Bitterblue, p.3
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       Bitterblue, p.3

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "Yes, Helda's passwords always make me hungry," Fox said.

  A hood lay draped on the edge of Bitterblue's sofa, deep blue, like the sofa. Fox's hood, certainly; Bitterblue had seen her wear simple coverings like that before. It was much plainer than any of Bitterblue's coats.

  "How often do you suppose the Lienid Door Guard changes guard?" Bitterblue asked Fox.

  "Every hour on the hour, Lady Queen," Fox responded.

  "Every hour! That's quite often."

  "Yes, Lady Queen," replied Fox blandly. "I don't suppose there's much continuity in what any of them sees."

  Fox stood on the solid floor again, bent over a bucket of suds, her back to the queen.

  Bitterblue took the hood, tucked it under her arm, and slipped out of the room.

  BITTERBLUE HAD WATCHED spies enter her rooms at night before, hooded, hunched, unrecognizable until they'd removed their covering garments. Her Lienid Door Guard, a gift from King Ror, guarded the castle's main entrance and the entrance to Bitterblue's living quarters, and did so with discretion. They were under no obligation to answer the questions of anyone but Bitterblue and Helda, not even the Monsean Guard, which was the kingdom's official army and police. This gave Bitterblue's personal spies the freedom to come and go without their presence being noted by her administration. It was a strange little provision of Ror's, to protect Bitterblue's privacy. Ror had a similar arrangement in Lienid.

  The bracelet was no problem, for the bracelet Helda gave her spies was a plain leather cord on which hung a replica of a ring Ashen had worn. It was a proper Lienid ring in design: gold, inset with tiny, sparkly, deep gray stones. Every ring worn by a Lienid represented a particular family member, and this was the ring Ashen had worn for Bitterblue. Bitterblue had the original. She kept it in her mother's wooden chest in the bedroom, along with all of Ashen's rings.

  It was strangely affecting to tie this ring to her wrist. Her mother had shown it to her many times, explained that she'd chosen the stones to match Bitterblue's eyes. Bitterblue hugged her wrist to her body, trying to decide what her mother would think of what she was about to do.

  Well. And Mama and I snuck out of the castle once too. Though not this way; by the windows. And with good reason. She was trying to save me from him.

  She did save me. She sent me on ahead and stayed behind to die.

  Mama, I'm not sure why I'm doing what I'm about to do. Something is missing, do you see? Piles of paper at my desk in my tower, day in, day out. That can't be all there is. You understand, don't you?

  SNEAKING WAS A kind of deceit. So was disguise. Just past midnight, wearing dark trousers and Fox's hood, the queen snuck out of her own rooms and stepped into a world of stories and lies.

  2

  SHE'D NEVER SEEN the bridges close up. Despite her yearly tours, Bitterblue had never been on the streets of the east city; she only knew the bridges from the heights of her tower, looking out at them from across the sky, not even certain they were real. Now, as Bitterblue stood at the base of Winged Bridge, she ran her fingers along a seam where pieces of cold marble joined to form the gargantuan foundations.

  And attracted some attention. "Move along there," said a gruff man who'd come to the doorway of one of the dirty white stone buildings squeezed between the bridge's pillars. He emptied a bucket into the gutter. "We've no need of crackpots."

  This seemed harsh for a person whose only crime was the touching of a bridge, but Bitterblue moved along obediently to avoid interaction. An awful lot of people were walking the streets at this hour. Every one of them gave her a fright. She skirted them when she could, pulling her hood low over her face, happy to be small.

  Tall, narrow buildings leaned together, propping each other up, occasionally offering glimpses of the river in between. At every intersection, roads branched off in several directions, multiplying possibilities. She decided to stay within sight of the river for now, because she suspected that otherwise, she'd become lost and overwhelmed. But it was hard not to turn down some of those streets that wound away or stretched into darkness, promising secrets.

  The river brought her to the next behemoth on her list, Monster Bridge. Bitterblue was absorbing more details now, even daring to glance into people's faces. Some were furtive and hurried, or exhausted, full of pain, and others were empty and expressionless. The buildings, many white stone, some clapboard, all washed with yellow light and rising into shadow, also impressed her, with how gaunt and run-down they seemed.

