Bitterblue, p.40
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       Bitterblue, p.40

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "Lady Queen," he said, sounding more and more confused. "This morning at daybreak, that young Graceling with the Lienid decora tion—Sapphire Birch—was seen running along the merchant docks with your crown, which he then threw into the river."

  "That's absurd," said Bitterblue evenly. "The crown is sitting in my rooms this very minute."

  Thiel's eyebrows pinched together in doubt. "Are you certain, Lady Queen?"

  "Of course I'm certain. I was just there. Have they been searching the river for it?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen—"

  "But they haven't found it."

  "No, Lady Queen."

  "Nor will they," Bitterblue said, "because it's in my sitting room. He must have thrown something else into the river. You know perfectly well that he's a friend of mine and of Prince Po's and, as such, would never throw my crown into the river."

  Thiel had never been more bewildered. Beside him, Darby stood with yellow-green eyes that were narrowed and calculating. "If he did steal your crown, Lady Queen," Darby said, "it would be a hanging offense."

  "Would you like that, Darby?" asked Bitterblue. "Would it solve any of your problems?"

  "I beg your pardon, Lady Queen?" said Darby huffily.

  "No, I'm sure the queen is right," said Thiel, blundering around for solid ground. "Her friend wouldn't do such a thing. Clearly, someone has made a mistake."

  "Someone has made grievously many mistakes," Bitterblue said. "I think I'll go back to my rooms."

  In the lower offices, she stopped, looking into the faces of her men. Rood. Her clerks, her guards. Holt. She thought of Teddy on the floor of an alley with a knife in his gut; Teddy, who only wanted people to know how to read. Saf running from killers, Saf framed for murder. Saf shivering and wet from diving for bones, a man coming at him with a knife. Bren fighting to save the printing shop from fire.

  Her forward-thinking administration.

  But, Thiel saved my life. Holt saved my life. It's not possible. I've gotten something wrong somehow. Hava is lying about what she saw.

  Sitting at his desk, Rood raised his eyes to hers. Bitterblue remembered, then, the letter mold she still held tight in her fist. She took it between her thumb and forefinger and held it up for Rood to see.

  Rood squinted, puzzled. Then, understanding, he slumped back in his chair. Rood began to weep.

  Bitterblue turned and ran.

  SHE NEEDED HELDA, she needed Giddon and Bann, but when she got to her sitting room, they weren't there. On the table sat new translations and a report, lined in Death's tidy hand. It was the last thing on earth Bitterblue wanted to see just now.

  She ran into the foyer and down the hallway and burst into Helda's rooms, but Helda wasn't there either. On her way back up the hallway, she stopped for a moment, burst into her own bedroom, and ran to her mother's chest. Kneeling over it, gripping its edges, she forced her heart to hold the word that named what Thiel had done. "Betrayal."

  Mama, she thought. I don't understand. How could Thiel be such a liar, when you loved him and trusted him? When he helped us escape? When he's been so kind and gentle with me, and promised me never to lie again? I don't understand what's going on. How can this be?

  The outer doors creaked open. "Helda?" she whispered. "Helda?" she said again in a stronger voice.

  There was no answer. As she rose and went to her bedroom door, a strange sound reached her, coming from the direction of the sitting room. Metal thudding on carpet. Bitterblue ran into the foyer, then stopped as Thiel came rushing out of the sitting room. He stopped too, at the sight of her. His arms were full of papers and his eyes were wild and heartsick and full of shame. He locked those eyes on her face.

  Bitterblue stood in her tracks. "How long have you been lying to me?"

  He spoke the words in a whisper. "As long as you have been queen."

  Bitterblue cried out. "You're no better than my father!" she said. "I hate you. You've crushed my heart."

  "Bitterblue," he said. "Forgive me for what I've done and for what I must do."

  Then he pushed through the doors and was gone.

  38

  SHE RAN INTO the sitting room. The fake crown lay on the carpet and Death's pages were gone.

  She ran back into the foyer and pushed through the outer doors. She was nearly to the end of the corridor when she turned back, ran past her own startled Lienid Guard, and pounded on Giddon's door. Pounded again and again. Giddon pulled the door open, rumpled and barefoot and clearly only half awake.

