Bitterblue, p.7
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       Bitterblue, p.7

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  A corner of his mouth turned up. "I've limited experience with mothers, Sparks, but that strikes me as a rather motherly thing to say."

  In the light of day, one of his eyes was a soft reddish purple. The other, just as soft and deep, was purplish blue.

  Her uncle had given her a necklace with a stone of that purplish blue hue. In daylight or firelight the gem was alive with a brilliance that shifted and changed. It was a Lienid sapphire.

  "You were given your name after your eyes settled," she said, "and by the Lienid."

  "Yes," he said, simply. "I've a Monsean name too, of course, given to me by my true family when I was born. But Sapphire is the name I've always known."

  His eyes were rather too pretty, she thought, his entire freckled, innocent aspect was too pretty, for a person she wouldn't trust to safekeep anything she ever hoped to see again. He was not like his eyes. "Saf, what is your Grace?"

  He grinned. "It's taken you a good week to come out and ask, Sparks."

  "I'm a patient person."

  "Not to mention that you only believe what you've worked out for yourself."

  She snorted. "Which is as it should be, where you're concerned."

  "I don't know what my Grace is."

  This earned him a skeptical look. "What's that supposed to mean?"

  "Just what I said. I don't know."

  "Balls. Don't Graces become plain during childhood?"

  He shrugged. "Whatever it is, it must be a thing I've never had any use for. Like, oh, I don't know, eating a cake the size of a barrel without getting indigested, except that's not it, because I've tried that one. Trust me," he said, with a roll of his eyes and an apathetic, long-suffering wave. "I've tried everything."

  "Right," said Bitterblue. "At least I know it's not telling lies people believe, because I don't believe you."

  "I don't lie to you, Sparks," said Saf, not sounding particularly offended.

  Subsiding into silence, Bitterblue began walking again. She'd never seen the east city lit by the sun. A dirty stone flower shop leaned perilously to one side, buttressed with wooden beams and slapped over in some places with bright white paint. Elsewhere, sloppy wooden planks covered a hole in a tin roof, the planks painted silver to match. A bit farther on, broken wooden shutters had been mended with strips of canvas, the wood and canvas alike painted blue like the sky.

  Why would anyone go to the trouble of painting shutters—or a house, or anything—without repairing them properly first?

  WHEN BITTERBLUE SHOWED her ring to the Lienid Guard at the gatehouse and entered the castle, it was full light. When, hood pulled low, she showed the ring again and whispered yesterday's cipher key, "maple tart," to the guards outside her rooms, they cracked the big doors open for her, their own heads bowed.

  Inside her entrance foyer, she took stock. Far down the hallway to the left, the door to Helda's apartments was closed. To the right, Bitterblue heard no one moving about in the sitting room. Turning left and entering her bedroom, she pulled her cloak over her head. When her eyes emerged from the garment, she jumped, almost screamed, for Po sat on the chest against the wall, gold gleaming in his ears and on his fingers, arms crossed, appraising her evenly.

  6

  "COUSIN," BITTERBLUE SAID, taking hold of herself. "Would it kill you to be announced, like a normal guest?"

  Po raised an eyebrow. "I've known since I arrived last night that you weren't where everyone supposed you to be. As the night wore on, that state of affairs did not change. At what point would you have liked me to rustle up a clerk and demand to be announced?"

  "All right, but you've no right to sneak into my bedroom."

  "I didn't sneak in. Helda sent me in. I told her you wanted me to wake you with breakfast."

  "If you lied your way in, then you snuck your way in." Then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a breakfast tray piled high with dirty dishes and used cutlery. "You've eaten everything!" she said indignantly.

  "It's hungry work," he said blandly, "sitting up in my rooms all night, waiting and worrying."

  A long moment of silence stretched out between them. Her conversation to this point had mostly been an attempt to distract him while she gathered her feelings: gathered them and ejected them, so that she could face him with a mind that was blank and smooth, with no thoughts for him to read. She was fairly good at this. Even bleary-headed and shaky with fatigue, she was good at emptying her mind.

