Bitterblue, p.36
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       Bitterblue, p.36

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Hello," he said, also taken by surprise.

  He was, apparently, about to climb onto the window-caulking platform and haul it, with Fox, to whatever obscene height today's work called for. He looked well—the water didn't seem to have hurt him—and there was something quiet in the way he stood there before her, looking at her. Less antagonism?

  "I've something to show you, and a request," Bitterblue said. "Will you come to the library sometime in the next hour?"

  Saf gave a small nod. Behind him, Fox tied a rope to her belt, not seeming to notice them.

  DEATH STORED ALL the journals Bitterblue wasn't working on in a low cabinet in his desk. When Bitterblue asked to borrow one, he unlocked the cabinet and handed it to her impatiently.

  When, shortly thereafter, Saf walked into her library nook with high eyebrows, she passed it to him. Flipping pages, he said, "What is this?"

  "A cipher we can't break," she said, "written in Leck's hand. We've found thirty-five volumes."

  "One for each year of his reign," Saf said.

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, trying to look as if she'd already noticed that. As if, in fact, he hadn't just given her a tool to take back to the deciphering team. If each book represented a year, could they isolate similarities between corresponding parts of different journals? Would each book's opening language, for example, relate to winter?

  "I want you to take it," Bitterblue said, "but you must keep it close, Saf. Show no one outside Teddy, Tilda, and Bren, tell no one, and if no one has any useful thoughts, return it directly. Don't get caught with it."

  "No," Saf said, shaking his head, holding it out to give back to her. "I'm not taking it, not with the way things have been. Someone'll find out. I'll be attacked, they'll get it from me, and your secret will be ruined."

  Bitterblue sighed shortly. "I suppose I can't argue. Well then, will you look through it now and tell the others about it, and let me know what they say?"

  "Yes, all right," he said, "if you think it'll help."

  He'd gotten his hair cut. It was darker now, and bits of it stuck

  up endearingly, in new directions. Confused by his willingness to be helpful and conscious that she was staring, she walked to the hanging while he flipped through the book again. The sad, green eyes of the woman in white calmed her.

  "What's the request?" he said.

  "What?" she said, spinning around.

  "You said you had something to show me," Saf said, gesturing with the book, "and a request. I'll do it, whatever it is."

  "You—you will?" she said. "You're not going to fight me?"

  He rested his eyes on her face with a frankness she hadn't seen there since the night he'd kissed her, then found her crying in the graveyard and blamed himself for it. He looked a bit embarrassed. "Maybe the cold water unblocked my head," he said. "What's the request?"

  She swallowed. "My friends have found you a hiding place. If a crisis arises with the crown and you need to hide, will you go to the drawbridge tower on Winged Bridge?"


  "That was it," she said.

  "I'll go back to my work, then?"

  "Saf," she said, "I don't understand. What does this mean? Are we friends?"

  The question seemed to confuse him. He placed the journal back on the table carefully. "Maybe we're something else," he said, "that hasn't figured itself out yet."

  "I don't understand what that means."

  "I think that's the point," he said, pushing his hand through his hair a bit hopelessly. "I see I acted like a child. And I see you clearly again. But it's not like anything can ever be how it was. I'll go now, Lady Queen," he said, "if that's all right."

  When she didn't respond, he turned and left her. After a while,

  she went to her table and tried to push herself through a bit more of the book about monarchy and tyranny. She read something about oligarchies and something about diarchies, but none of it sank in.

  She wasn't sure that she had any idea who Saf was now, and his use of her title had devastated her.

  THE NEXT MORNING, Bitterblue opened her bedroom door to the prospect of Madlen brandishing a saw.

  "This is not a reassuring sight, Madlen," said Bitterblue.

  "All we need is a flat surface, Lady Queen," said Madlen, "and everything will go swimmingly."



  "What happened to Saf in Silverhart?"

  "What do you mean, what happened?"

  "Yesterday, when he talked to me, he seemed changed."

  "Ah," said Madlen thoughtfully. "I couldn't say, Lady Queen. He was quiet, and I did think that the bones sobered him. Perhaps they encouraged him to consider who you are, Lady Queen, and what you're dealing with."

