Bitterblue, p.14
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       Bitterblue, p.14

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Bann would never come after my rare blue safflower," Raffin said distinctly. "The very notion is absurd."

  "Pretend he's not Bann. Pretend he's your father," Katsa said.

  This did seem to have some effect, if not on Raffin's speed, then at least on his enthusiasm. Bitterblue focused on her own drills, soothed by the noises of productive work going on nearby, allowing herself to empty her mind. No memories, no questions, no Saf; only sword, sheath, speed, and air.

  SHE WROTE A ciphered letter to Ror on the subject of remuneration and entrusted it to Thiel, who carried it gravely to his stand. It was hard to predict how long a letter would take to reach Ror City. It depended entirely on what ship carried it and on the weather. If conditions were ideal, she might look for a response in two months—the beginning of November.

  In the meantime, something had to be done about Ivan in the east city. But Bitterblue couldn't claim to have learned of him through her spies as well, or her credibility would begin to wear thin. Perhaps if she were allowed to roam the castle every day, then she could reasonably pretend to have overheard conversations. She could claim a broader familiarity, with everything.

  "Thiel," she said, "do you think I could have one task every day that took me out of this tower? If only for a few minutes?"

  "Are you restless, Lady Queen?" asked Thiel gently.

  Yes, and it was also that she was distracted and far away from here, in a rainy alleyway under a guttering lamp, with a boy. Embarrassed, she touched her flushing throat. "I am," she said. "And I don't want to fight every time. You must let me do more than shuffle paper, Thiel, or I'm going to go mad."

  "It's a matter of finding the time, Lady Queen, as you know. But Rood says there's a murder trial in the High Court today," added Thiel benevolently, noting the disappointment on her face. "Why don't you go to that, and we'll look for something relevant for tomorrow?"

  THE ACCUSED WAS a shaking man with a history of erratic behavior and an odor that Bitterblue pretended not to notice. He had stabbed a man to death, an utter stranger, in broad daylight, for no reason he was able to explain. He had just . . . felt like it. As he made no attempt to deny the charge, he was convicted unanimously.

  "Are murderers always executed?" Bitterblue asked Quall to her right.

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue watched the guards take the shaking man away, stunned at the brevity of the trial. So little time, so little explanation needed to condemn a man to death. "Wait," she said.

  The guards to either side of the shaking man stopped, turning him around to face her again. She stared at the prisoner, whose eyes rolled in his head as he tried to look at her.

  He was disgusting and he'd done a horrible thing. But did no one else feel in his gut that something was wrong here?

  "Before this man is executed," she said, "I should like my healer Madlen to meet with him and determine whether he's in his right mind. I don't wish to execute a person incapable of rational thought. It's not fair. And at the very least, I insist on some greater attempt at finding his reason for doing something so senseless."

  LATER THAT DAY, Runnemood and Thiel were carefully pleasant to her, but seemed to stiffen around each other, avoiding conversation between them. She wondered if they were having a row. Did her advisers have rows? She'd never witnessed one before.

  "Lady Queen," said Rood near evening, when he and she were momentarily alone. Rood most certainly wasn't squabbling with anyone. He'd been walking around meekly, trying to avoid people altogether. "It pleases me that you're kind," he said.

  Bitterblue was rendered speechless at this. She knew she wasn't kind. She was largely ignorant, she was trapped behind unknowable things, she was trapped behind things she knew but couldn't admit she knew, she was a liar—and what she wanted to be was useful, logical, helpful. If a situation presented itself in which the right and the wrong seemed clear to her, then she was going to grab on tight. The world presented too few anchors for her to let one pass.

  She hoped that the Council meeting would be another anchor.

  AT MIDNIGHT, BITTERBLUE slipped down stairways and through dim-lit corridors to Katsa's rooms. As Bitterblue approached Katsa's door, it opened and Po emerged. These were not Katsa's usual rooms. Normally Katsa took rooms abutting Po's, near to Bitterblue and all of her personal guests, but Po, for some reason, had arranged for Katsa to occupy south castle rooms this time and sent Bitterblue directions.

  "Cousin," Po said. "Do you know about the secret staircase behind Katsa's bathing room?"

