Bitterblue, p.35
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       Bitterblue, p.35

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  to sculpture, touching them, wiping dust away, not saying a word.

  Bitterblue was in the closet reaching for the last few books when Giddon returned. "It goes on for some time, Lady Queen," he said, "and ends at a door. It took me forever to find the lever to open the door. It opens into the same corridor in the east castle where the tunnel to the east city starts, and it's hidden behind a hanging, just as all these doors seem to be. I only saw the hanging from the back, but it looked like a big, green wildcat tearing out the throat of a man. I peeked out into the corridor. I don't think anyone saw me."

  "I hope no one else has made the colorful-animal-hidden-tunnel connection," breathed Bitterblue. "I'm furious with Po for not realizing."

  "Not fair, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "Po can't see colors, and anyway, he hasn't had time to be mapping your castle."

  Now she was angry with herself. "I'd forgotten about the colors. I'm an ass."

  Before Giddon could respond, an enormous, distant crash interrupted them. They stared at each other in alarm. "Here, take these," Bitterblue said, shoving most of the remaining books at him, cradling the rest in her arm. The noises continued; they came from above, from the direction of Leck's room. Giddon and Bitterblue ran up the slope.

  In the bedroom, Holt was lifting the bed frame into the air and crashing it down again onto the rug, breaking it into pieces. "Uncle," Hava cried, trying to grab his arm. "Stop it. Stop it!" Bann was struggling with Hava, trying to pull her away, but letting go every time she flickered into something else. Grabbing on to his own head, moaning.

  "He ruined her," Holt said over and over, deliriously, lifting a piece of the bed frame and smashing it into the floor. "He ruined her. I let him ruin my sister." The bed frame he shattered so easily was a solid, huge thing. Splintered pieces of wood flew around the room, knocking against sculptures, raising explosions of dust. Hava fell down and he didn't even glance at her. Bann dragged Hava out of Holt's range and she huddled on the floor, weeping.

  "Did he take all the boards down from the door?" Bitterblue asked Bann, shouting over the noise. Bann nodded, breathless. "Then get the books up the stairs to my rooms," she ordered both Bann and Giddon, "before the entire Monsean Guard breaks through the door to see what the noise is about." Then she went to Hava and held on to the girl as best she could, closing her eyes, because Hava kept changing shape and it was sickening.

  "There's nothing we can do," Bitterblue told her. "Hava, we must just let him be until he's done."

  "He'll hate himself when it's over," said Hava, gasping with tears. "That's the worst thing about it. When he comes back to his senses and realizes he went berserk, he'll hate himself for it."

  "Then we must stay out of the way, where he can't hurt us," Bitterblue said, "so that we're able to reassure him that the only thing he injured was a bed frame."

  No guards came. When the bed frame was well and truly smashed, Holt sat among the pieces on the floor, crying. Hava and Bitterblue went to him; they sat with him while he began his apologies and his expressions of shame. They tried to take that burden away from him, with gentle words of their own.

  THE NEXT MORNING, Bitterblue walked into the library with a journal under her arm and stopped before Death's desk.

  "Your Grace of reading and remembering," she said to Death. "Does it work with symbols you don't understand, or only with letters you do?"

  Death wrinkled his nose in a way that made it seem as if he were wrinkling his entire face. "I have no earthly idea what you're talking about, Lady Queen."

  "A cipher," Bitterblue said. "You've rewritten entire pages in cipher, from the book about ciphers that Leck destroyed. Were you able to do that because you understood the ciphers? Or can you remember a string of letters even if they mean nothing to you?"

  "It's a complicated question," said Death. "If I can make them mean something—even if it's something silly that they don't actually mean—then yes, to some extent—if the passage isn't too long. But in the case of the ciphers in the cipher book, Lady Queen, I rewrote them successfully because I understood them and had their translations memorized. Passages of that length, had they been random strings of letters or numbers with no meaning, would have been much more difficult. Luckily, I do have a mind for ciphers."

