Golden fool, p.24
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       Golden Fool, p.24

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  It was then that I saw Jinna. She had probably come to the tavern to look for me after speaking with her niece. She stood by the door she had just entered. For a fraction of an instant, our gazes met. She stared stricken at the woman I embraced. My eyes pleaded with her, but her face went cold. Then her gaze skated past me as if she had neither seen nor recognized me. She turned about and departed, her stiff back speaking volumes to me.

  Frustration squeezed my heart. I was doing nothing wrong, and yet Jinna’s posture as she left the tavern told me how affronted she was. Nor could I leave Laurel sitting alone and inebriated to hurry after Jinna and explain to her, even if I had felt inclined to do so. So I sat stewing in my discomfort while Laurel took several more deep breaths and recovered herself. She sat up abruptly, almost pushing me away. I released her from my embrace. She rubbed her eyes and then picked up her mug and drained it off. I had scarcely touched mine.

  “This is stupid of me,” Laurel suddenly announced. “I am here because I’d heard a rumor that Witted ones congregated here. I came hoping someone would come over to me so I could kill him. I’d probably just be killed. I don’t know how to fight that way. ”

  I saw a disturbing thing in her eyes then. They had gone calculating and cold as she considered just how she did know how to fight. “You should leave the fighting to those who—”

  “They should have left my horse alone,” she broke in blackly, and I knew she would not hear anything else I said on that topic.

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  “Let’s go home,” I offered.

  She gave me a weary nod, and we left the tavern. The cold streets were lit only by what lamplight leaked from the windows. As we left the houses behind and began the long walk up the dark road to the keep, I asked her unwillingly, “What will you do? Will you leave Buckkeep?”

  “And go where? Take this home to my family? I think not. ” She drew a breath and sighed it out, steaming, in the cold night. “Yet I think you are right. I cannot stay here. What will they do next? What is worse than killing my horse?”

  We both knew several answers to that. The rest of the way, we walked in silence. Yet she was neither angry nor taciturn. I could sense her eyes straining through the uncertain moonlight, and her head turned to every small sound. My vigilance matched hers. I broke the silence once, to ask, “Is it true, that Witted go to the Stuck Pig?”

  She gave a shrug. “So it is said of that tavern. Folk say it of many dives. ‘Fit for the Witted. ’ Surely you’ve heard that phrase before. ”

  I hadn’t, but I filed the information away. Perhaps in that slander lurked a germ of truth. Was there a tavern in Buckkeep Town where the Witted congregated? Who would know? What might I learn there?

  Just past the gates of Buckkeep Castle, I saw her “apprentice” hastening to meet us. He wore a worried expression. At the sight of me, it changed to a snarl. Laurel sighed and took her hand from my arm. She walked unsteadily toward him and he all but swooped her up. Despite whatever her soft words were, he glared at me suspiciously before escorting her toward her chambers. Before I sought my own room for the night, I made a quick and quiet tour of the stables. Myblack greeted me with her usual warm show of indifference. I could scarcely blame the horse; I had not had much time for her lately. In truth, she was to me “just a horse. ” I rode her when Lord Golden rode Malta, but other than that, I trusted her care to the stable hands. It suddenly seemed a callous way to treat her, but I knew that I had no time to give her more. I wondered what the Piebalds had intended. If our horses had been left in the far paddock, would they have been stolen? Or worse?

  Wit sense straining, I strolled past every stall and scrutinized every drowsy stable boy and hand there. I saw no one that I recognized, and Laudwine was not lurking beneath the stairs or outside the door. Nonetheless, I did not feel at ease until I was in Chade’s upper chambers that night. He was not there, but I left him a full written account.

  We discussed it the next day, but came to no real conclusion. He would rebuke Laurel’s bodyguard for letting her slip away alone. He could not think of any way to keep Laurel safer without confining her even more tightly. “And she would not care for that. She does not like that I have a man beside her. Yet, what more can I do, Fitz? She is valuable to us, for it may be she will draw these Piebalds out of hiding. ”

  “At what cost?” I had asked him harshly.

  “As little as we can make it,” he replied grimly.

  “Why did they want my horse and Lord Golden’s?”

  Chade lifted a brow at me. “You know more of Witted magic than I do. Could they ensorcel them to throw you, or somehow use them to listen in on your words?”

