Golden fool, p.28
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       Golden Fool, p.28

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Tom Badgerlock,” I replied. “And Svanja’s father. We’re looking for Hap and Svanja. ”

  Jinna opened only the top half of her door, a clear indication of how far I had fallen in her regard. She looked at Master Hartshorn more than me. “They’re not here,” she said briskly. “Nor have I ever permitted them to spend time in each other’s company here, though there’s little I can do to stop Svanja from knocking at my door and asking for Hap. ” She swung her reproachful gaze to me. “I haven’t seen Hap at all this evening. ” She crossed her arms on her chest. She didn’t need to say she had warned me it would come to this. The flat accusation was there in her eyes. I suddenly could not meet her stare. I’d avoided seeing her since the night she had glimpsed Laurel in my arms. That I had never offered her the courtesy of an explanation shamed me. It was an act both cowardly and juvenile.

  “I’d best go look for him, then,” I muttered, suddenly abashed before her. I felt as shamed for my own behavior as my son’s. I’d hurt Jinna and tonight I suddenly faced that. The truth speared me. It hadn’t been for any lofty moral reasons. It had been because I was afraid, because I had known she would become a facet of my life that I could not control. Just as Hap was now.

  “Damn him! Damn him for ruining my girl!” Hartshorn suddenly raged. He turned and stumbled away into the swirling snowfall. At the edge of the light from Jinna’s door, he looked back to shake a fist at me. “You keep him away from her! You keep your demon-blasted son away from my Svanja!” Then he turned. In a few steps, he was beyond the range of the light from Jinna’s door, vanished into blackness and despair. I longed to follow him, but I felt caught in the light.

  I took a deep breath. “Jinna, I need to find Hap tonight. But I think—”

  “Well. We both know you won’t find him. Or Svanja. I doubt they want to be found this night. ” She paused, but before I could even draw breath, she said evenly, “And I think Rory Hartshorn is right. You should keep Hap away from Svanja. For all our sakes. But how you’re going to do it, I don’t know. Better you had never let your son run wild like this, Tom Badgerlock. I hope it isn’t too late for him. ”

  “He’s a good boy,” I heard myself say. It sounded feeble, the excuse of a man who has neglected his son.

  “He is. That is why he deserves better from you. Good night, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  She shut the door, shutting away her light and warmth. I stood in the dark, with the cold sweeping past me. Snowflakes were finding their way down my collar.

  Something warm bumped my ankles. Open the door. The cat wants in.

  I stooped to stroke him. Cold snow spangled his coat but the warmth of his body leaked through it. You’ll have to find your own way in, Fennel. That door doesn’t open for me anymore. Farewell.

  Stupid. You just have to ask. Like this. He stood up on his hind legs and clawed diligently at the wood as he yowled.

  The sound of his demands followed me as I strode off into the darkness and cold. Behind me, I heard the door open for an instant and knew he had been admitted. I walked back up to Buckkeep Castle, envying a cat.

  Chapter XI

  TIDINGS FROM BINGTOWN

  “Past Chalced, keep your sails spread. ” This old saying is based on sound observations. Once your ship is past the Chalcedean ports and their cities, old as evil itself, spread sail and move swiftly. Aptly named are the Cursed Shores to the south of Chalced. Water from the Rain River will rot your casks and burn your crew’s throats. Fruit from those lands scalds the mouth and breaks sores on the hands. Beyond the Rain River, take on no water that comes from inland. In a day it will go green, and in three it seethes with slimy vermin. It will foul your casks so they can never be used again. Better to keep the crew on short rations than to put ashore there for any reason. Not even to weather a storm or take a day’s rest at anchor in an inviting cove is safe. Dreams and visions will poison your sailors’ minds, and your ship will be plagued with murder, suicide, and senseless mutiny. A bay that beckons you to safe harbor may seethe with savage sea serpents before the night is over. Water maidens come to the top of the waves, to beckon with bare breasts and sweet voices, but the sailor that plunges in for that pleasure is dragged under to be food for their sharp-toothed mates hiding below the water.

