Bitterblue, p.33
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       Bitterblue, p.33

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Madlen produced a much more satisfactory reaction. Narrowing her eyes on the pelt, she announced "Hm-hm!" then proceeded to ask a thousand questions. Who'd found it, and where? How had the creature behaved? How had Lady Katsa defended herself? Had Lady Katsa encountered any people? How far had Lady Katsa followed the tunnel? Where, precisely, did this tunnel start? What was going to be done about it, when, and by whom?

  "I hoped you might have some medical insight," Bitterblue managed to interject.

  "It's rutting peculiar, Lady Queen," said Madlen, then glanced at the hanging of the wild-haired woman, spun on her heel, and marched off.

  Sighing, Bitterblue turned to Lovejoy, who was sprawled on the table, peering at her with his chin resting on one paw. "It's a good thing I employ all these experts," she said. Then she held the tip of the pelt out to him, poking his nose with it. "What do you think of it?"

  Lovejoy made a point of having no opinion whatsoever.

  I WON'T LET him into our rooms. Perversely, he honors my barricades, while setting up his own guards outside our door. When he goes away to his graveyard I explore his rooms. I'm looking for passage out, but find nothing.

  If I knew his secrets and plans, could I stop him? But I can neither read them nor find them. The sculptures watched me look. They told me the castle has secrets and he'd kill me if he found me snooping. It was a warning, not a threat. They like me, not him.

  Bitterblue sat that night with legs crossed on her bedroom floor, wondering if it was worthwhile to try to find any sense in the passage when half of it seemed raving mad.

  "Lady Queen?" said a voice from the doorway.

  Bitterblue turned, startled. It was Fox.

  "Forgive me for the intrusion, Lady Queen," said Fox.

  "What time is it?" asked Bitterblue.

  "One o'clock, Lady Queen."

  "Perhaps a bit late for intrusions."

  "I'm sorry, Lady Queen," said Fox. "It's just that there's something I've got to tell you, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue extricated herself from the sheets and went to stand by her dressing table, wanting to be away from her mother's secrets, her father's secrets, while Fox was in the room. "Go on," she prompted, guessing what this was about.

  "I found a set of keys, Lady Queen," Fox said, "in a corner, in a deserted back room of the smithy. I'm not certain what they were the keys to. I—could have asked Ornik his opinion," she said, hesitating, "but I was snooping when I found them, Lady Queen, and didn't want him to know. He came in and thought I was waiting for him, Lady Queen, and I thought it might be best to let him go on thinking that."

  "I see," said Bitterblue dryly. "Mightn't they simply have been keys to the smithy?"

  "I tried that, Lady Queen," said Fox, "and they weren't. They were big, grand, important-looking keys, not like any I've ever seen. But before I could bring them to you, Lady Queen, they disappeared from my pocket."

  "Oh?" said Bitterblue. "Do you mean that someone stole them?"

  "I couldn't say, Lady Queen," said Fox, looking down at her own folded hands.

  Fox knew perfectly well that Bitterblue knew perfectly well that Fox was spending her daylight hours on a platform with a thief who had every appearance, on the basis of recent events, of being involved with the queen somehow. Bitterblue couldn't blame Fox for deciding not to accuse Saf outright of theft. For all Fox knew, it risked angering the queen.

  At the same time, if it weren't for Saf, would Bitterblue be hearing about the keys at all? Once Saf had stolen them, Fox had to tell Bitterblue about them, in case Saf did. Regardless of her original intentions, and regardless of where she'd actually gotten them.

  "Have you learned anything new about the crown, Fox?" she asked as a sort of test, to see if everyone's stories matched up.

  "The Gray fellow refuses to sell to you, Lady Queen," said Fox. "And he's spreading rumors. But it's only to make you nervous, Lady Queen, and tighten the net around you. He'll keep it from the people you most need not to know of it, then blackmail you for whatever he wants by threatening to tell them."

  Unhelpfully, the stories matched. "Very clever," said Bitterblue. "Thank you for telling me about the keys, Fox. Helda and I will keep our eyes out for them."

  And then, after Fox had gone, she opened her mother's chest, reached under the rat pelt, and fished the keys out.

