Bitterblue, p.45
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       Bitterblue, p.45

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
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  My father was a monster too, Fire told her.

  "You mean, a monster like you?" asked Bitterblue.

  He was a monster like me, said Fire, nodding, in the Dellian sense. He was a beautiful man with silver hair and a powerful mind. But he was a monster the way you normally use the word here as well. He was a terror, like your father. He used his power to destroy people. He destroyed our king and ruined our kingdom. That's why I came to you, Bitterblue.

  "Because your father destroyed your kingdom?" Bitterblue said, confused.

  Because when I heard about you, Fire said patiently, my heart burst open. I felt that I knew what you'd faced and what you're facing.

  Bitterblue understood. Her voice was small. "You came just to comfort me?"

  I'm not a young woman, Bitterblue, Fire said, smiling. I did not come for the exercise. Here, I'll tell you the story.

  And Bitterblue hugged herself again, because the story of the Dells was, indeed, sad, but also because it gave her hope for what Monsea could be in forty-nine years. And what she could be too.

  Fire said something else that gave Bitterblue hope. She taught Bitterblue a word: Eemkerr. Eemkerr had been Leck's first, true name.

  Bitterblue took this information straight to the library. "Death?" she said. "Do we have birth records for the seven kingdoms for the year Leck would have been born? Will you review them for someone with a name that sounds like Eemkerr?"

  "A name that sounds like Eemkerr," Death repeated, peering up at her from his new desk, which was covered with smelly, scorched papers.

  "Lady Fire says that Leck told her that before his name was Leck, it was Eemkerr."

  "Which is a name she remembers from almost fifty years ago," Death said sarcastically, "spoken to her, not spelled, presumably not a name from her own language, and conveyed to you mentally fifty years later. And I'm to recall every instance of a name of that nature in all the birth records available to me from the relevant year for all seven kingdoms, on the extremely slim chance that we have the name right and a record exists?"

  "I know you're just as happy as I am," said Bitterblue.

  Death's mouth twitched. Then he said, "Give me some time to remember, Lady Queen."

  WHEN YOU VISIT us, Fire said, you will see the ways Leck tried to re-create the Dells here. I hope it doesn't distress you. Our kingdom is beautiful and I would hate for it to cause you pain.

  They stood in Bitterblue's office, looking out at the bridges. "I believe," Bitterblue said, giving it careful consideration, "that if your home reminds me of mine, I will like your home. Leck was—what he was. But he did manage, somehow, to make this castle beautiful and strange, and I'd be sorry to change some things about it. He accidentally filled it with art that tells the truth," she said. "And I've even begun to appreciate the folly of these bridges. They have little reason to exist, except as a monument to the truth of all that's happened, and because they're beautiful."

  Bitterblue let Winged Bridge fill her sight, floating blue and white, like a winged thing. Monster Bridge, where her mother's body had burned. Winter Bridge, glimmering with mirrors that reflected the gray of the winter sky.

  She said, "I suppose those are reasons to exist."

  WE WILL LEAVE before too long, said Fire. Do I understand that you'll send a small party with us?

  "Yes," Bitterblue said. "Helda is helping me assemble it. I don't know most of them, Fire. I'm sorry not to send people I know more personally. My friends are absorbed with the Estillan situation and my own crisis here, and I fear that my clerks and guards are a bit too fragile right now for me to send with you." It was difficult to characterize the effect Fire had on Bitterblue's clerks and guards, or indeed, on any of her more empty-eyed people. She brought a deep peace to some, she made others frantic, and Bitterblue wasn't certain that one was any better than the other. Her people needed practice sitting comfortably in their own minds.

  There's one who's asked to join us that I believe you know well, said Fire.

  "Is there?"

  A sailor. He wants to join us in our exploration of the eastern seas. I understand that he's been in some trouble with your law, Bitterblue?

  Ah, said Bitterblue, taking a breath through a rush of sadness. Absorbing the inevitability of this news. You must mean Sapphire. Yes. Sapphire stole my crown.

  Fire paused, considering Bitterblue as she stood, small and quiet, in the window. Why did he steal your crown?

  Because, Bitterblue whispered. He loved me and I hurt him.

  After a moment, Fire said gently, He is welcome to join us.

  Take care of him.

  We will, of course.

