Golden fool, p.11
Golden Fool, p.11Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
The Queen’s ladies and maids were seated honorably at a side table almost adjacent to the high dais. This was a true mark of the Queen’s favor that ignored rank. Some of the ladies I knew from of old. Lady Hopeful and Lady Modesty had been the Queen’s companions when last I lived in Buckkeep Castle. I was glad to see they still remained at her side. Of Lady Whiteheart I recalled only her name. The others were younger; doubtless they had been but children when I last attended my queen. But one looked more familiar than the others. I wondered, had I known her mother? And then, as she turned her round face and dipped her head to acknowledge some jest, I recognized her. Rosemary.
The plump little girl had grown into a buxom lady. She had been the Queen’s little maid when last I had seen her, always tripping along at Kettricken’s heels, always present, an unusually placid and good-natured child. She had had a habit of drowsing off at Kettricken’s feet when the Queen and I were conferring. Or so it had seemed. She had been Regal’s spy upon the Queen, not only reporting back to him, but later aiding him in his attempts on the Queen’s life. I had not seen her commit any of her betrayals, but in retrospect both Chade and I had deduced that she must have been Regal’s wee bird. Chade knew; Kettricken knew. How could it be that she lived still, how could it be that she laughed and dined so near the Queen, that now she lifted a glass in a toast to her? I tore my eyes away from her. I tried to still the tremor of fury that raced through me.
I looked at my feet for a time, drawing long, steadying breaths, willing away the color in my face that my anger had brought.
The tiny thought rang in my mind like a dropped coin. I lifted my eyes and found Prince Dutiful’s worried gaze fixed on me. I shrugged my shoulders to him, then tugged at my collar as if the tight fit of my jacket bothered me. I did not reach back to him with the Skill. It disturbed me that he had been able to reach me past my habitual walls. It disturbed me more that, as before, he used his Wit sense of me to push the thought that he formed with the Skill. I did not wish him to use the Wit. I especially didn’t want to encourage him to use those magics together. He might form habits he could never break. I waited a short time, then again met his anxious gaze and smiled briefly. I looked away from him again. I could sense his reluctance but he followed my example. It would not suit me at all for anyone to notice us and wonder why Prince Dutiful was exchanging significant glances with a serving man.
The meal was magnificent and lengthy, yet I noted that neither Dutiful nor Elliania ate much. But Arkon Bloodblade ate and drank enough to make up for both of them. Watching him, I decided he was a hearty man, sharp of wit, but not the diplomat or tactician who had arranged this marriage. His personal interest in Kettricken was obvious, and perhaps by Outislander standards, it was complimentary. My stolen glimpses of the high table showed me that Kettricken responded courteously to his conversation, yet seemed to attempt to address more of her words to the Narcheska. The girl’s replies to her were brief, but pleasantly delivered. She was reserved rather than sulky. And midway through the meal, I noticed that Uncle Peottre seemed to be thawing toward Kettricken, perhaps despite himself. Doubtless Chade had advised the Queen that we would be wise to bestow more attention about the Narcheska’s “mother’s brother. ” Certainly Peottre seemed to respond to it. He began by adding some comments of his own to whatever Elliania replied, but soon he and Kettricken were conversing over her head. Admiration lit Kettricken’s eyes, and she followed his words with genuine interest. Elliania seemed almost grateful to be able to pick at her food and nod to the words that flowed past her.
Dutiful, well-bred lad that he was, engaged Arkon Bloodblade in talk. The boy seemed to have mastered the knack of asking the naturally garrulous Bloodblade the best questions to keep him talking. From the waving of his implements, I deduced that Bloodblade was telling of tales of his hunting and battle prowess. Dutiful looked suitably impressed, nodding and laughing at all the right moments.
The one time that Chade’s eyes met mine, I glanced pointedly at Rosemary and scowled. But when I looked back for his reaction, he was once more chatting with the lady at his left. I growled to myself, but knew that clarification would come later.
