Bitterblue, p.5
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       Bitterblue, p.5

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Well, how should I know? Where do gargoyles go?"

  "I highly doubt this is true, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "I feel certain you misheard something."

  "Go ask them," said Bitterblue. "Or have someone go check. I know what I heard."

  Thiel went away. He came back sometime later with Darby, who carried a short stack of papers through which he was madly shuffling. "There are four gargoyles missing from the east wall, Lady Queen," Darby said briskly, reading, "according to our records of castle decoration. But they are missing merely in the sense that they were never there in the first place."

  "Never there!" said Bitterblue, knowing perfectly well that at least one had been there mere nights ago. "None of the four were ever there?"

  "King Leck never got around to commissioning those four, Lady Queen. He left the spaces blank."

  What Bitterblue had seen, when she'd counted, had been rough, broken places on the wall where it very much looked as if something stone had been present and then been hacked away—namely, gargoyles. "You're certain of those records?" she said. "When were they made?"

  "At the start of your reign, Lady Queen," said Darby. "Records were made of the state of every part of the castle; I supervised them myself, at the request of your uncle, King Ror."

  It seemed a strange little thing to lie about, and not important enough for it to matter if Darby had gotten the records wrong. And yet, it unsettled her. Darby's eyes as he blinked at her, yellow and green, efficient and certain as he gave her incorrect information, unsettled her. She found herself tracing her mind back through all the recent things Darby had told her, wondering if he was the type to lie.

  Then she caught herself, knowing that she was suspicious only because she was generally unsettled, and that she was unsettled because everything these days seemed designed to disorient her. It was like the maze she'd discovered last night, looking for a new, more isolated route from her high rooms at the castle's farthest north edge to the gatehouse in the castle's south wall. The glass ceilings of the castle's top level corridors made her nervous about being seen by guards patrolling above. So she'd dropped straight down a narrow staircase near her rooms to the level below, then found herself trapped in a series of passageways that always seemed promisingly straight and well lit but then veered or branched, or even came to dark dead ends, until she was hopelessly confused.

  "Are you lost?" an unfamiliar voice had asked behind her, male

  and sudden. Bitterblue had frozen, turned, and tried not to look too hard at the man who was gray-haired and dressed in the black of the Monsean Guard. "You're lost, aren't you?"

  Not breathing, Bitterblue had nodded.

  "So is everyone I find here," the man said, "mostly. You're in King Leck's maze. It's all corridors leading nowhere, with his rooms in the middle."

  The guard had led her out. Following on tiptoe, she'd wondered why Leck had built a maze around his rooms, and why she'd never known about it before. And began to wonder too about the other strange landscapes within her castle walls. To get to the grand foyer and the gatehouse exit beyond, Bitterblue had to cross the great courtyard that sat flush against the foyer at the castle's far south. Leck had arranged for the shrubberies in the great courtyard to be cut into fantastical shapes: proud, posing people with flowers for eyes and hair; fierce, monstrous flowering animals. Bears and mountain lions, enormous birds. A fountain in one corner poured noisy water into a deep pool. Balconies stretched up the courtyard walls, all five stories. Gargoyles, more gargoyles, perched on high ledges, scaled walls, leering, poking heads out shyly. The glass ceiling reflected the courtyard lanterns back at Bitterblue, like large muddy stars.

  Why had Leck cared so much about his shrubberies? Why had he fitted glass ceilings to the courtyards and to so many of the castle's roofs? And what was it about the dark that made her question things she'd never questioned before, in the day?

  In the great courtyard late one night, a man strode in from the grand foyer, pushing back his hood, crossing the floor with the sharp sound of boots on marble. Her adviser Runnemood's self-possessed walk; Runnemood's jeweled rings glittering and Runnemood's handsome features moving in and out of shadow. In a panic, Bitterblue had dived behind a shrubbery of a rearing horse. Then her Graced guard Holt had followed Runnemood in, supporting Judge Quall, who was shivering. All of them had passed into the castle, heading north. Bitterblue had run along, too frightened at almost having been seen to wonder, then, what they'd been doing out in the city at such an hour. It had occurred to her to wonder later.

