Bitterblue, p.39
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       Bitterblue, p.39

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "It would seem so, Lady Queen," said Saf plainly. "And what your

  creepy girl who turns into things probably doesn't know, despite her wondrous abilities, is that last night, I found a place where, if I put my ear to the ground, I could overhear Fox and Spook talking. The crown is in that cave. I'm sure of it. Along with a lot of other royal loot, from the sound of it."

  "How did you know Hava was following you?"

  Saf snorted. "There was an enormous gargoyle on Winter Bridge," he said. "Winter Bridge is the mirrored bridge that disappears into the sky, and it doesn't have stone gargoyles. And I knew you'd been having Fox tailed. That's how I tailed Fox myself. By tailing your tails. Fox kept disappearing under the docks. Your spies would give up, but I was more persistent. I took a lucky guess a few nights ago and caught sight of her on the bridge."

  "Have you been seen, Saf? It doesn't sound like you've been very careful."

  "I don't know," he said. "It doesn't matter. She doesn't trust me and she's smart enough not to believe that I trust her. That's not how we're going to win this game."

  Standing quietly, Bitterblue took Saf in, his soft, purple eyes that didn't match his blunt manner. Trying to understand him. Feeling, inconveniently, that she never did, except for when she was touching him. "Is this a game, then, Saf?" she said. "Dangling from the castle walls every day with a person who could ruin your life? Following her at night to wherever she goes? When were you going to tell me?"

  "I wish you would stop being queen," he said, with a strange, sudden shyness that came out of nowhere, "and join me, when I go away. You know you have the instincts for my kind of work."

  Bitterblue was utterly speechless. Helda, meanwhile, did not suffer from the same affliction. "Watch yourself," she said, taking a step toward Saf, her face like thunder. "You just watch what you say to the queen, young man, or you'll find yourself leaving by the window, and fast. You've brought her nothing but trouble so far."

  "At any rate," Saf said, glancing at Helda warily, "I'm going to steal the crown tonight."

  Bitterblue's breath came back in a rush. "What? How?"

  "The main entrance to the cave is always guarded by three men. But I believe there's a second entrance, for there's a guard who always sits some distance from the main entrance, in a hollow where lots of rocks are piled."

  "But Saf," she said, "you're basing your knowledge, and your attack plan, solely on the position of a guard? You've seen no actual entrance?"

  "They're planning to blackmail you," Saf said. "They want the right to handpick a new prison master for your prisons, three new judges for your High Court, and the Monsean Guard assigned to the east city, or else they'll make it known that the queen had an affair with a common Lienid thief who stole her crown during a tryst."

  Again, Bitterblue was speechless. She managed a breath. "This is my fault," she said. "I allowed her to witness so much of what was happening."

  "I'm the one who allowed that, Lady Queen," said Helda quietly. "I'm the one who brought her on. I liked her Grace of being fearless without being reckless. She was so useful for the tricky tasks, like climbing up into the windows, and she had such spy potential."

  "I think you're both forgetting that she's a professional," said Saf. "She positioned herself close to you a long time ago, didn't she? Her family has been stealing from this castle forever, and they positioned her near you. And I made their job easy as pie, stealing your crown, of all things, and handing it straight to them. You realize that, don't you? I handed her a bigger prize than she could've ever hoped to steal herself. I bet she knows every corner of your castle, every hidden doorway. I bet she's known how to navigate Leck's maze from the start. Those keys I nicked from her pocket were probably a family treasure—I bet her family's had them since Leck died and everyone in the castle started cleaning out his things. She's a professional, just like the rest of her family, but more insidious than they, because she's not afraid of anything. I'm not sure she has a conscience."

  "That's interesting," Bitterblue said. "You think a conscience requires fear?"

  "What I think is that they can't blackmail you without the crown," said Saf. "Which is why I'm going to steal it tonight."

  "With the help of my Lienid Door Guard, you mean."

  "No," Saf said sharply. "If you've guards to spare, send them to the shop. I can do this quietly, myself."

  "How many men guard the cave, Saf?" snapped Bitterblue.

  "All right, then," he said. "I'll bring Teddy, Bren, and Tilda. We know how to do this type of thing and we trust each other. Don't get in our way."

