Bitterblue, p.4
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       Bitterblue, p.4

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "All paper maps are recent," said Death with a sniff, "when one considers the vastness of geological time."

  "Her Majesty merely wishes to see the city as it is today," said Thiel.

  "A city is a living organism, always changing—"

  "Her Majesty wishes—"

  "I wish you would all go away," said Bitterblue desolately, more to herself than to anyone else. Both men continued arguing. Runnemood joined in. And then Holt, the Queen's Guard, placed his maps on the desk, neatly so they would not fall, tipped Thiel over one shoulder, tipped Death over the other, and stood under his load. In the astonished silence that followed, Holt lumbered toward Runnemood, who, understanding, let out a snort and stalked from the room of his own accord. Then Holt carried his outraged burdens away on either shoulder, just as they got their voices back. Bitterblue could hear them screaming their indignation all the way down the stairs.

  Holt was a guard in his forties with lovely eyes of gray and silver. A large, broad man with a friendly, open face, he was Graced with strength.

  "That was odd," Bitterblue mused aloud. But it was nice to be alone. Opening a scroll randomly, she saw that it was an astronomical map of the constellations above the city. Cursing Death, she pushed it aside. The next one was a map of the castle before Leck's renovations, when the courtyards had numbered four instead of seven, and the roofs of her tower, the courtyards, and the upper corridors had contained no glass. The next was, amazingly, a street map of the city, but a strange map with words obliterated here and there and no bridges at all. The fourth, finally, was a modern-day map, for the bridges were shown. Yes, it was quite clearly present-day, for it was titled "Bitterblue City," not "Leck City" or the name of any previous king.

  Bitterblue shifted the stacks of paper on her desk so that they held down the corners of her map, spitefully pleased to find a use for them that didn't involve her having to read them. Then she settled in to study the map, determined, at least, to have a better sense of geography the next time she snuck out.

  EVERYONE REALLY IS odd, she thought to herself later, after another encounter with Judge Quall. She'd come upon him in the foyer outside the lower offices, balancing on one foot, then the other, scowling into the middle distance. "Femurs," he'd muttered, not noticing her. "Clavicles. Vertebrae."

  "For someone who doesn't like to talk about bones, Quall," Bitterblue had said without prologue, "you bring them up an awful lot."

  His eyes had passed over her, empty; then sharpening and momentarily confused. "Indeed, I do, Lady Queen," he'd said, seeming to pull himself together. "Forgive me. Sometimes I get lost in thought and lose track of the moment."

  Later, at dinner in her sitting room, Bitterblue asked Helda, "Do you notice any peculiar behavior at this court?"

  "Peculiar behavior, Lady Queen?"

  "Like, for example, today Holt picked up Thiel and Death and carried them out of my office on his shoulders because they were annoying me," said Bitterblue. "Isn't that a bit odd?"

  "Very odd," declared Helda. "I'd like to see him try that with me. We've a couple of new gowns for you, Lady Queen. Would you like to try them this evening?"

  Bitterblue was indifferent to her gowns, but she always agreed to a fitting, for she found it soothing to be fussed over by Helda— Helda's soft, quick touches and her mutterings through a mouthful of pins. Her careful eyes and hands that considered Bitterblue's body and made the right decisions. Fox helped tonight too, holding fabric aside or smoothing it as Helda asked her to. It was centering to be touched. "I admire Fox's skirts that are divided into trousers," said Bitterblue to Helda. "Might I try some?"

  Later, after Fox had gone and Helda had retired to bed, Bitterblue unearthed her trousers and Fox's hood from the floor of the dressing room. Bitterblue wore a knife in her boot during the day and slept with knives in sheathes on each arm at night. It was what Katsa had taught her to do. That night, Bitterblue strapped on all three knives, as security against the unpredictable.

  Just before leaving, she rummaged through Ashen's chest, where she kept not only Ashen's jewelry but some of her own. She had so many useless things—pretty, she supposed, but it wasn't in her nature to wear jewelry. Finding a plain gold choker that her uncle had sent from Lienid, she tucked it into the shirt inside her hood. There were such things as pawnshops under the bridges. She'd noticed them last night, and one or two had been open.

