Golden fool, p.15
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       Golden Fool, p.15

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  I smiled with him. “Accurate. Not flattering, but accurate. ”

  He cocked his head at me suddenly. “It was Kettricken, then, wasn’t it? Not Chade. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  He looked down at his hands, twiddling the little bouquet. “There’s a change in you. Your shoulders are squared again. Your eyes focus on me when I talk to you. I don’t feel as if I should glance over my shoulder to see if a ghost is there. ” He set the flowers down carefully on the table. “Someone has lifted a part of your burden. ”

  “Kettricken,” I agreed with him after a moment. I cleared my throat. “She was closer to Nighteyes than I realized. She mourns him, too. ”

  “As do I. ”

  I thought about my next words before I said them. I wondered if they were necessary, feared that they might hurt him. But I spoke them. “In a different way. Kettricken mourns Nighteyes as I do, for himself, and for what he was to her. You . . . ” I faltered, unsure how to put it.

  “I loved him through you. Our link was how he became real to me. So, in a sense, I do not mourn Nighteyes as you do. I grieve for your grief. ”

  “You have always been better with words than I am. ”

  “Yes,” he agreed. Then he sighed and crossed his arms on his chest. “Well. I am glad that someone could help you. Even as I envy Kettricken. ”

  That made no sense. “You envy her, that she mourns?”

  “I envy her, that she could comfort you. ” Then, before I could even think of any reply, he added briskly, “I’ll leave it to you to clear the dishes away to the kitchen. Take care to be a bit surly when you return them, as if your master had just harshly rebuked you. Then you may be off to Laurel and Buckkeep Town. I plan to spend a quiet day today, in my own pursuits. I’ve let it out that my ankle pains me and that I wish to rest, without visitors. Later this afternoon, I am invited to gaming with the Queen’s favored. So if you do not find me here, look for me there. Will you be back in time to help me limp down to dinner?”

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  “I expect so. ”

  His spirits seemed suddenly dampened, as if he were truly in pain. He nodded gravely. “Perhaps I will see you then. ” He rose from the table and went to his private room. Without another word he opened the door. He shut it quietly but firmly behind him.

  I gathered the dishes onto the tray. Despite his words about my incompetence as a servant, I took care to straighten the room. I returned the tray to the kitchens, and then fetched wood and water for our chambers. The door to the Fool’s personal room remained shut. I wondered if he were ill. I might have ventured to tap at the door if noon had not been upon me. I went to my room and buckled on my ugly sword. I took some of the coins from the purse Kettricken had given me and put the rest under the corner of my mattress. I checked my hidden pockets, took my cloak from its hook, and headed down to the stables.

  With the influx of people for Prince Dutiful’s betrothal, the regular stable was filled to capacity with the horses of our guests. In these circumstances, the beasts of lesser folk like me had been moved to the “Old Stables,” the stables of my childhood. I was just as content with the arrangement. Far less chance that I might encounter Hands there or any who might recall a boy who had once dwelt with the Stablemaster Burrich.

  I found Laurel leaning against the gate of Myblack’s stall, talking softly to her. Perhaps I had misinterpreted her message. My concern for the animal mounted and I hastened to her side. “What’s wrong with her?” I asked, and then, belatedly recalling my manners, “Good day to you, Huntswoman Laurel. I am here as you requested. ” Myblack benignly ignored both of us.

  “Badgerlock, good day. Thank you for meeting me here. ” She glanced about casually, and finding our corner of the stable deserted, she still leaned closer and whispered to me, “I need a word with you. In private. Follow me. ”

  “As you wish, mistress. ” She strode off and I followed at her heels. We walked past the rows of stalls to the back of the stables, and then to my shock, we began the climb up the now-rickety steps that had once led to Burrich’s loft. When he was Stablemaster, he had claimed to prefer to live close to his charges rather than accept better quarters in the castle itself. When I had lived with him, I had believed that to be true. In the intervening years, I had decided that he had kept his humble residence there as much for the sake of keeping me out of the public eye as he did for his own privacy. Now, as I followed Laurel up the steep steps, I wondered how much she knew. Did she bring me here as a prelude to telling me that she knew who I really was?

