Bitterblue, p.37
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       Bitterblue, p.37

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Bitterblue wanted to be a powerful example with him. She wanted to find the way to build a nation that other nations would like to imitate.

  How strange that Ror had mentioned nothing about the remuneration issue in his letter, for Bitterblue had sent her letter asking for remuneration advice before she'd sent the letter asking Ror to bring his navy. Perhaps the navy letter had upset him so much that he'd forgotten the other issue? Perhaps—perhaps Bitterblue could begin without his advice. Perhaps it was a thing she could plan herself, with the help of the few people she trusted. What if she had advisers, clerks, ministers who would listen to her? What if she had advisers who were unafraid of their own pain, unafraid of the kingdom's unhealed parts? What if she weren't always fighting against those who should be helping her?

  What a strange thing a queen was. She found herself thinking sometimes, especially during the few minutes a day Madlen allowed her to knead bread dough: If Leck came from some land to the east and my mother came from Lienid, how am I the supreme ruler of Monsea? How can I be, without a drop of Monsean blood in my veins? And yet, she couldn't imagine being anyone else; her queenness was something she couldn't separate from herself. It had happened so fast, in the throwing of a dagger. Bitterblue had looked across a room at her dead father's body and known, to her very core, what she'd just become. She'd said it aloud. "I'm the Queen of Monsea."

  If she could find the right people, the people she could trust who would help her, would she begin to assume the true purpose of a queen?

  And what then? Monarchy was tyranny. Leck had proven that. If she found the right people to help her, were there ways she could change that too? Could a queen with a queen's power arrange her administration such that her citizens had power too, to communicate their needs?

  There was something about the kneading of bread that connected Bitterblue's feet to the earth. Her wanderings did it too, her continued castle explorations. Needing candles for her bedside table one day, she went to get them herself at the chandler. Noticing her fastgrowing wardrobe of trouser-skirt gowns, and the sleeves that were converted now back to buttonlessness, she asked Helda to introduce her to her dressmakers. Curious, she burst in on the boy who came every night to clear her dinner dishes away—then wished she'd planned that one more wisely, for he wasn't a boy. He was a young man with startling, dark good looks and fine shoulders and a beautiful way with his hands, and she was wearing a bright red robe with too-big pink slippers, her hair a mess and a smear of ink on her nose.

  It was deeply satisfying, the workings of the castle around her. When she crossed the great courtyard in cold that sliced through her, she saw Saf on his platform, and workers clearing the ice from the drains. She saw snow falling onto the glass and meltwater pouring into the fountain. In the middle of the night in the corridors, men and women shined the floors on their knees with soft cloths while snow piled on the ceilings above them. She began to recognize the people she passed. No progress was made in the search for a witness to the red dictionary delivery, but when Bitterblue visited Death in the library, she learned the new alphabet, watched him draw alphabet grids and letter frequency diagrams, and helped him keep track of the numbers. "They call their language by a name we might pronounce as 'Dellian,' Lady Queen. And they—or, at any rate, Leck—calls ours, more or less, 'Gracelingian.'"

  "Dellian, like the false name of the river? Like the River Dell?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  "And Gracelingian? The name of our language is 'Gracelingian'?!"


  Even Madlen's work of articulating skeletons, which had taken over the infirmary laboratories and one of the patient wards, comforted Bitterblue. These bones were the truth of something Leck had done, and Madlen was trying to return them to themselves. It < felt, to Bitterblue, like a way of showing respect.

  "How is your arm, Lady Queen?" Madlen asked her, holding what looked like a handful of ribs, staring at them as if they might speak to her.

  "Better," Bitterblue said. "And kneading the bread grounds me."

  "There's power in touching things, Lady Queen," said Madlen, echoing something Bitterblue herself had once thought. Madlen held the ribs out for Bitterblue to take. Bitterblue took them, feeling their peculiar smoothness. Tracing a raised line on one.

  "That rib broke once, and rehealed, Lady Queen," said Madlen.

  "Your own arm, where the bone broke, is probably a bit like that."

