Golden fool, p.29
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       Golden Fool, p.29

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Messages?” All of this was news to me.

  “Bingtown has approached the Queen, proposing an alliance to quell Chalced once and for all. To entice her, they have offered trade advantages in Bingtown, and a new closeness between the realms. Kettricken has rightly seen it as an empty offer. There can be no free trade until Chalced gives over its harassment of the ships in and out of Bingtown. Once Chalced is battered into submission, then Bingtown will be open for trade again, whether or not the Six Duchies take any part in subjugating Chalced. Bingtown lives on trade. It cannot even feed itself. So. A cold evaluation is that the Six Duchies risked inflaming its own disagreements with Chalced, with very little to gain by it. That being so, Kettricken has graciously declined their invitation to join their war. But now the Bingtown Councils hint that they have something else to offer, something so stupendous and so secret that word of it cannot be entrusted to a scroll. Hence, these envoys. A clever ploy, to play on the curiosity of the Queen and her nobles. They shall have a rapt audience. Shall we eat and go?”

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  We dispatched the food swiftly between us, and then I cleared the breakfast tray away to the kitchens. All was in a hubbub there. The unexpected delegation demanded an amazing luncheon and an extraordinary feast in their honor. Old Cook Sara had actually descended into the thick of the culinary skirmish in progress, proclaiming that she would do it all herself, that those Bingtowners would never be able to say that the Six Duchies lacked in any sort of food. I retreated hastily from the commotion and hurried back to Lord Golden’s chambers.

  I found the door latched. At my knock and quiet call, it was opened. I stepped through and shut it behind me, and then stood in shock. The Fool stood before me. Not the Fool in Lord Golden’s garb, but the Fool very nearly as I had known him when we were both boys. It was the garments he wore, close-fitting hose and a full tunic of solid black. His only ornaments were the earring and the tiny black-and-white posy. Even his slippers were black. Only his man’s stature and coloring seemed changed from those days. I half-expected him to shake a rat’s-head scepter at me or turn a flip. At my raised brows, he said, almost abashedly, “I did not wish to risk any of Lord Golden’s wardrobe in your dusty warren. And I can move most quietly in simple garments. ”

  I made no reply to that, but kindled a candle, and handed him two extra ones. I led him into my chamber. Closing the outer door, I triggered the entry to the concealed corridors and led him into Chade’s labyrinth. “Where is Queen Kettricken receiving them?” I belatedly thought to ask.

  “In the West Reception Hall. Chade said to tell you the access is actually in the outer wall there. ”

  “Directions on how to get there would have been more helpful. But never mind, we’ll find it. ”

  My optimism was not justified. It was an area of the castle’s internal maze that I had not explored before. I frustrated us both by finding the chamber above the audience hall, and one next to it, before I deduced that I had to go to a lower level and then make my way up into the outer wall. The corridor had one very narrow bend in it, one I barely squeezed through. By the time we reached our spy post, we were both festooned with cobwebs. The sole peephole proved to be a narrow, horizontal slit. I hooded the candle flame and then moved the leather flap that concealed it from our side. Standing crouched side by side, we could each just put one eye to it. The Fool’s breathing by my ear seemed loud. I had to concentrate to pick out the words that dimly penetrated our hiding place.

  We were late. The ambassadors had already been greeted. I could not see Kettricken or Chade. I imagined that Kettricken occupied the high seat, with Dutiful to one side and Chade standing on a lower step of the dais. Our vantage was such that we looked out over the hall, probably over the heads of my queen and prince. In the back of the audience chamber were seated the Dukes and Duchesses of the Six Duchies, or those representing them at court. Starling was there, of course. No gathering of significance could happen at court without a minstrel as witness. She was finely dressed, yet her expression was more solemn than alight with interest as I would have expected. Almost, she seemed distracted and pensive. I wondered what might be troubling her, and then resolutely fixed my gaze and attention where it belonged.

