Golden fool, p.19
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       Golden Fool, p.19

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Your confidence is so inspiring,” Dutiful muttered darkly. Then, a moment later, he laughed. “A fine pair we shall make, stumbling along together. Where do we begin?”

  “I am afraid, my prince, that we shall have to begin by first moving backward. You must be untaught some of what you have learned by yourself. Are you aware that when you attempt to Skill, you are mingling the Wit with that magic?”

  He stared at me blankly.

  After a moment of discouragement, I said briskly, “Well. Our first step will be to untangle your magics from one another. ” As if I knew how. I was not even certain that my own magics operated independently of one another. I shoved the thought aside. “I’d like to proceed with teaching you the basics of Skilling. We’ll set aside the Wit for now, to avoid confusion. ”

  “Have you ever known any others like us?”

  He had lost me again. “Like us how?”

  “With both the Wit and the Skill. ”

  I took a deep breath and let it out. Truth or lie. Truth. “I think I once met one, but I did not recognize him as such at the time. I don’t think he even knew what he was doing. At the time, I thought he was just very strong in the Wit. Since then, I’ve sometimes wondered at how well he seemed to know what passed between my wolf and me. I suspect that he had both magics, but thought them the same thing, and thus used them together. ”

  “Who was he?”

  I should never have begun to answer his questions. “I told you, it was a long time ago. He was a man who tried to help me learn the Wit. Now. Let’s focus on why we are here today. ”

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  “Civil. ”

  “What?” The lad’s mind hopped like a flea. He’d have to learn to focus.

  “Civil has been well instructed in the Wit, since he was a small child. Perhaps he would be willing to teach me. As he already knows I am Witted, it is not spreading my secret about. And . . . ”

  I think the look on my face made him falter into silence. I waited until I trusted myself to speak. Then, I pretended to be a wiser man than I was. I tried to listen before I spoke to him. “Tell me about Civil,” I suggested. Then, because I could not quite control my tongue, I added, “Tell me why you think it is safe to trust him. ”

  I liked that he did not answer immediately. His brow furrowed, and then he spoke as if he were recounting events from a lifetime ago. “I first met Civil when he presented me with my cat. As you know, she was a gift from the Bresingas. I think Lady Bresinga had come to Buckkeep Castle before, but I don’t recall ever seeing Civil. There was something about the way he gave me the cat . . . I think it was that he obviously cared for her welfare; he did not present her to me as if she were a thing, but as if she were a friend. Perhaps that is because he is Witted, also. He told me that he would teach me how to hunt with her, and the very next morning, we went out together. We went alone, Tom, so there would be no distractions for her. And he truly taught me how to hunt with her, paying more attention to that than to the fact that he had time alone with Prince Dutiful. ” Dutiful halted and a slight flush rose on his face.

  “That may sound conceited to you, but it is a thing I must always deal with. I accept an invitation to something that sounds interesting, only to find that the person who invited me is more fixed on gaining my attention than on sharing something with me. Lady Wess invited me to a puppet show performed by masters of the art from Tilth. Then she sat beside me and chattered at me about a land dispute with her neighbor all the way through the play.

  “Civil was not like that. He taught me how to hunt with a cat. Don’t you think that if he had intended ill to me, he could have done it then? Hunting accidents are not that rare. He could have arranged a tumble down a cliff. But we hunted, not just that morning, but every dawn for the week he was in Buckkeep, and each day it was the same. Only better, as I became more skilled at it. And it became best of all when he brought his own cat along with us. I really thought I had finally discovered a true friend. ”

  Chade’s old trick served me well. Silence asks the questions that are too awkward to phrase. It even asks the questions one does not know to ask.

  “So. When I, when I thought I was falling in love with someone, when I thought I had to flee this betrothal, well, I went to Civil. I sent him a message; when we had parted, he told me that if ever there was anything he could do for me, I had but to ask. So I sent the message, and a reply came, telling me where to go and who would help me. But here’s the odd thing, Tom. Civil says now that he never got any message from me, nor sent me a reply. Certainly I never saw him after I left Buckkeep. Even when I reached Galeton, even when I stayed there, I did not see Civil. Or Lady Bresinga. Only servants. They made a place for my cat in their cattery. ”

  He fell silent and this time I sensed he would not go on without a nudge.

