Golden fool, p.31
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       Golden Fool, p.31

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  He waited for me.

  “If I had not, if I had not got her with child, she would not have left Buckkeep to hide her pregnancy. Even when I made my other stupid mistake, she would have been able to take care of herself. Burrich would not have felt that he had to go to her, to watch over her until her child was born. They would not have fallen in love; they would not have married. When . . . After the dragons, I could have come back to her. I could have something, now. ”

  I wasn’t weeping. This was pain past weeping. The only thing new about this was admitting it aloud, to myself. “I brought it all down on myself. It was all my own doing. ”

  He leaned across the table to set his long cool hand atop mine. “It’s a foolish game, Fitz,” he said softly. “And you attribute too much power to yourself, and too little to the sweep of events. And to Molly. If you could go back and erase those decisions, who knows what others would take their places? Give it over, Fitz. Let it go. What Hap does now is not a punishment for what you did in the past. You didn’t cause him to make this choice. But that doesn’t free you from your duties as a father, to try to turn him aside from that path. Do you think because you made that same decision it disqualifies you from telling him it was a mistake?” He took a breath, then asked, “Have you ever considered telling him about Molly and Nettle?”

  “I . . . no. I can’t. ”

  “Oh, Fitz. Secrets and things held back . . . ” His voice trailed away sorrowfully.

  “Such as Bingtown’s dragons,” I said levelly.

  He lifted his hand from mine. “What?”

  “We were drinking that night, and you told me a story. About serpents that went into butterfly cocoons and came out as dragons. But for some reason they came out small and sickly. You thought somehow it was your fault. ”

  He leaned back in his chair. He looked more sallow than golden. “We had been drinking. A lot. ”

  “Yes. We had. You were drunk enough to talk. But I was still sober enough to listen. ” I waited, but he just sat quietly looking at me. “Well?” I demanded at last.

  “What do you want to know?” he asked in a low voice.

  “Tell me about Bingtown’s dragons. Are they real?”

  I sat and watched him reach some decision. Then he sat up and poured more brandy for us both. He drank. “Yes. As real as the Six Duchies dragons were, but in a different way. ”

  “How?”

  He took a breath. “Long, long ago, we argued this. Remember? I said that at one time there had to have been dragons of flesh and bone, to inspire Skill coteries to create dragons of stone and memory. ”

  “That was years ago. I barely recall the conversation. ”

  “You don’t need to. All you need to know is that I was right. ” A smile flickered across his face. “Once, Fitz, there were real dragons. The dragons that inspired the Elderlings. ”

  “The dragons were the Elderlings,” I contradicted him.

  He smiled. “You are right, Fitz, but not in the way you think you mean those words. I think. It is a shattered mirror I am still reassembling. The dragons you and I awoke, the Six Duchies dragons . . . they were created things. Carved by coteries or Elderlings, the memory-stone took on the shapes they gave it, and came to life. As dragons. Or as winged boars. Or flying stags. Or as a Girl-on-a-Dragon. ”

  He was putting it together almost too swiftly for me to follow. I nodded nonetheless. “Go on. ”

  “Why did Elderlings make those stone dragons and store their lives in them? Because they were inspired by real dragons. Dragons that, like butterflies, have two stages to their lives. They hatch from eggs, into sea serpents. They roam the seas, growing to a vast size. And when the time is right, when enough years have passed that they have attained dragon size, they migrate back to the home of their ancestors. The adult dragons would welcome them and escort them up the rivers. There, they spin their cocoons of sand—sand that is ground memory-stone—and their own saliva. In times past, adult dragons helped them spin those cases. And with the saliva of the adult dragons went their memories, to aid in the formation of the young dragons. For a full winter, they slumber and change, as the grown dragons watch over them to protect them from predators. In the hot sunlight of summer, they hatch, absorbing much of their cocoon casing as they do so. Absorbing too the memories stored in it. Young dragons emerge, full-formed and strong, ready to fend for themselves, to eat and hunt and fight for mates. And eventually to lay eggs on a distant island. The island of the Others. Eggs that hatch into serpents. ”

  Page 115

 

  As he spoke, I could almost see it. Perhaps my dreams had primed me to it. How often in my sleep had I imagined what it would be to be a dragon as Verity had become, to fly the skies, to hunt and to feed? Something in his words reached those dreams, and they suddenly seemed true memories of my own rather than the imaginings of sleep. He had fallen silent.

