Bitterblue, p.6
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       Bitterblue, p.6

         Part #3 of Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore

  "And why does a baker girl sneak out at night to steal drink money? A bit dangerous, isn't it?"

  She suspected that the question contained a reference to her size. "Have you ever seen Lady Katsa of the Middluns?" she asked archly.

  "No, but everyone knows her story, of course."

  "She's dangerous without being big as a man."

  "Fair enough, but she's a Graced fighter."

  "She's taught many of the girls in this city to fight. She taught me."

  "You've met her, then," Saf said, clapping his cup down onto the ledge and turning to her, all bright-eyed attention. "Have you met Prince Po too?"

  "He's in the castle sometimes," Bitterblue said with a vague flap of her hand. "My point is, I'm able to defend myself."

  "I'd pay to watch either of them fight," he said. "I'd give gold to watch them fight each other."

  "Your own gold? Or someone else's? I think you're a Graced thief."

  Saf seemed to enjoy this accusation immensely. "I'm not a Graced thief," he said, grinning. "Nor am I a Graced mind reader, but I know why you sneak out at nights. You can't get enough of the stories."

  Yes. She couldn't get enough of the stories. Or of these exchanges with Teddy and Saf, for they were the same as the stories, the same as the midnight streets and alleys and graveyards, the smell of smoke and cider, the crumbling buildings. The monstrous bridges, reaching up into the sky, that Leck had built for no reason.

  The more I see and hear, the more I realize how much I don't know.

  I want to know everything.


  THE ATTACK IN the story room two nights later took her completely by surprise.

  Even in the moments afterwards Bitterblue was unaware of it having happened, and wondered why Saf had pushed in front of her protectively, clutching at the arm of a hooded man, and why Teddy was leaning on Saf looking vague and ill. The entire struggle was so silent and the movements so furiously controlled that when the hooded man finally broke away and Saf whispered to Bitterblue, "Give Teddy your shoulder. Act normal. He's only drunk," Bitterblue thought Teddy actually was drunk. She didn't understand until they'd passed out of the story room, Teddy's weight heavy between them, that his problem was not drink. His problem was the knife in his gut.

  If Bitterblue had had any doubt that Saf was a sailor, his language now as he carried his gasping, glass-eyed friend up the steps laid those doubts to rest. Saf lowered Teddy to the ground, whipped his own shirt over his head and ripped it in half. In one motion that caused Teddy—and Bitterblue—to cry out, he yanked the blade from Teddy's abdomen. Then he pressed a wadded piece of shirt to the wound and snarled up at Bitterblue.

  "Do you know the intersection of White Horse Alley and Bow Street?"

  It was a location close to the castle, by the east wall. "Yes."

  "A healer named Roke lives on the second story of the building on the southeast corner. Run and wake him and bring him to Teddy's shop."

  "Where is Teddy's shop?"

  "On Tinker Street near the fountain. Roke knows it."

  "But that's very near here. Surely there's a healer closer—"

  Teddy stirred and began to whimper. "Roke," he cried. "Tilda— tell Tilda and Bren—"

  Saf barked at Bitterblue, "Roke is the only healer we can trust. Stop wasting time. Go!"

  Bitterblue turned and tore through the streets, hoping that Saf's Grace, whatever it was, was a kind to help him keep Teddy alive for the next thirty minutes, because that was how long this relay was going to take her. Her mind spun. Why would a hooded man in a story room attack a writer and a thief of gargoyles and things already stolen? What had Teddy done for someone to want to hurt him this badly?

  And then, after a few minutes of running, the question dropped away, her head cooled, and she began to realize the true desperation of the situation. Bitterblue knew about knife wounds. Katsa had taught her how to inflict them, and Katsa's cousin Prince Raffin, the heir to the Middluns throne and a medicine maker, had explained to her the limits of what healers could do. The knife in Teddy's gut had been low. Perhaps his lungs and his liver and maybe even his stomach were safe, but still, it had probably at least cut into his intestine. This could mean death even with a healer skilled enough to patch the holes, for the contents of Teddy's intestine even now could be spilling into his abdomen, and this would lead to an infection—fever, swelling, pain—that people rarely survived. If it came to that. He could also bleed to death.