  “The Wit doesn’t work that way,” I said wearily. “Why our horses? Why not Prince Dutiful’s? It is almost as if the Fool and I were their targets rather than the Prince. ”

  Chade looked uncomfortable. Almost reluctantly, he suggested quietly, “A cautious man might wish to follow that thought and see where it led. ”

  I stared at him, wondering what the old assassin was telling me in his obscure way. He folded his lips and shook his head at me, as if he regretted having spoken the words. Shortly after that, he made an excuse to leave. I sat pondering before the fire.

  In the days that followed, I felt too uncomfortable to call on Jinna. I knew it was foolish, but there it was. I did not feel I owed her an explanation, but I was sure she would expect one. No convenient lie came to me to explain why I had been embracing Laurel in the Stuck Pig. I did not want to discuss Laurel with Jinna at all. It would lead her too close to dangerous topics. Hence, I did not visit Jinna at all.

  On the occasions when I went down to Buckkeep Town, I sought Hap at his workplace. Our conversations there were brief and unsatisfactory. The boy seemed very aware of the other apprentices watching us talk, and spoke his words to me as if he were displaying to them his anger with his master. He was frustrated too with his stalled courtship of Svanja. Her father was putting up barriers to his seeing the girl, and refused to speak with Hap on the streets. I sensed that some of Hap’s anger was for me. He seemed to think I neglected him, yet when it came to finding time to meet with me in the evening, he preferred Svanja’s company. I kept resolving that I would do better with Hap and make amends with Jinna, but somehow the days dribbled past and I could not find the time to accomplish either task.

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  Within Buckkeep, the festivities and trade negotiations of the Prince’s betrothal continued. Winter Fest came and went, grander than ever I had seen it in the castle. Our Outislander guests enjoyed it tremendously. In the time that followed, there were trading discussions every day and aristocratic amusements every night. The puppeteers, minstrels, jugglers, and other entertainers of the Six Duchies prospered. The Outislanders became a familiar sight in the halls of Buckkeep Castle. Some formed genuine friendships, both with the nobles staying at the keep and with the merchant-traders from Buckkeep Town. In the town below, our ancient trade with the Out Islands began to revive. Trading vessels arrived, and goods were bartered. Messages were exchanged as well, and it was no longer socially unacceptable to admit to a cousin or two in the Out Islands. Kettricken’s plans seemed to be prospering.

  The late nights of the court gaiety showed me a Buckkeep I had never known. As a servant, I was almost as invisible as I had been when I was a nameless young boy. The difference was that as Lord Golden’s man, I attended him on socially lofty occasions when our nobility was gaming, dining, and dancing. I saw them in their best clothes and worst behavior. Drunk with wine or vapid with Smoke, besotted with lust or frantic to recover gaming losses . . . if ever I had supposed that our lords and ladies were made of finer stuff than the fishers and tailors that crowded the Buckkeep Town taverns, I was disillusioned that winter.

  Women, young and old, single and married, flocked to Lord Golden’s charms, as well as young men desirous of distinguishing th
emselves as “the Jamaillian lord’s friend. ” It amused me somewhat that not even Starling and Lord Fisher were immune to Lord Golden’s social allure. Often they joined him at the gaming table. Twice they even came to Lord Golden’s chambers to sample fine Jamaillian brandies with his other guests. It was difficult for me to maintain my attitude of servitude and disinterest in her presence. Her husband was a physically affectionate man, often drawing her body close to his and boyishly stealing a kiss. Then she would gaily rebuke him for such unseemly public conduct, yet often enough manage to snatch a glance at me as she did so, as if to be sure I had noticed how passionately Lord Fisher still courted his wife. At times, it was all I could do to keep a stoic expression on my face. It was not that my heart or flesh burned for her. The pang that assaulted me at such a time was that she deliberately flaunted her happiness in a way calculated to remind me of how solitary a life I led. In the midst of the fine court with its merriment and elaborate entertainment, I stood, a silent servant, witness only to their pleasures.

  In this way, the long dark of winter dawdled on. The constant whirl of activity took a toll on the young Prince as well as myself. One early morning, we both arrived at the tower with absolutely no inclination for studies or tasks of any kind. The Prince had been up late the night before, gaming with Civil and the other young noblemen currently residing at the keep.