  "Will you go to the library," she said, "and make sure Death is safe?"

  "All right," he said, bleary and confused.

  "If you see Thiel," she said, "stop him and don't let him go. He's learned about the journals and a thousand things have happened and I think he intends to do something terrible, Giddon, but I don't know what it is," and she ran.

  SHE BURST INTO the lower offices. "Where is Thiel?" she cried.

  Every face in the room stared back at her. Rood stood and said quietly, "We thought he was with you, Lady Queen. He told us he was going to find you and talk to you."

  "He came and left," said Bitterblue. "I don't know where he went or what he intends to do. If he comes here, please don't let him go. Please?" she said, turning to Holt, who sat in a chair by the door, staring at her dazedly. Bitterblue grabbed Holt's arm. "Please," she pleaded. "Holt, don't let him go."

  "I won't, Lady Queen," said Holt.

  Bitterblue ran away from the offices, not reassured.

  SHE WENT TO Thiel's room next, but he wasn't there either.

  The air in the great courtyard, when she reached it, stabbed her with its coldness. Members of the Fire Guard were running in and out of the library.

  Bitterblue rushed in after them, ran through smoke, and saw Giddon on the floor leaning over Death's body. "Death," she cried, running to them, throwing herself down, her sword clunking on the floor. "Death!"

  "He's alive," Giddon said.

  Shaking with relief, Bitterblue hugged her insensible librarian; kissed his cheek. "Will he be all right?"

  "He's been knocked on the head and his hands are scraped up, but that seems to be all. You're all right? The fire is out, but the smoke is still thick."

  "Where's Thiel?"

  "He was already gone when I got here, Lady Queen," said Giddon. "The desk was in flames and Death was lying on the floor behind it, so I dragged him away. Then I ran to the courtyard, screamed for the Fire Guard, and stole some poor fellow's coat to beat the fire down. Lady Queen," he said, "I'm sorry, but most of the journals were destroyed."

  "It doesn't matter," Bitterblue said. "You saved Death." And then she looked straight at Giddon for the first time and cried out, for ragged gashes scored his cheekbone.

  "It was only the cat, Lady Queen," he said. "I found him hiding

  under the burning desk, stupid creature," and Bitterblue threw her arms around Giddon.

  "You saved Lovejoy."

  "Yes, I suppose," said Giddon, sooty and bloody, his arms full of the tearful queen. "Everyone is safe. There, there."

  "Will you stay with Death and watch over him?"

  "Where are you going?"

  "I've got to find Thiel."

  "Lady Queen," he said, "Thiel is dangerous. Send the Monsean Guard."

  "I don't trust the Monsean Guard. I don't trust anyone but us. He won't hurt me, Giddon."

  "You don't know that."

  "Yes, I do."

  "Take your Lienid Guard," Giddon said, looking seriously into her face. "Will you promise me that you'll take your Lienid Guard?"

  "No," she said. "But I'll promise you that Thiel will not hurt me." She pulled his face down and kissed him on the forehead as she had Death; then she ran.

  HOW SHE KNEW, she couldn't say, but she did. Something in her heart, something underneath the pain of betrayal and, in fact, more fundamental, told her. Fear told her where Thiel had gone.

  She did have the foresight, as she flew under the castle po
rtcullis onto the drawbridge, to stop before one of the astonished Lienid Guard who was less loomingly tall than the others, and demand his coat.

  "Lady Queen," he said as he shouldered out of it, helping her into it, "you'd best not. The snow is working itself up to a blizzard."

  "Then you'd better give me your hat and gloves as well," she said, "and then go inside to warm yourself. Did Thiel come this way?"

  "No, Lady Queen," the guard said.

  He'd taken the tunnel, then. Pulling on the hat and gloves, Bitterblue ran east.

  THE STAIRS THAT led pedestrians onto Winged Bridge were built into the side of one of the bridge's great stone foundations. Stairs with no railing, in a wind that couldn't decide on a direction, in deep shadow as the clouds packed themselves tight.

  Big footprints marked the new snowfall on the steps.

  Fishing under her too-big coat, she unsheathed her sword, feeling stronger with it in her hand. Then she lifted her foot and placed it into Thiel's first footprint. Then the next step, then the next.

