Golden fool, p.32
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       Golden Fool, p.32

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Scribe Wertin wrote that “a fleet of seasoned battleships were defeated and driven away by slaves and fishermen. ” This is not the case. Slaves and fishermen were, indeed, responsible for much treachery against our ships, done in secret and under cover of darkness rather than in true battle. But as our captains had not been given warning that the Bingtown Traders might have such organized forces at their disposal, why would we be expected to be on guard against them? I think the fault here lies not with our captains, but with those Bingtown emissaries, scribes and accountants, not warriors, who neglected to keep us well informed. Hanging is too kind for them. Many brave warriors died unworthy deaths due to their laxity in reporting.

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  Scribe Wertin also suggests that perhaps treasure was loaded from the warehouses before they were destroyed, and that individual captains kept it for themselves following our defeat. This is most emphatically not true.

  The warehouses, stuffed with the spoils our assiduous treasure collecting had gathered for you, were burned to the ground with all their contents by Bingtown fanatics. Why is this so hard for scribes to believe? There were also reports of Bingtown folk who killed their kinfolk and themselves rather than face our raiders. In consideration of our reputations, I think this can be taken as fact.

  But Scribe Wertin’s gravest and most unjust error is his denial of the existence of the dragon. May I ask, most courteously and humbly, on what he bases this report? Every captain who returned to our shores reported sightings of a blue and silver dragon. Every captain. Why are their words dismissed as cowardly excuses, while the tales of a soft eunuch are heralded as truth? There was, indeed, a dragon. We took disastrous damage from it. Your scribe fatuously states that there is no proof of this, that the reports of the dragons are “the excuses of cowards for fleeing a certain victory, and perhaps a subterfuge for keeping treasure and tribute from Duke Sidder. ” What proof, I ask, could be sought that is more telling than those hundreds of men who never returned home?


  It was hours later that I wearily climbed the stairs back to Lord Golden’s room. I had had a long audience with the Queen and Chade. Chade had declined to summon Prince Dutiful to attend it. “He knows that we know one another, you and I, from of old. But I don’t think we would be wise to strengthen that connection in his mind. Not just yet. ”

  On reflection, I decided that perhaps I agreed with him. Chade was technically my great-uncle, though I had never related to him that way. Always he had been my mentor. Old as he was and scarred as I was, we still shared some family resemblance. Dutiful had already voiced his suspicions that I was related to him in some way. Best that he did not see us together, and gain strength for any of his theories.

  My session with Chade and the Queen had been long. Chade had never before had the opportunity to have both of us in the same room while he questioned us about the true nature of the Six Duchies dragons. He sipped one of his foul tisanes and took copious notes until his bony hand wearied. After that, he passed the pen to me, and commanded me to write as we spoke. As ever, his questions were concise and thoughtful. What was new in his demeanor was his obvious enthusiasm and fervor. For him, the wonder of the stone dragons, brought to life with blood, Skill, and Wit, were a manifestation of the extended powers of the Skill. I saw hunger in his eyes, as he speculated that perhaps men seeking to avoid death’s cold jaws had first worked this magic.

  Kettricken frowned at that. I surmised that she preferred to believe that the stone dragons had been created by Skill coteries in the hopes of serving the Six Duchies someday. She probably believed that the older dragons had likewise been carved for some loftier goal. When I countered this with the concept that a Skill addiction led one to the creation, they both scowled at me.

  I had been scowled at a great deal. My relaying of the information about the Bingtown dragons was treated first with skepticism, and then annoyance that I had not spoken sooner. Why I shielded the Fool from their disapproval, I could not have said. I did not lie directly; Chade had trained me too well for that. Instead, I let them think that he had told me his tales of Bingtown dragons when first he came to visit me. I took upon myself the responsibility that I had not passed the knowledge on to them. I shrugged, and said carelessly that I had not thought such tales could affect us here in Buckkeep. I did not have to add that it seemed a wild story to me then. Both of them were still teetering on whether they accepted it.

  “It puts our own dragons into a new light,” Kettricken mused softly.

