Golden fool, p.14
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       Golden Fool, p.14

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  She met my eyes squarely. “Yes. ” She caught a small breath. “Do you fault me, FitzChivalry? You, who were my first instructor in managing the intrigues of the court to my advantage?”

  I smiled at her. “No. In truth, I am proud of you. And from the look on Lord Bright’s face at last night’s festivities, he is a man well satisfied with his lady. ”

  She gave a sigh, almost of relief. “Thank you. For I value your regard, FitzChivalry, as I ever have. I would not want to think I had shamed myself before you. ”

  “I doubt that you could,” I replied, truthfully as well as gallantly. Then, dragging the conversation back to my interest, “And Rosemary?”

  “After Regal died, most of his hangers-on dispersed to their family holdings, and some to inspect new holdings I had given them. No one claimed Rosemary. Her father had died before she was born. Her mother had his title, Lady Celeffa of Firwood, but the title was little more than words. Firwood is a tiny holding, a beggar’s fiefdom. There is a manor house there, but I am told it has not been inhabited in some years. But for being in Prince Regal’s favor, Lady Celeffa would never have come to court at all. ” She sighed. “So there was Rosemary, an orphan at eight, and not in favor with the Queen. I suspect you need little help to imagine how she was treated by the court. ”

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  I had to wince. I could recall how I had been treated.

  “I tried to ignore her. But Chade would not let it rest. Nor in truth could I. ”

  “She was a danger to you. A half-trained assassin, taught by Regal to hate you. She could not simply be left to wander about as she pleased. ”

  She was silent for a moment. Then, “Now you sound like Chade. No. She was worse than that. She was a neglected child in my home, a little girl blamed by me for becoming what she was taught to be. A daily rebuke to me for my own neglect of her and my hardness of heart. If I had been all to her that a lady should be to her page, Regal could not have taken her heart from me. ”

  “Unless he had it before she ever came to you. ”

  “And even then, I should have known it. If I had not been so focused on my own life and problems. ”

  “She was your page, not your daughter!”

  “You forget, I was raised in the Mountains, to be Sacrifice to my people, Fitz. Not a queen, such as you expect. I demand more of myself. ”

  I stepped to the side of that argument. “So it was your decision to keep her. ”

  “Chade said I must either keep her or be rid of her entirely. I was filled with horror at his words. Kill a child for doing what she had been taught? And then his words made me see all of it clearly. It would have been kinder to kill her outright than to torture and neglect her as I had been doing. So. That night I went to her chamber. Alone. She was terrified of me, and her room was cold and near bare, the bedding gone unwashed I don’t know how long. She had outgrown her nightgown; it was torn at the shoulders and far too short for her. She curled up on the bed as far from me as she could get and just stared at me. Then I asked her which she would prefer, to be fostered out to Lady Patience or to be my page again. ”

  “And she chose to be your page. ”

  “And she burst into tears and threw herself to the floor and clung to my skirts and said she had thought I didn’t like her anymore. She sobbed so hard that before I could calm her, the hair was plastered flat to her skull with sweat and she was shaking all over. Fitz, I was so ashamed to have been so cruel to a child, not by what I had done, but simply by ignoring her. Only Chade and I ever knew that we suspected her of trying to harm me. But my simple shunning of the child had given the lesser folk of the keep permission to be cruel and callous to her. Her little slippers were all gone to tatters . . . ” Her voice trailed off, and despite myself, I felt a stab of pity for Rosemary. Kettricken took a deep breath and resumed her tale. “She begged to be allowed to serve me again, Fitz. She was not even seven years old when she did Regal’s bidding. She never hated me, or understood what she did. To her, I am sure it was a game, to listen in secret and repeat all that she heard. ”

  I tried to be pragmatic and hard. “And greasing the steps so you would fall?”

  “Would she be told the why of it? Or simply told to put the grease on the steps after I had gone up to the roof garden? To a child, it might have been framed as a prank. ”

  “Did you ask her?”