  “Tell the rest,” I prodded him.

  He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Something killed them. Long ago. I don’t know exactly what. Some great cataclysm of the earth, that buried whole cities in a matter of days. It sank the coast, drowning harbor towns, and changed the courses of rivers. It wiped out the dragons, and I think it killed the Elderlings as well. All of that is a surmise, Fitz. Not just from what I have seen and heard, but from what you have told me and from what I have read in your journals. That empty, riven city you visited, your own vision there of a dragon landing in the river, and of a strangely formed folk who greeted it. Once, those people and dragons lived alongside one another. When the disaster came that ended them both, the folk tried to save some of the cocooned dragons. They dragged them into their buildings. The dragon cocoons and the people were buried alive together. The people perished. But inside the cocoons, untouched by the light and warmth that would signal a time of awakening, the half-formed dragons lingered on. ”

  Rapt as a child, I listened to his wild tale.

  “Eventually, another folk found them. The Rain Wild Traders, an offshoot of the Bingtown Traders, dug into the ancient buried cities, seeking treasure. Much did they find there. Much of what you saw today, offered as gifts to Kettricken, the flame gems, the jidzin, even the fabric, is the trove of those Elderling dwellings. They also found the cocooned dragons. They had no idea that was what they were, of course. They thought . . . who knows what they thought at first? Perhaps they seemed like massive sections of tree trunks. So they refer to it: wizardwood. They cut them up and used the cases as lumber, discarding the half-formed dragons within. That is the material they made their Liveships from, and those strange vessels have the roots of their vitality in the dragons they would have been. Most of the half-formed dragons were dead, I suspect, long before their cocoons were cut up. But one, at least, was not. And a chain of events that I am not fully privy to exposed that dragon cocoon to sunlight. It hatched. Tintaglia emerged. ”

  “Weak and badly formed. ” I was trying to connect this tale with what he had told me previously.

  “No. Hale and hearty, and as arrogant a creature as you would ever wish to encounter. She went searching for others of her own kind. Eventually she gave up looking for dragons. Instead, she found serpents. They were old and immense, for—and again, I speculate, Fitz—for whatever cataclysm had destroyed the adult dragons had changed the world enough to prevent the serpents from returning to their cocooning grounds. Decade after decade, perhaps century after century, they had made periodic attempts to return, only to have many of their number perish. But this time, with Tintaglia to guide them, and the folk of Bingtown to dredge the rivers so they could pass, some of the serpents survived their migration. In the midst of winter, they made their cases. They were old and weakened and sickly, and had but one dragon to shepherd them and help them spin their cases. Many perished on their journey up the river; others sank into dormancy in their cases, never to revive. When summer came, those that hatched in the strength of the sunlight
emerged as weaklings. Perhaps the serpents were too old, perhaps they did not spend enough time in their cocoons, perhaps they were not in good enough condition when they began their time of change. They are pitiable creatures. They cannot fly, nor hunt for themselves. They drive Tintaglia to distraction, for the dragon way is to despise weakness, to let perish those not strong enough to survive. But if she lets them die, then she will be completely alone, forever, the last of her kind, with no hopes of rekindling her race. So Tintaglia spends all her time and energy in hunting for them and bringing kills back to them. She believes that if she can feed them sufficiently, they might yet mature to full dragons. She wishes, nay, she demands, that the Rain Wild Traders aid her in this. But they have young of their own to feed, and a war that hinders them in their trading. So, they all struggle. So it was when last I was on the Rain Wild River, two years ago. So I suspect it remains. ”

  I sat for a time not speaking, trying to fit his exotic tale into my mind. I could not doubt him; he had told me far too many other strange things in our years together. And yet, believing him made so many of my own experiences suddenly take on new shapes and significance. I tried to focus on what his tale meant to Bingtown and the Six Duchies now.