  He can give you good dreams, Bitterblue said.

  Good dreams? The sleeping kind?

  Yes, the sleeping kind. It's his Grace. He can make you dream the most marvelous, comforting things.

  Well, Fire said. It's possible I've been waiting to meet your thief all my life.

  44

  ON A JANUARY morning, the day before the Dellians' departure, Bitterblue was reading Death's latest report on the journal translation. Lady Queen, she read, I believe this journal I've been translating all along is from Leck's final year and is the last journal he ever wrote. In the section I just translated, he finally does kill Bellamew, as he has been threatening to do for some time.

  Froggatt ushered someone into her office and Bitterblue didn't even look up, because in her peripheral vision, the visitor looked like Po. Then he chuckled.

  Her eyes shot to him. "Skye!"

  "You thought I was Po," said Po's gray-eyed brother, grinning.

  Bitterblue jumped up and went to him. "I'm so happy to see you! Why didn't anyone tell me you'd landed? Where's your father?"

  Skye wrapped her in a hug. "I decided to be the courier myself," he said. "You look wonderful, Cousin. Father's in Monport, with half the Lienid Navy."

  "Oh, right," Bitterblue said. "I forgot."

  One of Skye's eyebrows jumped up and his grin widened. "You forgot that you asked my father to bring his navy?"

  "No, no. There's just been—a lot going on. You've arrived in time to meet the Dellians before they go."

  "The what?"

  "The Dellians. They live in a kingdom to the east, under the mountains."

  "Bitterblue," said Skye hesitantly, "are you in your right mind?"

  Bitterblue took Skye's arm. "Let's go find Po, and I'll tell you about it."

  IT WAS A pleasure to watch Po and Skye come together. Bitterblue couldn't explain why her heart swelled to see brothers kiss and hug each other, but it made her feel as if the world wasn't hopeless. The meeting took place in Katsa's rooms, where Katsa, Po, and Giddon were doing some brainstorming about Estill. After the appropriate round of greetings and explanations, Po put an arm around Skye and took him into the adjacent room. Shut the door.

  Katsa watched them go. Then, crossing her arms tight, she kicked an armchair.

  After a bit more kicking of furniture, walls, and floor had transpired, Giddon said to her, "Skye loves Po. This won't make him stop loving Po."

  Katsa turned to Giddon with tears in her eyes. "He'll be so angry."

  "He won't stay angry forever."

  "Won't he?" she said. "People do sometimes."

  "Do they?" he said. "Reasonable people? I hope that's not true."

  Katsa gave him a funny look, but didn't answer. Resumed hugging herself and kicking things.

  Bitterblue didn't want to go, but she had to; she had a meeting with Teddy in her tower. She was going to ask him if he mightn't like to work in her newly formed Ministry of Education, as an official representative adviser from the city. Part-time, of course. She wouldn't want to deprive him of the work he already loved.

  * * * * *

  THE MONSEAN GUARD was in too much disarray at the moment to press Bitterblue on the matter of whether her crown was missing. And so Saf had been allowed to go home, although Bitterblue was still nervous about it. The crown was missing, it was
at the bottom of the river, and there had been witnesses. It did not seem the time in the High Court just now, while they were trying to restore a kind of honesty, for Bitterblue to lie or try to falsify evidence of a crown she could not produce.

  She had not seen Saf since the night on the bridge. He was leaving with the Dellians in the morning. And so, just after sunset, Bitterblue ran through the snowy city to the shop.

  Teddy answered her knock, grinned, bowed, and went away to rustle up Saf. She waited in the shop, shivering. The front wall and part of the ceiling, which had burned, were covered over with roughhewn planks that were not airtight. The room was very cold and smelled of burning; much of the furniture was gone.

  Saf came in quietly, then stood there with his hands in his pockets, not saying anything. Glancing at her with a kind of shyness.

  "You're leaving tomorrow," she said.

  "Yes," he said.

  "Saf," she said. "I have a question I need to ask you."

  "Yes?"

  She made herself watch his soft eyes. "If you weren't in trouble about the crown thing," she said, "would you still go away?"

  The question made his eyes softer. "Yes."

  She had known the answer before she'd asked. But hearing it still hurt.

  "My turn," he said. "Would you stop being the queen for me?"

  "Of course not."

