Bitterblue, p.20
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       Bitterblue, p.20

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Have I?"

  "I suppose I should go back to my rooms now," Bitterblue said, sighing. "Katsa is there. I expect she intends to yell at me."

  "I very much doubt that, Lady Queen."

  "The two of them together can be so pushy, you know," said Bitterblue impishly. "Part of me hopes you broke his nose."

  The knuckles of Giddon's left hand were darkening with bruises from their impact with Po's face. He did not rise to her bait. Instead, still studying his own hand, he said quietly, "I will never tell his secret."

  BACK IN HER rooms, she looked in on Po. Finding him asleep on the sofa, snoring with the clogged snore of someone whose nose is swollen, she covered him with a blanket. Then, having no more excuses, she went to her bedroom.

  Katsa and Helda were making up the sheets to her bed. "Thank goodness," Katsa said at the sight of her. "Helda's been trying to impress me with the embroidery on the sheets. One more minute and I thought I might use them to hang myself."

  "My mother did the embroidery," Bitterblue said.

  Katsa clapped her mouth shut and glared at Helda. "Thank you, Helda, for mentioning that detail."

  Helda expertly snapped a blanket open so that it billowed over the bed. "Can I be blamed for forgetting details when I'm worried to distraction at finding the queen missing from her bed?" she said. Then she marched to the pillows and beat them mercilessly until they lay puffed out like obedient clouds.

  Bitterblue thought it might be to her advantage to take control

  of this conversation from the start. "Helda," she said, "I need the help of my spies. People in the city who're trying to uncover truths about Leck's time are being killed. I need to know who's behind this. Can we find out?"

  "Of course we can find out," said Helda with a self-righteous sniff. "And in the meantime, while killers are running around on the loose, you'll be moving among them dressed like a boy with no guard to look out for you and not even your own name to protect you. The two of you think I'm a foolish old woman whose opinions don't matter."

  "Helda!" Katsa exclaimed, practically vaulting over the bed to be near her. "That's certainly not what we think."

  "It's all right," Helda said, giving the pillows one last thrashing, then straightening to face her two young ladies with unapproachable dignity. "It hardly matters. Even if you thought me Graced with supreme knowledge, you'd none of you listen to me and every one of you do whatever harebrained thing you liked. You all think you're invincible, don't you? You think the only thing that doesn't matter is your own safety. It's enough to drive a woman wild." She reached deep into a pocket and flung a small bundle onto Bitterblue's bed. "I've known from the beginning that you sneak out nights, Lady Queen. The two nights you never came home were sleepless nights for me. You might remember that, the next time you contemplate lying in some bed other than your own. I won't pretend that I don't know the pressures you're under—and that goes for you too, My Lady," she added, gesturing at Katsa. "I won't deny but that your responsibilities differ from any I've ever known, and when push comes to shove, you're to be held to a different standard than other people. But that does not mean that it feels nice to be lied to and taken for a fool. Tell your young man that," she finished, raising her chin a notch to stare into Katsa's eyes. Then she marched from the room.

  A long silence followed.

  "She's rather good at keeping secrets, isn't she," Bitterblue said, somewhere between shame and alarm.

  "She's your spymaster," said Katsa, dropping onto the bed, splaying out on her back. "I feel like mud."

  "Me too."

  "I wonder what she meant about Po, exactly. He's said nothing about her knowing. Is that true, Bitterblue, about the killing in your city? If it is, I don't want to leave."

  "It is," said Bitterblue quietly, "and I don't want you to leave either, but I think you belong to Estill right now, don't you?"

  "Bitterblue, come here, won't you?"

  Bitterblue let Katsa grab her arm and pull her to the bed. They sat facing each other, Katsa holding her hand. Katsa's hands were strong, alive, and hot like a furnace.

  "Where do you go at night?" Katsa asked.

  Like that, the spell was broken. Bitterblue pulled away. "That's not a fair question."

  "Then don't answer it," Katsa said, surprised. "I'm not Po."

  But I can't lie to you, she thought. If you ask me for something, I'll give it. "I go to the east city," she said, "to visit friends."

  "What kind of friends?"

  "A printer, and a sailor who works with him."