  She'd practically forgotten them, what with the arrival of the pelt and the plans of all her friends. Now she left her rooms with a lamp in her good hand. Dropping down the staircase into the maze, she put her right shoulder to the wall and took the necessary turns.

  The very first key she tried opened her father's door with a great click.

  Inside, Bitterblue stood under the watchful eyes of the paintsplattered sculptures. "Well?" she said to them. "My mother asked you where the castle keeps its secrets, but you wouldn't tell her. Will you tell me?"

  Looking from one sculpture to another, she couldn't help feeling that Ashen had written nothing mad. It took effort not to think of them as living creatures with opinions. The silver and turquoise owl in the hanging peered at her with round eyes.

  "What is the third key for?" she asked them all. Then she went into the bathing room, climbed into the tub, and pressed on every tile in the wall behind it. She pressed on every other tile she could reach too, just to be thorough. Going to the closet space, she ran her good hand along the shelves and other surfaces, sneezing, but persistently pushing. Back inside the room, she pushed and patted the hangings.

  Nothing. No hidden compartments full of Leck's musty, secret thoughts.

  Forty-three turns with her shoulder hugging the left wall brought her back to her staircase. As she climbed the steps, the sound of some lonely musical instrument rose to her ears. Melancholy strings being touched by someone's hand. Someone in my castle does play music.

  In her bedroom, Bitterblue returned to her place on the rug and began with a new sheet.

  Thiel says he'll get me knife if he can. Won't be easy, Leck keeps track of all knives. He'll have to steal one. Must tie sheets together and go out window. Thiel says it's too dangerous. But there's only one guard in garden, too many guards by any other route. He says when it's time he'll keep Leck away.


  THE NEXT DAY, Po and Raffin left before dawn, taking their horses into the east city and quietly across Winged Bridge. Katsa followed soon after, leaving Bann, Helda, and Bitterblue to stare at one another gloomily over breakfast. Giddon still hadn't returned from Silverhart.

  Then, in late morning, Darby ran up her tower stairs and dropped a folded note onto her desk. He sniffed. "This seems urgent, Lady Queen."

  The note was written in Giddon's hand, unciphered. Lady Queen, it said, please come to your stables as soon as possible and bring Rood. Be discreet.

  She couldn't think why Giddon would ask for such a thing, and doubted it could be for any cheerful reason. Well, at least he was safely back.

  Rood followed her to the stables like a timid dog, folded in on himself, as if trying to make himself disappear. "Do you know what this is about?" she asked him.

  "No, Lady Queen," he whispered.

  Stepping into the stables, she couldn't spot Giddon anywhere, so she chose the closest row of stalls and began to walk down them past horses that stomped and snorted. Around the first corner, she saw Giddon in the door of a faraway stall, bending over something on the ground. Another man was with him—Ornik, the young smith.

  Rood let out a sob beside her.

  Giddon heard, turned, and came to them quickly, blocking their advance. With one arm outstretched to stop Bitterblue and his other arm practically holding Rood upright, he said, "It's dreadful, I'm afraid. It's a corpse that's been in the river for some time. I—" He hesitated. "Rood, I'm sorry, but we think it's your brother. Would you know his rings?"

  Rood collapsed to his knees.

  "It's all right," Bitterblue said to Giddon as he looked at her helplessly. She put her hand on his arm. "You de
al with Rood. I know his rings."

  "I'd rather you didn't have to see it, Lady Queen."

  "It will hurt me less than it hurts Rood."

  Giddon spoke over his shoulder to Ornik. "Stay with the queen," he said, unnecessarily, for Ornik had already come forward, smelling of vomit.

  "That bad, Ornik?" said Bitterblue.

  "It's very bad, Lady Queen," Ornik said grimly. "I'll show you his hands only."

  "I would like to see his face, Ornik," she said, not knowing how to explain that she needed to see all there was to see. Just so that she would know, and possibly understand.

  And yes, she recognized the rings constricting the skin of the horrible balloon hand, though the rest of him was unrecognizable. Barely human; fetid; the sight of him barely sufferable. "Those are Runnemood's rings," she told Ornik. And this answers the question of whether Runnemood is the only person targeting truthseekers. This body wasn't setting any fires in the city—she counted days in her head— four nights ago.