  "You have a mind for ciphers," Bitterblue repeated vaguely, talking more to herself than to him. "You have a gift for looking at letters and words and seeing patterns and meaning. That is how your Grace works."

  "Well," Death said, "more or less, Lady Queen. Much of the time."

  "And if it's a cipher in symbols, rather than letters?"

  "Letters are symbols, Lady Queen," Death said with a sniff. "One can always learn more of them."

  Bitterblue handed him the book she was carrying and waited while he opened it. At the first page, his eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. At the second page, his mouth began to hang open. He sat back, dumbfounded, lifting his eyes to her face. Blinking too fast. "Where did you find it?" he asked in a hoarse, throaty voice.

  "Do you know what it is?"

  "It's his hand," Death whispered.

  "His hand! How can you tell that, when none of the letters are the same?"

  "His handwriting is odd, Lady Queen. You'll remember. He consistently wrote some letters strangely. The way he wrote them is similar, and in some cases, identical, to the symbols in this book. Do you see?"

  Death pointed one thin finger to a symbol that looked like a U with a tail.

  Leck had, indeed, always written the letter U with that strange little tail at its top right. Bitterblue recognized it, and realized suddenly that she'd intuited the similarity the very first time she'd opened the first book. "Of course," she said. "Do you think this symbol corresponds to our U ?"

  "It wouldn't make for much of a cipher if it did."

  "This cipher is your new job," Bitterblue said. "When I came to you, it was only to ask you to read it, in the hopes that you could memorize it, or even copy it, so that if we lost them, they wouldn't truly be lost. But now I see you're the man to break the cipher. It's not a simple substitution cipher, for there are thirty-two symbols. I counted. And there are thirty-five books."

  "Thirty-five!"

  "Yes."

  Death's strange eyes were damp. He pulled the book toward him and held it to his chest.

  "Break the cipher," Bitterblue said, "I beg you, Death. It may be the only way I ever understand anything. I'll work on it as well, and so will a couple of my spies who have a talent for ciphers. You may keep as many of the books as you want here, but no one else must ever, ever see them. Understand?"

  Not speaking, Death nodded. Then Lovejoy sat up in Death's lap, his head poking above the desktop, his fur sticking out in oddball directions, as it always did, as if his hide fit him poorly. Bitterblue hadn't even known he was there. Death pulled Lovejoy against his chest and held him tight, gripping both cat and book as if he expected someone to try to take them from him.

  "Why did Leck let you live?" Bitterblue asked Death quietly.

  "Because he needed me," said Death. "He couldn't control knowledge unless he knew what the knowledge was and where to find it. I lied to him, when I could. I pretended his Grace worked on me even more than it did; I preserved what I could; I rewrote what I could and hid it. It was never enough," he said, his voice breaking. "He raped this library and all other libraries, and I couldn't stop him. When he suspected me of lying, he cut me, and whenever he caught me in a lie, he tortured my cats."

  A tear ran down Death's face. Lovejoy began to struggle from being held so hard. And Bitterblue understood that a cat's fur might lie strangely on its body if its skin has been cut by knives. A man's spirit might shiver unpleasantly around his body if he has been alone with horror and suffering for too long.

  There was nothing she could do to mend that kind of suffering. Nor did she want to frighten Death with demonstrative behavior. But leaving without an acknowledgment of all he'd said was not an option. Was there a rig
ht thing to do? Or only a thousand wrong things?

  Bitterblue walked around the desk to him and placed her hand gently on his shoulder. When he breathed in and out once, raggedly, she obeyed an astonishing instinct, bent, and kissed his dry forehead. He took another great breath. Then he said, "I will break this cipher for you, Lady Queen."

  * * * * *

  IN HER OFFICE with Thiel at the helm, paper passed more smoothly across Bitterblue's desk than it had in weeks.

  "Now that it's November," she said to him, "we can hope for a response soon from my uncle with advice on how I'm to provide remuneration to the people Leck stole from. I wrote to him at the start of September, remember? It'll be a relief to get to work on that. I'll feel like I'm actually doing something."

  "I theorize that those bones in the river are from bodies dumped by King Leck, Lady Queen," responded Thiel.

