Golden fool, p.2
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       Golden Fool, p.2

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Imbecile. The cat was comfortable. Fennel complained as he slid to the floor, but the big orange tom was too stupefied with warmth to make much of a protest. Instead he leapt onto Jinna’s chair and curled up in it without deigning me a backward glance.

  The storm pushed in with Hap as he shoved the door open. A gust of wind carried rain into the room. “Whew. Put the wood in the hole, lad,” Jinna rebuked Hap as he lurched in. Obediently he shut the door behind him and latched it, and then stood dripping before it.

  “It’s wild and wet out there,” he told her. His smile was beatifically drunken, but his eyes were lit with more than wine. Infatuation shone there, as unmistakable as the rain slipping from his lank hair and running down his face. It took him a moment or two to realize that I was there, watching him. Then, “Tom! Tom, you’ve finally come back!” He flung his arms wide in a drunkard’s ebullience for the ordinary, and I laughed and stepped forward to accept his wet hug.

  “Don’t get water all over Jinna’s floor!” I rebuked him.

  “No, I shouldn’t. Well. I won’t, then,” he declared, and dragged off his sodden coat. He hung it on a peg by the door and peeled off his wool cap to drip there as well. He tried to take his boots off standing, but lost his balance. He sat down on the floor and tugged them off. He leaned far to set them by the door under his wet coat and then sat up with a blissful smile. “Tom. I’ve met a girl. ”

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  “Have you? I thought you’d met a bottle from the smell of you. ”

  “Oh, yes,” he admitted unabashedly. “That, too. But we had to drink the Prince’s health, you know. And that of his intended. And to a happy marriage. And for many children. And for as much happiness for ourselves. ” He gave me a wide and fatuous smile. “She says she loves me. She likes my eyes. ”

  “Well. That’s good. ” How many times in his life had folk looked at his mismatched eyes, one brown and one blue, and made the sign against evil? It had to be balm to meet a girl who found them attractive.

  And I suddenly knew that now was not the time to burden him with any grief of mine. I spoke gently but firmly. “I think perhaps you should go to bed, son. Won’t your master be expecting you in the morning?”

  He looked as if I had slapped him with a fish. The smile faded from his face. “Oh. Yes, yes that’s true. He’ll expect me. Old Gindast expects his apprentices to be there before his journeymen, and his journeymen to be well at work when he arrives. ” He gathered himself and slowly stood up. “Tom, this apprenticeship hasn’t been what I expected at all. I sweep and carry boards and turn wood that is drying. I sharpen tools and clean tools and oil tools. Then I sweep again. I rub oil finishes into the completed pieces. But not a tool have I had in my hand to use, in all these days. It’s all ‘Watch how this is done, boy,’ or ‘Repeat back what I just told you’ and ‘This isn’t what I asked for. Take this back to the wood stock and bring me the fine-grained cherry. And be quick about it. ’ And Tom, they call me names. Country boy and dullard. ”

  “Gindast calls all his apprentices names, Hap. ” Jinna’s placid voice was both calming and comforting, but it was still strange to have a third person include herself in our conversation. “It’s common knowledge. One even took the taunt with him when he went into business for himself. Now you pay a fine price for a Simpleton table. ” Jinna had moved back to her chair. She had taken up her knitting but not resumed her seat. The cat still had it.

  I tried not to show how much Hap’s words distressed me. I had expected to hear that he loved his position and how grateful he was that I had been able to get it for him. I had believed that his apprenticeship would be the one thing that had gone right. “Well. I warned you that you would have to work hard,” I attempted.

  “And I was ready for that, Tom, truly I was. I’m ready to cut wood and fit it and shape it all day. But I didn’t expect to be bored to death. Sweeping and rubbing and fetching . . . I might as well have stayed at home for all I’m learning here. ”

  Few things have such sharp edges as the careless words of a boy. His disdain for our old life, spoken so plainly, left me speechless.

  He lifted his eyes to mine accusingly. “And where have you been and why have you been gone so long? Didn’t you know that I’d need you?” Then he squinted at me. “What have you done to your hair?”

