Bitterblue, p.43
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       Bitterblue, p.43

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  In her bedroom doorway, in her shift, Bitterblue fought against Helda, who was trying to take hold of her. She shouted, yelling abuse at Darby, yelling abuse at the Monsean Guard who'd let it happen, wild, savage in her grief in a way that seemed actually to frighten Helda, who stopped reaching for her and merely stood, quiet and tight-lipped. When Po arrived and Bitterblue transferred her yelling to him, he wrapped his arms around her even though she hit and kicked him. Caught her hard when she reached for one of her knives. Held her tighter and pulled her to the floor, wedged with her in the doorway, forcing her to be still. "I hate you," she yelled. "I hate him. I hate all of them!" she cried, and finally, her voice worn to exhaustion, gave up fighting and began to sob. "It's my fault," she sobbed in Po's arms. "It's my fault."

  "No," said Po, who was also in tears. "It was his decision."

  "Because I sent him to prison."

  "No," Po said again. "Bitterblue, think about what you're saying. Darby did not kill himself because you sent him to prison."

  "They're so fragile. I can't bear it. There's no way to stop them, if that's what they have in mind to do. There's nothing you can threaten them with. I should have been more gentle. I should have let him stay on."

  "Bitterblue," said Po again. "This was not your doing."

  "It was Leck's doing," said Helda, kneeling beside them. "Still Leck's doing."

  "I'm sorry I screamed at you," Bitterblue whispered to her.

  "It's all right, my dear," said Helda, smoothing Bitterblue's hair. And Bitterblue's heart ached for Darby, who'd been alone, without friends like these to hold him or draw strength from.

  She said, "Somebody bring me Rood."

  WHEN HER SLUMP-SHOULDERED former adviser was shuffled into her rooms by the Monsean Guard, Bitterblue said, "Rood. Are you thinking of killing yourself?"

  "You've always been direct, Lady Queen," he said sadly. "It's one of the things I like about you. I do consider such things now and then. But the knowledge of the hurt it would do to my grandchildren has always stopped me. It would confuse them."

  "I see," said Bitterblue, thinking that through. "What about house arrest?"

  "Lady Queen," he said, looking into her face, then beginning to blink back tears. "Would you really allow that?"

  "From now on, you're under house arrest," Bitterblue said. "Don't leave your family's quarters, Rood. If you need anything, send word, and I'll come."

  THERE WAS ANOTHER person in Bitterblue's prisons this morning that she wanted to see, for Holt had done well. Not only were Fox and Spook behind bars, but a number of items had been returned to Bitterblue that she hadn't even realized were missing. Jewelry she'd kept in her mother's chest. The picture book she'd put on her sitting room shelves so long ago—Leck's Book of True Things with drawings of knives and sculptures and a Graceling's corpse, that made a sick sort of sense to her now. A great number of fine swords and daggers that had apparently gone missing, in recent months, from the smithy. Poor Ornik. He'd probably had his heart broken over what Fox had turned out to be.

  Of course, she would not see Fox in her rooms; Fox would never again be invited to Bitterblue's rooms. Fox was brought to her office, instead, flanked by two members of the Monsean Guard.

  She didn't look any the worse for wear, her hair, her face still startlingly pretty, her uneven gray eyes as striking as ever. But she snarled at Bitterblue, and said, "You can't link me or my grandmother to the crown, you know. You have no evidence of that. We won't hang."

  She spoke it like a taunt, and Bitterblue watched her quietly, struck by the strangeness of seeing someone so changed. Was this, for the first time, Fox as she really was?

  "Do you think I want you to hang?" she asked. "For being a common thief, and not a very impressive one? Don't forget that we handed you your prize."

  "My family has been thieves longer than yours has ruled," Fox spat out. "There's nothing common about us."

  "You're thinking of my father's side of the family," said Bitterblue calmly, "and forgetting my mother's. Which reminds me. Guards, see if she has a ring on her person, would you?"

  Less than a minute later, after a short, ugly struggle, Fox gave up the ring she wore on a band around her wrist, under her sleeve. One of the guards, rubbing a sore shin where he'd been kicked, passed it to Bitterblue. It was the replica of the ring Ashen had worn for Bitterblue, the ring all of Bitterblue's spies carried: gold, with inset gray stones.

