Bitterblue, p.42
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       Bitterblue, p.42

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Well. She had better start somewhere. Demonstrating trust was, perhaps, more important than actually feeling it. "Holt," she said.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," he said gruffly.

  "Holt, look into my face," she said. "I have a job for you and any men in the Queen's Guard that you choose."

  This brought Holt's eyes to hers. "I'll do anything, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue nodded. "There is a cave on the other side of Winter Bridge," she said. "Your niece knows how to find it. It's the lair of a thief known as Spook and her granddaughter, Gray, whom you may know as my servant Fox. Late tonight, when both Spook and Fox are inside, I want you to raid the cave, arrest them and their guards, and seize any items inside. Talk to Giddon," she said, for Giddon was the man pegged to talk next to Saf. "He has access to information about the cave. He may be able to tell you how it's guarded and where the entrances are."

  "Thank you, Lady Queen," said Holt, tears streaming down his face. "Thank you for trusting me with this."

  Then Bitterblue looked into the faces of her two remaining

  advisers, Rood and Darby, and knew that she was about to make things just a little bit worse for herself.

  "Come upstairs with me," she said to the two.


  Darby and Rood slumped into chairs like defeated men. Rood was still crying, Darby sweaty and shaking. They were grieving, as she was, and Bitterblue hated that she had to do this.

  "I said below that I believed very few people were at the top of this chain of command," she said. "But both of you were, weren't you?"

  Neither answered. Bitterblue was beginning to get a little tired of not being answered. "You set it up from the beginning, didn't you? Forward-thinkingness actually meant suppression of the past. Danzhol, before I killed him, intimated that the town charters were intended to keep me from digging into the truth of what happened in my towns, and I laughed at him, but that's exactly what they were meant to do, isn't it? Push the past under the rug and pretend it's possible to make a fresh start. The blanket pardons for all crimes committed in Leck's time too. The lack of education in the schools, because it's easier to control what's known when people can't read. And, worst of all, the specific targeting of anyone working against you. Right?" she said. "Gentlemen? Does that about cover it? Answer me," she commanded sharply.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," Rood whispered. "That, and flooding you with paper so that you'd stay in your tower and be too overwhelmed to be curious."

  Bitterblue stared at him in astonishment. "You will tell me how it worked," she said, "and who else was involved besides the men downstairs. And you'll tell me if anyone else was in charge."

  "We were the ones in charge, Lady Queen," Rood whispered

  again. "Your four advisers. We passed down the orders. But others have been deeply involved."

  "Thiel and Runnemood were more culpable than we were," said Darby. "It was their idea. Lady Queen, you said you forgave us. You said you would testify on our behalves if there were trials, but now you're so angry."

  "Darby!" she cried in exasperation. "Of course I'm angry! You lied to me and manipulated me! My own friends were singled out for killing! One is ill because you tried to burn her printing shop!"

  "We did not want to hurt her, Lady Queen," said Rood desperately. "She was printing books and teaching people to read. She had papers and strange letter molds that frightened and confused us."

  "And so you set it all on fire? Is that part of your method too? Destroy anything you don't understand?"

  Neither man spoke. Neither man seemed entirely present in his chair. "Captain Smit?" she snapped. "Am I likely ever to see him again?"

  "He wanted to tell you the truth, Lady Queen," Rood whispered. "It was a great strain on him to lie to your face. Thiel thought he'd made himself too much of a liability, you see?"

  "How could you be so careless with people?" she said, furious.

  "It is easier than you might think, Lady Queen," said Rood. "It only requires a lack of thought, an avoidance of feeling, and the realization, when one does think or feel, that being careless with people is all one is good for."

  Thirty-five years. Bitterblue wasn't certain she'd ever be able to comprehend what it had been like for them. It wasn't fair that nearly a decade after his death, Leck was still killing people. Leck was still tormenting the same people he'd tormented; people were committing appalling acts in order to erase the appalling acts they'd already committed.

  "Ivan?" she said. "The mad engineer? What happened to him?"