  At the top of the stairs, the surface of the bridge shone blue and white, and the wind screamed. "I'm not afraid of heights!" she screamed back at the wind. It touched some deep inner current of courage to scream that lie, so she did it again. The wind screamed to drown her out.

  Through the falling snow, she could make out a person standing far ahead on the bridge. The bridge was a narrow, slippery hill of marble that she must climb in order to reach the form that was Thiel.

  Thiel was at the bridge's edge. He grabbed the parapet with both hands and suddenly Bitterblue was running, sword in hand, screaming words Thiel could not hear. The surface beneath her thudding feet changed to wood, with more give, a hollow sound, snow sticking, and he hoisted his knee onto the parapet and she pushed herself, pounded, reached him, screaming, grabbed his arm and yanked him back. Crying out in amazement, losing his balance, he reeled back onto the bridge.

  Pushing herself between Thiel and the parapet, Bitterblue whipped her sword point to his throat, not caring that it made no sense to threaten a person with bodily harm who was trying to kill himself. "No," she said. "Thiel, no!"

  "Why are you here?" he cried, tears streaming down his face. He wore no coat and shook with the cold. The wet snow matted his hair down and made his features stand out sharply, like a living skeleton. "Why am I able to spare you none of this? You weren't meant to see this!"

  "Stop it, Thiel. What are you doing? Thiel! I didn't mean what I said! I forgive you!"

  He backed away, crossing the width of the bridge as she followed with her sword, until his back was to the opposite parapet. "You cannot forgive me," he said. "There is no forgiveness for what I've done. You've read his words, haven't you? You know what he made us do, don't you?"

  "He made you heal them, so that he could keep hurting them," she said. "He made you watch him as he cut them and raped them. It wasn't your fault, Thiel!"

  "No," he said, his eyes growing wide. "No, he's the one who watched. We're the ones who cut them and raped them. Children!" he cried. "Little girls! I see their faces!"

  Bitterblue was paralyzed with dizziness. "What?" she said, understanding, all at once, the final truth. "Thiel! Leck made you do the hurting?"

  "I was his favorite," Thiel said, frantic. "I was his number one. I felt the pleasure when he told me to. I feel it when I see their faces!"

  "Thiel," she said, "he forced you. You were his tool!"

  "I was a coward," he cried out desperately, against the wind. "A coward!"

  "But it wasn't your fault! Thiel. He stole who you were!"

  "I killed Runnemood—you see that, don't you? I pushed him off

  this bridge to stop him hurting you. I've killed so many. I've tried to make the memory end, I've needed it to go away, but all of it only gets bigger and more impossible to control. I never meant it to grow so big. I never meant to tell so many lies. It was supposed to end. It never ends!"

  "Thiel," she said, "there is nothing that cannot be forgiven!"

  "No," he said, shaking his head, shaking the tears from his face. "I've tried, Lady Queen. I've tried, and it won't heal."

  "Thiel," she said, sobbing now. "Please. Let me help you. Please, please, come away from the edge."

  "You're strong," he said. "You will make things better; you're a true queen, like your mother. I stood here while your mother burned. When he lit her body up on Monster Bridge, I stood right here and watched. I was there to honor her passing. It's right that no one will honor mine," he said, turning around toward the parapet.

  "No," she said. "No, Thiel!" she cried, grabbing at him, dropping her useless sword, willing some part of her, some extension of her spirit or soul to reach out from inside her and entwine him, stop him, hold him on this bridge. Hold him here safe with her love. Stop struggling, Thiel. Stop fighting me. No, stay here, stay here! You will not die.

  Prying her fingers away, he pushed her so hard that she fell to the ground. "Be safe, Bitterblue. Be free of this," he said to her. Then he grabbed the parapet, hoisted himself onto it, and fell over the edge.

  39

  SHE LAY FAR above rushing water.

  Maybe he had pretended. Maybe he'd walked away while her eyes were closed, changed his mind, gone back home.

  No. He hadn't pretended. Her eyes had never closed. She had seen.