  Holding it in her hand, closing it in her fist, Bitterblue felt that some sort of order had now been restored, for Fox had no right to wear something of Ashen's against her skin.

  "You may take her away," Bitterblue said to the guards. "That's all I wanted."

  CLERKS WHO'D HARDLY ever been up to her office before climbed the stairs today, to bring her reports. Whenever they left her again, she sat with her head in her hands, trying to loosen her braids. The sense of being overwhelmed slammed against her. Where was she to start? The Monsean Guard was a great worry, for it was huge and it was everywhere; it was a net that spread itself across the entire kingdom, and she depended upon it to protect her people.

  "Froggatt," she said to her clerk the next time he walked through the door. "How will I teach everyone to think things through, and make their own decisions, and become real people again?"

  Froggatt stared at a window, biting his lip. He was younger than most of the others and, she recalled, recently married. She remembered that she'd seen him smile once. "May I speak freely, Lady Queen?"

  "Yes, always."

  "For now, Lady Queen," he said, "allow us to continue to obey. But give us honorable instructions, Lady Queen," he said, turning a flushed face to hers. "Ask us to do honorable things, so that we may have the honor of obeying you."

  It was as Po had said, then. They needed a new leader.

  SHE WENT TO the art gallery. She was looking for Hava, though she didn't know why. There was something about Hava's fear that she wanted to be near, because she understood it, and something about being able to hide; something about turning into something one wasn't.

  It was less dusty than it had been, and the fires were lit. Hava seemed to be trying to turn it into a habitable place. There was a kind of flicker in her vision that Bitterblue was becoming accustomed to, whenever Hava was hiding in plain sight, but nothing in the gallery was flickering today. Bitterblue sat on the floor to the side of the sculptures in the sculpture room, watching their transformations.

  After some time, Hava found her there.

  "Lady Queen," she said. "What's wrong?"

  Considering the plain face of this girl, her strange, copper-red eyes, Bitterblue said, "I want to turn into something I'm not, Hava. Like you do, or like one of your mother's sculptures."

  Hava walked to the windows beyond the sculptures, windows that looked out over the great courtyard. "I remain myself, Lady Queen," she said. "It's only other people who think I'm something I'm not. Which only reinforces, every time, the thing I am, which is a pretender."

  "I'm a pretender too," said Bitterblue quietly. "Right now, I'm pretending to be the leader of Monsea."

  "Hm," said Hava, pursing her lips and staring out the window. "My mother's sculptures aren't about people being what they're not either, Lady Queen, not really. She had a way of seeing truths about people, and showing them with her sculptures. Have you ever thought of that?"

  "You mean that I really am a castle," said Bitterblue dryly, "and you're a bird?"

  "I knew how to fly away," Hava said, "in a sense, anytime anyone else came near. The only person I was ever myself with was my mother. Even my uncle didn't know, until recently, that I was alive. It was our way of hiding me from Leck, Lady Queen. She pretended to him that I'd died, and then, every time he or anyone else at court came near, I used my Grace to hide. I flew away," she said simply, "and Leck never knew that my Grace was the inspiration for all her sculptures."

  Bitterblue's eyes locked on Hava, suddenly wondering something. Unsettled, and tryin
g to make a more focused study of Hava's face. "Hava," she said, "who is your father?"

  Hava didn't seem to hear. "Lady Queen," she said in a peculiar voice, "who is that person in the courtyard?"


  "That person," Hava said, pointing, her nose pressed to the window, speaking in the wondering sort of voice that Teddy used when he talked about books.

  Joining her carefully at the glass, Bitterblue looked down and saw a sight that was all comfort: Katsa and Po in the courtyard, kissing.

  "Katsa," Bitterblue breathed happily.

  "Beyond Lady Katsa," said Hava impatiently.

  Beyond Katsa was a close-knit group of people that Bitterblue had definitely never seen before. At the edge of the group was a woman, an elderly woman. She leaned against a younger man who stood beside her. Her coat was pale brown fur; the hat on her head was pale brown fur. Her eyes, all at once, rose to meet Bitterblue's in the high gallery window.

  Bitterblue needed to see her hair.