  Page 116

 

  “Do Chade and Kettricken know any of what you’ve told me?”

  Slowly he shook his head. “At least, not from me. Perhaps Chade has other sources. But I’ve never spoken of this to him. ”

  “Eda and El, why not? They treat with the Bingtowners blindly, Fool. ” A worse thought struck me. “Did you tell any of them about our dragons? Do the Bingtown Traders know the true nature of the Six Duchies dragons?”

  Again he shook his head.

  “Thank Eda for that. But why haven’t you spoken of these things to Chade? Why have you concealed them from everyone?”

  He sat looking at me silently for so long that I thought he would not answer. When he did speak, it was reluctantly. “I am the White Prophet. My purpose in this life is to set the world into a better path. Yet . . . I am not the Catalyst, not the one who makes changes. That is you, Fitz. Telling what I know to Chade would most definitely change the direction of his treating with the Bingtowners. I cannot tell if that change would aid me or hinder me in what I must do. I am, right now, more uncertain of my path than I have ever been. ”

  He stopped speaking and waited, as if he hoped I would say something helpful. I knew nothing to say. Silence stretched between us. The Fool folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them. “I think that I may have made a mistake. In Bingtown. And I fear that in my years in Bingtown and . . . other places, that I did not fulfill my destiny correctly. I fear I went awry, and then hence all I do now will be warped. ” He suddenly sighed. “Fitz, I feel my way forward through time. Not a step at a time, but from moment to moment. What feels truest? Up until now, it has not felt right to speak of these things to Chade. So I have not. Today, now, it felt like it was time you knew these things. So I have told them to you. To you, I have passed on the decision. To tell or not to tell, Changer. That is up to you. ”

  It felt odd to have Nighteyes’ name for me spoken aloud by a human voice. It prodded me uncomfortably. “Is this how you always have made these crucial decisions? By how you ‘feel’?” My tone was sharper than I intended, but he did not flinch.

  Instead he regarded me levelly and asked, “And how else would I do it?”

  “By your knowing. By omens and signs, portentous dreams, by your own prophecies . . . I don’t know. But something more than simply by how you feel. El’s balls, man, it could be no more than a bad serving of fish that you’re ‘feeling. ’ ”

  I lowered my face into my hands and pondered. He had passed the decision on to me. What would I do? It suddenly seemed a more difficult decision than when I had been rebuking the Fool for not telling. How would knowing these things affect Chade’s attitude toward Bingtown and a possible alliance? Real dragons. Was a share of a real dragon worth a war? What would it mean not to ally, if the Bingtowners prevailed, and then had a phalanx of dragons at their command? Tell Kettricken? Then there were the same questions, but very different answers were likely. A sigh blasted out of me. “Why did you give this decision to me?”

  I felt his hand on my shoulder and looked up to find his odd half-smile. “Because you have handled it well before, when I’ve previously done it to you. Ever since I went hunting for a boy out in the gardens and told him, ‘Fitz fixes a feist’s fits. Fat suffices. ’ ”

  I goggled at him. “But you’d told me you’d had a dream, and so come to tell me it. ”

  He smiled enigmatically. “I did have a dream. And I wrote it down. When I was eight years old. And when the time felt right, I told it to you. And you knew what to do with it, to be my Catalyst, even then. As I trust you will now. ” He sat back in his chair.

  “I had no idea of what I was doing, then. No concept of how far the consequences would reach. ”

  “And now that you do?”

  “I wish I didn’t. It makes it harder to decide. ”

  He leaned back in his chair with a supercilious smile. “See. ” Then he leaned forward suddenly. “How did you decide how to act back then, in the garden? On what you would do?”

