Golden fool, p.30
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       Golden Fool, p.30

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Several dukes in the back nodded gravely. All knew this was the Trader way. All they knew was bargaining and trade. They expected Chade to haggle, and haggle he would.

  “Most gracious Queen, noble Prince, wise Councilor, and lordly Dukes and Duchesses, we offer you . . . ” Serilla halted, obviously flustered by the directness of Chade’s question. “Our offer is a delicate one, perhaps best reviewed in private contemplation before you seek the agreement of your nobles. Perhaps it would be better . . . ” Serilla did not glance toward the nobles in the back of the room, but her pause was plain.

  “Please, Serilla of Bingtown. Speak plainly. Put your proposal before all of us, so that my nobles and my councilors and I may discuss it freely together. ”

  Serilla’s eyes widened, almost in shock. I wondered what sort of place Jamaillia was, that she was so surprised by my queen’s forthright answer. While she floundered, the man with the parrot on his shoulder suddenly cleared his throat. Serilla shot him a warning look, but the man stepped forward anyway. “Most gracious Queen, if I may presume to address you directly?”

  Kettricken’s response was almost puzzled. “Of course. You are Trader Jorban, I believe?”

  He nodded gravely. “That is correct. Most gracious Queen Kettricken, ruler of all the Six Duchies and heir to the Mountain Throne. ” I felt uncomfortable for the young man as he strung the titles awkwardly together. Obviously such flowery address was new to him, but despite Serilla’s angry glance, he was determined to forge ahead with it. “I believe you are a person, a queen, that is, who can appreciate directness. I have chafed under this delay. But now, hearing today that you have as little love for Chalced as we do, I dare to hope that you will be in favor of our proposition as soon as you hear it. ”

  He cleared his throat, then plunged on. “We come to you seeking to forge an alliance against a common enemy. We have had three years of war with Chalced. It has drained us, and our early hopes for a swift end to the conflict have faded. The Chalcedeans are a stubborn folk. Every defeat we deal them only seems to make them more determined to injure us. They thrive on war; they love raiding and destruction, as we do not. Bingtown needs peace to prosper, peace and free seas. We depend on trade, not just for our livelihoods, but for our most basic needs. Magic and wonders we may possess in Bingtown, and yet we cannot feed our children on that alone. We have no vast fields to grow grain and pasture cattle. Chalced would overrun us, out of simple greed. They would kill us all, to possess what we have, with no understanding of what that possessing requires of us. They will destroy what they seek, in the very act of trying to possess it. What we have cannot be taken from us, and still exist. It is . . . ” The man’s words shuddered to a halt, like a ship run aground on a sandbar.

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  Kettricken waited a time, as if offering him a chance to find his tongue, but the man only spread his hands open, wide and helpless. “I’m a trader and a sailor, ma’am. Most gracious Queen. ” He appended the honorific as if he had suddenly recalled it. “I speak out of our need, and yet I do not explain myself well. ”

  “What do you ask, Trader Jorban?” Queen Kettricken’s question was simple yet gracious.

  Hope gleamed suddenly in the man’s eyes, as if her directness reassured him. “We know that the folk of your Shoaks Duchy hold a hard border with Chalced. You contain them, and your vigilance demands much of their attention. ” He turned suddenly, to sweep a wide bow to the nobles in the back of the chamber. “For this, we thank you. ”

  The Duke acknowledged his thanks with a grave nod. Trader Jorban turned back to the Queen. “But we must ask more than this. We ask your warships and warriors to pressure Chalced from your side. To harry and sink the ships that interfere in our trade with you. We would . . . put an end to the generations of strife Chalced has forced on all of us. ” He drew a sudden breath. “We would subjugate that land completely, and put an end to this ancient strife. If they will not abide as our neighbor, then let them accept our rule instead. ”

  Serilla the Jamaillian suddenly interrupted. “Trader Jorban, you go too far! Fair and Gracious Queen Kettricken, we come but to make suggestions, not to propose a conquest. ”