  "Teddy, Bren, and Tilda," Bitterblue muttered. "All these closeknit family businesses. I'm quite jealous."

  "You and your uncle rule half the world," Saf said with a snort, then dove behind an armchair as the outer doors creaked open.

  "It's Giddon," Bitterblue announced as the man himself walked in.

  When Saf emerged from behind his chair, Giddon made his face blank. "I'll wait till he goes, Lady Queen," Giddon said.

  "Right," said Saf sarcastically. "I'll be making my dramatic exit, then. Should you give me something to steal, in case Fox sees me climbing out the window and I need an excuse?"

  Helda marched to the table, grabbed a silver fork, marched back

  to Saf, and shoved it at his chest. "I know it's not up to your usual plunder," she said darkly.

  "Right," Saf said again, accepting the fork. "Thank you, Helda, I'm sure."

  "Saf," Bitterblue said. "Be careful."

  "Don't worry, Lady Queen," he said, catching her eyes, holding them for a moment. "I'll bring your crown back in the morning. I promise."

  His exit brought cold air rushing into the room. When he'd closed the window behind him, Bitterblue went to the fire to capture some of its heat. "How are you, Giddon?"

  "Thiel was walking on Winged Bridge last night, Lady Queen," said Giddon without preamble. "It seemed a bit odd at the time, so we thought you should know."

  With a small sigh, Bitterblue pinched the bridge of her nose. "Thiel on Winged Bridge. Fox, Hava, and Saf on Winter Bridge. My father would be so pleased with the popularity of his bridges. Why were you on Winged Bridge, Giddon?"

  "Bann and I were making some improvements to Saf 's hiding place, Lady Queen. Thiel walked by just as we were about to leave."

  "Did he see you?"

  "I don't think he saw anything," said Giddon. "He was in another world. He came from the far side of the river and he had no light, so we didn't see him at all until he walked directly past our window. Moving like a ghost—made us both jump. We followed him, Lady Queen. He took the steps down to the street and entered the east city, but I'm afraid we lost him after that."

  Bitterblue rubbed her eyes, hiding her face in comforting darkness. "Do either of you know if Thiel knows about Hava's Grace for disguise?"

  "I don't believe he does, Lady Queen," said Helda.

  "I'm sure it's nothing," Bitterblue said. "I'm sure he's just going for melancholy walks. But perhaps we could ask her to follow him once."

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Helda. "If she's willing, it may be better to know. Runnemood is supposed to have jumped off one of the bridges, and Thiel is a bit depressed."

  "Oh, Helda," said Bitterblue, sighing again. "I don't think I can bear it being anything other than melancholy walks."

  THAT NIGHT, EXHAUSTION and worry pushed Bitterblue beyond sleep. She lay on her back staring at the blackness. Rubbing her arm, which still seemed marvelous to her somehow, aching with tiredness but free from that horrid cast, and, finally, dressed in her knives again.

  Eventually, she lit a candle so that she could watch the gold and scarlet stars glimmer on her bedroom ceiling. It occurred to her that she was keeping a sort of vigil, for Saf. For Teddy, Tilda, and Bren, who were stealing a crown. For Thiel, who walked alone at night and shattered too easily. For those of her friends who were far away, Po, Raffin, and Katsa, perhaps shivering in tunnels.

drowsiness began to soften the edges of her exhaustion and she knew sleep was near, Bitterblue allowed herself to linger with a thing she hadn't allowed herself in some time: the dream of herself as a baby in her mother's arms. It had been too sad to touch recently, with Leck's journals so near. But tonight she would allow it, in honor of Saf, for Saf had been the one, that night she'd slept on the hard shop floor, who'd told her to dream of something nice, like babies; Saf had pushed her nightmares away.


  SHE WOKE, AND dressed, to a peculiar gray-green daylight and a shrieking wind that seemed to be racing around the castle in circles.

  In the sitting room, Hava sat as close to the fire as one could without actually sitting in it. She was wrapped in blankets, drinking a steaming cup of something.

  "I'm afraid Hava has a report that's going to upset you, Lady Queen," said Helda. "Perhaps you should sit down."

  "Upsetting about Thiel?"

