Bitterblue, p.8
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       Bitterblue, p.8

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  "Lady Queen," he said, "I don't believe you're giving my objections—or my proposal—the proper consideration."

  "You're lucky I'm not giving this entire matter closer consideration," said Bitterblue. "I might ask for the details of how you spent these people's money while they were starving, or what you did with the books and farm animals you took from them."

  "Ah," he said, smiling again, "but I know that you won't. A town charter is a guarantee of the queen's considerate inattention. Ask Thiel."

  At her side, Thiel turned the charter to its signature page and thrust a pen into Bitterblue's hand. "Just sign, Lady Queen," he said, "and we'll get this boor out of here. This meeting was a bad idea."

  "Yes," Bitterblue said, grasping the pen, barely noticing it. "A town charter is most certainly no such guarantee," she added, to Danzhol. "I can order an investigation of any lord I wish."

  "And how many have you ordered, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue hadn't ordered any investigations. The appropriate

  circumstances had never arisen before and it wasn't a forwardthinking thing to do; her advisers had never suggested it. "I don't think we need an investigation, Lady Queen," said Thiel, "to determine that Lord Danzhol is unfit to govern this town. It's my advice that you sign."

  Danzhol smiled, bright and toothy. "Are you quite dead set against marrying me, then, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue plunked her pen down onto her desk, not signing. "Thiel," she said, "take this unhinged man out of my office."

  "Lady Queen," Thiel began—then stopped as Danzhol swung out with a dagger he'd pulled from nowhere, slamming Thiel on the head with its hilt. Thiel's eyes rolled up. He toppled to the floor.

  Bitterblue sprang to her feet, too amazed at first to think or speak or do anything but gape in astonishment. Before she could collect herself, Danzhol had reached across the desk, grabbed the back of her neck, yanked her forward, opened his mouth, and begun to kiss her. It was awkward positioning, but she fought him, truly frightened now, pushing at his eyes and his face, wrestling his iron-strong arms, finally crawling onto the desk and kneeing him. His stomach was hard and didn't give at all. Po! she cried, for it was possible to get his attention if he was in range. Po, are you awake? She reached for the knife in her boot but Danzhol dragged her off the desk and pulled her against him, twisting her back to his front, holding his dagger to her throat.

  "Scream and I'll kill you," he said.

  She couldn't have screamed, not with her head jerked back as it was. The pins in her hair pulled and cut at her scalp. "Do you imagine," she choked out, "that this is the way to get what you want?"

  "Oh, I'll never have what I want. And the marital approach

  seemed not to be working," he said, one of his hands raking her arms and chest, hips and thighs for weapons, which set her ablaze with indignation and made her hate him, truly hate him. His chest and stomach were strange and bulky against her back.

  "And you think that killing the queen will work?" she said. "You won't even make it out of this tower." Po. Po!

  "I'm not going to kill you, unless I have to," he said, dragging her easily across the room to the northernmost window, pressing his knife so hard against her throat that she daren't even squirm, then struggling one-handed with his coat in some awkward manner that she couldn't see but that resulted in a bunched-up pile of rope, attached to a grappling hook, clattering to the floor around his feet. "My plan is to kidnap you," he said, pulling her closer, his body soft and human-feeling now. "There are people who would pay a fortune for you."

  "Who are you working for?" she cried. "Who are you doing this for?"

  "Not for myself," he said. "Not for you. Not for anyone alive!"

  "You're mad," she gasped.

  "Am I?" he said, almost conversationally. "Yes, I probably am. But I did it to save myself. The others don't know that it made me mad. If they knew, they wouldn't let me near you. I saw them!" he cried out. "I saw!"

  "You saw what?" she said, tears running down her face. "What did you see? What are you talking about? Let me go!" The rope was knotted at regular intervals. Bitterblue began to understand what he was doing, and with her comprehension came the sheerest, blankest refusal. Po! "There are guards on the grounds," she said. "You will not get me past them."

  "I have a boat on the river, and some friends. One of them is

  Graced with disguise—we slipped right by the river guards. I think she'll impress you, Lady Queen, even if I haven't."