  Bitterblue knew Madlen was right: There was power in touching things. Holding this once-broken bone, she felt the pain its person had felt when it broke. She felt the sadness of a life that had ended too soon, and of a body that had been dumped as if it meant nothing; she felt her own death, which would happen someday. There was a sharp sadness in that too. Bitterblue had no peace with the notion of dying.

  In the bakery, leaning over the bread dough, pushing and shaping it into an elastic thing, she began to find clarity on one point:

  Like Death, Bitterblue also had a taste for difficult—impossible—slow—messy work. She would figure out how to be queen, slowly, messily. She could reshape what it meant to be queen, and reshaping what it meant to be queen would reshape the kingdom.

  And then, one day at the very start of December, as she pushed her tired arms to their daily limit, she looked up from the baker's table. Death stood before her. She didn't need to ask. From the luminous look on his face, she knew.


  IN THE LIBRARY, Death handed her a piece of paper.

  "The key is ozhaleegh," said Bitterblue, the pronunciation awkward in her mouth.

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  "What does that word mean?"

  "It means monster, Lady Queen, or beast. Aberration, mutant."

  "Like him," Bitterblue whispered.

  "Yes, Lady Queen. Like him."

  "The top line is the regular alphabet," said Bitterblue. "The six subsequent alphabets began with the six letters that spell the word ozhaleegh."


  "To decipher the first letter of the first word in a passage, we use alphabet number one. For the second letter, alphabet number two, and so on. For the seventh letter, we go back to alphabet number one."

  "Yes, Lady Queen. You understand it perfectly."

  "Isn't it rather complicated for a journal, Death? I use a similar ciphering technique in my letters to King Ror, but my letters are brief, and perhaps I write one or two a month."

  "It wouldn't have been terribly difficult to write, Lady Queen, but it would have been a tangle to try to reread. It does seem a bit extreme, especially since presumably no one else spoke the Dellian language."

  "He overdid everything," said Bitterblue.

  "Here, let's take the first sentence of this book," said Death, pulling the closest book forward and copying down the first line:

  "Deciphered, it reads—"

  Both Death and Bitterblue scribbled on Death's blotter. Then they compared their results:

  "Are those real words?" asked Bitterblue.

  "Yah weensah kahlah ahfrohsahsheen ohng khoh nayzh yah hahntaylayn dahs khoh neetayt hoht," Death said aloud. "Yes, Lady Queen. "It means . . ." He screwed his lips tight, thinking. "'The winter gala approaches and we haven't the candles we need.' I've had to make some guesses about verb endings, Lady Queen, and their sentence structure differs from ours, but I believe that's accurate."

  Touching her deciphered scribbles, Bitterblue whispered the strange Dellian words. In places, they sounded like her own language, but not quite: yah weensah kahlah, the winter gala. They felt like bubbles in her mouth: beautiful, breathy bubbles. "Now that you've cracked the cipher," she said, "should you try to memorize all thirty-five volumes before you start translating?"

  "In order to memorize so much, Lady Queen, I'd need to decipher as I read. As long as I'm doing that, I may as well complete the translation as well, so that you have something to look at."

  "I hope it isn't thirty-five books about party supplies," she said.
r />   "I'll spend the afternoon translating, Lady Queen," he said, "and bring you the results."

  HE ENTERED HER sitting room that night, while she was eating a late dinner with Helda, Giddon, and Bann. "Are you all right, Death?" Bitterblue asked him, for he looked—well, he looked old and miserable again, without the glow of triumph he'd had earlier in the day.

  He handed her a small sheaf of paper wrapped in leather. "I leave it to you, Lady Queen," he said grimly.

  "Oh," Bitterblue said, understanding. "Not party supplies, then?"

  "No, Lady Queen."

  "Death, I'm sorry. You know you don't have to do this."

  "I do, Lady Queen," he said, turning to leave. "You do too."

  A moment later, the outer doors closed behind him. Looking at the leather in her hands, she wished that he hadn't gone so soon.

  Well, none of it would ever end if she was too afraid for it to begin. She pulled at the tie, pushed the cover aside, and read the opening line.