  "Yes. We've heard nothing about Sapphire yet," Helda said, answering the question Bitterblue had actually been asking.

  "When will—"

  "Lord Giddon was out all night on other business," Helda said, "and promised not to come back without a report."

  "All right," Bitterblue said, crossing the room and sitting on the hearth beside Hava, shifting to avoid her own sword. She tried to steel herself against something that she knew, somehow, would break her heart, but it was difficult. There was too much worry. "Go on, Hava."

  Hava stared into her drink. "Across Winged Bridge and a short distance west, Lady Queen, there's a black cavern in the ground, tucked under the river. It smells like—something thick and cloying, Lady Queen," she said, "and in a place in the back—sort of a second room—there are piles and piles of bones."

  "Bones," Bitterblue said. "More bones." His hospital is under the river.

  "Last night, very late, Thiel left the castle through the tunnel from the eastern corridor," Hava said. "He crossed the bridge, went to the cave, and filled a box with bones. Then he carried the box back onto the bridge, stood at the center, and tipped the bones over the edge. Then he went back and did it two more times—"

  "Thiel threw bones into the river," Bitterblue said numbly.

  "Yes," said Hava. "And partway through, he was joined by Darby, Rood, two of your clerks, your judge Quall, and my uncle."

  "Your uncle!" cried Bitterblue, staring at Hava. "Holt!"

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Hava, her strange eyes flashing with misery. "All of them filled boxes with bones and dumped them in the river."

  "It's Leck's hospital," Bitterblue said. "They're trying to hide it."

  "Leck's hospital?" asked Helda, appearing at Bitterblue's elbow and slipping a hot drink into her hands.

  "Yes. 'The dampness and the roundness of the ceiling make for such acoustics.'"

  "Ah. Yes," said Helda, then tucked her chin to her chest for a moment. "There was a bit in a recent translation about the smell in the hospital. He stacked the bodies instead of burning them, or disposing of them in any normal way. He liked the smell and the vermin. It made others ill, of course."

  "Thiel was there when it was happening," Bitterblue whispered. "He saw it, and he wants the memory of it to go away. All of them do. Oh, how stupid I've been."

  "There's more, Lady Queen," said Hava. "I followed Thiel, Darby, and Rood back into the east city. They met some men in a brokendown house, Lady Queen, and they all passed each other things. Your advisers gave the men money, and the men gave your advisers papers, and a little sack. They hardly said a word, Lady Queen, but something fell out of the sack. I searched for it after they'd gone."

  At the sound of the outer doors opening, Bitterblue sprang to her feet, burning herself on her sploshing drink but not caring. Giddon filled the doorway. His eyes went straight to hers. "Sapphire is alive and free," he said grimly.

  Bitterblue sank down onto the hearth again. "But it's not over," she said as her thoughts scrambled to interpret. "You've just given me all the good news, haven't you? He's free, but hiding. He's alive, but hurt, and he doesn't have the crown. Is he hurt, Giddon?"

  "No more than Saf ever is, Lady Queen. At sunrise, I saw him step onto the merchant docks, coming from Winter Bridge, calm as calm, and begin to walk west toward the castle. He walked right past me—saw me—gave me the barest nod. I began to wrap up my own business so as to keep an eye on him. The docks were busy—work starts early on the river. He passed a small knot of men loading a brig and suddenly three of them broke off and stepped in behind him. Well, he picked up his pace, and next thing I knew, all of them were running, and so was I, and the chase was on, but I couldn't get to him before they did. There was a fight—he was getting the worst of it—and all at once he pulled the crown out of his coat and held it in his hands, clear as daylight. I'd almost reached them," Giddon said, "when he threw it."

  "Threw it?" repeated Bitterblue hopefully. "To you?"

  "Into the river," said Giddon, dropping himself into a chair and rubbing his face with his hands.

  "Into the river!" Bitterblue could not, for the moment, comprehend this. "Why does everyone throw every troublesome thing into the river?"

  "He was losing the fight," Giddon said. "He was about to lose the crown. To keep Spook and Fox from regaining their leverage over you, he threw it into the river, and then he ran."

  "Incriminating himself!" cried Bitterblue. "What sort of crime is it to throw the crown into the river?"