  "I ONLY WORK with people I know," said the man at the first pawnshop.

  At the second pawnshop, the woman behind the counter said exactly the same thing. Still standing in the doorway, Bitterblue pulled the choker out and held it up for her to see. "Hm," the woman said. "Let me take a look at that."

  Half a minute later, Bitterblue had traded the choker for an enormous pile of coins and a terse "Just don't tell me where you got it, boy." It was so many more coins than Bitterblue had reckoned for that her pockets sagged and jingled in the streets, until she thought to jam some of them into her boots. Not comfortable, but far less conspicuous.

  She saw a street fight she didn't understand, nasty, abrupt, and bloody, for barely had two groups of men started pushing and shoving each other than knives came out flashing and thrusting. She ran on, ashamed but not wanting to see how it ended. Katsa and Po could have broken them up. Bitterblue should have, as the queen, but she wasn't the queen right now, and she would've been mad to try.

  The story under Monster Bridge that night was told by a tiny woman with a huge voice who stood stock-still on the bar, grasping her skirts in her hands. She wasn't Graced, but Bitterblue was mesmerized anyway, and nettled with the sense that she'd heard this story before. It was about a man who'd fallen into a boiling hot spring in the eastern mountains, then been rescued by an enormous golden fish. It was a dramatic story involving a bizarrely colored animal, just like the tales Leck had told. Was that how she knew it? Had Leck told her it? Or had she read it in a book when she was little? If she'd read it in a book, was it a true story? If Leck had told it, was it false? How could anyone know, eight years later, what was which?

  A man near the bar smashed his cup over the head of another man. In the time it took Bitterblue to register her surprise, a brawl had erupted. She watched in amazement as the entire room seemed to enter into the spirit of the thing. The tiny woman on the bar used her advantage of height to deliver a few admirable kicks.

  At the edge of the brawl, where a civilized minority was trying to keep out of the way, someone knocked against someone brownhaired, who pitched his cider onto Bitterblue's front.

  "Oh, ratbuggers. Look, lad, I'm awfully sorry," Brown Hair said, grabbing a dubious bit of towel from a table and using it to dab at Bitterblue, much to her alarm. She recognized him. He was the companion of the purple-eyed Graceling thief from the previous night, whom she now recognized as well, beyond Brown Hair, launching himself cheerily into the melee.

  "Your friend," Bitterblue said, pushing Brown Hair's hands away. "You should help your friend."

  He came back at her determinedly with the towel. "I expect he's having a marvelous—time," he said, ending on a note of bewilderment as he uncovered a corner of braid under Bitterblue's hood. His eyes dropped to her chest, where, apparently, he found enough evidence to elucidate the situation.

  "Great rivers," he said, snatching his hand back. He focused for the first time on her face, with no great success, for Bitterblue pulled her hood even lower. "Forgive me, miss. Are you all right?"

  "I'm perfectly fine. Let me pass."

  The Graceling and the man trying to kill the Graceling bashed into Brown Hair from behind, wedging Brown Hair more firmly against Bitterblue. He was a pleasant-looking fellow, with a lopsided face and nice hazel eyes. "Allow my friend and me to escort you safely from this place, miss," he said.

  "I don't need escort. I just need you to let me by."

  "It's past midnight and you're small."

  "Too small for anyone to bother with."

  "If only that were the way of
things in Bitterblue City. Just give me a moment to collect my rather overly enthusiastic friend," he said as he was buffeted again from behind, "and we'll see you get home. My name is Teddy. His is Saf, and he isn't really the blockhead he seems just now."

  Teddy turned and waded heroically into the fray, and Bitterblue scuttled along the room's perimeter, making her escape. Outside, knives gripped in both hands, she ran, cutting through a graveyard, slipping into an alleyway so narrow that her shoulders touched the sides.

  Her mind tried to tick off streets and landmarks from the map she'd memorized, but it was difficult on true ground, rather than paper. Her vague direction was south. Slowing to a walk, she entered a street of buildings that seemed broken all to pieces and decided never again to put herself in a situation in which she had to run with so much change in her boots.

