Bitterblue, p.32
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       Bitterblue, p.32

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "Did she instruct you to go snooping?" retorted Bitterblue. "You're complaining about the mistrustful behavior of someone you stole from, Saf. Maybe she doesn't talk to you because she doesn't like you. Maybe she didn't like Lienid. Anyway, the list of people you trust is shorter than the number of keys on this ring. What do we have to do to make you stop behaving like a child? We won't always go into contortions to protect you, you know. Has Prince Po told you that the day he saved your life in my courtroom and you rewarded him by stealing my crown, he spent hours running through the rain in pursuit of it, then fell gravely ill?"

  No, Po hadn't told him. Saf's sudden, silent chagrin was evidence. "Why were you in my father's maze?" Bitterblue asked again.

  "I was curious," Saf said in a defeated voice.

  "About what?"

  "Fox mentioned Leck's rooms," Saf said. "Then I picked her pocket and came up with the keys, and thought I could guess what they were for. I was curious to see the rooms for myself. Do you think that Teddy or Tilda or Bren would forgive me if I didn't use the opportunity of my time in the castle to uncover some truths?"

  "I think that Teddy would tell you to stop wasting my time, and the Council's time too," said Bitterblue. "And I think you know I'd be happy to describe Leck's rooms to Teddy myself. Balls, Saf. If he asked, I'd take him to see them with his own eyes."

  The outer doors creaked open again.

  "I think we're done here," Bitterblue said, nervous now for Saf 's sake, in case the person coming in was anyone other than Po or Madlen. Or Death. Or Holt. Or Hava. These are the people I trust, she thought, rolling eyes at herself.

  "Has Prince Po recovered?" Saf put in.

  Katsa burst into the room.

  "Recovered from what?" she demanded. "What happened?"

  "Katsa!" said Bitterblue, limp with a sweet relief that brought tears pricking behind her eyes. "Nothing happened. He's fine."

  "Has he—" Katsa registered that there was a stranger in the room. "Did he—" she began, confused.

  "Calm down, Katsa," said Giddon. "Calm down," he repeated, offering his hand, which she grasped, after a moment's hesitation. "He was ill for a while, and now he's better. Everything's fine. What took you so long?"

  "Wait till I tell you," Katsa said, "because you're not going to believe it." And then she went to Bitterblue and drew her into a one-sided hug.

  "Who did this to you?" she demanded, running her fingers lightly along Bitterblue's bound arm. Bitterblue was so happy that she felt no pain. She buried her face in the coldness of Katsa's oddsmelling, furry jacket and didn't answer.

  "It's a long story, Kat," came Raffin's voice beside them. "A lot has happened."

  Katsa stood on her toes to kiss Raffin. And then she peered more closely over Bitterblue's head at Saf, narrowing her eyes on him, then on Bitterblue, then on him again. Beginning to grin while Saf stood with his mouth slightly open and the world's largest Graceling eyes. His gold flashed in his ears and on his fingers.

  "Hello, sailor," Katsa said. Then to Bitterblue, "Does he remind you of anyone?"

  "Yes," said Bitterblue, knowing that Katsa meant Po, but that she

  meant Katsa. Not caring. "Did you find the tunnel?" she asked, still burrowing against Katsa.

  "Yes," said Katsa, "and followed it all the way to Estill. And I found something else too, through a crack. There were cracks everywhere, Bitterblue, and the air through them sounded funny to me somehow. It smelled different. So I moved a few rocks aside. It took me ages, and I started a small avalanche at one point, but I managed to make an opening to a whole new series of passages. Then I followed the widest one, as far as I could justify taking the time for. It killed me that I had to turn back. But there were openings aboveground now and then, and I'm telling you, Bitterblue, we've got to go back there. It was a passage east, under the mountains. Look at the rat that attacked me."

  Once more, the doors opened. This time, Bitterblue knew who was coming. "Out," she said to Saf, extending her finger, because this was going to be a private and unpredictable thing, not for Saf 's too-adoring eyes. "Out," she said more forcefully, motioning to Giddon to deal with it as Po appeared in the doorway, chest heaving, bracing a hand against the door frame.

  "I'm sorry," Po said. "Katsa, I'm sorry."

