Bitterblue, p.30
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       Bitterblue, p.30

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  I've also sensed you wandering around like a lost sheep. Why not wander to art gallery? Hava spends most nights there. Meet her. She's useful and you should know her. Be aware she has history of compulsive lying. Developed habit quite young out of necessity. Grew up in castle with mother and uncle too close to king, disguising herself to escape notice. Consequently has no friends and ended up wandering Monsea, eventually in company of likes of Danzhol. She tries to tell truth now. I really, really wish you would meet her.

  Fine, Bitterblue thought back to Po grumpily. I'll go meet your friend the compulsive liar. I'm sure we'll get along smashingly.

  THAT NIGHT, BITTERBLUE set out for her art gallery with a lamp in hand. Not knowing the best route, but knowing it was on the top level several floors above the library, she walked south through glassceilinged corridors. Tiny pieces of ice bounced on the glass above.

  Then Bitterblue stopped in her tracks, astonished, for through the glass above her, a person was perched on hands and knees, polishing the glass with a rag. On the roof in the cold, at midnight, working in the frozen rain. It was Fox, of course. Seeing the queen below, she raised her hand.

  Her Grace is madness, Bitterblue thought as she continued on. Pure madness.

  The art gallery, when she found it, was not unlike the library. Rooms led from one to the other with unexpected nooks and circling turns that confused Bitterblue's sense of direction. In the light of her single lamp, the empty expanses and the flashes of color on the walls were eerie, unsettling. The floor was marble, but her feet barely made a sound against it. From her own sneezing, she wondered if this might be because she was stepping on a carpet of dust.

  Bitterblue stopped before an enormous hanging that was the cousin, clearly, of all the others she'd seen. This one depicted a number of bright, colorful creatures attacking a man, on a cliff overhanging the sea. Every animal in the scene was a color it should not be, and Bitterblue thought that the man, screaming in agony, might be Leck. He wore no eye patch and his features weren't clear, but still, for some reason, it was the impression the hanging gave her.

  Bitterblue was beginning to be tired of being gutted by her castle's art.

  Leaving the hanging, she crossed the room, climbed a step, and found herself in a sculpture gallery. Remembering why she'd come here, she studied each sculpture carefully, but couldn't find what she was looking for. "Hava," she said quietly. "I know you're here."

  Nothing happened for a moment. Then there was a rustling noise, and a statue near the back transformed into a girl with a hanging head. Bitterblue fought off a rising nausea. The girl was weeping, wiping at her face with a tattered sleeve. She took a step toward Bitterblue, turned into a sculpture again, then wavered back into a girl.

  "Hava," Bitterblue said desperately, trying not to retch. "Please. Stop it."

  Hava came to Bitterblue and fell to her knees. "Forgive me, Lady Queen," she said, choking on her tears. "When he explained it to me, it made sense, you see? He didn't use the word kidnap. But still, I knew it was wrong, Lady Queen," she cried. "I was excited to disguise the boat, for it's more of a challenge than disguising myself. It does not involve my Grace. It requires artistry!"

  "Hava," said Bitterblue, bending down to her, at a loss for what to say to a compulsive liar who seemed to be in genuine pain. "Hava!" she cried as the girl grabbed her hand and sobbed over it. "I forgive you," she said, not feeling it in her heart, but sensing that forgiveness was necessary to calm Hava's wildness. "I forgive you," she said. "You've saved my life twice since, remember? Take a breath, Hava. Calm down and explain to me how your Grace works. Do you actually change something in yourself, or is it my perception of things that you change?"

  When Hava raised her face to Bitterblue, Bitterblue saw that it was quite a pretty face. Open, like Holt's, forlorn and frightened, but with a sweetness it was a shame she felt the need to hide. Her eyes were flatly beautiful—or, at least, the one that caught the light of the lamp was beautiful, glowing copper, as brightly as Po's eyes glowed gold and silver. Bitterblue couldn't tell the color of the other eye in the darkness.

  "It's your perception, Lady Queen," said Hava. "Your perception of what you're seeing."