  Jorban set his jaw and dove in as soon as Serilla fell silent. “I do not make a suggestion. I come to bargain with potential allies. I seek for an end to Chalced’s endless war against us. I will speak plainly what is in many Traders’ hearts. ” His blue eyes glinted as he met Kettricken’s gaze. He spoke honestly, with passion. “Let us subjugate the Chalcedean States completely, dividing their territory between us. All would gain. Bingtown would have arable land, and an end to Chalcedean harassment. The Duke of Shoaks could expand his holdings, and have, not an enemy at his back, but an ally and trading partner. Trade to the south would open wide for the Six Duchies. ”

  “Subjugate Chalced completely?” I could tell from Kettricken’s voice that she had never even considered it, that such a conquering ran counter to all her Mountain ways. But in the back of the room, the Duke of Shoaks was grinning broadly. This was a war he would relish, a meal of vengeance long in the simmering for him. He overstepped himself, perhaps, when he lifted a fist and suggested, “Let us include the Duke of Farrow in this partitioning. And perhaps your lord father, King Eyod of the Mountains, would like a share of this, my queen. He too shares a boundary with Chalced, and from all accounts has never been too fond of them. ”

  “Peace, Shoaks,” she rebuked him, but it was a gentler shushing than I would have expected. Perhaps there was history there I did not know. Just how bitterly did the Mountain Kingdom dispute its own border with Chalced? Did Kettricken bring an older rancor to this conflict than I knew? Yet there was reserve as she replied to the Bingtown delegation. “You offer us a share of your war, as if it were trade goods we should covet. We do not. We have had a war, and even now we seek to make those former enemies our friends. Your war does not tempt us. You offer us Chalced’s lands, if we defeat them. That is a distant and uncertain victory. Holding that territory might be more of a burden than an advantage. A conquered people are seldom content to accept foreign rule. You offer us free trade to the south, if we achieve that victory. Yet Bingtown has ever courted open trade with us; I do not see that as a new gain. Again, I ask you. Why should we even consider this?”

  I watched the Bingtown envoys exchange glances, and smiled small to myself. So. A proposal to divide Chalced’s territory was not the limit of their offer. But whatever it was that they held back, they would not part with it unless forced to it. I felt no sympathy. They should not have provoked Chade’s curiosity as to how deep their purse might be. Trader Jorban made a small gesture with his hand, palm up, as if inviting someone else to succeed where he had failed in his bargaining.

  Then, as if by accord, the Bingtown merchants stepped aside, parting to let the shrouded man stand directly before the Queen. Some unspoken agreement had been reached amongst them.

  I swiftly revised my opinion of the hooded man. He was no servant. Perhaps none of them were, not even the woman with the slave tattoos. As the veiled man stepped suddenly forward, I winced, expecting some sort of attack, but all he did was to throw back his hood. His lace veil, attached to it, was swept away with it. I gasped at what was revealed, but others, Chade amongst them, were less subtle.

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  “Eda, mercy!” I heard the old assassin exclaim, and from the back of the hall there were exclamations of both horror and shock.

  The envoy was young, younger than Dutiful and Hap, though he was as tall. Scales rimmed his eyes and framed his mouth. They were not cosmetic. A fringe of shaggy growths depended from his jaw. He drew himself up very straight. I had thought his hood exaggerated his height. Instead I saw now that the bones of his arms and legs were unnaturally long, yet somehow he still managed to convey grace rather than awkwardness. He looked directly at Kettricken, uncowed by her position, and spoke in a boy’s clear te

  “My name is Selden Vestrit, of the Bingtown Trader Vestrits, fostered by the Khuprus family of the Rain Wild Traders. ” The second part of his introduction made no sense to me. No one lived in the Rain Wilds. The lands adjacent to the river were all swamp and bog and morass. It was one reason that the boundary between Chalced and Bingtown had never been firmly set. The river and its swampy shores defied them both. But what the boy spoke next was even more outrageous. “You have heard Serilla, who speaks for the Councils of Bingtown. There are others here who can speak for the Tattooed, those once-slaves and Bingtown citizens, and for the Bingtown Traders and for our Liveships. I speak for the Rain Wild Traders. But I also speak for Tintaglia, the last true dragon, sworn to aid Bingtown in our time of need. Her words do I bear. ”

  A shiver ran over me at the dragon’s name. I did not know why.