  "Runnemood thought he was calling too much attention to himself and, hence, to the state of the city, Lady Queen," whispered Rood. "You yourself complained of his incompetence."

  "And Danzhol?"

  "Oh," Rood said, taking a breath. "We don't know what went wrong with Danzhol, Lady Queen. Leck did have a few special friends who would visit and find themselves drawn into his hospital; Danzhol was one. We knew this, of course, but we didn't know he'd gone mad and intended to kidnap you for money. Thiel was so ashamed afterwards, for Danzhol had asked him beforehand how highly your administration valued you, Lady Queen, and Thiel thought, in retrospect, that perhaps he should've guessed the purpose of the question."

  "Danzhol was planning to ransom me back to you?"

  "We think so, Lady Queen. No other party in the world would have paid so much for your return."

  "But how can you say that," Bitterblue cried, "when you'd made a point of making me useless?"

  "You would not have been useless, Lady Queen," Rood said, "once we'd eradicated all that had happened! You were our hope! Perhaps we should've kept Danzhol closer and involved him more in the suppression. We could have made him a judge or a minister. Perhaps then, he wouldn't have lost his mind."

  "That doesn't seem likely," Bitterblue said in disbelief. "Nothing you say is logical. I was right when I thought Runnemood was the most sane of you all; at least he understood that your plan couldn't work while I was alive. I will testify on your behalves," she continued. "I will testify as to the injury Leck did to you, and the ways in which Thiel and Runnemood may have coerced you. I'll do whatever I can, and I'll make absolutely sure that you're treated fairly. But," she said, "you both know that in your cases, it's not a matter of 'if ' there will be a trial. Both of you must go on trial. People have been murdered. I myself was almost choked to death."

  "That was all Runnemood," Darby said, frantic. "He went too far."

  "You have all gone too far," said Bitterblue. "Darby, see reason. You have all gone too far, and you know that I can't let you go free. How would that be? The queen protecting advisers who conspired to murder innocent Monseans and who used all the parts of her administration to see it done? You'll be imprisoned, both of you, as will anyone else who was deeply involved. You'll stay in prison until I've isolated people who can be trusted to investigate your crimes, and judges who can be trusted to try them justly and with an appreciation for all you've suffered. If you're found innocent and returned to me, I'll honor the court's ruling. But I will not pardon you myself."

  Rood was breathing into his hands. He whispered, "I don't know how we all became trapped in this. I can't understand it. I still cannot fathom what happened."

  Bitterblue felt as if her words were coming from a deep, hollow, unkind, and stupid core, but she pushed them out nonetheless. "Now," she said, "I want you both to write down for me how it worked, what was done, and who else was involved. Rood, you stay here at my desk," she said, handing him paper and pen. "Darby," she said, pointing to Thiel's stand. "You work over there. Separate reports. Take care that they match."

  There was no comfort in making her distrust so obvious. There was no joy in depriving herself of two people whose minds and bodies she needed, depended on, to run these offices. And how horrible to send them to the prisons. One man who had a family and, somewhere deep inside him, a gentle soul, and another man who couldn't even call upon the escape of sleep.

n they were through, she arranged for members of the Queen's Guard to escort them to prison.

  NEXT, SHE SENT for Giddon.

  "Lady Queen," he said as he entered, "you don't look good. Bitterblue," he said, crossing the room in two strides, dropping down beside her, taking her arms.

  "If you touch me," Bitterblue said, eyes closed, teeth clenched, "I'll lose my head, and they can't see me losing my head."

  "Hold on to me," he said, "and breathe slowly. You're not losing your head, you're just under a massive amount of strain. Tell me what's going on."

  "I'm facing," she said, then stopped. She wrapped her hands around his forearms and took a slow breath. "I'm facing a rather catastrophic staff shortage. I just put Darby and Rood in prison, and look at these papers."