  IT WAS NECESSARY that she no longer be on this bridge. Of that, she was fairly certain. But she couldn't walk, because the bridge was too high in the air for walking on. What if she stayed here? What if she clung to a memory of a cold mountain, of Katsa's body giving her heat, of Katsa's arms holding her safe to the earth?

  Crawl, she could crawl. There was no shame in crawling when one couldn't walk. Someone had said that to her once. Someone—

  "Hey."

  The voice from above was familiar.

  "Hey, what are you doing? Are you hurt?"

  The person attached to the voice was touching her with his hands, brushing off an accumulation of snow. "Hey, can you get up?"

  She shook her head.

  "Can you talk? Is it the heights, Sparks?"

  Yes. No. She shook her head.

  "You're scaring me," he said. "How long have you been out here? I'm picking you up."

  "No," she managed, because being picked up was too high.

  "Why don't you tell me what four hundred seventy-six times four hundred seventy-seven is, all right?"

  Saf gathered her up, gathered her sword too, and carried her to the drawbridge tower while she clung to him, and tried to work that one out.

  INSIDE, IT WAS warm. There were braziers. When he lowered her to a chair, she held on to one of his arms and wouldn't let him go.

  "Sparks," he said, on his knees before her, taking off her gloves and hat, feeling her hands and face, "this is not cold sickness, and I get the feeling that it's more than your fear of heights. Last time you were afraid of heights, you had a tongue to curse me with."

  Bitterblue was holding his arm so hard that she thought her fingers would break. And then he put his other arm around her and pulled her into a hug. She transferred all her clinging pressure to his torso, hugging him back. Shaking. "Tell me what's wrong," he said.

  She tried. She really did. She couldn't.

  "Whisper it in my ear," he said.

  His ear was warm on her nose. The gold stud in his earlobe was hard and comforting on her lip. Three words. It would only take three words and then he would understand. "Thiel," she whispered. "Jumped off."

  This was met with stillness, then an exhalation, then a tightening of his arms. Then moving, lifting, resettling, until he was in the chair, holding her in his lap, holding her tight while she shook.

  SHE WOKE TO him settling her onto blankets on the floor. "Stay with me," she said. "Don't go."

  He lay beside her and wrapped his arms around her. She slept.

  * * * * *

  SHE WOKE AGAIN to low voices. Gentle hands. People leaning over her in snow-co
vered coats. "She'll be all right," said Raffin.

  Saf 's voice said something about the snow. "Maybe you should stay here," he said.

  Po's voice said something about horses, about it being too dangerous to draw attention. Po's voice! Po was holding her, kissing her face. "Keep her safe," he said. "I'll wait for her at the bottom of the bridge when the storm is over."

  Then she was alone with Saf again. "Po?" she said, turning in confusion.

  "He was here," Saf replied.

  "Saf," she said, finding his face in the dimness. "Do you forgive me?"

  "Shh," said Saf, stroking her hair, her falling-out braids. "Yes, Lady Queen. I forgave you some time ago."

  "Why are you crying?"

  "A lot of reasons," he said.

  She wiped the tears from Saf's face. She fell asleep.

  SHE WOKE FROM a nightmare of falling. Ashen, herself, bones, everyone, everything, falling. She woke crying out and thrashing and was astonished, then devastated, to find Saf there holding her, comforting her, for this time she was truly awake, and with Saf, all the other truths of the waking world rushed back. And so she clung to him to push them away, pressed herself against him. She felt the length of his body against hers; she felt his hands. She heard his whispers, let him fill her ears and her skin. She kissed him. When he responded to her kisses, she kissed him more.

  "Are you certain you want this?" he whispered, when it became clear what was happening. "Are you certain that you're certain?"

  "Yes," she whispered. "Are you?"

  * * * * *

  WHAT IT DID was return her to herself. For Saf reminded her of trust, of her capacity for comfort, her willingness to be loved. So that afterwards, when the pain came rushing back again, fresh and relentless, she had the strength to bear it, and a friend to hold her while she sobbed.

  She cried for the part of her soul that had been clinging to Thiel and had fallen with him into the water, the part of herself that he'd torn away when he'd jumped. She cried for her failure to save him. Most of all, she cried for what Thiel's life had been.

  "No more nightmares," Saf whispered. "Dream of something that will comfort you."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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