  It was a misstep that landed her in the strange story place under Monster Bridge, though Leck also played a part. Hopping sideways into an alleyway to avoid a pair of large, lumbering men, she found herself trapped when the men turned into the alleyway too. She could have just pushed her way back out again, of course, but not without drawing attention to herself, so she scuttled on ahead, pretending she knew where she was going. Unfortunately, the alleyway ended abruptly, at a door in a stone wall, guarded by a man and a woman.

  "Well?" the man said to her as she stood there in confusion. "What do you want, then? In or out?"

  "I'm just going," said Bitterblue in a whisper.

  "All right," said the man. "Off you go."

  As she turned to obey, the men who'd followed her came upon them and moved past. The door opened to admit them, then closed, then opened again to release a small, cheerful group of young people. A voice escaped from inside: a deep, raspy rumble, indecipherable but melodic, a sort of voice she imagined a wizened old tree would speak with. It had the tone of someone telling a story.

  And then it spoke a word she understood: Leck.

  "In," she said to the man, deciding in a mad split second. He shrugged, not seeming to care, as long as she went someplace.

  And so Bitterblue followed Leck's name into her first story room.

  * * * * *

  IT WAS A pub of some sort, with heavy wooden tables and chairs and a bar, lit by a hundred lamps and packed with men and women, standing, sitting, moving about, dressed plainly, drinking from cups. Bitterblue's relief that she had walked into nothing but a pub was so palpable that it gave her chills.

  The room's attention was fixed on a man who stood on the bar telling a story. He had a crooked face and pitted skin that turned beautiful, somehow, as he spoke. The story he told was one Bitterblue recognized but didn't immediately trust, not because anything in the story itself seemed off, but because the man had one dark eye and one that shone pale blue. What was his Grace? A lovely speaking voice? Or was there something more sinister about it, something that kept this room in thrall?

  Bitterblue multiplied 457 by 228 randomly, just to see how she felt afterwards. It took her a minute. 104,196. And no feeling of blankness or fog around the numbers; no sense that her mental grip on the numbers was in any way superior to her mental grip on anything else. It was no more than a lovely voice.

  Some traffic around the entrance had shuffled Bitterblue straight to the bar. A woman stood before her suddenly, asking her what she wanted. "Cider," Bitterblue said, grasping for something a person might want, for she didn't suppose it was normal to ask for nothing. Oh—but here was a dilemma, for the woman would expect payment for the cider, wouldn't she? The last time Bitterblue had carried money was—she couldn't remember. A queen had no need for money.

  A man beside her at the bar belched, fumbling with some coins spread before him that his fingers were too clumsy to collect. Without thinking, Bitterblue rested her arm on the bar, letting her wide sleeve cover two of the coins closest to her. Then she slipped the fingers of her other hand under her sleeve and fished the coins into her fist. A moment later, the coins were in her pocket and her empty hand rested innocently on the bar. When she glanced around, trying to look nonchalant, she caught the eyes of a young man who was staring at her with the smallest grin on his face. He leaned on a part of the bar that was at a right angle to hers, where he had a perfect view of her, her neighbors, and, she could only assume, her transgressions.

 
She looked away, ignoring his smile. When the bar lady brought the cider, Bitterblue plunked her coins on the counter, deciding to trust to fate that they were the right amount. The woman picked up the coins and put a smaller coin down. Grabbing it and the cup, Bitterblue slipped away from the bar and moved to a corner in the back, where there were more shadows, a wider view, and fewer people to notice her.

  Now she could lower her guard and listen to the story. It was one that she'd heard many times; it was one she'd told. It was the story—true—of how her own father had come to the Monsean court as a boy. He'd come begging, wearing an eye patch, saying nothing of who he was or where he was from. He'd charmed the king and queen with tall tales he'd invented, tales about a land where the animals were violently colored, and the buildings were wide and tall as mountains, and glorious armies rose out of rock. No one had known who his parents were, or why he wore an eye patch, or why he'd told such stories, but he'd been loved. The king and queen, childless, had adopted him as their own son. When Leck had turned sixteen, the king, having no living family, had named Leck his heir.