  He would have died anyway, if he'd been convicted of his crimes. So why is seeing him dead so horrible?

  Ornik covered the body with a blanket. When Giddon came to stand beside them, Bitterblue looked back and saw that Darby had come and was kneeling with an arm around Rood. And beyond them, Thiel, hovering, with empty eyes, like a ghost.

  "Is there any way of knowing what happened?" Bitterblue asked.

  "I don't think so, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "Not with a body that's been in the river as long as this one seems to have been. As long as three and a half weeks, I suppose, if he died the night he disappeared, right? Rood and Darby are both speculating that it was suicide."

  "Suicide," she repeated. "Would Runnemood have committed suicide?"

  "Unfortunately, Lady Queen," said Giddon, "there's more I need to tell you."

  "All right," Bitterblue said, noticing that behind Giddon, Thiel had turned and was gliding away. "Just give me a minute, Giddon."

  She ran to catch up with Thiel, calling his name.

  He turned to her woodenly.

  "Do you also think it was suicide, Thiel? Don't you think he must have had enemies?"

  "I can't think, Lady Queen," said Thiel in a voice that cracked and strained. "Would he have done such a thing? Had he gone so mad? Perhaps it is my doing," he said, "for letting him run off that night, alone. Forgive me, Lady Queen," he said, backing away in confusion. "Forgive me, for this is my doing."

  "Thiel!" she said, but he pushed himself away.

  Turning back, Bitterblue saw Giddon down another row of stalls, hugging a man she'd never seen before, hugging him like a long-lost cousin. And now Giddon was hugging the horse that had apparently just come in with the man. Giddon had tears running down his face.

  What on earth was going on? Was everyone mad? She focused on the tableau of Darby and Rood on their knees. Runnemood's wrapped corpse lay on the floor beyond them, and Rood was weeping inconsolably. Bitterblue supposed one might over a brother, no matter who the brother had grown up to be.

  She went to him to tell him she was sorry.

  THE MAN GIDDON had been hugging was the son of Giddon's housekeeper. The horse Giddon had been hugging was one of Giddon's own horses, a mare who'd been on an errand in town when Randa's raid had begun. No one had felt the need to tell Randa's men that their inventory of Giddon's stables that day was off by one horse.

  All the people had gotten out of the buildings. All the horses had survived, as had all the dogs, down to the smallest runt puppy. As for Giddon's things, little was left. Randa's men had gone through the place beforehand, collecting items of value, then carefully set the sort of fire that would produce the maximum destruction.

  Bitterblue walked with Giddon back into the castle. "I'm so sorry about all of it, Giddon," she said quietly.

  "It's a comfort to talk to you about it, Lady Queen," he said. "But do you remember that there was more I needed to tell you?"

  "Is it about your estate?"

  It was not about Giddon's estate. It was about the river, and Bitterblue's eyes widened as she listened.

  The river at Silverhart was full of bones. The bones had been discovered at the same time as Runnemood's body, for, as it happened, the corpse had gotten hung up on what turned out, upon investigation, to be a reef of bones. Ice had then formed around the body and frozen solid, anchoring it into place. All of this had occurred at a bend in the river where water pooled, slowing nearly to a stop. It was a deep spot the townspeople tended to avoid, for the very reason that dead things accumulated there, fish and plants washing up to the banks, lingering until they rotted away. It was a putrid place.

  The bones were human.

  "But how old are they?" Bitterblue asked, not understanding. "Are they the bodies Leck burned on Monster Bridge?"

  "The healer didn't think so, Lady Queen, for he could find no signs of burning, but he admitted to having little experience with reading bones. He wasn't comfortable speculating about their age. But it's possible they've been collecting there for some time. If people hadn't had to row in among them to free Runnemood's corpse, they wouldn't have been discovered. No one makes a point of going to this stretch of river, Lady Queen, and no one steps into the pool, for the footing there is dangerous."