  The door at the top of the steps was not latched. She shouldered it open and it scraped across the floor. She stepped inside the dim chamber and motioned for me to follow. I ducked a dusty cobweb in the doorframe. The only light came from the cracked shutter over the little window at the end of the room. How small the space suddenly seemed. The sparse furnishings that had sufficed for Burrich and me were long gone, replaced by the clutter of a stable. Twisted bits of old harness, broken tools, moth-eaten blankets: all the horsey litter that folk set aside, thinking that perhaps one day they will mend it or that it might come in useful in a pinch, filled the chamber where I had spent my childhood.

  How Burrich would have hated this! I thought to myself. I wondered that Hands allowed such clutter to gather, and then decided that he probably had more pressing matters to attend to. The stables were a larger and grander concern than they had been during the years of the Red Ship War. I doubted that Hands sat up at night greasing and mending old harness.

  Laurel misinterpreted the look on my face. “I know. It smells up here, but it’s private. I would have seen you in your own room, but Lord Golden was too busy playing the grand noble. ”

  “He is a grand noble,” I pointed out, but the flashing look she gave me stilled my tongue. Belatedly it came to me that Lord Golden had bestowed much attention on Laurel during our journey, yet not a word had they exchanged last night. Oh.

  “Be that as it may, or be you whom you may. ” She dismissed her annoyance with us, obviously intent on graver matters. “I received a message from my cousin. Deerkin didn’t intend the warning for you; he intended it for me. I doubt that he would approve my passing it on to you, for he has ample reasons not to be fond of you. The Queen, however, seems to hold you in some regard. And it is the Queen I am sworn to. ”

  “As we both are,” I assured her. “Have you shared these tidings with her as well?”

  She looked at me. “Not yet,” she admitted. “It may be that there is no need to, that this is a matter you can handle yourself. And it is not as easy for me to manage a quiet moment with the Queen as it is for me to summon you. ”

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  “And the warning?”

  “He bade me flee. The Piebalds know who I am and where I live. I am twice a traitor, to their way of thinking. For by my family connection, they consider me Old Blood. And I serve the hated Farseer regime. They will kill me if they can. ” Her voice betrayed no emotion as she recounted the threat to herself. But she lowered her tone and looked aside from me as she added, “And the same is true of you. ”

  Silence floated between us. I watched dust particles dancing in the thin sunlight through the shutters and pondered. After a time, she spoke again.

  “This is the gist of it. Laudwine still languishes, recovering from your chopping off his forearm. In the wake of our little adventure, many of his followers have abandoned him, to return to the true Old Blood ways. Old Blood families have put pressure on their sons and daughters to forsake the Piebalds’ extreme politics. Amongst many, there is a feeling that the Queen genuinely intends to better the lot of the Old Blood folk. As it has become known that her own son is Witted, they have a kindlier feeling toward her. They are content to wait, for a short time at least, to see how she will treat us now. ”

  “And those who remain amongst the Piebalds?” I asked unwi

  Laurel shook her head. “Those who remain with Laudwine are the ones most dangerous and least reasonable. He attracts those who desire to shed blood and wreak havoc. They desire revenge more than justice, and power more than peace. Some, like Laudwine, have seen family and friends put to death for the crime of being Witted. Others have hearts that pump more madness than blood. They are not many but as they place no limits on what they will do to attain their goals, they are as dangerous as a vast army. ”

  “Their goals?”

  “Simple. Power for themselves. Punishment for those who have oppressed the Witted. They hate the Farseers. But even more, they hate you. Laudwine feeds their hatred. He wallows in hate and offers it to his followers as if it were gold. You have stirred their wrath against all Old Blood who ‘grovel before the Farseer oppressors. ’ Laudwine’s Piebalds bring reprisals against the Old Blood who came to your aid against the Piebalds. Some homes have been burned. Flocks have been scattered or stolen. Those sort of attacks are already happening, but worse is threatened. The Piebalds say they will expose any who will not side with them against the Farseers. It thrills them that we should be killed by the folk we will not rise against. The Piebalds say that all Old Blood must either stand with them or be purged from the community. ” Her face had gone both grave and pale. I knew there was a real threat to her family, and it curdled my stomach that I was partially responsible for provoking it.

