Bitterblue, p.38
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       Bitterblue, p.38

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "We need trip wires, you know," said Bann. "Something for all our secret stairways, including the one Hava just went down, to alert us if anyone's spying. I'll see what I can come up with."

  "Yes? Well, it's still snowing," said Giddon, following Bitterblue's orders to speak of the mundane. "Have you been making any progress on your nausea infusion, Bann, since Raffin left?"

  "It's as pukey as ever," said Bann.

  Sometime later, Hava tapped on the inside door. When Bitterblue let her in, Hava reported that Fox had, indeed, entered Leck's rooms. "She has new lock picks, Lady Queen," said Hava. "She went to the sculpture of the little child—the smallest in the room—and tried to lift it. She did just manage to budge it, though of course she couldn't lift it properly. Then she let it go again and stood staring at it for a while. She was thinking about something, Lady Queen. Then she poked around the bathing room and the closet, then ran up the steps and stood with her ear to your sitting room door. And then she came back down and left the room."

  "Is she a thief," said Bitterblue, "or a spy, or both? If a spy, for whom? Helda, we are having her followed, aren't we?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen. But she loses her tail every night at the merchant docks. She runs along them toward Winter Bridge, then climbs under them. Her tail can't follow her under the docks, Lady Queen, for fear of getting caught under there with her."

  "I'll follow her, Lady Queen," said Hava. "Let me follow her. I can go under the docks without being seen."

  "It sounds dangerous, Hava," said Bitterblue. "It's cold, it's wet under the docks. It's December!"

  "But I can do it, Lady Queen," Hava said. "No one can hide as I can. Please? She put her hands all over my mother's sculptures."

  "Yes," said Bitterblue, remembering those same hands on her mother's embroidery. "Yes, all right, Hava, but please be careful."

  ALL I WANT is a peaceful place of art, architecture, and medicine, but the edges of my control fray. There are too many people and I am exhausted. In the city, the resistance never ends. Every time I capture a mind reader, another surfaces. There is too much to erase and too much to create. Perhaps I am pleased with the glass ceilings, but the bridges aren't big enough. I'm sure they were bigger across the Winged River in the Dells. The Winged River is more regal than my river. I hate my river for this.

  I had to kill the gardener. He's always made monsters for the courtyard, he's always made them as I asked, they look and act alive, but after all, they are not alive, are they? They are not real.

  While I was at it, I killed Gadd too. Did I kill him too soon? His hangings are too sad and they aren't real either, they aren't even made of monster fur. I cannot get it right. I cannot get it perfect, and I hate my own attempts. I hate this cipher. It is necessary, it seems as if it should be brilliant, but it begins to give me a headache. My hospital gives me a headache. There are too many people. I tire of deciding what they should think and feel and do.

  I should have stuck with my animals in their cages. Their lack of language protects them. When I cut them, they scream, because I cannot explain to them that it doesn't hurt. They always, always know what I am doing. There is a purity in their fear, and it is such a relief to me. And it is nice to be alone with them.

  There is purity in counting my knives. There is a purity some times in the hospital too, when I let the patients feel the pain. Some of them release such exquisite cries. It sounds almost as if the blood itself is screaming. The roundness of the ceiling and the dampness make for such acoustics. The walls shine black. But then the cries upset the others. The fog begins to lift from their minds and they begin to understand what they are hearing, and the men begin to understand what they are doing, and then I have to punish them, awe them, shame them, make them dread me and need me until they have forgotten, all of them, and that is so much more work than keeping them always blind.

  There are those precious few I keep for myself and treat away from the hospital. There always have been. Bellamew is one and Ashen is another. I let no one watch, unless I am making someone watch, as punishment. It is punishment to Thiel to watch me with Ashen. I do not let him touch her and sometimes I cut him. In those moments, when it is private, in my rooms, closed away, and I hold the knives, the perfection comes back for an instant. Just for an instant, peace. My lessons with my child will be this way. It will be perfect with my child.

  Is it possible that Bellamew has been lying to me for eight years?

