Bitterblue, p.41
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       Bitterblue, p.41

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "I want to think he was happy sometimes."

  "Sparks, I'm sure he was."

  A picture of Thiel's room, stark and comfortless, came to her. "I never saw him happy. I know of nothing he enjoyed."

  "Who did he love?"

  The question sucked her breath away. "My mother," she whispered, "and me."

  "Dream of that love."

  She dreamed of her wedding. She couldn't see whom she was marrying, that person never entered the scene, and it didn't matter. What mattered was that there was music, played on all the castle's instruments, and the music made everyone happy, and she danced with her mother and Thiel.

  IT WAS EARLY morning when her growling stomach woke her. She opened her eyes to light, and the strange comfort of the dream. Then, memory. Aches, all over, from Thiel fighting her, Thiel pushing her, from crying, loss, from Saf. The snow had stopped and the sky shone blue through three tiny round windows. Saf slept beside her.

  It wasn't fair, how innocent he looked when he was sleeping. The fresh bruising around his eye and the purple that showed through the Lienid markings of his arm were also unfair. She hadn't noticed those bruises in the dimness of the day before, and he'd certainly given her no indication of them.

  How loyal and gentle Saf had been with her, and without her asking it of him. As quick to love as he was to anger, as quick to warmth as to foolishness, and he had a tenderness she wouldn't have expected from him. She wondered if you could love someone you didn't understand.

  His eyes flickered open, soft purples shining on her. When he saw her, he smiled.

  Dream something nice, he'd said to her that night in the shop, like babies. And she had. Dream of that love.

  "Saf?" she said.


  "I think I know what your Grace is."

  IT WAS THE thing about dreams. They were so odd by nature, and they left one with such a feeling of the unreal, that how was one ever to notice when they themselves behaved strangely?

  The Grace of giving dreams was a beautiful Grace for someone contrary and dear to have. She told him so as she strapped on her knives and he tried to convince her to stay a bit longer.

  "We need to experiment," he said. "We need to test whether it's true. What if I can give you a dream by just wishing it and not saying a word? What if I can give you a highly detailed dream, like Teddy in pink stockings holding a duck? I have food here, you know. You must be starving. Stay and eat something."

  "I'm not taking the food you need," Bitterblue said, stepping into her gown, "and people will be worried about me, Saf."

  "Do you suppose I could give you bad dreams?"

  "I haven't the slightest doubt. You'll stay in this room, won't you, now that it's daylight?"

  "My sister is sick."

  "I know," she said. "I'm told she'll be all right. I've sent her Madlen. I'll send someone to you with news as soon as we have it, I promise. You understand you've got to stay here, don't you? You won't risk being seen?"

  "I'm going to go out of my skull with boredom in this room, aren't I," said Saf, sighing, then pushing his blankets aside, reaching for his clothing.

  "Wait," Bitterblue said.

  "What?" he said, glaring at her. "What—"

  Bitterblue had never seen a man naked, and she was curious. She decided the universe owed her a few minutes, just a few, to satisfy her curiosity. So she went to him and knelt, which shut him up.

  "I'll give you a dream," he whispered to her. "A wonderful dream. I won't tell you."

  "An experiment?" said Bitterblue with the tiniest smile.

  "An experiment, Sparks."

  SHE KNEW THAT the bridge would be more or less horrible. She pushed herself quickly to the middle, as far from the edge as possible. The wind had died down at some point in the night and snow had accumulated, which was welcome. Pushing through it distracted her from focusing on where she was.

  It also helped to know that Saf was watching from the drawbridge tower and would come out into broad daylight to help her if she stopped, or visibly panicked, or fell. She would hide her panic from him and push on; yes, as long as she was panicking, she may as well push on.

  A lifetime later, she was even with the staircase, and here, she ceased to care what Saf saw. On her hands and knees, she approached the steps, then appraised them. The snow had drifted across them unevenly. A person stood at the bottom, his face and hair hidden behind a hood. He pushed the hood back. Po.