  Bitterblue had never heard of the healer Roke, and was in no position to judge his abilities. But she did know of one healer who had kept alive people with knives in their bellies: her own healer, Madlen, who was Graced, and who had a reputation for marvelous medicines and impossible surgical successes.

  When Bitterblue reached the intersection of White Horse Alley and Bow Street, she kept running.

  THE CASTLE INFIRMARY was on the ground floor, east of the great courtyard. Not knowing her way around, Bitterblue scurried like the shadow of a rat down a hallway and took a chance, thrusting Ashen's ring into the face of a member of the Monsean Guard who was drowsing under a wall lantern.

  "Madlen!" she whispered. "Where?"

  Startled, the man cleared his throat and gestured. "Down that corridor. Second door on the left."

  A moment later she was in a dark bedroom shaking her healer out of sleep. Madlen woke, grunting strange, incomprehensible words that Bitterblue cut through sharply. "Madlen, it's the queen. Wake up, and dress for running, and bring whatever you need for a man with a blade in his gut."

  There was the noise of fumbling, then a spark as Madlen lit a candle. She exploded out of bed, glared at Bitterblue with her single amber eye, and blundered across the room to her wardrobe, where she yanked on a pair of trousers. The ends of her nightgown hanging to her knees, her face glowing as palely as the gown, she began to toss a great number of vials and packages and horrible-looking sharp metal implements into a bag. "What part of his gut?"

  "Lowish, and rightish, I think. The blade long and wide."

  "How old the man, how big, and how far are we going?"

  "I don't know, nineteen, twenty, and he's no unusual size— neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. Near the silver docks. Is it bad, Madlen?"

  "Yes," she said, "it's bad. Lead the way, Lady Queen. I'm ready."

  She was, perhaps, not ready in the traditional court sense of the word. She hadn't bothered with the eye patch she usually wore over her empty eye socket, and her white hair stood out in wild knots and snarls. But she'd shoved the bunchy ends of her nightgown into the waist of her trousers. "You mustn't call me Queen tonight," Bitterblue whispered as they raced along hallways and through the shrubberies of the great courtyard. "I'm a baker in the castle kitchens and my name is Sparks."

  Madlen made a disbelieving noise.

  "Above all else," Bitterblue whispered, "you must never tell a single soul even the smallest part of what happens tonight. I speak as your queen, Madlen. Do you understand?"

  "I understand perfectly," Madlen said, "Sparks."

  Bitterblue wanted to thank the seas for sending this ferocious, astonishing Graceling to her court. But it seemed too early in the night yet for thanks.

  They ran to the silver docks.

  ON TINKER STREET near the fountain Bitterblue stopped, breathing hard, turning in circles, looking for a place that was lit up, squinting at the pictures on the shop signs. She had just made out the words Teddren's and Print above a dark doorway when the door opened and the gold in Saf's ears flashed at her.

  His hands and forearms were covered in blood, his bare chest rising and falling, and as Bitterblue yanked Madlen forward, the panic on his face turned to fury. "That is not Roke," he said, finger extended toward Madlen's white mane, apparently the portion of her anatomy identifying her most readily as someone other than Roke.

  "This is the Graced healer Madlen," Bitterblue said. "No doubt

  you've heard of her. She's the very best,
Saf, the queen's most favored healer."

  He seemed to be hyperventilating. "You brought one of the queen's own healers here?"

  "I swear to you that she won't speak of anything she sees. You have my word."

  "Your word? Your word, when I don't even know your true name?"

  Madlen, younger than her hair suggested and strong as any healer must be, shoved at Saf 's chest with both hands, pushing him bodily back into the shop. "My true name is Madlen," she said, "and I may be the only healer in all seven kingdoms who can save whoever you've got dying in there. And when this girl asks me to keep something quiet," she said, pointing a steady finger back at Bitterblue, "I do. Now get out of my way, you daft, muscle-brained nitwit!"

  She elbowed past him toward the light leaking from a partly open door in the back. Barging through it, she slammed the door shut behind her.