  Head tilted now, he seemed to be watching her. Only six people

  in the world knew that Po had no eyesight and that his Grace was not hand-fighting, as he claimed; that it was a kind of mind reading instead, that allowed him to sense people and the physicality of things. In the eight years since the fall that had lost him his sight, he'd perfected the technique of pretending he could see, and tended to make it his habit even with the six who knew he couldn't. The deceit was a necessity. People didn't like mind readers, and kings exploited them; Po had been pretending not to be one all his life. It was a bit too late to stop pretending now.

  She thought she knew what Po was doing, sitting there, his silver- gold eyes glimmering at her softly. He very much wanted to know where she'd been all night and why she was disguised—but Po didn't like to steal the thoughts of his friends. His mind reading had limits: He could only ever read thoughts that bore some relation to himself; but, after all, most of a person's thoughts during an interrogation bore some relation to the interrogator. And so right now, he was trying to come up with a nonaggressive way to ask her for an explanation: vague and non-leading words that would allow her to answer as she wished, and not force an emotional reaction that he would be able to read.

  She went to inspect the breakfast tray and, scavenging, found half a piece of toast he'd spared. Famished, she bit into it. "I must order you a breakfast now," she said, "and eat it as heartlessly as you ate mine."

  "Bitterblue," he began. "That Graceling you parted ways with outside the castle. That splendid fellow with the muscles and the Lienid gold—"

  She spun back to face him, understanding quite well what he was implying, appalled at the range of his Grace, and furious, because this was not a nonaggressive question. "Po," she snapped, "I advise you to abandon that tack and try a different approach altogether. Why don't you tell me the news from Nander?"

  He set his mouth, not pleased. "King Drowden is deposed," he said.

  "What?" squawked Bitterblue. "Deposed?"

  "There was a siege," Po said. "He lives in the dungeons now, with the rats. There's going to be a trial."

  "But why have I received no messenger?"

  "Because I'm your messenger. Giddon and I came straight to you the moment things stabilized. We rode eighteen hours every day and changed horses more often than we ate. Just imagine my gratification when we rode in, on the verge of collapse, and then I got to stay up all night, wondering where the seas you'd gotten to and whether I should be raising the alarm and how I was going to explain your disappearance to Katsa."

  "What's happening in Nander? Who's ruling?"

  "A committee of Council members."

  The Council was the name for the undercover association of Katsa and Po, Giddon and Prince Raffin, and all their secret friends devoted to organized mayhem. Katsa had started it years ago, to stop the world's worst kings from bullying their own people. "The Council is ruling Nander?"

  "Everyone on the committee is a Nanderan lord or lady who played some role in Drowden's overthrow. When we left, the committee was electing its leaders. Oll is keeping a close watch on things, but it seems to me—and Giddon agrees—that for the moment, this committee is the least disastrous option while all of Nander sorts out how to proceed. There was some talk of plopping Drowden's closest relative straight onto the throne—Drowden has no heir, but his younger half brother is a sensible man and a long standing Council ally—but there's a lot of outrage among the lords who want Drowden back—emotions are high, as I'm sure you can imagine. On the morning of our depa
rture, Giddon and I broke up a fistfight, ate breakfast, broke up a swordfight, and got on our horses." He rubbed his eyes. "No one is safe as King of Nander right now."

  "Seas, Po. You must be tired."

  "Yes," Po said. "I came here for a vacation. It's been lovely."

  Bitterblue smiled. "When is Katsa coming?"

  "She doesn't know. No doubt she'll come flying in just when we've given her up. She's managed Estill, Sunder, and Wester practically on her own, you know, while the rest of us were in Nander. I long for a few days of quiet with her before we overthrow the next monarch."

  "You're not doing it again!"

  "Well," he said, closing his eyes, leaning back against the wall. "It was a joke, I think."

  "You think?"

  "Nothing is certain," said Po with maddening vagueness, then opened his eyes and squinted at her. "Have you been having any problems?"

  Bitterblue snorted. "Could you be any less specific?"

  "I mean, things like challenges to your sovereignty."

  "Po! Your next revolution isn't going to be here!"

  "Of course not! How can you even ask that?"