  Moments later, Bitterblue watched in astonishment as Po and Katsa climbed into Katsa's bath. The bath itself was rather astonishing, lined with bright tiles decorated with colorful insects that looked so real that Bitterblue didn't think it could possibly be relaxing to bathe. Po reached down to the floor behind the bath and pressed on something. There was a clicking noise. Then a section of the marble wall behind the bath swung inward, revealing a small, low doorway.

  "How did you find it?" asked Bitterblue.

  "It leads up to the art gallery and down to the library," said Po. "I was in the library when I noticed it. That's where we're going."

  "Is it a staircase?"

  "Yes. A spiral."

  I hate spiral staircases.

  Still standing in the bath, Po held out his hand. "I'll be before you," he said, "and Katsa will be behind."

  SEVERAL COBWEBBY, DUSTY, sneezy minutes later, Bitterblue crawled through a small door in a wall, pushed a hanging aside, and stepped into the royal library. It was a back alcove somewhere. The bookcases, dark, thick wood, were tall as trees and had the musty, living, moldering smell of a forest. The copper, brown, and orange books were like leaves; the ceilings were high and blue.

  Bitterblue turned in circles. It was the first time she'd been in the library for as long as she could recall, and it was exactly how she remembered it.


  AN ODD LITTLE assortment of castle people were present for the meeting. Helda, of course, which didn't surprise her; but also Ornik the swordsmith, young and earnest-looking when not smeared with soot; an older woman with a weathered face, named Dyan, who was introduced to Bitterblue as her head gardener; and Anna, a tall woman with short, dark hair and strong, striking features, who was apparently the head baker in the kitchens. In my imaginary world, thought Bitterblue, she is my employer.

  Finally, and most surprisingly, one of the judges on her High Court was here. "Lord Piper," Bitterblue said calmly. "I didn't know you had a yen for overturning monarchies."

  "Lady Queen," he responded, mopping his bald pate with a handkerchief, swallowing uncomfortably, and looking for all the world as if the presence of a talking horse at the meeting would have been less alarming than the presence of the queen. Indeed, all four castle people seemed a bit taken aback at her presence.

  "Some of you are surprised that Queen Bitterblue is joining us," Po said to the group. "You'll understand that the Council is composed of her family and friends. This is our first time holding a meeting in Monsea and inviting Monseans. We don't require the queen to involve herself in our dealings, but we are, of course, unlikely to operate at her court without her knowledge or permission."

  These words seemed to mollify not a single person in the group.

  Scratching his head, beginning to grin, Po put an arm around Bitterblue and cocked a significant eyebrow at Giddon. While Giddon led everyone through a row of bookshelves and into a dark corner, Po spoke quietly into Bitterblue's ear. "The Council is an organization of lawbreakers, Bitterblue, and you are the law to these Monseans. They've all snuck here tonight, then come face-to-face with their queen. It'll take them a little while to adjust to you."

  "I understand completely," said Bitterblue blandly.

  Po snorted. "Yes. Well, stop making Piper nervous on purpose just because you don't like him."

  The carpet here was thick, shaggy, green. When Giddon sat directly on the floor and motioned for Bitterblue to do the sa
me, the others, with a moment's hesitation, formed a loose circle and began to sit as well. Even Helda plunked herself down, pulled knitting needles and yarn from a pocket, and set to work.

  "Let's start with the basics," Giddon began without preamble. "Whereas the overthrow of Drowden in Nander began with the dissatisfaction of the nobility, in Estill, what we're looking at is a popular revolution. The people are starving. They're the world's most overtaxed, by King Thigpen and by their lords. Lucky for the rebels, our success with army deserters in Nander has frightened Thigpen. He's tightened the screws on his own soldiers, severely, and an unhappy army is something rebels can work with. I believe, and Po agrees, that there are enough desperate people in Estill— and enough thoughtful, meticulous people—for something to come of this."

  "What frightens me is that they don't know what they want," said Katsa. "In Nander, we essentially kidnapped the king for them, then a coalition of nobles that they'd chosen beforehand slipped into place—"

  "It was a thousand times messier than that," said Giddon.