  "I am too," Katsa said, running at him. Giddon dragged Saf out. Katsa and Po held on to each other with tears running down their faces, making as big a scene as anyone could have expected, but Bitterblue had ceased to notice, her entire attention fixated on a thing Katsa had thrown onto the breakfast table as she'd run to Po. It was a small, strange something-or-other that was furry. Bitterblue reached out a hand.

  Then she snatched her hand back, as if something had shocked her, or bitten.

  It was a rat pelt, but there was something about it that was wrong.

  It was almost a normal color, but not. Instead of gray, it was a sort of silver, with a sheen of gold at certain angles, and even beyond the oddness of the color, there was something peculiar about it that she couldn't quantify. She couldn't stop looking at it. This silverish rat pelt was the most beautiful thing Bitterblue had ever seen.

  She made herself touch it. It was real, the fur of a real, onceliving rat Katsa had killed.

  Carefully, Bitterblue backed away from the table. Tears trickled down her face as she stood there, stuck in her own private avalanche.


  WHAT IT SEEMED to mean was that while Leck's real world had been made up of lies, his imaginary world was true.

  She sent for Thiel to join them, because she needed him, so immediately that it didn't even occur to her until later that she'd invited him straight into the room where a cloth covered a fake crown. When he appeared at her doors, surprised, but his face full of hope, Bitterblue found herself reaching for his hand. He was gaunt; he'd lost weight. But his clothing was neat, face shaved, expression attentive.

  "It might upset you, Thiel," she told him. "I'm sorry, but I need you."

  "I'm too happy to be needed for anything else to matter, Lady Queen," he said.

  The silver pelt overwhelmed Thiel with numbness and confusion. He would have landed on the floor if Katsa and Po together hadn't managed to push a chair beneath him. "I don't understand," he said.

  "You know the stories Leck told?" Bitterblue asked him.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Thiel in bewilderment. "He was always telling stories about strangely colored creatures. And you've seen the art. The hangings," he said, flapping his hands at the blue horse across the room. "The bright flowers twined all around the sculp tures. The shrubberies." Thiel shook his head back and forth as if he were ringing it like a bell. "But I don't understand. Surely it's only a pelt from a particularly unique rat. Or—could it be something Leck made, Lady Queen?"

  "Lady Katsa found it in the mountains to the east, Thiel," said Bitterblue.

  "To the east! Nothing lives to the east. The mountains are uninhabitable."

  "Lady Katsa found a tunnel, Thiel, under the mountains. It may be that there's inhabitable land beyond. Katsa," said Bitterblue, "did it act like a regular rat?"

  "No," Katsa responded firmly. "It marched right up to me. I thought, Oh, here's a volunteer for my dinner, but then I found myself standing there staring at it like a fool. And then it ran at me!"

  "It mesmerized you," Bitterblue said grimly. "That's how Leck described them in his stories."

  "It was something like that," admitted Katsa. "I had to close off my mind the way I might do around"—a quick glance at Thiel, who still shook his head back and forth ponderously—"a mind reader. Then I came to my senses. I'm dying to go back, Bitterblue. As soon as I have the time, I'll follow the tunnel all the way through."

  "No," Bitterblue said. "No waiting. I need you to go now."

  "Are you going to command me?" Katsa asked, laughing.

  "No," Po said, tight-mouthed. "No commanding. We need to discuss this."

  "I need everyone to see it," Bitterblue said, not
listening. "I need everyone's opinions, everyone who knows the stories and everyone who knows anything about anything. Darby, Rood, Death— Madlen, might she have some knowledge of animal anatomy?—Saf and Teddy and all those who know the stories from the story rooms. I need everyone to see this!"

  "Cousin," said Po quietly, "I advise caution. You're spinning around with a sort of a wild gleam and Thiel is sitting there like a man lost inside himself. Whatever this thing is," he said, running his fingers over the pelt with mild distaste, "and I agree that it doesn't seem normal—whatever it is, it has a powerful effect on those who knew Leck. Don't just go flinging it at people. Go slow, and keep it secret, you understand me?"

  "It's where he came from," Bitterblue said. "It's got to be, Po, and that means it's where I'm from too, a place where the animals look like this and cloud your mind, the same way he did."