  Little girls are even more perfect when they bleed.

  Bitterblue slapped the cover over the page again. For a moment, she sat there. Then, raising her eyes to each of her friends in turn, she said, "Will you stay with me while I read this?"

  "Yes, of course," was the response.

  She carried the pages to the sofa, sat herself down, and read.

  Little girls are even more perfect when they bleed. They are such a comfort to me when my other experiments go wrong.

  I am trying to determine if Graces reside in the eyes. I have fighters and mind readers, and it is a simple matter of switching their eyes, then seeing whether their Graces have changed. But they keep dying. And the mind readers are so troublesome, too often understanding what is happening, so that I must gag them and restrain them before they spread their understanding to the others. Female fighter Gracelings are not limitless, and it infuriates me that I must waste them this way. My healers say it is blood loss. They say not to conduct so many experiments simultaneously on one person. But tell me, when a woman is lying on a table in her perfection, how am I not to experiment?

  Sometimes I feel that I am doing all of it wrong. I have not made this kingdom into what I know it can be. If I could be allowed my art, then I would not have these head aches that feel as if my head is splitting open. All I want is to surround myself with the beautiful things that I have lost, but my artists won't be controlled like the others. I tell them what they want to do and half of them lose their talent completely, hand me work that is garbage, and stand there proud and empty, certain they've produced a masterpiece. The other half cannot work at all and go mad, becoming useless to me. And then there are those very few, those one, those two who do the literal of what I instruct, but imbue it with some genius, some terrible truth, so that it is more beautiful than what I asked for or imagined, and undermines me.

  Gadd created a hanging of monsters killing a man and I swear that the man in the hanging is me. Gadd says not, but I know what I feel when I look at it. How did he do it? Bellamew is a world of problems unto herself; she will not take instruction at all. I told her to make a sculpture of my fire-haired beauty and it began as such, then turned into a sculpture of Ashen in which Ashen has too much strength and feeling. She made a sculpture of my child and when it looks at me, I am convinced that it pities me. She will not leave off sculpting these infuriating transformations. Their work mocks my smallness. But I cannot turn away because it is so beautiful.

  It is a new year. I will think about killing Gadd this year. A new year is a time for reflection, and really, what I ask for is so simple. But I cannot kill Bellamew yet. There is something in her mind that I want, and my experiments show that minds cannot live without bodies. She is lying to me about something. I know it.

  Somehow, she has found the strength to lie to me; and until I know the nature of this lie, I cannot be done with her.

  My artists cause me more grief than they are worth.

  It has been a hard lesson to learn, that greatness requires suffering.

  Men are hanging lamps from the frames of the courtyard ceilings in preparation for the winter gala. They can be so stupid with me in their heads that it's insufferable. Three fell because they'd barely secured the ends of their rope ladder. Two died. One is in the hospital and will live for some time, I think. Perhaps, if he is mobile, I can involve him in the experiments with the others.

  This was the sum of what Death had given her. He'd done a neat job of it, copying a Dellian line and then working out the translation just beneath it, so that she could see both, and perhaps begin to learn some of the Dellian vocabulary.

  At the table, Bann and Helda conversed quietly about the problem of factions in Estill, noble versus citizen—with interjections from Giddon, who was dripping single drops of water into an extremely full glass, waiting to see which drop would cause the water to spill over the edge. From across the table, Bann tossed a bean. It plopped itself neatly into Giddon's glass and caused a deluge.

  "I can't believe you just did that!" said Giddon. "You brute."

  "You're two of the largest children I've ever known," scolded Helda.

  "I was doing science," Giddon said. "He threw a bean."

  "I was testing the impact of a bean upon water," Bann said.

  "That's not even a thing."

  "Perhaps I'll test the impact of a bean upon your beautiful white shirtfront," said Bann, with a threatening wave of a bean. Then both of them noticed that Bitterblue was watching. They turned their grins upon her, which was like a bath of silliness for her, a bath to clean away the dirty, crawling, panicky feeling she'd gotten from Leck's words.

  "How bad was it?" asked Giddon.