  “She is tired of Chalced’s constant wrangling with her Bingtown folk. It distracts them and hinders them from another, greater work that she has in mind for them. This war Chalced is intent on waging imperils a far greater destiny. ” He spoke as if he were not a man, with a contempt that dismissed petty human concerns. It was both chilling and inspiring. He swept us all with his eyes. I realized then that I had not imagined the faint bluish glow from his gaze. “Aid Bingtown in destroying Chalced and putting this war to an end, and Tintaglia will bestow on you her favor. And not only her favor, but also the favor of her offspring, rapidly growing in size, beauty, and wisdom. Aid us, and one day the Six Duchies’ legends of dragons rising to protect them will be replaced by the reality of a dragon ally. ”

  A stunned silence followed his words. I am sure they all misinterpreted it. Trader Jorban rashly grinned at what must have been the shock on Kettricken’s face, and dared to add, “I do not blame you for doubting us. But Tintaglia is real, as real as I am. But for her need to tend her offspring, she would have made a swift end to Chalced’s harassment of us years ago. Have not you heard rumors of the battle of Trader Bay, and how a Bingtown dragon, silver and blue, swept forth to drive the Chalcedeans from our shore? I was there that day, fighting to free our harbor of Chalcedeans. Those rumors are neither fanciful exaggerations nor wild tales, but simplest truth. Bingtown possesses a rare and marvelous ally, the last true dragon in the world. Aid us in subduing Chalced, and she could be your ally as well. ”

  I do not think he expected his words to be spark to Kettricken’s tinder. I doubt he could understand how deeply her feelings for our Six Duchies dragons went.

  “The last true dragon!” she exclaimed. I heard the rustle of her gown as she shot to her feet. She strode down the steps, to confront the Bingtown upstarts, stopping but one riser above them. My rational, gracious queen’s voice grated with fury. It rose to fill the hall. “How dare you speak so! How dare you dismiss the Elderling dragons as legends! I have seen the skies jeweled with not one, but a horde of dragons that rose to the defense of the Six Duchies. I myself bestrode a dragon, the truest of them all, when he bore me back to Buckkeep Castle. There is not a grown person in this chamber who did not witness their wide wings over our waters, scattering the Red Ships that had harried us so long. Do you insinuate our dragons were false somehow, in heart or deed? The boy may plead the excuse of his youth and inexperience, not just in that he probably was not even born when we fought our war, but that he has had little training in the respect due to such creatures. You can plead only your ignorance of our history. The last true dragon, indeed!”

  I doubt that any insult to our queen’s person would have provoked such an outraged reaction. No one there could know it was her king, Verity, her love, whose honor she upheld. Even some of our own nobles looked startled to see their usually placid queen rebuke an envoy so sharply, but their surprise did not mean they disagreed with her. Heads nodded to her words. Several of her dukes and duchesses came to their feet, and she who represented Bearns set a hand to her sword. The scaled boy glanced around, mouth ajar with dismay as Serilla rolled her eyes at his gaffe. The Bingtown contingent instinctively drew closer to one another.

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  The scaled lad advanced a step closer to the Queen. Chade made a motion to forbid it, but the boy only dropped to one knee. He looked up at her as he spoke. “I beg forgiveness if I have given offense. I speak only of what I know. As you have said, I am young. But it is Tintaglia who has told us, with great sadness, that she is the last true dragon in the world. If it were otherwise, I would rejoice to bring her these tidings. Please. Let me see your dragons, let me speak to them. I will explain to them her need. ”

  Kettricken’s shoulders were still rising and falling with the strength of her passion. She drew a quieter breath at last, and when she spoke, she was herself again. “I bear no resentment against you for speaking of what you knew not. As for speaking to our dragons, it is out of the question. They are Six Duchies dragons, for the Six Duchies alone. Young sir, you presume too much. But you are young, and on that basis I forgive you. ”

  The boy remained as he was, on one knee but not at all subservient as he gazed up doubtfully at our queen.