  "Where do you go at night, Runnemood?" she'd asked him the next morning.

  "Go, Lady Queen?" he'd said with narrowed eyes.

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, "do you ever go out late? I hear you do. Forgive me; I'm curious."

  "I do have late meetings in the city now and then, Lady Queen," he said. "Late dinners with lords who want things—like appointments to one of your ministries, or your hand in marriage, for example. It is my job to humor such people and put them off."

  Until midnight, with Judge Quall and Holt? "Do you take a guard?"

  "Sometimes," Runnemood said, pushing himself up from his seat in the window and coming to stand before her. His fine, dark eyes flashed with curiosity. "Lady Queen, why are you asking these questions?"

  She was asking because she couldn't ask the questions she wanted to ask. Are you telling me the truth? Why do I feel that you're not? Do you ever go to the east city? Do you ever hear the stories? Can you explain to me all the things I see at night that I don't understand?

  "Because I wish you would take a guard," Bitterblue lied, "if you must be out so late. I worry for your safety."

  Runnemood's smile flashed, broad and white. "What a dear, kind queen you are," he said, in a patronizing manner that made it difficult for her to keep the dear, kind expression on her face. "I will take a guard if it eases your mind."

  She went out on her own again for a few more nights, unremarked by her own Lienid Door Guard, who barely looked at her, caring only for her ring and her password. And then, on the seventh night since she'd seen them stealing the gargoyle, she crossed paths again with Teddy and his Graceling Lienid friend.

  She'd just discovered a third story place, near the silver docks, in the cellar of an old, leaning warehouse. Tucked into a back corner with her drink, she was alarmed to find Saf bearing down upon her. He eyed her blandly, as if he'd never seen her before. Then he stood beside her, turning his attention to the man on the bar.

  The man was telling a story that Bitterblue had never heard and was too anxious to attend to now, so distressing was it to have been singled out by Saf. The hero of the story was a sailor from the island kingdom of Lienid. Saf seemed quite riveted. Watching him while trying to appear not to, noticing how his eyes lit up with appreciation, Bitterblue made a connection that had eluded her before. She'd been on an ocean vessel once; she and Katsa had fled to Lienid to escape Leck. And she'd seen Saf climb the east wall; she'd noted his sun-darkened skin and bleached hair. Suddenly now, the way he carried himself became acutely familiar. He had a certain ease of movement and a gleam in his eyes that she'd seen before in men who'd been sailors, but not just sailors. Bitterblue wondered if Saf might be that particular brand of sailor who volunteered to climb to the top of the mast during a gale.

  She wondered what he was doing so far north of Monport, and, again, what his Grace was. From the bruising around his eyebrow tonight and the raw skin on one cheekbone, it looked neither to be fighting nor quick mending.

  Teddy wove through the tables bearing a mug in each fist, one of which he handed to Saf. He set himself up at Bitterblue's other side, which, as her stool was in the corner, meant that they had trapped her.

  "The polite thing," Teddy murmured to her sidelong, "would be for you to tell us your name, as I've given ours."

  Bitterblue did not mind Saf 's proximity so much when Teddy was near, near enough that she could see the smudged ink on his fingers. Teddy had t
he feeling of a bookkeeper, or a clerk, or at any rate, a person who would not transform suddenly into a renegade. She said quietly, "Is it polite for two men to trap a woman in a corner?"

  "Teddy would have you believe we're doing it for your own safety," Saf said, his accent plainly Lienid. "He'd be lying. It's pure suspicion. We don't trust people who come to the story rooms in disguise."

  "Oh, come now!" Teddy said, loudly enough that a man or two nearby grunted at him to shush. "Speak for yourself," he whispered. "I, for one, am concerned. Fights break out. There are lunatics in the streets, and thieves."

  Saf snorted. "Thieves, eh? If you'd stop prattling, we could hear the tale of this fabler. Rather close to my heart, this one."

  "Prattle," Teddy repeated, his eyes lit up like stars. "Prattle. I must add it to my list. I believe I've overlooked it."

  "Ironic," Saf said.

  "Oh, I haven't overlooked ironic."

