Bitterblue, p.31
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       Bitterblue, p.31

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Po, Bitterblue thought breathlessly. I know you're leaving soon and

  I'm sure you're buried in preparations. But before you go, do you have time for one more pass through the east city to look for Runnemood? It couldn't be more important.

  "I'm sorry," she said aloud.

  He flicked his hand in annoyance.

  "There are rumors too," she went on, trying not to be stung by his rejection of her sympathy. "Rumors of the crown. Have you heard them? Once the Monsean Guard hears them, I won't be able to hide that I don't have it, Saf."

  "Gray's only trying to make you nervous," Saf said. "So that you'll panic—as you're doing now—and do whatever he wants."

  "Well, what does he want?"

  "I don't know," said Saf, shrugging. "When he wants you to know it, you will."

  "I'm trapped here," Bitterblue said. "Useless, powerless. I don't know how to find Runnemood or even what I'm looking for. I don't know what to do about Gray. My friends have their own priorities, and my men don't seem to understand that something is urgently wrong. I don't know what to do, Saf, and you won't help me either, because I hid my power from you once, and now it's all you can see. I think you don't realize your own power over me. I know it, from when we touched each other. I—" Her voice broke. "There is a way you and I could muddle toward a balance, if you would let me touch you."

  For a moment, he didn't speak. Finally, he said with a quiet sort of bitterness, "It's not enough. It's not enough that you feel an attraction; find someone else to be attracted to."

  "Saf," she cried, "that's not all I feel. Listen to the words I'm saying. We were friends."

  "And so what, then?" he said roughly. "What do you imagine?

  Me, stuck in this castle, your special commoner friend, bored out of my skull? Are you going to make a prince out of me? Do you think I want anything to do with any of this? What I want is what I thought I had," he said. "I want the person you weren't."

  "Saf," she whispered, tears stinging behind her eyes. "I'm so sorry I lied. I wish I could tell you about so many true things. The day you stole my crown, I discovered a cipher my mother wrote and hid from my father. Reading it isn't easy. If you ever decide to forgive me and you want to hear about my real mother, I'll tell you."

  He watched her for a moment, then stared at his feet, mouth tight. Then he raised his coat sleeve to his eyes and it stunned her, the notion that he might be crying; it stunned her so that she said one more thing.

  "I wouldn't give it back," she said, "what we did. I'd give it back for my mother to be alive. I'd give it back to know my kingdom better and be a better queen. Maybe I'd even give it back to have caused you less pain. But you gave me a gift you don't realize you gave me. I'd never done anything like that before, Saf, not with anyone. Now I see there are things in life that are open to me that I never quite believed I could do, before I knew you. I wouldn't give that back, any more than I would give up being queen. Not even to make you stop punishing me."

  He stood with his arms clasped together and his head bent. He reminded her of one of Bellamew's lonely sculptures.

  "Will you say anything?" she whispered.

  He made no response. Not a movement, not a sound.

  Bitterblue turned and slipped down the steps.


  THAT NIGHT, RAFFIN, Bann, and Po had dinner with her and Helda. She thought they were oddly subdued, for a group of reunited friends, and wondered if the worry for Katsa was becoming epidemic. If so, their worries did nothing to soothe her own worries.

  "Good job not drawing attention to your association with Saf," said Po sarcastically.

  "No one saw us," retorted Bitterblue, waiting patiently while Bann cut her pork chop. She worked the muscles of her injured shoulder gently, trying to work out some of the end-of-the-day soreness. "Anyway, who exactly do you think you are, giving orders around my castle?"

  "Saf's a pain in the ass, Beetle," said Po. "But a useful pain in the ass. Should something happen with the crown, we're all better off if he's where we can reach him. And who knows? Maybe he'll overhear something interesting for us. I've asked Giddon to keep an eye on him after I go."

  "I'll help, if he needs a few days," said Bann.

  "Thank you, Bann," said Po.

  Bitterblue paused, not understanding this exchange, but her mind caught on another question. "How much of my history with Saf have you explained to Giddon, Po?"

