Golden fool, p.16
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       Golden Fool, p.16

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Of course. ”

  “Good. ” And then she shut the door firmly and left me standing outside. It wasn’t what I had expected, and yet I reflected it was no more than I deserved. So I waited humbly, watching the street and the folk passing by, and trying to look at ease in the biting wind. The hedge-witch’s house was on a quiet street in Buckkeep Town, and yet there was a steady trickle of folk along it. Next door to her lived a potter. His door was closed to the wind, his wares stacked beside it, and I heard the thump of his wheel as he worked. Across the street lived a woman who seemed to have an impossible number of small children, several of whom seemed intent on wandering out into the muddy street despite the chill day. A little girl not much older than the toddlers patiently hauled them back onto the porch. From where I stood, I could just glimpse the doors of a tavern down the street. The hanging sign that welcomed guests showed a pig wedged in a fence. The trade seemed to be mostly the sort who took their beer home in small buckets.

  I was just beginning to think of either leaving or tapping on the door again when it opened. A lavishly garbed matron and her two daughters emerged. The younger girl had tears in her eyes, but her sister looked bored. The mother thanked Jinna profusely for a very long time before she tartly ordered her girls to stop tarrying and come along. The glance she gave me as she led them off did not approve of me.

  If I had thought Jinna’s leaving me standing outside was a sort of retribution, the warm and weary look she gave me dispelled the notion. She wore a green robe. A wide yellow waist-belt cinched her middle and lifted her breasts. It was very becoming. “Come in, come in. Oh, such a morning. It’s strange. Folk want to know what you see in their hands, but so often they don’t want to believe it. ”

  She shut the door behind me, plunging us back in dimness.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t come to visit last night. My master had duties for me. I’ve brought you some fresh spice bread from the market. ”

  “Oh. How lovely! I see you bought hevnuts at the market. I wish I had known that you liked them, for my niece’s trees have borne so heavily this year that we can scarcely decide what to do with them all. A neighbor out near her farm may take some for pig fodder, but they have fallen so thick this year one fair wades through them. ”

  So much for that. But she took the spice bread from me and set it on the table, exclaiming over how delicious it smelled, and telling me that Hap was, of course, at his master’s. Her niece had borrowed the pony and cart to haul firewood in, did I mind? Hap had said she might, and said too that it was better for the pony to do the light work the old beast could handle than to stand idly stabled. I assured her that was fine. “No Fennel?” I asked, wondering at the cat’s absence.

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  “Fennel?” She seemed surprised I would ask. “Oh, he’s probably out and about his own business. You know how cats are. ”

  I set the sack of hevnuts on the floor by the door and hung my cloak above it. The little room was warm and my cold ears stung as they returned to life. As I turned to the table, she was setting down two steaming cups of tea. The rising warmth beckoned me. A dish of butter and some honey waited beside the bread. “Are you hungry?” she asked me, smiling up at me.

  “A bit,” I admitted. Her smile was contagious.

  Her eyes moved over my face. “I am, too,” she said. Then she stepped forward, and I found my arms around her, and her mouth rising up to mine. I had to stoop to kiss her. Her lips opened to mine, inviting, and she tasted of tea and spices. I felt suddenly dizzy.

  She broke the kiss, and pressed her cheek to my chest. “You’re cold,” she said. “I should not have made you wait outside so long. ”

  “I’m much warmer now,” I assured her.

  She looked up at me and smiled. “I know. ” And as her lips found mine again, her hand dropped down to trace the proof of that. I jumped at the touch, but her hand on the back of my neck kept my mouth on hers.

  She was the one who walked us sideways to her bedchamber, never breaking the kiss. She released me to shut the door firmly behind us, plunging us into near darkness save for the bits of light that fingered their way in through the shakes of the roof and past the open rafters of a small loft. The bed was plump with featherbeds. The chamber smelled of woman. I tried to take a breath and find my mind. “This isn’t wise,” I said. I could scarcely get the words out.