  "What?" Bitterblue said, startled. "Does that have something to do with remuneration?"

  "No, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "But people are asking questions about the bones, and I wonder if we shouldn't release a statement explaining that King Leck dumped them. It will put an end to the speculation, Lady Queen, and allow us to focus on matters like remuneration."

  "I see," said Bitterblue. "I'd prefer to wait until Madlen has concluded her investigation, Thiel. We don't actually know yet how the bones got there."

  "Of course, Lady Queen," said Thiel, with utter correctness. "In the meantime, I'll draft the statement, so that it's ready for release at the slightest moment."

  "Thiel," she said, putting her pen down and giving him a look. "I'd much rather you spent your time on the question of who's burning buildings and killing people in the east city than on drafting a statement that might never be released! Now that Captain Smit is away," she said, trying not to imbue the word with too much sarcasm, "find out for me who's in charge of the investigation. I want daily reports, just like before, and you may as well know that I've rather lost my faith in the Monsean Guard. If they want to impress me, they should find some answers that match the answers my own spies are finding, and fast."

  Of course, her own spies weren't finding any answers. No one in the city had anything helpful to offer; the spies sent to investigate the names on Teddy's list uncovered nothing. But the Monsean Guard didn't need to know that, and neither did Thiel.

  Then, a week after Madlen and Saf had gone to Silverhart, Bitterblue received a letter that elucidated—possibly—why her spies still weren't finding any answers.

  The first part of the letter was written in Madlen's strange, childish handwriting.

  We're recovering hundreds of bones. Thousands, Lady Queen. Your Sapphire and his team are bringing them up faster than I can keep count. I am afraid that I can tell little about them beyond the basics. Most of them are the smaller bones. I have found pieces from at least forty-seven different skulls and am attempting to articulate the skeletons. We have set up an impromptu laboratory in the guest rooms of the inn. We are lucky that the innkeeper has an interest in science and history. I doubt all innkeepers would wish their guest rooms full of bones.

  Sapphire wishes to write you a line. He says that you will know the key.

  What followed was a paragraph in some of the most indecipherable handwriting Bitterblue had ever seen, so tangled that it took her a moment to confirm that it was, indeed, ciphered. Two possible keys sprang to mind. To spare her own heart, she tried the hurtful one first. Liar. It didn't work. But the second one produced this message: you were right to send your lienid guard and i must thank you for it. they stopped man with knife who came at me in camp when i was wet freezing in no state to fight. wild man, raving, could give no reason, no names for who hired him. pockets full of money. this is how they do it. they choose lost souls to do their work, desperate people with no reason who couldn't identify them even if wanted to, so looks like random senseless crime. be careful, watch your back. are guards watching shop?

  Guards are watching the shop, Bitterblue wrote back, using his key. She hesitated, then added, You be careful too, in that cold water, Saf.

  The key was Sparks. Bitterblue couldn't help the tiny hope that rose in her heart that she was forgiven.

  IN THE MEANTIME, Ashen's embroidery lay, neglected, in piles on her bedroom floor, with three of Leck's books hidden beneath it. She spent as much time as she could spare with her nose in one of those books, scribbling at scrap after scrap of paper, pushing her mind through every kind of decipherment she'd ever read about—or, trying to, anyway. She'd never had to do this before. She'd ciphered messages using the most complicated ciphers she could imagine, and enjoyed the neatness of it, the rapid calculations of her own mind. But deciphering was an entire other beast. She understood the basic principles of decipherment, but when she tried to transfer that understanding to Leck's symbols, everything kept falling apart. She could find patterns, in places. She could find strings of four or five or even seven symbols that reappeared here and there in the exact same sequence, which should have been a good thing. Repetitions of a particular sequence of symbols within any ciphered text suggested a repeated word. But the repetitions were exceedingly rare, which suggested a revolving series of more than one cipher alphabet, and it did not help a bit that the total number of different symbols in use was thirty-two. Thirtytwo symbols to represent twenty-six letters? Were the extra symbols blanks? Were they used as alternates for the most common letters, like E and T, to make it difficult for a cipher-breaker to break the cipher by means of examining letter frequency? Did they represent consonant blends like TH and ST? It gave Bitterblue a headache.