  Po opened his mouth, then closed it. "I don't know all that much about your history myself, Bitterblue, and I've taken care not to ask either of you about it. Giddon," said Po, pausing to push some carrots around with his fork, "knows that if he observes Saf disrespecting you in any way, he's to put Saf through a wall."

  "Saf would probably like that."

  Po made an exasperated noise. "I'll go into the east city tomorrow," he said. "I wish I weren't going to Estill. I'd tear the entire city apart for Runnemood, then I'd ride down to the refineries and find your captain myself."

  "Is there time for me or Giddon to go find Smit?" asked Bann.

  "Good question," said Po, scowling at him. "Let's figure that out."

  "And what about you two?" said Bitterblue, turning to Raffin and Bann. "Did you accomplish your Council business in Sunder?"

  "It was not actually a Council trip, Lady Queen," said Raffin, looking abashed.

  "No? What were you doing?"

  "It was a royal mission. My father insisted I talked to Murgon about marrying his daughter."

  Bitterblue's mouth dropped open. "You can't marry his daughter!"

  "And so I told him, Lady Queen," Raffin said, and that was all he said. His lack of elaboration pleased her. It was none of her business.

  Of course, it was impossible, in this company, not to think about balances of power. Raffin and Bann glanced at each other now and then, sharing silent agreement, teasing each other, or just resting their eyes on each other, as if each man was a comfortable resting place for the other. Prince Raffin, heir to the Middluns throne; Bann, who had no title, no fortune. How she longed to ask them questions that were too nosy for asking, even by her standards. How did they balance money matters? How did they make decisions? How did Bann cope with the expectation that Raffin marry and produce heirs? If Randa knew the truth about his son, would Bann be in danger? Did Bann ever resent Raffin's wealth and importance? What was the balance of power in their bed?

  "Where is Giddon, anyway?" she asked, missing him. "Why isn't he here?"

  The reaction was immediate: The table went quiet and her friends considered each other with troubled expressions. Bitterblue's stomach dropped. "What is it? Is something wrong?"

  "He's not injured, Lady Queen," said Raffin in a voice that didn't convince her. "Not in body, anyway. He wished to be alone."

  Now Bitterblue shot to her feet. "What happened?"

  Taking a breath, letting it out slowly, Raffin answered in the same bleak voice. "My father has convicted him of treason, Lady Queen, on the basis of both his participation in the overthrow of the King of Nander and his continued monetary contributions to the Council. He's been stripped of his title, land, and fortune, and if he returns to the Middluns, he'll be executed. Just to be thorough, Randa has burned his estate and leveled it to the ground."

  BITTERBLUE COULD NOT get to Giddon's rooms fast enough.

  He was in a chair in the far corner, his arms flung and his legs spread and his face frozen with shock.

  Going to him, Bitterblue dropped to her knees before him, took his hand, and wished that she had more than one hand to give.

  "You should not kneel before me," he whispered.

  "Shut up," she said, bringing his hand to her face and cradling it, hugging it, kissing it. Tears slid down her cheeks.

  "Lady Queen," he said, leaning toward her, cupping her face gently, tenderly, as if this were the most natural thing in the world for him to do. "You're crying."

  "I'm sorry. I can't help it."

  "It's comforting to me
," he said, wiping her tears away with his fingers. "I can't feel anything."

  Bitterblue knew that species of numbness. She also knew what followed, once it passed. She wondered if Giddon realized what was coming, if he had ever known that kind of catastrophic grief.

  IT SEEMED TO help Giddon to ask him questions, as if by answering, he was filling in the blank spaces and remembering who he was. And so she asked him things, letting each answer supply her next question.

  This was how Bitterblue learned that Giddon had had a brother who'd died in a fall from a horse at the age of fifteen—Giddon's horse, which had not liked to be ridden by others and which Giddon had goaded him to ride, never anticipating the consequences. Giddon and Arlend had fought incessantly, not just over horses; they would probably have fought over their father's estate had Arlend lived. Giddon now wished Arlend had lived and won. Arlend might not have been a fair landlord, but nor would he have provoked the king. "He was my twin, Lady Queen. After he died, every time my mother looked at me, I believe she saw a ghost. She swore not, and she never blamed me for it openly. But I could see it in her face. She didn't live long after that."