  “No. It isn’t. ” Her fingers loosened the laces of my shirt and tightened my desire. She gave me a small push and I sat down on the edge of her bed.

  As she pulled my shirt off over my head, my eyes fell on a small charm on a bedside table. A string of red and black beads was looped and wound around a framework of dead sticks. It was a dash of cold water, stilling my desire and infusing me with a sense of futility. As she unbuckled her waist, her eyes followed my glance. She studied my face, and smiling, shook her head. “Well. Aren’t you the sensitive one? Don’t look at that. It’s for me, not you. ” And she casually covered it with the shirt she took from my hands.

  I knew then a moment of sanity when I could have stopped what was happening. But she gave me no chance to surrender to my common sense, for her hands were at my belt, her fingers warm against my belly, and I stopped thinking entirely. I stood and lifted her robe over her head, and its passage left her curly hair standing out in a cloud around her face. For a time we stood, nuzzling one another. She made some approving comment about the charm that she had made for me. It was all I currently wore. When she asked me what had given me the fresh scratches on my neck and belly, I silenced her mouth with mine. I recall picking her easily off her feet and turning to set her on her bed. I knelt on the bed over her and beheld the wealth of her, her nipples standing out pink and eager, and the delicious scent of woman rising from her.

  Without a word, I mounted her and then possessed her. Blind lust drove me, and she gasped, “Tom!” shocked at my fierce ardor. My hands were cupped on her shoulders, my mouth covered hers, and she rose to meet me. A sudden terrible need for her overtook me. To touch, skin to skin, in closeness and passion, to share myself completely with another being, to leave behind the sense of being isolated in my own flesh. I held nothing back, and I thought I carried her with me.

  Then, as I lay dizzied with completion, she said in a small voice, “Well. You’re a hasty man, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  My hoarse breathing as I lay atop her made a hideous silence of its own. Shame drenched me. After a terrible stillness, she stirred under me. I heard her draw a breath. “You were hungry!” Perhaps she regretted her words of disappointment, but that did not call them back. Her gentle attempt at making light of it brought the blood to my face and completed my humiliation. I dropped my forehead to the pillow beside hers. I listened to the wind outside in the streets. Some people tramped by in the street, just on the other side of the plank wall. A man’s sudden shout of laughter made me wince. Up in the attic loft, I heard a thump and a squeak. Then Jinna kissed the side of my neck and her hands moved gently down my back. Her voice was a soothing whisper. “Tom. The first time is seldom the best. You’ve shown me your boy’s passion. Shall we find your man’s skills, now?”

  So she gave me another chance to prove myself, and I was shamefacedly grateful. I proceeded in a workmanlike way that soon rekindled both of us. There were several things Starling had taught me and Jinna seemed pleased with my second performance. It was only at the very end, as we lay panting together, that her words stirred a misgiving in me. “So, Badgerlock,” she said, and then drew breath beneath me. “That is what it is like for a she-wolf. ”

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  Incredulous, I lifted myself a little from her so that I could look down into her eyes. She blinked up at me, an odd smile on her face. “I’ve never been with a Witted one, before this,” she confided. She drew another, deeper breath. “I’ve heard other women speak of it. That such men are more . . . ” She paused, seeking for a w
ord.

  “Animal?” I suggested. The word as I spoke it was an insult.

  Her eyes widened, and then she laughed uncomfortably. “That isn’t what I was going to say, Tom. You shouldn’t take insults to yourself where a compliment is intended. Untamed, was what I was going to say. Natural, as an animal is natural, with no thought of what any other may think of his ways. ”

  “Oh. ” I could say no more than that. I wondered abruptly what I was to her. A novelty? A forbidden indulgence with something not quite fully human? It was unnerving to wonder if she saw me as bestial and strange. Did our magics set us so far apart in her mind?

  Then she pulled me down upon her breasts again, and kissed the side of my neck. “Stop thinking,” she warned me, and I did.