  "I don't want to ruin your good moods," said Bitterblue.

  This earned her a look of mild reproach from Giddon. And so she did what she most wanted to do: Held it out for him to take. Coming to sit beside her on the sofa, he read it through. Bann and Helda, coming to sit in armchairs, read it next. No one seemed inclined to speak.

  Finally, Bitterblue said, "Well, at any rate, it doesn't tell me why people in my city are killing truthseekers."

  "No," said Helda grimly.

  "This book begins at the new year," Bitterblue said, "which supports Saf's theory that each book chronicles a year of his reign."

  "Is Death deciphering them out of order, Lady Queen?" asked Bann. "If Bellamew is making sculptures of you and Queen Ashen, then Leck's married, you've been born, and this is a book from late in his reign."

  "I don't know that they're labeled in any way that would make it easy to put them in order," Bitterblue said.

  "Maybe it'll be less upsetting to read them without having to mark the particular progression of his abuses," Giddon said quietly. "What was Bellamew's secret, do you suppose?"

  "I don't know," Bitterblue said. "The location of Hava? It seems like he had a particular interest in Gracelings, and girls."

  "I fear this will be just as horrible for you as the embroidery, Lady Queen," said Helda.

  Bitterblue had no response to that either. Beside her, Giddon sat with his head thrown back, eyes closed. "When's the last time you left the castle grounds, Lady Queen?" he asked without moving.

  Bitterblue sent her mind back. "The night that wretched woman broke my arm."

  "That's almost two months ago, isn't it?"

  Yes, it was. Two months, and Bitterblue was a bit depressed thinking about it.

  "There's sledding on the hill that leads up to the ramparts of the castle's western wall," Giddon said. "Did you know that?"

  "Sledding? What are you talking about?"

  "The snow is dry and fine, Lady Queen," said Giddon, sitting up, "and people have been sledding. No one'll be there now. I expect it's well-enough lit. Does your fear of heights extend to sledding?"

  "How should I know? I've never been sledding!"

  "Get up, Bann," said Giddon, whacking Bann's arm.

  "I'm not going sledding at eleven o'clock at night," s
aid Bann with finality.

  "Oh, yes you are," said Helda significantly.

  "Helda," said Giddon, "it's not that I don't want Bann's involuntary company, but if, as you seem to be implying, it's not decent for the queen to go sledding with one unmarried man in the middle of the night, then how is it decent for her to go sledding with two?"

  "It will be decent because I'm going," Helda said. "And if I must subject myself to late-night larks in freezing climes all for the sake of decency, then Bann will suffer beside me."

  This was how Bitterblue came to discover that sledding, in a nighttime snowfall, with bewildered guards standing above and the earth's most complete silence, was magical, and breathless, and conducive to a great deal of laughter.

  THE NEXT NIGHT, while Bitterblue was again eating with her friends, Hava came scurrying in. "Excuse me, Lady Queen," she said, trying to catch her breath. "That Fox person just came into the art gallery through the secret passage behind the hanging. I hid, Lady Queen, and followed her to the sculpture room. She tried to lift one of my mother's sculptures with her bare hands, Lady Queen. She failed, of course, and when she left the gallery, I followed her. She came nearly to your rooms, Lady Queen, then dropped down the staircase into the maze. I ran straight here."

  Bitterblue jumped up from the table. "You mean that she's in the maze now?"

  "Yes, Lady Queen."

  Bitterblue ran for the keys. "Hava," she said, coming back and

  going to the hidden door, "slip down there, will you? Quickly. Hide. See if she comes in. Don't interfere—just watch her, understand? Try to figure out what she's up to. And we'll eat," Bitterblue instructed her friends, "and talk about nothing that matters. We'll discuss the weather and ask after each other's health."

  "The worst of all of this is that I no longer think it's safe for the Council to trust Ornik," said Bann glumly, after Hava had gone. "Ornik associates with her."

  "Maybe that's your worst," Bitterblue said. "My worst is that she knows about Saf and the crown, and has from the beginning. She may even know about my mother's cipher, and my father's too."

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