Bitterblue, p.44
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       Bitterblue, p.44

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  Po's hand found its way around Katsa to Bitterblue's shoulder. "Take a breath, Cousin," he said. "This comes on the tail of too many horrible days. I believe this will seem like good news once you've had the time to absorb it."

  I remember the day we all sat in a circle on this library floor, she thought to him. The world was far smaller then, and still too big.

  Every day is so overwhelming.

  The pale fellow was trying to talk again, saying something about how they were all sorry to have arrived during horrible days. Bitterblue raised her eyes and peered at him as he spoke, trying to place something.

  "Whenever you talk," she said, "there's something familiar about it."

  "Yes, Lady Queen," agreed Death dryly. "Perhaps that's because it's a stronger version of the accent spoken by your healer Madlen."

  Madlen, thought Bitterblue, staring at the man. Yes, how odd that

  he sounds like Madlen. And how odd that he's pale with amber eyes like Madlen. And—

  My Graceling healer, Madlen.

  There are no Gracelings in the Dells.

  But Madlen has only one eye.

  Just like that, one of Bitterblue's anchors in this world turned, suddenly, into a perfect stranger.

  "Oh," she said dumbly. "Oh dear." She thought of all the books in Madlen's room and found the answer to another question. "Death," she said. "Madlen saw Leck's journals on my bed, then that dictionary appeared on your shelf. The dictionary is Madlen's."

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Death.

  "She told me she came from the far east of Estill," Bitterblue said. "Fetch her. Someone fetch her."

  "Allow me, Lady Queen," Helda said, in a dark voice that made Bitterblue glad she was not Madlen at this moment.

  Helda pushed herself up and swept off, and Bitterblue stared at her guests. They'd all gone over a trifle sheepish.

  "Lady Fire apologizes, Bitterblue," Katsa said. "She says that it's embarrassing to be caught spying, but regrettably, not spying is never an option, as no doubt you understand."

  "I understand that it makes for an interesting definition of the peace they claim to come in," said Bitterblue. "Did they make Madlen take out her own eye?"

  "No," said Lady Fire emphatically.

  "Never," added Katsa. "Madlen lost her eye as a child, doing an experiment with liquids and a powder that exploded. It made it possible for her to pretend."

  "But how does she heal so well? Are all healers in the Dells truly so gifted?"

  Katsa translated. "Medical knowledge is highly advanced there, Bitterblue. Medicines grow there that we don't have here, especially in the west, which is where Madlen is from, and science is paramount. Madlen has been kept supplied with the best Dellian medicines during her time here, to keep up her pretense."

  Science, Bitterblue thought. Real science. I would like that kind of progress in my kingdom, in a sane manner, without delusion. Suddenly, she loved Po for his stupid paper glider, because it was based on reality.

  Then Madlen came into the alcove. First, she went to Lady Fire and kissed the woman's hand, murmuring something in their language. Then she rounded the table to Bitterblue and fell to both knees. "Lady Queen," she said, bowing her head, speaking thickly. "I hope you'll forgive me for deceiving you. I have not liked to do so. At every moment, I've not liked it, and I hope you'll allow me to stay on as your healer."

  Bitterblue understood then, something about how a person could lie and tell the truth at the same time. Madlen had made something of a fool of her. But Madlen's care of Bitterblue's body, and of her heart, had been genuine.

  "Madlen," she said, "I'm relieved. I was steeling myself against the possibility of losing you."

  THE TALK CONTINUED. Bitterblue's concept of the world had never been stretched like this before, and she was a bit light-headed.

  The Dellians described what it had been like to discover a world to their west. The Dells knew war, and the Dellian king had no wish for it. And so, discovering a land of seven kingdoms in which too many of the kings were warmongers, the Dellians had chosen secret exploration, rather than making themselves immediately known.

  They were exploring eastward as well.

  "The Pikkians have a sizable navy," Katsa explained, "and the Dellians have been growing their navy slowly as well. They've been exploring their coastline and waters, Bitterblue."

  They'd brought maps. A squat, tough-looking woman named Midya did her best to explain them. The maps showed wide expanses of land and water and, in the north, unnavigable ice.

