Bitterblue, p.9
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       Bitterblue, p.9

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
 

  She giggled. "Oh, but it's awful, isn't it, Po, so much lying? Especially to people who trust you."

  He didn't answer this and turned back to the wall, the humor still in his face, but something else there too, that silenced her, and made her wish she hadn't been so flip. Po's particular web of lies was not, in fact, very funny. And the longer it went on—the more Council work Po did—the more people who gained his trust—the less funny it became. The lie he told when pressed to explain his inability to read—that an illness had damaged his close vision— stretched credibility and occasionally raised eyebrows. Bitterblue didn't like to imagine what would happen if the truth were to come out. Bad enough that he was a mind reader, but a mind reader who'd been lying about it for more than twenty years and who was admired and praised all seven kingdoms over? In Lienid, flatly revered? And what of his closest friends who didn't know? Katsa did, and Raffin, and Raffin's companion, Bann; Po's mother, and Po's grandfather. That was all. Giddon didn't know, nor did Helda. Nor did Po's father and brothers. Skye didn't know, and Skye adored his younger brother.

  Bitterblue didn't like to think how Katsa would react if people

  began to be vicious to Po. She thought that Katsa's ferocity in his defense might be frightening.

  "I'm sorry I couldn't spare you having to do what you did today, Beetle," Po said.

  "There's nothing to forgive. I managed, didn't I?"

  "More than that. You were marvelous."

  He was so like her mother in profile. Ashen had had that straight nose, that promise around the mouth of a quick smile. His accent was like Ashen's, and so was the fierce, loyal feeling of him. Perhaps it had made sense that Po and Katsa had dropped into her life just when her mother was torn out of it. Not justice, but sense. "I did as Katsa taught me," she said quietly.

  He reached his arm out and pulled her in, hugging her tight, centering her around herself again with his embrace.

  BITTERBLUE WENT NEXT to the infirmary to find out about Teddy.

  Madlen was snoring fit to drown out an invasion of geese, but when Bitterblue pushed the door open, she sat bolt upright in bed. "Lady Queen," she said hoarsely, blinking. "Teddy's holding on."

  Bitterblue fell into a chair, then pulled her knees up, and hugged her legs hard. "Do you think he'll live?"

  "I think it's highly possible, Lady Queen."

  "Did you give them all the medicines they need?"

  "All I had, Lady Queen, and I can give you more for them."

  "And did you . . ." Bitterblue wasn't sure how to ask this. "Did you see anything . . . odd while you were there, Madlen?"

  Madlen didn't seem surprised by the question, though she peered at Bitterblue keenly, from Bitterblue's sloppy, knotted hair all the way to her boots, before answering. "Yes," she said. "There were some strange things said and done."

  "Tell me," Bitterblue said, "everything. I want to know it all, strange or not."

  "Well," Madlen said, "where to begin? I suppose the strangest thing was the excursion they made after Sapphire got back from walking you home. He came into the room rather obviously happy about something, Lady Queen, shooting significant looks at Bren and Tilda—"

  "Bren?"

  "Bren. Sapphire's sister, Lady Queen."

  "And Tilda is Teddy's?"

  "I'm sorry, Lady Queen—I assumed—"

  "Assume I know nothing," said Bitterblue.

  "Well," said Madlen, "yes. They are two brother-sister pairs. Teddy and Sapphire live in the rooms behind the shop, where we were, and Tilda and Bren in the apartments above. The women are older and have lived together for some time, Lady Queen. Tilda seems to be the owner proper of the printing shop, but she told me that she and Bren are teachers."

  "Teachers! What kind?"

  "I'm sure I couldn't say, Lady Queen," said Madlen. "The kind who would slip into the shop with Sapphire, shut the door, have a muttered conversation that I can't hear, then leave me alone with their half-dead friend without telling me."

  "So, you were in their house, alone," said Bitterblue, sitting up straight.

  "Teddy woke up, Lady Queen, so I went into the shop to let them know the good news. That's when I discovered they'd gone."

  "What a shame Teddy woke before you knew you were alone," exclaimed Bitterblue. "You could have gone through all their things and found the answers to so many questions."