As the end of the meal grew closer, I could feel Dutiful’s tension mounting. The Prince’s smile showed too much of his teeth. When the Queen motioned to the minstrel and he called for silence, I saw Dutiful shut his eyes for an instant as if to steel himself to the challenge. Then I took my eyes from him and focused my attention on Elliania. I saw her moisten her lips, and then perhaps she clenched her jaws to still a trembling. The cant of Peottre’s posture made me suspect that he clasped her hand under the table. In any case, she drew a deep breath and then sat up straighter.
It was a simple ceremony. I paid more attention to the faces of those witnessing it. All the participants moved to the front of the high dais. Kettricken stood next to Dutiful, and Arkon Bloodblade by his daughter. Unbidden, Peottre came to stand behind her. When Arkon set his daughter’s hand in the Queen’s, I noticed that Duchess Faith of Bearns narrowed her eyes and clamped her lips. Perhaps Bearns remembered too well how they had suffered in the Red Ship War. There was quite a different reaction from the Duke and Duchess of Tilth. They looked warmly into one another’s eyes as if recalling the moment of their own pledge. Patience sat, still and solemn, her gaze distant. Young Civil Bresinga looked envious, and then turned his eyes away from the sight as if he could not bear to witness it. I saw no one who looked at the couple with malice, though some, like Faith, plainly had their own opinions about this alliance.
The couple’s hands were not joined at this time; rather Elliania’s hand was put in Kettricken’s, and Dutiful and Arkon grasped wrists in the ancient greeting of warriors well met. All seemed a bit surprised when Arkon tugged a gold band from his wrist and clasped it onto Dutiful’s. He guffawed in delight at how it hung on the boy’s lesser-muscled arm, and Dutiful managed a good-natured laugh, and even held it aloft for others to admire. The Outislander delegation seemed to take this as a sign of good spirit in the Prince, for they hammered their table in approval. A slight smile tugged at the corner of Peottre’s mouth. Was it because the bracelet that Arkon had bestowed on Dutiful had a boar scratched on it rather than a narwhal? Was the Prince binding himself to a clan that had no authority over the Narcheska?
Then came the only incident that seemed to mar the smoothness of the ceremony. Arkon gripped the Prince’s wrist and turned it so the Prince’s hand was palm up. Dutiful tolerated this but I knew his uneasiness. Arkon seemed unaware of it as he loudly asked the assemblage, “Shall we mingle their blood now, for sign of the children to come that share it?”
I saw the Narcheska’s intake of breath. She did not step back into Peottre’s shelter. Rather, the man stepped forward. In an unconscious show of possession, he set a hand to the girl’s shoulder. His words were unaccented and calm as he said, in apparent good-natured rebuke, “It is not the time or the place for that, Bloodblade. The man’s blood must fall on the hearthstones of her mothers’ house for that mingling to be auspicious. But you might offer some of your blood to the hearthstones of the Prince’s mother, if you are so minded. ”
I suspect there was a hidden challenge in those words, some custom we of the Six Duchies did not comprehend. For when Kettricken began to hold out her hand to say such an act was not necessary, Arkon thrust out his arm. He pushed his sleeve up out of the way, and then casually drew his belt knife and ran the blade down the inside of his arm. At first the thick blood but welled in the slice. He clawed at the wound and then gave his arm a shake to encourage the flow. Kettricken wisely stood still, allowing the barbarian whatever gesture he thought he must make for the honor of his house. He displayed his arm to the assembly, and in the murmurous awe of all, we watched his cupped hand catch his own trickling blood. He suddenly flung it wide, a red benedi
Many cried out as those crimson droplets spattered the faces and garments of the gathered nobility. Then silence fell as Arkon Bloodblade descended from the dais. He strode to the largest hearth in the Great Hall. There he again let his blood pool in his hand, then flung the cupped gore into the flames. Stooping, he smeared his palm across the hearth, and then stood, allowing his sleeve to fall over his injury. He opened his arms to the assembly, inviting a response. At the Outislander table, his people pounded the board and whooped in admiration. After a moment, applause and cheers also rose from the Six Duchies folk. Even Peottre Blackwater grinned, and when Arkon rejoined him on the dais, they grasped wrists before the assemblage.
