Golden fool, p.27
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       Golden Fool, p.27

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Several Outislander merchant nobles next appeared with Arkon Bloodblade. They had adopted all the most extravagant fashions of Buckkeep. Lace and ribbons fluttered from them like pennants; the heavy furs of their homeland had been replaced with rich fabrics from Bingtown and Jamaillia and even more distant ports. Kettricken, Chade, and Dutiful greeted them effusively. Pleasantries were exchanged, comments on the fine weather, compliments on clothing and other civilities were bandied about as all awaited the Narcheska and Peottre.

  And we all waited.

  It was a ruse calculated to set us all on edge. Kettricken’s eyes kept darting to the door. Dutiful’s laughter at Chade’s pleasantries sounded forced. Arkon scowled and spoke gruffly to a man at his side. The delay was long enough that the thought came to all of us: this will be how she displays her displeasure with Dutiful. She will humiliate him before all of his friends and family by leaving him standing. If she embarrassed her father before the Queen, would it create friction there as well? Just as I saw Chade and Kettricken conferring as to whether a servant should be sent to ask if the Narcheska would join them, Peottre appeared.

  In contrast to the other Outislanders, he had reverted completely to his native garb. Yet the effect was not that of barbarism, but of purity. His trousers were leather, his cloak of rich fur. His jewelry was ivory and gold and jade. The simplicity of line suggested he would be ready to ride, hunt, travel, or fight, and not be encumbered by frippery. He emerged onto the steps above us, and stood there, as if he had taken the center of a stage. He did not look happy to be there, but determined. As he stood silently, his arms crossed on his chest, the entire gathering fell silent. All eyes fixed on him. When he saw it was so, he spoke quietly, in a voice that was affable but would brook no disagreement.

  “The Narcheska desires me to make it known that ages are reckoned differently in the God’s Runes. She fears an ignorance of this may have led people to misunderstand her status among our folk. She is not a child by our standards, nor even by yours, I suspect. In our islands, where life is harsher than in your gentle, pleasant land, we think it bad luck to count a child a member of the family during those first twelve months when tiny lives may so easily wither. Nor do we give a child a name until that first crucial year is past. By our God’s Runes reckoning, then, the Narcheska is only eleven years old, nearly twelve. But by your reckoning, she is twelve, verging on thirteen. Nearly the same age as Prince Dutiful. ”

  The door opened behind him. No servant held it; the Narcheska shut it firmly behind herself. She emerged to stand beside Peottre, dressed in the same fashion as he was. She had discarded her Buckkeep finery. Her trousers were of spotted sealskin, her vest of red fox. The cloak that draped her from her shoulders to her knees was of white ermine, the tiny black tails swinging tassels. She pulled up her hood as she smiled coolly down upon us. The ruff was made of wolf. As she looked out of its depths, she observed, “Yes, I am nearly the same age as Prince Dutiful. Ages are accounted differently in our land. As are our ranks. For, although I was not named nor my days numbered until I was a year old, I was still the Narcheska. But Prince Dutiful, I understand, will not be a king, no, not even a King-in-Waiting for his crown, until he is seventeen. This is correct?”

  She asked this of Kettricken as if she were uncertain, standing above the Queen at the top of the steps. My queen was unflustered as she looked up and replied. “In this you are correct, Narcheska. My son will not be accounted ready for that title until he has reached his seventeenth year. ”

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  “I see. An interesting difference from the customs of my home. Perhaps, in my land, we believe more in the strength of the lineage: that a babe is already who she will be, and hence worthy of her title from her first breath. While you, in your farmer’s world, wait to see if the line has bred true. I see. ”

  It could not be construed as an insult, quite. With her foreign accent and her odd placement of words, it could have been merely an unfortunate phrasing of thought. But I was sure it was not. Just as I was sure that her quiet, clear words spoken to Peottre as she descended the steps at his side were intended to be overheard. “Perhaps, then, I should not wed him until we are sure the Prince will truly become the King? Many a man hopes to ride a throne, but is tumbled from it before he ascends to it. Perhaps the actual marriage should be postponed until his own people judge him worthy. ”

  Kettricken’s smile did not fade but it grew fixed. Chade’s eyes narrowed briefly. But Dutiful could not control the flush that seared his face. He stood silent, beaming his humiliation at her slight. I thought she had accomplished her revenge quite tidily; he had been humbled much as she had, and before much the same company. But if I thought she was finished with him, I was wrong.