  Saf reached beyond Bitterblue to pull the shop door closed, plunging them into darkness. "I'd love to know what the seas is going on in that castle of yours, Sparks," he said with bitterness, derision, accusation, and every other nasty feeling his voice could throw into it. "The queen's own healer jumping to the will of a baker girl? What kind of healer is she anyway? I don't like her accent."

  Saf smelled like blood and sweat: a sour, metallic combination that was instantly familiar to her. Saf smelled like fear. "How is he?" she whispered.

  He didn't answer, only made a sound something like a disgusted sob. Then he grabbed her arm and yanked her across the room to the door with edges seeping light.

  * * * * *

  WHEN ONE HAS no occupation to pass the time while a healer determines whether she can patch up a friend's dying body, that time moves slowly. And indeed, Bitterblue had little occupation, for though Madlen required a stoked fire and boiling water and good light and extra hands as she dug her implements into Teddy's side, she did not require as many helpers as were available to her. Bitterblue had a long time to observe Saf and his two companions as the night wore on. She decided that the blond woman must be Saf 's sister. She wore no Lienid gold and, of course, her eyes were not purple, but still, she had Saf's look, his lightish hair, and anger sat on her face the same way it sat on Saf's. The other one might be Teddy's sister. She had exactly Teddy's mop of brown hair and clear hazel eyes.

  Bitterblue had seen both women before, in the story rooms. They'd chatted, sipped drinks, laughed, and had never given the slightest indication, whenever their brothers walked by, that they were acquainted.

  They and Saf hovered at Madlen's elbows at the table, following her directions exactly: scrubbing their hands and arms; boiling implements and handing them to her without touching them directly; standing where she indicated. They didn't seem concerned by Madlen's odd surgical attire that nearly concealed her, her hair clamped down under a scarf and another scarf tied over her mouth. Nor did they seem tired.

  Bitterblue stood nearby, waiting, struggling at times to keep her eyes open. The tension in the room was exhausting.

  The place was small, undecorated, roughly furnished with a few wooden chairs and the wooden table Teddy lay on. A small stove, a couple of closed doors, and a narrow staircase leading upstairs. Teddy breathed shallowly, unconscious on the table, his skin damp and off-color, and the one time Bitterblue tried to focus closely on Madlen's work, she found her healer, head tilted to compensate for her missing eye, placidly taking needle and thread to a mucusy mass of pink stuff protruding from Teddy's abdomen. After that, Bitterblue stayed close, ready to jump if anyone needed anything, but content enough not to watch.

  Her hood fell back once while she was struggling with a cauldron of water. They all saw her face. Her breathlessness at that moment had to do with a good deal more than the heavy load she was carrying, but it became clear enough, after a second or two, that Madlen was the only person in the room who'd ever laid eyes on the queen.

  IN THE EARLY morning, Madlen set down the bottle of ointment with which she'd been working and stretched her neck to left and right.

  "There's nothing more we can do. I'll sew the wound closed, and then we must wait and see. I'll stay with him through the morning, just for caution's sake," she said, with a quick, bold glance at Bitterblue that the queen understood to be a request for permission. Bitterblue nodded.

  "How long must we wait?" asked Teddy's sister.

  "If he's to die, we may know quite soon," Madlen said. "If he's to live, we won't know it for certain until several days have gone by. I'll give you medicines to fight infection and restore his strength. He must take them regularly. If he doesn't, I can promise you he will die."

  Teddy's sister, so composed during the surgery, now spoke with a violence that startled Bitterblue. "He's careless. He talks too much; he befriends people he shouldn't. He always has and I've warned him, I've begged him. If he dies, it'll be his own fault and I'll never forgive him." Tears streamed down her face and Saf 's startled sister embraced her. The distraught woman sobbed against her friend's breast.

  Suddenly feeling as if her presence was an intrusion, Bitterblue crossed the room and went into the shop, pulling the door shut behind her. There, she flattened herself against the wall, breathing carefully, confused to find that the other woman's tears had brought her own tears close.

  The door beside her opened. Saf stood in the half-light, fully clothed now, the blood cleaned from his skin and a dripping white cloth in his hands.

  "Checking to see if I'm snooping around?" said Bitterblue, her voice coming harshly from her throat.