  “I cut it,” I said. I ran a self-conscious hand over my mourning-shortened locks. I suddenly did not trust myself to say more than that. He was just a lad, I knew, and prone to see all things first in how they affected himself. But the very brevity of my reply alerted him that there was much I had not said.

  His eyes wandered over my face. “What’s happened?” he demanded.

  I took a breath. No help for it now. “Nighteyes is dead,” I said quietly.

  “But . . . is it my fault? He ran away from me, Tom, but I did look for him, I swear I did, Jinna will tell you—”

  “It wasn’t your fault. He followed and found me. I was with him when he died. It was nothing you did, Hap. He was just old. It was his time and he went from me. ” Despite my efforts, my throat clenched down on the words.

  The relief on the boy’s face that he was not at fault was another arrow in my heart. Was being blameless more important to him than the wolf’s death? But when he said, “I can’t believe he’s gone,” I suddenly understood. He spoke the exact truth. It would take a day, perhaps several, before he realized the old wolf was never coming back. Nighteyes would never again sprawl beside him on the hearthstones, never nudge his hand to have his ears scratched, never walk at his side to hunt rabbits again. Tears rose in my eyes.

  “You’ll be all right. It will just take time,” I assured him thickly.

  “Let’s hope so,” he responded heavily.

  “Go to bed. You can still get an hour or so of sleep before you must rise. ”

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  “Yes,” he agreed. “I suppose I’d better. ” Then he took a step toward me. “Tom. I’m so sorry,” he said, and his awkward hug took away much of the earlier hurt he had dealt me. Then he lifted his eyes to mine to ask earnestly, “You’ll come by tomorrow night, won’t you? I need to talk to you. It’s very important. ”

  “I’ll come by tonight. If Jinna does not mind. ” I looked past Hap’s shoulder at her as I released him from my embrace.

  “Jinna won’t mind at all,” she assured me, and I hoped only I could hear the extra note of warmth in her voice.

  “So. I’ll see you tonight. When you’re sober. Now to bed with you, boy. ” I rumpled his wet hair, and he muttered a good night. He left the room to seek his bedchamber and I was suddenly alone with Jinna. A log collapsed in the fire and then the small crackling of its settling was the only sound in the room. “Well. I must go. I thank you for letting me wait for Hap here. ”

  Jinna set down her knitting again. “You are welcome, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  My cloak was on a peg by her door. I took it down and swirled it around my shoulders. She reached up suddenly to fasten it for me. She pulled the hood of it up over my shorn head, and then smiled as she tugged at the sides of the hood to pull my face down to hers. “Good night,” she said breathlessly. She lifted her chin. I put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her. I wanted to, and yet I wondered that I allowed myself to do it. Where could it lead, this exchange of kisses, but to complications and trouble?

  Did she sense my reservations? As I lifted my mouth from hers, she gave her head a small shake. She caught my hand in hers. “You worry too much, Tom Badgerlock. ” She lifted my hand to her mouth and put a warm kiss on the palm of it. “Some things are far less complex than you think they are. ”

  I felt awkward, but I managed to say, “If that were true, it would be a sweet thing. ”

  “Such a courtier’s tongue. ” Her words warmed me until she added, “But gentle words won’t keep Hap from running aground. You need to take a firm h
and with that young man soon. Hap needs some lines drawn or you may lose him to Buckkeep Town. He wouldn’t be the first good country lad to go bad in a town. ”

  “I think I know my own son,” I said a bit testily.

  “Perhaps you know the boy. It’s the young man I fear for. ” Then she dared to laugh at my scowl and add, “Save that look for Hap. Good night, Tom. I’ll see you tomorrow. ”

  “Good night, Jinna. ”

  She let me out, and then stood in her doorway watching me walk away. I glanced back at her, a woman watching me from a rectangle of warm yellow light. The wind stirred her curly hair, blowing it about her round face. She waved to me, and I waved back before she shut the door. Then I sighed and pulled my cloak more tightly around me. The worst of the rain had fallen, the storm decayed to swirling gusts that seemed to lurk in wait at the street corners. It had made merry with the festival trim of the town. The blustering gusts sent fallen garlands snaking down the street, and whipped banners to tatters. Usually the taverns had torches set in sconces to guide customers to their doors, but at this hour they were either burned out or taken down. Most of the taverns and inns had closed their door for the night. All the decent folk were long abed, and most of the indecent ones, too. I hurried through the cold dark streets, guided more by my sense of direction than my eyes. It would be even darker once I left the cliff-side town behind and began the winding climb through the forest toward Buckkeep Castle, but that was a road I had known since my childhood. My feet would lead me home.