  I had had the good sense to seek my own bed at a more reasonable hour, and had succeeded in several hours of deep sleep before Nettle had insinuated herself into my dreams. I was dreaming of catching river fish, sliding my hands into the water and abruptly flipping the lurking fish out onto the bank behind me. It was a good dream, a comforting dream. Unseen but felt, Nighteyes was with me. Then my groping fingers encountered a door handle under the chill water. I plunged my head under to look at it. As I stared at it through water-green light, it opened and pulled me in. Suddenly I stood, wet and dripping, in a small bedroom. I knew I was in the upper chambers of the house by the slanting ceiling. The house was silent around me, and only a guttering candle lighted the room. Wondering how I had arrived here, I turned back to the door. A girl stood before it, her back pressed resolutely to it, and her arms spread wide to bar it from me. She wore a long cotton nightdress and her dark hair hung in a single long braid over one shoulder. I stared at her in astonishment.

  “If you will not let me into your dreams, then I will trap you in mine,” she observed triumphantly.

  I stood very, very still and held my silence. On some level, I sensed that anything of myself I might give her, word or gesture or look, would only increase her hold on me. I took my gaze from her, for in recognizing her, I was entering into her dream more deeply. Instead, I forced my eyes down, to my own hands. With a curious elation, I realized they were not my own. She had trapped me here as she visualized me, not as I truly was. My fingers were short and stubby. The palms of my hand and the inside surface of my fingers were black and coarse as a wolf’s pads, and rough black hair coated the backs of my hands and my wrists.

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  “This isn’t me. ” I spoke the words aloud, and they came out as a queer growl. I lifted my hands to my face, found a muzzle there.

  “Yes it is!” she asserted, but already I was fading, drifting out of the form she had thought would contain me. The trap was the wrong shape to hold me. She leapt toward me and seized me by one wrist, only to find she grasped an empty wolf skin.

  “I’ll catch you next time!” she declared angrily.

  “No, Nettle. You won’t. ”

  My use of her name froze her. Even as she struggled to mouth the question, how did I know her name, I dissipated from her dream into my own wakefulness. I shifted on my hard bed, and briefly opened my eyes to the now familiar blackness of my servant’s chamber. “No, Nettle. You won’t. ” I spoke the words aloud, reassuring myself that they were true. But I had not slept well the rest of the night.

  And so the two of us, Dutiful and I, faced one another blearily over the table in the Skill tower the next dawn. It was dawn in name only. The winter sky outside the tower window was black, and the candles on our table reached vainly toward the darkness in the corners of the room. I had kindled a fire in the hearth, but it had not yet taken the edge off the chill in the room. “Is there anything so miserable as being sleepy and cold at the same time?” I asked him rhetorically.

  He sighed, and I had the feeling he had not even heard my question. The one he asked me sent a different sort of chill up my back. “Have you ever used the Skill to make someone forget something?”

  “I . . . no. No, I’ve never done anything like that. ” Then, dreading the answer, “Why do you ask?”

  He heaved an even deeper sigh. “Because if it could be used that way, it could make my life much simpler right now. I fear that I . . . I said something last night, to someone, never intending that . . . I didn’t even mean it that way, but she . . . ” He faltered to a halt, looking miserable.

  “Start at the beginning,” I suggested.

  He took a deep breath, then puffed it out, exasperated with himself. “Civil and I were playing Stones and—”

  “Stones?” I interrupted him.

  He sighed again. “I made myself a game cloth and playing pieces. I thought I could get better at it by playing against someone besides you. ”

  I strangled back an objection. Was there any reason why he should not introduce his friends to the game? None that I could think of. Yet it disgruntled me.

  “I had played a game or two with Civil, which he lost. As he should and did expect to, for no one plays a game well the first few times one is shown it. But he had declared he had had enough of it for now, that it was not the sort of game he relished, and he got up from the table and went over to the hearth to talk to someone else. Well, Lady Vance had been watching us play earlier in the evening, and had said she wanted to learn, but we were in the midst of the game then, so there had been no place for her. But she had been standing by our table, watching us play, and when Civil left, instead of following him as I thought she would, for she had seemed very attentive to him, she sat down in his place. I had been putting the cloth and pieces away, but she reached over and seized my hand and commanded that I should set the game out afresh, for now it was her turn. ”

  “Lady Vance?”