  A pause. “Some things are best left alone. Even if she knew the intent was to make me fall, I do not think she realized the full import of it. I think perhaps that I was two people to her, the woman that Regal wanted to bring down, and Kettricken whom she served every day. The one who should be blamed for her conduct is dead. And since I took her back to my side, she has never been anything but a loyal and diligent subject to me. ” She sighed and stared past me at a wall as she spoke. “The past must be left in the past, Fitz. Especially this is true for those who rule. I must wed my son to a daughter of an Outislander. I must promote trade and alliance with the folk who doomed my king to death. Shall I quibble about taking a little spy under my wing and turning her into a lady of my court?”

  I took a deep breath myself. If in fifteen years she had not regretted her decision, no words of mine would change it now. Nor should they, perhaps. “Well. I suppose I should have expected it. You did not quibble to take an assassin as your advisor when you came to court. ”

  “As my first friend here,” she corrected me gravely. She furrowed her forehead. When first I had met her, she had not had those lines on her brow and between her eyes, but now use had set them. “I am not happy with this charade we must keep. I would have you at my side to advise me, and to teach my son. I would have you honored as my friend as well as a Farseer. ”

  “It cannot be,” I told her firmly. “And this is better. I am more use to you in this role, and less risk to you and my prince. ”

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  “And more risk to yourself. Chade has told me that Piebalds threatened you, right at our doorstep in Buckkeep Town. ”

  I discovered that I hadn’t wanted her to know that. “It is a thing best handled by me. Perhaps I can tease them out into the open. ”

  “Well. Perhaps. But I am ashamed that you face such things seemingly alone. In truth, I hate that such bigotry still exists in the Six Duchies, and that our nobles turn a blind eye to it. I have done what I could for my Witted folk, but progress has been slow. When the Piebald postings first began to appear, they angered me. Chade urged me not to act in the heat of that anger. Now, I wonder if it would not have been wise to let my wrath be known. My second reaction was that I wished to let my Witted folk know that my justice was available to them. I wanted to send out a summons, inviting the leaders of the Witted to come to me, that together we might hammer out a shield for them against the cruelty of these Piebalds. ” She shook her head.

  “Again Chade intervened, telling me that the Witted had no recognized leaders, and that they would not trust the Farseers enough to come to such a meeting. We had no go-between that they would trust, and no sureties that we could offer them that this was not a plan to lure them in and destroy them. He persuaded me to abandon the idea. ” Her words seemed to come more reluctantly as she added, “Chade is a good councilor, wise in politics and the ways of power. Yet I sometimes feel that he would steer us solely on the basis of what makes the Six Duchies most stable, with less care given for justice for all my people. ” Her fair brow wrinkled as she added, “He says that the greater the stability of the country, the more chance for justice to prosper. Perhaps he is right. But often and often, I have longed for the way you and I used to discuss these things. There too I have missed you, FitzChivalry. I dislike that I cannot have you at my side when I wish it, but must send for you in secret. I wish that I could invite you to join Peottre and me for our game today, for I would value your opinion of him. He is a most intriguing man. ”

  “Your game with Peot
tre today?”

  “I shared some talk with him last evening. In the course of discussing the chance that Dutiful and Elliania would be truly happy, other talk of ‘chance’ came up. And from there, we moved to games of chance. Do you recall a Mountain game played with cards and rune chips?”

  I dredged through my memory. “I think you spoke of it to me once. And yes, I recall reading a scroll about it, when I was recovering from Regal’s first attempt on me. ”

  “There are cards or tablets, either painted on heavy paper or carved on thin slabs of wood. They have emblems from our old tales, such as Old Weaver Man and Hunter in Hiding. The rune chips have runes on them, for Stone, Water, and Pasture. ”

  “Yes. I’m sure I’ve heard of it. ”

  “Well, Peottre wants me to teach him to play it. He was very interested when I spoke of it. He says that in the Out Islands they have a game played with rune cubes, where they are shaken and tumbled out. Then the players set out their markers onto a cloth or board that is painted with minor godlings, such as Wind and Smoke and Tree. It sounds as if it might be a similar game, does it not?”