  I shook my head slowly. “I didn’t decide. There was a course of action and I took it. If anything decided me, it was based on what I thought would be best for the Six Duchies. I never thought beyond that. ”

  I turned my head an instant before the wine rack moved, revealing the passage behind it. Chade entered. He looked out of breath and harassed. His eyes fell on the brandy. Without a word, he walked to the table, lifted my glass and drained it. Then he took a breath and spoke. “I thought I might find you two hiding out here. ”

  Page 117

 

  “Scarcely hiding,” I objected. “We were having a quiet discussion where we were sure things would remain private. ” I got up from my chair and he sank into it gratefully. Evidently he had hastened up the secret steps into the tower.

  “Would that Kettricken and I had kept our audience with the Bingtown Traders similarly private. Folk are already talking and the kettle already simmering. ”

  “About whether or not to ally with them and join their war with Chalced. Let me guess. Shoaks is willing to launch the warships tomorrow. ”

  “Shoaks I could deal with,” Chade replied irritably. “No. It’s more awkward than that. Scarcely had Kettricken returned to her chambers, scarcely had we begun to sort out between us what Bingtown is really asking and offering, than a page knocked at the door. Peottre Blackwater and the Narcheska required an immediate meeting with us. Not requested: required. ” He paused to let us ponder that. “The message was conveyed most urgently. So, what could we do but comply? The Queen feared that the Narcheska had taken some new offense at something Dutiful had done or said. But when they were admitted to her private audience chamber, Peottre informed us that he and the Narcheska were most distressed that the Six Duchies was receiving the ambassadors from the Bingtown Traders. They both seemed extremely agitated. But the most interesting part was when Peottre declared firmly that if the Six Duchies entered into any sort of alliance with ‘those dragon-breeders,’ he would terminate the entire betrothal. ”

  “Peottre Blackwater and the Narcheska came to you about this, not Arkon Bloodblade?” I clarified.

  At almost the same moment, the Fool asked with intense interest, “Dragon-breeders? Blackwater called them ‘dragon-breeders’?”

  Chade glanced from one to the other of us. “Bloodblade wasn’t there,” he replied to me, and to the Fool, “Actually, it was the Narcheska who used that term. ”

  “What did the Queen say?” I asked.

  Chade took in a long breath. “I had hoped she would say that we needed a moment to confer. But evidently Kettricken felt more short-tempered about the previous day’s humiliation of Prince Dutiful than I thought. Somet
imes I forget she is a mother as well as a queen. She rather stiffly, and immediately, told the Narcheska and her uncle that the Six Duchies’ arrangements with the Bingtown Traders will be determined by the Six Duchies’ best interests, not by threats. From anyone. ”

  “And?”

  “And they left the audience chamber. The Narcheska seemed in high dudgeon, walking stiff-backed as a soldier. Blackwater hunched like a man heavily burdened. ”

  “They’re scheduled to return to the Out Islands soon, aren’t they?”

  Chade nodded heavily. “A few days from now. All of this happens just in time to leave everything out of balance. If the Queen does not return an answer to the Bingtowners soon, then when the Narcheska departs, the whole betrothal will be left in uncertainty. All of that work to solidify our relations, gone to waste or worse. Yet I feel there must be no haste in returning an answer to the Bingtown Traders. This whole offer must be considered carefully. This talk of dragons . . . is this a threat? A mockery of our dragons? A wild offer to us, of something that doesn’t even exist, because they need our help so desperately? I need to make sense of that. I need to send spies and buy information. We dare not return an answer until we have our own sources of facts. ”

  The Fool and I exchanged a glance.

  “What?” Chade demanded.

  I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind. “I need to speak with you and the Queen. And perhaps Dutiful should be present as well. ”

  Chapter XII

  JEK

  I am no coward. I have always accepted the will of the God-born. More than a dozen times has my life been put at the feet of Duke Sidder, for the good of glorious Chalced. None of those risks do I regret. But when my most gracious and divinely just Duke Sidder finds fault with us for failing to hold Bingtown Harbor, he is unfortunately basing his judgment on the reports of men who were not there. Hence, our most gracious and divinely just duke cannot be faulted in any way for coming to flawed conclusions. Herewith, I endeavor to correct those reports.

 
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