  Central to our view were the four ambassadors from Bingtown. As befitted that wealthy trading town, these were merchants rather than dukes and lords. Nonetheless, the richness of their attire made them seem the equal of any noble. Their clothing glittered with jewels, and in the dimness of the audience chamber, some of the gems seemed to gleam with their own light. One short woman was robed in fabric that flowed over her form like water, so supple and fine was it woven. On the shoulder of one of the men perched a bird, its plumage every shade of red and orange, save for its head, which was of wrinkled white skin. It had an enormous blue-black beak.

  Behind these impressive merchants stood a second row of folk, most likely servants despite their elegant dress. They bore the caskets and chests of goodwill gifts. Two stood out in their rank. One was a woman, her face heavily tattooed. There was no art to the marking, no balance, no discernible design, only a succession of ink scrawls that crawled across her cheeks. I knew it meant she had been a slave, and each tattoo was the sigil of an owner. I wondered what she had done, to be bought and sold so often. The other strange servant was hooded and veiled. The fabric of his drapery was rich and elaborate, the veil across his face of fine yet heavy lace. I could not see his features, and even his hands were gloved, as if to be sure that no part of his skin showed. It made me uneasy and I resolved to watch him most closely.

  We were just in time for the presentation of the gifts. There were five gifts in all, and each more entrancing than the last. They were offered with flowery compliments and elegant titles, as if our queen’s favor could be bought with parsed words and flattery. I mistrusted the speeches, but the gifts fascinated me. The first was a tall glass vial containing a perfume. As the tattooed servant approached to offer it to Queen Kettricken, a tall woman explained that the fragrance would bring sweet dreams to even the most restless sleeper. I could not vouch for the dreams, but unstoppered for just a moment, the fragrance spread to fill the hall, reaching even to the Fool and me in our concealment. It was not a heady fragrance, but more like the windblown breath of a summer garden. Even so, I saw the expressions change on the faces of the nobles in the back of the hall as that rare essence reached them. Smiles grew wider and furrowed brows relaxed. Even I felt a lessening of my wariness.

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  “A drug?” I breathed to the Fool.

  “No. Only a perfume, a scent from a kindlier place. ” A faint smile played over his face. “I knew that scent of old, when I was a child. They traded far for that. ”

  The next servant approached, and opened his cask at the Queen’s feet. From it he lifted a simple set of dangling chimes, such as any garden might hold, save that these seemed to me made of scaled glass rather than metal. He kept them stilled with his hand until, at a signal from the parrot-man, he shook them, a delicate shiver that still set them to swinging and ringing. Each tone was sweet, and their random pattern swiftly fell into a rippling song. Abruptly the servant muted them, far too soon for me. But then he gave them another tiny shake, and again a shimmering melody burst forth, as different from the first as the crackling of a fire is from the muttering of a brook. He let them play a time, and they showed no sign of stilling themselves. When the servant muted them again, the parrot-man spoke. “Fair Queen Kettricken, most noble lady of both the Mountains and the Six Duchies, we hope this sound pleases you. No one is certain how many tunes these chimes hold. Each time they are freed, they seem to spell a different song. As vast and great as your lands are, and as sophisticated as your tastes must no doubt be, we hope you will deem this humble gift worthy of you. ”

  Kettricken must have made some sign of acceptance, for the chimes were restored to their chest and brought
forward to her.

  The third gift was a length of fabric, similar in kind but not in hue to the one the woman wore. This was lifted from a small chest, but when the small woman and the parrot-man moved forward to take it from the servant, the cloth unfolded again, and yet again, and yet again, until the swathe of it was enough to clothe a long table in the Great Hall and drape still to the floor. It shimmered when they shook it, moving through shades of blue from deep violet to pale summer sky. And they folded it effortlessly to a compact square that they restored to its chest. This too was set before our queen. The fourth gift was a set of bells, arranged in a scale. The tone was good but no more than that. What was amazing about them was that the metal they were made of shimmered with light as each bell rang. “This is jidzin, most gracious Queen Kettricken, ruler of the Six Duchies and heir to the Mountain Throne,” the short woman told her. “This is one treasure that can come from Bingtown alone. We are certain that you are worthy of no less than the very best we can offer you. Jidzin is among our most unique treasures. As are these. ” She waved a hand at the hooded man and he came forward. “Flame jewels, fair Queen Kettricken. Rarest of the rare, for a rare queen. ”

  My muscles tightened as the veiled man approached the dais where Kettricken and Dutiful were seated. Chade was there, I reminded myself, even as my stomach clenched in apprehension. The old assassin would be as wary as I; he would let no harm come to the Queen or Prince. Even so, I sent a tiny Skill thought to the Prince.

