Golden fool, p.23
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       Golden Fool, p.23

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  I saw Jinna, too, but coward that I was, I attempted to visit her home only when the presence of the pony and wagon indicated that her niece was likely present. I wished to slow our headlong lust even as the simple warmth of her bed was a lure I could scarcely resist. I tried. Each time I called on her, I kept my visits brief, begging the excuse of pressing errands for my master. The first time Jinna seemed to accept that tale without question. The second time she asked when I might expect to have an afternoon free. Although she made the query in her niece’s presence, her eyes conveyed a separate question to me. I evaded her, saying that my master was capricious, and would not give me a set time to go freely about my own errands. I couched it as a complaint, and she nodded her condolences.

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  The third time I visited her, her niece was not home. She had gone off to help a friend in Buckkeep Town who had experienced a difficult birth. Jinna told me this after she had greeted me with a warm embrace and a lingering kiss. In the face of her willing ardor, my resolve to be restrained melted like salt in the rain. With no other prelude, she latched the door behind me, took my hand, and led me to her bedchamber. “A moment,” she cautioned me at the threshold, and I halted there. “Now come in,” she told me, and when I did, I saw the charm had been draped with a heavy scarf. She took a deep breath, like a hungry man anticipating a good meal, and suddenly all I could focus on was the surge of her breasts against the bodice of her gown. I told myself it was a foolish mistake, but nevertheless I made it. Several times. And when we both were spent and she was half-dozing against my shoulder, I made an even more foolish mistake.

  “Jinna,” I asked her softly, “do you think this is wise, what we do?”

  “Foolish, wise,” she had sleepily responded. “What does it matter? It harms no one. ”

  Her question was asked lightly, but I answered seriously. “Yes. I think it does. Matter, that is. And perhaps does harm. ”

  She heaved a heavy sigh, and sat up, brushing her tousled curls from her face. She peered at me nearsightedly. “Tom. Why are you always so determined to make this a complicated matter? We are both adults, neither of us is vowed to another, and I’ve promised you that you cannot get me with child. Why should not we take a simple, honest pleasure in one another while we may?”

  “Perhaps for me, it feels neither simple nor honest. ” I struggled to make my reasons sound sensible. “I do what I have taught Hap is not right to do: to be with a woman I have not pledged myself to. Did he tell me today that he was doing with Svanja what we have just done, I would rebuke him severely, telling him he had no right to—”

  “Tom,” she interrupted me. “We give our children rules to protect them. When we are grown, we know the dangers, and choose for ourselves what risks we take. Neither you nor I are children. Neither of us is deceived about what is offered by the other. What danger do you fear here, Tom?”

  “I . . . I dread what Hap would think of me, if he found out. And I do not like that I deceive him, doing that which I forbid him to do. ” I looked aside from her as I added, “And I would that there was more to this than just . . . adults taking a risk for pleasure. ”

  “I see. Well, perhaps in time, there may be,” she offered, but there was an edge of hurt in her voice. And I knew then that perhaps she had deceived herself as to what we shared.

  What should I have replied? I don’t know. I took the coward’s part and said, “Perhaps in time there will be,” but I did not believe my own words. We lingered awhile longer in bed, and then rose to share a cup of tea by her fireside. When at last I told her I must go, and then lamely insisted that I could not tell her a specific night when I could call again, she looked aside and said quietly, “Well, then, come when you’ve a mind to, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  And with those words she gave me a parting kiss. After her door closed behind me, I looked up at the bright stars of the winter night and sighed. I felt guilty as I began my long walk back to Buckkeep. I was cheating Jinna out of something, not by denying her a false avowal of love, but by accommodating our attraction. I doubted that I would ever feel for her anything more than I felt right now. Worst was that I could not promise myself I would not continue to see her, even though a lusty friendship was all I could ever offer her. I did not think well of myself, and felt worse as I forced myself to admit that Hap probably guessed that I now shared Jinna’s bed from time to time. It was a poor example to set for my boy, and the road back to Buckkeep Castle seemed very black and cold that night.