  And now Bitterblue was thinking about something else entirely: Po and his hallucinations. The river is swimming with the dead. Ashen and her embroidery. The river is his graveyard of bones. "We need to bring the bones out," she said.

  "I understand that there are underwater caverns in this place, Lady Queen, with quite deep water. It may be difficult."

  A memory opened to Bitterblue like a crack of light. "Diving for treasure," she muttered.

  "Lady Queen?"

  "According to something Saf said to me once, he knows a bit about recovering things from the ocean floor. I expect he could extrapolate to a river floor. Can one do such a thing in cold weather? He is discreet," she added grudgingly, "with information, anyway. Not so much with his behavior."

  "At any rate, I'm not sure discretion is an issue here, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "The whole town knows about the bones. They were discovered just before I arrived, and I'd heard them talked about several times before I even reached my contact. If we have a boneretrieval operation going on in the river half a day's ride from the city, I don't see it staying quiet."

  "Especially if we decide to search other parts of the river as well," Bitterblue said.

  "Should we be doing that?"

  "I think they're the bones of Leck's victims, Giddon," she said. "And I think there must be some in the river here, near the castle. Po couldn't sense them when he looked for them specifically, but when he was sick and hallucinating, his Grace swelling and distorting, some part of him knew. He told me the river was swimming with the dead."

  "I see. If Leck dumped bones into the river, I suppose we could find them practically to the harbor. How well do bones float?"

  "I have no idea," Bitterblue said. "Perhaps Madlen knows. Perhaps I should make a team of Madlen and Sapphire and send them out to Silverhart. Oh, my shoulder aches and my head is splitting," she said, stopping in the great courtyard, rubbing at her scalp under its too-tight braids. "Giddon, how I wish a few days would go by without any upsetting news."

  "You've too much to worry about, Lady Queen," Giddon said quietly.

  "Giddon," she said, caught by his tone, and ashamed of herself for complaining. Looking into his face and seeing a kind of desolation in his eyes that he was managing to keep out of his voice. "Perhaps this is a useless, unhelpful thing to say," she said. "I hope it will not be insulting. But I want you to know that you're always welcome in Monsea and you're always welcome at my court. And if any of your people have no employment, or wish, for whatever reason, to be elsewhere, they're all welcome here. Monsea is not a perfect place," she said, taking a breath, clenching her fist to ward off all the feelings that rose with that statement. "But there are good people here, and I wanted you to know."<
br />
  Giddon took her small, clenched fist in his hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed it. And Bitterblue was lit up inside, just a little bit, with the magic of knowing she'd done a small thing right. Oh, to feel that way more often.

  BACK IN HER office, Darby told her that Rood was in bed, being looked after by his wife and, supposedly, bounced on by grandchildren, though Bitterblue couldn't imagine Rood being bounced on by anything without breaking. Darby did not react well to the news of the bones. He blundered away and, as the hours went on, became a bit erratic in his gait and his speech. She wondered if he was drinking at his desk.

  It had never occurred to Bitterblue to inquire before this exactly where Thiel kept his rooms. She only knew they were on the fourth level, northish, though obviously not within Leck's maze. That evening, she asked Darby for more specific directions.

  In the correct hallway, she consulted a footman, who stared at her with fish eyes and pointed wordlessly at a door.

  Somewhat unsettled, Bitterblue knocked. There was a pause.

  Then the door swung inward and Thiel stood before her, staring down at her. His shirt was open at the throat and untucked. "Lady Queen," he said, startled.

  "Thiel. Did I bring you out of bed?"

  "No, Lady Queen."

  "Thiel!" she said, noticing a small patch of red above one of his cuffs. "You're bleeding! Are you all right? What happened?"

  "Oh," he said, looking down, searching his chest and arms for the offending spot, covering it with his hand. "It's nothing, Lady Queen, nothing except my own clumsiness. I'll see to it immediately. Would you—would you care to come in?"

  He pulled the door fully open and stood aside awkwardly while she passed through. It was a single room, small, with a bed, a washstand, two wooden chairs, no fireplace, and a desk that seemed far too small for such a large man, as if he must knock his knees against the wall when he used it. The air was too cold and the light too dim. There were no windows.

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