  “And makes the veiled man’s remarks a bit less offensive,” I ventured to add.

  “Perhaps. Though I still feel affront that he dared to doubt our dragons were real. ”

  Chade cleared his throat. “We must let that pass, for now, my dear. Last year I came into possession of some papers that spoke of a dragon defending Bingtown from the Chalcedean fleet. It seemed but a wild battle tale to me, such as men often use to excuse defeat. I surmised that the rumors of our real dragons had led the Chalcedeans to pretend themselves defeated by a Bingtown dragon rather than simple strategy. Perhaps I should have heeded it; I will see what other information I can purchase. But for now, let us consider our own resources. ” He cleared his throat and stared at me as if he suspected me of withholding vital information. “The buried cities the Fool told you about. . . could they be related to the abandoned city that you visited?” Chade pushed the question in as if it were more important than the Queen’s comment about affront.

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  I shrugged. “I have no way of knowing. The city I visited was not buried. Some great cataclysm had riven it, true. It was like a cake chopped with an axe. And the water of the river had flowed in, to fill the chasm. ”

  “What cracks the earth in one city could have precipitated a sinking of the ground in another,” Chade speculated aloud.

  “Or wakened a mountain to wrath,” Kettricken put in. “We have many such tales in the Mountain Kingdom. The earth quakes, and one of the fire mountains awakes, to pour forth lava and ash, sometimes darkening the sky and filling the air with choking smoke. Sometimes it is but a slurry of water and muck and stones that cascades down, filling valleys to the brim and spreading out across plains. There are also tales, not that old, of a town in a valley near a deep lake. The day before the earthquake, all was well there. It bustled with life. Travelers arriving there two days after the quake found folk dead in the street, yes, and their beasts beside them. None of the bodies bore any marks. It was as if they had simply dropped where they stood. ”

  A silence had followed her words. Then Chade had made me recite yet again all the Fool had told me of the Bingtown dragons. He had asked me a number of questions about the Six Duchies dragons, most of which I did not know the answers to. Could there be serpent-born dragons among the dragons I woke? If Bingtown’s serpent-born dragons rose against the Six Duchies, did I think our own dragons could be persuaded to rise and protect us again? Or would they side with their scaly kin? And speaking of scales, what of the lizardish boy? Did the Fool know aught of people of that kind?

  When finally they dismissed me so that they might deliberate together, I felt sure that several meals must have passed me by. I left Kettricken’s private chambers by secret ways, emerged from my own room to find Lord Golden absent from his chambers, and went down to scavenge the kitchens for whatever I could find. The bustle and clatter was intense, and I found myself firmly refused entrance. I retreated, and then made a foray into the guardsmen’s hall, where I secured bread, meat, cheese, and ale, which were all I really needed to content my soul anyway.

  As I climbed the stairs, I was wondering if I could steal a moment or two of sleep while Lord Golden and the rest of the Buckkeep nobility were at dinner with the Bingtown contingent. I knew I should dress and descend, to stand at his shoul
der and watch how the evening proceeded, but I felt I had already taken in as much information as my mind could hold. I had passed on the information to Kettricken and Chade; let them deal with it. My dilemma with Hap still impaled my heart. I could think of no course of action that would better it.

  Sleep, I firmly told myself. Sleep would shield me for a time from all of it, and upon waking perhaps some aspect of it would have come clear.

  I tapped at Lord Golden’s chamber door and entered. As I did so, a young woman stood up from one of the hearthside chairs. I glanced about the room, assuming that Lord Golden must have admitted her, but saw no sign of him. Perhaps he was in one of his other chambers, though it seemed unlike him to leave a guest unattended. Nor did I see food or wine set out, as he certainly would have done.