  * * * * *

  BITTERBLUE BEGAN TO give the translations to her friends to read first so that they could warn her of mentions of her mother, or herself. Every night, Death presented new pages. Some nights, Bitterblue couldn't bring herself to read them at all. On those nights, she asked Giddon to summarize, which he did, sitting beside her on the sofa, voice low. She chose Giddon for the job because Helda and Bann wouldn't promise not to edit out the worst parts, and Giddon would. He spoke so quietly, as if it would lessen the impact of the words. It didn't—not really—though if he'd spoken louder, Bitterblue agreed that that would have been worse. She sat listening, with her arms tight around herself, shivering.

  She worried about Death, who saw the words first and with no buffer; who labored over them for hours every day. "Perhaps at a certain point," she said to him, not quite believing such words were coming from her own mouth, "it's enough for us to know that he was a brutal man who did mad things. Perhaps the details don't matter."

  "But it's history, Lady Queen," said Death.

  "But, it's not," Bitterblue said. "Not really, not yet. In a hundred years it will be history. Now it's our own story."

  "Our own story is even more important for us to know than history, Lady Queen. Aren't you trying to find answers in these books to today's questions?"

  "Yes," she said, sighing. "Yes. Can you really bear to read it?"

  "Lady Queen," said Death, laying his pen down and looking hard into her face. "I lived outside it for thirty-five years. For thirtyfive years I tried to learn what he was doing and why. For me, this fills in holes."

  For Bitterblue, it was creating holes, holes in her ability to feel. Great, blank spaces where something existed that she couldn't process, because to process it would make her know too much, or make her certain she was going mad. When she stood in the lower offices now and watched the empty-eyed bustle of clerks and guards, Darby, Thiel, and Rood, she understood a thing Runnemood had said one time when she'd pushed too hard. Was the truth worth losing one's sanity?

  "I don't want to do this anymore," Bitterblue said one night to Giddon, still shivering. "You have a beautiful voice, do you know that? If we continue with this, your voice'll be ruined for me. I must either read his words myself, or hear them from someone who's not my friend."

  Giddon hesitated. "I do it because I'm your friend, Lady Queen."

  "I know," Bitterblue said. "But I hate it, and I know you do too, and I don't like that we've developed a nightly routine of doing something hateful together."

  "I won't agree to you doing it alone," Giddon said stubbornly.

  "Then it's a good thing I don't need your permission."

  "Take a break from it, Lady Queen," said Bann, coming to sit on her other side. "Please. Read a bigger pile once a week, instead of small, torturous bits every day. We'll continue to read it with you."

  This seemed a promising idea—until the week had passed, and the day came to read seven days' worth of accumulated translation. After two pages, Bitterblue couldn't go on.

  "Stop," Giddon said. "Just stop reading. It's making you sick."

  "I believe he preferred female victims," Bitterblue said, "because in addition to the other mad experiments he forced them to endure, he was performing experiments that related to pregnancy and babies."

  "This is not for you to read," Giddon said. "This is for some other person who wasn't one of the players in this tale to read, and then tell you the things a queen needs to know. Death can do it as he's translating."

  "I believe he r
aped them," Bitterblue said, alone, cold, not listening, "all of them in his hospital. I believe he raped my mother."

  Giddon yanked the papers from her hands and threw them across the room. Jumping at the unexpectedness of this, Bitterblue saw him clearly as she hadn't before, saw him towering over her, mouth hard, eyes flashing, and realized he was furious. Her vision came into focus and the room filled itself in around her. She heard the fire crackling, the silence of Bann and Helda, at the table, watching, tense, unhappy. The room smelled like wood fires. She pulled a blanket around herself. She was not alone.

  "Call me by my name," she said quietly to Giddon.

  "Bitterblue," he said just as quietly, "I beg you. Please stop reading the psychotic ramblings of your father. They are doing you harm."

  She looked to the table again, where Bann and Helda watched with quiet eyes. "You're not eating enough, Lady Queen," said Helda. "You've lost your appetite, and if I may say so, Lord Giddon has too."

  "What?" she cried. "Giddon, why didn't you tell me?"

  "He's also been asking me for headache remedies," Bann said.

  "Stop it, you two," said Giddon in annoyance. "Lady Queen, you've been walking around with this horrible, trapped look in your eyes. The smallest things make you flinch."