  Days later, the king and queen were dead from a mysterious ill

  ness that no one at court felt the need to question. The old king's advisers threw themselves into the river, for Leck could make people do things like that—or could push them into the river himself, then tell the witnesses that they'd seen something other than what they'd seen. Suicide, rather than murder. Leck's thirty-five-year reign of mental devastation had begun.

  Bitterblue had heard this story before as an explanation. She had never once heard it presented as a story, the old king and queen coming alive with loneliness and gentleness, love for a boy. The advisers, wise and worried, devoted to their king and queen. The storyteller described Leck partly the way he'd been and partly the way Bitterblue knew he hadn't. He hadn't been a person who cackled and leered and rubbed his hands together villainously like the storyteller said. He'd been simpler than that. He'd spoken simply, reacted simply, and performed acts of violence with a simple, expressionless precision. He'd calmly done whatever he'd needed to do to make things the way he wanted them.

  My father, thought Bitterblue. Then she reached for the coin in her pocket suddenly, ashamed of herself for stealing. Remembering that her hood was stolen too. I also take what I want. Did I get that from him?

  The young man who knew she was a thief was a distracting sort of person. He seemed to have no wish to keep still, always moving, slipping past people who shuffled aside to let him by. Easy to keep track of, for he happened to be one of the most conspicuous people in the room, both Lienid and not-Lienid at the same time.

  The Lienid, almost without exception, were a dark-haired, grayeyed people with a certain handsome set to their mouths and a certain sweep to their hair, like Skye, like Po, and gold in their ears and on their fingers, men and women, nobles and citizens alike. Bitterblue had inherited Ashen's dark hair and gray eyes and, though its effects were rather plainer on her than on others, something of the Lienid aspect. At any rate, she looked more Lienid than this fellow did.

  His hair was brown like wet sand, sun-bleached almost white at the ends, his skin deeply freckled. His facial features, though nice enough, were not particularly Lienid, but the gold studs that flashed in his ears and the rings on his fingers—those were unquestionably Lienid. His eyes were impossibly, abnormally purple, so that one knew at once he wasn't just a plain person. And then, as one adjusted to his overall incongruity, one saw that of course the purple was of two different shades. He was a Graceling. And a Lienid, but he had not been born Lienid.

  Bitterblue wondered what his Grace was.

  Then, as he slipped past a man who was swigging from a cup, Bitterblue saw him dip into the man's pocket, remove something, and tuck it under his arm, almost faster than Bitterblue could believe. Raising his eyes, accidentally catching hers, he saw that she saw. This time, there was no amusement in the expression he directed at her. Only coldness, some insolence, and the hint of a high-eyebrowed threat.

  He turned his back to her and made his way to the door, where he placed a hand on the shoulder of a young man with floppy dark hair who was apparently his friend, for the two of them left together. Getting it into her head to see where they were going, she abandoned her cider and followed, but when she stepped out into the alley, they were gone.

  Not knowing the time, she returned to the castle, but paused at the foot of the drawbridge. She had stood in this very spot once, almost eight years ago. Her feet remembered and wanted to take her into the west city, the way she'd gone with her mother that night; her feet wanted to follow the river west until the city was far behind, cross the valleys to the plain before the forest. Bitterblue wanted to stand in the spot where Father had shot Mama in the back, shot her from his horse, in the snow, while Mama tried to run away. Bitterblue hadn't seen it. She'd been hiding in the forest, as Ashen had told her to do. But Po and Katsa had seen it. Sometimes Po described it for her, quietly, holding her hands. She'd imagined it so many times that it felt like a memory, but it wasn't. She hadn't been there, she hadn't screamed the way she imagined it. She hadn't jumped in front of the arrow, or knocked Mama out of the way, or thrown a knife and killed him in time.

  A clock, striking two, brought Bitterblue back. There was nothing for her to the west except for a long and difficult walk, and memories that were sharp even from this distance. She pushed herself across the drawbridge.

