Golden fool, p.12
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       Golden Fool, p.12

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  And as the evening deepened, censers of Smoke, made popular in Regal’s time, began to appear. Smaller styles were in vogue now, little metal cages suspended from chains that held tiny pots of the burning drug. Younger lords and a few of the ladies carried their own little censers, fastened to their wrists. In a few places, diligent servants stood beside their masters, swinging the censers to wreathe their betters with the fumes.

  I had never had any head for this intoxicant, and somehow my mental association of Smoke with Regal made it all the more distasteful to me. Yet even the Queen was indulging, moderately, for Smoke was known in the Mountains as well as the Six Duchies, though the herb they burned there was a different one. Different herb, same name, same effects, I thought woozily. The Queen had returned to the high dais. Her eyes were bright through the haze. She sat talking to Peottre. He smiled and spoke to her, but his eyes never left Elliania as Dutiful led her through a pattern dance. Arkon Bloodblade had also joined them on the floor and was working his way through a succession of dance partners. He had shed his cloak and opened his shirt. He was a lively dancer, not always in step with the music as the Smoke curled and the wine flowed.

  I think it was out of mercy for me that Lord Golden announced that the pain in his ankle had wearied him and he must, he feared, retire. He was urged to stay on, and he appeared to consider it, but then decided he was in too much discomfort. Even so, it took an interminable amount of time for him to make his farewells. And when I did take up his footstool and cushion to escort him from the merrymaking, we were halted at least four times by yet more folk wishing to bid Lord Golden good night. By the time we had clambered slowly up the stairs and entered our apartments, I had a much clearer view of his popularity at court.

  When the door was safely closed and latched behind us, I built up our dying fire. Then I poured myself a glass of his wine and dropped into a chair by the hearth while he sat down on the floor to unwind the wrappings from his foot.

  “I did this too tight! Look at my poor foot, gone almost blue and cold. ”

  “Serves you right,” I observed without sympathy. My clothing reeked of Smoke. I blew a breath out through my nostrils, trying to clear the scent away. I looked down on him where he sat rubbing his bared toes. I realized what a relief it was to have the Fool back. “How did you ever come up with ‘Lord Golden’? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more backbiting, conniving noble. If I had met you for the first time tonight, I would have despised you. You put me in mind of Regal. ”

  “Did I? Well, perhaps that reflects my belief that there is something to be learned from everyone that we meet. ” He yawned immensely and then rolled his body forward until his brow touched his knees, and then back until his loosened hair swept the floor. With apparently no effort, he came back to a sitting position. He held out his hand to me where I sat and I offered him mine to pull him to his feet. He plopped down in the chair next to mine. “There is a lot to be said for being nasty, if you want others to feel encouraged to parade their smallest and most vicious opinions for you. ”

  “I suppose. But why would anyone want that?”

  He leaned over to pluck the wineglass from my fingers. “Insolent churl. Stealing your master’s wine. Get your own glass. ” And as I did so, he replied, “By mining such nastiness, I discover the ugliest rumors of the keep. Who is with child by someone else’s lord? Who has run themselves into debt? Who has been indiscreet and with whom? And who is rumored to be Witted, or to have ties to someone who is?”

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  I nearly spilled my wine. “And what did you hear?”

  “Only what we expected,” he said comfortingly. “Of the Prince and his mother, not a word. Nor any gossip about you. An interesting rumor that Civil Bresinga broke off his engagement to Sydel Grayling because there is supposed to be Wit in her family. A Witted silversmith and his six children and wife were driven out of Buckkeep Town last week; Lady Esomal is quite annoyed, for she had just ordered two rings from him. Oh. And Lady Patience has on her estate three Witted goosegirls and she doesn’t care who knows it. Someone accused one of them of putting a spell on his hawks, and Lady Patience told him that not only did the Wit not work that way, but that if he didn’t stop setting his hawks on the turtledoves in her garden, she’d have him horsewhipped, and she didn’t care whose cousin he was. ”

  “Ah. Patience is as discreet and rational as ever,” I said, smiling, and the Fool nodded. I shook my head more soberly as I added, “If the tide of feeling rises much higher against the Witted ones, Patience may find she has put herself in danger by taking their part. Sometimes I wish her caution was as great as her courage. ”

  “You miss her, don’t you?” he asked softly.

  I took a breath. “Yes. I do. ” Even admitting it squeezed my heart. It was more than missing her. I’d abandoned her. Tonight I’d seen her, a fading old woman alone save for her loyal, aging servants.

  “But you’ve never considered letting her know that you survived? That you live still?”

  I shook my head. “For the reasons I just mentioned. She has no caution. Not only would she proclaim it from the rooftops, but also she would probably threaten to horsewhip anyone who refused to rejoice with her. That would be after she got over being furious with me, of course. ”

  “Of course. ”

  We were both smiling, in that bittersweet way one does when imagining something that the heart longs for and the head would dread. The fire burned before us, tongues of flame lapping up the side of the fresh log. Outside the shuttered windows, a wind was blowing. Winter’s herald. A twitch of old reflexes made me think of all the things I had not done to prepare for it. I’d left crops in my garden, and harvested no marsh grass for the pony’s winter comfort. They were the cares of another man in another life. Here at Buckkeep, I need worry about none of that. I should have felt smug, but instead I felt divested.