  I became aware of the men following me as I left the last scattered houses of Buckkeep Town behind. I knew that they were stalking me, not merely men on the same path as myself, for when I slowed my steps, they slowed theirs. Obviously they had no wish to catch up with me until I had left the houses of town behind me. That did not bode well for their intentions. I had left the keep unarmed, my country habits telling against me. I had the belt knife that any man carries for the small tasks of the day, but nothing larger. My ugly, workaday sword in its battered sheath was hanging on the wall in my little chamber. I told myself it was likely that they were no more than common footpads, looking for easy prey. Doubtless they believed me drunk and unaware of them, and as soon as I fought back, they would flee.

  It was thin solace. I had no wish to fight at all. I was sick of strife, and weary of being wary. I doubted they would care. So I halted where I was and turned in the dark road to face those who came after me. I drew my belt knife and balanced my weight and waited for them.

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  Behind me, all was silence save for the wind soughing through the whispering trees that arched the road. Presently, I became aware of the waves crashing against the cliffs in the distance. I listened for the sounds of men moving through the brush, or the scuff of footsteps on the road, but heard nothing. I grew impatient. “Come on, then!” I roared to the night. “I’ve little enough for you to take, save my knife, and you won’t get that hilt first. Let’s get this done with!”

  Silence flowed in after my words, and my shouting to the night suddenly seemed foolish. Just as I almost decided that I had imagined my pursuers, something ran across my foot. It was a small animal, lithe and swift, a rat or a weasel or perhaps even a squirrel. But it was no wild creature, for it snapped a bite at my leg as it passed. It unnerved me and I jumped back from it. Off to my right, I heard a smothered laugh. Even as I turned toward it, trying to peer through the gloom of the forest, a voice spoke from my left, closer than the laugh had been.

  “Where’s your wolf, Tom Badgerlock?”

  Both mockery and challenge were in the words. Behind me, I heard claws on gravel, a larger animal, a dog perhaps, but when I spun about, the creature had melted back into the darkness. I turned again to the sound of muffled laughter. At least three men, I told myself, and two Wit-beasts. I tried to think only of the logistics of this immediate fight, and nothing beyond it. I would consider the full implications of this encounter later. I drew deep slow breaths, waiting for them. I opened my senses fully to the night, pushing away a sudden longing not just for Nighteyes’ keener perception but also for the comforting sensation of my wolf watching my back. This time I heard the scuttle as the smaller beast approached. I kicked at it, more wildly than I had intended, but caught it only a glancing blow. It was gone again.

  “I’ll kill it!” I warned the crouching night, but only mocking laughter met my threat. Then, I shamed myself, shouting furiously, “What do you want of me? Leave me alone!”

  They let the echoes of that childish question and plea be carried off by the wind. The terrible silence that followed was the shadow of my aloneness.

  “Where is your wolf, Tom Badgerlock?” a voice called, and this time it was a woman’s, melodic with suppressed laughter. “Do you miss him, renegade?”

  The fear that had been flowing with my blood suddenly turned to the ice of fury. I would stand here and I would kill them all and leave their entrails smoking on the road. My fist that had been clenched on my knife haft suddenly loosened, and a relaxed readiness spread through me. Poised, I waited for them. It would come as a sudden rush from all directions, the animals coming in low, and the people attacking high, with weapons. I had only the knife. I’d have to wait until they were close. If I ran, I knew they’d take me from behind. Better to wait and force them to come to me. Then I would kill them, kill them all.