  Some of these buildings looked as if they'd been cannibalized for their wood. A shape in a gutter that formulated itself into a corpse startled her, then scared her even more when it snored. A man who smelled dead but apparently wasn't. A hen snoozed against his chest, his arm curled around it protectively.

  When she came upon a whole new storytelling place, she knew somehow what it was. It had the same setup as the other place, a door in an alley, people passing in and out, and two tough-looking characters standing at the door with arms crossed.

  Bitterblue's body decided for her. The watchdogs loomed but didn't stop her. Inside the door, steps led down into the earth, to another door that, when opened, dropped her into a room glowing with light, smelling of cellars and cider, and warm with the hypnotic voice of another storyteller.

  Bitterblue bought a drink.

  The story was, of all things, about Katsa. It was one of the horrible true stories from Katsa's childhood, when Katsa's uncle Randa, king of the seven kingdoms' most central kingdom, the Middluns, had used her for her fighting skill, forcing her to kill and maim his enemies on his behalf.

  Bitterblue knew these stories; she'd heard them from Katsa herself. Parts of this storyteller's version were correct. Katsa had hated having to kill for Randa. But other parts were exaggerated or untrue. The fights in this story were more sensational, more bloody than Katsa had ever allowed them to become, and Katsa was more melodramatic than Bitterblue could imagine her ever being. Bitterblue wanted to yell at this storyteller for getting Katsa wrong, yell in Katsa's defense, and it confused her that the crowd seemed to love this wrong version of Katsa. To them, that Katsa was real.

  AS BITTERBLUE APPROACHED the castle's eastern wall that night, she noticed a few things at once. First, two of the lanterns atop the wall had gone out, leaving a section in such pitch darkness that Bitterblue glanced around the street, suspicious, and found that her suspicions were justified. The streetlamps along that stretch had also gone out. Next, she saw movement, nearly imperceptible, midway up the dark, flat wall. A moving shape—surely a person?—that stilled its movement as a member of the Monsean Guard marched past above. The movement started up again once the guard had gone.

  Bitterblue realized that she was watching a person climb the east castle wall. She stepped into the seclusion of a shop doorway and tried to work out whether she should start shouting now, or wait until the perpetrator had made it to the top of the high wall, where he would be stuck, and the guards would be more likely to be able to catch him.

  Except that the person didn't climb onto the wall. He stopped climbing just below the top—just below a small stone shadow that Bitterblue assumed, from its placement, was one of the many gargoyles that balanced on ledges or hung over the edge to stare at the ground below. A sort of scraping noise commenced that she couldn't identify, then stopped, momentarily, as the guard passed again above. Then started up again. This went on for quite some time. Bitterblue's mystification was turning to boredom when suddenly the person said, "Oof," a cracking noise followed, and the person slid, in a somewhat-controlled fall, down the wall again, with the gargoyle. A second person, whom Bitterblue hadn't noticed until this point, moved in the shadows at the base of the wall and caught the first person, more or less, though a grunt and a series of whispered curses suggested that one of them had gotten the worst of it. The second figure produced some sort of sack into which the first figure lowered the gargoyle, and then, sack over the shoulder of the first figure's back, they snuck away together.

  They passed directly in front of Bitterblue, shrinking back against her doorway. She recognized them easily. They were the pleasant brown-haired fellow, Teddy, and his Graceling friend, Saf.

  4

  "LADY QUEEN," SAID Thiel sternly the next morning. "Are you even paying attention?"

  She wasn't paying attention. She was trying to come up with a casual way to broach an unapproachable topic. How is everyone feeling today? Did you all sleep well? Anyone missing any gargoyles? "Of course I'm paying attention," she snapped.

  "I daresay that if I asked you to describe the last five things you've signed, Lady Queen, you'd be at a loss."

  What Thiel didn't understand was that this kind of work required no attention. "Three charters for three coastal towns," Bitterblue said, "a work order for a new door to be fitted to the vault of the royal treasury, and a letter to my uncle, the King of Lienid, requesting him to bring Prince Skye when he comes."

  Thiel cleared his throat a bit sheepishly. "I stand corrected, Lady Queen. It was your unhesitant signing of that last that led me to wonder."