  Afterward, she dozed briefly beside me, my arm around her and her head pillowed on my shoulder. I judged that I had acquitted myself well. But as I watched the sunlight’s passage on the wall, I realized it had been a performance. Neither of us had spoken of love. It had simply been a thing we had done together, something that felt good, something I was reasonably competent at. Yet if our first coupling had left her unsatisfied, the later ones left me feeling incomplete in a deeper way. With a sharpness I had not felt in years, I suddenly longed for Molly, and how simple, good, and true it had been between us. This was not that, any more than my partnering with Starling had been. It wasn’t even sharing a bed. At the heart of my discontent, I wanted to be in love with someone the way I had been that first time. I wanted someone I could touch and be held by, someone who made everything else in the world more significant simply by her existence.

  This morning, Kettricken had touched me as a friend, and that had held more meaning and even more true passion than this had. I suddenly wanted to be gone from here, for none of this ever to have happened. Jinna and I had been on the path to becoming friends. I was just beginning to know her. What had I done to that? And Hap was stirred up in this stew as well. If Jinna wanted to carry on with this, how would I manage it? Openly flouting yet again all the rules I had taught him for how a man should conduct his life? Or in secret, hiding it from Hap, furtively coming and going from Jinna’s bed?

  I was deathly tired of secrets. They seemed to spawn all around me, to fasten to me and suck the life from me like cold leeches. I hungered for something real and true and open. Could I change my relationship with Jinna to that? I doubted it. Not only was there no foundation of deep and honest love between us, but once again I was enmeshed in the secret business of the Farseer intrigues. There would be secrets I must keep from her, secrets that would eventually endanger her.

  I had not realized she was awake. Or perhaps my deep sigh stirred her past the edge of drowsing. She set her hand to my chest and patted me lightly. “Don’t be troubled, Tom. It wasn’t all your failure. I had guessed there might be a problem when the charm by the bed near unmanned you. And now your spirits grow bleak and grim, do they not?”

  I shrugged one shoulder. She sat up beside me in the bed. She reached across me, her flesh warm against mine, and lifted my shirt off the bedside charm. The sad little thing hunched there, forlorn and alone.

  “It’s a woman’s charm. It’s difficult to make, as it must be very finely tuned to the individual woman. To construct this sort of charm, you have to know the woman from the skin in. So a hedge-witch can make one for herself, but not for anyone else . . . at least, not one that is certain. This one is mine, tuned to me. It’s a charm against conception. I should have guessed that it might affect you. Any man who wants children so desperately that he takes in a foundling to raise on his own has that longing down to his bones. You may deny it, but that little hope burns in you each time you lie with a woman. I suspect it is what must drive your passion, Tom. And this little charm took that idle dream away from you before you could even wish it. It told you our joining would be futile and barren. That’s what you feel now, isn’t it?”

  Having something explained to you does not always solve it. I looked aside from her. “Isn’t it?” I asked, and then winced at the bitterness in my voice.

  “Poor boy,” she said sympathetically. She kissed me on the forehead, where Kettricken had kissed me earlier. “Of course not. It’s what we make it. ”

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  “I’m in no position to be a father to anyone. I didn’t even come to see Hap last night, when he told me it was important. I’ve no wish to start another life that I cannot protect. ”

  She shook her head over me. “What the heart longs for, and what the mind knows are two different things. You forget I’ve seen your palms, sweet man. Perhaps I know more of your heart than you do yourself. ”

  “You said my true love would come back to me. ” Again, despite myself, my words sounded accusing.

  “No, Tom. That I did not. Well do I know that what I say to a person is seldom what that person hears, but I’ll tell you again what I saw. It’s here. ” She took my hand. She held the open palm close to her nearsighted eyes. Her bare breasts brushed my wrist as her fingers traced a line in my palm. “There is a love that twines in and out of your days. Sometimes, it leaves, but when it does, it runs alongside you until it returns. ” She lifted my hand closer to her face, studying it. Then she kissed my palm, and moved it back to her breast. “That doesn’t mean that you must be alone and idle while you wait for it to come back,” she suggested in a whisper.