  She was a striking woman. It was not just her extravagant garb; it was the sheer scale of her. She was at least my height, with long blond hair and light brown eyes, and a warrior’s muscling in her arms and shoulders. Her clothing was chosen to emphasize that last feature. Her black boots came to her knees, and she wore leggings rather than skirts. Her shirt was of ivory linen, and her fancifully decorated vest of soft doeskin. The sleeves of the shirt were pleated, and there was lace at the cuff, but not enough to get in her way. The cut of the garments was simple, but the extravagance of the fabrics was only exceeded by the embroidery that graced them. She wore several earrings in each ear, some of wood and some of gold. In the spiraling wooden ones, I recognized the Fool’s handiwork. There was gold at her throat and on her wrists as well, but it was simple gold, and I would wager she wore it more for her own pleasure than for show. She bore a plain sword on one hip, and a practical knife on the other.

  In the first moment of mutual surprise, her gaze met mine. Then her stare wandered over me in a way that was overly familiar. When her eyes came back to mine, she grinned disarmingly. Her teeth were very white.

  “You must be Lord Golden. ” She extended a hand to me as she strode toward me. Despite her foreign dress, her accent was Shoaks Duchy. “I’m Jek. Perhaps Amber has spoken of me. ”

  I took her hand by reflex. “I’m sorry, my lady, but you are mistaken. I am Lord Golden’s serving man, Tom Badgerlock. ” Her grip was firm, her hand callused and strong. “I am sorry I was not here to admit you when you first arrived. I had not realized Lord Golden was expecting a visitor. May I bring you anything?”

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  She gave a shrug and released my hand as she walked back to the chair. “Lord Golden isn’t exactly expecting me. I came looking for him and a servant directed me here. I knocked, no answer, so I came in to wait. ” She seated herself, crossed her legs at the knee, and then asked with a knowing grin, “So. How is Amber?”

  Something was not right here. I glanced at the other closed doors. “I know no one named Amber. How did you get in?” I stood between her and the door. She looked formidable, but her clothing and hair were unruffled. If she had done any damage to the Fool, she’d likely show some signs of a struggle. Nor was anything in the room awry.

  “I opened the door and walked in. It wasn’t locked. ”

  “That door is always locked. ” I tried to make my contradiction pleasant, but I was becoming more and more worried.

  “Well, it wasn’t today, Tom, and I have important business with Lord Golden. As I am well known to him, I doubt he would mind me entering his rooms. I’ve conducted a lot of business on his behalf in the last year or so, with Amber as the go-between. ” She tilted her head and rolled her eyes at me. “And I don’t believe for a minute that you don’t know Amber. ” She cocked her head the other way and stared at me discriminatingly. Then she grinned. “You know, I like you better with brown eyes. Much more becoming than the blue ones Paragon has. ” As I stared at her in consternation, her grin grew wider. It was like being stalked by a large, overly friendly cat. I sensed no animosity from her. Rather it was as if she suppressed mirth and deliberately strove to make me uncomfortable, but in a friendly, teasing way. I could make no sense of her. I tried to decide if it would be better to eject her from the room or detain her here until Lord Golden returned. More and more, I longed to open the door to his bedchamber and privy, to be sure that no treachery had befallen him in my absence.

  With sudden relief, I heard his key in the lock. I strode to the door, and opened it for him, proclaiming before he stepped in, “Lord Golden, a visitor awaits you. A Lady Jek. She says this is a—”

  Before I could get any further in my warning speech, he pushed past me in a most uncharacteristic rush. He shut the door behind him as if Lady Jek were a puppy that might race out into the corridor, and he latched it before he turned toward her. His face was as pale as I’d seen it in years as he confronted his unexpected guest.

  “Lord Golden?” Jek exclaimed. For a long moment she stared. Then she burst into hearty laughter, pounding a doubled fist against her thigh. “But, of course. Lord Golden! How could I not have guessed? I should have seen through it from the start!” She advanced on him, completely confident of a warm welcome, to hug him heartily and then step back. As she gripped him by the shoulders, her delighted gaze wandered over his face and hair. To me, he looked dazed, but her grin didn’t fade. “It’s marvelous. If I didn’t know, I never would have guessed. But I don’t understand. Why is this ruse necessary? Doesn’t it make it difficult for the two of you to be together?” She glanced from him to me, and it was apparent the question was addressed to both of us. Her implication was obvious, although I could not fathom her reference to a “ruse. ” I felt the rush of heat and color to my face. I waited for Lord Golden to make some clarifying remark to her but he held his silence. The look I wore must have shocked her, for she turned her gaze back to Lord Golden. She spoke uncertainly. “Amber, my friend. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