  I took a breath. “Only some of what you tell me is news to me. Only a few nights ago Piebalds stalked me on the road from Buckkeep Town. I am only surprised that they let me live. ”

  She lifted one shoulder in a shrug that did not dismiss my danger, only the possibility of understanding the Piebalds. “You are a special target for them. You struck Laudwine’s hand from his arm. You are Old Blood, serving the Farseers and directly opposing the Piebalds. ” She shook her head. “Take no comfort that they have left you alive when they could have so easily killed you. It only means that they have some use for you that requires you to be alive. My cousin hinted as much, when he warned me, for he said that perhaps I had mixed myself with worse company than I thought. The Piebald rumor is that Lord Golden and Tom Badgerlock were not what they seemed to be—small surprise to me that was, but Deerkin seemed to think it portentous. ”

  She paused, as if to give me time to reply. I said nothing but thought much. Had someone firmly connected Tom Badgerlock to the Witted Bastard of song and legend? And if so, what use would they have for me that required me alive? If they had wanted to take me hostage and use me against the Farseers, they could have done so that night. But my thoughts were cut off as Laurel scowled at my silence and then resumed her talk.

  “The raids and attacks against their own stir Old Blood against them, even amongst some who once called themselves Piebalds. Some raids, it seems, are carried out to settle old scores or for personal profit rather than for any ‘lofty’ Piebald motives. No one restrains them. Laudwine is still too weak to resume full leadership. He is feverish and febrile from the loss of his arm. Those closest to him hate you doubly for that; they will be swift as wildfire to set their vengeance against you. Witness that you have been back in Buckkeep only a few days, and they have already located you. ”

  We stood silent in the dusty room for a time, both of us following thoughts too dark to share. At last, Laurel spoke reluctantly.

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  “You understand that Deerkin still has ties to those in the Piebalds. They try to lure him back. He must . . . pretend to side with them. To protect our family. He walks a thin and dangerous line. He hears things that are very dangerous for him to repeat, and yet he has sent word. ” Her words trickled away. She stared at the obscured window as if she could truly see what was beyond it.

  I knew what she was trying to express. “You should speak to the Queen. Tell her that Deerkin must appear a traitor to the crown for the sake of keeping your family safe. Will you flee, as he bids you?”

  She shook her head slowly. “Flee where? To my family? Then I plunge them into more danger. Here, at least, the Piebalds must reach into danger’s mouth to extract me. I will stay here and serve my queen. ”

  I wondered if Chade would be able to protect her, let alone her cousin.

  Her voice was flat when she spoke again. “Deerkin hears hints that the Piebalds are forming an alliance with outsiders. ‘Powerful folk who would be happy to destroy the Farseers and leave Laudwine’s folk in power. ’ ” She gave me a worried glance. “That sounds like a silly boast, doesn’t it? It couldn’t be real, could it?”

  “Best tell the Queen,” I said, and hoped she could not hear that I did think it possible. I knew I would take the tale to Chade.

  “And you?” she asked me. “Will you flee? I think you should. For you would make a fine example of the Piebalds’ power. Exposed, you would illustrate that there are Witted even within the walls of Buckkeep. Quartered and burned, you would be a fine example to other traitors to the Old Blood, that those who deny and betray their own kind are in turn betrayed by them. ”

  She was not herself Witted. Her cousin was. Even though the magic ran in her family blood, she had no love for the Wit or those who used their magic. Like most Six Duchies folk, she regarded my ability to sense animals and bond with a beast as a despicable magic. Perhaps her use of the word “traitor” should have carried less sting because of that, yet the contempt of the message burned me.