  "Yes, perhaps," said Bitterblue, sighing. "Shall we go into the bathing room?"

  One of Leck's journals lay open at the foot of the bed, where Bitterblue had been puzzling it over. Walking past the pages, Madlen paused, struck by it.

  "Are you any good at ciphers, Madlen?" Bitterblue asked.

  "Ciphers?" Madlen said in apparent bewilderment.

  "You mustn't tell a soul about it—not a soul, do you understand? It's a cipher written by Leck, and we're having a terrible time cracking it."

  "Indeed," Madlen said. "It's a cipher."

  "Yes," said Bitterblue patiently. "So far, we haven't managed to identify the meaning of even a single symbol."

  "Ah," Madlen said, peering at the page more closely. "I see what you mean. It's a cipher, and you believe each symbol represents a letter."

  Bitterblue came to the conclusion that Madlen wasn't much good at ciphers. "Shall we get this over with?" she said.

  "How many symbols are in use, Lady Queen?" asked Madlen.

  "Thirty-two," said Bitterblue. "Come this way."

  BEING WITHOUT THE cast was marvelous. Bitterblue could touch her arm again. She could scratch the skin, she could rub it; she could wash it clean. "I will never break a bone again," she announced as Madlen introduced her to a new series of exercises. "I love my arm."

  "Someday you'll be attacked again, Lady Queen," said Madlen sternly. "Pay attention to the exercises so that you'll be strong on that day."

  Then, when Bitterblue and Madlen stepped out of the bathing room together, they found Fox standing at the end of the bed, staring at Leck's ciphered book and holding one of Ashen's sheets in her hands.

  Bitterblue made an instant decision.

  "Fox," she said pleasantly. "I'm sure you know better than to trifle with my things when I'm out. Put that down and come away."

  "I'm so sorry, Lady Queen," Fox said, dropping the sheet as if it were on fire. "I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. I couldn't find Helda, you see."

  "Come along," said Bitterblue.

  "Your bedroom door was open, Lady Queen," Fox continued eagerly as they walked. "I heard your voice beyond, so I poked my head in. The sheets were piled on the floor and the top one was so beautiful with embroidery that I went to it to see it closer. I couldn't resist, Lady Queen. I apologize. I had a report for you, you see."

  Bitterblue saw Madlen out, then brought Fox into the sitting room. "Well then," she said calmly. "What is this report? Have you found Gray?"

  "No, Lady Queen. But I've been hearing more rumors in the story rooms about Gray having the crown, and about Sapphire being known to be the thief."

  "Mm," Bitterblue said, not finding it difficult to playact concern, for her worry was genuine, even while her mind spun with a hundred other things. Fox, who was always around when delicate things were happening. Fox, who knew an awful lot of Bitterblue's secrets, but about whom Bitterblue knew practically nothing. Where did Fox live when she was outside the castle? What kind of city people encouraged their daughter to work such odd hours, run around with lock picks in her pocket, snoop and ingratiate herself?

  "How did you become a castle servant, Fox, not living in the castle?" asked Bitterblue.

  "My family has been the servants of no
bility for generations, Lady Queen," Fox said. "We've always tended to live outside the homes of our patrons; it's just been our way."

  When Fox had gone, Bitterblue went looking for Helda. She found her in Helda's own bedroom, knitting in a green armchair. "Helda," she said. "What would you say to us having Fox followed?"

  "Goodness, Lady Queen," said Helda, needles calmly clicking. "Has it come to that?"

  "I just . . . I don't trust her, Helda."

  "What's caused this?"

  Bitterblue paused. "The hair that stands up on the back of my neck."

  BITTERBLUE WAS IN the royal bakery a day later, thudding her tired arm determinedly against a ball of dough, when she looked up to find Death bouncing before her.

  "Death," she said in astonishment. "What in the blue sky—"

  His eyes were wild. A pen behind his ear dripped onto his shirt, and there were cobwebs in his hair. "I've found a book," he whispered.