  "I meant it's ironic that you should've overlooked prattle."

  "Yes," Teddy said huffily, "I suppose it would be something like you overlooking an opportunity to break your head pretending you're Prince Po reborn. I'm a writer," he added, turning back to Bitterblue.

  "Shut your mouth, Teddy," said Saf.

  "And printer," Teddy continued, "reader, speller. Whatever folks need, as long as it has to do with words."

  "Speller?" said Bitterblue. "Do people really pay you to spell things?"

  "They bring letters they've written and ask me to turn them into something legible," Teddy said. "The illiterate ask me to teach them how to sign their names to documents."

  "Should they be signing their names to documents if they're illiterate?"

  "No," Teddy said, "probably not, but they do, because they're required to, by landlords or employers, or lien holders they trust because they can't read well enough to know not to. That's why I serve as reader too."

  "Are there so many illiterate people in the city?"

  Teddy shrugged. "What would you say, Saf?"

  "I'd guess thirty people in a hundred can read," Saf said, his eyes glued to the fabler, "and you talk too much."

  "Thirty percent!" Bitterblue exclaimed, for these were not the statistics she'd seen. "Surely it's more than that!"

  "Either you're new to Monsea," Teddy said, "or you're still stuck in King Leck's spell. Or you live in a hole in the ground and only come out at nights."

  "I work in the queen's castle," Bitterblue said, improvising smoothly, "and I suppose I'm used to the castle ways. Everyone who lives under her roof reads and writes."

  "Hm," Teddy said, squinting doubtfully at this. "Well, most people in the city read and write well enough to function in their own trades. A metalsmith can read an order for knives and a farmer knows how to label his crates beans or corn. But the percentage who could understand this story if it were handed to them on paper," Teddy said, tilting his floppy hair at the storyteller—fabler, Saf had called him—"is probably close enough to what Saf said. One of Leck's legacies. And one of the driving forces behind my book of words."

  "Book of words?"

  "Oh, yes. I'm writing a book of words."

  Saf touched Teddy's arm. Instantly, almost before Teddy had finished his sentence, they left her, too quickly for Bitterblue to ask whether any book had ever been written that was not a book of words.

  Near the door, Teddy looked an invitation back at her. She declined with a shake of her head, trying not to reveal her exasperation, for she was certain she'd just seen Saf slip something out from under a random man's arm and slide it up his own sleeve. What was it this time? It had looked like a roll of papers.

  It didn't matter. Whatever those two were up to, they were up to no good, and she was going to have to decide what to do about them.

  The fabler began a new story. Bitterblue was startled to find that it was, again, the story of Leck's origins and rise to power. Tonight's fabler told it just a bit differently than the last had. She listened hard, hoping that this man would say something new, a missing image or word, a key that would turn in a lock and open a door behind which all her memories and all she'd been told would make sense.

  THEIR SOCIABILITY—OR, Teddy's—bolstered her courage. This, in turn, terrified her, though not enough to stop her seeking them out over the next few nights. Thieves, she reminded herself whenever she crossed paths with them in the story rooms, exchanged greetings, said a few words. Wretched, ingrate thieves, and what I'm doing, trying to put myself in their way, is dangerous.

  August was coming to an end. "Teddy," she said one night as the two of them wandered toward her, then huddled with her at the back of the dark, crowded, cellar story room near the silver docks, "I don't understand your book. Isn't every book a book of words?"

  "I must say," Teddy responded, "that if we're to run into each other so often, and if you're to call us by name, then we must have a name for you."

  "Call me whatever you like."

  "Hear that, Saf?" Teddy said, leaning across Bitterblue, his face brightening. "A word challenge. But how shall we proceed, when we know neither what she does for her bread nor what she looks like under that hood?"

  "She's part Lienid," Saf said, not taking his eyes off the fabler.

  "Is she? You've seen?" Teddy asked, impressed, stooping, and trying, unsuccessfully, to get a better look at Bitterblue's face. "Well then, we should give her a color name. What about Redgreenyellow?"

  "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. It makes her sound like a pepper."

  "Well, what about Grayhood?"