  “Do you think the Prince will meet me at dawn in Verity’s tower?”

  The Fool’s eyes were closed but he rolled his head toward me. “I don’t know. He was still dancing when we left. ”

  “I suppose I should be there in case he does. I wish I hadn’t said I would. I need to get back to my cabin and tidy myself out of there. ”

  He made a small sound between assent and a sigh. He drew his feet up and curled up in the chair like a child. His knees were practically under his chin.

  “I’m going to bed,” I announced. “You should, too. ”

  He made another sound. I groaned. I went to his bed, dragged off a coverlet, and brought it back to the fireside. I draped it over him. “Good night, Fool. ”

  He sighed heavily in reply and pulled the blanket closer.

  I blew out all the candles save one that I carried to my chamber with me. I set it down on my small clothing chest and sat down on the hard bed with a groan. My back ached all round my scar. Standing still had always irritated it far more than riding or working. The little room was both chill and close, the air too still and full of the same smells it had gathered for the last hundred years. I didn’t want to sleep there. I thought of climbing all the steps to Chade’s workroom and stretching out on the larger, softer bed there. That would have been good, if there had not been so many stairs between it and me.

  I dragged off my fine clothes and made an effort at putting them away properly. As I burrowed beneath my single blanket, I resolved to get some money out of Chade and purchase at least one more blanket for myself, one that was not so aggressively itchy. And to check on Hap. And apologize to Jinna for not coming to see her this evening as I had said I would. And get rid of the scrolls in my cabin. And teach my horse some manners. And instruct the Prince in the Skill and the Wit.

  I drew a very deep breath, sighed it and all my cares away, and sank into sleep.

  Shadow Wolf.

  It was not a strong call. It was drifting smoke on the wind. It was not my name. It was someone
’s name for me, but that did not mean I had to answer to it. I turned away from the summoning.

  Shadow Wolf.

  Shadow Wolf.

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  Shadow Wolf.

  It reminded me of Hap tugging at my shirttail when he was small. Incessant and insistent. Nagging as a mosquito buzzing near your ear in the night.

  Shadow Wolf.

  Shadow Wolf.

  It wasn’t going to go away.

  I’m sleeping. I suddenly knew that was so, in that odd way that dreamers do. I was asleep and this was a dream. Dreams didn’t matter. Did they?

  So am I. That’s the only time I can reach you. Don’t you know that?

  My replying seemed to have strengthened her sending. It was almost as if she clung to me now. No. I didn’t know that.

  I looked idly around myself. I nearly recognized the shape of the land. It was spring and close by apple trees were in bloom. I could hear bees busy amongst the blossoms. There was soft green grass under my bare feet and a gentle air moved through my hair.

  I’ve come so often to your dreams, and watched what you did. I thought I would invite you to one of mine. Do you like it?

  There was a woman beside me. No, a girl. Someone. It was hard to tell. I could see her dress and her little leather shoes, and her weather-browned hands, but the rest of her was fogged. I could not resolve her features. As for myself . . . it was strange. I could behold myself, as if I stood outside myself, and yet it was not the me that I saw when I looked in a mirror. I was a shaggy-haired man, much taller than I truly am, and far more strong. My rough gray hair spilled down my back and hung over my brow. The nails of my hands were black, and my teeth were pointed in my mouth. Uneasiness nibbled at me. Danger here, but not to me. Why couldn’t I remember what the danger was?

  This isn’t me. This isn’t right.

  She laughed fondly. Well, if you won’t let me see you as you are, then you’ll just have to be how I’ve always imagined you. Shadow Wolf, why have you stayed away? I’ve missed you. And I’ve feared for you. I felt your great pain, but I do not know what it was. Are you hurt? There seems less of you than there was. And you seem tired and older. I’ve missed you and your dreams. I was so scared you were dead, and then you didn’t come anymore. It’s taken me forever to discover that I could reach out to you instead of waiting for you to come to me.

  She chattered like a child. A very real and wakeful dismay crept through me. It was like a cold mist in my heart, and then I saw it, a mist rising around me in the dream. Somehow, without knowing how, I had summoned it. I willed it thicker and stronger around me. I tried to warn her. This isn’t right. Or good. Stay back, stay away from me.

  That isn’t fair! she wailed as the mist became a wall between us. Her thoughts reached me more faintly. Look what you’ve done to my dream. It was so hard to make and now you’ve spoiled it. Where are you going? You are so rude!

  I twitched free of her failing grip on me, and found I could wake up. In fact, I was already awake, and an instant later I was sitting on the edge of my cot. My combing fingers stood up what was left of my hair. I was almost ready for the Skill pain when it lurched through my belly and slammed against the cap of my skull. I took deep, steadying breaths, resolved not to vomit. When some little time had passed, a minute or half a year, I could scarcely tell which, I painstakingly began to reinforce my Skill walls. Had I been careless? Had weariness or my exposure to Smoke dropped them?

  Or was my daughter simply strong enough to break through them?