  The only safe harbor along all that stretch is the city of Bingtown. The anchorage is good there, but beware of their docks where ensorcelled ships may call down curses on your own vessels of honest wood. Best to avoid their docks. Drop your hook in Trader Bay and row in, and likewise have goods brought out to your ship. Water and food from this port can be trusted, though some of the wares from their shops are uncanny and may bring ill luck to a voyage. In Bingtown, all manner of goods may be bought and sold, and the trade goods from there are unlike any others in the wide world. Yet keep your crew close by your vessel, and let only the master and mate go ashore and amongst the townsfolk. Better for common ignorant sailors not to touch foot to that soil, for it can entrance men of lesser mind and intellect. Truly is it said of Bingtown, “If a man can imagine it, he can find it for sale there. ” Not all that a man can imagine is wholesome to a man, and much is sold there that is not. Beware too of the secret people of that land, sometimes seen by night. It brings on the foulest of bad luck should one of the Veiled Folk of that place cross a captain’s path when he is returning to his ship. Better to spend that night on shore, and return to your ship the next day, than to sail immediately after such an ill omen.

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  Beyond Bingtown, leave the safety of the inner passage and take your ship out Wildside. Better to brave the storms and harsh weather than to tempt the pirates, serpents, sea maidens, and Others of those waters, to say nothing of the shifting bottoms and treacherous currents. Make your next trade stop Jamaillia with its many raucous ports. Again, keep a tight hand on your crew, for they are known to steal sailors there.

  — CAPTAIN BANROP’S “ADVICE TO MERCHANT MARINERS”

  I left Prince Dutiful a note on the table in the Skill tower. It said only “Tomorrow. ” Before the dawn watch had changed, I was standing outside Master Gindast’s establishment. The lamplight from the windows sliced across the snowy yard. In that dimness, apprentices crunched along the footpaths, hauling water and firewood for both the master’s home and his workshop and clearing snow from the canvassed tops of the wood stockpiles and the pathways. I looked in vain for any sign of Hap amongst them.

  Light had brought color to the day when he finally appeared. I could tell at a glance how he had spent his night. There was a gleam of wonder in his eyes still, as if he could not grasp his own good fortune, and an almost drunken swagger to his walk. Had I shone like that the first morning after Molly had shared herself with me? I tried to harden my heart as I lifted my voice and called out, “Hap! A word with you. ”

  He was smiling as he came to meet me. “It will have to be a short one, then, Tom, for I’m already late. ”

  The day was blue and white around us, the air crisp with chill, and my son stood grinning up at me. I felt a traitor to all of it as I said, “And I know why you’re late. As does Svanja’s father. We were looking for you last night. ”

  I had expected him to be abashed. He only grinned wider, a knowing smile between men. “Well. I’m glad you didn’t find us. ”

  I felt an irrational urge to strike him, to wipe that expression from his face. It was as if he stood within a burning barn and rejoiced at the heat, unmindful of the peril to himself and Svanja. That, I suddenly knew, was what infuriated me, that he seemed completely unaware of how he endangered her. An edge of my anger crept into my voice.

  “So. I take it Master Hartshorn didn’t find you, either. But I imagine he’ll be waiting for Svanja when she gets home. ”

  If I had hoped to dampen his reckless spirit, I didn’t succeed. “She knew he would be,” he said quietly. “And she decided it was worth it. Don’t look so serious, Tom. She
knows how to handle her father. It will be fine. ”

  “It may be any number of things, but I doubt ‘fine’ will be one of them. ” My voice grated past my anger. How could he be so cavalier about this? “You’re not thinking, boy. What will this do to her family, to their day-to-day life, to know their daughter has made this choice? And what will you do, if you get her with child?”

  The smile finally faded from his face, but he still stood straight and faced me. “I think that’s for me to worry about, Tom. I’m old enough now to take charge of my own life. But, to put your mind at rest, she told me that there are ways women know to keep such a thing from happening. At least, until we are ready for it, until I can make her my wife. ”

  Perhaps the gods punish us by bringing us face to face with our own foolish mistakes, condemning us to watch our children fall into the same traps that crippled us. For all the sweetness of the secret hours I had shared with Molly, there had been a price. At the time, I had thought that we shared it, that the only cost was keeping our love secret. Molly had known better, I am sure. She had been the one to pay it, far more than I had. If Burrich had not existed to shelter and shield them both, my daughter would have paid it as well. Perhaps she still would, in her differences, in the dangers of being a cuckoo’s nestling, unlike her brothers. I wondered if I could warn Hap, if he would listen to me, as I had not listened to Burrich or Verity. I pushed my anger aside and spoke out of my fears for them both.