As I watched them there, I suspected that their relationship was far more complicated than I had first imagined. Arkon was Elliania’s father, yet I doubted that Peottre ceded him any respect on that account. But when they stood as they did now, as fellow warriors, I sensed between them the camaraderie of men who had fought alongside one another. So there was esteem, even if Peottre did not think Arkon had the right to offer Elliania as a treaty-affirming token.
It brought me back full circle to the central mystery. Why did Peottre allow it? Why did Elliania go along with it? If they stood to gain from this alliance, why did not her mothers’ house stand proudly behind it and offer the girl?
I studied the girl as Chade had taught me. Her father’s gesture had caught her imagination. She smiled at him, proud of his valor and the show he had made for the Six Duchies nobles. Part of her enjoyed all this, the pageantry and ceremony, the clothing and the music and the gathered folk all looking up at her. She wanted all the excitement and glory, but at the end of it, she also wanted to return to what was safe and familiar, to live out the life she expected to live, in her mothers’ house on her mothers’ land. I asked myself, how could Dutiful use that to gain her favor? Were there any plans for him to present himself, with gifts and honors, at her mothers’ holding? Perhaps she would think better of him if his attention to her could be flaunted before her maternal relatives back home. Girls usually enjoyed that sort of elevation, didn’t they? I stored up my insights to offer them to Dutiful tomorrow. I wondered if they were accurate, or would be of any use to him.
As I pondered, Queen Kettricken nodded toward her minstrel. He signaled the musicians to ready themselves. Queen Kettricken then smiled and said something to the other folk on the grand dais. Places were resumed, and as the music began, Dutiful offered his hand to Elliania.
I pitied them both, so young and so publicly displayed, the wealth of two folks offered to one another as chattel for an alliance. The Narcheska’s hand hovered above Dutiful’s wrist as he escorted her down the steps of the dais and to the swept sand of the dance floor. In a brief swell of Skill, I knew that his collar chafed against his sweaty neck, but none of that showed in his smile or in the gracious bow he offered his partner. He held out his arms for her, and she stepped just close enough for his fingertips to graze her waist. She did not put her hands to his shoulders in the traditional stance; rather she held out her skirts as if to better display both them and her lively feet. Then the music swirled around them and they both danced as perfectly as puppets directed by a master. They made a lovely spectacle, full of youth and grace and promise as they stepped and turned together.
I watched those who gazed upon them, and was surprised by the spectrum of emotions I saw in those mirroring faces. Chade beamed with satisfaction but Kettricken’s face was more tentative, and I guessed her secret hope that Dutiful would find true affection as well as solid political advantage in his partner. Arkon Bloodblade crossed his arms on his chest and looked down on the two as if they were a personal testimonial to his power. Peottre, like me, was scanning the crowd, ever the bodyguard and watchman for his ward. He did not scowl, but neither did he smile. For a chance instant, his eyes met mine as I studied him. I dared not look aside, but stared through him with a dull expression as if I did not truly see him at all. His eyes left me to travel back to Elliania and the faintest shadow of a smile crossed his lips.
Drawn by his scrutiny, my gaze followed his. For that moment, I allowed myself to be caught in the spectacle. As they stepped and turned to the music, slippers and skirts swirled the brushed sand on the floor into a fresh pattern. Dutiful was taller than his partner; doubtless it was easier for him to look down into her upturned face than it was for her to gaze up at him and smile and keep the step. He looked as if his outstretched hands and arms framed the flight of a butterfly, so lightly did she move opposite him. A spark of approval kindled in me as well, and I thought I understood why Peottre had given that grudging smile of approval. My lad did not seek to grasp the girl; his touch sketched the window of her freedom as she danced. He did not claim or attempt to restrain; rather he exhibited her grace and her liberty to those who watched. I wondered where Dutiful had learned such wisdom. Had Chade coaxed him in this, or was this the diplomatic instinct some Farseers seemed to possess? Then I decided it did not matter. He had pleased Peottre and I suspected that that would eventually be to his advantage.