  It was up to Chade to calm the room. He stepped forward to confront the Bingtown delegation. “It is, perhaps, natural that you appear to doubt our queen’s word, even as we doubt yours. The last true dragon, you say, but then you speak of her offspring. It sets my mind a puzzle; why do you not consider them ‘true dragons’? If your dragon exists, why has not she come with you, to show herself and give impetus to our decision to side with you?” He swept them with his hard green gaze. “My friends, there is something very peculiar about your offer. There is much you are not saying. Doubtless, you believe your reasons for doing so are sound. But keeping your secrets may lose you not only an alliance, but also our respect. Weigh that bargain well. ”

  Even looking at his back, I knew that Chade pulled now at his chin, considering. He glanced over at the Queen. Whatever he saw on her face made up his mind. “Lords and ladies, I suggest we end this audience for the time being. Let our fair and gracious queen discuss your offer with her nobles. Chambers have been prepared for you. Enjoy our hospitality. ” I could hear the faint smile that came into his voice as he added, “Any of the minstrels we have provided will be happy to enlighten you, in song or story, about the dragons of the Six Duchies. Perhaps when next we meet, all our tempers will be evened with song and rest. ”

  Dismissed so firmly, the Bingtown envoys could do little but withdraw. The Queen and Prince Dutiful departed next. Chade lingered amongst the nobles; he seemed to be arranging a time for all to sit down and discuss the Bingtown proposal. The Duke of Shoaks was striding about, visibly excited, while the Duchess of Bearns stood, tall and silent, her arms crossed before her breast as if denying any interest at all. I leaned back from the peephole, letting the flap of leather fall. “Let us go,” I whispered to the Fool, and he nodded in silent agreement.

  I took up our candle again, and we negotiated the narrow warren of rat runs that threaded Buckkeep’s walls. I did not take him directly back to my chamber, but instead stopped at Chade’s old tower room. Immediately inside the room, the Fool halted. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then took a deep breath. “It has not changed much since the last time I was here,” he said in a choked voice.

  I used my candle to kindle the waiting ones on the table. I added another piece of wood to the coals on the hearth. “I imagine Chade brought you here the night King Shrewd was murdered. ”

  He nodded slowly. “I had encountered Chade before, and conversed with him, over the years. The first time I met him was shortly after I came to King Shrewd. Chade would come by night, to speak with the King. Sometimes they played dice together; did you know that? Mostly they sat by the fire and drank fine brandy and talked of whatever danger was currently confronting the kingdom. That was how I first heard of your existence. In a fireside conversation between those two. My heart pounded until I thought I would faint as I understood what
their words meant to me. They scarcely noticed me listening. They thought me but a child, perhaps lacking in true wit, and I had taken care initially to appear to have little mastery of your language. ” He shook his head to himself. “Such a strange time in my life. So significant and portentous, and yet, sheltered as I was by King Shrewd, it was the closest I ever came to having a true childhood. ”

  I found two cups and Chade’s current bottle of brandy. I set them out at the table and poured for us. The Fool lifted an eye to that. “This early in the day?”

  I shrugged. “It seems later to me than it is, perhaps. My day started early. With Hap. ” I sat down heavily as that particular worry weighed my heart again. “Fool. Do you ever long to go back in your life and do something differently?”

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  He took his seat but did not touch the glass. “All men do. It’s a foolish game we play. What troubles you, Fitz?”

  And I told him, pouring out my heart as if I were a child, giving him all my fears and disappointments to sort, as if somehow he could make sense of them for me. “I look back, Fool, and sometimes it seems that the times when I was most certain I was doing the right thing was when I made my gravest errors. Hunting down Justin and Serene and killing them before the assembled dukes after they had assassinated my king. Look what that did to us, the cascade of events that followed. ”

  He nodded to that, but “And?” he prompted me as I poured more brandy for myself.

  I drank it off and then decided I would speak of it. “And bedding with Molly,” I said. I sighed, but felt no easing with it. “It seemed so right. So sweet and true and precious. The only thing in my world that belonged completely to me. But if I had not . . . ”

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