  Death hadn't made much progress on the cipher either, and was more harried and snappish than usual. "I may have determined that there are six different revolving alphabets," Bitterblue said to him one evening. "Which suggests that the key is six letters long."

  "I determined that days ago!" he practically shouted. "Don't distract me!"

  Watching Thiel as he tottered around her tower sometimes, Bitterblue wondered what her greater reason was for hiding the existence of the journals from him. Was she more afraid of his interference? Or of the damage it would do to his fragile soul to know that secret writing of Leck's had been found? She'd been furious with him for shielding her from the truth, and now found herself with the same instinct.

  Rood was back, shuffling around slowly, taking small breaths. Darby, on the other hand, flung himself around the offices and up and down the stairs, flung papers and words about, stank like old wine, and finally, one day, collapsed on the floor in front of Bitterblue's desk.

  He muttered incomprehensible gibberish while healers attended to him. As they carried him out of the room, Thiel stood frozen, staring out the windows. His eyes seemed fixed on something that wasn't there.

  "Thiel," said Bitterblue, not knowing what to say. "Thiel, can I do anything for you?"

  It seemed, at first, as if he hadn't heard. Then he turned away from the window. "Darby's Grace prevents him from sleeping the way we do, Lady Queen," he said quietly. "Sometimes, the only way for him to switch his mind off is to make himself blind drunk."

  "There must be something I can do to help him," Bitterblue said. "Perhaps he should have less stressful work to do, or even retire."

  "Work comforts him, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "Work comforts all of us. The kindest thing you can do is allow us to continue working."

  "Yes," she said. "All right," for work kept her own thoughts from spinning out of control too. She understood him.

  She sat on her bedroom floor that night with two of her spies

  who were cipher breakers. The books lay open before them as they hypothesized, argued, passed weariness and frustration back and forth to each other. Bitterblue was too exhausted to realize how exhausted she was, and how unequal to the task.

  At the edge of her vision, a largeness filled the doorway. Turning, trying not to lose her thought, she saw Giddon leaning against the door frame. Behind him, Bann rested his chin on Giddo
n's shoulder.

  "Can we convince you to join us, Lady Queen?" asked Giddon.

  "What are you doing?"

  "Sitting," Giddon said, "in your sitting room. Talking about Estill. Complaining about Katsa and Po."

  "And Raffin," Bann said. "There's a sour cream cake."

  The cake was motivation, of course, but mostly, Bitterblue wanted to know what sorts of things Bann said when he was complaining about Raffin. "I'm not getting anywhere with this," she admitted blearily.

  "Well, and we need you," Giddon said.

  Half stumbling in her slippers, Bitterblue joined them. Together, they walked down the corridor.

  "Specifically, we need you to lie supine on the sofa," Bann said as they entered the sitting room.

  This struck Bitterblue as suspicious, but she complied, and was deeply gratified when Helda loomed out of nowhere and slapped a plate of cake on her stomach.

  "We're having some luck with military defectors in south Estill," began Giddon.

  "This raspberry filling is amazing," said Bitterblue fervently, then fell asleep, with cake in her mouth and her fork in her hand.

  34

  MADLEN AND SAF were away for nearly two weeks. When they returned, they made a path through November snow with upward of five thousand bones, and few answers.

  "I have managed to reassemble three or four nearly complete skeletons, Lady Queen," said Madlen. "But mostly I've got fragments, and not enough time or space to work out which goes with which. I've found no evidence of burning, but some of sawing. I believe we're looking at hundreds of people, but I can't be any more specific. What would you say to having that cast off tomorrow?"

  "I would say it's the first good news I've had in—" Bitterblue tried to calculate back, then eventually gave up. "Forever," she said grumpily.

  Leaving the infirmary, stepping into the great courtyard, she came face-to-face with Saf. "Oh!" she said. "Hello."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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