  “Oh, you wouldn’t have met her. She’s, let me see, about seventeen and she’s quite nice. Her full name is Advantage, but she thinks it’s too long. She’s very friendly and tells funny stories and, well, I don’t know, she’s just more comfortable to be around than most girls. She doesn’t always seem to be, you know, so aware that she is a girl. She acts just like anybody else. Lord Shemshy of Shoaks is her uncle. ” He shrugged a shoulder, dismissing my concern over who she was. “Anyway, she wanted to play, and even when I warned her that she’d likely lose the first few games, she said she didn’t care, that in fact if I would play her five straight games, she’d wager she’d win at least two of them. One of her friends overheard that and came close to the table, and asked what the wager was on the bet. And Lady Vance said that if she won, she wanted me to go riding with her on the morrow—that’s today—and that if I won, well, I could name my own stakes. And the way she said it was, well, daring me to make her bet something that might be a bit, well, improper or . . . ”

  “Like a kiss,” I suggested, my heart sinking. “Or something of that sort. ”

  “You know I wouldn’t go that far!”

  “So how far did you go?” Did Chade know anything of this? Or Queen Kettricken? How late last night had it happened? And how much wine had been involved?

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  “I said if she lost, she had to bring breakfast for Civil and me to Mirror Hall and serve it to us herself, owning up that what had been said earlier was true, that Stones is not a game that a girl can master. ”

  “What? Dutiful, this game was taught to me by a

  “Well—” He had the grace to look uncomfortable. “I didn’t know that. You had said it was part of your Skill training. I thought my father had taught it to you. So . . . wait. Then a woman helped train you in the Skill? I’d thought it had only been my father who taught you. ”

  I cursed my carelessness. “Leave that,” I commanded him crossly. “Finish your story. ”

  He snorted, and gave me a glance that promised he’d come back to his question later. “Very well. And besides, it wasn’t I that said that to Elliania, it was Civil, and—”

  “Said what to Elliania?” Dread clutched at me.

  “That it wasn’t a game for a girl’s mind. Civil said it to her. Civil and I were playing, and she came up and said that she’d like to learn. But . . . well, Civil doesn’t like Elliania much. He says she is just like Sydel, that girl that insulted him and trampled his feelings, that Elliania is only interested in making a good match. So. He doesn’t like her to stand near us when we talk or are playing games of chance. ” He flinched before my scowl, and added grumpily, “Well, she’s not like Lady Vance. Elliania is always being a girl, she’s always so aware of what are proper manners and what courtesies are due between folk. She’s so correct that she’s always wrong. If you see what I mean?”

  “It sounds to me as if she is a foreigner at the court, intent on complying with our customs. But go on with the story. ”

  “Well. Civil knows that about her, that she always strives to be absolutely correct in her manners. So he knew that the fastest way to be rid of her was to tell her that in the Six Duchies, Stones was considered a man’s occupation. He explained it to her in a way that seemed like he was being kind, but at the same time it was horribly funny, in a cruel sort of way, because she doesn’t speak the language well enough or know our customs well enough to realize how ridiculous his excuse was . . . Don’t look at me like that, Tom. I didn’t do it. And once he had begun to do it, there was no way I could put a stop to it without making it worse. So. Anyway. He had told her that the Stone game wasn’t for girls, and Elliania had left us and gone off to stand near her uncle’s shoulder. He was playing toss-bones with her father, at a table way on the other side of the hall. So. She wasn’t anywhere near us when Lady Vance sat down. Well. I set up the game and we began to play. The first two games went exactly as I had supposed they would. On the third game, I made a silly mistake, and she won. The fourth game, I won. And now—I think I deserve credit for this—halfway through the fifth game, I realized how it might be seen as improper when she lost if she actually did come to serve breakfast to Civil and me. I mean, even Duke Shemshy might see it as an insult, his niece acting as a servant to us, even if it didn’t bother Elliania or Mother. So. I decided it might be better to let her win. I’d still have to take her riding, but I could make sure there were others with us, perhaps even Elliania. ”

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