  "The bigger crime will be that he had the crown in the first place, to throw into the river," said Giddon. "A member of the Monsean Guard—not to mention too many witnesses—saw it happen. When the guard challenged Spook's three thugs, they made up a story about how they'd chased Saf, and beaten him, because he'd stolen back what he'd given them months ago."

  "That isn't a made-up story," Bitterblue said miserably.

  "No," admitted Giddon. "I suppose it isn't."

  "But—do you mean that they admitted that they'd been in possession of the crown, and were trying to be in possession of it again?"

  "Yes," said Giddon. "They themselves, for themselves. To protect Spook and Fox, you see, Lady Queen, and to keep control of what's known. Now Spook's thugs are in prison, but the Monsean Guard won't be satisfied until they've captured Saf too."

  "Will Spook's thugs hang?"

  "Possibly," said Giddon, "depending on what Spook can manage to do. If they do hang, Spook will see that their families become exceedingly rich and comfortable. That'll have been the deal."

  "I will not let Saf hang," said Bitterblue. "I will not let Saf hang! Where did he go? Is he in the drawbridge tower?"

  "I don't know," Giddon said. "I stayed behind to see what happened. We'll check once it gets dark."

  "The whole day?" Bitterblue said. "We won't know until nighttime?"

  "I went to the shop afterwards, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "He

  wasn't there, of course, but everyone else was, and they had no idea he'd been planning to steal the crown."

  "I'm going to kill him."

  "They were dealing with their own problems," said Giddon. "There was a fire in the shop early last night, Lady Queen, before Saf left. Bren is sick from the smoke and so are two of your Lienid Door Guard, for they got trapped in there, trying to put the fire out."

  "What?" cried Bitterblue. "Are they all right?"

  "The consensus is that they will be, Lady Queen. Saf is the one who pulled his sister out."

  "We must send Madlen. Helda, will you arrange it? And what about the shop, Giddon?"

  "The shop will stand. But Tilda told me to tell you that your rewrites are mostly burned and they won't have any letter molds to show you for a while. Bren worked on some samples all day yesterday that she planned to bring you for approval, but they can't find them in the mess."

  "Oh," Hava said, putting her cup down onto the hearth with a thunk. "Lady Queen," she said, reaching into a pocket and holding something out to Bitterblue. "This is what fell out of that sack."<
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  Bitterblue took the thing from Hava and stared at it as it lay in the center of her palm. It was a tiny wooden mold of the first letter in the Dellian alphabet.

  Closing her fingers around the mold, Bitterblue stood and walked numbly to the doors.

  IN HER TOWER office, the sky glowed strangely through the glass ceiling. Snow blew at the windows.

  As she entered, Thiel turned to greet her.

  Runnemood was involved in something terrible, he'd said to her

  once. I thought that if I could try to understand why he would do such a thing, then I could bring him to his senses. All I can think is that he was mad, Lady Queen.

  "Good morning, Lady Queen," said Thiel.

  Bitterblue was beyond pretending, beyond feeling, her body unable to absorb what her mind couldn't help but begin to understand.

  "Runnemood, Thiel?" she said quietly. "Was it only ever Runnemood?"

  "What, Lady Queen?" Thiel said, freezing in place. Staring at her with those steel-gray eyes. "What are you asking me?"

  How tired Bitterblue was of fighting, of people looking straight at her and lying. "The letter I wrote to my uncle Ror about beginning a policy of remuneration, Thiel," she said. "I entrusted that letter to you. Did you send it, or did you burn it?"

  "Of course I sent it, Lady Queen!"

  "He never received it."

  "Letters are lost sometimes at sea, Lady Queen."

  "Yes," said Bitterblue. "And buildings catch fire accidentally, and criminals murder each other in the streets for no reason."

  A kind of desperate distress was beginning to join Thiel's confusion; she could read the beginnings of his distress, and horror too, as he continued to stare at her. "Lady Queen," he said carefully, "what has happened?"

  "What did you think was going to happen, Thiel?"

  At that moment, Darby pushed through the door and handed a note to Thiel. Thiel glanced at it in distraction; stopped; read it again with more care.

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