  It was what Bitterblue had assumed. The other way made no

  sense; it was too improbable, even for a Grace. And here, she knew, was one of the many reasons she kept resisting Po's exhortations to trust Hava. Trusting someone who was able to change the way her mind perceived things did not come comfortably to Bitterblue.

  "Hava," she said, "you're out in the city often, hiding. You're in a position to see things, and you knew Lord Danzhol. I'm trying to find a way to connect the things Runnemood does with the things people like Danzhol once did; I'm trying to sort out who Runnemood might be working with, and what truth he's trying to hide when he kills truthseekers. Do you know anything about it?"

  "Lord Danzhol communicated with a lot of people, Lady Queen," said Hava. "He seemed to have friends in every kingdom, and a thousand secret letters, and visitors to his estate who would come in a back door at night and never be seen by the rest of us. But he didn't talk to me about it. And I haven't seen anything in the city that would explain anything either. If you ever wanted me to follow anyone, Lady Queen, I would do it in a heartbeat."

  "I'll remember that, Hava," said Bitterblue doubtfully, not knowing what to believe. "I'll mention it to Helda."

  "I have heard a strange rumor about your crown, Lady Queen," said Hava, after a pause.

  "The crown!" said Bitterblue. "How do you know about the crown?"

  "From the rumor, Lady Queen," said Hava, startled. "Some whispers in a story room. I was hoping they weren't true; they're ridiculous enough to be lies."

  "Perhaps they are lies. What did you hear?"

  "I heard of someone called Gray, Lady Queen, who's the grandchild of a famous thief who steals the treasures of Monsean nobility. The family has done so for generations, Lady Queen—it's their mark in trade. They live in a cave somewhere, and Gray is claiming to be in a position to sell your crown. It's priced at a figure so high, only a king could afford it."

  Bitterblue clutched her temples. "That will not make it easy if I end up having to buy it, and I should probably do it soon, before the word spreads further."

  "Oh," Hava said, distressed. "Unfortunately, the other thing I heard is that Gray won't sell to you, Lady Queen."

  "What? Then who does he think will buy it? None of the other kings would part with a fortune just for the sake of what would be a senseless prank. And I won't allow my uncle to buy it back for me!"

  "I'm afraid I can't explain it, Lady Queen," said Hava. "It's what I heard whispered. But rumors are often untrue, Lady Queen. Perhaps this one is. I hope it is!"

  "Tell no one, Hava," said Bitterblue. "If you doubt the importance of your silence, ask Prince Po."

  "If you say it's important, Lady Queen," said Hava, "then I have no need to ask Prince Po."

  Bitterblue studied this Graceling liar, this odd young woman who seemed to go wherever she wanted and do whatever took her fancy, but did so in fear, and in the most utter solitude. Hava was still kneeling. "Stand please, Hava," said Bitterblue.

  She was tall. As she stood, her face caught the light, and Bitterblue saw that her other eye was a deep and strange red. "Why do you hide in my art gallery, Hava?"

  "Because there's no one else here, Lady Queen," said Hava softly. "And I can be near my uncle, who needs me. And I can be with my mother's work."

  "Do you remember your mother?"

  Hava nodded. "I was eight when she died, Lady Queen. She taught me to hide from King Leck, always."

  "How old are you now?"

  "Sixteen, Lady Queen."

  "And—are you not lonely, Hava, hiding all the time?"

  Something in Hava's pretty face wavered.

  "Hava?" said Bitterblue, struck with a sudden doubt. "Is this what you really look like?"

  The girl hung her head. When she looked
up again, her eyes were still copper and red, but they sat in a face that was perhaps too plain to contain their strangeness, with a long, narrow mouth like a gash, and a snub nose.

  It took Bitterblue concentrated effort to stop herself from reaching up to touch Hava's face, for she understood this. How she wanted to comfort the unhappiness that shone in those eyes and didn't need to be there. Bitterblue liked Hava's face. "I very much like how you look," Bitterblue said. "Thank you for showing me."