  When the Prince approached her courteously to assist her in her mount, she waved him away, saying, “Allow my uncle to help me. He is a man of experience, with both horses and women. If I require assistance, I shall be safest in his hands. ” And yet when Peottre approached her, she smiled and assured him that she was certain she could mount on her own. “For I am not a child, you know. ” And she did, though I was certain the tall horse was much larger than the tough little ponies the Outislanders used.

  Astride, she moved her horse forward to ride at Kettricken’s side and converse with the Queen. The two, clad richly yet simply, presented a contrast to the sumptuous and extravagant dress of the others. Somehow, their clothing made it seem as if they not only belonged together, but also were the only two who shared a sensible attitude to a pleasure ride on a winter’s day. Either of them, if faced with a lamed horse, could have easily hiked home through the snow. Without an obvious intent, they had made the coiffed and decorated nobles appear silly and frivolous. I wrinkled my brow as the thought came to me. By complementing Kettricken’s simple attire, yet remaining true to the customs of her own folk, the Narcheska claimed an equal footing with our queen.

  Prince Dutiful glanced at his youthful friends. I saw his eyes meet Civil’s, and Civil’s brows rise in a query. But constrained by his mother’s rebuking glance, the Prince rode at the Narcheska’s left. She scarcely noticed him. The few times when the Narcheska did turn in her saddle to address a remark to Dutiful, it was with the air of someone who politely strives to include an outsider in the conversation. He could contribute little more to the talk than a nod and a smile before she dismissed him again.

  Immediately behind them, Chade rode between Arkon Bloodblade and Peottre Blackwater. Lord Golden insinuated himself amongst the Prince’s young friends, and I trailed behind them. They rode together, in a chattering knot. I am certain Prince Dutiful was well aware of their eyes upon his back and that they discussed how his betrothed had snubbed him. Lord Golden was adroitly transparent to the conversation, encouraging it with his interest but contributing no remarks of his own that might have deflected its course. I noted that while Lady Vance was merry to her friends and attentive to Lord Civil, her eyes wandered often and speculatively to the slighted Prince. I wondered if her ambitions were her own or those of her uncle, Lord Shemshy.

  I knew one disconcerting moment, when Dutiful abruptly crashed through my barriers and into my thoughts. I don’t deserve this! It was an accidental remark, but she behaves as if I deliberately humiliated her. I almost wish I had!

  The jolt of his thought was shock enough, but worse was to see Lord Golden flinch to it. He glanced back at me, one brow raised, almost as if he thought I had spoken to him. Nor was he alone, though his reaction was the most extreme. Several other riders in our party abruptly glanced off, in different directions, as if they had heard a distant shout. I took a breath, narrowed my focus to a pin’s head, and Skilled back to the lad.

  Silence. Master your emotions, and do not do that again. Elliania has no way to know that you did not deliberately humiliate her. And she is not the only one who may believe that of you. Consider the attitudes of the young women who ride with Civil. Bu
t for now, ponder this to yourself. Your Skill control is not good when you are emotional. Refrain from using it at such times.

  The Prince lowered his head to my stern reprimand. I saw him draw a long breath, then he squared his shoulders and sat straighter in his saddle. He glanced about as if enjoying the beauty of the day.

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  I relented and offered him a bit of comfort. I know you don’t deserve this. But sometimes a prince, or any man, must endure what he did not deserve. Just as Elliania did last night. School yourself to patience, and submit to it.

  He nodded, as if to himself, and replied to one of the Narcheska’s brief comments.