  Po! "You won't—"

  "Shut your mouth," he said with a press of the dagger that effectively made his point. "You talk too much. And stop moving around." He was having some trouble with the grappling hook. It was too small for the sill and kept clunking to the stone floor. He sweated and yammered to himself, shaking a bit, his breath rasping and uneven. Bitterblue knew, with a fundamental, unshakable sort of knowledge, that she was not capable of stepping with this man out of the kingdom's highest window onto a badly attached rope. If Danzhol wanted her to leave by this window, he was going to have to throw her out of it.

  She tried Po one last, hopeless time. Then, when Danzhol dropped the hook again, she took advantage of his need to bend down to attempt something desperate. Lifting one foot up, reaching one hand down—crying out, as she had to push her throat right into the dagger in order to reach—she groped for the tiny knife in her boot. Finding it, she jabbed backward, stabbing Danzhol in the shin as hard as she could.

  He yelled out in pain and fury and loosened his hold on her, just enough for Bitterblue to spin around. She plunged the knife into his chest as Katsa had taught her, under the breastbone and up with all her strength. It was horrible going in, unimaginably horrible; he was too solid and giving, too real, and suddenly too heavy. Blood ran down her hands. She pushed hard at his weight. He crashed to the floor.

  A moment passed.

  Then footsteps thundered on the stair and Po exploded into the room, others behind him. Bitterblue was in his arms but didn't feel it; he asked questions she couldn't comprehend, but she must have opened the answers to him, because barely a moment had passed before he'd let her go, attached Danzhol's hook to the sill, flung the rope out the window, and flung himself out after it.

  She couldn't stop looking at Danzhol's body. She found herself against the opposite wall, vomiting. Someone kind was holding her hair out of the way. She heard the rumble of the person's voice above her. It was Lord Giddon, the Middluns lord, Po's traveling companion. She began to cry.

  "There," Giddon said quietly. "That's all right." She tried to wipe her tears but saw that her hands were covered with blood; she turned to the wall and was sick again. "Bring me some of that water," she heard Giddon say, then felt him cleaning her hands with a dripping wet cloth.

  There were so many people in this room. Every one of her advisers was here, and ministers and clerks, and her Graced guards kept jumping out the window, which made her dizzy. Thiel sat up, moaning. Rood knelt beside him, holding something to Thiel's head. Her guard Holt stood nearby, watching her, worry flickering in his silver-gray eyes. Then, suddenly, Helda was there, enfolding Bitterblue into her arms, soft and warm. And then, the most amazing thing yet, Thiel came to her and fell on his knees before her, taking her hands, holding them to his face. In his eyes, she saw something naked and broken that she didn't understand.

  "Lady Queen," he said, his voice shaking. "If that man has hurt you, I will never forgive myself."

  "Thiel," she said. "He didn't hurt me. He hurt you much more. You should lie down." She began to shiver. It was terribly cold in here.

  Thiel stood and, still holding her hands, said calmly to Helda, Giddon, and Holt, "The queen has had a shock. She must go to bed and rest as long as she needs to. A healer must come and tend her cuts and brew an infusion of lorassim tea, which will calm her shivers and replace some of the water she's lost. Do you follow?"

  Everyone followed. It was done as Thiel said.

  7

  BIT
TERBLUE LAY UNDER blankets, shivering and too tired to sleep. Her mind would not be still. She pulled at the embroidered edge of her bedsheet. Ashen had always been embroidering, endlessly embroidering the edges of sheets and pillowcasings with these cheerful little pictures, boats and castles and mountains, compasses and anchors and falling stars. Her fingers flying. It was not a happy memory.

  She threw her sheets off and went to Ashen's chest. Kneeling before it, she placed her palms on its dark wooden lid, its top carved with rows and rows of precious decorations very like those Ashen had liked to embroider. Stars and suns, castles and flowers, keys, snowflakes, boats, fish. She had a memory of having liked this when she was little: the way Ashen's embroidery matched parts of Ashen's chest.

  Like puzzle pieces fitting together, she thought. Like things that make sense. What's wrong with me?