  "I'm sorry, Lady Queen," she whispered. "It's hard not to hide. I'm so used to it."

  "Perhaps it was unfair of me to ask."

  "But it's a relief, Lady Queen," she whispered, "to let someone see me."

  THE NEXT DAY, Captain Smit gave Bitterblue the news that Runnemood had, indeed, been responsible not just for Saf 's framing but for Ivan the engineer's murder.

  Finally, Bitterblue thought, some progress. I'll ask Helda to put some pressure on my spies to confirm it.

  The day after that, Captain Smit told Bitterblue that now it was clear that Runnemood had also been responsible for the death of Lady Hood, the woman on Teddy's list who'd stolen girls for Leck.

  "That was a murder?" Bitterblue said in dismay. "Runnemood is murdering other guilty parties?"

  "I regret that our investigations suggest as much, Lady Queen," said Captain Smit. He had the appearance lately of a man under a great deal of strain, and Bitterblue made him drink some tea before leaving her office.

  Next came the news that Runnemood had been in close correspondence with Lord Danzhol, may even have been responsible for convincing Danzhol to harm the queen. Then, the news that none of the living people on Teddy's list seemed in any way involved in killing, framing, or otherwise hurting truthseekers. The dead ones had all been killed by Runnemood.

  On the next day—the nineteenth day since Runnemood's disappearance—Captain Smit marched into Bitterblue's office, set his chin, made his hands into fists, and presented her with a theory that Runnemood had been the single mastermind behind all the truthseeker killings and all related crime, possibly because the drive to be forward-thinking and leave Leck's time behind had triggered a vulnerable switch in his mind and made him insane.

  Bitterblue had little to say in response to this. Her spies had not yet managed to confirm or deny any of the things Smit was telling her. But it had all begun to sound a bit ridiculous to her, and a great deal too convenient, that Runnemood and madness should be the entire explanation for something that had caused so much harm. Runnemood wasn't Leck; he wasn't even Graced. And Smit, standing before her desk, was jumping nervously at every slightest sound, though he'd never seemed the nervous type before. His eyes flashed bright with some strange agitation, and when he looked at her, he seemed to be seeing something else.

  "Captain Smit," she said quietly. "Why don't you tell me what's really going on?"

  "Oh, I have told you, Lady Queen," he said. "Indeed, I have. If you'll excuse me, Lady Queen, I'll go to my office and come back with the corroborating evidence."

  He left, then didn't come back.

  Po, she thought, pushing through papers at her desk. I need you to talk to my Captain of the Monsean Guard urgently. He's lying to me. Something is dreadfully wrong.

  Po tried for two days, then finally sent a message to Bitterblue. I can't find him, Cousin. He's gone.

  29

  THE YOUNG MAN who sat inside the door of the Monsean Guard barracks was chewing his nails to bits when Bitterblue stepped in. At the sight of her, he dropped his hand hastily and stood, knocking over a cup.

  "Where is Captain Smit?" she demanded as cider poured and dripped everywhere.

  "He's gone away to investigate some criminal business at the silver refineries in the south, Lady Queen," said the soldier, eyeing the mess nervously. "Something to do with pirates."

  "You're sure about that?"

  "Certain, Lady Queen."

  "And when will he be back?"

  "It's hard to say, Lady Queen," said the soldier, straightening to look at her directly. "These matters can linger on."

  He sounded a bit too hearty, as if he were rehearsing lines in a play. Bitterblue did not believe him.

  But when she climbed to the lower offices and tried to convey her worry to Darby and Rood, they would not share her concern.

  "Lady Queen," said Rood gently, "the captain of the entire Monsean Guard is bound to be needed in a great many places. If his duties are too heavy, or if you wish to divide his command so that he can always be present at court, we can discuss that. But I don't think there's reason to doubt his whereabouts. In the meantime, the Guard is certainly still searching for Runnemood."

  Climbing to her tower, Bitterblue passed the mountains of paper on her desk, pushed herself to a southern window, and looked out across the castle roofs. So many expanses of glass, reflecting the fastmoving clouds. It unsettled her, as everything unsettled her; and the start of November was days away, yet the pace of work in these offices had not slowed. She could not keep alternating between worry, frustration, overwork, and boredom.

