Golden fool, p.3
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       Golden Fool, p.3

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  Kespin was a taller man, and older. He moved like a swordsman, and his eyes were keen above his grizzled beard. They appraised me as a threat and dismissed me. “What’s the problem here?” he asked us both. His voice was not a warning, but an assurance that he could deal with either of us as we deserved.

  The sentry waved his beer mug at me. “He’s angry because I don’t know whose servant he is. ”

  “What?”

  “I’m Lord Golden’s servant,” I clarified. “And I’m concerned that the sentries on this gate seem to do no more than watch folk go in and out of the keep. I’ve been walking in and out of Buckkeep Castle for over a fortnight now, and I’ve never been challenged once. It doesn’t seem right to me. A score of years ago, when I visited here, the sentries on duty here took their task seriously. There was a time when—”

  “There was a time when that was needed,” Kespin interrupted me. “During the Red Ship War. But we’re at peace, man. And the keep and the town are full of Outislander folk and nobility from the other duchies for the Prince’s betrothal. You can’t expect us to know them all. ”

  I swallowed, wishing I hadn’t started this, yet determined to follow it to the end. “It only takes one mistake for our prince’s life to be threatened. ”

  “Or one mistake to insult some Outislander noble. My orders come down from Queen Kettricken, and she said we were to be welcoming and hospitable. Not suspicious and nasty. Though I’d be willing to make an exception for you. ” The grin he gave me somewhat modified his words, yet it was still clear he did not enjoy my questioning of his judgment.

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  I inclined my head to him. I was going about this all wrong. I should bother Chade about it, and see if he could not put the guards more on edge. “I see,” I said conciliatingly. “Well. I but wondered. ”

  “Well, next time you ride that tall black mare out of here, remember that a man doesn’t have to say much to know a lot. And as long as you’ve made me wonder, what is your name?”

  “Tom Badgerlock. Servant to Lord Golden. ”

  “Ah. His servant. ” He smiled knowingly. “And his bodyguard, right? Yea, I’d heard some tale of that. And that isn’t all that I heard about him. You’re not what I expected he’d choose to keep by him. ” He gave me an odd look as if I should make some reply to that, but I held my tongue, not knowing what he was implying. After a moment, he shrugged. “Well. Trust some foreigner to think he needs his own guard even while he lives in Buckkeep Castle. Well, go on with you, Tom Badgerlock. We know you now, and I hope that helps you sleep better at night. ”

  So they passed me into Buckkeep Castle. I walked away from them, feeling both foolish and dissatisfied. I must speak with Kettricken, I decided, and convince her that the Piebalds were still a very real danger to Dutiful. Yet I doubted my queen would have even a moment to spare for me in the days to come. The betrothal ceremony was tonight. Her thoughts would be full of her Out Island negotiations.

  The kitchens were well astir. Maids and pages were preparing ranks of teapots and rows of porridge tureens. The smells awoke my hunger. I paused to load a breakfast tray for Lord Golden. I stacked a platter with smoked ham and fresh morning rolls and a pot of butter and strawberry preserves. There was a basket of pears from the keep orchard, and I chose firm ones. As I left the kitchen, a garden maid with a tray of flowers on her arm greeted me. “You’re Lord Golden’s man?” she asked, and at my nod, she motioned me to a halt, so she could add a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers and a tiny nosegay of sweet white buds to the tray I carried. “For his lordship,” she told me needlessly, and then hastened on her way.

  I climbed the stairs to Lord Golden’s chambers, knocked and then entered. The door to his bedchamber was closed, but before I had finished setting out his breakfast things, he emerged fully dressed. His gleaming hair had been smoothed back from his brow and was secured at the nape of his neck with a blue silk ribbon. A blue jacket was slung over his arm. He wore a shirt of white silk, the chest puffed with lace, and blue leggings a shade darker than the jacket. With the gold of his hair and his amber eyes, the effect was like a summer sky. He smiled warmly at me. “Good to see that you’ve realized your duties require you to arise early, Tom Badgerlock. Now if only your taste in clothing would likewise awaken. ”

  I bowed gravely to him and drew out his chair. I spoke softly, casually, as his friend rather than in my role as servant. “The truth is that I have not been to bed. Hap did not come home until the dim hours of the morning. And on my walk home, I encountered some Piebalds who delayed me a bit longer. ”

  The smile melted from his face. He did not take his chair, but seized my wrist in a cool grip. “Are you hurt?” he asked earnestly.