  "Do you realize how opaque you're being?"

  "Well, what about unexplained attacks?" he said. "Have there been any of those?"

  "Po," she said firmly, fighting against the memory of Teddy so that Po would not see it; crossing her arms, as if that would help her defend her thoughts. "Either tell me what on earth you're talking about, or get out of the range of my thinking."

  "I'm sorry," he said, raising a hand in apology. "I'm tired and I'm mucking things up. We've got two separate worries on your account, see. One is that news of the recent events in Nander has been stirring up a lot of discontent everywhere, but especially in kingdoms with a history of tyrannous kings. And so we worry that you're perhaps at greater risk than you were before of one of your own people, maybe someone injured by Leck, trying to hurt you. The other is that the kings of Wester, Sunder, and Estill hate the Council. For all our secrecy, they know who its ringleaders are, Cousin. They'd love to strike us a blow—which they could do in any number of ways, including hurting our friends."

  "I see," Bitterblue said, suddenly uncomfortable, and trying to remember the details of the attack on Teddy without linking them to Po in her mind. Was there any chance that the knife that had stabbed Teddy had been meant for her? She couldn't remember the particulars clearly enough to know. It would mean, of course, that someone in the city knew who she was. It seemed unlikely.

  "No one has hurt me," she said.

  "I'm relieved," he said, a bit doubtfully, then paused. "Is something wrong?"

  Bitterblue let out a breath. "A number of things have seemed wrong in the past two weeks," she admitted. "Mostly small things, like a bit of confusion over some of the castle records. No doubt it's nothing."

  "Let me know if I can help you," he said, "in any way."

  "Thank you, Po. It's lovely to see you, you know."

  He stood, gold flashing. Such a beautiful man, with those eyes that glowed with his Grace, and with the feeling in his face that he was never good at hiding. Coming to her, he took her hand, bowed his dark head over it, and kissed it. "I've missed you, Beetle."

  "My advisers think we should marry," said Bitterblue wickedly.

  Po shouted a laugh. "I shall enjoy explaining that one to Katsa."

  "Po," she said. "Please don't tell Helda I was gone."

  "Bitterblue," he said, still holding her hand, tugging on it. "Should I be worried?"

  "You've got the wrong idea about that Graceling. Forget it, Po. Get some sleep."

  Po gazed, or seemed to gaze, into her hand for a moment, sighing. Then he kissed it again and said, "I won't tell her about it today."

  "Po—"

  "Don't ask me to lie to you, Bitterblue. Just now, this is all I can promise."

  "ARE YOU HAPPY that your cousin has arrived, Lady Queen?" asked Helda that morning, peering at Bitterblue, who'd just entered the sitting room bathed and dressed for the day.

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, blinking through bloodshot eyes. "Of course."

  "So am I," said Helda smartly, in a way that made Bitterblue obscurely uneasy about her late-night secrets. It also took away her courage to ask for any breakfast, seeing as she was supposed to have already eaten.

  "The queen will have no fluffy morning bread," she muttered, sighing.

  When she entered the lower offices, through which she had to pass to get to her tower, dozens of men milled around or scribbled at desks, poring over long, tiresome-looking documents, their faces blank and bored. Four of her Graceling guards, sitting against the wall, lifted unmatching eyes to her. The Queen's Guard, who numbered eight, had been Leck's guard too. All were Graced with hand-fighting or swordplay, strength, or some other skill befitting the protector of a queen, and it was their job to guard the offices and tower. Holt, one of the four on duty just now, studied her expectantly. Bitterblue made a mental note not to seem annoyed with anyone.

  Her adviser Rood was also present, happily recovered, at last, from his nervous episode. "Good morning, Lady Queen," he said timidly. "Can I do anything for you, Lady Queen?"

  Rood looked not like his elder brother Runnemood but like Runnemood's shadow, faded and old, as if, were he poked with something sharp, he would pop, and vanish. "Yes, Rood," she said. "I'd love some bacon. Could someone arrange for some bacon and eggs and sausages? How are you?"

