Golden fool, p.20
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       Golden Fool, p.20

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Dutiful. ” I spoke his name aloud at the same time I Skilled it. “It’s time to stop now. This is enough for one day, and far too much for the first lesson. ”

  “But . . . I want . . . ” His spoken words were little more than a whisper, but I was pleased he said them aloud.

  “Enough,” I said, and took my hand from his shoulder. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh, rolling his head back. I fought temptations of my own. Could I share strength with him, to help him recover? Could I set walls for him, to protect him until he was better able to navigate the Skill currents? Could I remove the Skill-induced command I had given him not to fight me?

  When I had first been offered the chance to learn to Skill, I had seen it as a double-edged blade. There was great opportunity to learn the magic, but balanced against it was always the danger that Galen the Skillmaster might learn I was Witted and destroy me. I had never approached the Skill as openly and eagerly as Dutiful did. Very soon danger and pain had blunted my curiosity about the royal magic. I had used it with reluctance, drawn to it by its addictive lure yet frightened of how it threatened to consume me. When I had discovered that drinking elfbark tea could deaden me to the Skill’s call, I had not hesitated to use it despite the drug’s evil reputation. Freed from the drug’s numbing effect, my enthusiasm for Skilling had been rekindled by the Prince’s enthusiasm and our access to the Skill scrolls. As much as Dutiful did, I longed to plunge back into that intoxicating current. I steeled my will. I must not let him feel that from me.

  A glance at the climbing sun told me that our time together had nearly gone. Dutiful had recovered much of his color but his hair was flat with sweat.

  “Come, lad, pull yourself together. ”

  “I’m tired. I feel as if I could sleep the rest of the day. ”

  I did not mention my burgeoning pain. “That’s to be expected, but it’s probably not a good idea. I want you to stay awake. Go do something active. Ride, or practice with your blade. Above all, rein your thoughts away from this first lesson. Don’t let the Skill tempt you to come near it again today. Until I’ve taught you to balance focusing on it with resisting it, it’s a dangerous thing for you. The Skill is a useful magic, but it has the power to draw a man as honey draws a bee. Venture there alone, be distracted by it, and you’ll be gone to a place from which no one, not even I, can recall you. Yet here your body must remain, as a great drooling babe that takes no notice of anything. ”

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  I cautioned him repeatedly that he must not try to use the Skill without me, that all his experiments with it must be made in my company. I suppose I lectured overlong on this point, for he finally told me, almost angrily, that he too had been there and knew he was lucky to have returned in one piece.

  I told him I was glad he realized that, and on that note we parted. Yet at the door, he lingered, turning back to look at me.

  “What is it?” I asked him when his silence had grown too long.

  He suddenly looked very awkward. “I want to ask you something. ”

  I waited, but had to finally say, “And what did you want to ask me?”

  He bit his lower lip and turned his gaze to the tower window. “About you and Lord Golden,” he said at last. And halted again.

  “What about us?” I asked impatiently. The morning was wearing on, and I had things to do. Such as somehow dampening the headache that now assailed me full force.

  “Do you . . . do you like working for him?”

  I instantly knew that was not the question he wanted to ask. I wondered what was troubling him. Was he jealous of my friendship with the Fool? Did he feel excluded somehow? I made my voice gentle. “He has been my friend for a long time. I told you that before, in the inn on our way home. The roles we play now, master and man, are only for convenience. They afford me an excuse to attend occasions where a man such as myself would not be expected. That’s all. ”

  “Then you don’t truly . . . serve him. ”

  I shrugged a shoulder. “Only when it fits my role, or when it pleases me to do a favor for him. We’ve been friends a long time, Dutiful. There is very little I wouldn’t do for him, or he for me. ”

  The look on his face told me I had not lain to rest whatever was troubling him but I was willing at that point to let it go. I could wait until he found words for whatever it was. He seemed also willing to let it rest, for he turned away from me to the door. But with his hand on the handle, he spoke again, suddenly. His voice was harsh, the words wrung from him against his will. “Civil says that Lord Golden likes boys. ” When I said nothing, he added painfully, “For bedding. ” He kept staring at the door. The back of his neck grew scarlet.