  "There, now," he said. "We've both asked each other the same question."

  "We haven't."

  "Have too," he said. "You asked me to stay, and I asked you to come with me."

  Thinking about that, she came closer and reached for his hand. He gave it, and for a moment, she played with his rings, feeling the warmth of his skin in this cold room. Then, obeying her body, she kissed him, just to see what would happen. What happened was that he began to kiss her back. Tears slid down her face.

  "It's one of the first things you told me about yourself," she whispered. "That you would go."

  "I meant to do it sooner," he whispered back. "I meant to do it when things started to get tricky with the crown, to save myself. But then I couldn't. Not while we were still fighting."

  "I'm glad you didn't."

  "Did your dream work?"

  "I walk on top of the world, and I'm not afraid," she said. "It's a beautiful dream, Saf."

  "Tell me what other dream you want."

  She wanted a thousand dreams. "Let me dream that we leave each other friends."

  He said, "That's a true thing."

  IT WAS LATE when Bitterblue returned to the castle. In her rooms, she held the fake crown in her hands, considering. Then she found Katsa and said, "Will you team up with Po on a certain matter for me? I have a special request."

  Even later, Giddon came to fetch her.

  "Did it work?" asked Bitterblue as they walked to Katsa's rooms together.

  "It did."

  "And is everyone all right?"

  "Don't be alarmed when you see Po. His black eye is from Skye, not from this."

  "Oh, no. Where is Skye? Should I talk to him?"

  Giddon rubbed his beard. "Skye has decided to join the party going to the Dells," he said. "As Lienid's ambassador."

  "What? He's leaving? He just got here!"

  "I think he has a broken heart," said Giddon, "to match Po's black eye."

  "I wish people would stop hitting Po," whispered Bitterblue.

  "Well," Giddon said. "Yes. I'm hoping Skye is following my model. Punch Po; go on a long trip; feel better; come back and make up."

  "Well," said Bitterblue, "at least we have the crown."

  Inside Katsa's room, Po sat on the bed, soaked through, huddled in blankets, something like the world's most miserable clump of seaweed. Katsa stood in the middle of the room, shaking water from her hair and wringing her clothing out onto the fine rug, looking like she'd just won a swimming competition. Bann's voice came from the bathing room, where he was running a bath. Raffin sat at the dining table, trying to wipe muck off of Bitterblue's crown by applying a mysterious solution from a vial, then rubbing the crown with what looked like one of Katsa's socks.

  "Where did you leave the fake crown?" asked Bitterblue.

  "A good bit closer to shore," said Katsa. "We'll go make a big, noisy production of fishing it out in the morning."

  And Saf could leave Monsea with his name cleared. For Bitterblue

  wasn't certain whether giving a fake crown to black-market lords, stealing it back, then throwing it into the river was a crime or not, but it didn't seem like much of one. And at least it wasn't treason. Saf could come back someday, and he would never hang.

  THE DAY HAD started with Skye walking into her office, though it seemed ages ago. Every day was like that, so full that she stumbled into bed once it was over.

  She'd been reading a report from Death when Skye had arrived. She was in her bed that night when she finally picked it up again.

  He does kill Bellamew, as he has been threatening to do for some time. He kills her because he sees her, in an unguarded moment, with a child that she has claimed has been dead for years. The child disappears from the room once he has apprehended her, Lady Queen, not surprisingly, as we can only assume that the child is Hava. Bellamew refuses to produce her. Leck takes Bellamew away to his hospital, furious with her for lying about the child, has her killed with much more expediency than usual, then goes to his bedroom and tries to destroy her work with paint. Over days and weeks, he searches for the child but cannot find her, and simultaneously, his desire to be alone with you begins to grow. He begins to write of molding you into a perfect queen, and of both you and Ashen becoming increasingly unaccommodating. He writes of the anticipatory pleasure he feels in being patient.

  This is the sort of intimate and painful information I would not normally burden you with, Lady Queen, except that the implications, when one considers everything together, seem significant, and I thought you would like to know them. If you will remember, Lady Queen, Bellamew and Queen Ashen were two victims Leck claimed to have "kept for himself." And his preoccupation with this child is striking, is it not?

  It was striking. But it wasn't surprising. It was a thing Bitterblue

  had begun to wonder about on her own. It was even a thing she'd asked Hava once, but they'd gotten interrupted.