  "A shipment of silver being transported from the silver docks to the royal treasury at seven o'clock this morning was pilfered, Lady Queen," said Rood. "The loss was only a pittance, but it seems to have disappeared while the cart was in transit, and of course, we are both mystified and concerned."

  "Inexplicable," Bitterblue said dryly. She had parted ways with Sapphire well before seven that morning, but she hadn't expected that he'd be out thieving with Teddy's condition so serious. "Had that particular silver ever been stolen before?"

  "Forgive me, Lady Queen, but I don't follow. What are you asking?"

  "To be honest, I couldn't say."

  "Lady Queen!" said Darby, appearing before her out of nowhere. "Lord Danzhol is waiting above. Thiel will attend the meeting with you."

  Danzhol. The one with the marriage proposal and the objections to the town charter in central Monsea. "Bacon," Bitterblue muttered. "Bacon!" she repeated, then carefully made her way up the spiral stairs.

  GRANTING CHARTERS OF independence to towns like Danzhol's had been the idea of Bitterblue's advisers, and King Ror had agreed. During Leck's time, more than a few lords and ladies of Monsea had behaved badly. It was hard to know which had acted under Leck's influence, and which had acted out of pure clear-headedness, seeing how much they stood to gain from calculated exploitation while the rest of the kingdom was distracted. But it was apparent, when King Ror visited a few nearby estates, that there were lords and ladies who had set themselves up as kings, taxing and legislating their people unwisely, often cruelly.

  How forward-thinking, then, to reward every victimized town with freedom and self-governance? Of course, an application for independence required motivation and organization on the part of a town's residents—not to mention literacy—and lords and ladies were allowed to object. They hardly ever did, though. Not many people seemed keen on the court poking too hard at past behavior.

  Lord Danzhol was a man in his forties with a wide-mouthed face and clothing that sat strangely on his form, too big in the shoulders, so that his neck seemed to be emerging from a cave; too tight around the middle. He had one silver eye and the other pale green.

  "Your citizens claim that you starved them with your taxes during Leck's reign," Bitterblue said, pointing to the relevant passages in the charter, "absconding with their property if they couldn't pay. Their books, the products of their trade, ink, paper, even farm animals. It's hinted here that you had, and still have, a gambling problem."

  "I don't see how my personal habits come into it," Danzho
l said pleasantly, arms hanging awkwardly from the broad shoulders of his coat, as if they were new arms and he hadn't gotten used to them yet. "Believe me, Lady Queen, I know the people who've drawn up this charter and the ones who've been elected to serve on the town council. They won't be able to keep order."

  "Perhaps not," Bitterblue said, "but they're allowed a trial period to prove otherwise. I see here that since my reign began, you've eased back on taxes, only to default on a number of loans to businesses in your town. Don't you have farms and artisans? Isn't your estate prosperous enough to keep you moneyed, Lord Danzhol?"

  "Have you noticed that I'm Graced, Lady Queen?" asked Danzhol. "I can open my mouth as wide as my head. Would you like to see?"

  Danzhol's lips parted and began to stretch open, his teeth drawing back. His eyes and nose slid to the back of his head and his tongue flopped out—then his epiglottis, taut and red, and none of it stopping, only becoming more stretched, more red, more open and flopping. Finally, his face was all glistening viscera. It was as if he'd turned his head inside out.

  Bitterblue pushed against the back of her chair, trying to get away, her own mouth ajar with mingled fascination and horror. Beside her, Thiel scowled in the most supreme annoyance. And then in one smooth motion, Danzhol's teeth swung over again, closing, pulling the rest of his face back into position.

  He smiled and gave her a cheeky twitch of the eyebrows, which

  was almost too much for Bitterblue. "Lady Queen," he said cheerfully, "I would revoke my each and every objection to the charter if you would consent to marry me."

  "I'm told you have wealthy relations," said Bitterblue, pretending not to be rattled. "Your family won't lend you any more money, am I right? Perhaps there's talk of debtor's prison? Your only true objection to this charter is that you're bankrupt and you need a town to overtax, or, preferably, a rich wife."

  Something nasty flickered across Danzhol's face. He did not seem entirely balanced, this man, and Bitterblue found herself wanting to get him out of her office.

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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