  Wiping her hands, moving him away from Anna and the bakers, who were trying not to look too curious, Bitterblue said quietly, "You found another ciphered book?"

  "No," said Death. "I found a whole new book. A book that will crack the cipher."

  "Is it a book about ciphers?"

  "It's the world's most wonderful book!" he exclaimed. "I don't know where it came from! It's a magical book!"

  "All right, all right," said Bitterblue, pulling him away into the clatter of the rest of the kitchen, toward the doors. Trying to soothe him and shush him and keep him from bursting into song or dance. She wasn't worried about his sanity, at least no more than she worried about anyone's sanity in this castle. She understood that books could be magical. "Show me this book."

  THE BOOK WAS big and fat and red, and it was spectacular. "I understand," said Bitterblue, flipping through it, sharing his excitement.

  "No, you don't," said Death. "It's not what you think."

  What she thought was that this book was a sort of enormous, extended key that showed what each of Leck's symbol words really meant. The reason she thought this was that the first half of the book contained page after page of words Bitterblue knew, and each word was followed by a symbol word.

  The back half of the book seemed to be the same information reversed: symbol words, followed by the real words they represented. And it was interesting that the symbol spellings seemed utterly random. A four-letter word, like care, might have a threesymbol spelling, and another word also made of c's, a's, and r's, like carry, might, in its symbol spelling, share only one of the symbols used to spell care.

  Also interesting that anyone would take such a risk with a cipher, allowing a book like this to exist. Leck's cipher was, indeed, uncrackable, only as long as this book was where it couldn't be found. "Where did you get this?" she asked, frightened, suddenly, of it disintegrating—of fires. Of thieves. "Are there more copies?"

  "It's not the key to his cipher, Lady Queen," said Death. "I know you think that, and you're wrong. I tried it. It doesn't work."

  "It's got to be," Bitterblue said. "What else would it be?"

  "It's a dictionary for translating our language into an entire other language, and vice versa, Lady Queen."

  "What do you mean?" Bitterblue plopped the book onto the desk beside Lovejoy. It was huge and her arms were tired, and she was beginning to be annoyed.

  "I mean what I said, Lady Queen. Leck's symbols are the letters of a whole other language. This is the lexicon of our shared languages: all the words of our language translated into their language, and all the words of theirs translated into ours. Look, here," he said, flipping to a page at the book's very beginning, where all thirty-two symbols were listed in columns, each with a letter, or a combination of letters, beside it.

  "I theorize that this page is a pronunciation guide for speakers of our language," said Death. "It shows us how to pronounce the letters of the new language. You see?"

  A whole other language. It was an alien concept to Bitterblue, so alien that she wanted to believe it was Leck's own personal language, one he'd made up for cipherment purposes. Except that the last time she'd assumed Leck had made something up, Katsa had come marching into her rooms with a rat pelt the color of Po's eyes.

  "If there is another land to our east," Bitterblue whispered, "I suppose they would be likely to have a language and a lettering that differed from ours."

  "Yes," Death said, hopping with excitement.

  "Wait," she said, realizing something more. "This book isn't handwritten. It's printed."

  "Yes!" cried Death.

  "But—where is there a press with letter molds of these symbols?"

  "I don't know!" cried Death. "Isn't it marvelous? I broke into the castle's defunct printing shop, Lady Queen, and fairly ransacked the place, but found nothing!"

  Bitterblue hadn't even known there was a defunct printing shop. "That accounts for the cobwebs, then?"

  "I can tell you this language's word for cobwebs, Lady Queen!" cried Death, then said something that sounded like it should be the word for a delightful new kind of cake: hopkwepayn.

  "What?" Bitterblue said. "Have you learned it already? Dear skies! You've read the book and learned an entire language." Needing to sit down, she rounded the desk and collapsed into Death's own chair. "Where did you find this book?"

  "It was on that shelf," Death said, pointing to the bookshelf directly across from his desk, perhaps five paces away.

  "Isn't that the mathematics section?"

  "It is exactly that, Lady Queen," said Death, "full of dark, slender volumes, which is why this enormous red thing caught my eye."