  I suddenly felt very tired. “Dutiful. Look at me, please. ”

  “I’m sorry,” he said as he turned, but he couldn’t quite meet my eyes. “I shouldn’t have asked. ”

  I wished he hadn’t. I wished I hadn’t discovered that the gossip was widespread enough to have reached his ears. Time to lay it to rest. “Dutiful. Lord Golden and I do not bed together. In truth, I have never known the man to bed anyone. His actions toward Civil were a ploy, to provoke Lady Bresinga into asking us to leave her hospitality. That was all. But you cannot, of course, let Civil know that. It remains between you and me. ”

  He drew a deep breath and sighed it out. “I did not want to think it of you. But you seem so close. And Lord Golden is, of course, a Jamaillian, and all know that they care little about such things. ”

  I debated for an instant about telling him the truth of that. I decided there was such a thing as burdening him with too much knowledge. “It would probably be for the best if you didn’t discuss Lord Golden with Civil. If the topic comes up, turn the conversation. Can you do that?”

  He gave me a crooked smile. “I too have been Chade’s student,” he pointed out.

  “I had noticed that you had become cooler toward Lord Golden of late. If that was the reason behind it, well, you create a loss for yourself in not getting to know him better. Once he is your friend, no man can ask for a truer one. ”

  He nodded, but said nothing. I suspected I had not dispelled all his doubts, but I had done the best I could.

  He left the tower by the door, and I heard him turn the key in the lock before he descended the long spiraling stair. If asked, he would tell folk that he had chosen the tower as his new place for dawn meditation.

  I glanced about the room again, and resolved to stock it against dangers such as we had had this morning. A bottle of brandy, in case Dutiful needed restoration. And we’d need a supply of wood for the hearth as winter gained more bite. I did not hold with Galen’s austere teaching that students must be uncomfortable in order to learn well. I’d talk to Chade about it.

  I yawned hugely, wishing I could go back to bed. I had only arrived back at Buckkeep the previous evening. A hot bath and a long report to Chade had taken up hours when I would rather have been sleeping. He had taken custody of the scrolls and writings I’d brought back. I was not enthusiastic about that, but there was little in any of them that he would not already have known or guessed. After my bath to take the chill from my bones, I had sat before Chade’s hearth and talked long with him.

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  A young brown ferret had already taken up residence in the tower room. His name was Gilly and he was obsessed with his own youth, his new territory, and rumors of rodents. His interest in me was limited to sniffing my boots thoroughly and then rooting his way into my pack. His eagerly darting mind was a pleasant counterpoint to the gloom of the tower room. His opinion of me was that I was a creature too big to eat that shared his territory.

  Chade’s gossip had covered everything from the Duke of Tilth arming runaway Chalcedean slaves and teaching them military tactics to Kettricken being called on to mediate between Lord Carolsin of Ashlake, who claimed that Lord Dignity of Timbery had seduced and stolen his dau
ghter. Lord Dignity countered that the girl had come to him of her own will and that as they were now married, any issue of seduction no longer mattered. Then there was the matter of the new docks that one Buckkeep merchant wanted to build. Two others claimed that the docks would cut water access to their warehouses. Somehow this trivial matter that the town council should have resolved had become a citywide issue to be debated before the Queen. Chade spoke of a dozen-some other boring and wearisome issues, and it recalled to me that the concerns he and Kettricken dealt with every day went both wide and deep.

  When I observed as much to him, he replied, “And that is why we are fortunate that you have returned to Buckkeep, with Prince Dutiful as your sole focus. Kettricken thinks the only way it could be better would be if you could openly accompany him, but I still feel that your ability to observe the court without being too directly connected to the Prince has advantages of its own. ”

  There had been no further stirring from the Piebalds that Chade had detected. No new postings exposing Witted ones, no clandestine notes, no threats to the Queen. “But what of Laurel’s warning to the Queen, of Deerkin’s rumors?” I asked him.