  "Is it dangerous?"

  "Yes," she said, "sometimes. It's not your business and it's nothing I can't handle, so stop asking questions."

  Katsa sat for a moment, frowning into the middle distance. Then she said quietly, "This printer and this sailor, Bitterblue. Have you—" She paused. "Have you lost your heart to either of them?"

  "No," Bitterblue said, stunned and breathless. "Stop asking me questions."

  "Do you need me? Is there anything you'll let me do?"

  No. Go away.

  Yes. Stay with me, stay here until I fall asleep. Tell me I'm safe and my world will make sense. Tell me what to do about how I feel when Saf touches me. Tell me what it means to lose your heart to somebody.

  Katsa turned to her, pushed her hair back, kissed her forehead; pressed something into her hand. "This may be a thing you neither want nor need," she said. "But I'd rather you have it, wishing you didn't, than not have it and wish you did."

  And Katsa left, closing the door behind her. Off to who knew what adventure. Her bed, most likely, with Po, where they would lose themselves to each other.

  Bitterblue examined the item in her hand. It was a medicinal envelope with a label written clear across the front: "Seabane, for the prevention of pregnancy."

  Numbly, she read the instructions. Then, setting the seabane aside, she tried to sort out what she felt, but got nowhere. Remembering the bundle Helda had thrown onto the blanket, she reached for it. It was a cloth pouch, which opened to reveal another medicinal envelope, also clearly labeled.

  She laughed, not certain what was so funny about a girl with a muddled heart having enough seabane to last the entirety of her childbearing years.

  Then, exhausted almost to dizziness, she stretched onto her side and pressed her face, where Katsa had kissed it, into Helda's impeccable pillows.


  BITTERBLUE WAS HAVING a dream of a man, a friend. He began as Po, then turned to Giddon, then Saf. When he became Saf, he began to kiss her.

  "Will it hurt?" Bitterblue asked.

  Then her mother was there between them, saying to her calmly, "It's all right, sweetheart. He doesn't mean to hurt you. Take his hand."

  "I don't mind if it hurts," Bitterblue said. "I just want to know."

  "I won't let him hurt you," Ashen said, suddenly wild and frantic, and Bitterblue saw that the man had changed again. Now he was Leck. Ashen was standing between Bitterblue and Leck, guarding Bitterblue from him. Bitterblue was a little girl.

  "I would never hurt her," said Leck, smiling. He was holding a knife.

  "I won't let you near her," said Ashen, shaking but certain. "Her life will not be like mine. I will protect her from that."

  Leck sheathed his knife. Then he punched Ashen in the stomach, pushed her to the floor, kicked her, and walked away, while Bitterblue screamed.

  In her bed, Bitterblue woke in tears. The last part of the dream was more than a dream; it was a memory. Ashen had never let Leck talk Bitterblue into going away with him to his rooms, his cages. Leck had always punished Ashen for interfering. And whenever Bitterblue had run to her mother crumpled on the floor, Ashen had always whispered, "You must never go with him. Promise me, Bitterblue. It would hurt me more than anything he could ever do to me."

  I never did, Mama, she thought, tears soaking into her sheets. I never went with him. I kept my promise. But you died anyway.

  AT MORNING PRACTICE, sparring with
Bann, she couldn't focus.

  "What's wrong, Lady Queen?" he asked.

  "I had a bad dream," she told him, rubbing her face. "It was a dream of my father hurting my mother. Then I woke up and realized it was true."

  Bann paused his sword to consider this. His calm eyes touched her, reminding her of the beginning of the dream, the part where Ashen had comforted her. "Dreams like that can be awful," he said. "I have one that recurs sometimes, about the circumstances of my own parents' deaths. It can torment me cruelly."

  "Oh, Bann," she said. "I'm sorry. How did they die?"

  "Illness," he said. "They had terrible hallucinations and said cruel things I know now they didn't mean. But when I was a child, I didn't understand that they were being cruel only because of the illness. When I'm dreaming, it's the same."

  "I hate dreams," said Bitterblue, angry now in his defense.

  "What if you attacked your dream while you're awake, Lady Queen?" said Bann. "Could you act out what it would be like to fight back against your father? You could pretend I'm him and get your revenge right now," he said, raising his sword in preparation for her attack.