  Saf wiped the doorknob clean of its bloody smears. He went to the front of the shop and cleaned that door handle too. As he walked back toward the light, she saw his expression clearly but didn't know what to make of it, for he seemed angry and happy and bewildered all at once. He stopped beside her and shut the door to the back room, cutting off the light.

  Bitterblue didn't care to be alone with him in the dark, whatever his expression. Her hands moved to the knives in her sleeves and she took a step away from him, bumping into something pointy that made her yelp.

  He spoke then, not seeming to notice her distress. "She had an ointment that slowed his bleeding," he said wonderingly. "She cut him open, pulled part of him out, fixed it, and stuck it back in again. She's given us so many medicines that I can't keep track of what they're all for, and when Tilda tried to pay her, she would only take a few coppers."

  Yes, Bitterblue could share Saf 's wonder. And she was pleased with Madlen for taking the coppers, for Madlen was the queen's healer, after all. If she'd refused payment, it might have seemed as if she'd performed this healing on behalf of the queen.

  "Sparks," Saf said, surprising her with the intensity of his voice. "Roke could not have done what Madlen did. Even when I sent you to Roke, I knew Roke couldn't save him. I thought no healer could."

  "We don't know yet if he's saved," she reminded him gently.

  "Tilda is right," he said. "Teddy is careless and too trusting. You're the classic example. I couldn't believe the way he took to you, knowing nothing of you—and when we learned you came from the castle, there was such a fight. Did no good, of course; he sought you out the same as always. And the truth is, if he hadn't, he'd be dead now. It's your castle Graceling who's saved his life."

  At the end of a long night of forced wakefulness and worry, the notion that these friends were the queen's enemy was deeply depressing. How she wished she could set her spies on them without arousing Helda's suspicions as to how she knew them.

  She said, "I suppose I don't need to tell you that Madlen's presence here tonight must be kept quiet. Take care no one notices her when she leaves."

  "You're quite the riddle, Sparks."

  "You're one to talk. Why would anybody need to kill a gargoyle thief?"

  Saf 's mouth went hard. "How did you—"

  "I watched you do it."

  "You're a sneak."

  "And you're partial to a fight. I've seen it. You're not going to try anything stupid in revenge, ar
e you? If you start knifing people—"

  "I don't knife people, Sparks," Saf said, "except to stop them knifing me."

  "Good," she said weakly, relieved. "Me neither."

  At this, Saf began to laugh, a soft chuckle that grew until Bitterblue was also smiling. A gray light seeped through the edges of the shutters. Shapes were beginning to take form in this room: tables piled high with paper; vertical stands with strange cylindrical attachments; an enormous structure in the center of the room, like a night ship rising from water, gleaming dimly in places as if parts of it were made of metal. "What is that thing?" she asked, pointing. "Is that Teddy's printing press?"

  "A baker starts work before the rising sun," Saf said, ignoring her. "You'll be late to work this morning, Sparks, and the queen will have no fluffy morning bread."

  "A bit dull for you, is it, honest office work, after a life on the sea?"

  "You must be tired," he said blandly. "I'll walk you home."

  Bitterblue took a perverse comfort in his lack of trust. "All right," she said. "Let's just look in on Teddy first."

  Pushing away from the wall, following Saf back through the doorway, legs heavy, Bitterblue suppressed a yawn. This was going to be one long day.

  TRUDGING THE STREETS toward the castle, Bitterblue was relieved that Saf seemed not to expect conversation. In the growing light, his face was alert, his arms swinging from strong, straight shoulders. He probably gets more sleep in one night than I do in a week, Bitterblue thought crossly. He probably goes home after his late nights and sleeps until the next day's sunset. Criminals don't have to wake at six so they can start signing charters at seven.

  He rubbed his head vigorously then, until his hair stood out like the feathers of an addled river bird, then muttered something under his breath that sounded both desolate and angry. Her irritation vanished. Teddy had looked only slightly better than dead when they'd gone in to check on him, his face mask-like, his lips blue. The line of Madlen's mouth had been grim.

  "Saf," Bitterblue said, reaching for his arm to stop him. "Get what rest you can today, won't you? You must take care of yourself if you're to be any use to Teddy."

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