  In bed, exhausted, yawning, she couldn't understand, at first, why she wasn't falling asleep. Then she felt it, the streets thick with people, the shadows of buildings and bridges, the sound of the stories and the taste of cider; the fright that had pervaded all she'd done. Her body was thrumming with the life of the midnight city.

  3

  REGULAR WORK IS ruined for me now.

  This was Bitterblue's thought the next morning, bleary-eyed at her desk in her tower. Her adviser Darby, returned from his drunken bender that everyone knew about but no one mentioned, kept running up from the lower offices, bringing paper up the spiral staircase for her to do boring things with. With every arrival, he exploded through the door, catapulted across the room, and stopped on a pin before her desk. Every departure was the same. Darby, when he was sober, was always wide awake and full of vim—always, for he had one yellow eye and one green and was Graced with not needing sleep.

  Runnemood, in the meantime, lazed around the room being handsome, while Thiel, too stiff and grim to be handsome, glided around Runnemood and loomed over the desk, deciding in which order Bitterblue should be tortured by the paper. Rood was still absent.

  Bitterblue had too many questions, and there were too many people here whom she couldn't ask. Did her advisers know that there was a room under Monster Bridge where people told stories about Leck? Why weren't the neighborhoods under the bridges relevant to her yearly tours? Was it because the buildings were falling apart? That had been a surprise to her. And how could she get her hands on some coins without arousing suspicion?

  "I want a map," she said out loud.

  "A map?" said Thiel, startled, then, rustling a sheaf of papers at her: "Of the location of this charter town?"

  "No. A street map of Bitterblue City. I want to study a map. Send someone to get one, will you, Thiel?"

  "Does this have anything to do with watermelons, Lady Queen?"

  "Thiel, I just want a map! Get me a map!"

  "Gracious," said Thiel. "Darby," he said, turning to that brighteyed personage as he burst once more into the room. "Send someone to the library for a street map of the city—a recent map—for the queen's perusal, would you?"

  "A recent street map. Indeed," Darby said, spinning around and taking off again.

  "We're procuring a map, Lady Queen," reported Thiel, turning back to Bitterblue.

  "Yes," said Bitterblue sarcastically, rubbing her head. "I was here when it happened, Thiel."

  "Is everything all right, Lady Queen? You seem a bit—ruffled."
/>
  "She's tired," Runnemood announced, perched in a window with his arms crossed. "Her Majesty is tired of charters and judgments and reports. If she wishes a map, she shall have one."

  It annoyed Bitterblue that Runnemood understood. "I want to have more say in where I go on my tours from now on," she snapped.

  "And so you shall," said Runnemood grandly. Honestly, she did not know how Thiel could stand him. Thiel was so plain and Runnemood so affected, yet the two of them worked together so comfortably, always capable of becoming a united front the moment Bitterblue stepped over the line of which only they knew the position. She decided to keep her mouth shut until the map arrived, to prevent herself from betraying the stratospheric heights of her irritability.

  When it did arrive, it brought with it the royal librarian and a member of the Queen's Guard, Holt, for the librarian delivered so much more than she'd asked for that he couldn't carry it up the stairs without Holt's help. "Lady Queen," the librarian said. "As Your Majesty's request was disobligingly unspecific, I thought it best to deliver a range of maps, to increase the odds that one pleases you. It's my fervent wish to return to my work uninterrupted by your little people."

  Bitterblue's librarian was Graced with the ability to read inhumanly fast and remember every word forever—or so he said, and certainly he seemed to have this skill. But Bitterblue wondered sometimes if he mightn't also be Graced with unpleasantness. His name was Death. It was pronounced to rhyme with "teeth," but Bitterblue liked to mispronounce it by accident on occasion.

  "If that will be all, Lady Queen," said Death, dumping an armload of scrolls onto the edge of her desk, "I'll be going."

  Half of the scrolls rolled away and hit the floor with hollow thuds. "Really," said Thiel crossly, bending to collect them, "I was quite clear to Darby that we wished a single, recent map. Take these away, Death. They're unnecessary."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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