  “No,” I assured him, and gestured him to the table. He sat down reluctantly. I moved to the side of the table and uncovered the dishes before him. “That was not their intent. They but wanted to let me know that they knew my name, where I lived, and that I am Witted. And that my wolf is dead. ”

  I had to force out the last words. It was as if I could live with that truth so long as I did not utter it aloud. I coughed and hastily took up the cut flowers. I handed the nosegay to him and muttered, “I’ll put these by your bedside. ”

  “Thank you,” he returned in a voice as muted as mine.

  I found a vase in his room. Evidently even the garden maid was more familiar with Lord Golden’s niceties than I was. I filled it with water from his wash pitcher and set the flowers on a small table adjacent to his bed. When I returned, he had donned his blue jacket and the white nosegay was pinned to the front of it.

  “I need to speak to Chade as soon as I can,” I said as I poured his tea. “But I can’t very well go hammer on his door. ”

  He lifted the cup and sipped. “Don’t the secret passages offer you access to his rooms?”

  I gave Lord Golden a look. “You know that old fox. His secrets belong to him alone, and he will not risk anyone spying on him in an unguarded moment. He must have access to the corridors, but I don’t know how. Was he up very late last night?”

  Lord Golden winced. “He was still dancing when I decided to seek my bed. For an old man, he finds an amazing wealth of energy when he wishes to enjoy himself. But I’ll send a page round with a message to him. I’ll invite him to ride with me this afternoon. Is that soon enough?” He had caught the anxiety in my voice but was not asking questions. I was grateful for that.

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  “It will do,” I assured him. “It will probably be the soonest that his mind is clear. ” I rattled my own head as if it would settle my thoughts. “There is suddenly so much to think about, so many things I must worry about. If these Piebalds know about me, then they know about the Prince. ”

  “Did you recognize any of them? Were they from Laudwine’s band?”

  “It was dark. And they stayed well back from me. I heard a woman’s voice and a man’s, but I’m sure there were at least three of them. One was bonded with a dog, and another with a small swift mammal, a rat or a weasel or a squirrel, perhaps. ” I took a breath. “I want the guards at Buckkeep’s gates to be put on alert. And the Prince should have someone accompanying him at all times. ‘A tutor of the well-muscled sort,’ as Chade himself once suggested. And I need to make arrangements with Chade, for ways to contact him if I need his help or advice immediately. And the keep should be patrolled daily for rats, especially the Prince’s chambers. ”

  He took a breath to speak, then bit down on his questions. Instead, he said, “I fear I must give you one more thing to think about. Prince Dutiful passed a note to me last night, demanding to know when you will begin his Skill lessons. ”

  “He wrote down those words?”

  At Lord Golden’s reluctant nod, I was horrified. I had been aware that the Prince missed me. Linked by the Skill as we were, I must be aware of such things. I had put up my own Skill walls to keep my though
ts private from the young man, but he was not so adept. Several times I had felt his feeble efforts to reach toward me, but I had ignored them, promising myself that a better time would soon present itself. Evidently my prince was not so patient. “Oh, the boy must be taught caution. Some things should never be committed to paper, and those—”

  My tongue suddenly faltered. I must have gone pale, for Lord Golden abruptly stood and became my friend the Fool as he offered me his chair. “Are you all right, Fitz? Is it a seizure coming on?”

  I actually dropped into the chair. My head was spinning as I pondered the depth of my folly. I could scarcely get the breath to admit my idiocy. “Fool. All my scrolls, all my writings. I came so swiftly to Chade’s summons, I left them there in my cottage. I told Hap to close up the house before he came to Buckkeep, but he would not have hidden them, only shut the door to my study. If the Piebalds are clever enough to connect me with Hap . . . ”

  I let the thought trail away. I needed to say no more to him. His eyes were huge. The Fool had read all that I had so recklessly committed to paper. Not only my own identity was bared there, but also many Farseer matters better left forgotten. And personal vulnerabilities also were exposed in those cursed scrolls. Molly, my lost love. Nettle, my bastard daughter. How could I have been so stupid as to set such thoughts to paper? How could I have let the false comfort of writing about such things lull me into exposing them? No secret was safe unless it was locked solely in a man’s own mind. It should all have been burned, long ago.