  I truly don’t know how long I stood there. That sort of readiness can make time stand still or run swift as wind. I heard a dawn bird call, and then another answered it, and still I waited. When light began to stain the night sky, I drew a deeper breath. I took a long look around myself, peering into the trees, but saw nothing. The only movement was the high flight of small birds as they flitted through the branches and the silver fall of the raindrops they shook loose. My stalkers were gone. The little creature that had snapped at me had left no traces of his passage on the wet stone of the road. The larger animal that had crossed behind me had left a single print in the mud at the road’s edge. A small dog. And that was all.

  I turned and resumed my walk up to Buckkeep Castle. As I strode along, I began to tremble, not with fear, but with the tension that was now leaving me, and the fury that replaced it.

  What had they wanted? To scare me. To make me aware of them, to let me know that they knew what I was and where I denned. Well, they had done that, and more. I forced my thoughts into order and tried to coldly assess the full threat they presented. I extended it beyond myself. Did they know about Jinna? Had they followed me from her door, and if so, did they know about my boy as well?

  I cursed my own stupidity and carelessness. How could I have ever imagined the Piebalds would leave me alone? The Piebalds knew that Lord Golden came from Buckkeep, and that his servant Tom Badgerlock was Witted. They knew Tom Badgerlock had lopped off Laudwine’s arm and stolen their prince-hostage from them. The Piebalds would want revenge. They could have it as easily as posting one of their cowardly scrolls, denouncing me as practicing the Wit, the despised Beast Magic. I would be hung, quartered, and burned for it. Had I supposed that Buckkeep Town or Castle would keep me safe from them?

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  I should have known that this would happen. Once I plunged back into Buckkeep’s court and politics and intrigue, I had become vulnerable to all the plotting and schemes that power attracted. I had known this would happen, I admitted bitterly. And for some fifteen years, that knowledge had kept me away from Buckkeep. Only Chade and his plea for help in recovering Prince Dutiful had lured me back. Cold reality seeped through me now. There were only two courses open to me. I either had to sever all ties and flee, as I had once before, or I had to plunge fully into the swirling intrigue that had always been the Farseer court at Buckkeep. If I stayed, I would have to start thinking like an assassin again, always aware of the risks and threats to myself, and how they affected those around me.

  Then I wrenched my t
houghts into a more truthful path. I’d have to be an assassin again, not just think like one. I’d have to be ready to kill when I encountered people that threatened my prince or me. For there was no avoiding the connection: those who came to taunt Tom Badgerlock about his Wit and the death of his wolf were folk who also knew that Prince Dutiful shared their despised Beast Magic. It was their handle on the Prince, the lever they would use not just to end the persecution of those with the Wit, but also to gain power for themselves. It was no help to me that my sympathies in part were with them. In my own life, I had suffered from the taint of being Witted. I had no desire to see anyone else labor under that burden. If they had not presented such a threat to my prince, I might have sided with them.

  My furious striding carried me up to the sentries at the gate to Buckkeep. There was a guardhouse there, and from within came the sound of men’s voices and the clatter of soldiers at food. One, a lad of about twenty, lounged by the door, bread and cheese in one hand and a mug of morning beer in the other. He glanced up at me, and then, mouth full, nodded me through the gates. I halted, anger coursing through me like a poison.

  “Do you know who I am?” I demanded of him.

  He started, then peered at me more closely. Obviously he was afraid he had offended some minor noble, but a glance at my clothing reassured him.

  “You’re a servant in the keep. Aren’t you?”

  “Whose servant?” I demanded. Foolishness, to call attention to myself this way, and yet just now I could not stop the words. Had others come this way before me last night, were they inside the keep even now? Had a careless sentry admitted folk bent on killing the Prince? It all seemed too possible.

  “Well . . . I don’t know!” the boy sputtered. He drew himself up straight, but still had to look up to glare at me. “How am I supposed to know that? Why should I care?”

  “Because, you damned fool, you are guarding the main entrance to Buckkeep Castle. Your queen and your prince depend on you to be alert, and to keep their enemies from walking in. That is why you are here. Isn’t it?”

  “Well. I—” The boy shook his head in angry frustration, then turned suddenly to the door of the guardhouse. “Kespin! Can you come out here?”

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