  She indicated the papers on her desk, covered with the scribbles of Darby and Rood. Four of the eight judges on her High Court had been involved in the suppression, convicting innocent people and people who needed to be silenced. So had Smit, of course, and the Master of Prisons. So had her Minister of Roads and Maps, her Minister of Taxes, various lords, and the head of the Monsean Guard in Monport. So many members of the Monsean Guard had learned to turn a blind eye that it had been impossible for Rood and Darby to list them individually. And then there were the lowest of the low, the criminals and the lost individuals in the city, who'd been paid, or compelled, to carry out the actual acts of violence.

  "All right," Giddon said. "That's bad. But this kingdom is full of people, you know. Right now, you feel alone, but you're going to put together a team, a really magnificent team. Did you know that Helda has been making lists all day?"

  "Giddon," she said, choking on a slightly hysterical laugh. "I feel alone because I am alone. People keep betraying me and people keep leaving me." And suddenly it was all right to lose control, here for two minutes of being dizzy against Giddon's shoulder, because he was safe, and he wouldn't tell anyone, and he was good at holding on to her with steady, strong arms.

  When her breath had calmed, and she could wipe her eyes and nose on the handkerchief he gave her, instead of on his shirt, she thanked him.

  "You're welcome," he said. "Tell me what I can do to help you."

  "Do you have two hours you could give to me, Giddon? Now?"

  Giddon glanced at the clock. "I have three hours, until two o'clock."

  "Raffin, Bann, and Po—should I assume they're busy?"

  "They are, Lady Queen, but they'll put their work aside for you."

  "No, that's all right. Will you get Teddy for me, and Madlen and Hava, and bring all of them here with Helda?"

  "Of course," he said.

  "And ask Helda to bring her lists, and start thinking up one of your own."

  "I know a lot of good Monseans who can be useful to you."

  "That's why I called for you," she said. "While I've been bumbling around these last few months making messes, you've been meeting my people and learning things."

  "Lady Queen," he said, "be fair to yourself. I've been creating a conspiracy, while you've been the focused target of one. It's easier to plan than to be planned against, trust me. And from now on, that's what you'll be doing."

  * * * * *

  HIS WORDS WERE comforting. But it was hard to believe them after he'd gone.

  He came back with Teddy, Madlen, Hava, and Helda sooner than she expected. Teddy looked a bit harried, and was also rubbing his behind.

  "That was fast," Bitterblue said, motioning to the chairs. "Are you all right, Teddy?"

  "Lord Giddon put me on a horse, Lady Queen," said Teddy. "I haven't had much call for horses before this."

  "Teddy," said Giddon, "I've told you I'm no longer a lord. Everyone seems determined to forget it."

  "My bottom is seizing up," said Teddy glumly.

  Bitterblue couldn't explain it, but once again, with people here, everything seemed less hopeless. Perhaps it was the reminder of a world outside this castle, where life ticked along and Teddy's bottom seized up, whether Thiel had jumped off a bridge or not.

  "Lady Queen," said Helda, "at the end of this conversation, your worries will be gone."

  Well, and that was ridiculous. Everything that worried her came rushing back. "There are a thousand things this conversation won't change," she said.

  "What I meant, Lady Queen," said Helda more gently, "is that none of us have any doubt that you'll be able to outfit a fine administration."

  "Well," said Bitterblue, trying to believe that. "I have some ideas, so we may as well start talking. Madlen and Hava," she said, "I don't expect you to have strong opinions about how my administration should be run, unless, of course, you want to. I've asked you to join us because you're two of the very few people I trust, and because you both know, or have observed, or have worked with, a lot of people. I need people," Bitterblue said. "There's nothing I need more. Any recommendations any of you have are welcome to me.

  "Now," she said, trying not to show how shy she was to speak her ideas aloud. "I would like to add a few new ministries, so that we can have entire, focused teams working on matters that have been grievously neglected. I want to start over from scratch with building a Ministry of Education. And we should have a Ministry of Historical Record, but if we're to continue searching for the truth of what happened, we must be prepared to be gentle and take care with knowledge. We've got to talk more about the best way to do it, don't you think? And what would you all think of a Ministry of Mental Well-being?" she asked. "Has there ever been such a thing? What about a Ministry of Reparations?"