  Chapter V


  A storm of gems they were.

  Scaled wings jewel-like glittered.

  Eyes flaming, wings fanning

  The dragons came.

  Too flashing bright for memory to hold.

  The promise of a thousand songs fulfilled.

  Claws shredding, jaws devouring

  The King returned.


  Air stirred against my cheek. I opened my eyes wearily. I had dozed off, despite the open window and chill morning. Before and below me stretched a vista of water. Waves tipped with white wrinkled under a gray sky. I got up from Verity’s chair with a groan; two steps carried me to the tower window. From here, the view was wider, showing me the steep cliffs and the clinging forest below this aspect of Buckkeep Castle. There was the taste of a storm in the air, and the wind was cutting its winter teeth. The sun was a handbreadth above the far horizon, dawn long fled. The Prince had not come.

  I was not surprised. Dutiful was probably still deeply asleep after last night’s festivities. No, there was no surprise that he should forget our meeting, or perhaps rouse just enough to decide it wasn’t that important and roll back into sleep. Yet there was disappointment, and it was not just that my prince found sleep more important than meeting with me. It was that he had said he would meet me here, and then hadn’t. And not only hadn’t, but hadn’t sent word to cancel the meeting and save me the time and trouble of being here. It was a trifling thing in a boy of his years, a bit of thoughtlessness. Yet what was minor in a boy was not so in a prince. I wanted to rebuke him for it, as Chade would have chastened me. Or Burrich. I grinned ruefully. In fairness, had I been any different at Dutiful’s age? Burrich had never trusted me to keep dawn appointments. I could well recall how he would thunder at my door to be sure I did not miss a lesson with the axe. Well, perhaps if our roles had been different, I would have gone and pounded on the Prince’s chamber door.

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  As it was, I contented myself with a message, drawn in the dust on the top of a small table beside the chair. “I was here; you were not. ” Brief and succinct, a rebuke if he chose to take it that way. And anonymous. It could just as easily have been a sulky page’s note to a tardy chambermaid.

  I closed the window shutters and let myself out by the way I had come, through a side panel in the decorative mantel around the hearth. It was a narrow squeeze and it was tricky to properly seal it closed behind me. My candle had gone out. I descended a long and gloomy stair, sparsely lit by tiny chinks in the outer wall that let in thin fingers of light and wind. There was a level section that I negotiated through the pitch-dark; it seemed far longer than I recalled it being, and I was glad when my groping foot found the next stair. I made a wrong turn at the bottom of it. The third time I walked into a faceful of cobwebs, I knew I was lost. I turned around and groped my way back. When, some time later, I emerged into Chade’s chamber from behind the wine rack, I was dusty and irritable and sweaty. I was ill prepared for what met me there.

  Chade started up from his seat before the hearth, setting down a teacup as he did so. “There you are, FitzChivalry,” he exclaimed, even as a wave of Skill slammed into me.

  Don’t see me, stinkdog man.

  I staggered and then caught at the table to remain standing. I ignored Chade, who was scowling at me, to focus on Thick. The idiot serving man, his face smudged with soot, stood by the work hearth. His figure wavered before my eyes and I felt giddy. If I had not reset my walls the night before to guard against Nettle’s Skill tinkering, I think he would have been able to wipe all image of himself from my mind. As it was, I spoke through gritted teeth.

  “I do see you. I will always see you. But that does not mean I will hurt you. Unless you try to hurt me. Or unless you are rude to me again. ” I was sorely tempted to try the Wit on him, to repel at him with a burst of sheer animal energy, but I did not. I would not use the Skill. I would have had to open my walls to do so, and it would have revealed to him the limits of my strength. I was not yet ready for that. Remain calm, I told myself. You have to master yourself before you can master him.

  “No, no, Thick! Stop that. He’s good. He can be here. I say so. ”

  Chade spoke to him as if he were three years old. And while I recognized that the small eyes
in the round face that glowered at me were not the eyes of a man my intellectual equal, I also saw a flash of resentment there at being thus addressed. I seized on it. I kept my gaze on Thick’s face but spoke to Chade.

  “You don’t need to talk to him like that. He isn’t stupid. He’s . . . ” I groped for a word to express what I suddenly was certain of. Thick’s intelligence might be limited in some ways, but it was there. “Different,” I ended lamely. Different, I reflected, as a horse was different from a cat and they both were different from a man. But not lesser. Almost I could sense how his mind reached in another direction from mine, attaching significance to items I dismissed even as he dismissed whole areas that anchored my reality.

  Thick scowled from me to Chade and back again. Then he took up his broom and a bucket of ash and cinders from the fireplace and scuttled from the room. After the scroll rack had swung back into place behind him, I caught the flung thought fragment. Dogstinker.

  “He doesn’t like me. He knows I’m Witted, too,” I complained to Chade as I dropped into the other chair. Almost sulkily, I added, “Prince Dutiful didn’t meet me in Verity’s tower this morning. He had said he would. ”

  My remarks seemed to go past the old man. “The Queen wants to see you. Right away. ” He was neatly if not elegantly attired in a simple robe of blue this morning with soft fur slippers on his feet. Did they ache from dancing?

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