  It was not a long ride through the snowy fields, but I am sure it seemed so to Dutiful. He took his punishment manfully, but when it was time to dismount, our eyes met for an instant and I saw the relief in his eyes. There. It was over. He had atoned for his gaffe of the night before, and now all would return to what it had been.

  I could have told him that is never so.

  There was an entertainment planned for the afternoon, a play acted out by costumed individuals in the Jamaillian fashion rather than using puppets. I did not see how it could be done effectively, but Lord Golden had assured me that he had seen many such plays in the southern cities, and many clever things could be done to distract the watchers from the flaws. He had seemed quite pleased at the prospect of this diversion, and even more pleased at the arrival of the ship bringing the actors. Bingtown’s continuing war with Chalced was disrupting shipping and travel badly. Chalced’s fleet evidently had been temporarily beaten back, for two ships from the south had docked today, with rumors of others following. I had seen Lord Golden’s face light up at that news. Lord Golden dismissed the war to his friends as an inconvenience that interrupted his supply of apricot brandy but I noticed that the ships that did evade Chalced’s patrols often brought packets of letters for him as well as brandy, and these the Fool took into his private room immediately. I suspected that far more than his supply of brandy and money concerned him. But he said nothing of what the missives contained, and I knew better than to ask. Evincing curiosity on any topic had always been the swiftest way to make the Fool cut off the flow of information.

  So I spent the afternoon standing at his shoulder in a darkened hall. The story was very Jamaillian, all about priests and nobles and intrigues, and at the end their dual-faced deity appeared to restore order and mete out justice. The play more befuddled than amused me. I could not adjust to people playing different roles. A puppet has no life of its own, save the story for which it is intended. It was disconcerting to recognize that the man now playing a servant had been one of the acolytes earlier in the play. It was difficult for me to concentrate on the story, and not just because of my confusion. It was because the Prince’s misery spread out like a miasma that lapped against me in the dimmed hall. He did not deliberately Skill it; it leaked from him like moisture seeping from a waterskin. On the stage, actors gestured and shouted and struck poses. But the Prince sat beside his mother, alone and miserable in his social discomfort. In the last month or so, the renewed gaiety of Buckkeep Castle had exposed him to many folk his own age. Through Civil, he had begun to explore camaraderie and flirtation. Now all that must be curtailed, for the sake of the political alliance his mother strove to forge. I could feel him pondering both the unfairness and the necessity of it. It was not sufficient that he be bound in marriage to the Narcheska Elliania. He must make it appear it was his choice to be so bound.

  Yet it was not.

  Later in the evening, Lord Golden granted me a few hours of my own. I changed back into comfortable clothes and made my way to Buckkeep Town and the Stuck Pig. In light of what I had witnessed at the keep, I was disposed to be more tolerant of Hap’s wayward courtship. Perhaps, I reflected as I strode through falling snow on my way to town, it struck some greater balance in the wide world, that Hap could freely indulge in what was completely denied to the Prince.

  The Stuck Pig was quiet. I had been here often enough that I could recognize the tavern’s regular customers. They were there, but few others. Doubtless the blowing snow and rising storm were keeping many within doors tonight. I glanced about but saw no sign of Hap. My heart lifted a trifle; perhaps he was at home, already abed. Perhaps the novelty of life in town was wearing thin, and he was learning to order his life more sensibly. I sat in the corner that Hap and Svanja favored and a boy brought me a beer.

  My musing was brought to a swift close when a red-faced man of middle years came in the door. He wore no cloak or coat of any kind and his head was bare, his dark hair spangled with snowflakes. He gave his head an angry shake to clear both snow and water droplets from his hair and beard, and then glared at my corner of the tavern. He seemed surprised to see me sitting there; he turned and confronted the tavernkeeper, asking him something angrily in a low voice. The man shrugged. When the newcomer clenched his fists and made a second demand, the tavernkeeper gestured hastily at me, speaking in a low voice.

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  The man turned, stared at me, eyes narrowed, and then strode angrily toward me. I came to my feet as he drew near, but prudently kept the table between us. He thudded both his fists on the scarred wood, and then demanded, “Where are they?”