  "It might be," Po said. He was hugging her, his shirt smelling faintly of Katsa's furry coat, which comforted her, as if she were being hugged by both of them at once. "Or it might just be a thing he knew of and made up crazy stories about. Take a breath, sweetheart. You can't figure it all out right now. We need to go a step at a time."

  PO AND RAFFIN were leaving the next day to take Giddon's tunnel into Estill and talk to the Estillan people about their plans for replacing King Thigpen. Katsa and Po spent the better part of the day snappish and irritable to everyone but each other. Bitterblue supposed it would be late before they could be alone together, and Po needed sleep if he was to spend the next day on a horse.

  Then Katsa began to talk about accompanying the princes to Estill. Hearing this, Bitterblue called Katsa to her tower.

  "Katsa," Bitterblue said, "why would you go with them? Do they need you, or is it a wish for more time with Po?"

  "It's a wish for more time with Po," Katsa said frankly. "Why?"

  "If you're considering going, then you mustn't be needed here. Right?"

  "There's a lot I can do here with Bann, Helda, and Giddon. There's a lot I can do in Estill with Po and Raff. My presence isn't crucial right now in either place. I think I know where you're going with this, Bitterblue, and I'm afraid it's bad timing."

  "Katsa," Bitterblue said. "It matters so desperately to me where you were and what you saw, but even forgetting my personal reasons, even forgetting the rat, it matters that a passage has opened and we don't know where it leads. If there's a part of the world that we don't know about, nothing is more important than finding out about it. Not even the Estillan revolution is more important. Katsa—Leck told stories about a whole other kingdom. What if there are people over there, on the other side of the mountains?"

  "If I go," Katsa said, "I could be gone a long time. Just because the Council doesn't need me now doesn't mean they won't need me in two weeks."

  "I need you."

  "You're a queen, Bitterblue. Send the Monsean Guard."

  "I could do that, even not trusting the Monsean Guard at the moment, but a company of soldiers doesn't move as fast as you, or as discreetly. And what'll happen when my soldiers get there? They won't have your mental strength or your Grace when they're beset by a pack of colorful wolves or some such. Nor will they be able to move without being seen, as you can, and I need someone to spy on what's over there, Katsa. You were made for this. It would be so neat and easy!"

  "It would not be easy," said Katsa, snorting.

  "Oh, how hard do you think it would be?"

  "Not hard to follow the tunnel, face wolves, poke around, and come back," said Katsa, her voice growing sharp. "Hard to leave Po just now."

  Bitterblue took a breath. She focused for a moment, centering herself around her stubbornness. "Katsa," she said, "I don't like to be cruel. And I know I can't make you do anything you don't want to do. But—please—add it to the possibilities you're considering. Think about what it would mean if another kingdom exists on the other side of the mountains. If we're capable of discovering them, then they're capable of discovering us. Which would you rather happened first? Couldn't Po and Raffin delay their trip just a little bit longer?" she suggested. "What's one more day? I'm sorry, Katsa," she said, alarmed now, for big, round tears had begun to slide down Katsa's face. "I'm sorry to ask for this."

  "You have to," Katsa said, smearing the tears away, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "I understand. I'll think about it. May I stay with you for a few minutes until I've got hold of myself?"

  "You don't ever have to ask," said Bitterblue, astonished. "You may always stay as long as you like."

  And so Katsa sat in a chair, shoulders straight, breath even, scowling into the middle distance, while Bitterblue sat across from her, glancing at her worriedly now and then. Otherwise pushing her eyes across finance reports, letters, charters, and more charters.

  After a short while, the door opened and Po slipped in. Katsa began to cry again, silently. Bitterblue decided to take her charters downstairs to work on them in the lower offices.

  As she left the room, Po went to Katsa, pulled her up, sat himself in her chair, and drew her into his lap. Shushing her, he rocked her, the two of them holding on to each other as if it were the only thing keeping the world from bursting apart.

  * * * * *

  THEY SENT HER a note later in the day. Ciphered in Katsa's hand, it read: Po and Raffin delay one day. When they go, I'll return to the mystery tunnel and follow it east.

  We're sorry for kicking you out of your office.

  I'll come for your lesson in the morning. I'll teach you how to fight with one arm bound.