  "Midya is a famous naval explorer, Bitterblue," said Katsa.

  "Does that make her Pikkian or Dellian?"

  "Midya has a Dellian mother, and her father was Pikkian," said Katsa. "Technically, she's Dellian, because that's where she was born. I'm told there's a great deal of intermingling, especially in recent decades."

  Intermingling. Bitterblue looked around the table, at these people who'd come together in her library alcove. Monseans, Middluners, Lienid, Dellians, Pikkians. Gracelings . . . and whatever Lady Fire was.

  "Lady Fire is what is called a 'monster,'" said Katsa quietly.

  "Monster," Bitterblue said. "Ozhaleegh."

  Every Dellian speaker at the table looked up and stared.

  "Excuse me," Bitterblue said, standing, walking away from the table. Pushing herself a good distance away. She found a dark place behind some bookshelves and sat on the rug in a corner.

  She knew what would happen. Po would come to her, or send to her whoever he felt was the right person. But it wouldn't help, because no one was right. No one living, anyway. She didn't want to cry on anyone's living shoulder or be told bracing things. She wanted to be out of this world, in a meadow of wildflowers, or a forest of white trees, not knowing about the terrible things happening around her, a baker girl, with a mother who did needlework. Could she have that one back again? Could she have it for real?

  The person who came was Lady Fire. Bitterblue was surprised that Po had sent her. Until, looking at the lady, she wondered if perhaps she had been calling for Lady Fire herself.

  Fire knelt before Bitterblue. Bitterblue was suddenly frightened, terrified of this beautiful, old, creaky-kneed woman in brown; terrified of the impossible hair that tumbled around her shoulders; terrified of how much she wanted to look into this woman's face and see her own mother. Knowing, suddenly, that this was why Fire had mesmerized Bitterblue from that first moment: Because the love she felt when she looked into Fire's face was the love she had known once for her mother. And this wasn't right. Her mother had deserved that love and her mother had suffered and fought and died because of it. This woman had done nothing but walk into a courtyard.

  "You have drugged me with false feeling for you," Bitterblue whispered. "That is your power."

  A voice came to her, inside her head. It was not words, but she understood it perfectly.

  Your feelings are real, it said. But they're not for me.

  "I feel them for you!"

  Look closer, Bitterblue. You love fiercely, and you carry a queen's share of sadness. When I'm near, my presence overwhelms you with all that you feel—but I'm only the music, Bitterblue, or the hanging or the sculpture. I make your feelings swell, but it's not me you feel them for.

  Bitterblue began to cry again. Fire offered her own furry, brown sleeve to wipe Bitterblue's tears. Gathering the softness to her face, allowing herself to sink into it, Bitterblue was connected, for a moment, to this singular creature who had come when she'd called, and been kind when she'd made herself unpleasant. "If you wanted to," Bitterblue whispered, "you could go into my mind and see all that's in there. And steal it, and change it to whatever you like. Couldn't you?"

  Yes, said Fire. Though it would not be easy with you, for you're strong. You don't know it, but your unfriendly reception quite endeared you to us, Bitterblue. We hoped you would be strong.

  "You say you don't want to take our minds. Mine or my people's."

  It's not why I
'm here, said Fire.

  "Would you do something for me if I asked you to?"

  That depends on what it is.

  "My mother said I was strong enough," Bitterblue said, beginning to shiver. "I was ten years old, and Leck was chasing us, and she knelt before me in a field of snow and gave me a knife and said that I was strong enough to survive what was coming. She said I had the heart and the mind of a queen." Bitterblue turned her face away from Fire, just for a moment, because this was hard; saying this truth aloud was hard. "I want to have the heart and mind of a queen," she whispered. "I want it more than anything. But I'm only pretending. I can't find the feeling of it inside me."

  Fire considered her quietly. You want me to look for it inside you.

  "I just want to know," Bitterblue said. "If it's there, it would be a great comfort for me to know."

  Fire said, I can tell you already that it's there.

  "Really?" Bitterblue whispered.