  "Hm," said Madlen wryly. "That's not generally my first line of action when left alone in a stranger's home with a sleeping patient. Anyway, Lady Queen, you'll be glad Teddy woke, because he was quite forthcoming."

  "Really!"

  "Have you seen his arms, Lady Queen?"

  Teddy's arms? She'd seen Saf 's arms; Saf had had Lienid markings on his upper arms like the ones Po had. Less ornate than Po's, though no less effective at drawing the eye. And no less attractive. More, she thought sternly, just in case Po was awake and having his ego stroked. "What about Teddy's arms?" she asked, rubbing her eyes, sighing.

  "He has scars on one arm, Lady Queen. They've the look of burns—as if he's been branded. I asked him how it happened, and he said it was the press. He'd been trying to wake his parents, he said, and failed, and fell asleep himself, lying against the printing press, until Tilda dragged him out. It didn't sound like anything sensical to me, Lady Queen, so I asked him if his parents had had a printing shop that had burned. He began to giggle—he was drugged, you understand, Lady Queen, and perhaps saying more than he would otherwise, and making less sense—and told me that his parents had had four printing shops that had burned."

  "Four! Was he hallucinating?"

  "I can't be certain, Lady Queen, but when I challenged him, he was adamant that they'd had four shops, and that one after another, they'd burned. I said it seemed a remarkable coincidence, and he said no, it was exactly what was bound to have happened. I asked if his parents were particularly incautious, and he giggled again, and said yes, in Leck City it had been particularly incautious to run a printing shop."

  Oh. And now Bitterblue understood the story; she saw the level on which it made perfect sense. "His parents," she said. "Where are they?"

  "They died in the fire that scarred him, Lady Queen."

  She had known it would be the answer, and still, it was difficult to hear. "When?"

  "Oh, ten years ago. He was ten."

  My father killed Teddy's parents, thought Bitterblue. I couldn't blame him if he hated me.

  "And then," Madlen said, "he said something I could make so little sense of that I wrote it down, Lady Queen, so I wouldn't mix it up when I told you. Where is it?" Madlen asked herself, poking crossly at the mountain of books and papers on her bedside table. She leaned out of bed and grabbed at the discarded clothing on the floor. "Here it is," she said, fishing a folded paper from a pocket and flattening it against the mattress. "He said, 'I suppose the little queen is safe without you today, for her first men can do what you would. Once you learn cutting and stitching, do you ever forget it, whatever comes between? Even if Leck comes between? I worry for her. It's my dream that the queen be a truthseeker, but not if it makes her someone's prey.' "

  Madlen stopped reading and looked across at Bitterblue, who stared back at her blankly.

  "That's what he said?"

  "That's it, as best I could remember, Lady Queen."

  "Who are my 'first men'?" Bitterblue asked. "My advisers?" And—prey?

  "I've no idea, Lady Queen. Given the context, perhaps your best male healers?"

  "It's probably drug-induced nonsense," Bitterblue said. "Let me see it."

  Madlen's handwriting was big and careful, like a child's. Bitterblue sat with her legs curled in the chair, puzzling over the message for some time. Cutting and stitching? Did that mean healing work? Or sewing work? Or something terrible, like what her father had used to do to rabbits and mice with knives? It's my dream that the queen be a truthseeker, but not if it makes her someone's prey.

  "He did speak a lot of gibberish, Lady Queen,
" said Madlen, plucking her eye patch from its hook on her bedpost and tying it behind her head. "And when the other three returned, they had the look of young people quite pleased with themselves."

  "Oh, right." Bitterblue had forgotten about the antics of the other three. "Were they carrying anything?"

  "Indeed. A small sack that Bren brought upstairs before I could get a close look at it."

  "Did it make any noise? A clinking? A jingle?"

  "No noise, Lady Queen. She held it close and carefully."

  "Could it have been silver coins?"

  "Just as surely as it could have been flour, Lady Queen, or coal, or the jewels from the crowns of all six kings."

  "Five kings," Bitterblue informed her. "Drowden is deposed. I found out this morning."

  Madlen sat up straight and dropped her feet to the floor. "Great floods," she said, staring at Bitterblue solemnly. "This is a day for astonishment. When you tell me King Thigpen is deposed, I'll fall off my bed."