  She'd taken to bringing her work to the lower offices sometimes, stumping down the steps with an armful of documents and sitting at a table, just so that she could be bored to death in company, rather than alone. There was never much chatting—talk in those rooms tended to restrict itself to work matters; and yet, she felt that as she sat in the presence of her clerks, they became less guarded in their stances and expressions. They softened into people who would look at her occasionally, say a word or two, and whose company was comfortable, and human. Froggatt had even smiled at her once; he was recently married, and seemed to smile more than the others.

  Darby burst through the door. "Correspondence from Prince Po, Lady Queen," he said, passing her a ciphered note from Po, this time in his own hand.

  Raffin and Bann back from Sunder trip. Raff and I take tunnel north into Estill day after tomorrow. Bann and Giddon stay with you. Katsa now gone five weeks, beginning to worry. If she returns while we're away will you send word through tunnel?

  Did something that will annoy you. Invited Saf to Council meeting last night. On impulse hired him to recaulk castle windows in preparation for winter. Want to keep him near for many reasons. Don't be surprised to see him hanging from walls in great courtyard and for mercy's sake, don't draw attention to your association.

  Bitterblue burned the note in her small fireplace. Then, abandoning her work plans, she began the trek down to the courtyard.

  IT WAS NOT pleasant to stand among the shrubberies, crane one's neck, and see people small as dolls dangling against the courtyard walls. Well, all right, not dangling—the people themselves were sitting. But the long platform on which they sat was dangling, on ropes, and swaying an awful lot for something so far above the ground, and joggling when Saf stood, and walked, unworriedly, from one end to the other.

  Saf's partner up there was Fox, which struck Bitterblue as advantageous for two reasons. One, as a spy, Fox would report to Helda anything interesting Saf told her. Two, if Fox observed the queen drawing Saf aside to speak to him, Bitterblue didn't think that Fox would gossip about it.

  The windows they caulked were on the courtyard's south side. Bitterblue crossed to the south vestibule and began to climb the stairs.

  IF SAF WAS surprised when the queen appeared on the other side of his window, he didn't show it. What he did do was twist his mouth just enough for her to feel the insolence through the glass, then open the window. He looked in at her, eyebrows raised in inquiry.

  She said his name, "Saf," then realized it was all she could safely say. He waited, but she failed to find more words. When he stepped back, she assumed he was returning to his work, but instead, he called down the platform to Fox. "I'll be out again in a minute."

  Not looking at Bitterblue, he climbed through the window. Then he unhitched a rope that was tied to a wide belt he was wearing. Throwing the rope out the window, he yanked the window shut, still not looking a
t her. A knit hat hid his hair and made his facial features more defined, and also adorable. Autumn hadn't faded his freckles.

  "Come on," he said, walking away from the windows altogether, toward one of the ends of the empty room. Bitterblue followed. Through a window, Fox glanced at them, then returned to work.

  They stood in a long, narrow room that had arrow loops overlooking the drawbridge and moat, a room meant to be filled with archers in the event of a siege. From where Saf positioned them, they could see the doorway at each end and all the trapdoors in the ceiling. She wished now that she'd taken a moment to learn more about how this space was used. What if sentries were stationed on the roof above? What if they came down through the trapdoors at the changing of the guard? It would look odd, the queen shivering in this obscure room with her window caulker.

  "What do you want?" Saf asked shortly.

  "My Captain of the Monsean Guard has gone missing," she managed to say, berating herself for her own stupid sadness in his presence. "After days and days of no news, he told me he believed that Runnemood was solely responsible for all the crimes against truthseekers, then disappeared. Everyone's telling me he's gone to the silver refineries on some urgent matter to do with pirates. But something doesn't feel right, Saf. Have you heard anything about it?"

  "No," he said. "And if it's true, then Runnemood's alive and well in the east city, for an apartment where we store contraband was set on fire last night and a friend killed in the flames."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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