  “Hap. Please hear me. There are no safe and certain ways for a woman to avoid conceiving. All of them have a risk and a price to her. Every time she lies with you, she must wonder, Will I conceive from this? Will I bring shame to my family? You know I would not cast you from my household for any mistake you made, but Svanja’s life is not so certain. You should protect her, not expose her to danger. You are asking her to risk all, for the pleasure of being with you, with no guarantees. What will you do if her father turns her out? Or beats her? What will you do if she suddenly finds herself ostracized and condemned by her friends? How can you be responsible for that?”

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  A scowl darkened his face. His stubbornness, so rarely woken, mastered him now. He took several breaths, each deeper than the last, and then the words exploded from him. “If he throws her out, I’ll take her in, and do whatever I must to support her. If he beats her, I’ll kill him. And if her friends turn on her, then they were never truly her friends anyway. Don’t worry about it, Tom Badgerlock. It’s my consideration now. ” He bit off each of his final words to me, as if somehow I had betrayed him just by stating my concerns. He turned away from me. “I’m a man now. I can make my own decisions and my own way. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get to my work. I’m sure Master Gindast is waiting for his turn to lecture me on responsibility. ”

  “Hap. ” I spoke the word sharply. When the boy turned back to me, startled at the harshness in my tone, I forced out the rest of what I knew I had to say. “Making love to a girl does not make you a man. You have no right to do that; not until you both can declare yourself partners publicly, and provide for any children that come along. You should not see her again, Hap. Not like that. If you don’t go soon to meet her father and face him squarely, you’ll never be able to stand before him as a man in his eyes. And—”

  He was walking away. Halfway through my speech he turned and walked away from me. I stood stunned, watching him go. I kept thinking he would stop and come back to ask my forgiveness and help in putting his life to rights. Instead, he strode into Master Gindast’s shop without a backward glance at me.

  I stood a time longer in the snow. I was not calm. On the contrary, anger flamed in me that seemed enough to warm all winter away from the land. My fists were clenched at my sides. I think it was the first time that I had ever felt deeply furious with Hap, to the point where I longed to beat some sense into him if he would not listen to reason. I pictured myself barging into the shop and dragging him out, forcing him to confront what he was doing.

  Then I turned and stalked away. Would I have listened to reason at his age? No. I had not, not even when Patience had explained to me, over and over and over, why I must stay away from Molly. Yet such a realization did not decrease my anger with Hap, nor my belated contempt for my boyhood self. Instead it gave me a sense of futility, that I must witness my foster son committing the same foolish and selfish acts that I had performed myself. Just as I had, he believed that their love justified the risks they took, without ever considering that the child might come to pay the price for their intemperance. It could all happen again, and I could not stop it. I think I grasped then, fleetingly, the passion that powered the Fool. He believed in the terrible strength of the White Prophet and the Catalyst, to shoulder the future from the rut of the present and into some better pathway. He believed that some act of ours could somehow prevent others from repeating the mistakes of the past.

  By the time I reached Buckkeep and had ascended to the Skill tower, I had walked away the fierceness of my anger. Yet the sick, dull weight of it lingered, poisoning my day. I was almost relieved to find that Dutiful had given up on me and left. Only a simple underlining of the word had altered my note. The boy was learning to be subtle. Perhaps at least with this young man I could succeed in turning him aside from the errors of the past. That errant thought only made me feel cowardly. Was I surrendering Hap then, abandoning him to his own poor judgment? No, I decided, I was not. But that decision put me no closer to knowing what to do about it.

