search for Runnemood, nor have I managed to learn anything about any connections he may have had with the individuals on your list. But we've only just begun, Lady Queen. Please don't lose hope; perhaps I'll have something to report to you tomorrow."

  IN THE GREAT courtyard, Bitterblue paused to glare at a shrubbery of a bird, bright with autumn leaves. She was clenching her one good fist, hard.

  Going to the fountain, she sat on the cold edge, trying to work out what she was so frustrated about.

  I suppose this is part of being a queen, she thought. And part of being injured, and part of Saf not wanting me around, and part of everyone knowing where, and who, I am all the time: I must sit and wait while other people run around investigating things, then come back and give me reports. I'm stuck here, waiting, while everyone else has adventures.

  I don't like it.

  "Lady Queen?"

  She looked up to find Giddon standing over her, snowflakes melting in his hair and on his coat. "Giddon! Po was just saying this morning that you should be back soon. I'm so pleased to see you."

  "Lady Queen," he said gravely, running a hand through wet hair. "What happened to your arm?"

  "Oh, that. Runnemood tried to kill me," she said.

  He stared at her in amazement. "Runnemood, your own adviser?"

  "There's a lot going on, Giddon," she said, smiling. "My city

  friend stole my crown. Po's inventing a flying machine. I've dismissed Thiel and discovered that my mother's embroidery is all ciphered messages."

  "I wasn't even gone three weeks!"

  "Po's been sick, you know."

  "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, with no expression.

  "Don't be an ass. He's actually been quite unwell."

  "Oh?" Now Giddon was looking uncomfortable. "What do you mean, Lady Queen?"

  "What do you mean, what do I mean?"

  "I mean, is he all right?"

  "He's a bit better now."

  "Is he—he's not in danger, Lady Queen?"

  "He'll be fine, Giddon," she said, relieved to hear the touch of anxiety in his voice. "I've a list of names to give you. Where are you going first? I'll walk with you."

  GIDDON WAS HUNGRY. Bitterblue was racked with shivers from the cold air and moisture of the fountain, and wanted to hear about Piper's tunnel and Estill. And so he invited her to join him for a meal. When she accepted, he led her through the east vestibule and into a crowded corridor.

  "Where are we going?" she asked.

  "I thought we'd go to the kitchens," Giddon said. "Do you know your kitchens, Lady Queen? They abut the southeast gardens."

  "Once again," said Bitterblue dryly, "you're giving me a tour of my own castle."

  "The Council has contacts there, Lady Queen. I'm hoping Po will join us too. Are you as cold as you look?" he asked.

  She saw what he saw, an approaching man who balanced a colorful tower of blankets in his arms. "Ah, yes," she said. "Let's corral him, Giddon."

  Moments later, Giddon helped her drape a mossy green-gold blanket over her injured arm and her sword. "Very nice," he said. "This color reminds me of my home."

  "Lady Queen," said a woman Bitterblue had never seen before, bustling between her and Giddon. She was tiny, old, wrinkled— shorter even than Bitterblue. "Allow me, Lady Queen," said the woman, grabbing the front of Bitterblue's blanket, which Bitterblue was holding closed with her tired right hand. The woman produced a plain, tin brooch, gathered both sides of the blanket together, and pinned them tight.

  "Thank you," Bitterblue said, astonished. "You must tell me your name so that I can return your brooch to you."

  "My name is Devra, Lady Queen, and I work with the cobbler."

  "The cobbler!" Bitterblue patted the brooch as the traffic in the corridor swept her and Giddon on their way. "I didn't know there was a cobbler," she said aloud to herself, then glanced sidelong at Giddon, sighing. Her blanket trailed behind her like the train of a grand and expensive cape, making her feel, oddly, like a queen.

  BITTERBLUE HAD NEVER heard so much roaring noise or seen so many people working at such a frantic pace as in the kitchens. She was amazed to discover that there was a rather wild-eyed Graceling who could tell from the look and, especially, the smell of a person what would, at that moment, be most satisfying for her or him to eat. "Sometimes it's nice to be told what you want," she said to Giddon, inhaling the steam that rose from her cup of melted chocolate.

  When Po arrived, coming to stand warily before Giddon, mouth tight and arms crossed, Bitterblue saw him as Giddon would and realized that Po had lost weight. After a moment of mutual assessment, Giddon said to him, "You need food. Sit down and let Jass sniff you."

  "He makes me nervous," said Po, obediently sitting down. "I worry about how much he senses."

  "The ironies abound," said Giddon dryly around a spoonful of ham and bean soup. "You look terrible. Have you got your appetite back?"

  "I'm ravenous."

  "Are you cold?"

  "Why, so you can lend me your soggy coat?" asked Po with a sniff at the offending article. "Stop flitting around me like it's my last day. I'm fine. Why is Bitterblue wearing a blanket cape? What did you do to her?"

  "I've always liked you better when Katsa's around," Giddon said. "She's so rotten to me that you seem positively pleasant in contrast."