  "It appeared in the night, Lady Queen!"

  "That's extraordinary," Bitterblue said. "We need to find out who put it there. I'll ask Helda. But are you telling me that this book doesn't make Leck's books coherent?"

  "Using it as a key, Lady Queen, Leck's books contain gibberish."

  "Have you tried using the pronunciation key? Perhaps if you pronounce the symbols, they sound like our words."

  "Yes, I tried that, Lady Queen," said Death, joining her behind the desk, kneeling, unlocking the low cabinet with the key he kept on a string around his neck. Bringing out one of Leck's journals at random, he opened to the middle and began to read aloud. "Wayng eezh wghee zhdzlby mzhsr ayf ypayzhgghnkeeohDASHkhf—"

  "Yes," Bitterblue said. "You've made your point, Death. What if you transcribed that horrible sound into our lettering? Does that become a cipher we could crack?"

  "I think it's much less complicated than that, Lady Queen," said Death. "I believe King Leck wrote in cipher in this other language."

  Bitterblue blinked. "The way we do in our language, but in his."

  "Exactly, Lady Queen. I believe that all our work identifying the use of a six-letter key was not in vain."

  "And—" Bitterblue was now resting her face flat on the desk. She moaned. "That strikes you as less complicated? To break this cipher, not only will we need to learn the other language, but we'll need to learn about the other language. What letters are used most often, and in what ratio to the others. What words tend to be used together. And what if it's not a cipher with revolving alphabets and a six-letter key? Or what if there's more than one six-letter key? How can we ever guess a key in another language? And if we do ever manage to decipher anything, the deciphered text will still be in the other language!"

  "Lady Queen," said Death solemnly, still kneeling at her side, "it will be the most difficult mental challenge I have ever faced, and the most important."

  Bitterblue raised her eyes to his. His entire being was glowing, and she understood him suddenly; she understood his devotion to difficult but important work. She said, "Have you really learned the other language already?"

  "No," he said. "I've barely begun. It's going to be a slow and difficult process."

  "It's too much for me, Death. I might learn some words, but I don't think my mind is going to be able to follow yours into the decipherm
ent. I won't be able to help. And, oh, it terrifies me that you carry so much responsibility, all alone. Something this big shouldn't depend so entirely on a single person. No one must learn what you're doing, or you won't be safe. Is there anything you want or need that I could give you to make things easier?"

  "Lady Queen," he said, "you've given me all I want. You're the queen a librarian dreams of."

  NOW, IF ONLY she could learn to be the queen those with more practical considerations dreamed of.

  She finally received a ciphered letter from her uncle Ror, who agreed, with some cantankerousness, to travel to Monsea with a generous contingent of the Lienid Navy. I'm not happy about it, Bitterblue, he wrote. You know I avoid involving myself in the matters of the five inner kingdoms. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do the same, and I don't appreciate that you've left me with little choice but to offer my navy as your protection from their whims. We will have a serious talk about this when I arrive.

  Her cousin Skye enclosed a ciphered letter as well, as he always did, for the eighteenth letter in every sentence of Skye's deciphered text always combined to make the key for the next of Ror's letters. Father would do almost anything for you, Cousin, but this one definitely ruffled his feathers. I took an extended vacation to the north just to get away from the yelling. I'm quite impressed with you. Keep it up. We wouldn't want him to get complacent in his old age. How is my little brother?

  It couldn't be too terribly bad if Skye was joking about it. And it was a great relief to Bitterblue both that she was in a position to influence Ror and that Ror was strong-minded enough to protest. It suggested the potential, someday, for an even balance of power between them—if she could ever convince him that she was grown up now, and that sometimes, she was right.

  She did think he was wrong about some things. Lienid's seclusion from the five inner kingdoms was the luxury of an island kingdom, but she thought perhaps it was a trifle disingenuous on Ror's part. Ror's niece was the Monsean queen and his son a Council leader, Ror's kingdom was the seven kingdoms' wealthiest and most just, and at a time when kings were being deposed and kingdoms being born again on shaky legs, Ror had the potential to be a powerful example for the rest of the world.

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