  Like magic, the woman pulled off her hat and let her hair tumble down, scarlet and gold and pink, streaked with silver.

  It was the woman from the hanging in the library, and Bitterblue didn't know why she was crying.


  THEY WERE FROM a land east of the eastern mountains, called the Dells, and they came in peace. Except that some of them were from a land to the north of the Dells called Pikkia, a land that occasionally bickered with the Dells, but was currently at peace with them—or not? It was hard to follow, because Katsa was explaining it badly and none of them seemed to speak the Monsean language much at all. Bitterblue knew what language they must all speak, but the only words she could remember were cobwebs and monster. And she still seemed to be leaking tears.

  "Death," she said. "Somebody fetch Death. Katsa, just for a minute, stop talking," she said, needing quiet, because something peculiar was happening here in the courtyard. The voices, the need to understand messy things, and all the nattering—all of it was keeping her from being able to focus.

  Everyone stood quietly, waiting.

  Bitterblue couldn't take her eyes off the woman from the hanging. And the strangeness was coming from this woman: Bitterblue realized that now; she was changing the air somehow, changing the way Bitterblue felt. She tried to breathe easily, tried not to be overwhelmed. Tried to see the woman's individual parts instead of being invaded by . . . her extraordinary whole. Her skin was brown and her eyes were green and her hair—Bitterblue understood the woman's hair, for she'd seen the rat pelt, but the pelt hadn't been a living, breathing woman, and it had not made her feel as if the top of her head were singing.

  The air was soaked with the feeling of power being used.

  "What are you doing to us?" Bitterblue whispered to the woman.

  "She does understand you, Bitterblue," said Katsa, "though she doesn't speak our language. She can respond to you, but she'll only do so with your permission, for she does it mentally. It'll feel like she's in your head."

  "Oh," Bitterblue said, stepping back. "No. Never."

  "All she does is communicate, Bitterblue," said Katsa gently. "She doesn't steal your thoughts, or change them."

  "But she could if she wanted to," said Bitterblue, for she'd read her father's stories about a woman who looked like this and had a venomous mind. Behind her, the courtyard had filled with servants, with clerks, guards, Giddon, Bann, Raffin, Helda, Hava—Anna the baker, Ornik the smith. Dyan, the gardener. Froggatt, Holt. And others filing in, and all of them staring in wonder at a woman who was standing there glowing with something.

  "She doesn't want to change your thoughts, Bitterblue," said Katsa, "or anyone's here. And in your case, she tells me she couldn't, because you have a good, strong mind that is closed to her interference."

  "I've had practice," Bitterblue said in a small, hard voice. "How does her power work? I want to know exactly how it works."

  Po broke in. "Beetle," he said, his voice hinting that she was, perhaps, being rude, "I understand you, but perhaps you'd like to greet them and bring them in out of the cold first? They've come a long way to meet you. They'd probably like to be shown to their rooms."

  Bitterblue cursed the tears that kept running down her cheeks. "Perhaps you've forgotten the events of the last few days, Po," she said plainly. "It pains me to be rude, and I apologize for my rudeness. But, Katsa, you have brought a woman who controls minds into a castle of people particularly vulnerable to such a thing. Look around," she said, gesturing to the courtyard that continued to fill with people. "Do you think this is good for them, to be standing here, mindlessly staring? Maybe it is," she said bitterly. "If she truly comes in peace, maybe she can be their higher power, and keep them from committing any more suicides."

  "Suicides?" said Katsa in dismay.

  "I'm responsible for these people," Bitterblue said. "I'm not going to welcome her until I understand who she is and how her power works."

  THEY WENT TO the library to talk about it: Bitterblue, her Council friends, the Dellians and Pikkians, away from prying eyes and empty, captive minds. Passing Death's ruin of a desk, she remembered that Death was in the infirmary.

  The strangers seemed neither surprised nor offended by Bitterblue's lack of hospitality. But when she walked them into her alcove, they stopped, eyes widening, and gawked at the hanging, murmuring among themselves in words Bitterblue knew the sound of, but couldn't understand. The woman with the power, in particular, exclaimed something to the others, then grabbed hold of one of her companions and motioned him to say something, or do something, to Bitterblue. The man stepped forward, bowed, and spoke in a heavy but somehow pleasant accent. "Queen Bitterblue," he said. "Please forgive my—poor speech—but Lady Bier remembers this—" The man gestured to the hanging. "She is moved to—" He stopped, in frustration.