  “Who?” I asked, but with a sinking heart, I knew to whom he referred. Svanja had her father’s brow.

  “You know who. The keeper says you’ve met them here before. My daughter Svanja and that demon-eyed country whelp who has lured her away from her parents’ hearth. Your son, is what the keeper says. ” Master Hartshorn made the words an accusation.

  “He has a name. Hap. And yes, he is my son. ” I was instantly angry, but it was a cold anger, clear as ice. I shifted my weight very slightly, clearing my hip. If he came across the table at me, my knife would meet him.

  “Your son. ” He spoke the word with contempt. “I’d be shamed to admit it. Where are they?”

  I suddenly heard the desperation as well as the fury in his voice. So. Svanja wasn’t at home, and neither she nor Hap was here. Where could they be on a snowy, dark night like this? Little question of what they were doing. My heart sank, but I spoke quietly. “I don’t know where they are. But I feel no shame to claim Hap as my son. Nor do I think he ‘lured’ your daughter into anything. If anything, it is the reverse, with your Svanja teaching my son town ways. ”

  “How dare you!” he roared and drew back a meaty fist.

  “Lower your voice and your hand,” I suggested icily. “The first to spare your daughter’s reputation. The second to spare your life. ”

  My posture drew his eyes to my ugly sword at my hip. His anger did not die, but I saw it tempered with caution. “Sit down,” I invited him, but it was as much command as suggestion. “Take control of yourself. And let us speak of what concerns us both, as fathers. ”

  Slowly he drew out a chair, his eyes never leaving me. I was as slow to resume my seat. I made a gesture at the keeper. I did not like the eyes of the other customers fixed on us, but there was little I could do. A few moments later, a boy scuttled over to our table and clapped down a mug of beer before Master Hartshorn and then scurried away. Svanja’s father glanced at the beer contemptuously. “Do you really think I will sit here and drink with you? I need to find my daughter, as swiftly as possible. ”

  “Then she is not at home with your wife,” I concluded.

  “No. ” He folded his lips. The next words he spoke were barbed, with bits of his pride torn free with them. “Svanja said she was going up to her bed in the loft. Some time later, I noticed a task she had left undone. I called to her to come back down and finish her work. When she did not reply, I climbed the ladder. She is not there. ” The words seemed to disarm his anger, leaving only a father’s disappointment and fear in him. “I came here directly. ”

  “Without even a hat or cloak. I see. Is there nowhere else she might
be? A grandmother’s house, a friend’s home?”

  “We have no kin in Buckkeep Town. We only arrived here last spring. And Svanja is not the kind of girl who makes friends with other girls. ” With every word, he seemed to have less fury and more despair.

  I suspected then that Hap was not the first young man to claim her fancy, nor that this was the first time her father had sought for her after dark. I kept the observation to myself. I picked up my beer and drained it off. “I know of only one other place to seek them. Come. We’ll go there together. It’s where my son boards while I work up at the keep. ”

  He left his beer untouched, but rose as I did. Eyes followed us as we left the tavern together. Outside in the darkness, snow had begun to swirl more swiftly. He hunched his shoulders and crossed his arms on his chest. I spoke through the wind, asking the question I dreaded but must. “You completely oppose Hap’s courtship of your daughter?”

  I could not see his face in the dimness but his voice was bright with outrage. “Oppose? Of course I do! He has not even had the courage to come to me, to say his name to me and declare his intent! And even if he did, I would oppose it. He tells her he is an apprentice . . . well then, why does not he live at his master’s house, if that is true? And if it is true, what is he thinking, to court a woman before he can even make his own living? He has no right. He is completely unsuitable for Svanja. ”

  Nothing Hap could do would redeem himself in this man’s eyes.

  It was a short walk to Jinna’s door. I knocked, dreading encountering her as much as I dreaded finding that Hap and Svanja were not there. It took a moment before Jinna called through the closed door, “Who’s there?”

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