  Bitterblue sat down on the highest step and began to cry.

  He climbed up to her, sat on the outer edge beside her, and put his arm around her. Such a relief not to have to talk or explain. Such a relief for her to remember, and him to know.

  "It's not your fault, sweetheart."

  Don't, Po. Just—don't.

  "All right," he said. "I'm sorry."

  What he did do was pull off her hat, wind up her loose hair, and stick the hat back on so that her hair wasn't visible. Then pulled her collar up and tugged the hat even lower. And then he stood at the outer edge as they climbed down, keeping his arm around her, and led her through empty alleys to a narrow door in a wall.

  Through the door was a very long, very dark and dank tunnel.

  When they finally reached the tunnel's end and light seeped through the crack at the bottom of another door, he said, "Hang on a minute. There are too many people just now."

  "Are we about to step into the east corridor?" Bitterblue asked.

  "Yes, and cross over to the secret passage that leads up to your father's rooms."

  "Why are we sneaking?"

  "So that everyone believes that you came back to the castle yesterday, told us about Thiel, and have been in your rooms ever since," said Po.

  "So that no one will remember the existence of the drawbridge tower," she said.


  "Or wonder how you all knew about Thiel."


  "You've already told everyone?"


  Oh, thank you. Thank you for taking that job from me.

  "All right," said Po. "Let's move quickly."

  Brilliant light as they stepped into the corridor. They crossed to a hanging of a green wildcat, behind which they passed through another door and into more darkness. They had no lamp as they climbed the winding passage, so Po warned her of steps in the path.

  Finally, they clambered out from behind another heavy hanging, into Leck's rooms. Bitterblue stumbled up the stairs. At the top, Po knocked. A key was heard to turn in the lock. When the door opened, Bitterblue fell into Helda's waiting arms.


  THE PACKETS OF seabane were in a cabinet in her bathing room. She hadn't imagined that she would feel so—lost—the first time she swallowed those herbs down.

  Back in the corridor, she pushed toward the doors.

  "A bath and breakfast would do you good, Lady Queen, before you face your staff," said Helda gently. "Clean clothing. A fresh start."

  "There's no such thing as a fresh start," said Bitterblue numbly.

  "Do you need to see Madlen for anything, Lady Queen?"

  Bitterblue wanted to see Madlen, but she didn't need to see Madlen. "I suppose not."

  "Why don't I ask her here, just in case, Lady Queen?"

  And so Helda and Madlen helped her soak away sweat and dirt in the bath, helped her wash her hair, took her soiled clothing and brought her fresh, clean things to wear. Madlen chatted quietly, her familiar, strange accent grounding Bitterblue. She wondered if there were signs on her body of her night with Saf, if Helda and Madlen could tell. Signs of her struggle with Thiel. She didn't mind, as long as no one asked questions. She had a vague feeling that questions would shatter her shell. "Are Bren and my guards all right?" she asked.

  "They're extremely uncomfortable," said Madlen, "but they'll be fine. I'll go back to Bren later today."

  "I promised Saf updates," said Bitterblue.

  "Lord Giddon will check in on Sapphire after dark, Lady Queen," s
aid Helda. "He'll convey all the news we have."

  "And is Death all right?"

  "Death is deeply depressed," said Madlen. "But otherwise recovering."

  She didn't expect breakfast to do her any good. When it did, it was her first experience of a new kind of guilt. It shouldn't be so easy to nurture herself, her stomach should not be so comforted by food that was filling. She shouldn't want to live when Thiel had wanted to die.

  IN THE INFIRMARY, her two Lienid guards seemed grateful for her visit and her thanks.

  Death sat propped up in bed with a lopsided bandage around his head.

  "All those books," he moaned. "Lost. Irreplaceable. Lady Queen, Madlen says I'm not to work until my head stops aching, but I believe it's aching from lack of work."

  "That sounds a bit unlikely, Death," said Bitterblue gently, "seeing as you were bashed over the head. But I do understand what you mean. What work would you like?"