  Thigpen was the King of Estill. Estill was the kingdom Madlen said she'd escaped from, though Madlen was rather close-mouthed about her past, and spoke with an accent that Bitterblue couldn't match to any part of the seven kingdoms she knew. Madlen had come to Bitterblue's court seeking employment seven years ago, alluding to the fact, during her interview, that in all the seven kingdoms but Lienid and Monsea, and particularly in Estill, Gracelings were enslaved to their kings, a circumstance she did not find acceptable. Bitterblue had had the tact not to ask Madlen if she had taken out her own eye to hide her Graceling identity during her escape. If she had—well, Madlen's Grace was healing, so she'd probably known the best way to do it.

  DINNER TOOK PLACE in her sitting room, early. A clock gently ticked and her crown caught the white light of a sun that wasn't even thinking about setting yet. I must stay awake, thought Bitterblue, so that I can go see Teddy.

  Po joined her and Helda for dinner. Helda had once been Katsa's ladyservant in the Middluns, and had been a Council ally for some time now. She fussed over Po like he was a long-lost grandson.

  I must not think about how I need to sneak out tonight without Po knowing. I can think about sneaking out. I must only avoid thinking about sneaking out without him knowing, for then he'll know immediately. Of course, the other side of Po's Grace was that he sensed the physicality of everyone and everything, so he would probably sense the departure of her body whether or not he knew her thoughts. Which he probably did by now, anyway, so determinedly had she been thinking about how she mustn't think about them.

  And then, mercifully, Po got up to take his leave. Giddon appeared, ravenous, slapping Po on the shoulder, falling into Po's chair. Helda went off somewhere with a pair of spies who'd arrived. Bitterblue sat across from Giddon, nodding over her plate. I must ask him about Nander, she thought to herself. I must make polite conversation and I must not tell him my plans for sneaking out. He's nicelooking, isn't he? A beard quite suits him. "Puzzles," she said stupidly.

  "What's that, Lady Queen?" he asked, putting his knife and fork down, looking into her face.

  "Oh," she said, realizing she'd spoken aloud. "Nothing. I'm plagued by puzzles, is all. I'm sorry for the state I was in when we met earlier today, Giddon. It's not how I would have preferred to welcome you to Monsea."

  "Lady Queen," he said with instant sympathy, "you mustn't apologize for that. I was in much the same state the first time I was involved in someone's death."

  "Were you?" she said. "How old were you?"

  "Fifteen."

  "Forgive me, Giddon," she said, embarrassed to find herself fighting off a yawn. "I'm exhausted."

  "You must rest."

  "I must stay awake," she said—then apparently dozed off, for she woke sometime later in confusion, in her bed, to which Giddon had presumably helped her. He seemed to have taken her boots off, unbound her hair, and tucked her under the sheets. The memory came to her: her own voice saying, "I cannot sleep with all these pins in my hair." Lord Giddon's deep voice responding: He would go and get Helda. And Bitterblue, half asleep, saying forcefully, "No, it cannot wait," and yanking at her wound-up braids, and Giddon reaching to stop her, sitting beside her on her own bed and helping her, saying things to calm her. She leaning against him as he took down her hair, he murmuring with gentlemanly sympathy as she sighed against his chest, "I'm so tired. Oh, I haven't slept in ever so long."

  Oh, she thought. How mortifying. And now her throat stung; her muscles ached, as if she'd been through one of Katsa's fighting lessons. I killed a man today, she thought, and with that thought, tears began to run down her face. She cried freely, hugging a pillow, pressing her face into Ashen's embroidery.

  After a while, her feelings solidified themselves around an odd little comfort. Mama had to kill a man once too. I've only done what she's done.

  Paper crinkled in the pocket of her gown. Dashing tears away, Bitterblue pulled out Teddy's strange words and held them tight in one fist. A small determination flared in her breast. She was a puzzle solver, and a truthseeker too. She didn't know what Teddy had meant by it, but she knew what she meant. Fumbling to light a lamp, finding pen and ink, she turned the paper to its back and wrote.

  LIST OF PUZZLE PIECES

  Teddy's words. Who are my "first men"? What did he mean by cutting and stitching? Am I in danger? Whose prey am I?

  Danzhol's words. What did he SEE? Was he complicit with Leck in some way? What was he trying to say?