  “Perhaps,” I conceded. But her face had brightened at the prospect of teaching Peottre this new game in a way that was out of proportion to the pleasure I expected her to take in it. Did my queen find this bluff Outislander warrior attractive? “You must tell me more of this game later. I would like to hear if the runes on the dice are similar to the runes on your rune chips. ”

  “That would be intriguing, wouldn’t it? If the runes resembled one another? Especially as some of the runes from my game were similar to the runes on the Skill pillars. ”

  “Ah. ” My queen was still capable of putting me off balance. She had always seemed able to think along several lines at once, bringing oddly disparate facts together to make a pattern others had missed. This had been how she had rediscovered the lost map to the kingdom of the Elderlings. I suddenly felt as if she had given me too much to think over.

  I stood to excuse myself, bowed, and then wished I had words to thank her. An instant later it seemed a strange impulse, to thank someone for mourning someone you had loved. I made a fumbling effort, but she stopped me, coming to take both my hands in hers. “And perhaps only you understood what I felt at Verity’s loss. To see him transformed, to know he would triumph, and yet still to mourn selfishly that I would never again see him as the man he had been. This is not the first tragedy we have shared, FitzChivalry. We both have walked alone through much of our lives. ”

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  It was unmannerly, but I did it anyway. I enfolded her in my arms and held her tightly for a moment. “He loved you so,” I said, and my voice choked on the words I spoke for my lost king.

  She rested her forehead on my shoulder. “I know that,” she said quietly. “That love sustains me still. Sometimes I think I can almost feel him still, at my shoulder, offering counsel when times are difficult. May Nighteyes be with you as Verity is with me. ”

  I held Verity’s woman for a long moment. Things could have been so different. Yet her wish was a good wish, and healing. I released her with a sigh, and the Queen and the serving man parted to their daily tasks.

  Chapter VI

  OBLITERATION

  . . . and it is almost certain that the Chalcedeans could have defeated the Bingtown Traders and claimed their territory for their own if only they could have maintained a solid blockade of Bingtown Bay.

  Two magics hampered them in this regard, and magic it most certainly was, despite any who would dispute it, for the Bingtown Traders are merchants and not fighters, as all know. The first magic was that the Bingtown Traders possess Liveships, trading vessels that, by some arcane practice involving the sacrifice of three children or elderly family members, are brought to sentient life. Not only can the figureheads of these vessels move and speak, but also they are possessed of prodigious strength, enabling them to crush lesser vessels if once they grip them. Some of them are able to spit fire for a distance equal to three of their vessel’s lengths.

  The second magic is as likely to be disputed by the ignorant as the first, but as this traveler witnessed it, I defy those who call this a lie. A dragon, cunningly crafted of blue and silver gemstones and activated by a marvelous combination of magic and . . . [passage obscured by damage to parchment] was hastily created by the Bingtown artisans for the defense of their harbor. This creature, named Tinnitgliat by her creators, rose from the smoking wreckage that the Chalcedeans had made of the Bingtown warehouse district and drove the enemy vessels from the harbor.

  — WINFRODA’S “ MY ADVENTURES AS A WORLD TRAVELER”

  I threaded my way back through the maze of corridors and emerged once more into my cell. I paused to peer into the darkness before entering it. Once within, I secured the secret door behind me. I then paused, standing perfectly still in the darkness. Through the closed door that led to the Fool’s apartment, voices reached me.

  “Well, as I’ve no idea when he rose and left, nor why, I’ve no idea when he will return. It seemed such a charming concept at first, to have a strong and able man-at-arms, capable of not only defending me from street ruffians but also serving as my valet and seeing to my other needs as well. But he has proven most unreliable at daily tasks. Look at this! I’ve had to snatch a passing page from the corridor and have him tell a kitchen boy to bring up my breakfast. And it isn’t what I would have chosen at all! I’m tempted to let Badgerlock go entirely, except that with my ankle as it is, it is no time for me to be without a sturdy servant. Well. Perhaps I shall have to accept his limitations and acquire a page or two to see to my daily tasks. Look at the layer of dust on that mantel! Shameful. I can scarcely invite visitors to my chambers with them looking like this. It is almost fortunate that the pain in my ankle makes me tend toward solitary occupations just now. ”

  I froze where I was. I longed to know to whom he was speaking and why that person sought me, but I could scarcely make an entrance if Lord Golden had already insisted I was not here.

