Golden fool, p.25
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       Golden Fool, p.25

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “So you let her win. ” I said the words heavily.

  “Yes. I did. And by then, because she had been quite excited when she won the third game, laughing and shouting and calling out to all that she had bested me, well, by then there was quite a group of people gathered around us, watching us play. So, when she won the final game, she was crowing over her victory, and one of her friends said to me, ‘Well, my lord, it seems you were badly mistaken earlier when you said this was not a game a girl could master. ’ And I said . . . I only meant to be clever, Tom, I swear, not to offer insult. I said—”

  “What did you say?” I asked harshly as he faltered.

  “Only that no girl could master it, but perhaps a beautiful woman could. And everyone laughed, and lifted glasses to drink a toast to that. So we drank, and then it was cups down. And only then did I realize that Elliania was standing there, at the edge of the crowd. She hadn’t drunk with us, and she didn’t say a word. She just stared at me, with her face very still. Then she turned and walked away. I don’t know what she said to her uncle, but he stood up immediately, and gave over the game to her father, even though there was quite a stack of coins riding on the outcome. And the two of them left the gaming hall and went directly to their chambers. ”

  I leaned back in my chair, striving to think my way through it. Then I shook my head and asked, “Does your lady mother know of this yet?”

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  He sighed. “I do not think so. She excused herself early from the gaming last night. ”

  “Or Chade. ”

  He winced, already dreading the councilor’s opinion of his rashness. “No. He too left the tables early. He seems weary and distracted of late. ”

  Too well did I know that. I shook my head slowly. “This is not something that can be solved with the Skill, lad. Wiser to take it immediately to those who know diplomacy the best. And then do whatever they say. ”

  “What do you think they will demand of me?” There was dread in his voice.

  “I don’t know. I think a direct apology might be a mistake; it would only confirm that you had insulted her. But . . . Oh, I don’t know, Dutiful. Diplomacy has never been my talent. But perhaps Chade will know something you can do. Some special attention from you to confirm that you do think Elliania is beautiful and a woman. ”

  “But I don’t. ”

  I ignored his bitter little contradiction. “And above all, do not go out riding alone with Lady Vance. I suspect you’d be wise to avoid her company entirely. ”

  He slapped his hand on the table in frustration. “I can’t back out on paying my wager!”

  “Then go,” I snapped. “But if I were you, I’d be sure that Elliania rode at my side, and that your conversation was with her. If Civil is as good a friend as you say he is, perhaps he can help you. Ask him to distract Lady Vance’s attention from you, make it appear as if he is the one accompanying her on the ride. ”

  “What if I don’t want her attention distracted from me?”

  Now he sounded simply stubborn and contrary, as vexing as Hap the last time I had seen him. I simply looked at him, flat and level, until he cast his eyes aside. “You’d best go now,” I told him.

  “Will you go with me?” His voice was very soft. “To speak to Mother and Chade?”

  “You know I cannot. And even if I could, I think you’d best do this on your own. ”

  He cleared his throat. “This morning, when we ride. Will you go with me then?”

  I hesitated, then suggested, “Invite Lord Golden. That isn’t a promise to be there, only that I’ll think it over. ”

  “And do what Chade thinks is best. ”

  “Probably. He’s always been better than I at these niceties. ”

  “Niceties. Pah. I’m so sick of them, Tom. It’s why Lady Vance is so much easier to be with. She’s just herself. ”

  “I see,” I said, but I reserved judgment on that. I wondered if Lady Vance was just a woman who had set her cap for a prince, or someone else’s playing piece, positioned to set Kettricken’s game awry. Well. We’d all find out soon enough.

  The Prince left me, locking the door behind him. I stood, silent and considering in the tower room, listening to the sound of his footsteps on the stone steps fade away. I caught the raised voice of the guard’s greeting at the bottom of the steps. I cast my eyes around the room, blew out the candle on the table, and then left, carrying another taper to light my way.

  I stopped by Chade’s tower room on the way back to my servant’s chamber. I stepped out of the secret door, then halted, surprised to find both Chade and Thick in the room. Chade had evidently been waiting for me. Thick looked sullen and sleepy, his heavy-lidded eyes even droopier than usual.

  “Good morning,” I greeted them, and, “Yes, it is,” Chade responded. His eyes were bright and he appeared well pleased about something. I waited for him to share it with me, but instead he said, “I’ve asked Thick to be here early this morning. So we could all talk. ”

  “Oh. ” I could think of no more to say than that. Now wasn’t the time to tell Chade I’d wished he had warned me first. I would not talk over Thick’s head in his presence. I remembered too well how I had once underestimated the cunning of a little girl and spoken too freely. Rosemary had been Regal’s treacherous little pet. I doubted that Thick was anyone’s spy, but what I didn’t say in front of him, he could not repeat.

  “How is the Prince this morning?” Chade asked me suddenly.

  “He’s well,” I replied guardedly. “But there is something he’ll wish to see you about, something rather urgent. You might wish to be, uh, where you can easily be found. Soon. ”

  “Prince sad,” Thick confirmed dolorously. He shook his heavy head commiseratingly.