  “Please, Fool. See Chade for me. I have to go there. Now. Today. ”

  The Fool set a cautious hand to my shoulder. “Fitz. If they are gone, it is already too late. If Tom Badgerlock goes racing off today, you will only stir curiosity and invite pursuit. You may lead the Piebalds straight to them. They will be expecting you to bolt after they threatened you. They’ll be watching the gates out of Buckkeep. So, think coolly. It could be that your fears are groundless. How would they connect Tom Badgerlock to Hap, let alone know where the boy came from? Take no reckless action. See Chade first and tell him what you fear. And speak to Prince Dutiful. His betrothal is tonight. The lad holds himself well, but his is a thin and brittle façade. See him, reassure him. ” Then he paused and ventured, “Perhaps someone else could be dispatched to—”

  “No. ” I cut him off firmly. “I must go myself. Some of what is there I will take, and the rest I will destroy. ” My mind danced past the charging buck that the Fool had carved into my tabletop. FitzChivalry Farseer’s emblem graced Tom Badgerlock’s board. Even that seemed a threat to me now. Burn it, I decided. Burn the whole cottage to the ground. Leave no trace that I had ever lived there. Even the herbs growing in the garden told too much about me. I should never have left that shell of myself for anyone to nose through; I should never have allowed myself to leave my marks so plainly on anything.

  The Fool patted me on the shoulder. “Eat something,” he suggested. “Then wash your face and change your clothes. Make no abrupt decisions. If we hold our course, we’ll survive this, Fitz. ”

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  “Badgerlock,” I reminded him, and hauled myself to my feet. The roles, I decided, must be adhered to sharply. “I beg pardon, my lord. I felt a moment’s faintness, but I am recovered now. I apologize for interrupting your breakfast. ”

  For an instant the Fool’s sympathy for me shone naked in his eyes. Then, without a word, he resumed his seat at the table. I refilled his teacup, and he ate in pondering silence. I moved about the room, seeking tasks to busy myself, but his innate tidiness had left me little to do in my role as servant. I suddenly perceived that his neatness was a part of his privacy. He had schooled himself to leave no signs of himself save those that he wished to be seen. It was a discipline I would do well to adopt. “Would my lord excuse me for a few moments?” I asked.

  He set down his cup and thought for a moment. Then, “Certainly. I expect to go out shortly, Badgerlock. See that you clear away the breakfast things, bring fresh water for the pitchers, tidy the hearth, and bring wood for the fire. Then, I suggest you continue to sharpen your fighting skills with the guardsmen. I shall expect you to accompany me when I ride this afternoon. Please see that you are dressed appropriately. ”

  “Yes, my lord,” I quietly agreed. I left him eating and went into my own dim chamber. I considered it quickly. Nothing would I keep here, I decided, save the items appropriate to Tom Badgerlock. I washed my face and flattened my butchered hair. I donned my blue servant’s garb. Then I gathered all my old clothing and saddlepack, the roll of lock-picks and tools that Chade had given me, and the few other items that I had brought from my cottage. In the course of my hasty sorting, I came across a saltwater-shriveled purse with a lump in it. The leather strings had dried shut and stiff. I had to cut them to get it open. When I shook out the contents, the lump was the odd figurine the Prince had picked up on the beach during our ill-fated Skill adventure. I slid it back into the ruined purse to return to him later and put it on top of my bundle. Then I shut the outer door to my bedchamber, triggered the hidden release in the wall, and walked across the pitch-dark room to press on a different section of wall. It gave way noiselessly to my push. Tentative fingers of daylight overhead betrayed the slits that admitted light to the secret passages of the keep. I closed the door firmly behind myself and began the steep climb to Chade’s tower.