  "First of all, her hood is blue, and secondly, she's not a grandmother. I doubt she's more than sixteen."

  Bitterblue was tired of Teddy and Saf crushing her between them, having a whispered conversation about her, practically in her face. "I'm as old as both of you," she said, even though she suspected she wasn't, "and I'm smarter, and I can probably fight as well as you can."

  "Her personality is not gray," Saf said.

  "Indeed," Teddy said. "She's all sparks."

  "How about Sparks, then?"

  "Perfect. So, you're curious about my book of words, Sparks?"

  The absurdity of the name tickled, flummoxed, and annoyed her all at once; she wished she hadn't given them free rein to choose, but she had, so there was no use complaining. "I am."

  "Well, I suppose it'd be more accurate to say it's a book about words. It's called a dictionary. Very few have ever been attempted. The idea is to set down a list of words and then write a definition for each word. Spark," he said grandly. "A small bit of fire, as in, 'A stray spark burst from the oven and ignited the curtains.' You see, Sparks? A person reading my dictionary will be able to learn the meanings of all the words there are."

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, "I've heard of such books. Except that if it uses words to define words, then don't you already need to know the definitions of words in order to understand it?"

  Saf seemed to be expanding with glee. "With one stroke," he said, "Sparks fells Teddren's blasted book of words."

  "Yes, all right," Teddy said, in the forbearing tone of one who's had to hold up his side of this argument before. "In the abstract, that's true. But in practice, I'm certain it'll be quite useful, and I mean it to be the most thorough dictionary ever written. I'm also writing a book of truths."

  "Teddy," said Saf, "go get the next round."

  "Sapphire told me you saw him steal," continued Teddy to Bitterblue, unconcerned. "You mustn't misunderstand. He only steals back that which has already been—"

  Now Saf's fist grabbed Teddy's collar and Teddy choked over his words. Saf said nothing, only stood there, holding Teddy at his throat, looking daggers into Teddy's eyes.

  "—stolen," spluttered Teddy. "Perhaps I'll go get the next round."

  "I could kill him," Saf said, watching Teddy go. "I think I will later."

  "What did he mean, you only steal that which has already been stolen?"

  "Let's talk about your thievery instead,
Sparks," said Saf. "Do you steal from the queen, or only poor sods trying to have a drink?"

  "What about you? Do you steal both on land and on sea?"

  This made Saf laugh, quietly, which was a thing Bitterblue had never seen him do before. She was rather proud of herself. He nursed his drink, ran his eyes over the room, and took his time answering.

  "I was raised on a Lienid ship by Lienid sailors," he admitted finally. "I'm about as likely to steal from a sailor as I am to put a nail in my head. My true family is Monsean, and a few months ago I came here to spend some time with my sister. I met Teddy, who offered me a job in his printing shop, which is good work, until I get the urge for leaving again. There. You've had my story."

  "Great chunks of it are missing," said Bitterblue. "Why were you raised on a Lienid ship if you're Monsean?"

  "All of yours is missing," said Saf, "and I don't trade my secrets for nothing. If you recognize me for a sailor, then you've spent some time working on a ship."

  "Maybe," said Bitterblue testily.

  "Maybe?" said Saf, amused. "What do you do in Bitterblue's castle?"

  "I bake bread in the kitchens," she said, hoping he wouldn't ask any specifics about those kitchens, because she couldn't remember ever seeing them.

  "And is it your mother who's Lienid, or your father?"

  "My mother."

  "And does she work with you?"

  "She does fine needlework for the queen. Embroidery."

  "Do you see much of her?"

  "Not when we're working, but we live in the same rooms. We see each other every night and morning."

  Bitterblue stopped, suddenly needing to catch her breath. It seemed to her a beautiful daydream, one that could easily be true. Perhaps there was a baker girl in the castle with a mother who was alive, touching her, every day, with thoughts, seeing her every night. "My father was a traveling Monsean fabler," she continued. "One summer he went to Lienid to tell stories and fell in love with my mother. He brought her here to live. He was killed in an accident with a dagger."

  "I'm sorry to hear that," Saf said.

  "It was years ago," Bitterblue said breathlessly.

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