  Queen Bitterblue, Fire said, shall I share with you the feeling of your own strength?

  FIRE TOOK HER mind so that it was as if she were in her own bedroom, raw with crying and grief.

  "This doesn't feel strong," Bitterblue said.

  Wait, said Fire, still kneeling beside her in the library. Be patient.

  She was in her bedroom, raw with crying and grief. She was frightened, and certain that she was incapable of the task ahead. She was ashamed of her mistakes. She was small, and tired of being left. Furious with the people who left, and left, and left. Heartsore on account of a man on a bridge who betrayed her and then left, and a boy on a bridge who she knew somehow would be the next one to leave her.

  Then something began to change in the room. None of the feelings changed, but Bitterblue encompassed them somehow. She was larger than the feelings, she held the feelings in an embrace, and murmured kindnesses to them and comforted them. She was the room. The room was alive, the gold of the walls glowed with life, the scarlet and gold stars of the ceiling were real. She was bigger than the room; she was the corridor and the sitting room and Helda's rooms. Helda was there, tired and worried and feeling some arthritis in her knitting hands, and Bitterblue embraced her, Bitterblue comforted her too, and eased the pain in her hands. And grew. She was the outer corridors, where she embraced her Lienid Door Guard. She was the offices and the tower and she embraced all the men who were broken and frightened and alone. She was the lower levels and the smaller courtyards, the High Court, the library, where so many of her friends were now; where people gathered from an entire other land. The most amazing thing, to discover a new land! And its people were in the library now, and Bitterblue was large enough to contain such a degree of wonder. And to embrace her friends among them, feel the complications of their feelings for each other, Katsa and Po, Katsa and Giddon, Raffin and Bann, Giddon and Po. The complications of her own feelings. She was the great courtyard, where water pounded and snow fell on glass. She was the art gallery, where Hava hid and where Bellamew's work stood as evidence of something that had transcended her father's cruelty. She was the kitchen, humming along with unending efficiency, and the stables where the winter sun burnished wood and horses whickered with hair in their eyes, and the practice rooms where men sweated, and the armory, and the smithy, the artisan courtyard where people were working, and she held all those people in her arms. She was the grounds, the walls, and the bridges, where Sapphire hid, and where Thiel had broken her heart.

  She saw herself, tiny, fallen, crying and broken on the bridge. She could feel every person in the castle, every person in the city. She could hold every one of them in her arms; comfort every one. She was enormous, and electric with feeling, and wise. She reached down to the tiny person on the bridge and embraced that girl's broken heart.

  P A R T F I V E

  The Ministry of Stories and Truth

  (Late December and January)


  IT WAS SOOTHING, when so little else in the world lent itself to clarity, to make lists of tasks that needed execution, then choose a person to entrust with each task. It was comforting to meet the person and understand, finally, why Helda or Teddy or Giddon had recommended the person. And heartening to discuss the task with that person, then leave the meeting feeling as if the execution of the task was perhaps not one of the five most hopeless undertakings on earth. She knew they couldn't all be, for there were well more than five tasks.

  Hava had surprised Bitterblue with a few truly pertinent staff recommendations. The new Master of Prisons, for example, was a woman Hava had witnessed working on the silver docks, a Monsean Graceling named Goldie who'd grown up on a Lienid ship and eventually become the commander of the navy prison in Ror City. Upon returning to Monsea after Leck's death, she'd discovered that the Monsean Guard didn't employ women, at all, for anything, and certainly not to command its prisons. Goldie was Graced, of all things, with singing.

  "My new prison master is a songbird," Bitterblue muttered to herself at her desk. "It's absurd." But it was no less absurd than women not being employed by the Monsean Guard. She could accept the one to change the other. And it was an exciting change. The Dellians advised her on the matter, for they'd had women in their army for decades.

  "I feel just a tad better about the Estill business now that you've made an ally in the Dellians, Bitterblue," said Po, lying on his back on Bitterblue's sofa. "At least about the danger of war. They're a serious military power. They'll back you if there's trouble."

  "Does this mean you've let go of the certainty that I'm about to be attacked at every moment?"