  My heart sank, but I resolved to test him. “No, Thick, the Prince isn’t sad. He’s merry. He has gone to have a fine breakfast with all his friends. ”

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  Thick scowled at me. For an instant, his tongue stuck out even farther than usual, and his lower lip sagged pendulously. Then, “No. Prince is a sad song today. Stupid girls. A sad song. La-la-la-le-lo-lo-lo-o. ” The dimwit sang a mournful little dirge.

  I glanced at Chade. He was watching our exchange closely. His eyes never left me as he asked Thick, “And how is Nettle today?”

  I kept my face expressionless. I tried hard to breathe normally, but suddenly I could not quite remember how.

  “Nettle is worried. The dream man won’t talk to her anymore, and her father and brother argue. Yah, yah, yah, yah, her head hurts with it, and her song is sad. Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na. ” It was a different tune for Nettle’s sadness, one fraught with tension and uneasiness. Then suddenly Thick stopped in mid-note. He looked at me and then jeered triumphantly, “Dogstink doesn’t like this. ”

  “No. He doesn’t,” I agreed flatly. I crossed my arms on my chest and moved my glare from Thick to Chade. “This isn’t fair,” I said. Then I clenched my jaw over how childish that sounded.

  “Indeed, it isn’t,” Chade agreed blandly. Then, “Thick, you may go if you wish. I think you’ve finished your chores here. ”

  Thick pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Bring the wood. Bring the water. Take the dishes. Bring the food. Fix the candles. ” He picked his nose. “Yes. Chores done. ” He started to go.

  “Thick,” I said, and when he halted, scowling, I asked, “Do the other servants still hit Thick, take his coins? Or is it better now?”

  He frowned at me, his brow wrinkling. “The other servants?” He looked vaguely alarmed.

  “The other servants. They used to ‘hit Thick, take his coins,’ remember?” I tried to copy his inflection and gesture. Instead of jogging his memory, it made him draw back from me in panic. “Never mind,” I said hastily. My effort to remind him that perhaps he owed me a favor had instead worsened his opinion of me. Thrusting out his lower lip, he bac
ked away from me.

  “Thick. Don’t forget the tray,” Chade reminded him gently.

  The serving man scowled, but he came back for a tray of dishes that held the remains of Chade’s breakfast. He took it up and then crabbed hastily from the room as if I might attack him.

  When the wine rack swung back into place behind him, I sat down in my chair. “So?” I asked Chade.

  “So, indeed,” he replied agreeably. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

  “No. ” I leaned back in my chair, and then decided there was nothing more to say about it. Instead, I settled on a distraction. “Earlier I told you that Dutiful has something urgent to speak about with you. You should be available. ”

  “What is it?”

  I gave him a look. “I think what my prince wishes to tell you would come best directly from him. ” I bit down on my tongue before I could add, “Of course, you could always ask Thick what it is about. ”

  “Then I’ll go to my own chambers. Shortly. Fitz. Is Nettle in any danger?”

  “I’m sure I don’t know. ”

  I saw him rein in his temper. “You know what I mean. She’s Skilling, isn’t she? Without guidance of any kind. Yet she seems to have found you. Or did you initiate that contact?”

  Had I? I didn’t know. Had I intruded on her dreams when she was younger, as I had on Dutiful’s? Had I unwittingly laid the foundation for the Skill bond that she sought to build now? I pondered it, but Chade took my silence for mulishness. “Fitz, how can you be so shortsighted? In the name of protecting her, you’re endangering her. Nettle should be here, at Buckkeep, where she can be properly taught to master her talent. ”

  “And she can be put into service for the Farseer throne. ”

  He regarded me levelly. “Of course. If the magic is the gift of her bloodlines, then the service is her duty. The two go hand in hand. Or would you deny it to her because she too is a bastard?”

  I strangled on sudden anger. When I could speak, I said quietly, “I don’t see it so. As denying her something. I’m trying to protect her. ”

  “You see it that way only because you are stubbornly focused on keeping her away from Buckkeep at all costs. What is the terrible threat to her if she comes here? That she could know music and poetry, dance and beauty, in her life? That she might meet a young man of noble lineage, marry well, and live comfortably? That your grandchildren might grow up where you could see them?”

  He made it all sound so rational on his part and so selfish on mine. I took a breath. “Chade. Burrich has already said no to his daughter coming to Buckkeep. If you press him, or worse, force the issue, he will suspect there is a reason. And how can you reveal to Nettle that she is Skilled without leading her to ask, Where did this magic come from? She knows Molly is her mother. That leaves only her father’s lineage in question—”

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  “Sometimes children are found to have the Skill, with no apparent link to the Farseer bloodline. She might have received it from Molly or Burrich. ”

  “Yet none of her brothers have it,” I pointed out.

  Chade slapped the table in frustration. “I have said it before. You are too cautious, Fitz. ‘What if this, what if that?’ You hide from trouble that may never knock at our door. What if Nettle did discover that a Farseer had fathered her? Would that be so terrible?”