  Bitterblue climbed out of bed again and found a robe.

  IN THE ART gallery, she sat on the floor with Hava, trying to stop Hava from being so frightened.

  "I haven't wanted you to know, Lady Queen," Hava whispered. "I've never told a soul. I intended never to."

  "You mustn't call me by my title anymore," whispered Bitterblue.

  "Please let me. I'm terrified of other people knowing. I'm terrified of you, or other people, or anybody, starting to think of me as your heir. I would die before I became the queen!"

  "We'll make some sort of provision, Hava, I promise, so that you'll never be queen."

  "I couldn't, Lady Queen," Hava said, her voice breaking in panic. "I swear to you, I couldn't!"

  "Hava," Bitterblue said, taking Hava's hand and holding it tight. "I swear to you that you won't."

  "I don't want to be treated like a princess, Lady Queen. I could not bear people fussing. I want to live in the art gallery, where no one sees me. I—" Tears were streaming down Hava's face. "Lady Queen, I hope you understand that I mean none of this personally. I would do just about anything for you. It's just that . . ."

  "It's too big, and everything is moving too fast," said Bitterblue.

  "Yes, Lady Queen," said Hava, sobbing. She flickered, once, into a sculpture. Then came back as a sobbing girl. "I would have to leave," she cried. "I would have to hide forever."

  "Then we won't tell anyone," Bitterblue said. "All right? We'll swear Death to secrecy. We'll sort out what it means slowly, all right? I won't push it on you, and you'll decide what you want, and maybe we'll never tell anyone. Do you see that nothing needs to change, except what we know? Hava?" Bitterblue took a breath to preve
nt herself from wrapping both arms around the girl. "Hava, please," she said, "please. Don't go away."

  Hava spent another moment crying against Bitterblue's hand. Then she said, "I don't actually want to leave you, Lady Queen. I'll stay."

  In her bed again, Bitterblue tried to wrap sleep around herself. She had an early morning, with Dellians and Pikkians to say goodbye to. She had Skye to find and reason with, and another big day of meetings and decisions. But Bitterblue couldn't sleep. She held a word inside herself that she was too shy to say aloud.

  Finally, she dared, once, to whisper it.

  Sister.

  "DO YOU SUPPOSE it tells Dellian time?" said Po two days later, lazing lengthwise across one of Bitterblue's armchairs, dangling Saf's fifteen-hour watch on his finger and occasionally trying to balance it on his nose. "I love this thing. Its inner workings calm me."

  Saf had given Po the watch as a parting gift, and as thanks for saving his neck. "It'd be a funny way to keep time, wouldn't it?" said Bitterblue. "Quarter past would be twelve and a half minutes past the hour. And by the way, that's stolen property."

  "But doesn't it seem that that's why Leck did everything?" said Po. "To imitate the Dells?"

  "Perhaps it's another one of his botched imitations," said Giddon.

  "Giddon," said Bitterblue, "what will you do after Estill?"

  "Well," he said, a quiet shadow touching his face. She knew where Giddon wanted to go after Estill. She wondered if the Council would make a project of it. She also wondered if going to see something that was no longer there was a good idea—and if that mattered, when it came to a person's heart. "I suppose it depends on where I'm needed," he said.

  "If there's no place you're urgently needed, or if you're undecided, or if, perhaps, you're thinking of visiting the Dells—would you consider coming back here for a little while first?"

  "Yes," he said without hesitation. "If I'm not needed elsewhere, I'll come back here for a while."

  "That is a comfort," said Bitterblue quietly. "Thank you."

  Her friends were leaving, finally. In a matter of days, they were leaving for Estill, and it was the real thing this time; the revolutionaries and a few select Estillan nobles had agreed to come together, take their king by surprise, and change the lives of all Estillan people. Bitterblue was happy about her uncle's navy to the south and her strange new friends to the east. She knew she was going to have to be patient, to wait and see what would happen. And she also knew that she'd have to have faith in her friends, not dwell on thoughts of them in a war. Bann, her old sparring partner. Po, who pushed himself too hard and was hurting now from the loss of a brother. Katsa, who would come apart if something happened to Po. Giddon. It startled her, how quickly tears came to her eyes when she thought of Giddon leaving.

 
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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 

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