  “Very well. May I leave a message for your man then, Lord Golden?”

  The voice was Laurel’s and the irritation level in it was unmasked. She had seen too much of us when she had accompanied us on our journey to be deceived by our charade. She would never again believe us to be merely master and man. We had bungled our roles too often. Yet I also understood why Lord Golden insisted on resuming the masquerade. To do otherwise would have eventually completely unraveled our deception of the court.

  “Certainly. Or you would be welcome to return this evening, if you wish to take the chance that he may have recalled his duties and wandered home. ”

  If he had intended that to mollify her, it failed. “A message will suffice, I am sure. In passing through the stable, I noticed something about his horse that made me concerned for her. If he will meet me there at noon today, I will point it out to him. ”

  “And if he does not return by noon . . . by Sa, how I detest this! That I should have to act as a secretary to my own serving man!”

  “Lord Golden. ” Her quiet voice cut through his dramatics. “My concern is a grave one. See that he meets me then, or arranges to speak to me about my concern. Good day. ”

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  She shut the door very firmly behind herself. I heard the thump, but even so I waited some minutes, to be completely certain that the Fool was alone. I eased the door open silently, but the Fool’s preternatural awareness served him well. “There you are,” he exclaimed with a sigh of relief as I entered. “I was beginning to worry about you. ” Then he looked more closely at me and a smile lit up his face. “The Prince’s first lesson must have gone very well. ”

  “The Prince chose not to attend his first lesson. And I am sorry to have put you out. I didn’t think to arrange for Lord Golden’s breakfast. ”

  He made a disparaging noise. “I assure you, the last thing I would expect is
that you would be a competent servant. I’m perfectly capable of arranging my own breakfast. It is required, however, that I raise a suitable fuss when I am forced to waylay a page for it. I’ve muttered and complained enough now that I can add a boy to my staff without exciting any comment. ” He poured himself another cup of tea, sipped it and made a face. “Cold. ” He gestured at the remains of the repast. “Hungry?”

  “No. I ate with Kettricken. ”

  He nodded, unsurprised. “The Prince sent me a message this morning. It now makes sense to me. He wrote, ‘I was saddened to see that your injury prevented you from joining in the dancing at my betrothal festivities. Well do I know how frustrating it is when an unexpected inconvenience denies you a pleasure long anticipated. I heartily hope that you are soon able to resume your favorite activities. ’ ”

  I nodded, somewhat pleased. “Subtle, yet it conveys it. Our prince is becoming more sophisticated. ”

  “He has his father’s wit,” he agreed, but when I glanced at him sharply, his expression was mild and benign. He continued. “You have another message as well. From Laurel. ”

  “Yes. I overheard it. ”

  “I thought you might have. ”

  I shook my head. “That one both puzzles and alarms me. From the way she spoke, I don’t think this meeting has anything to do with my horse. Still, I’ll meet her at noon and see what it is about. Then I’d like to go down to Buckkeep Town, to see Hap, and to apologize to Jinna. ”

  He lifted a pale eyebrow.

  “I had said I would come by last night, to talk to Hap. As you know, I went to the betrothal festivities with you instead. ”

  He picked up a tiny nosegay of white flowers from his breakfast tray and sniffed it thoughtfully. “So many people, all wanting a bit of your time. ”

  I sighed. “It is hard for me. I don’t quite know how to manage it. I’d grown used to my solitary life, with only Nighteyes and Hap making claims on me. I don’t think I’m handling this very well. I can’t imagine how Chade juggled all his tasks for so many years. ”

  He smiled. “He’s a spider. A web weaver, with lines stringing out in all directions. He sits at the center and interprets each tug. ”

 
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