Bitterblue, p.34
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       Bitterblue, p.34

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  When he offered her the better of the straight-backed chairs, Bitterblue sat, uncomfortable, embarrassed, and unaccountably confused. Thiel went to the washstand, turned his injured side away from her, rolled up his sleeve, and did something or other with pats of water and bandages. A stringed instrument stood in an open case against the wall. A harp. Bitterblue wondered if, when Thiel played it, its sound reached all the way to Leck's maze.

  She also saw a bit of broken mirror on the washstand.

  "Has this always been your room, Thiel?" she asked.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," he said. "I'm sorry it's not more welcoming."

  "Was it—assigned to you," Bitterblue asked carefully, "or did you choose it?"

  "I chose it, Lady Queen."

  "Do you never wish for a larger space?" she asked. "Something more like mine?"

  "No, Lady Queen," he said, coming to sit across from her. "This suits me."

  It did not suit him. This bare, comfortless square of a room, the gray blanket on the bed, the dreary-looking furniture did not in any way match his dignity, his intelligence, or his importance to her or to the kingdom.

  "Have you been making Darby and Rood go to work every day?" she asked him. "I've never known either of them to go so long without a breakdown."

  He studied his own hands, then cleared his throat delicately. "I have, Lady Queen. Though of course I could not insist it of Rood today. I confess that whenever they've asked for my guidance, I have given it. I hope you don't feel that I've been imposing myself."

  "Have you been very bored?" she asked him.

  "Oh, Lady Queen," he said fervently, as if the question itself were relief from boredom. "I've been sitting in this room with nothing to do but think. It is paralyzing, Lady Queen, to have nothing to do but think."

  "And what have you been thinking, Thiel?"

  "That if you would let me come back to your tower, Lady Queen, I would endeavor to serve you better."

  "Thiel," she said quietly, "you helped us escape, didn't you? You gave my mother a knife. We wouldn't have gotten away if you hadn't; she needed that knife. And you distracted Leck while we ran."

  Thiel sat huddled within himself, not speaking. "Yes," he finally whispered.

  "It breaks my heart sometimes," Bitterblue said, "the things I can't remember. I don't remember that the two of you were such friends. I don't remember how important you were to us. I only remember flashes of moments when he took you both downstairs to punish you together. It's not fair, that I don't remember your kindness."

  Thiel let out a long breath. "Lady Queen," he said, "one of Leck's cruelest legacies is that he left us unable to remember some things and unable to forget others. We are not masters of our minds."

  After a moment, she said, "I would like you to come back tomorrow."

  He looked at her with hope growing in his face.

  "Runnemood's dead," she said. "That chapter is over, but the mystery is not solved, for my truthseeking friends in the city are still being targeted. I don't know how it'll be between us, Thiel. I don't know how we'll learn to trust each other again, and I know you're not well enough to help me with every matter I face. But I miss you, and I'd like to try again."

  A thin line of blood was seeping through another part of Thiel's shirt, high on his sleeve. As Bitterblue stood up to go, her eyes touched on all the parts of the room once more. She couldn't shake the feeling that it was like a prison cell.

  BITTERBLUE WENT NEXT to the infirmary. She found Madlen's room warm from the heat of braziers, well lit against the autumn early darkness, and, as always, full of books and paper. A haven.

  Madlen was packing.

  "The bones?" asked Bitterblue.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Madlen. "The mysterious bones. Sapphire has gone home and is also readying himself."

  "I'm going to send a couple soldiers from my Lienid Guard with you, Madlen, because I'm concerned about Saf—but will you keep a close watch on him too, in your capacity as healer? I don't know how much he actually knows about recovering things from water, especially in the cold, and he thinks he's invincible."

  "I will, of course, Lady Queen. And perhaps when I come back, we can take a look under that cast. I'm eager to test your strength and see how my medicines have worked."

  "May I knead bread once the cast is off?"

  "If I'm satisfied with your progress, then yes, you may knead bread. Is this why you came here, Lady Queen? For permission to knead bread?"

  Bitterblue sat on the end of Madlen's bed, beside a mountain of blankets, papers, and clothing. "No," she said.