  This was also how she learned that Giddon didn't know yet if everyone had gotten out.

  "Out?" she said, then understood. Oh. Oh no. "Surely murder was not Randa's intention. Surely the people were warned to leave the house. He's not Thigpen or Drowden."

  "I worry that they'll have tried—foolishly—to save some of the family keepsakes. My housekeeper will have tried to save the dogs, and my stable master, the horses. I—" Giddon shook his head in confusion. "If anyone has died, Lady Queen—"

  "I'll send someone to find out," she said.

  "Thank you, Lady Queen, but I'm sure word is already on its way."

  "I—" It was intolerable, being unable to make anything better. She stopped herself before she could say something rash, like an offer of a Monsean lordship, which struck her, when she took a moment to examine the notion, as no comfort whatsoever and probably insulting. If she was deposed and her castle leveled, how would it feel to be offered as a gift the queenship of some other people she knew nothing of, in some other place that was not Monsea? It was unthinkable.

  "How many people were under your care, Giddon?"

  "Ninety-nine in the house and on the immediate grounds, who now have no home or occupation. Five hundred eighty-three in the town and on the farms, who will not find Randa a careful landlord." He dropped his head to his hands. "And yet, I don't know what I would have done differently, Lady Queen, even knowing the consequences. I could never have continued to be Randa's man. I've made such a mess of things. Arlend should have lived."

  "Giddon. This was Randa's doing, not yours."

  Lifting his face from his hands, Giddon directed an expression at her that was baleful, ironic, and certain.

  "All right," she said, then paused, thinking through what she wanted to express. "It is your doing, in part. Your defiance of Randa made those for whom you were responsible vulnerable. But I don't think it follows that you could have prevented it, or should have anticipated it. Randa shocked everyone with this. His empty gestures have never been so extreme before, and no one could have foreseen that the entirety of the consequences would fall on you." For this was another thing Giddon had told her: Oll, still in Nander, had been stripped of his captaincy, but Oll had lost Randa's confidence years ago, so it hardly mattered. Katsa was re-banished and re-declared fortuneless, but Katsa had been banished and fortuneless for ages. It had never stopped her from entering the Middluns when she wanted to, or stopped Raffin from advancing her money when she needed it. Randa railed at Raffin, threatened him, threatened to disown him, threatened to unname him, but never did. Raffin seemed to be Randa's sticking point; Randa was unable to do a serious injury to his own son. And Bann? Randa had an extraordinary capacity for pretending that Bann didn't exist.

  Giddon, on the other hand, was a coward king's perfect target: a noble man of considerable noble wealth who didn't terrify Randa and whom it would be fun to ruin.

  "Perhaps we could have anticipated it, had we not had a thousand other things to consider," Bitterblue admitted. "But I still doubt that you could have prevented it. Not without becoming a lesser man."

  "You've promised never to lie to me, Lady Queen," said Giddon.

  Giddon's eyes were damp and too bright. Exhaustion had begun to pull at his features, as if everything, his hands, his arms, his skin, were too heavy for him to support. Bitterblue wondered if the numbness was passing. "I'm not lying, Giddon," she said. "I believe that when you gave your heart to the Council, you chose the right path."

  IN THE MORNING, Bann and Raffin came to breakfast. She watched them as they ate, subdued, half asleep. Bann's hair was wet and curling at the ends, and he seemed to be thinking hard about something. Raffin kept sighing. He was leaving for Estill tomorrow with Po.

  After a while, she said, "Is there nothing the Council can do about Giddon? Has Randa's behavior not sunk him to the level of the worst kings?"

  "It's complicated, Lady Queen," said Bann after a moment, clearing his throat. "Giddon was actually funding the Council with the wealth of his noble estate, as both Po and Raffin do, and as such, he was committing a crime that could be construed as treason. A king is justified in seizing the possessions of a treasonous lord. Randa's behavior was extreme, but he did everything by the book." Bann touched his eyes on Raffin, who sat like a man made of wood. "Perhaps more relevantly, Lady Queen," Bann continued quietly, "Randa is Raffin's father. Even Giddon opposes any action on our part that would set Raffin in direct opposition to his father. Giddon has lost all that mattered to him. Nothing we did could change that."