  Po's mouth twitched. "You provoke her on purpose."

  "She is so easy to provoke," said Giddon, shoving a board of bread and cheese to where Po could reach it. "Sometimes I can do it just with the way I breathe. So," he said brusquely. "We have a few problems and I'll state them plainly. The people of Estill are determined. But it's just as Katsa said: They have no plan beyond deposing Thigpen. And Thigpen has a small orbi
t of favorite lords and ladies, avaricious types, loyal to their king, but even more loyal to themselves. They'll need to be neutralized, every one of them, or else one of them is likely to rise to power in Thigpen's place and be no sort of improvement whatsoever. The people I talked to don't want to have anything to do with the Estillan nobility. They're deeply mistrusting of anyone in Estill who hasn't been suffering as they have."

  "And yet, they trust us?"

  "Yes," Giddon said. "The Council is out of favor with all the worst kings, and the Council helped depose Drowden, so they trust us. I believe that if Raffin went to them next, as the next King of the Middluns and as Randa's disgraced son, he might get through to them, for he's so unpushy. And you need to go too, of course, and do"—Giddon gestured aimlessly with his spoon—"whatever it is you do. I suppose it's best that you didn't join me this time if you were about to fall sick as a dog. But I could've used your company in that tunnel, and I needed you in Estill. I'm sorry, Po."

  Surprise sprang onto Po's face. It was not a thing that Bitterblue got to see there very often. Po cleared his throat, blinking. "I'm sorry too, Giddon," he said, and that was that. Bitterblue was stung with the wish that Saf would forgive her so gracefully.

  Jass came, sniffed Po, resniffed Giddon, and apparently decided that the two of them would find it satisfying to eat half the kitchen. Bitterblue sat, listening to them plot and plan, sipping her chocolate, trying to find a position that hurt less than the others, pulling apart every word of their conversation, and occasionally offering an argument, especially whenever Po veered to the topic of Bitterblue's safety. All the time, she was also absorbing the wonder that was the castle kitchens. The table at which they sat was in a corner near the bakery. From that corner, the walls seemed to spread endlessly in both directions. To one side were the ovens and fireplaces, which were built into the castle's outer walls. The high kitchen windows had no glass, and snowflakes gusted through them now, plopping wetly on stoves and people.

  A mountain of potato peels sat on the floor under a table nearby.

  Anna, the head baker, went to a row of enormous bowls that were covered with cloths, lifted the cloths, and, one after the other, punched down the dough in the bowls. A sharp yell brought a cavalcade of helpers with sleeves rolled, who lined themselves up at the table, took the great gobs of dough from the bowls, and kneaded them, throwing backs and shoulders into the work. Anna also stood in the line, kneading, with one arm. She held her other arm close to her body. There was something in the stiff way it hung that made Bitterblue suspect an injury of some kind. Her working arm muscles bulged as she kneaded, her neck and shoulders bulging too. The strength of her mesmerized Bitterblue, not because she was kneading one-handed but simply because she was kneading, it was work that was both rough and smooth, and Bitterblue wished she could know what that silky dough felt like. She understood that sometime soon—if not tonight, then perhaps tomorrow—if not this batch of dough, then the next one—she would be eating potato bread with her meal.

  It gratified her, in a way that almost hurt, to sit beside the bakery. The warm, yeasty air was so familiar. She breathed it deeply, waking her lungs with it, feeling that she'd been taking shallow breaths for years. The smell of baking bread was so comforting; and the memory of a story she had told to herself, a story she had told Saf, about her work and about her living mother, was so real, so tangible as she sat in this place, and so sad.

  28

  WHEN CAPTAIN SMIT reported the next morning—and the morning after, and the morning after that—that there was nothing to report, Bitterblue began to be amazed by the depths to which her own frustration could plumb. Runnemood had now been missing for six days and no progress whatsoever had been made.

  On the seventh day, when Captain Smit's report was the same, Bitterblue shot up from her desk and began a systematic exploration. If she could pound her feet down every hallway of the castle and clap her hand to every wall, if she could see into every workshop and learn what vista to expect around every corner, then maybe she could calm her restlessness—and her anxieties about Saf as well. For that was part of what was making these empty days so hard to bear: There was no news of Spook or the crown either, and no communication from Teddy or Saf.

  She stomped down the stairs of her tower, greeted the clerks who stared back at her blankly, then went off to look for the cobbler's shop, so that she might return Devra's brooch.

  She found it in the artisan courtyard, which rang with the raps and dings of coopers, carpenters, tinkers. It smelled too of the leather- worker's bitter oils and the chandler's beeswax, and in one shop, a wizened old woman made harps and other musical instruments.

  Why did she never hear music in her castle? For that matter, why did she never encounter a single soul, other than Death, in the library? Surely some people could read. And why, when she walked through the halls, did she get a sense sometimes, looking into people's faces, of a strange thing she couldn't shake—a hard-driven sort of emptiness? They bowed to her, but she wasn't certain that they truly saw her.