  "I thought not."

  She practiced the words in her mind before speaking them aloud, worried that they might prove she was mad. "Madlen. Would a person ever cut himself," she said, "on purpose?"

  Madlen stilled her rummaging hands and peered at Bitterblue. Then she shoved the mountain of things on the bed aside with one powerful arm and sat beside her. "Are you asking for yourself, Lady Queen, or someone else?"

  "You know I wouldn't do such a thing to myself."

  "I would certainly like to think that I know it, Lady Queen," Madlen said. Then she paused, looking quite grim. "There are no limits to the ways people you think you know can astonish you. I can't explain the practice to you, Lady Queen. I wonder if it's meant to be punishment for something one can't forgive oneself for. Or an external expression, Lady Queen, of an internal pain? Or perhaps it's a way to realize that you actually do want to stay alive."

  "Don't talk about it as if it's a life-affirming thing," Bitterblue whispered, furious.

  Madlen studied her own hands, which were large, strong, and,

  Bitterblue knew, infinitely gentle. "It's a relief to me, Lady Queen, that in your own pain, you take no interest in hurting yourself."

  "Why would I?" Bitterblue flared. "Why should I? It's foolish. I would like to kick the people who do it."

  "That would, perhaps, be redundant, Lady Queen."

  IN HER ROOMS, Bitterblue stormed to her bedroom, slamming, even locking the door, then yanking at her braids, yanking at her sling and her gown, tears making silent tracks down her face. Someone knocked at the door. "Go away," she yelled, stomping back and forth. How am I to help him? If I confront him, he'll deny it, then go empty, and fall apart.

  "Lady Queen," Helda's voice said on the other side of the door. "Tell me you're all right in there or I'll have Bann knock the door in."

  Half crying, half laughing, Bitterblue found a robe. Then she went to the door and pulled it open.

  "Helda," she said to the woman who stood there imperiously, holding a key in her hands that rendered her threat a bit overdramatic. "I'm sorry for my rudeness. I was—upset."

  "Mmph. Well, there's more than enough to be upset about, Lady Queen. Pull yourself together and come into the sitting room, if you would. Bann has come up with a place for us to hide your Sapphire, should things reach a crisis point with the crown."

  "IT WAS KATSA'S suggestion, Lady Queen," said Bann. "Do you think he'd go willingly to a hiding place of ours?"

  "Possibly," Bitterblue said. "I could try to talk to him. Where is it?"

  "On Winged Bridge."

  "Winged Bridge? Isn't that part of the city rather populated?"

  "He's to go up onto the bridge, Lady Queen. Hardly anyone goes onto it. And it happens to be a drawbridge, did you know? On its near side it has a sort of a room—a tower—for the drawbridge operator. Katsa discovered it the first time she left for her tunnel, for her route took her across the bridge, and she had no supplies that night, remember?"

  "Isn't Winged Bridge high enough that practically three fullrigged ships stacked on top of each other could pass under it with room to spare?"

  "In a manner of speaking, yes," said Bann mildly. "I don't expect there's ever been a need to raise the drawbridge. Which means it's a drawbridge tower no one looks at twice. It's furnished and functional, supplied with pots and pans and a stove and so on. It would be just like Leck t
o station a man there with no work to do, wouldn't it? His kind of illogic? But it's empty now. According to Katsa, everything is under years of dust. Katsa broke in and took a knife and a few other things, but left the rest."

  "I'm beginning to warm to this idea," Bitterblue said. "It'd do Saf some good to sit in a cold room, sneezing and thinking about his mistakes."

  "It's better than trying to hide him in one of our wardrobes, at any rate, Lady Queen. And it would be the first step in moving him to Estill."

  Bitterblue raised her eyebrows. "You seem to have plans for him."

  Bann shrugged. "Of course, we would try to help him regardless, Lady Queen, because he's your friend. But he's also a person we could use."

  "I believe his own preference, if he decided to run, would be Lienid."

  "We're not going to force him to go anywhere, Lady Queen," Bann said. "A person who doesn't want to work with us is no use to us. He follows his gut. It's one of the reasons he appeals to us, but we know it means he'll do whatever he likes. Tell him about the bridge, won't you? I'll go there myself one of these nights to make sure it suits our purposes. Sometimes, the best hiding places are in plain sight."