  "The remaining journals, Lady Queen," he said fervently. "The one I was working on survived the fire, and Lord Giddon tells me that a very few others did as well. He has them. I'm dying to see them, Lady Queen. I was so close to understanding things. I believe that some of his odder and more particular renovations to the castle and city were an attempt to bring another world to life here, Lady Queen. Presumably the world he came from, with the colorful rat. I believe he was trying to turn this world into that one. And I believe that it may be a land of considerable medical advancement, which is why he was obsessed with his mad hospital."

  "Death," she said quietly. "Have you ever gotten the impression, from reading about his hospital, that it was not him, but his staff, that did the hurtful things to the victims? That he often stood back and watched?"

  Death's eyes narrowed. "It would explain some things, Lady Queen," he said, his eyes widening again. "He speaks sometimes of the few victims he 'kept for himself.' That could mean, couldn't it, that he shared the others, presumably with other abusers?"

  "The abusers were also his victims."

  "Yes, of course, Lady Queen. In fact, he speaks of 'moments when his men come to realize what they are doing.' It hadn't occurred to me until now, Lady Queen," he said morosely, "which men he was referring to, or precisely what they were doing."

  At this reminder of her men, Bitterblue stood, grimly preparing herself. "I'd better go."

  "Lady Queen," he said, "may I ask you for one more thing on your way?"


  "You—" He paused. "You will think it unimportant, Lady Queen, in the face of your other worries."

  "Death," she said. "You're my librarian. If there's something I can do that will bring you comfort, tell me what it is."

  "Well," he said. "I keep a bowl with water for Lovejoy under the desk, Lady Queen. It will certainly be empty, if it's there at all. He'll be disoriented by my absence, you see? He'll think I abandoned him. He can manage feeding himself quite well on the library mice, but he does not venture outside the library and won't know where to find water. He's very fond of water, Lady Queen."

  * * * * *

  LOVEJOY WAS FOND of water.

  The desk was a blackened, broken-down shell, the floor under it ruined. The bowl, green as a Monsean valley, lay upside down some distance from the desk. Carrying it out of the library and into the great courtyard, shivering, Bitterblue walked to the fountain pool. The bowl, once she'd filled it, was so cold that it burned her fingers.

  In the library, she considered the situation, then knelt behind the gutted desk and placed the water under its corner. It didn't seem kind to draw Lovejoy to such a smelly ruin, but if that was where he was used to finding his water, then perhaps that was where he would look for it.

  She heard a growl, in a feline voice she recognized. Peeking beneath the desk, she saw a lump of darkness and the dangerous flick of a tail.

  Cautiously, she slid her hand halfway under the desk toward him, so that he could decide whether to approach or ignore. He chose attack. Yowling and swift, he swiped at her, then retreated again.

  Bitterblue held her bleeding hand to her chest, biting back her cries, because she didn't blame him, and she knew how he felt.

  ON A STAIRWAY, as she approached her offices, Po intercepted her.

  "Do you need me?" he asked. "Do you want me, or anyone else, to go in there with you?"

  Standing before the strange light of his eyes, Bitterblue thought about that. "I will need you," she said, "many times in the next few days. And I'll need your concentrated help at some point in the future, Po. Your help with my court and my administration and with Monsea alone, undistracted—not while you're also contributing to an Estillan revolution. Once Estill is settled, I want you back here for a short while. Will you agree?"

  "Yes," he said. "I promise."

  "I think I need to do this thing now alone," she said. "Though I have no idea what to say to them. I have no idea what to do."

  Po tilted his head, considering her. "Both Thiel and Runnemood are dead, Cousin," he said, "and they were always in charge. Your men will be looking for a new leader."

  WHEN SHE STEPPED into the lower offices, the room went still. All faces turned to her. Bitterblue tried to think of them as men who needed a new leader.

  What surprised her was that it wasn't difficult. She was struck by the need transparent on their faces and in their eyes. Need for many things, for they stared at her like lost men, mute with confusion, and with shame.