  Chapter IX

  STONE WAGER

  As a Skill-user advances in strength and sophistication, so also increases the lure of the Skill for him. A good instructor will be wary with his Skill candidates, strict with his trainees, and relentless with his journeymen. Far too many promising Skill-users have been lost to the Skill itself. The warning signs that a Skill student is being tempted by the Skill include distraction and irritability when he is about his normal daily tasks. When he Skills, he will exert more strength than is necessary for the task, for the pleasure of the power running through him, and spend more time in a Skilling state than is required for him to accomplish his business. The instructor should be aware of such students, and be quick to chastise them for such behavior. Better to be cruel early, than to vainly wish one could call back a student who sits drooling and mumbling until his body perishes of hunger and thirst.

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  — TREEKNEE’S TRANSLATION, “DUTIES OF A SKILL INSTRUCTOR”

  The days of winter came and went as relentlessly as the tides that rose and fell on the beaches of Buckkeep Town, and as monotonously. Winter Fest approached, that celebration that heralds both the longest night, and the gaining day that follows it. Once I would have looked forward to it with anticipation. But now I had too many tasks to do, and no time to do any of them well. Mornings I was the instructor of the Prince. The meat of my day, I masqueraded as Lord Golden’s servant. Lord Golden had hired two lackeys to tend his wardrobe and fetch his breakfast, but I was still expected to ride out with him and trail after him at social functions. Folk had become accustomed to seeing me at his side, and so I shadowed him even though his ankle was apparently well healed now. It was useful to me. There were times when Golden led conversations about to test a noble’s opinion of trade with the Outislanders, or the way trading rights had been allocated. I was privy to many a casually expressed opinion, and gathered all such threads of information for Chade.

  Lord Golden also professed an interest in the Wit, and asked about this strange magic. The virulence of the replies he received from some was shocking even to me. The acrimony against the magic ran deep, past all logic. When he asked what harm the magic did, he was told that Witted ones did everything from coupling with animals to gain their ability to speak their tongues to cursing their neighbors’ flocks and herds. Supposedly Witted ones could take on the guise of animals to gain access to those they would seduce or worse, rape and murder in their beast forms. Some spoke out angrily against the Queen’s leniency for the Beast Magic, and told Lord Golden that the Six Duchies were a better place in the days when Witted ones could be dispatched easily. Oh, I learned more than I wished to know of the intolerance that my own people had for their neighbors in the evenings when I was occupied as Lord Golden’s servant. In the hours he left free to me, I tried to further my own studies of the Skill scrolls. More often than I like to admit, I left my studies and went instead to Buckkeep Town, and not to meet my boy. Sometimes I caught a brief glimpse of Hap as he left Jinna’s home on his way to meet Svanja. Our conversations were limited to brief greetings, and his empty promise to come home early so that we might have a real visit. Often enough, I saw a speculative look pass over his face as he watched Jinna and me together, and just as often I was relieved that he did not come home as early as he had promised.

  I was in danger of settling into a routine that was, if not comfortable, at least predictable
. Despite my intentions to remain ever wary against the Piebalds, their continued silence and inactivity was lulling. I almost dared to hope that Laudwine had died of his injuries. Perhaps his followers had disbanded, and the threat was no more. Despite the way they had terrorized me on that night on the road to Buckkeep Castle, it was difficult to maintain an ever-watchful stance when drowned by a constant wave of silence from them. Complacency threatened. Periodically, Chade would quiz me on my spying efforts, but I never had anything to report to him. As far as I could determine, the Piebalds had forgotten us.

  I spied on Civil Bresinga regularly, but still found nothing to justify my suspicions of him. He appeared no more than a lesser noble, come to court in a bid to increase his stature amongst the nobility. I found no sign of his cat in the stables. He rode out often accompanied by his groom, but on the few occasions when I shadowed him, he appeared to be doing no more than exercising his horse. I searched his room several times, but discovered nothing more interesting than a brief note from his mother assuring him that she was well and that she preferred he stay at court, for “we are all so pleased that your friendship with Prince Dutiful is prospering. ” And indeed, his friendship with the Prince did prosper, despite my frequent entreaties that Dutiful regard him with caution. It was something Chade and I had discussed. Both of us would prefer that the friendship be severed, but we wondered how the Old Blood folk would interpret that.