  THAT NIGHT, INSTEAD of pushing herself through more embroidery, Bitterblue found herself padding to the art gallery. She wasn't sure why she did, and in her robe and slippers, no less. Helda and Bann had gone to sleep, and Giddon had his own problems. She had a vague sense of wanting company.

  But Hava was nowhere to be found. "Hava?" she called once or twice, in case the girl was hiding. No response.

  She ended up standing before the hanging of the man being attacked by the colorful beasts. Wondering, for the first time, if she might be looking at a true story.

  A click sounded and the hanging she was staring at moved, billowed. There was a person behind it. "Hava?" she said.

  It was Fox who emerged, blinking at Bitterblue's lantern. "Lady Queen!"

  "Fox," Bitterblue responded. "Where on earth did you come from?"

  "There's a spiral staircase that leads all the way up from the library, Lady Queen," said Fox. "I was just trying it for the first time. Ornik told me about it, Lady Queen. Apparently it runs past Lady Katsa's rooms as well, and the Council uses it sometimes for meetings. Do you think I'll ever be allowed to attend Council meetings, Lady Queen?"

  "That will be for Prince Po to decide," said Bitterblue evenly, "and the others. Have you met any of them, Fox?"

  "Not Prince Po," said Fox, then went on to talk about the others. Bitterblue only half attended, because Po was the one who mattered. She wished she'd had Po chat with Fox before he'd gone. And she was also distracted because something else entirely had captured her thoughts: She was seeing, in her mind, a succession of hidden entrances behind wild, strangely colored creatures. The door to Leck's stairway, hidden behind the blue horse in her sitting room. The secret entrance to the library, hidden behind the wild-haired woman in the hanging. The strange, colorful insects on the tiles of Katsa's bath; and now, a door in the wall behind this horrible scene.

  "Forgive me, Fox," Bitterblue said, "but I'm exhausted. It's time I went to bed."

  Then she walked back to her rooms and collected the keys. Going out again past her guards, dropping down the appropriate stairs, winding through the maze, she tried not to rush, because it was silly, only a hunch, and it was foolish to hope too hard.

  Inside the room, she went to the tiny owl in the tapestry, lifted the bottom of the great, heavy, woven cloth, and crawled beneath it.

  She couldn't see a thing and spent the first minute coughing at the dust. Eyes watering, nose itching like crazy, pressed up against the wall and half suffocated by art, she asked herself what in the blazes she expected to happen now: a door that swung open? A tunnel of light? Feel around, she thought. Po opened the door behind Katsa's tub by pressing on a tile. Feel the wall. Reach high! Leck was taller than you.

  Feeling the wall, finding nothing but smooth wood, she grew disheartened, and also slightly embarrassed. What if someone intel ligent whose opinion mattered came into the room, saw the bulge in the hanging, and lifted it to find the queen in her robe groping idly at the wood of the wall? Or, worse, what if they assumed she was an intruder and began whacking at her through the hanging? What if—

  Her finger hooked into a knot in the wood, very high, so high that she was on tiptoe when she found it. Stretching herself as tall as she could, Bitterblue pushed her finger farther into the hole. A click sounded, followed by a rolling noise. A space opened before her.

  She had to crawl back into the room for her lantern. Once under the hanging again, she lifted her light. It illuminated a stone spiral staircase leading down.

  Bitterblue gritted her teeth and began the descent, wishing she had a free hand to steady against the wall. The staircase straightened eventually to a long, stone, descending passage. Continuing on, she found that it curved in places and contained occasional steps leading down. It was difficult to keep track of where she was in relation to Leck's room.

  When her lamp found a glowing design on the wall, she stopped to examine it. A painting, painted directly onto the stone. A pack of wolves, silver, gold, and palest pink, howling at a silver moon.

  She knew better than to pass on by without trying. Setting her lantern on the floor, she ran her hand over the stone, searching for something, anything that might be anomalous. Her finger caught in a hole on one side of the painting. The shape of the hole was strange. Familiar. Bitterblue touched its edges and realized it was a keyhole.