  Chapter II

  CHADE’S SERVANT

  Hoquin the White had a rabbit of which he was extremely fond. It lived in his garden, came at his beck, and would rest motionless on his lap for hours. Hoquin’s Catalyst was a very young woman, little more than a child. Her name was Redda but Hoquin called her “Wild-eye,” for she had one eye that always peered off to one side. She did not like the rabbit, for whenever she seated herself near Hoquin, the creature would try to drive her away by nipping her sharply. One day the rabbit died, and upon finding it dead in the garden, Redda gutted and skinned the creature and cut it up for the pot. It was only after Hoquin the White had eaten of it that he missed his pet. Redda delightedly told him he had dined upon it. Rebuked, the unchastened Catalyst replied, “But master, you yourself foresaw this. Did not you write in your seventh scroll, ‘The Prophet hungered for the warmth of his flesh even as he knew it would mean his end’?”

  — SCRIBE CATEREN, OF THE WHITE PROPHET HOQUIN

  I was about halfway to Chade’s tower when I suddenly realized what I was really doing. I was fleeing, heading for a bolt-hole, and secretly hoping that my old mentor would be there, to tell me exactly what I should do as he had in the days when I was his apprentice assassin.

  My steps slowed. What is appropriate in a lad of seventeen ill becomes a man of thirty-five. It was time I began to find my own way in the world of court intrigues. Or time that I left it completely.

  I was passing one of the small niches in the corridor that indicated a peephole. There was a small bench in it. I set my bundle of possessions on it and sat down to gather my thoughts. What, rationally, was my best course of action?

  Kill them all.

  It would have been a fine plan if I had known who they were. The second course of action was more complicated. I had to protect not just myself but also the Prince from the Piebalds. I set aside my concerns for my own safety to ponder the danger to the Prince. Their bludgeon was that at any time they could betray either of us as Witted. The dukes of the Six Duchies would not tolerate such taint in their monarch. It would destroy not just Kettricken’s hope of a peaceful alliance with the Out Islands, but very likely lead to a toppling of the Farseer throne. But such an extreme action would have no value to the Piebalds that I could see. Once Dutiful was flung down, their knowledge was no longer useful. Worse, they would have brought down a queen who was urging her people to have tolerance for the Witted. No. The threat to expose Dutiful was only useful so long as he remained in line for the throne. They would not seek to kill him, only to bend him t
o their will.

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  And what could that entail? What would they ask? Would they demand that the Queen strictly enforce the laws that prohibited Witted ones from being put to death simply for carrying the bloodlines for that magic? Would they want more? They’d be fools if they did not try to secure some power for themselves. If there were dukes or nobles who also were Old Blood, perhaps the Piebalds would endeavor to bring them into royal favor. I wondered if the Bresingas had come to court for the betrothal ceremony. That would be worth investigating. The mother and son were definitely Old Blood, and had cooperated with the Piebalds in luring the Prince away. Would they take a more active role now? And how would the Piebalds persuade Kettricken that their threats were in earnest? Who or what could they destroy to demonstrate their power?

  Simple answer. Tom Badgerlock. I was but a playing piece on the board as far as they were concerned, a minor servant, but an unpleasant fellow who had already upset their plans and maimed one of their leaders. They’d showed themselves to me last night, confident that I would pass the “message” to those actually in power in Buckkeep. And then, to prove to the Farseers that they were vulnerable, the Piebalds would pull me down as hounds pull down a stag. I would be the object lesson to Kettricken and Dutiful.

  I lowered my face into my hands. My best course of action was to flee. Yet having returned to Buckkeep, even so briefly, I hated to leave again. This cold castle of stone had been home once, and despite the illegitimacy of my birth, the Farseers were my family.

  A whisper of sound caught my ear. I sat up straight, and then realized that it was a young girl’s voice, penetrating the thick stone wall to reach me in my hidden spy-place. With a weary curiosity, I leaned forward to the peephole and peered through it. A bedchamber, lavishly furnished, greeted my gaze. A dark-haired girl stood with her back to me. Next to the hearth, a grizzled old warrior lounged in a chair. Some of the scarring on his face was deliberate, fine lacerations rubbed with ash, considered decorative by the Outislanders, but some of it was the track of an earnest blade. Gray streaked his hair and peppered his short beard. He was cleaning and cutting his nails with his belt knife while the girl practiced a dance step before him.

 
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