  “I am not a traitor to my Old Blood. I but keep my oath where it was sworn, to the Farseers. If Old Blood had not tried to harm the Prince, it would not have been necessary for me to wrest him back from them. ”

  Laurel spoke flatly. “Those are the words of my cousin’s message to me. Not mine. He sent me those words so that I might warn the Queen, partly because he feels a debt to me. But also because she is the most tolerant of Old Blood of any recent Farseer reign we have known. He would not see her shamed and her influence lessened. I suspect he thinks she would rid herself of you if she knew you could be used against her. I know her better. She will not heed my warning and send you away from Buckkeep before you can be used against her. ”

  So. That was her real message for me. “Then you think that would be best for all? If I simply removed myself, without her having to ask me to leave. ”

  She gazed past me, spoke past me. “You suddenly appeared from nowhere. Perhaps it were best if you returned there. ”

  For an instant, I actually toyed with the notion. I could go downstairs, saddle Myblack, and ride off. Hap was safely apprenticed, and Chade would see that he remained so. I had been reluctant to teach Dutiful the Skill, let alone what I knew of the Wit. Perhaps this was the simplest solution for all of us. I could disappear. But.

  “I did not come to Buckkeep at my own desire. I came at my queen’s behest. And so do I stay. Nor would my departure remove the danger to her. Laudwine and his followers know the Prince is Witted. ”

  “I thought you would say as much,” Laurel conceded. “And for all I know, perhaps you are right. Yet I will still pass on my warning to the Queen. ”

  “You would be remiss if you did not. Yet I thank you for taking the time to seek me out and pass on this warning to me, as well. I know I gave Deerkin little reason to think well of me. I am willing to let all that occurred between us fade into the past. If you have the chance, I ask you to pass that message on to him. That I bear no ill will to him, or to any that follow the true Old Blood ways. But I must always put my service to the Farseers first. ”

  “As do I,” she responded grimly.

  “You say nothing of Laudwine’s intentions toward Prince Dutiful. ”

  “Because Deerkin’s message said nothing of that. So my only answer is, I don’t know. ”

  “I see. ”

  And there seemed nothing else to say to one another. I let her leave first so we would not be seen together. I lingered in the old rooms longer than I needed t
o. Beneath the dust on the windowsill, I could just glimpse the track of my boyhood’s idle knife. I looked up at the slanting ceiling over the spot where my pallet had been. I could still see the owl shape in the twisted grain of the wood there. There was little left here of Burrich or of me. Time and other occupants had obliterated us from the room. I left it, dragging the door closed behind me.

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  I could have saddled Myblack and ridden down to Buckkeep Town, but I chose to walk despite the edged chill of the day. I have always believed it is harder to shadow a man on foot. I passed out of the gates without incident or comment. I strode off briskly, but once I was out of sight of the guards and any other travelers, I stepped aside from the road, to stand in the scrub brush that banked it and look back to see if anyone were following me. I stood still and silent until the scar on my back began to ache. There was damp in the wind, rain or snow to come tonight. My ears and nose were cold. I decided that no one was shadowing me today. Nonetheless, I performed the same maneuver twice more on my walk into town.

  I took a roundabout path through Buckkeep Town to Jinna’s house. Part of this was caution, but part of it was dithering. I wanted to take her a gift, both as an apology for not visiting last night as I had said I would and as thanks for helping me with Hap, yet I could not think what it should be. Earrings seemed somehow too personal and too permanent. So did the brightly woven scarf that caught my eye in the weaver’s stall. Fresh smoked redfish teased my appetite, yet seemed inappropriate. I was a man grown, yet I felt caught in a boy’s dilemma. How did I express thanks, apology, and interest in her without appearing too grateful, apologetic, or interested? I wanted, I decided, a friendly gift, and resolved that I would choose something that I could as easily present to the Fool or Hap without feeling any awkwardness. I settled on a sack of sweet hevnuts, this year’s plump and shining harvest, and a loaf of fresh spice bread. With these in hand, I felt almost confident as I tapped at the door with the palm-reader’s sign on it.

  “A moment!” came Jinna’s voice, and then she opened the top half of the door, squinting in the sunlight. Behind her the room was dim, shutters closed, candles burning fragrantly on the table. “Ah. Tom. I’m in the midst of a reading for a customer. Can you wait?”

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