  "No," he said. "The existence of the Council endangers you."

  "I'm a queen, Po," Bitterblue retorted. "I'll never be safe. Also, when it comes to war, the Dellians don't want to get involved."

  "The Dellians were pretending not to exist. Now they're behaving like neighbors. And you've charmed their mind reader, which is never easily done."

  "It can't be that hard, if Katsa charmed you."

  "You don't find me charming?" Katsa asked her from the sitting room floor, where she sat idly with her back to the sofa. "Move over," she said to Po, shoving his legs.

  "Hello," he said. "Would it kill you to ask nicely?"

  "I've been asking you nicely for at least ten seconds and you've been ignoring me. Move over. I want to sit down."

  Po made a show of beginning to move out of the way, then flipped himself off the sofa and flattened her. "So predictable," Bitterblue muttered as the two of them began wrestling on the rug.

  "Fire is the sister-in-law of the king and the stepmother of the woman who commands the Dellian Army, Bitterblue," yelled Po, his face jammed into the carpet. "She's a valuable friend!"

  "I'm right here," Bitterblue said. "You don't need to yell."

  "I'm yelling because I'm in pain!" he yelled, his head under the sofa.

  "I'm having a hard time with this letter," said Bitterblue vaguely. "What do you write to the elderly king of a foreign land when your kingdom is in shambles and you've only just discovered that he exists?"

  "Tell him you hope to visit!" yelled Po, who seemed somehow to have gotten the upper hand. He was now straddling Katsa, trying to pin her shoulders to the ground.

  Bitterblue sighed. "Perhaps I should ask him for advice. Katsa, you've met him. How did he seem?"

  Katsa now sat calmly on the stomach of her vanquished foe. "He was handsome," she said.

  Po moaned. "Was he beat-to-a-pulp handsome, or perhaps just push-down-a-flight-of-stairs handsome?"

  "I would not push a seventy-six-year-old man down a flight of stairs," said Katsa indignantly.

  "I suppose I have that to look forward to, then," Po said. "Someday."

  "I've never pushed you down a flight of stairs," Katsa said, beginning to laugh.

  "I'd like to see you try."

  "Don't even joke. It's not funny."

  "Oh, wildcat."

  And now they were hugging. Bitterblue was left to roll her eyes and struggle alone with
her letter to King Nash of the Dells.

  "I've met a lot of kings, Bitterblue," said Katsa. "This one is a decent man, surrounded by decent people. They watched us quietly, for fifteen years, waiting to see if we could bumble ourselves into a more civilized state, rather than trying to conquer us. Po's right. You should tell him that you'd like to visit. And it would be entirely appropriate for you to ask him for advice. I have never been so happy," she added, sighing.


  "When I understood that the land I'd found was a land slow to war, with a king who was not an ass, and Pikkia another peaceful nation above them, I'd never been so happy. It changes the balance of the world."

  ONE ADVANTAGE OF traveling by tunnel was that a tunnel made weather irrelevant. The Dellians could return in the winter, or wait until winter had passed—but, I miss my husband, Fire admitted to Bitterblue one day.

  Bitterblue tried to imagine the kind of man who could be Fire's husband. "Is your husband like you?"

  Fire smiled. He is old like me.

  "What is his name?"


  "And how long have you been married to him?"

  Forty-eight years, said Fire.

  They were tromping across the back garden, for Bitterblue had wanted to show Fire the Bellamew of her mother, fierce and strong, turning into a mountain lion. Now Bitterblue stopped, hugging herself, letting the snow soak into her boots.

  What is it, my dear? asked Fire, stopping beside her.

  "It's the first time I've ever heard of two people being together that long, and neither dying, and neither being awful," she said. "It makes me happy."

  FIRE WAS MISSING two fingers, which had frightened Bitterblue the first time she'd noticed. Your father did not take them, Fire assured her; then asked her how much of a sad story she wanted to know.

  This was how Bitterblue learned that forty-nine years ago, the Dells had been a kingdom with no certain shape, a kingdom recovering from a great evil. Like Monsea.


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