  Fennel saved us both the embarrassment of my declining. Want a rat? I glanced up. The orange cat crouched on the edge of the loft, his catch squirming in his jaws as he stared down at us. It’s still got a lot of play in it.

  No. Just kill it. I felt the red spark of the rat’s agony. It had no hope of living, but the life in it would not surrender easily. Life never gives up willingly.

  Fennel ignored my refusal. He launched from the edge of the loft, dropping down to land beside us on the bed, where he released his prey. The frantic rodent scuttled toward us, dragging a hind leg. Jinna exclaimed in disgust and leapt from the bed. I snatched up the rat. A pinch and a twist ended its torment.

  You’re fast! Fennel approved.

  Here. Take it away. I offered him the dead rat.

  He sniffed the dead body. You broke it! Fennel crouched on the bed, staring at me in round-eyed disapproval.

  Take it away.

  I don’t want it. It’s no fun anymore. He growled low at me, then leapt from the bed. You ended it too fast. You just don’t know how to play. He went immediately to the door and clawed the jamb, demanding to go out. Jinna, clutching her robe against her nakedness, opened the door and he sidled out. I was left sitting naked in her bed, a dead rat in my hands. Blood leaked from the battered rat’s nose and mouth over my hands.

  My trousers and drawers were still tangled together when Jinna tossed them to me. “Don’t get blood on my bedding,” she cautioned me, so I didn’t set the rat down, but struggled into my trousers one-handed.

  I threw the rat out onto a midden behind the house. When I came back in, she was pouring hot water over tea in the pot. She gave me a smile. “The other tea seems to have gotten cold, somehow. ”

  “Did it?” I tried to speak as lightly as she did. I went back to her bedroom for my shirt. After I put it on, I twitched the bedding straight. I avoided looking at the charm. When I came out, I ignored my own desire to leave and sat down at the table. We shared bread and butter and honey, and hot tea. Jinna chatted of the three women who had come to see her. She had read the younger daughter’s hands, to see if an offer of marriage boded well for her. Then she had advised her to wait. It was a long involved story, full of detail, and I let it stream gently past me. Fennel came to my chair, stood up and dug his front claws into my leg, then hauled himself up onto my lap. From there, he surveyed the table.

  Butter for the cat.

  I have no reason to be nice to you.

  Yes you do. I am the cat.

  He was so supremely self-
confident that that was enough reason for me to butter a corner of a slice of bread and offer it to him. I had expected him to carry it off. Instead, he allowed me to hold it while he licked it clean of butter. More.

  No.

  “. . . or Hap may find himself in the same sort of fix. ”

  I tried to backtrack her words, but realized I had hopelessly lost the thread of her conversation. Fennel was perversely digging his claws into my thigh as I ignored him. “Well, I intended to speak with him today,” I said, and hoped that the comment made some sort of sense.

  “You should. Of course, there’s no good your waiting for him here. Even if you had come by last night, you’d have had to sit and wait for him. He comes in late each night, and leaves late for his work every morning. ”

  Concern prickled me. That didn’t sound like Hap.

  “So what do you suggest?”

  She took a breath and sighed it out, a bit annoyed. I probably deserved it. “What I just said. Go to the shop, and speak with his master. Ask for some time with Hap. Corner him, and set down some rules for him. Say that if he doesn’t keep them, you’ll insist that he board with his master like the other apprentices do. That would give him a chance to govern himself, or be governed. For if he moves into the apprentices’ quarters there, he’ll find that one evening off twice a month is all he’ll get to himself. ”

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  I was suddenly listening closely. “Then all the other apprentices live with Master Gindast?”

  She gave me a look of amazement. “Of course they do! And he keeps them on a tight leash, which perhaps Hap would benefit from—but there, you are his father, I suppose you would know best about that. ”

  “He has never needed one before,” I observed mildly.

  “Well, that was when you lived in the country. And there were no taverns or young women about within hailing. ”

  “Well . . . yes. But I had not considered that he might be expected to live in his master’s house. ”

 
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