  We had had no more direct communications from any of the Witted, neither the Old Bloods nor the Piebalds. Their continued silence was uncanny. “We have kept our end of the bargain,” Chade once observed to me grumpily. “Since the Prince was returned to us, there have been no executions of any Witted ones in Buck. Perhaps that was all they ever sought. As for what the Piebalds may do to their fellows, well, we cannot protect them from their own folk unless they bring complaint before us. It all seems to have died down, and yet in my heart I fear it is but the calm before the storm. Be wary, boy. Be wary. ”

  Chade was correct about the public executions. Queen Kettricken had accomplished this by the simple expedient of announcing that no criminal in Buck could be executed for any crime, save by royal decree, and that any such executions would take place only within Buckkeep. So far, no town had seen fit to petition for an execution. Paperwork is daunting to even the hottest quest for vengeance. Yet as time passed, and we heard nothing from the Piebalds, I felt not relief, but a sense of continued scrutiny. Even if the Piebalds ceased to trouble us, I could not forget that too many Old Bloods now knew our prince was Witted. It was a lever that could be used against us at any time. I regarded strange animals with suspicion and was glad of the little ferret Gilly on patrol within the walls of Buckkeep.

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  Then came a night that sharpened my wariness once more. I had gone down to Buckkeep Town. When I knocked at Jinna’s door, her niece told me that Aunt Jinna had gone out to deliver several charms to a family whose goats had been plagued with mange. Privately, I wondered if charms would have any efficacy against such a thing, but aloud I asked her niece to let Jinna know I had come calling. When I asked after Hap, she made a face of disapproval and said that perhaps I might find him at the Stuck Pig with “that Hartshorn girl. ” Her disparagement of my son’s companion stung. As I made my way to the Stuck Pig through the crisp winter night, I pondered what steps I should take. Hap’s passionate courtship of the girl was neither balanced nor appropriate. For those very reasons, I doubted he would listen to me advising him to temper his wooing.

  Yet when I entered the Stuck Pig’s drafty common room, I saw no sign of Hap or Svanja. I wondered briefly where they were, but was sharply distracted from that question when I saw Laurel sitting at one of the stained tables. The Queen’s Huntswoman drank alone. I scowled at that, for I well recalled that Chade had assigned a man to guard her. As I watched, the tavern boy came to fill her mug again. The reckless way she lofted it told me it had already been filled several times that night.

  I bought myself a beer and studied the population of the common room. Two men and a woman at a corner table seemed positioned to watch the Huntswoman. But just as I wondered if they had ill intentions, the obvious couple of the group rose, bade the lone man farewell, and sauntered out without a backward glance. The remaining man gestured a tavern maid to his table. To my glance, it appeared he was trying to purchase something warmer than beer from her. His loutish behavior calmed my reservations.

  I crossed the crowded common room. Laurel started as I set my mug down, then looked away miserably as I took a seat on the bench beside her. I spoke quietly.

  “Not the sort of place where one would expect the Queen’s Huntswoman to drink. ” I glanced about the grubby tavern pointedly, and then asked, “And where is your apprentice tonight?” I’d had a glimpse or two of Chade’s man. The sheer muscle of him would have daunted any ambusher. I thought less of his intellect, especially at this moment. “Doesn’t it seem a bit unwise for you to visit Buckkeep Town without him?”

  “Unwise? Where, then, is your keeper? The danger to you is greater than the threat to me,” she rebuked me bitterly. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but from tears or drink, I could not tell.

  I kept my voice low. “Perhaps I am more accustomed to this sort of danger. ”

  “Well. That might be true. I know little enough of you to know what you are accustomed to. But as for me, I have no intention of becoming accustomed to it. Or limiting the choices in my life by walking in constant fear. ” Laurel looked tired, and there were lines at the sides of her mouth and the corners of her eyes that I did not recall. She had been walking in constant fear despite her brave dismissal of it.

  “Have there been any further threats?” I asked her quietly.

  She smiled, a showing of teeth. “Why? Isn’t one enough for you?”