  Be wary.

  I shall.

  I had not expected the Prince to reply to my warning. His was a thought flung wide rather than a careful channeling of the Skill. All the hair on the back of my neck stood up as I saw the veiled man twitch as if poked. For an instant, he stood very still. I sensed something from him, a reaching I had no name for.

  Ssh, I cautioned my prince in a thread of thought. Be very still.

  I desperately longed to see the veiled man’s expression. Did he stare at my prince? Did he glance about the chamber seeking me?

  Whoever he was, his control was masterful. He made his abrupt halt a ceremonial pause. Then the veiled man bowed low, and presented his gift. He set the cask on the floor before him. At a stroke of his hand, it seemed to open by itself. He reached in and took out a smaller box. This he opened to reveal a torc of gold set with gems. He displayed it to the Queen, and then held it aloft so the gathered nobles might see it. While it was still raised, the bearer gave the ornament a shake. All of the jewels suddenly flared to life, glowing an unearthly blue in the dim hall. As he turned back toward the Queen, offering it for her regard, I heard the Fool give a quiet gasp at the beauty of the thing. The veiled man spoke clearly despite his muffling veils, and his voice was young, almost a boy’s. “The blues are the rarest of the flame jewels, most gracious Queen. They were chosen for you, in the color of Buck Duchy. And for each noble and gracious ruler of each of your noble and gracious duchies . . . ”

  There were gasps from the back of the hall as the gift-bearer lifted from the cask five additional boxes. He opened each in turn, to show neckpieces of narrow silver rather than wide gold. Each of these bore a single jewel, but they were nonetheless breathtaking. Someone had studied the Six Duchies well, for each gem was the proper color for the duchy it was intended for, even to distinguishing between the pale yellow of the Bearns flower sigil to the deeper gold of Farrow. After the Queen had accepted her collar, the hooded servant moved to the gathered nobles, to bow gravely to each and then proffer the Bingtown gift. Despite the man’s unusual garb, I noticed that no one hesitated to accept his offering.

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  As this was going on, I watched the other Bingtown emissaries closely. “Who is their leader?” I muttered to myself, for none seemed to give precedence to any of the others. The Fool took it as a query.

  “Do you see the woman with green eyes, the taller of the two?” The Fool barely breathed the words by my ear. “I believe her name is Serilla. She was originally from Jamaillia and a Companion to their Satrap. That is, she was an advisor to the ruler of all Jamaillia, an expert within her chosen area. Hers was Bingtown and the surrounding area. She came to Bingtown under very odd circumstances, and has since remained there. Gossip had it that she had fallen into deep disfavor with the ruling Satrap, and that he all but exiled her to Bingtown. Some say she had made an attempt to seize power from him. But instead of taking her exile as a punishment, she has made Bingtown her home, and has risen to the status of a professional negotiator for the Traders. Despite her bad blood with the Satrap, her intimate knowledge of both Bingtown and Jamaillia has given Bingtown an edge in its dealings with Jamaillia. ”

  “Ssh,” I hushed him hastily. I wondered how he knew all that, and wanted to hear more, but his words could wait. For now I must be aware of every nuance of all that was said. He subsided, but I could sense his ferment. His cool cheek was pressed against mine as we stared side by side through the narrow slit. He rested a hand on my shoulder to steady himself, but I could feel the tension of his suppressed excitement. Obviously, this meeting had a deeper significance to him. Later, I would ask him who the others were. For now, I was engrossed with the scene before me. I only wished I could see the Queen, Chade, and Prince Dutiful as I watched this encounter unfold.

