Golden fool, p.26
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       Golden Fool, p.26

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Ten years ago, I could not have understood the pain in his voice. I would only have seen him as interfering and calculating. Only now, with a son of my own intent on ignoring every bit of advice I’d ever given him, could I recognize what it had cost him to let me go my own way and make my own choices. He had probably felt as I did about Hap, that he was so obviously choosing the wrong course. But Chade had let me steer it.

  In that instant, I made my decision. I pushed Chade off balance with it. “Chade. If you wish, I could attempt . . . do you want me to try to teach you the Skill?”

  His eyes were suddenly impenetrable. “Ah. So you offer that now, do you? Interesting. But I think I am proceeding with my own studies well enough. No, Fitz. I don’t wish you to teach me. ”

  I bowed my head. Perhaps I deserved his disdain. I took a breath. “Then I’ll do as you ask, this time. I’ll train Thick. Somehow, I’ll persuade him to let me teach him. As strong as he is, perhaps he will be all the coterie that Dutiful will need. ”

  Shock silenced him for a moment. Then, he smiled sourly. “I doubt that, Fitz. And you don’t doubt it; you don’t believe it at all. Nevertheless, for the time being, we will leave it at that. You will begin Thick’s training. In exchange, I will leave Nettle where she is. You have my thanks. And now I must go to see what mischief Dutiful has gotten himself into. ” He rose as if his back and knees pained him. I watched him go but said no more.

  Chapter X


  By all accounts, both Kebal Rawbread and the Pale Woman perished in the last month. They set sail in the last White Ship for Hjolikej with a crew of their most stalwart followers. They were not seen again, nor was any wreckage of the ship ever found. The assumption is that, like so many other Out Island ships, the dragons overflew it, throwing the crew into a vacant-eyed stupor, and then destroyed it with the great wind and waves that their wings could stir. As the ship was heavily loaded with what translates from the Outislander tongue as “dragonstone,” it probably went down swiftly.


  I made my slow descent to Lord Golden’s chambers. I tried to focus on the Prince’s difficulties, but could only wonder what larger problem I had created for myself. I could barely instruct the Prince, and he was an apt and amiable student. I’d be lucky if Thick didn’t kill me when I attempted to teach him. But there was a worse shadow to it. Chade had tempted me well, as only one who knew me so deeply could. Nettle, here at Buckkeep, where I could see her daily and watch her blossom into womanhood, and perhaps chart for her an easier life than the one Burrich and Molly could give her. I tried to tear that idea from my mind. It was a selfish yearning.

  On my trip through Chade’s secret corridors, I made a brief detour to one of the spy posts. I stood a time beside it, hesitating. It would be the first time I had deliberately come to spy and listen. Then I sat down silently on the dusty bench and peered into the Narcheska’s chambers.

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  Fortune was with me. Their breakfast was still set out on the table between Peottre and the girl, though it did not look as if either one had eaten much. Her uncle was already dressed in his riding leathers. Elliania was in a pretty little frock, blue and white, with much lace on the cuffs and throat. Peottre was shaking his heavy head at her. “No, little one. As with a fish on a line, you must first set the hook before you can play him. Flaunt your displeasure with him now and he will avoid that bitter taste, to follow instead the bright feathers and sweet egg of someone else’s lure. You cannot show him what you feel, Elli. Set aside the insult; behave as if you did not notice it. ”

  She clacked her spoon back onto the tray, so that a tiny glop of porridge leapt from it. “I cannot. I have pretended as much calmness as I could muster, last night. Right now, I could not show him what I truly feel about him with less than a knife’s edge, Uncle. ”

  “Ah. How well that would benefit your mother and little sister. ” He spoke the words quietly, but Elliania’s face grew very still, as if he spoke of death and disease in the next chamber. She tucked her proud little chin, bowing her head before him with lowered lashes. I sensed the strength of will she used to rein herself in and suddenly saw the changes that her months at Buckkeep had wrought in her. Peottre might call her his “little fish” still, but this was a different girl from the one I had first spied on. The last vestiges of child had been hammered from her by the pounding of Buckkeep society. She spoke now with a woman’s determination.