  "I understand now," she said. "I understand all of them now. And I've been pushing them. I've been forcing them to remember."

  "It's not your fault," Giddon said. "A queen needs people around her who aren't afraid of her necessary questions."

  "I don't know what to do," she said, her voice cracking. "I don't know what to do."

  "You need to build some criteria," said Bann, "to give to Death.

  The facts you need to know now, in order to address the immediate needs of your kingdom, and only those facts."

  "Will you all help me?"

  "Of course we will," said Bann.

  "I've already worked out what the criteria should be," said Helda with a firm nod, while Giddon collapsed onto the sofa in relief.

  It was a process that involved a fair deal of argument, argument that was a comfort to Bitterblue, because it was logical, and it made the world solid around her again. Afterwards, they went to the library to look for Death. The endless, slow, silent winter snowfall continued. In the great courtyard, Bitterblue turned her face to the glass ceilings. The snow drifted down. Grief began to touch her. The edges of grief; a grief too large for her to accept all at once just now.

  She would pretend she was up there in the sky, above the snow clouds, looking down on Monsea, like the moon or the stars. She would pretend she was watching the snowfall cover Monsea, like bandages from Madlen's gentle hands, so that underneath that warm, soft covering, Monsea could begin to heal.


  THE NEXT MORNING, Thiel stood at his stand, straight and efficient, flipping through papers.

  "I won't ask you any more questions about Leck's time," Bitterblue said to him.

  Thiel turned, peering at her in confusion. "You—you won't, Lady Queen?"

  "I'm sorry for every time I've forced you to remember a thing you wish to forget," she said. "As far as I'm able, I'll try never to do that again."

  "Thank you, Lady Queen," he said, still confused. "Why? Has something happened?"

  "I'll ask other people instead," she said. "I'm going to be seeking out some new people, Thiel, to help me with matters that are too painful for those of you who worked with Leck to address. And maybe some city people to inform me about city matters specifically, and help me solve some of these mysteries."

  Thiel stared back at her, clutching his pen in both hands. He looked so lonely somehow, and so unhappy. "Thiel!" she hastened to add. "You'll still be my number one man, of course. But I find myself wanting a greater range of advice and ideas, you understand?"

  "Of course I understand, Lady Queen."

  "I'm going to meet with a few of them now," she said, rising from her chair, "in the library. I've asked them to come. Oh, please,

  Thiel," she added, wanting to touch him. "Don't look like that. I can't do without you, I promise, and you're breaking my heart."

  IN HER LIBRARY alcove, Tilda and Teddy stood together, brother and sister, gazing at the endless rows of books. Their faces glowed with appreciation.

  "Did Bren stay at the shop?" asked Bitterblue.

  "We thought it unwise to leave it unguarded, Lady Queen," said Tilda.

  "And my Lienid Guard?"

  "One stayed to guard Bren, Lady Queen, and the other accompanied us."

  "It makes me nervous for them to split up," Bitterblue said. "I'm going to see if we can spare another man or two for you. What news can you give me?"

  "Bad news, Lady Queen," said Teddy grimly. "Early this morning, a story room burned. It was empty, so no one was hurt, but no one saw how it started either."

  "I suppose we're meant to think it was random," said Bitterblue in frustration. "A coincidence. And naturally, it wasn't in my morning report. And I really don't know what to do," she added, a bit hopelessly, "beyond send the Monsean Guard to patrol the streets more, except that ever since Captain Smit disappeared, I've been leery of trusting the Monsean Guard. Smit's been gone a month and a half, you know. I keep getting reports on his proceedings at the refineries that I cannot get myself to believe. Darby says they're in Smit's handwriting, but Darby hasn't been inspiring confidence of late. Oh," she said, rubbing her forehead. "Perhaps I'm just crazy."

  "We could find out whether Captain Smit's truly at the refineries,

  Lady Queen," said Tilda, elbowing her brother, "couldn't we, Teddy? Through our own contacts?"

  Teddy's face lit up. "We could," he said. "It may take a few weeks, but we'll do it, Lady Queen."

  "Thank you," Bitterblue said. "On another matter, can any of you make letter molds?"