The Prince and the Narcheska performed alone for the first dance. After that, others moved to join them on the dance floor, the Dukes and Duchesses of the Six Duchies and our Outislander guests. I noticed that Peottre was true to his word, claiming the Narcheska away from Dutiful for the second dance. That left the Prince standing alone, but he managed to appear graceful and at ease. Chade drifted over to speak with him until the Queen’s advisor was claimed by a maiden of no more than twenty.
Arkon Bloodblade had the effrontery to offer his hand to Queen Kettricken. I saw the look that flickered over her face. She would have refused him, but decided it was not in the best interest of the Six Duchies to do so. So she descended with him to the dance floor. Bloodblade had none of Dutiful’s nicety in the matter of a partner’s preference. He seized the Queen boldly at her waist so that she had to set her hands on his shoulders to balance the man’s lively stepping, or else find herself spinning out of control. Kettricken trod the measure gracefully and smiled upon her partner, but I do not think she truly enjoyed it.
The third measure was a slower dance. I was pleased to see Chade forsake his young partner, who sulked prettily. Instead he invited my Lady Patience out to the floor. She shook her fan at him and would have refused, but the old man insisted, and I knew that she was secretly pleased. She was as graceful as she had ever been; that is, she was never quite in step with the music, but Chade smiled down on her as he steered her safely around the floor and I found her dance both lovely and charming.
Peottre rescued Queen Kettricken from Bloodblade’s attention, and he went off to dance with his daughter. Kettricken seemed more at ease with the old man-at-arms than she had with his brother-in-law. They spoke as they danced, and the lively interest in her eyes was genuine. Dutiful’s eyes met mine for an instant. I knew how awkward he felt standing there, a lone stag, while his intended was whirled around the dance floor by her father. But at the end of the dance, I almost suspected that Bloodblade had known of it, and felt a sympathy for the young Prince, for he firmly delivered his daughter’s hand to Dutiful’s for the fourth dance.
And so it went. For the most part, the Outislander nobles chose partners from amongst themselves, though one young woman dared to approach Lord Shemshy. To my surprise, the old man seemed flattered by the invitation, and danced not once with her, but thrice. When the partner dances were done, the patterns began, and the high nobles resumed their seats, ceding the floor to the lesser nobility. I stood silently and watched, for the most part. Several times my master sent me on errands to different parts of the room, usually to deliver his greetings to women and his heartfelt regrets that he could not ask them to dance due to the severity of his injury. Several came to cluster near him and commiserate with him. In all that long evening, I never once saw Civil Bresinga take to the dance
The music, the dancing, the eating, and the drinking, all of it went on and on, past the depths of night and into the shallows of morning. I tried to contrive some way to get close to either Civil Bresinga’s wineglass or his plate, but to no avail. The evening began to drag. My legs ached from standing and I thought regretfully of my dawn appointment with Prince Dutiful. I doubted that he would keep it, and yet I must still be there, in case he appeared. What had I been thinking? I would have been far wiser to put the boy off for a few more days, and use that time to visit my home.
Lord Golden, however, seemed indefatigable. As the evening progressed, and the tables were pushed to one side to enlarge the dancing space, he found a comfortable place near a fireside and held his court there. Many and varied were the folk who came to greet him and lingered to talk. Yet again it was driven home to me that Lord Golden and the Fool were two very distinct people. Golden was witty and charming, but he never displayed the Fool’s edged humor. He was also very Jamaillian, urbane and occasionally intolerant of what he bluntly referred to as “the Six Duchies attitude” toward his morality and habits. He discussed dress and jewelry with his cohorts in a way that mercilessly shredded any outside the circle of his favor. He flirted outrageously with women, married or not, drank extravagantly, and when offered Smoke, grandly declined on the grounds that “any but the finest quality leaves me nauseous in the morning. I was spoiled at the Satrap’s court, I suppose. ” He chattered of doings in far-off Jamaillia in an intimate way that convinced even me that he had not only resided there, but been privy to the doings of their high court.
Golden Fool by Robin Hobb / Fantasy have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on46 votes