  She found a roomy red robe that matched her carpet and her bedroom walls, then challenged herself, for no reason she could have explained, to go to the window and look down at the river. She'd climbed out a window before with Ashen. It might even have been this window. And there hadn't been a rope that time, just sheets knotted together. On the grounds, Ashen had killed a guard with a knife. She'd had to. The guard would never have let them pass. Ashen had snuck up on him and stabbed him from behind.

  I had to kill him, Bitterblue thought.

  Looking out, she saw Po in the castle's back garden far below, leaning on the wall with his head in his hands.

  Bitterblue went to her bed and laid herself down, touching her face to Ashen's sheets. After a moment, she rose, dressed in a plain green gown, and strapped her knives to her forearms. Then she went out to find Helda.

  HELDA SAT IN a plush blue chair in Bitterblue's sitting room, pushing needle through fabric that was the color of the moon. "You're meant to be sleeping, Lady Queen," she said, peering at Bitterblue worriedly. "Was that not working for you?"

  Bitterblue wandered from place to place in the room, touching her fingertips to the vacant bookshelves, not certain what she was looking for, but at any rate, finding no dust. "I can't sleep. I'll go mad if I keep trying."

  "Are you hungry?" asked Helda. "We've had a delivery of some breakfast things. Rood came, pushing the cart himself, and insisted you would want it. I couldn't turn him away. He seemed so desperate to do something to comfort you."

  BACON IMPROVED THINGS dramatically. But she was still too scattered for sleep.

  A never-used spiral staircase near her rooms wound down to a small door guarded by a member of the Monsean Guard. The door opened to the castle's back garden.

  When had she last visited this garden? Had she been here even once since Leck's cages had been removed? Stepping into the garden now, she came face-to-face with a sculpture of a creature that seemed to be a woman, with a woman's hands, face, body, but that had the claws, teeth, ears, the posture almost, of a mountain lion rearing on its hind legs. Bitterblue stared into the woman's eyes, which were vital and frightened—not blank, the way she might have expected a sculpture's eyes to be. The woman screamed. There was a tension in her stance, an out-throwing of arms and a curvature of spine and neck, that somehow created the impression of tremendous physical pain. A living vine with golden flowers wrapped around one hind leg tightly, seeming to tether her to her pedestal. She's a woman turning into a mountain lion, Bitterblue thought, and it hurts, horribly.

  High shrubbery walls on either side enclosed the garden, which was unruly with trees and vines, flowers. The ground sloped down to the low stone wall that fronted the river. Po still stood there, elbows propped, eyes staring—or seeming to stare—at the longlegged birds that preened themselves on the pilings.

  As she walked toward him, he dropped his head into his hands again. She understood. Po was never particularly hard to read.

  The very day that Bitterblue had lost her mother, this man, this cousin, had found Bitterblue. In the hollow of a fallen tree trunk, he'd found her. He'd carried her to safety, running full-tilt through the forest with her tipped over his shoulder. He'd tried to kill her father for her, failed, nearly died, and that was how he'd lost his sight. Trying to protect her.

  "Po," she said softly, coming to stand beside him. "It's not your fault, you know."

  Po took a breath, let it go. "Are you always armed?" he asked, his voice quiet.

  "Yes. I wear a knife in my boot."

  "And when you sleep?"

  "I sleep with knives strapped to my forearms."

  "And do you ever come home and sleep in your own bed?"

  "Always," she said a bit sourly, "except last night. Not that it's any of your business."

  "Would you consider wearing the arm holsters during the day always, as you're doing now?"

  "Yes," she said, "and anyway, why must it all be hidden? If men are to attack me in my own office, why shouldn't I wear a sword?"

  "You're right. You should wear a sword. Are you out of practice?"

  She hadn't had a moment to pick up a sword in the last—she calculated—three or four years. "Very."

  "I or Giddon or one of your guards will train with you. And all such visitors will be searched from now on. I crossed paths briefly with Thiel just now and found him consumed with his concern for you; he hates himself, Cousin, for not having had Danzhol searched. Your guards did manage to catch two of the accomplices, but neither accomplice could tell me whom Danzhol was planning to ransom you to. I'm afraid the other accomplice, a girl, got away. This girl, Bitterblue—she could do some extensive damage if she wanted to, and I don't even know how to advise you to watch out for her. She's Graced with—I guess you could call it hiding."