  "Bren quite enjoys it, Lady Queen," said Tilda.

  Bitterblue handed Tilda a piece of paper on which she'd drawn the thirty-two letters of the Dellian alphabet. "Please ask her to make molds of these shapes," said Bitterblue. For Death's translation of the first volume was moving at a crawl and all this talk of fire was making Bitterblue distinctly anxious; what if they lost the other thirty-four volumes somehow, before Death got to them? "Leck's journals need printing," she said. "Tell no one."

  THE NEXT MORNING, Bitterblue emerged from her rooms, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

  In the sitting room, Helda arranged the breakfast dishes. "Hava was just here, Lady Queen," she said, banging plates around. "She's succeeded where the other tail hasn't. She's followed Fox to her nighttime lair."

  "Lair." Bitterblue went to kneel before the fire, adjusting her sword, breathing in the light. It was hard to wake up when the snow never stopped and the sun never reached her windows. "That's not a friendly word. You know, Helda, I've been thinking some things through. Is Fox's lair, by any chance, a cave?"

  "It is, Lady Queen," said Helda humorlessly. "Fox lives in a cave across the river."

  "And Spook and Gray also live in a cave?"

  "Yes. An interesting coincidence, isn't it? Fox's cave is on the other side of Winter Bridge. She gets onto the bridge, if you can believe it, by climbing up its pillars from where they start under the docks."

  "Balls," said Bitterblue. "Why not just walk onto it the normal way? Why not row across the river in a boat?"

  "We can only assume that she's alert to the possibility of being followed, Lady Queen. It's difficult to spot a person in dark clothing climbing the pillars of a bridge at night, even a bridge made of mirrors. Once Hava understood what Fox was doing, of course, she backtracked and ran onto the bridge in the usual way, but Fox was too fast for her, and got too far ahead. Fox crossed the bridge, shimmied down the pillars again, and, as best as Hava could tell from above, disappeared into a grove of trees."

  "How does Hava know about the lair, then?"

  "Because she followed the next person who came across the bridge, Lady Queen."

  Something in Helda's to
ne gave Bitterblue a sinking feeling. "And that person was?"

  "Sapphire, Lady Queen. He led Hava directly into the trees, then to an outcropping of rock that was guarded by men with swords. Hava can't be sure, of course, but she believes it's a cave and that it was Fox's destination as well."

  "Tell me he didn't go in," said Bitterblue. "Tell me he hasn't been working with them all this time."

  "No, Lady Queen," said Helda. "Lady Queen! Take a breath," said Helda, coming to Bitterblue, kneeling, grasping Bitterblue's hands hard. "Sapphire did not go in, nor did he make his presence known to the guards. He hid, and poked around. He seemed to be investigating the place."

  For a moment, Bitterblue rested her head on Helda's shoulder, breathing through the relief. "Bring him somewhere discreet, please, Helda," she said, "so that I can talk to him."

  A CIPHERED NOTE from Helda at noon told Bitterblue that Saf was waiting in her rooms.

  "How is this discreet?" Bitterblue asked, blowing into the sitting room. Helda sat at the table, calmly eating her lunch. Saf stood before the sofa in coat and hat, gloves and halter belt, stamping his feet and radiating cold. "How many people saw him?"

  "He came through that window, Lady Queen," said Helda. "The window faces the garden and the river, both of which are empty at the moment."

  Seeing the ropes then, she went to the window in question to examine the platform. She hadn't realized how narrow the platform was. It swayed and clanked against the castle wall.

  Gripping her hands into fists, she said, "Where is Fox?"

  "Fox disappears for lunch, Lady Queen," said Saf.

  "How do you know she doesn't disappear somewhere where she can see my windows?"

  "I don't," Saf said, shrugging. "I'll factor it into whatever happens next."

  "And what do you expect to happen next?"

  "I was hoping you'd ask me to push her off the platform, Lady Queen," he said.

  It was a relief that he was being insolent, even while using her title; it gave her a familiar patch of ground to stand on. "Fox is Gray," she said, "isn't she? My gray-eyed Graceling servant and spy is Spook's granddaughter Gray."

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