  Breathing shakily, she pulled the keys from the pocket of her robe. Separating the third key from the others, she slipped it into the lock and carefully turned it. A click sounded. The stone wall before her pushed forward.

  Taking the lamp again, Bitterblue squeezed into a shallow, lowceilinged sort of closet, with shelves lining the back wall. On the shelves were books bound in leather. She set the lamp on the floor. Pulling a book down at random, her whole body shaking now, Bitterblue knelt. The leather was a sort of folder enclosing loose papers. Opening the folder awkwardly with one hand, holding a sheet of paper to the lamp, she saw squiggles, strange dips, curves, and slashes.

  Now she remembered it: her father's peculiar, squiggly writing. She'd thrown some of it into the fire once. She hadn't been able to read the letters then. Now she understood why.

  More secrets in cipher, Bitterblue thought, breathing through the fact. My father wrote his secrets in cipher.

  If no one Leck hurt is left to tell me what he did, if no one will tell me the secrets everyone's trying to hide, the secrets that trap everyone inside pain, perhaps it doesn't matter. For Leck can tell me himself. His secrets will tell me what he did to leave my kingdom so broken. And finally, I'll understand.

  P A R T F O U R

  Bridges and Crossings

  (November and December)

  33

  THE BOOKS NUMBERED thirty-five. Bitterblue needed help, fast; she needed Helda, Bann, and Giddon. And so, locking all doors behind her, she went to wake each of them up.

  At her persistent knocking, three bleary people came to three doors, listened to her frantic explanation, then went to get dressed. "Will you find my guard Holt?" she asked Bann, who leaned against his own door frame with no shirt on, looking like he would collapse unconscious on the floor if only she'd let him. "We need him to pull down the wooden boards blocking my sitting room door and he has to do it quietly, because we've got to get the journals up into my rooms without anyone knowing, and for rot's sake, hurry up!"

  When Holt arrived, Hava was with him, for Holt had been visiting his niece in the art gallery when Bann had found him. Bitterblue, Hava, Holt, Giddon, and Bann snuck down the stairs and into the maze with a scattering of lamps, a strange, silent, late-night search party. They glided around corners to Leck's door.

  Bitterblue forgot to warn them; unlocking the door and pushing everyone in, she forgot to warn Holt and Hava that the room was full of Bellamew's sculptur
es. Hava, shocked at the sight of them, flickered in confusion, turning into a sculpture, then back to a girl.

  "He destroyed them," she said in a low, furious voice, holding her lantern close to one. "He covered them with paint."

  "They're still beautiful," Bitterblue said quietly. "He tried to destroy them, but I think he failed, Hava. Look at them. I don't need your help with the books—stay here and spend time with them."

  Holt stood before the sculpture of the child growing wings and feathers. "This is you, Hava," he said. "I remember."

  "I need your help, Holt," said Bitterblue. "Come with me."

  Holt took one long look around the room. His gaze lingered on the empty bed frame. The eyes he finally turned to Bitterblue made her a bit nervous, for there was something unsteady there that she would rather not see in the eyes of a man Graced with strength and known for unpredictable behavior. "Holt?" she said, holding out her hand. "Will you come with me?"

  Holt took her hand. She led him, like a child, to the back of the room and up the steps, and showed him the boards nailed to her sitting room door. "Can you pull them away, quietly, so that if any members of the Monsean Guard should be patrolling the maze, they won't overhear?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen," he said, grasping a board with both hands, then tugging on it gently, so that it came out of the wall with nothing more than a small scraping sound.

  Satisfied, Bitterblue left Holt to his work and scuttled down the steps to Giddon and Bann, who were waiting to be led under the hanging and through the tunnel to Leck's books.

  WHEN THEY REACHED the closet with the books, she sent Giddon on down to follow the passage to its end and discover where it led. Someone had to, and she couldn't bear to leave the books herself. Then she and Bann began to pull the volumes down from the shelves and carry them back up to Leck's room, where they piled them on the rug. Muted sounds indicated that Holt was still pulling boards away from the door. Hava wandered from sculpture

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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