  For a moment he looked discomfited. “So you know of that, do you? Well, I was speaking only of direct tidings from the Piebalds to the Queen. We have taken Laurel’s information seriously, and done what we could to protect her, in a subtle way. She is training a new huntsman now, her new assistant. He is quite brawny and very adept with a sword, and accompanies her almost everywhere. I have great faith in him. Other than that, I have instructed the guards on the gates to be more suspicious of strangers, especially if animals accompany them. Obviously, we are aware that the Piebalds and the Old Blood are at odds. My spies have brought me rumors of families massacred in their beds, and then the houses burned to destroy all sign. All the better, some might say. Let them chew on one another and leave us in peace for a time. Oh, don’t scowl at me like that. Some might say, I said, not that I wished they would all kill one another off. What would you have me do? Turn out the guard? No one has come seeking the Queen’s intervention. Shall we chase shadows that no one has accused of committing crimes? I need something solid, Fitz. A man or men, named by name, and accused of committing these murders. Until someone of Old Blood dares step forward and speak out, there is little I can do. If it is any comfort to you, the rumors alone put the Queen into a fury. ” And then he turned his talk to other things.

  Civil Bresinga was still at court, still daily seeing Dutiful, and still showing no overt signs of being a traitor or plotter. I was pleased that in my absence, Chade had set other spies onto the boy. Harvest Festival had gone well. The Outislanders had seemed to enjoy it. Dutiful and Elliania’s formal courtship continued under the watchful eyes of all. They walked together, rode together, dined together, danced together. Buckkeep minstrels sang of Elliania’s beauty and grace. On the surface, everything was absolutely correct, but Chade suspected the young couple was less than enamored of one another. Chade hoped they could remain on civil terms until the Narcheska departed for her own land. The negotiations with the traders who had accompanied the Narcheska’s delegation were going very well indeed. Bearns’ uncertainty about the alliance had been somewhat mollified when the Queen had formally awarded Sealbay permission to be the Six Duchies’ exclusive trading port for furs, ivory, and oil. From Buckkeep Town would ship the products of the Inland Duchies, the wines and brandy and grain. Shoaks and Rippon would claim the bulk of the trade in wool, cotton, leather, and such.

  “Do you think each duchy will respect the other’s license?” I had asked idly as I swirled brandy in my glass.

  Chade snorted. “Of course not. Smuggling is an old and honored profession in every port town I’ve ever visited. But each duke has been given a bone to growl over, and each is already calculating the value that the alliance with the Out Islands will bring to his home province. That is all we were truly after. To convince all of them that the entire Six Duchies would profit from this. ” Then he had sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose. A moment later he shifted uncomfortably, and then said, “Oh. ”

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  From a fold in his robe, he brought out the figurine from the beach. She dangled from her chain, small and perfect. Her sleek black hair was crowned with a blue ornament. “I found this on a pile of rags in the corner. Is it yours?”

  “No. But that ‘pile of rags’ was probably my old work clothes. The necklace belongs to the Prince. ” As Chade frowned at me in puzzlement, I added, “I told you about it. The time we spent on that strange beach. He picked it up there. I ended up putting it in his purse for him. I should give it back to him. ”

  Chade had scowled then. “When he told me his tale of his adventures, he had little to say about the journey through the Skill pillars or his time on the beach. He certainly never mentioned this. ”

  “He wasn’t trying to deceive you. Even for an experienced Skill-user, going through a pillar is an unsettling experience. I took him through to the beach without warning; he had no idea what had happened to him. And, to return, I took him through three pillars. I’m not surprised his memories of it are scrambled. I’m just glad he is sane; most of Regal’s young Skill-users did not fare so well. ”

  A frown furrowed his brow. “So. An inexperienced Skill-user cannot pass through a pillar on his own?”

  “I don’t know. The first time I went through one, it was purely accidental on my part. But I had spent that whole day in a sort of Skill stupor, on an Elderling road . . . Chade. What are you thinking?”

  His quizzical look was too innocent.