  Teddy and Saf 's actions. Why did they steal a gargoyle, and other things too? What does it mean to steal what's already been stolen?

  Darby's records. Was he lying to me about the gargoyles never having been there?

  General mysteries. Who attacked Teddy?

  Things I've seen with my own eyes. Why is the east city falling apart but decorated anyway? Why was Leck so peculiar about decorating the castle?

  What did Leck DO?

  Here, she scribbled a few notes.

  Tortured pets. Made people disappear. Cut. Burned printing shops. (Built bridges. Did castle renovations.) Honestly, how can I know how to rule my kingdom when I have no idea what happened in Leck's time? How can I understand what my people need? How can I find out more? In the story rooms? Should I ask my advisers again, even though they won't answer?

  She added one more question, slowly and in small letters.

  What is Saf's Grace?

  Then, returning to her larger list, she wrote:

  Why is everybody insane? Danzhol. Holt. Judge Quall. Ivan, the engineer who switched the gravestones and the watermelons. Darby. Rood. Although, she wondered, was it insane to drink too much from time to time, or to be susceptible to nerves? Bitterblue crossed out the word insane and replaced it with strange. Except that that opened the list to everybody. Everybody was strange. In a fit of frustration, she scratched out strange and wrote the word CRACKPOTS in big letters. Then she added Thiel and Runnemood, Saf, Teddy, Bren, Tilda, Death, and Po, just to be thorough.

  P A R T T W O

  Puzzles and Muddles

  (September)

  8

  SOME WONDERFUL PERSON had gotten every trace of Danzhol's blood out of the stone of her office floor. Even looking for it, Bitterblue couldn't find it.

  She read the charter once more, carefully, letting each word sink in, and then she signed it. There was no point not to now.

  "What will we do with his body?" she asked Thiel.

  "It has been burned, Lady Queen," said Thiel.

  "What? Already! Why was I not informed? I would have liked to go to the ceremony."

  The door to the tower room opened. Death the librarian came in.

  "I'm afraid the body couldn't wait for burning, Lady Queen," said Thiel. "It's only just September."

  "And it was no different from any other burning ceremony, Lady Queen," added Runnemood from the window.

  "That is not the point!" said Bitterblue. "I killed the man, for rot's sake. I should have been at the burning."

&n
bsp; "It's not actually Monsean tradition to burn the dead, you know, Lady Queen," Death put in. "It never has been."

  "Nonsense," said Bitterblue, really quite upset. "We all perform fire ceremonies."

  "I suppose it's not politic to contradict the queen," Death replied with such undisguised sarcasm that Bitterblue was surprised into looking at him hard. This man, nearing seventy, had the paper-thin skin of a man in his nineties. His mismatched eyes were always dry and blinking, one green like seaweed, the other purplish like his pinched lips. "Many people in Monsea do burn the dead, Lady Queen," he went on, "but it is not the Monsean way, as I'm sure your advisers know. It was King Leck's way. It's his tradition we honor when we burn our dead. Monseans before King Leck wrapped the body in a cloth infused with herbs and buried it in the ground at midnight. They've done so for as long as records have been kept. Those who know as much still do."

  Bitterblue thought, suddenly, of the graveyard she ran through most nights, and of Ivan the engineer, who'd replaced watermelons with gravestones. What was the point of looking at things if she couldn't see them? "If this is true," she said, "then why have we not gone back to the Monsean ways?"

  Her question was directed at Thiel, who stood before her looking patient and concerned. "I suppose we have not wanted to upset people unnecessarily, Lady Queen," he said.

  "But why should it be upsetting?"

  Runnemood answered. "There's no reason to disturb our mourners, Lady Queen. If people like the fire ceremonies, why should we stop them?"

  "But, how is that forward-thinking?" said Bitterblue in confusion. "If we want to move away from Leck, why not teach people that it's the Monsean way to bury their dead?"

  "It's a little thing, Lady Queen," said Runnemood. "It barely matters. Why remind people of their grief? Why give them reason to feel that perhaps they've been honoring their dead wrongly?"

  It is not a little thing, thought Bitterblue. It has to do with tradition and respect, and with recovering what it means to be Monsean. "Was my mother's body burned or buried?"

 

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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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