  “But you did stay in the manor?”

  “Yes. The room had been made up fresh, but I do not think that wing of the house was used much. Everyone kept emphasizing the need for secrecy if I was to slip away. So my meals were brought to me, and when word reached us that . . . that you were coming, then it was decided I had to leave again. But the people who were supposed to take me hadn’t arrived yet. The cat and I went out that night and . . . your wolf found me. ”

  He halted again. “I know the rest,” I said, out of pity for both of us. Yet I asked, to be certain, “And now Civil says he did not even know you were there?”

  “Neither he nor his mother knew. He swore it. He suspects a servant intercepted my message to him and passed it on to someone else, who replied to it and arranged all the rest. ”

  “And this servant?”

  “Is long gone. He vanished the same night I left there. We counted back the days and so it seems. ”

  “It seems to me that you and Civil have discussed this in depth. ” I could not keep the disapproval out of my voice.

  “When Laudwine revealed himself and his true intentions, I thought that Civil must have been part of it. I felt betrayed by him. That was a part of my despair. I had not only lost my cat, but also discovered that my friend had betrayed me. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to learn that I was wrong. ” Relief and earnest trust shone in his face.

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  So he trusted Civil Bresinga, even to the point of believing that Civil could teach him the illegal magic of the Wit and never betray him. Or lead him into danger with it. How much of that trust, I wondered, was based on his aching need for a real friend? I compared it to his willingness to trust me and winced. Certainly I had given him small reason to bond with me, and yet he had. It was as if he were so isolated that any close contact at all became a friendship in his mind.

  I held my tongue. I sat in silent wonder that I could do it, even as cold resolve flowed through me. I would get to the core of this Civil Bresinga, and see for myself what lurked there. If he were wormy with treachery, he would pay for it. And if he had betrayed my prince and then lied about it to him, if he trafficked upon the Prince’s trusting nature, he would pay doubly. But for now, I would not speak of my suspicions to the lad. So, “I see,” I said gravely.

  “He offered to teach me about the Wit . . . Old Blood, he calls it. I didn’t ask him, he offered. ”

  That didn’t reassure me, but again I kept the thought to myself. I truthfully replied, “Prince Dutiful, I would prefer you did not begin any lessons about Old Blood just now. As I have told you, we need to separate these two magics from each other. I think it would be best if we let the Wit lie fallow for now and concentrated on developing your Skill. ”

  For a time he stared out over the sea. I knew that he had looked forward to Civil teaching him, that he had hungered for that sharing. But he took a breath and then he replied quietly, “If that is what you think best, that is what you and I shall do. ” Then he turned and met my eyes. There was no reluctance in his face. He accepted the discipline I o
ffered him.

  He was of good temperament, amiable and willing to be taught. I looked into his open glance and hoped I could be an instructor worthy of him.

  We began that day. I sat down across the table from him and asked him to close his eyes and relax. I asked him to lower all barriers between himself and the outside world, to try to be open to all things. I spoke to him quietly, calmingly, as if he were a colt waiting to feel the first weight of harness. Then I sat, watching the stillness in his unlined face. He was ready. He was like a pool of clear water that I could dive into.

  If I could force myself to make the leap.

  My Skill walls were a defensive habit. They had, perhaps, been worn thin by carelessness, but I had never completely forsaken them. Reaching out to the Prince was different from simply plunging myself into the Skill. There was a risk of exposure. I was out of practice at Skilling, one person to another. Would I reveal more of myself than I intended? Even as I wondered such things, I felt the protective barriers around my thoughts grow thicker. To lower them completely was more difficult than one might think. They had been my protection for so long, the reflex was difficult to overcome. It was like looking into bright sunlight and trying to command my eyes not to squint. Slowly I pushed my walls down, until I felt I stood naked before him. There was just the distance of the tabletop to travel. I knew I could reach his thoughts but still I hesitated. I did not wish to overwhelm him, as Verity had me the first time we touched minds. Slowly, then. Gently.