  “Chade, stay away from those pillars. They are dangerous. Perhaps more dangerous to you, who may have traces of Skill magic in your blood, than to regular folk. ”

  “What are you afraid of?” he asked me quietly. “That I might discover that I possessed an aptitude for the Skill? That perhaps, if I had been taught as a boy, I too could wield it now?”

  “Perhaps you could. But what I fear is that you will read some cracked and dusty old scroll and risk yourself in some experiment just when the Six Duchies needs you most. ”

  Chade made a disapproving grunt as he got up to place the figurine on his mantel. “And that reminds me of another thing. The Queen sends you this. ” He picked up a small scroll from the mantel and handed it to me. Unfurled, I immediately recognized Kettricken’s squared hand. She had never become accustomed to the flowing script we used in the Six Duchies. Twelve careful runes were inked there, and by each one was a single word. “Harbor, beach, glacier, cave, mountain, motherhouse, hunter, warrior, fisher, allmother, smith, weaver. ”

  “It’s from some game she was playing with Peottre. I see why she sent you this. Do you?”

  I nodded. “The runes look similar to the runes on the Skill pillars. They are not the identical runes, but they look as if they might be from the same system of writing. ”

  “Very good. But one, at least, is almost identical. Here. These are the runes that marked the pillar that you and the Prince used. The one near the old mounds. ”

  Chade took up a second scroll from the table between us. It was obviously the work of a true scribe. It showed four carefully replicated symbols, with the orientation of each facet of the pillar marked, as well as notations on the size and placement of the originals. Chade had obviously sent his little bees out to gather information for him. “Which one took you to the beach?” Chade asked me.

  “This one. ” It was similar to the one for “beach” on Kettricken’s scroll, save for an extra tail or two.

  “And did an identical one bring you back?”

  I frowned. “I had little time to note the appearance of the one that brought me back. I see you’ve been busy in my absence. ”

  He nodded. “There are other stone pillars within the Six Duchies. I’ll have information on them within the next few weeks. Obviously they were originally used
by Skilled ones, and somehow the knowledge of how they worked was lost for a time. But we have a chance to regain it. ”

  “Only at great danger. Chade, may I point out that our trip to the beach ended with Dutiful and me underwater? It could have been much worse. Imagine if one of the exit pillars was facedown on the ground. Or shattered. What happens to the user then?”

  Chade looked only mildly flustered as he said, “Well, then I assumed you would see the way was blocked and come right back. ”

  “My assumption is that I would be expelled from the pillar into solid stone. It isn’t like a doorway where you can halt and peek out. It dumps you out, as if you’d stepped through a trapdoor. ”

  “Ah. I see. Well, then their use will have to be investigated much more carefully. But as we read the Skill scrolls, we may be able to decipher what each rune means and at least establish where each ‘gate’ originally opened. And thus, eventually, determine which ones are safe to use. And perhaps right or repair the others. What other Skill-users did in the past, we can reclaim. ”

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  “Chade. I am not at all certain that those pillars were the work of Skill-users. Perhaps some have used them, but each time I’ve passed through one, the disorientation and the . . . ” I groped for words. “Foreignness,” I hazarded at last. “The foreignness makes me wonder if Skill-users are the ones who built them. If they were built by humans at all. ”

  “Elderlings?” he had suggested after a moment.

  “I don’t know,” I had replied.

  The conversation echoed through my mind as I gazed at the racked scrolls and the locked chests in the Skill tower. The answers might be here, waiting for me.

  I selected three scrolls from the rack from amongst the ones that looked most recent. I’d start with the ones in letters and languages that I knew well. I found none by Solicity, which struck me as odd. Certainly, our last Skillmistress must have committed something of her wisdom to paper; it was generally assumed that one who achieved master status would have something unique to pass on to their followers. But if Solicity had ever written anything, it was not amongst these scrolls. The three I finally chose were by someone named Treeknee, and were labeled as a translation of an older manuscript by Skillmaster Oklef. The translations had been done at the behest of Skillmaster Barley. I had never heard of any of them. I tucked the three scrolls under my arm and departed by way of the false panel in the hearth mantel.

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