  "Is it always like that?" asked Bitterblue at dinner.

  Giddon and Bann, her two dinner companions, turned to blink at her, puzzled. The others had dined with them too, but then they'd all run back to their plans and preparations, which was as Bitterblue liked it. Giddon and Bann were the people she most wanted to ask about this, though Raffin would also have been welcome.

  "Is what always like what, Lady Queen?" asked Giddon.

  "I mean," said Bitterblue, "is it possible to have a—" She wasn't sure what to call it. "Is it possible to share someone's bed without tears, battles, and constant crises?"

  "Yes," said Bann.

  "Not if you're Katsa and Po," said Giddon at the same time.

  "Oh, stop it," Bann protested. "They go long stretches of time without tears, battles, or crises."

  "But you know they both love a good blowup," said Giddon.

  "You make it sound as if they do it on purpose. They always have good reason. Their lives are not simple and they spend too much time apart."

  "Because they choose to," Giddon said, rising from the table, going to bank up the dying fire. "They don't need to spend so much time apart. They do it because it suits them."

  "They do it because the Council requires it," Bann said to Giddon's back.

  "But they decide what the Council requires, don't they? As much as we do?"

  "They put the Council ahead of themselves," Bann said firmly.

  "They also like to make scenes," Giddon muttered with his head in the fireplace.

  "Be fair, Giddon. They're just not good at containing themselves in front of their own friends."

  "That's the definition of a scene," said Giddon dryly, coming to sit down again.

  "It's just—" Bitterblue began, then stopped. She wasn't sure what it just was. Her own experience was miniscule, but it was all she had, so she couldn't help referring to it. She had liked sparring with Saf. She had liked playing trust games. But she didn't like fighting with him, not at all. She didn't like being the object of his fury. And if the crown situation counted as a crisis, well, then she didn't like crises either.

  On the other hand, she saw clearly enough that Katsa and Po had something sustaining, deep, and fierce. It was a thing that she envied sometimes.

  Bitterblue stabbed a mystery pie across the table with her fork and was delighted when it turned out to be made of winter squash. She pushed her plate closer and shoveled herself a generous portion.
"It's just that while I'm sure I would like the making up, I don't think I have the heart for constant fighting," she said. "I think I might prefer something—more peaceful in execution."

  Giddon cracked a grin. "They do give the impression that no one else has nearly as much fun making up."

  "But people do, you know," said Bann, perhaps a bit slyly. "I wouldn't worry about them, Lady Queen, and I wouldn't worry about what it means. Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself."

  IN THE MORNING, Giddon left to meet a Council ally from Estill who was visiting a town called Silverhart, half a day's ride east along the river. Then he surprised them all by not coming back by nightfall.

  "I hope he gets in before morning," Po said over dinner. "I didn't want to leave until he was back."

  "So he can protect me?" said Bitterblue. "You think I'm not safe with both you and Katsa away, don't you? Don't forget, I have my Queen's Guard and my Lienid Guard, and it's not like I ever leave the castle anymore."

  "I finally got into the east city today, Beetle," said Po. "I walked practically every street, and spent some time in the south city too. I could not find Runnemood. And Bann and I tried to work it out, but we can't get around that it'd be a great strain right now for him or Giddon to take off in search of your captain."

  "Someone set a fire three nights ago and killed another of Saf and Teddy's friends," said Bitterblue.

  "Oh," said Po, dropping his silverware. "I wish this Estill thing weren't happening now. Too much is going on and nothing is right."

  With the rat pelt tucked in her pocket, Bitterblue couldn't really argue. Early in the day, she'd gone to the library and shown it to Death. At the sight of it, he'd turned eight shades of gray.

  "Merciful skies above," he'd said hoarsely.

  "What do you think?" asked Bitterblue.

  "I think," said Death, then paused, truly seeming to be thinking. "I think I need to rethink the current shelving of King Leck's stories, Lady Queen, for they're in a section reserved for fantastical literature."

  "That's what you're worried about?" demanded Bitterblue. "The shelving of your books? Send someone for Madlen, will you? I'm going to my table, where I intend to read about how monarchy is tyranny," she said, then stormed away in annoyance, realizing that it hadn't been a particularly incisive retort.

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