  "I know that. My point is that powerful people had a plan," said Katsa. "In Estill, people with no power whatsoever know that they don't want King Thigpen, but what do they want? Thigpen's son? Or some kind of massive change? A republic? How? They've got nothing in place, no structure to take over once Thigpen is gone. If they're not careful, King Murgon will move in from Sunder and we'll be calling Estill East Sunder. And Murgon will become twice the bully he is now. Doesn't that terrify you?"

  "Yes," Giddon said coldly. "Which is why I vote that we answer their call for our help. Do you agree?"

  "Completely," Katsa said, glowering.

  "Isn't it lovely to be all together again?" Raffin said, throwing one arm around Po and the other around Bann. "My vote is yes."

  "As is mine," said Bann, smiling.

  "And mine," said Po.

  "Your face will freeze like that, you know, Kat," Raffin said helpfully to Katsa.

  "Maybe I should rearrange your face, Raff," said Katsa.

  "I should like smaller ears," Raffin offered.

  "Prince Raffin has nice, handsome ears," Helda said, not looking up from her knitting. "As will his children. Your children will have no ears at all, My Lady," she said sternly to Katsa.

  Katsa stared back at her, flabbergasted.

  "I believe it's more that her ears won't have children," began Raffin, "which, you'll agree, sounds much less—"

  "Very good," Giddon interrupted, loudly, though perhaps no more so than circumstances warranted. "In the absence of Oll, it's unanimous. The Council will involve itself in the Estillan people's overthrow of their king."

  * * * * *

  IT WAS, FOR Bitterblue, a statement that required some time to absorb. The others moved on to the whos, whens, and hows, but Bitterblue wasn't one of the people who was going to carry a sword into Estill, or tip King Thigpen merrily into a sack, or however they decided to do it. Thinking that perhaps Ornik the smith, Dyan the gardener, Anna the baker, and Piper the judge would be less shy with their input were she not part of the circle, she pushed herself to her feet. Waving away their hasty attempts to rise, she wandered into the bookshelves, toward the tapestry that hung over the opening she'd come through. She noticed, absentmindedly, that the woman in the hanging, dressed in white furs and surrounded by stark white forest, had eyes green as moss and hair bright and wild, like a sunset or like fire. She was too vivid, too strange to be human. Yet another odd decorative object of Leck's.

  Bitterblue needed to think.

  A monarch was responsible for the welfare of the people he ruled. If he hurt them deliberately, he should lose the privilege of sovereignty. But what of the monarch who hurt people, but not deliberately? Hurt them by not helping them. Not fixing their buildings. Not returning their losses. Not standing beside them as they grieved for their children. Not hesitating to send the mad or the troubled to be executed.

  I know one thing, she thought, staring into the sad eyes of the woman in the hanging. I would not like to be deposed. It would hurt like being skinned, or like being torn into pieces.

  And yet, what am I as a queen? My mother said I was strong and brave enough for this. But I'm not, I'm useless. Mama? What happened to us? How can this be, that you're dead and I'm queen of a kingdom I can't even touch?

  There was a marble sculpture here, set on the floor with the hanging as its backdrop. A child, five or six, perhaps, whose skirts were metamorphosing into rows of brick, for the child was turning into a castle. Clearly, this was the work of the same sculptor whose woman-turned-mountain-lion was in the back garden. One of the child's arms, reaching up to the sky, shifted form at the elbow and became a tower. On the flat roof of the tower, where her fingers should have been, stood five tiny, finger-sized guards: four with arrows drawn and notched, one with a sword at the ready. All aiming upward, as if some threat came from above, from the sky. Perfect in form and absolutely fierce.

  The voices of her friends came to her in snatches. Katsa said something about the length of time it took to travel north through the mountain pass to Estill from here. Days and days; weeks. An argument began about which kingdom would make the best base for an operation in Estill.

  Half listening, half observing the castle child, Bitterblue was overtaken suddenly by a most peculiar sense of recognition. It crawled up the base of her spine. She knew the stubborn mouth and the small, pointy chin of the sculpture child; she knew those big, calm eyes. She was looking into her own face.

  It was a statue of herself.