  They ate again in silence for a while. Then Raffin said, as if deciding something, "I've also lost something that mattered. I still cannot believe he did it. He's made himself my enemy."

  "He's always been our enemy, Raffin," said Bann gently.

  "This is different," Raffin said. "I've never wanted to reject him as my father before. I've never wanted to be king, just so that he isn't."

  "You've never wanted to be king at all."

  "I still don't," said Raffin with sudden bitterness. "But he shouldn't be. I'll be lost as a king, but at least," he said, enunciating each word, "I won't be a damn cruel man."

  "Raffin," said Bitterblue, her heart swelling with how much she understood this. "I promise you," she said, "when that day comes, you won't be alone. I'll be with you, and all the people who help me will too. My uncle will go to you if you want him. Both of you will learn how to be king," she said, meaning Bann, of course, and more grateful than she'd ever been before for Bann's groundedness, to balance out Raffin's abstraction. Perhaps they could make a king together.

  Helda walked into the room and opened her mouth to speak; then paused as the outer doors were heard to creak open. Moments later, Giddon surprised them all by yanking Saf into the room by one arm. Giddon looked bleary-eyed and rumpled.

  "What did he do now?" Bitterblue asked sharply.

  "I found him in your father's maze, Lady Queen," said Giddon.

  "Saf," said Bitterblue, "what were you doing in the maze?"

  "It's not against the law to walk through the castle," Saf said, "and anyway, what's his excuse for being in the maze?"

  Giddon backhanded Saf across the mouth, grabbed him by the collar, looked straight into his astonished eyes, and said, "Speak to the queen with respect or you'll never work with the Council in any capacity."

  Saf 's lip was bleeding. He touched it with his tongue, then grinned at Giddon, who released him roughly. Saf turned back to Bitterblue. "Nice friends you've got," he said.

  Bitterblue knew that Giddon had almost certainly been in the maze because Po had sent him in there, to find out what Saf was up to. "Enough," she said, angry with both of them. "Giddon, no more hitting. Saf, tell me why you were in the maze."

  Reaching into his pocket, Saf pulled out a ring with three keys on it, followed
by a set of lock picks Bitterblue recognized. Without ceremony, he deposited both into Bitterblue's hand.

  "Where did you get these?" Bitterblue asked in confusion.

  "They look like Fox's lock picks, Lady Queen," said Helda.

  "They are," said Bitterblue. "Did she give them to you, Saf, or did you steal them?"

  "Why would she give me her lock picks?" asked Saf blandly. "She knows exactly who I am."

  "And the keys?" asked Bitterblue evenly.

  "The keys came out of her pocket when I nicked the lock picks."

  "What are they the keys to?" Bitterblue asked Helda.

  "I couldn't say, Lady Queen," said Helda. "I wasn't aware of Fox having any keys."

  Bitterblue studied the keys in her hand. All three were large and ornate. "They're familiar," she said vaguely. "Helda, these keys are familiar. Come, help me," she said, going to the blue horse hanging. As Helda took the hanging in both arms, Bitterblue began to try each key in the lock. The second one successfully unlocked the door.

  Bitterblue looked into Helda's eyes, sharing with Helda the question of why Fox would have had Leck's keys in her pocket. And why, having them, she would have made a show of using the lock picks. "I'm certain there's a satisfactory explanation, Lady Queen," said Helda.

  "So am I," said Bitterblue. "Let's wait to see if she volunteers it to me when she discovers Saf took them."

  "I trust her, Lady Queen."

  "I don't," said Saf from the other side of the room. "She has holes in her earlobes."

  "Well," Helda said, "that's because she spent her childhood in Lienid, just like you did, young man. Where do you suppose she got a name to match her hair?"

  "Then why doesn't she talk to me about Lienid?" Saf said. "If her family was alert enough to send her away, why doesn't she talk to me about the resistance? Why tell me nothing of her family, her home? And where is her Lienid accent? She's trying to make herself into nothing, and I don't trust it. Her conversation is too selective. She told me the location of Leck's rooms but didn't say a word about there being a maze. Was she hoping I would get caught?"

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