  I took a breath and eased toward him.

  He smiled, his eyes still closed. “I hear music. ”

  It was a double revelation to me. To this boy, Skilling came as easily as being told that he could. And his sensitivity was great, far greater than mine. When I reached out wide all around us, I became aware of Thick’s music. It was there, trickling like running water in the back of my mind. It was like the wind outside the window, a thing I had unwittingly trained myself to ignore, like all the other susurrus of thoughts that float on the ether like fallen leaves on the surface of a woodland stream. Yet, as I brushed my mind against Dutiful’s, he heard Thick’s music clear and sweet, like a minstrel’s pure voice standing strong amidst a chorus. Thick was indeed strong.

  And the Prince’s talent was as great, for at my grazing touch of Skill, he turned his regard toward me, and I was aware of him. It was a moment of shared insight as we recognized one another through the bond. I looked into his heart and saw within it not a shard of deception or guile. The openness he had to the Skill was the same clarity that he offered to his life. I felt both small and dark in his presence, for I myself stood masked and let him behold only that which I could share with him, the single facet of myself that was his teacher.

  Before I even bade him reach to me, his thoughts mingled with mine. Is the music how you test me? I hear it. It’s lovely. His thoughts came clear and strong to me, but I sensed a Wit edge to them. It was how he chose me to receive his Skill. He used his Wit awareness of me to single my thoughts out from all the tangled muttering of thoughts in Buckkeep and beyond. I wondered how I was going to break him of that. I think I’ve heard that tune before, but I can’t recall the name of it. His musing brought me back to the moment. Drawn toward the music, it was as if he took one step away from his self.

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  That settled it. Chade had been right. Thick would either have to be taught, or done away with. I shielded the Prince from that dark thought. Careful now, lad. Let’s go slowly. That you can hear the music is clear proof that you can Skill. What you sense now, the music and the random thoughts, that is rather like the debris that floats atop the stream. You have to learn to ignore that and find instead the clear empty water where you can send your thoughts as you will. The thoughts you hear, the bits of whispers and notes of emotions, they all come from folk who have a tiny ability to Skill. You have to learn to ignore those sounds. As for the music, that comes from one stronger in the Skill, but for now he too must be ignored.

  But the music is so lovely.

  It is. But the music is not Skill. The music is but one man’s sending. It’s like a leaf floating on the river’s current. It’s lovely and graceful, but beneath it flows the cold force of the river. If you let the leaf distract you, you may forget the strength of the river and be swept away by it.

  Fool that I was, I had called his attention to it. I should have known that his talent outran his control of it. He turned his regard to it, and before I could intervene, he focused on it. And as quickly as that, he was swept away from me.

  It was like watching a child wading in the shallows suddenly caught and borne away on a current. I was at first transfixed with horror. Then I plunged into it after him, well aware of how difficult it would be to catch up with him.

  Later, I tried to describe it to Chade. “Imagine one of those large gatherings where many conversations are being held at once. You start out listening to one, but then a comment from someone behind you catches your interest. Then, a phrase from someone else. Suddenly you are lost and tumbling in everyone else’s words. And you cannot recall who you first began listening to, nor can you find your own thought. Each phrase you hear captures your attention, and you cannot distinguish one as more important than another. They all exist at once, equally attractive, and each one tears a piece of you free and carries it off. ”

  The Skill is not a place where sight exists, or sounds, or touch. Only thought. One moment, the Prince had been beside me, strong and intact and only himself. The next, he had given too much of his attention to a strong thought not his own. As one may swiftly unravel a large piece of knitting simply by drawing one loose thread out of it, so the Prince began to come undone. Catching up the thread and rolling it up does not restore the garment. Yet as I plunged through the maelstrom of random thoughts, I reached for him, snatching at the threads of him, gathering and grasping them even as I sought frantically for their ever-diminishing heart and source. I had been in far stronger Skill currents than the ones I navigated now, and I held myself intact. But the Prince’s experience was far more limited than mine. He was being torn apart, shredding rapidly in the clawing flow of sentience. To call him back, I would have to risk myself, but as the fault was mine, it seemed only fair.