  “I will do what I must, Uncle, for our mothers’ house. You know that. Whatever I must, to ‘hook’ this fish. ” When she looked up at him, her mouth was set and flat in determination, but tears stood in her eyes.

  “Not that,” he said quietly. “Not yet, and perhaps never at all. So I hope. ” He sighed suddenly. “But you must be warm to him, Elli. You cannot show him your anger. It tears my heart to say that to you, that you must appear untroubled by his insult. Smile upon him. Behave as if it never happened. ”

  “She must do more than that. ” I could not see who spoke, but I recognized the serving maid’s voice. She walked into view. I studied her more closely than I had previously. She appeared to be about my age, dressed simply as if she were a servant. Yet she bore herself as if she were in charge. Her hair and eyes were black, her cheeks wide, and nose small. She shook her head at both of them. “She must appear humble and willing. ”

  She paused, and I saw the muscles of Peottre’s face bunch as he clenched his jaws. It made the woman smile. She went on with evident relish. “And you must make him think it is possible that you will . . . yield yourself to him. ” Then she spoke in a deeper voice. “Bring the farmer prince to heel, Elliania, and keep him there. He must not look at another; he must not even consider another one as someone to bed before he is wed. He must be yours alone. Somehow, you must claim him, heart and flesh. You have heard the Lady’s warning. If you fail in this, if he strays, and gets a child with anyone, you and yours are all doomed. ”

  “I cannot do it,” she burst out. She mistook her uncle’s horrified look for a rebuke, for she continued desperately. “I have tried, Uncle Peottre. I have. I have danced for him, and thanked him for his gifts, and tried to look entranced by his boring talk in his farmer’s tongue. But it is all useless, for he thinks I am a little girl. He disdains me as a child, an offering from my father simply for the making of a treaty. ”

  Her uncle leaned back in his chair, pushing his untouched dish away from him. He sighed heavily, then glared at the serving woman. “You hear her, Henja. She has already tried your disgusting little tactic. He does not want her. He is a boy with no fire in his blood. I do not know what more we can do. ”

  Elliania suddenly sat up straight. “I do. ” Her chin had come up again, as had the fire in her black, black eyes.

  He shook his head at her. “Elliania, you are only—”

  “I am not a child, nor a mere girl! I have not been a girl since this duty was laid upon me. Uncle. You cannot treat me as a child and expect others to see me as a woman. You cannot dress me like a doll, and bid me be sweet and tractable as some doting auntie’s little treasure, and expect me to attract the Prince. He has been raised in this court, among all these females as sweet as spoiling fish. If I am but one more of them, he will not even see me. Let me do what I must. For we both know that if I continue as I have, we will fail. So. Let me try it my way. If I fail on that path, also, what will we have lost?”

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  For a time he sat staring at her. She cast her gaze aside from his piercing eyes, and busied herself with topping the cups of untouched tea before them. Then she lifted hers and sipped from it, all the while avoiding meeting his glance. When he spoke, dread was in his voice. “What do you propose, child?”

  She set down her cup. “Not what Henja suggests, if that is what you fear. No. This woman proposes that you tell him my a
ge. Today. In his farmer’s years, rather than my God’s Runes years. And that, for this day at least, you let me dress and behave as one of the daughters of our mothers’ house would, insulted as he has insulted me, to prefer another woman’s beauty to my own, and announce it to all. Let me bring him to heel, as you have commanded. Not with cloying sweets, but with a whip, as a dog such as he deserves. ”

  “Elliania. No. I forbid it. ” The serving woman spoke with the snap of command.

  But it was Peottre who replied to her. He surged to his feet, his broad hand lifted high. “Get out, woman! Get out of my sight, or you will be dead. I swear it, Lady. If she doesn’t leave now, I kill your servant!”

  “You will regret this!” Henja snarled, but she scuttled from the room. I heard the door close behind her.

  When Peottre spoke again, he spoke slowly and heavily, as if his words could fence Elliania from some precipice. “She had no right to speak to you so. But I do, Narcheska. I forbid this. ”

  “Do you?” she asked levelly, and I knew Peottre had lost.