  Her friends listened as she talked, and made suggestions, and Bitterblue began to draw charts. It was comforting to write things down; words, arrows, boxes made ideas more solid. I used to have a small list, on a single piece of paper, she thought, of all the things I didn't know. It's hilarious to think it, when this entire kingdom could be an actual-sized map of the things I don't know.

  "Should we interview each person downstairs," she asked, "to see where each of their interests and expertise lie?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Helda. "Now?"

  "Yes, why not?"

  "I'm sorry, Lady Queen," said Giddon, "but I've got to go."

  Bitterblue shot her eyes to the clock in amazement, unable to believe that Giddon's three hours were up. "Where are you going?"

  Giddon directed a sheepish expression at Helda.

  "Giddon?" said Bitterblue, now suspicious.

  "It's Council business," Helda reassured Bitterblue. "He's not going to do anything to anyone Monsean, Lady Queen."

  "Giddon," said Bitterblue reprovingly, "I always tell you the truth."

  "I haven't lied!" he protested. "I haven't said a word." And when that didn't lessen Bitterblue's glare, "I'll tell you later. Possibly."

  "This phenomenon wherein you always tell Lord Giddon the truth," said Helda to Bitterblue. "Might you consider extending that arrangement to others?"

  "I'm not a lord!" said Giddon.

  "Could we—" Bitterblue was losing focus. "Giddon, send one of my clerks or guards up on your way out, would you? Anyone who looks equal to an interview."

  And so the interviews of her guards and clerks commenced, and Bitterblue found the ideas growing in a way that began to challenge the expediency of paper. Ideas were growing in all directions and dimensions; they were becoming a sculpture, or a castle.

  And then everyone left her, to return to their own affairs; and she was alone, and empty and unbelieving again.

  RAFFIN, BANN, AND Po came to dinner, late. Bitterblue sat quietly among them, letting their banter wash around her. Helda is never happier than when she has young people to pester, she thought. Especially handsome young men.

  Then Giddon showed up, with a report on Saf. "He's bored to pieces and worried about his sister. But he gave me good information about Spook's cave to give to Holt, Lady Queen."

  "After Spook and Fox are arrested," Bitterblue said quietly, her first contribution to the evening's conversation, "I won
der if we can let Saf out of the drawbridge tower. It may depend on how much Spook and Fox talk. I still don't feel like I've got a handle on the Monsean Guard just now." I'd feel a lot better if I had the crown. "How did your Council business go, Giddon?"

  "I convinced a visiting spy of King Thigpen's not to return to Estill," said Giddon.

  "And how did you do that?" asked Bitterblue.

  "By—well—let's say, by arranging for him to have a holiday in Lienid," said Giddon.

  This was met with a roar of approval. "Well done," said Bann, slapping him on the back.

  "Did he want to go to Lienid?" asked Bitterblue, not certain why she bothered.

  "Oh, everyone loves Lienid!" cried Po.

  "Did you use the nausea infusion?" asked Raffin, pounding the table so hard in his excitement that the silver rattled. When Giddon nodded, the others gave him a standing ovation.

  Quietly, Bitterblue took herself to the sofa. It was bedtime, but how was she to be alone in a dark room? How to face her own solitary, shaking self?

  If she couldn't have anyone's arms around her as she fell asleep, then she could have the voices of these friends. She would wrap the voices around her and it would be like Saf 's arms; it would be like Katsa's arms when they'd slept on the frozen mountain. Katsa. How acutely she missed Katsa. How acutely sometimes the presence or absence of people mattered. She would have fought Po tonight for Katsa's arms.

  Of course, she'd forgotten that there might be a dream.

  She dreamed that she was walking from rooftop to rooftop in Bitterblue City. She was walking on the castle roof. She was walking on the edges of the parapets of the glass roof of her castle tower, and she could see everything all at once, the buildings of her city, the bridges, the people trying to be strong. The sun warmed her, a breeze cooled her, and there was no pain, and she wasn't afraid to be standing at the top of the world.


  IN THE MORNING, she woke to the news that Darby had hanged himself in his prison cell.

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