  It did improve her swordplay for the morning, pretending to attack the Leck of her dream. But Bann was a big, kind man in the real world, and she could hurt him if she came at him too hard. Her

  imagination wouldn't quite allow her to forget that. At lesson's end, she had a muscle cramp in her hand and she was still out of sorts.

  IN HER TOWER office, Bitterblue watched Thiel and Runnemood shift carefully around each other with silent, stiff faces. Whatever argument they were having today, it was as big as a third person in the room. She wondered what to say to them about the truthseekers under attack. She couldn't claim to have accidentally overheard a detailed conversation about knifings and bloody street murders; that would border on the absurd. She would have to use the spy excuse again, but spreading false information about things her spies supposedly knew, could she put her spies in danger? Also, Teddy, Saf, and their friends broke the law. Was it fair to bring that to Thiel and Runnemood's attention?

  "Why don't I know more about my nobles?" she said. "Why are there hundreds of lords and ladies I wouldn't recognize if they walked through that door?"

  "Lady Queen," said Thiel gently, "it's our job to prevent you from having to deal with every small matter."

  "Ah. But as you're so overwhelmed with my work," she said significantly, "I think it best I learn what I can. I should like to know their stories and reassure myself that they aren't all mad like Danzhol. Are we three alone again today?" she added, then clarified, needing to force the point, "Is Rood having nervous fits and Darby still drunk?"

  Runnemood rose from his perch in the window. "What an inconsiderate thing to say, Lady Queen," he said, sounding actually hurt. "Rood cannot help his nerves."

  "I never said he could," said Bitterblue. "I only said he has them. Why must we always pretend? Wouldn't it be more productive to talk about the things we know?" Deciding there was something she wanted, needed, she stood up.

  "Where are you going, Lady Queen?" asked Runnemood.

  "To Madlen," she said. "I need a healer."

  "Are you ill, Lady Queen?" asked Thiel in distress, taking a step forward, reaching out a hand.

  "That's a matter for me to discuss with a healer," she said, holding his eyes to let it sink in. "Are you a healer, Thiel?"

  Then she left, so that she wouldn't have to see him crushed—by nothing, by words that shouldn't matter—and feel her shame.

  WHEN BITTERBLUE STEPPED into Madlen's room, Madlen was scribbling in symbols at a desk covered with papers. "Lady Queen," Madlen said, gathering her papers together and pushing them under her blotter. "I hope you're here to rescue me from my medical writing. Are you all right?" she asked, taking in Bitterblue's expression.

  "Madlen," said Bitterblue, sitting on the bed. "I had a dream last night that my mother refused to let my father take me away, so he hit her. Only it wasn't a dream, Madlen; it was a memory. It's a thing that happened over and over, and I was never able to protect her." Shivering, Bitterblue hugged herself. "Maybe I could have protected her if I'd gone with him when he asked. But I never did. She made me promise not to."

  Madlen came to sit beside her on the bed. "Lady Queen," she said with her own particular brand of rough gentleness. "It is not the job of a child to protect her mother. It's the mother's job to protect the child. By allowing your mother to protect you, you gave her a gift. Do you understand me?"

  Bitterblue had never thought of it this way before. She found that she was holding Madlen's hand, her eyes full of tears.

  Finally, after a while, she said, "The dream didn't start out bad."

  "Oh?" said Madlen. "Did you come here to talk about your dream, Lady Queen?"

  Yes. "My hand hurts," said Bitterblue, opening her hand and showing it to Madlen.

  "Is it serious?"

  "I think I was holding my sword too hard at practice this morning."

  "Well," said Madlen, seeming to understand. She took Bitterblue's hand and explored it with light fingers. "That sounds easily mended, Lady Queen."

  It did mend something, those few minutes of Madlen's gentle touch.

  ON HER WAY back to her tower, Bitterblue encountered Raffin in the middle of the hallway, peering worriedly at a knife in his hands.

  "What is it?" asked Bitterblue, stopping before him. "Has something happened, Raffin?"

  "Lady Queen," he said, politely moving the knife far away from her and, in the process, nearly poking a passing member of the Monsean Guard, who jumped away in alarm. "Oh, dear," Raffin said. "That's just it."