  “What’s happened?”

  She shook her head at me and drank the rest of her ale. I signaled to the tavern boy to bring us more. After a moment, she said, “The first was nothing that anyone else would have recognized as a threat. Just a sprig of laurel tied to the latch of my horse’s stall. Hung by a little noose of twine. ” Almost unwillingly, she added, “There was a feather as well. Cut in four pieces and scorched. ”

  “A feather?”

  It took her a long time to decide to answer. “Someone I care about is bonded to a goose. ”

  For an instant, my heart was still. Then it started again with a jolt. “So they show you that they can reach inside the walls of the keep,” I said quietly. She nodded as the boy replenished our mugs from a heavy pitcher. I gave him his coin and he turned away. Laurel picked her mug up immediately, and a small wave of ale slopped over the brim and onto her hand. She was slightly drunk.

  “Did they ask anything of you? Or simply show that they could reach you where you live?”

  “They asked quite clearly. ”

  “How?”

  “A little scroll, left amongst my grooming gear for my horse. All in the stables know that I insisted on caring for Whitecap myself. It simply said that, if I knew what was wise, I should leave your black horse and Lord Golden’s Malta in the far paddock at night. ”

  Cold seemed to spread out from my belly and fill the rest of my body. “You didn’t do it. ”

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  “Of course not. Instead, I assigned a groom that I trust to watch over them both last night. ”

  “So this is recent?”

  “Oh, yes. ” Her head wobbled slightly as she nodded.

  “And you told the Queen?”

  “No. I told no one. ”

  “But why not? How can we protect you if we don’t know you are threatened?”

  She was silent for a time. Then she said, “I didn’t want them to think that they could use me against the Queen. I wanted it to be that, if they pulled me down, they pulled only me down. I should protect myself, Tom, not hide behind the Queen’s sk
irts and let my fears spread to her. ”

  Brave. And foolish. I kept the thoughts to myself. “And what happened?”

  “To them? Nothing. But Whitecap was dead in her stall the next morning. ”

  For a moment, I couldn’t speak. Whitecap was Laurel’s horse, a willing and responsive creature that had been the woman’s pride. When I kept silent, she glared at me. “I know what you’re thinking. ” She lowered her voice to an ugly, taunting whisper. “‘She’s not Witted. The horse was no more to her than a horse, just a thing she rode. ’ But that’s not true. I raised Whitecap from a foal, and she was my friend as well as my beast. We didn’t have to share a mind to share a heart. ”

  “I didn’t think anything of the kind,” I said very quietly. “I’ve numbered many animals as my friends, without sharing the special bond of the Wit with them. Anyone who had seen you with Whitecap knew that the horse worshipped you. ” I shook my head. “I feel sick that you protected our horses, and paid for it with your own. ”

  I don’t know if she even heard me. She was staring at the scarred tabletop as she spoke. “She . . . she died slowly. They gave her something, somehow, that lodged in her throat and choked her as it swelled. I think . . . no, I know. It was their ultimate mockery, that I came from an Old Blood family but did not have the magic in me. If I had, I would have known that she was in trouble. I would have come to her and saved her. When I found her, she was down, her muzzle and chest all soaked in saliva and blood . . . She died slowly, Tom, and I wasn’t even there to ease it for her or say good-bye. ”

  Shock that a Witted person could do so cruel a thing froze me like an icy wave. It was evil past my imagining. I felt tainted that people who shared my magic could stoop to such wickedness. It gave substance to all the evil things said of the Witted.

  She took a sudden gasping breath and turned to me blindly. Her face was panicky with a pain she did not want to admit. I lifted my arm and she put her face against my chest as I folded her in my embrace. “I’m sorry,” I whispered by her ear. “I’m so sorry, Laurel. ” She didn’t weep, but only took long, shuddering breaths as I held her. She was past weeping, and nearly past fear. I thought to myself that if the Piebalds succeeded in pushing her to fury, they might face a stronger foe than they intended to create. If they didn’t kill her first. I shifted in my chair. Habit had made me place my back to the wall. Now I deliberately sought a full view of the tavern and any who might have followed her here.

 
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