  Katsa interjected quietly. "She says that Leck kidnapped her,

  Bitterblue, and murdered one of her friends, a very long time ago. She believes this is a scene from the kidnapping, for that is the coat he gave her to wear, and they passed through a forest of white trees. Afterwards, she escaped, and fought him. In the fight, he fell through a crack in the ground, then presumably followed a tunnel that brought him to Monsea. She's moved to tell you how sorry she is that he found his way back here, and did harm to your kingdom. The Dells only discovered the seven kingdoms fifteen years ago, and the only tunnels they've known until now have brought them into far eastern Estill, so they were some time in discovering the problems in Monsea. She's sorry for letting Leck return and for not helping Monsea to defeat him."

  It was strange to listen to Katsa interpret. It involved long, silent pauses on Katsa's part, which gave Bitterblue time to gape and wonder, and be boggled at some of the more astonishing things Katsa said. Which Katsa then followed up with even more astonishing things.

  "What does she mean, return?" Bitterblue said.

  Katsa squinted. "Lady Fire is unsure of what you're asking."

  "She said that the tunnel brought him back here, to Monsea," Bitterblue said. "That she allowed him to return. Does she mean that Leck wasn't Dellian? Does she know he was Monsean?"

  "Ah," said Katsa, pausing for the answer. "Leck was not Dellian. She doesn't know if he was Monsean, only that he was from the seven kingdoms. There are no Gracelings in the Dells," Katsa added, speaking for herself now. "My arrival created quite a commotion, let me tell you."

  I'm from the seven kingdoms, Bitterblue thought, completely. Dare I hope I'm Monsean? And this woman, this strange, beautiful woman. My father killed her friend.

  They discovered the seven kingdoms fifteen whole years ago? "That man called her Lady Bier," Bitterblue said. "But you called her Lady Fire, Katsa."

  "Bir is the Dellian word for fire," said a worn and familiar voice behind Bitterblue. "Bee-ee-rah, or, in our letters, B-i-r, Lady Queen."

  Spinning, Bitterblue faced her librarian, who was listing a bit to one side, like a ship taking water. He held the charred
remains of the Dellian-Gracelingian dictionary in his hands. Part of its back end was gone, the pages were warped, and the red cover was now mostly black.

  "Death!" she said. "I'm glad you could join us. I wonder—" She was hopelessly confused. "Perhaps we should all learn each other's names and sit down," she said, after which there were introductions all around, and hands taken, and manuscripts cleared from the table, and additional chairs found and wedged in among the others. And names almost immediately forgotten, because there was too much else going on. They were a group of nine travelers: three explorers, four guards, one healer, and the lady, who served as ambassador, and also as a silent translator, and who invited Bitterblue to call her Fire. Most of the travelers were browner-skinned than the most sundarkened Lienid Bitterblue had ever seen, except for a couple who were paler, and one, the man who'd spoken before, who was fully as pale as Madlen. Their hair and eyes were also a range of hues— ordinary hues, aside from Lady Fire. And still, there was something in the way they all looked—in their jaws? In their expressions?— something they all had in common. Bitterblue wondered if they saw some sort of distinctive similarity when they looked at her and her friends too.

  "I don't completely understand this," she said. "Any of it."

  Lady Fire said something, which the pale man made a move to

  translate, in his nice, funny accent. "The mountains have always been too high," he said. "We have had—stories, but no way across, or—" He made a motion with his hand.

  "Under," said Po.

  "Yes. No way under," said the man. "Fifteen years ago, a—" He paused again, baffled.

  "A landslide," said Po. "Revealed a tunnel. And now the stories will no longer be mere stories."

  "Po," said Bitterblue, disturbed that he was publicly displaying his own ability, even though she knew he was pretending that Lady Fire was talking to him mentally. Wasn't he? Or maybe she was talking to him mentally, and if so, did Lady Fire know what Po was? Wouldn't that make her a thousand times more dangerous? Or— Bitterblue grasped her forehead. Had Bitterblue, sitting here, thinking about it all, revealed Po's secret to Lady Fire?

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