  A knock at the chamber door was her father. He came in and greeted them both, and Elliania almost immediately excused herself, saying she must dress appropriately to go out riding with the Prince by mid-morning. As soon as she left the room, her father launched into some discussion of a shipload of trading goods that was overdue. Peottre answered him, but his eyes lingered on the door where Elliania had vanished.

  A short time later, I emerged cautiously into my own servant cell, and thence even more cautiously into Lord Golden’s warm and spacious chambers. He was alone, at table, finishing his share of the ample breakfast he commanded daily for us. All at court must wonder at the suppleness of his waist given the substantial morning appetite he professed to.

  His golden glance assessed me as I entered his room silently. “Hm. Sit down, Fitz. I’ll not wish you a good morning, for it’s plainly too late for that. Care to share what has overshadowed you with gloom?”

  Useless to lie. I took a chair opposite him at the table and picked food off the serving plate while I confided Dutiful’s social stumble to him. There was little point to doing otherwise. There had been enough spectators that I was sure the tale would reach him soon enough, if he had not witnessed it himself. Of Nettle, I said nothing. Did I fear he would concur with Chade? I am not sure, I only knew that I wished to keep it to myself. Nor did I speak of what I had seen through my peephole. I needed time to sort it out before I shared it with anyone.

  When I had finished my tale, he nodded. “I was not at the gaming tables last night, preferring to listen instead to one of the Outislander minstrels who have recently arrived. But the tale reached me last night before I retired. I’ve already been invited to ride out with the Prince this morning. Do you want to come along?” When I nodded, the Fool smiled. Then Lord Golden patted his lips with his napkin. “Dear, dear, this is a most unfortunate social stumble. The gossip will be delectable. I wonder how the Queen and her councilor will manage to juggle it back into balance?”

  There were no easy answers to that. I knew he would use the turmoil stirred by this to dig into where loyalties truly lay. Between us, we cleared the breakfast platters of food. I took them down to the kitchen, where I lingered briefly. Yes, the servants were already gossiping of it, and speculating that there was more between Lady Vance and the Prince than a mere game of Stones. Someone already claimed to have seen them walking alone in the snowy gardens several evenings ago. Another maid said that Duke Shemshy was said to be pleased, and quoted him as saying he saw no real obstacle to the match. My heart sank. Duke Shemshy was powerful. If he began to solicit support among the nobles for a match between his niece and the Prince, he could possibly put an end to both betrothal and alliance.

  One other thing I saw while I was there that caused me suspicion. The Narcheska’s maid, whom I had last seen quarreling with Peottre, hurried past the doors of the kitchen and out into the courtyard. She was dressed warmly, in a heavy cloak and boots, as if for a long walk on this cold day. I supposed it was possible that her mistress had sent her off on some task into Buckkeep Town, but she carried no market basket. Nor did she seem the type of serving woman who would be chosen for such an errand. It both puzzled and concerned me. If I had not all but promised the Prince that I would be there for his ride, I would have shadowed her. Instead, I hurried up the stairs to dress for the morning ride.

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  When I reentered Lord Golden’s chamber, I found him putting the finishing touches to his own costume. For a moment, I wondered if Jamaillian nobles truly dressed in such a gaudy fashion. Layer upon layer of rich fabric cloaked his slender form. A heavy fur cloak flung across a chair awaited him. The Fool had never had any great tolerance for cold, and Lord Golden apparently shared that weakness. He was turning up a fur collar to his satisfaction. One long narrow hand waved me on to my own chamber, bidding me hurry, while he continued to peruse himself in the mirror.

  I glanced inside my room at the garments laid out on my bed and then protested, “But I’m already dressed. ”

  “Not as I wish you to be. It has come to my attention that several of the other young lords of the court have also furnished themselves with bodyguard-servants, in a pale imitation of my style. It is time to show them than an imitation cannot equal the original. Garb yourself, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  I snarled at him, and he smiled sweetly in return.

  The garments were servant’s blue, and of excellent quality. I recognized Scrandon’s tailoring. I supposed that now that he had my measurements, Lord Golden could inflict stylish clothing on me at will. It was fine fabric, very warm, and in that I recognized the Fool’s concern for my comfort. He had been kind enough to have it cut and sewn so that I could move freely. But stretching out an arm of the oddly tailored shirt revealed pleated insets in varying shades of blue, with an effect like a bird’s wing opening to reveal the different colors of plumage. I noticed as I donned it that a number of clever pockets had been fit into interesting places. I approved of the pockets even as I winced at Lord Golden instructing the tailor to add them. I would rather that no one else had known of my need for concealed pockets.