  “If she came to court, and found herself not only a bastard, but the bastard of a Witted Farseer? Yes. What of her fine husband and genteel future then? What does it do to her brothers and to Molly and Burrich, to have to face that past? Nor can you have Nettle here without Burrich coming to see her, to be sure she is well. I know I have changed, but my scars are no disguise to Burrich, nor are my years. If he saw me, he’d know me, and it would destroy him. Or would you try to keep secrets from him, tell Nettle that she must never tell her mother and father that she is taught the Skill, let alone that a man with a broken nose and a scar down his face teaches her? No, Chade. Better she stays where she is, weds a young farmer she loves, and lives a settled life. ”

  “That sounds very bucolic for her,” Chade observed heavily. “I’m sure that any daughter of yours would be delighted with such a sedate and settled life. ” Sarcasm dripped from his words until he demanded, “But what of her duty to her prince? What of Dutiful’s need for a coterie?”

  “I’ll find you someone else,” I promised recklessly. “Someone just as strong as she is, but not related to me. Not tarnished with any complications. ”

  “Somehow I doubt that such candidates will be easy to find. ” He scowled suddenly. “Or have you encountered such others, and not seen fit to tell me of them?”

  I noticed he did not offer himself. I let that sleeping dog lie. “Chade, I swear to you, I know of no other Skill candidates. Only Thick. ”

  “Ah. Then he is the one you will train?”

  Chade’s question was flippant, an attempt to make me admit there were no other real candidates. I knew Chade expected a flat refusal from me. Thick hated and feared me, and was dim-witted besides. A less desirable Skill student I could not imagine. Except for Nettle. And perhaps one other. Desperation forced the next words from my tongue. “There might be one other. ”

  “And you haven’t told me?” He trembled at the edge of rage.

  “I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure. I’ve only recently begun to wonder about him myself. I met him years ago. And he may be as dangerous to train as Thick, or even more so. For not only has he strong opinions of his own, but he is Witted. ”

  “His name?” It was a demand, not a request.

  I took a breath and stepped off the precipice. “Black Rolf. ”

  Chade scowled. He squinted, rummaging through the attics of his mind. “The man who offered to teach you the Wit? You encountered him on the way to the Mountains?”

  “Yes. That’s the one. ” Chade had been present when I had offered Kettricken my painfully complete account of my travels across the Six Duchies to find her. “He used the Wit in ways I’d never seen it used. He alone seemed to almost know what Nighteyes and I said privately to one another. No other Witted one has shown me that ability. Some could tell when we used the Wit, if we were not extremely careful, but did not seem to understand what we said to one another. Rolf did. Even at the times when we tried to keep it secret from him, I always suspected that he knew more than he let on. He could have been using the Wit to find us, and the Skill to listen to my thoughts. ”

  “Wouldn’t you have felt it?”

  I shrugged. “I didn’t. So perhaps I am mistaken. Nor am I eager to seek out Rolf to discover the truth of it. ”

  “In any case, you could not. I’m sorry to tell you that he died three years ago. He took a fever, and his end was swift. ”

  I stood still, stunned as much by the news as by the fact that Chade knew it. I found my way to a chair and sat down. Grief did not flood me. My relationship with Black Rolf had always been a fractious one. But there was regret. He was gone. I wondered how Holly managed without him, and how Hilda his bear had endured his passing. For a time I stared at the wall, seeing a small house far away. “How did you know?” I managed at last.

  “Oh, come, Fitz. You reported about him to the Queen. And I’d heard his name from you before, when you were delirious and raving with fever from the infection in your back. I knew he was significant. I keep track of significant people. ”

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  It was like the Stone game. He’d just set another piece on the board, one that revealed his old strategy. I filled in all he had not said. “So you know that I returned there. That I studied with him for a time. ”

  He gave a half-nod. “I wasn’t certain of it. But I suspected it was you. I received the news with joy. Prior to that, the last I had heard of you was what Starling and Kettricken reported when they left you at the quarry. To hear you were alive and well . . . For months, I half-expected y
ou to turn up at my doorstep. I looked forward to hearing from your lips of what had happened after Verity-as-Dragon left the quarry. There was so much we did not know! I envisioned that reunion a hundred ways. Of course, you know that I waited in vain. And eventually, I realized you’d never come back to us of your own will. ” He sighed, remembering old pain and disappointment. Then he added quietly, “Still, I was glad to hear that you were alive. ”

  The words were not a rebuke. They were only his admission of pain. My choice had hurt him, but he had respected my right to make it. After my time with Rolf, he would have had spies watching for me. They would not know it was FitzChivalry Farseer they sought, but doubtless they had found me. Otherwise, how would Starling have found her way to my door, all those years ago? “You’ve always had an eye on me, haven’t you?”

  He looked down at the table and said stubbornly, “Another man might see it as a hand oversheltering you. As I have just told you, Fitz. I always keep track of significant people. ” He next spoke as if he could hear my thoughts. “I tried to leave you alone, Fitz. To find what peace you could, even if it excluded me from your life. ”

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