  "Why should I hesitate? I like Skye."

  "Do you?" said Thiel, then hesitated himself. "Really?" he added, beginning to look so thoroughly pleased about things that Bitterblue began to regret goading him, for that was what she was doing.

  "Thiel," she said. "Are your spies good for nothing? Skye favors men, not women, and certainly not me. Understand? The worst is that he's practical, so he might even marry me if we asked him. Maybe that would be fine with you, but it wouldn't with me."

  "Oh," Thiel said with obvious disappointment. "That is a relevant piece of information, Lady Queen, if it's true. Are you certain?"

  "Thiel," she said impatiently, "he's not secretive about it. Ror himself has recently come to know. Haven't you wondered why Ror has never suggested the match?"

  "Well," Thiel said, then resisted saying anything further. The threat of Bitterblue's cruelty if he persisted on the topic still lingered in this room. "Shall we review some census results today, Lady Queen?"

  "Yes, please." Bitterblue liked reviewing the kingdom's census results with Thiel. The gathering of the information fell under Runnemood's jurisdiction, but Darby prepared the reports, which were organized neatly by district, with maps, showing statistics for literacy, employment, population numbers, lots of things. Thiel was good at answering her many questions; Thiel knew everything. And the entire endeavor was the closest Bitterblue ever came to feeling that she had a grasp on her kingdom.

  THAT NIGHT AND the two nights following, she went out again, visiting the two pubs she knew, listening to stories. Often, the stories were about Leck. Leck torturing the little cut-up pets he'd kept in the back garden. Leck's castle servants walking around with cuts in their skin. Leck's death at the end of Katsa's dagger. These late-night story audiences had gory tastes. But it was more than that; in the spaces between the blood, Bitterblue noticed another kind of recurring, bloodless story. This kind always began in the usual way of stories—perhaps two people falling in love, or a clever child trying to solve a mystery. But just as you thought you knew where the story was going, it would end abruptly, when the lovers or the child vanished with no explanation, never to be seen again.

  Aborted stories. Why did people come out to hear them? Why would they choose to listen to the same thing over and over, crashing up against the same unanswerable question every time?

  What had happened to all the people Leck had made disappear? How had their stories ended? There had been hundreds of them, children and adults, women and men, taken by Leck, presumably killed. But she didn't know, and her adv
isers had never been able to tell her, where, why, or how, and it seemed as if the people in the city had no idea either. Suddenly, it wasn't enough for Bitterblue to know they were gone. She wanted to know the rest about them, because the people in these story places were her people, and it was clear that they wanted to know. She wanted to know so that she could tell them.

  There were other questions pushing themselves forward too. Now that it occurred to her to look, Bitterblue noticed places where three more gargoyles, in addition to the one she'd seen carried away, were missing from the east wall. Why hadn't any of her advisers brought these thefts of property to her attention?

  "Lady Queen," Thiel said severely in her office one morning, "don't sign that."

  Bitterblue blinked. "What?"

  "That charter, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "I've just spent fifteen minutes explaining why you shouldn't sign it, and there you are with a pen in your hand. Where is your mind?"

  "Oh," Bitterblue said, dropping her pen, sighing. "No, I heard you. The lord Danhole—"

  "Danzhol," corrected Thiel.

  "Lord Danzhol, the lord of a town in central Monsea, objects to the town being taken from his governance. You think I should grant him an audience before deciding."

  "I regret that it is his right to be heard, Lady Queen. I regret as well—"

  "Yes," said Bitterblue in distraction. "You've told me he also wishes to marry me. Very well."

  "Lady Queen!" said Thiel, then tucked his chin to his chest, studying her. "Lady Queen," he said gently, "I ask a second time. Where is your mind today?"

  "It's with the gargoyles, Thiel," said Bitterblue, rubbing her temples.

  "Gargoyles? What can you mean, Lady Queen?"

  "The ones on the east wall, Thiel. I overheard some chatter among the clerks in the lower offices," she lied, "about there being four gargoyles missing from the east wall. Why has no one informed me?"

  "Missing!" said Thiel. "Where have they gone, Lady Queen?"

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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