  On an upper level in the west castle, she found a barber shop, and beside it, a tiny shop for wig-making. Unaccountably, this delighted her. The next day, she found the children's nursery. The children did not have empty eyes.

  On the day after that—nine days, and no news—she returned to the bakery, sat in the corner for a few minutes, and watched the bakers at work.

  Anna offered an unsolicited explanation for something Bitterblue had, indeed, been wondering. "I was born with an un-working arm, Lady Queen," she said. "You needn't worry that your father was responsible."

  Bitterblue couldn't hide her surprise at being spoken to so candidly. "It's none of my business, but I do thank you for telling me."

  "You seem to like the bakery, Lady Queen," said Anna, kneading a mountain of dough as they conversed.

  "I hesitate to intrude, Anna," said Bitterblue, "but I should like to try kneading the bread one day."

  "Kneading might be just the exercise you need to return your arm to strength once you're out of that cast, Lady Queen. Ask your healer her advice. You're small," she added with a decisive nod. "You may come anytime, work in a corner, and not fear that you'll be in our way."

  Bitterblue reached out. When Anna stilled the dough, Bitterblue laid her palm upon it. It was soft, warm, and dry, and her hand came away with a dusting of flour. For the rest of the day, when she brought her fingers to her nose, she could almost smell it.

  It helped to touch things and know that they were real. Discovering this made her miss Saf with an ache she carried down every hallway, for once upon a time she had been allowed to touch him too.

  ON THE FOURTEENTH day after Runnemood's disappearance, Death came to Bitterblue in her alcove in the library, where she still spent whatever time she could spare on the rewrites and rereads. He dropped a newly rewritten manuscript onto the table from a great height, turned on his heel, and marched away.

  Lovejoy, curled up at Bitterblue's elbow, sprang into the air, yowling. Landing, he began immediately to groom himself with enthusiasm, as if some instinct told him to look purposeful and hide the fact that he had no idea what was going on.

  "I agree that becoming conscious should not be so traumatic," Bitterblue said to him, attempting to be civil. Lovejoy had recently begun alternating between two personalities, one that hissed at her with a seething hatred whenever he saw her, the other that followed her around morosely and sometimes fell asleep pressed against her. He would not shoo when she told him to, so she'd given up on trying to influence him.

  The new manuscript was called Monarchy Is Tyranny.

  Bitterblue burst out laughing, which caused Lovejoy to pause in his grooming, peering at her suspiciously, one foot stuck in the air like a roast chicken. "Oh, dear," Bitterblue said. "No wonder Death threw it at me. I'm sure he found it quite satisfying." And then it stopped being funny. Turning in her chair, she looked at the sculpture girl, at her stubborn, defiant face. She
thought that perhaps the girl had an understanding of tyranny; that she was changing into rock to protect herself from it. Then Bitterblue looked past her to the woman in the hanging, whose eyes looked back at her, deep and placid, seeming to have an understanding of everything in the world.

  I would like to have her as my mother, Bitterblue thought; then almost cried out, stung by her own disloyalty. Mama? Of course I didn't mean it. It's just—she's stuck in a moment of time when everything is simple and clear. Our simple, clear moments were never allowed to last. And how I would like some clarity, some simplicity.

  She tried to return her attention to the book she'd been rereading when Death had arrived, the book about the artistic process. She hated this book. It went on for pages and pages to say a thing it could've said in two sentences: The artist is an empty vessel with a spout. Inspiration pours in and art pours out. Bitterblue knew nothing about the process of art; she wasn't an artist, nor were her friends. Still, this book didn't feel right. Leck had liked people to be empty so that he could pour himself in and the reaction he wished for would pour out. Most likely, Leck had wanted to control his artists; control them, then kill them. Of course Leck had liked a book that characterized inspiration as a kind of . . . tyranny.

  ON DAY FIFTEEN since Runnemood's disappearance, Bitterblue stumbled upon something interesting in the embroidery.

  His hospital is at bottom of river. River is his graveyard of bones. I followed him and saw the monster he is. I must get Bitterblue away soon.

  That was all it said. Sitting on her crimson rug with the sheet in her lap and her shoulder aching, Bitterblue remembered something Po had said while hallucinating: "The river is swimming with the dead."

  Po, she thought to him, wherever he might be. If I drained my river, would I find bones?

  NO BONES, CAME Po's ciphered answer, but written in ink rather than Po's graphite, and in Giddon's neat hand. It was a long note, so she was glad Giddon was doing Po the favor of writing for him. No hospital. I don't know where hallucinations came from. The words I said don't match what I saw. What I saw was Thiel crossing Winged Bridge, though my range doesn't even reach Winged Bridge. Also saw my brothers staging hand fights on ceiling, so consider that before asking me to pay closer attention to Thiel in future. My mind can't be everywhere, you know. Though, as it happens, I have sensed him, twice in recent nights, entering that tunnel that goes under wall to east city.

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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