  Bitterblue tottered backward. The end of a bookshelf stopped her and held her up as she stared at the girl who seemed to stare back at her; the girl who was her.

  "A tunnel connects Monsea and Estill," a voice said. Piper, the judge. "It's a secret passage under the mountains. Narrow and unpleasant, but passable. The journey from here to Estill by that route is a matter of days, depending on how hard you like to push your horse."

  "What!" Katsa exclaimed. "I can't believe it. Can you believe it? I can't believe it!"

  "We've established that Katsa can't believe it," said Raffin.

  "I can't believe it either," said Giddon. "How many times have I crossed those mountains at the pass?"

  "I assure you, it exists, My Lady, My Lord," said Piper. "My estate is at Monsea's northwesternmost point. The tunnel begins on my land. We used it to smuggle Gracelings out of Monsea during King Leck's reign, and now we use it to smuggle Estillan Gracelings in."

  "This is going to change our lives," said Katsa.

  "If the Council based itself in Monsea during the initial planning," Piper said, "Estillans could come to you swiftly through the tunnel, and you to them. You could smuggle weapons north to them, and any other supplies they needed."

  "Except that we're not going to base ourselves in Monsea," said Po. "We're not going to make Bitterblue into a target for every angry king's vengeance. She's enough of a target already; we still haven't determined whom Danzhol was planning to ransom her to. And what if one of the kings decides to be less subtle than that? What's to stop one of them from declaring war on Monsea?"

  The sculpture-Bitterblue looked so defiant. The little soldiers on her palm were ready to defend her with their lives. Bitterblue was amazed that a sculptor had been able to imagine her that way once: so strong and certain, so steady on the earth. She knew she wasn't those things.

  She also knew what would happen if her friends chose to base their operation someplace other than Monsea. Walking back to the group, waving them down again when they all moved to rise, she said quietly, "You must use my city as your base."

  "Hm," Po said. "I don't think so."

  "I'm only offering it as a temporary base as you get yourselves organized," Bitterblue said. "I will not provide you with soldiers, nor will I allow you to employ Monsea's craftworkers to make any arms you need." Perhaps, she thought to Po alone, calculating, I'll write to your father. There are two ways for an army to invade Monsea:
the mountain pass, which is easy to defend, and the sea. Lienid is the only kingdom with a proper navy. Do you think Ror would bring part of his fleet along this winter? I should like to see it. I think sometimes about building my own, and his will look very nice and threatening sitting in my harbor.

  Po rubbed his head vigorously at this. He even let out a small moan. "We understand, Bitterblue, and we're grateful," he said. "But some angry friends of Drowden crossed into the Middluns to kill Bann and Raffin in reparation for what we did in Nander, you do realize that? Estillans could just as easily cross into Monsea—"

  "Yes," she said. "I know. I heard what you said about war, and about Danzhol."

  "It isn't just Danzhol," Po snapped. "There may well be others. I won't risk involving you in this."

  "I'm already involved," said Bitterblue. "My problems are already your problems. My family is your family."

  Po was still clutching his head worriedly. "You're not invited to any more meetings."

  "That's fine," she said. "It will look better if I'm not seen to be in on the planning."

  The circle considered Bitterblue's words in silence. The four Monseans who worked in the castle seemed rather startled. Helda, stopping her knitting, peered upon Bitterblue with gratified approval.

  "Well then," Katsa said. "Of course, we'll operate with the greatest possible secrecy, Bitterblue. And for what it's worth, we'll deny your involvement to our dying breaths, and I'll kill anyone who doesn't."

  Bann began to laugh into Raffin's shoulder. Smiling, Raffin said sideways to him, "Can you imagine what it would be like to be able to say that and mean it?"

  Bitterblue didn't smile. She may have impressed them with fine words and sentiments, but her true reason for offering her city as their base was that she didn't want them to leave. She wanted them near, even if they were subsumed by their own affairs, she needed them at sword practice in the morning, at dinner at night, moving and shifting around her, there and gone, back again, arguing, teasing, acting like people who knew who they were. They understood the world and how to mold it. If she could keep them near, maybe one day she'd wake up and discover that she'd become strong that way too.

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