  I listened as the Queen offered thanks for the gifts and extended welcome to the emissaries. Her words were simple. She did not reply with extravagant compliments and embroidered titles, but instead offered them sincerity in honest phrases. She was thrilled by the surprise of their long-expected visit. She hoped they would enjoy their stay in Buckkeep, and that this delegation represented a future of more open communication between the Six Duchies and Bingtown. The tall woman, Serilla, stood serenely, listening intently to the Queen’s words. The tattooed woman folded her lips as the Queen spoke, plainly holding back some response. The man at her side cast her an anxious glance. He was a broad-shouldered, bluff man, hair cropped short and curly above his weathered face. He was obviously accustomed to physical work, and to getting things accomplished rather than wading through protocol and courtesies. As he waited for the Queen to finish speaking, his fists knotted and unknotted themselves reflexively. The bird on his shoulder shifted restlessly. The other man, a narrow, bookish sort of fellow, seemed more of Serilla’s cast. He would let Kettricken set the pace for this encounter.

  Serilla was the one who spoke when Kettricken’s voice fell silent. She, in turn, thanked the Queen and all the Six Duchies for such a gracious welcome. She told them that all of them would welcome the chance to rest in our peaceful land, far from the horrors of the war that Chalced had forced upon them. She spoke some little time on what they had been enduring; the random attacks on their ships that disrupted all commerce, the very lifeblood of Bingtown, and the hardships this created for a city that relied on trade to feed its population. She spoke of Chalcedean raids on outlying Bingtown settlements.

  “I didn’t think they had any outlying settlements,” I breathed in an aside to the Fool.

  “Not many. But as their population has swelled with freed slaves, folk have been attempting to find arable land. ”

  “Freed slaves?”

  “Sshh,” the Fool responded. He was right. I needed to listen now, and ask my questions later. I leaned my forehead against the cold stone of the wall.

  Serilla was swiftly reviewing Bingtown’s current list of grievances with Chalced. Most of them were ones I was very familiar with, and many were the same quarrels that the Six Duchies had with our grasping neighbor to the south. Chalcedean raiders, border disputes, harassment and piracy of passing trade vessels, ridiculous taxes on those merchants that did attempt to trade with them: all of these were familiar rants. But then she launched into an account of how Bingtown had risen up against corrupt Chalcedean influence to free all the slaves within its borders and to offer them a chance to become full citizens of Bingtown. Bingtown would no longer allo
w slave ships to stop in its port, regardless of whether they were bound north to Chalced or south to Jamaillia. By an agreement with Bingtown’s new allies in the so-called Pirate Isles, slave ships that put in to Bingtown were boarded, the cargoes seized, and the slaves offered freedom.

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  This disruption of the Chalcedean slave trade was a major area of conflict. It had brought into new prominence the old disagreement over where the Chalcedean-Bingtown border actually lay. In both of these areas, she hoped that the Six Duchies would recognize the legitimacy of Bingtown’s position. She knew that Shoaks Duchy welcomed escaped slaves to their lands as free men, and that Shoaks had also suffered from Chalced’s efforts to claim lands not rightfully part of that dukedom. Could she, perhaps, then hope that the Six Duchies would grant what their previous envoys had proposed to the most gracious and royal Queen Kettricken? An alliance, and support for the war against Chalced? In return, Bingtown and her ally had much to offer the Six Duchies. Open trade with Bingtown, and a share in Bingtown’s favorable trade agreements with the so-called Pirate Isles could be of great benefit to all. The gifts bestowed today represented but a small part of the spectrum of goods that would become available to the people of the Six Duchies.

  Queen Kettricken gravely heard her out. But at the end of Serilla’s speech, she had offered nothing new to us. It was Chade, in his role as councilor, who gravely pointed this out. The wonders of their trade goods were well known, and justifiably so. But not even for such wonders could the Six Duchies consider moving into war. He concluded his remarks with “Our most gracious Queen Kettricken must always consider first the well-being of our own folk. You know that our relations with Chalced are at best uneasy. Our grievances with them are many, and yet we have held our hands back from waging a full war with them on our own accounts. All know the saying ‘Sooner or later, there is always war with Chalced. ’ They are a contentious folk. But war is expensive and disruptive. War later is almost always better than war now. Why should we risk provoking their full wrath on Bingtown’s behalf?” Chade let the question hang a moment, and then made it even plainer. “What do you offer the Six Duchies that will not eventually come to us, regardless of the outcome of this war of yours?”

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