  As if he had sensed my concern, Lord Golden spoke from the other room. “You will note that I had Scrandon add pockets to permit you to carry a number of small but necessary items for me, such as my smelling salts, my digestive herbs, my grooming aids, and my extra kerchiefs. I gave him most precise measurements for those. ”

  “Yes, my lord,” I responded gravely, and proceeded to fill those pockets as my own needs dictated. When I lifted the winter cloak, it revealed the final addition to my garb. The guard of the blade and the scabbard were so gaudily adorned that I winced. But when I drew the blade, it whispered death as it came free from the sheath and balanced like a bird on my fingers. I sighed and looked up to find the Fool standing framed in my door. The look on my face well pleased him. He grinned at my astonishment. I shook my head. “My skill doesn’t deserve a blade like this. ”

  “You deserve to be able to carry Verity’s sword openly. That one is a pale compensation. ”

  It was too large a thing to offer thanks for. He watched me buckle the sword belt and seemed to take as much pleasure in that as I did to wear it.

  When we assembled in the courtyard to await the Prince, the gathering was larger than I had expected. A few nobles already awaited Dutiful. Young Civil Bresinga was there, deep in conversation with Lady Vance. Did she look displeased as she gestured at the waiting horses, a far larger party than she had obviously wagered on? Two other young women, her close friends by how they stood, commiserated with her. They all greeted Lord Golden warmly as he joined them. It struck me that he looked but a few years older than they, a handsome, wealthy, and exotic foreign nobleman in his early twenties. All the women drew closer to him, talking, while three young noblemen, one of them a Shemshy kinsman from his strong resemblance to the Duke,
also lingered nearby. Lady Vance was obviously already the center of her own tiny court. If she did manage to win the Prince, these newly loyal courtiers would rise with her.

  Servants held the bridles of their horses. The padded perch for Civil’s cat was empty behind his saddle. Privately I doubted that he had left his cat at Galekeep as it was said; no Witted one would willingly be parted from his partner that long. Probably the beast roamed the hills around Buckkeep. Civil must visit it regularly. I resolved to spy on one of those assignations. Perhaps a little confrontation with him and his cat would shake me out a bit more information about the Old Blood community, and his ties to the Piebalds.

  I did not have time for long pondering on this. I took Myblack and Malta from a waiting stable boy and then stood, holding their reins, as Lord Golden mingled with the others gathered to accompany the Prince. I could not courteously stare at the nobles, but I could study their horses and deduce who would join us. One mare was so richly caparisoned that she must be awaiting the Queen herself. I recognized Chade’s horse as well. In addition to the Prince’s horse, there were three other richly decked mounts. So it seemed Arkon Bloodblade and Uncle Peottre would be part of the gathering too. The bay mare with bells in her mane would be for the Narcheska.

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  Then, there was a burst of conversation and laughter near the door and the main party arrived. The Prince was dazzlingly attired in Buckkeep blue trimmed with the white fox of his mother’s colors. The Queen had chosen blue and white as well, accented with goldenrod stripes on her mantle. Yet despite the brightness of the colors that echoed so well the blue and white of the winter day, the lines of her garb were simple in contrast to the extravagant clothing of her court. Chade was elegant in shades of blue, trimmed with black, and all the jewelry he wore was silver. The Prince was smiling, but I knew he was chastened by how he lingered at the top of the steps, conversing with his mother and Chade rather than joining his younger companions. He acknowledged to no one that this ride was supposed payment for an ill-considered wager. By dismissing it, perhaps he hoped it would be devalued in the eyes of the others as well. Lady Vance stood smiling up at him and, for a moment, caught his eyes. He nodded courteously, but then his gaze wandered to Civil. The nod he gave him was equal to the first. Were Lady Vance’s cheeks a bit pinker than they were before? He only descended when Chade and the Queen did, and still he remained beside his mother.

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