  "What's just it, Raffin?"

  "Bann and I are taking a trip into Sunder, and Katsa says I must wear this on my arm, but I truly feel the danger is greater if I do. What if it falls out and impales me? What if it flings itself from my sleeve and lodges in someone else? I'm perfectly content poisoning people," Raffin muttered, pulling up his sleeve and holstering the knife. "Poison is civilized and controlled. Why must everything involve knives and blood?"

  "It will not fly out of your sleeve, Raffin," said Bitterblue soothingly. "I promise. Sunder?"

  "Only briefly, Lady Queen. Po will stay here with you."

  "I thought Po and Giddon were taking the tunnel into Estill."

  Raffin cleared his throat. "Giddon isn't desirous of Po's company just now, Lady Queen," he said delicately. "Giddon is going alone."

  "I see," said Bitterblue. "Where will you go after Sunder? Not back home?"

  "As it happens, Lady Queen," said Raffin, "that is not an option. My father has made it known that members of the Council aren't welcome in the Middluns at the moment."

  "What?" said Bitterblue. "Even his own son?"

  "Oh, it's only political bluster, Lady Queen. I know my father, regrettably. He's trying to appease the kings of Estill, Sunder, and Wester because they dislike him even more than they used to, now that Nander has fallen at the hands of an organization that likely includes me and Katsa. I don't expect he could keep any of us out without making more of a scene than he wants to. But it's no inconvenience to us at the moment, so we won't protest. It'll chafe at Giddon most, if it continues. He never likes to be away from his estate for too long. Is it really supposed to feel like this?" Raffin demanded, shaking his forearm.

  "Like you have a blade against your skin?" asked Bitterblue. "Yes. And if someone tries to hurt you, you must use it, Raffin. Assuming there's no time to respond with poison, of course," she added dryly.

  "I've done it before," Raffin said darkly. "It's only a matter of information. As long as I know an attack is being planned, I can foil the whole thing as well as anyone else. And usually no one needs to die." Then he sighed. "How have things come to this, Lady Queen?"

  "Have things ever been any other way?"

  "Peaceful, you mean, and safe?" he said. "I suppose not. And I suppose we may as well be in the thick of the violence, trying to take some
control over the way it plays out."

  Bitterblue considered this prince, the son of a bully king, the cousin of a fireball like Katsa. "Will you like to be king, Raffin?"

  His answer was in the resignation that came over his face. "Does it matter?" he responded quietly. Then he added, shrugging, "I shall have less time for mayhem. And, sadly, less time for my medicines. And I will have to marry, because a king must produce heirs." Glancing into her face, he said with a small smile, "You know, I would ask you to marry me, except that it's not a thing I would ask anyone without Bann present, nor would I actually make you such an inadequate offer in earnest. It would solve a great many of my problems and create problems for you, hm?"

  She couldn't help smiling. "I confess it's not a future I would wish for," she said. "On the other hand, it's no less romantic than any other proposal I've ever gotten. Ask me again in five years. Perhaps then I'll be in need of something complicated and strange that looks good to the rest of the world."

  Chuckling, Raffin practiced straightening his arm, bending it, straightening it again. "What if I stick Bann by accident?" he asked grumpily.

  "Just open your eyes wide and look where you're stabbing," said Bitterblue cheerfully.

  RUNNING THROUGH THE east city that night, she wasn't certain what she was running toward. With truthseekers and truth killers on her mind she was alert, trusting no one she passed, conscious of the blades on her own arms, of how quickly she could whip them out if she needed to. When a hooded woman passed under a streetlamp and gold paint on her lips caught the light, it stopped Bitterblue like a shock. Gold paint, and glitter around her eyes.

  Bitterblue stood, breathing hard. Yes, it was late September; yes, it could very well be the equinox. Yes, it did seem likely that some people in the city would celebrate, discreetly, those traditional rituals. For example, the same people who buried their dead and stole back truths.

  For the merest instant, Bitterblue was uncertain. In that instant, she could have turned back. It wasn't thought; it didn't go that deep. It was in the fingertips she brought to her lips, and on her skin.

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