  "Gentlemen," she said quietly, "how many of you have been involved in the systematic suppression of truths from Leck's time? The killing of truthseekers?"

  None of them answered, and many of them dropped their eyes.

  "Is there anyone here who wasn't involved, in one way or another?" she said.

  Again, no one answered.

  "All right," she said, a bit breathlessly. "Next question. How many of you were forced by Leck to commit atrocities upon other people?"

  All of them raised their eyes to her again, which stunned her. She'd been afraid that the question would cause them to break. But instead they looked into her face, with hope, almost; and looking back at them, finally she saw it, the truth hiding behind the numbness, at the back of the deadness, in all of their eyes.

  "It wasn't your fault," she said. "It wasn't your fault, and now it's over. No more hurting people. Do you understand? No more hurting even one more soul."

  Tears were running down Rood's face. Holt came to her, dropping to his knees. He took her hand and began to weep. "Holt," she said, bending down to him. "Holt, I forgive you."

  A breath went around the room, a silence that seemed to ask if it too was worthy of forgiveness. Bitterblue felt the question from all of them, and stood there, scrambling for the answer. She couldn't sentence every guilty man here to a term in prison and leave it at that, for that would change nothing about the truer problem in their hearts. She couldn't dismiss them from their work and send them away, because left to their own devices, they would probably continue to hurt people, and some of them would hurt themselves. No more of people hurting themselves, she thought. But nor can I keep them on and tell them to continue with their work—for I can't trust them.

  She had thought of the queen as a person who shaped big things, like bringing literacy back to the city and castle. Like opening her High Court to claims for remuneration from across the entire kingdom. Housing the Council while they assisted the Estillans with the overthrow of an unjust king and dealing with whatever Katsa found at the other end of that tunnel. Deciding, when Ror came with his navy, how much of a navy Monsea needed, and how much it could afford.

  But it is just as important, she thought, to thaw these men who were frozen by my father, and to stand at their sides through the pain of their healing.

  How can I ever take care of so many men?

  She said, "We have a great deal of work to do, and undo. I'm going to divide you into teams and assign each team to one aspect of the task. Each team will include new people, Monseans, from outs
ide this administration. You'll report to them, as they'll report to you, and you'll work with them closely. You understand that my reason for involving others is that I can't trust you," she said, pausing, allowing that small, necessary arrow to hit each of them. They need me to trust them again, or they won't be able to be strong. "But each of you has the opportunity now to regain my trust. I will not require any of you to revisit the abuses of King Leck. I'll leave that to others who weren't hurt by him so directly. I won't allow anyone to hold you responsible for, or plague you with, things you did then that you were compelled to do. I also forgive you, personally, for the crimes you've committed since," she said. "But—others may not, and those people have the same right to justice that you do. The time ahead is going to be messy and difficult," she said. "Do you understand that?"

  Stricken faces looked back at her. Some of them nodded.

  "I'll help each of you through it, however I can," she said. "If there are trials, I'll testify on your behalf, for I understand that few of you were at the top of this chain of command, and I understand that you were forced for years, some of you for decades, by my father, to be obedient. Perhaps some of you don't know now how to be anything but obedient. That's not your fault.

  "One more thing," she said. "I've said that I won't make you revisit the time of King Leck, and I meant that. But there are people—lots of people—who see value in doing so. There are people who need to do so in order to recover. I don't begrudge you your own need to heal in your own way, but you will not interfere with other people's healing. I understand that what they do interferes with yours. I see the conundrum. But I will not tolerate any of you compounding Leck's crimes with more crimes. Anyone who continues with this suppression will lose every bit of my loyalty. Do you understand?"

  Bitterblue looked into every face, waiting for an acknowledgment. How she'd worked with these men for so many years and never seen how much was in their faces was beyond her, and it shamed her; and now they were depending on her. It was in their eyes; and they didn't know that she was all talk, that the teams she talked about building had no foundation and no plan, nothing but her words. Her words were empty. She might as well have told them that they were all going to build a castle out of air.

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