  "Danzhol mentioned someone Graced with disguise."

  "Well, from what I gather, you'd be impressed with the way she'd hidden the boat. It was all rigged up to look like a big, leafy, floating tree branch. Or so I understand. It involved mirrors, and I wish I could've seen the effect myself. When we got closer and your guards recognized it for a boat, they were quite bowled over, and thought I was some kind of genius, of course, for marching straight up to it with no confusion whatsoever. I left them to chase after the two Ungraced fellows and I went after her, and I tell you, Bitterblue, what she could do was not normal. I was chasing her up the riverbank, I felt her directly in front of me, and I sensed her planning to hide from me, and then all at once, we reached a pier and she jumped up onto it, lay down, and expected me to mistake her for a pile of canvas."

  "What?" Bitterblue said, scrunching her nose at him. "What does that even mean?"

  "She believed herself to be hiding from me," Po repeated, "in the guise of a pile of canvas. I stopped, knowing I was supposed to seem fooled, but confused, because I wasn't fooled. There was no canvas at all! So I went to a couple of men on the pier and asked them if they could see any canvas nearby, and if so, please not to stare at it or point at it in a demonstrative manner."

  "You said that to strangers?"

  "Yes," said Po. "They thought I was completely barmy."

  "Well, of course they did!"

  "Then they told me that yes, there was a pile of canvas right where I knew her to be, gray and red, which I'm told were the colors she'd been wearing. I had to leave her there, which killed me, but I'd already made enough of a scene, and anyway, I needed to get back and see how you were. Do you know, she even felt a bit like canvas to me? Isn't that wild? Isn't it marvelous?"

  "No, it isn't marvelous! She could be in this garden this very minute. She could be this wall we're leaning on!"

  "Oh, she isn't," Po said. "She isn't anywhere in the castle, I assure you. I wish she were—I want to meet her. She didn't feel malevolent to me, you know. She felt quite sorry about the whole thing."

  "Po. She tried to kidnap me!"

  "But she felt as if she were friends with your guard Holt," said Po. "I'll try to find her. Maybe she can tell us what Danzhol was up to."

  "But Po, what about the scene you made? And what about my

  guards who sa
w you unfazed by the boat? Are you sure no one was suspicious of you?"

  The question seemed to subdue him. "I'm sure. They only thought I was peculiar."

  "I don't suppose there's any point in asking you to be more careful."

  He closed his eyes. "It's been so long since I've had a break from society. I'd love to go home for a bit." Rubbing his temples, he said, "The man you were with this morning, the Lienid who wasn't born a Lienid . . ."

  Bitterblue bristled. "Po—"

  "I know," he said. "Sweetheart, I know, and I've only got an innocent question. What's his Grace?"

  Bitterblue snorted. "He says he doesn't know."

  "A likely story."

  "Could you tell anything about it from the feel of him?"

  Po paused, considering, then shook his head. "There's a certain feeling to a mind reader, and he didn't have it. But I did feel something unusual about him. Something about his mind, you understand, that I don't feel with cooks or dancers, or your guard, or Katsa. He may have some mental power."

  "Could he be prescient?"

  "I don't know. I met a woman in Nander who calls birds with her mind, and calms them. Your friend—he's called Saf, is he?—Saf felt a bit like that woman, but not exactly."

  "Could he have a malevolent power like Leck's?"

  Po let out an explosive breath of air. "I've never encountered anyone with a mind like Leck's. We must hope I never do." He shifted position and changed his tone. "Introduce me to Saf, why don't you, and I'll ask him what his Grace is."

  "Oh, certainly, why not? They wouldn't think it at all strange if I showed up with a Lienid prince in tow."

  "So, he doesn't know who you are? I wondered."

  "I suppose you're going to lecture me now about telling lies."

  He began to laugh, which confused her at first, until she remembered to whom she was speaking. "Yes," she said, "all right. How did you explain your mad rush to my office today, by the way? The spy excuse?"

  "Naturally. Spies are always telling me things in the strictest confidence at exactly the last moment."

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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