  Dutiful! I cast the thought wide, and opened my mind to any response. What I received back was a hailstorm of confusion as folk that were mildly Skilled sensed the intrusion of my thought into their minds, and in turn wondered what I was. The weight of their sudden regard fell upon me and then tugged at me, a thousand hooks tearing at me at once.

  It was a strange sensation, at once alarming and exhilarating. Perhaps strangest of all was how much clearer my perception of it was. Perhaps Chade had been right to deprive me of elfbark. But that thought passed fleetly as I focused on what I must do. I shook them off wildly as a wolf would shake water from his coat. I felt their brief amazement and confusion as they fell away and then I was centered again. DUTIFUL! My thought bellowed not his name, but his concept of himself, the shape I had so clearly seen when I had first brushed my thoughts against his. What I felt in return from him was like a questioning echo, as if he could barely recall who he had been but moments before.

  I netted him out of the tangled flux, sieving the threads of him and keeping them whilst letting the others flow through my perception of him. Dutiful. Dutiful. Dutiful. The tapping of my thought was a heartbeat for him, and a confirmation. Then for a time I held him, steadying him, and finally felt him come back to himself. Swiftly he gathered to his center threads that I had not perceived as being part of him. I was a stillness around him, helping to hold the thoughts of the world at bay while he re-formed himself.

  Tom? he queried me at last. The template he offered me was a fractured portion of myself, the single facet I had presented to him.

  Yes, I confirmed for him. Yes, Dutiful. And that is enough and more than enough for today. Come away from this now.
Come back to yourself.

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  Together we separated ourselves from the tantalizing flow, and then peeled apart and went to our own bodies. Yet as we departed from the Skill river, it seemed to me that someone else almost spoke to me, in a distant echo of thought.

  That was well done. But next time, be more careful, with yourself as well as with him.

  The message was arrowed at me, a thought with me as its target. I do not think Dutiful was aware of it at all. As I opened my eyes at the table, and saw how pale he was, I pushed all consideration of that foreign Skilling aside. He slumped in his chair, head canted to one side, eyes nearly closed. Drops of sweat had tracked down his face from his hair and his lips puffed as the breath moved in and out of them. My first lesson had nearly been his last.

  I rounded the table and crouched down beside him. “Dutiful. Can you hear me?”

  He gasped in a small breath. Yes. A terrible smile flowed onto his slack face. It was so beautiful. I want to go back, Tom.

  “No. Don’t do that; don’t even think about it right now. Stay here and now. Focus on staying in your own body. ” I glanced around the room. There was nothing here to offer him, no water, and no wine. “You’ll recover in a few moments,” I told him, not at all sure that was true. Why hadn’t I planned for this possibility? Why hadn’t I warned him first of the dangers of the Skill? Because I had never expected that he could Skill so well on his very first lesson? I had not thought he would be adept enough to get himself into trouble. Well, now I knew better. Teaching the Prince was going to be more dangerous than I had thought.

  I set a hand to his shoulder, intending to help him sit up straighter. Instead, it was as if we leapt into one another’s minds. I had lowered my walls to teach him, and Dutiful had no walls. The elation of the Skill flooded me as our minds met and matched. With him, I could hear the muted roar of Skill thoughts like the carousing of a flood river in the distance. Come away from that, I counseled him, and somehow drew him back from that brink. It was unnerving to feel his fascination with it. Once, I too had felt that drawn to the great Skill current. It still exerted a tremendous attraction on me, but I also knew its dangers, and that balanced it. The Prince was like a baby reaching toward a candle flame. I drew him back from it, put myself between it and him, and finally sensed him curtaining his mind against the Skill murmur.

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