  I returned to Lord Golden’s chambers and was in time to join the Fool for his breakfast. As I entered, however, he was not eating. Rather, he sat at table, bemusedly twirling a tiny bouquet of flowers between his forefinger and thumb. It was an unusual token, for the blossoms were made of white lace and black ribbon. It seemed a clever subterfuge for a season without flowers, and it put me in mind of his old Fool’s motley for this season. He saw me looking at the posy, smiled at my bemusement, and then carefully pinned it to his breast. It was the Fool who gestured at the spread of food before him and said, “Sit down and eat quickly. We are summoned. A ship docked at dawn with an ambassadorial contingent from Bingtown. And not just any ship, but one of their Liveships, with a talking, moving figurehead. Goldendown, I believe his name is. I don’t think one has ever ventured into Buck waters before. Aboard was an emissary mission from the Bingtown Council of Traders. They have applied with great urgency to see Queen Kettricken at her earliest convenience. ”

  The news startled me. Usually Six Duchies contacts with Bingtown were contacts between individual merchants and traders, not their ruling council treating with the Farseers. I tried to recall if the city-state had ever sent us ambassadors when Shrewd was king, then gave it up. I had not been privy to such matters when I was a lad. I took a seat at the table. “And you are to be there?”

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  “At Councilor Chade’s suggestion, we will both be there. Not visibly, of course. You are to take me there through Chade’s labyrinth. He himself came to tell me so. I’m quite excited to see it, I admit. Save for my brief glimpse of it on the night Kettricken and I fled the castle and Regal, I’ve never seen it. ”

  I was shocked. It was inevitable that he knew of the spy passages’ existence, but I had not thought Chade would ever offer him access to them. “Does the Queen concur in this?” I asked, trying to be delicate.

  “She does, but reluctantly. ” Then, dropping the lord’s aristocratic air, he added, “As I have spent some time in Bingtown and know something of how their council operates, Chade hopes my evaluation of their words may give him a deeper understanding. And you, of course, provide an extra pair of eyes and ears for him, to catch any nuances that might otherwise be missed. ” As he spoke, he served us adroitly, adapting a platter to be my plate. He was generous with smoked fish, soft cheese, and fresh bread and butter. A pot of tea steamed in the middle of the table. I went to my room to fetch my c
up. As I returned with it, I asked, “Why could not the Queen simply invite you to be present when she receives them?”

  The Fool shrugged one shoulder as he took a forkful of smoked fish. After a moment, he observed, “Don’t you think the Bingtown ambassadors might look askance at the Queen of the Six Duchies inviting a foreign noble to attend her first meeting with them?”

  “They might, but then they might not. I believe it has been decades since the Bingtown Council has sent a formal declaration to the Six Duchies Court. And we have a Mountain Queen now, a woman from a realm completely outside their ken. Did she greet them by slaughtering chickens in their honor or scattering roses before them, it would be all one to them. Whatever she does, they will assume it is her custom, and they will attempt to receive it politely. ” I took a sip of tea and then added pointedly, “Including inviting foreign nobles to her first reception of them. ”

  “Perhaps. ” Then, grudgingly he admitted, “But I have reasons of my own for not wishing to be visibly present. ”

  “Such as?”

  He took his time cutting a bite of food and then eating it. After he had followed it with a sip of tea, he admitted, “Perhaps they would recognize that I bear no resemblance to any Jamaillian noble family that they have ever encountered. The traders of Bingtown have far more commerce with Jamaillia than any Six Duchies venture. They would see through my sham and spoil it. ”

  I accepted that, but reserved my opinion as to whether it was the complete reason. I did not ask if he feared he would be recognized. He had told me that he had spent some time in Bingtown. Even dressed as a nobleman, the Fool’s appearance was sufficiently unique that he might be recognized by any that had seen him there. The Fool was looking more uncomfortable than I had seen him in a long time. I changed the subject.

  “Who else will be ‘visibly present’ at the ambassadors’ initial reception by the Queen?”

  “I don’t know. Whoever represents each of the Six Duchies and is currently at court, I imagine. ” He took another bite, chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and added, “We shall see. It may be a delicate situation. I understand that there have been messages exchanged, but erratically. This delegation was actually expected to arrive months ago, but the Chalcedeans intensified the war. The Bingtown war with Chalced has disrupted shipping woefully to all points south of Shoaks. I gather that the Queen and Chade had given up all expectations until today. ”

 
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