  Lord Golden’s face seemed immobilized. His jaws moved and then he finally spoke. His voice was low and calm but still seemed somewhat breathless. “Tom Badgerlock, I have no further need of your services today. You are dismissed. ”

  Never had it been harder for me to remain in my role, but I sensed desperation in Lord Golden’s retreat to formality. I clenched my teeth and bowed stiffly, containing my seething affront at Jek’s obvious assumption about us. My own voice was icy as I answered him.

  “As you will, my lord. I will take the opportunity to rest. ” I turned and retreated to my own chamber. As I passed the table, I took a candle. I opened my door, went into my room, and shut the door behind me. Almost.

  I am not proud of what I did next. Shall I blame it on Chade’s early training of me? I could, but that would not be honest. I burned with indignation. Jek obviously believed Lord Golden and I were lovers. He had not bothered to correct her misconception; her words and manner told me that he was the source of it. To some end of his own, he allowed her to continue in that belief.

  It was the way Jek had looked at me, as if she knew far more about me than I knew of her. Obviously, she knew Lord Golden, but from another place and by another name. I was sure I had never seen her before. So, whatever she knew of me, she knew from the Fool. I justified my spying on the grounds that I had the right to know what he had said about me to strangers. Especially when it made a stranger look from him to me and smile in a way so knowing and so offensive. What things had he said about me to her, to make her assume such a thing? Why? Why would he? Outrage struggled to blossom in me, but I suppressed it. There would be a reason, some driving purpose behind such talk. There had to be. I would trust my friend, but I had a right to know what it was. I set the candle on my table, sat down on my bed, and gripped my hands in my lap. I forced myself to discard all emotion. And no matter how distasteful my situation, I would be rational in my judgment. I listened. Their conversation came faintly to my straining ears.

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  “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you let me know you were coming?” There was m
ore than surprise or annoyance in the Fool’s voice. It was almost despair.

  “How could I let you know?” Jek demanded cheerfully. “The Chalcedeans keep sinking all the ships that head this way. From the few letters I’ve received from you, it’s obvious that half my own have gone awry. ” Then, “So, admit it. You are Lord Golden? I’ve been conducting your affairs all this time?”

  “Yes. ” He sounded exasperated. “And it is the only name that I am known by in Buckkeep. So I would thank you to bear that in mind at all times. ”

  “But you told me that you went to visit your old friend, Lord Golden, and that all my correspondence to you must be sent through him. And what of all the transactions I’ve made in Bingtown and Jamaillia? All the inquiries I’ve made and the information I’ve sent you? Were all of those actually for you, as well?”

  He spoke tightly. “If you must know, yes. ” And then, pleading, “Jek, you look at me as if I’ve betrayed you. I haven’t. You are my friend, and I was not pleased to deceive you. But it was necessary. This ruse, as you put it, all of this, is necessary. And I cannot explain why to you, nor can I tell you the whole of it. I can only repeat to you, it is necessary. You hold my life in your hands. Tell this tale in a tavern some night, and you might as well have slit my throat now. ”

  I heard the sound of Jek’s body dropping into a chair. When she spoke, there was a trace of hurt in her voice. “You deceived me. And now you insult me. After all we’ve been through, do you really doubt my ability to hold my tongue?”

  “I did not set out to do either,” said someone. And the hair on the back of my neck rose, for the voice was neither Lord Golden’s nor the Fool’s. This voice was lighter and devoid of any Jamaillian accent. Amber’s voice, I surmised. Yet another façade for the person I thought I knew. “It is just. . . you have taken me by surprise, and frightened me badly. I entered this room and there you were, grinning as if it were a fine joke, when actually you. . . Ah, Jek, I cannot explain it. I simply must trust to our friendship, and to all we have been through together, all we have been to one another. You have stumbled into my play, and now I fear you must take up a role in it. For the duration of your visit, you must speak to me as if I am truly Lord Golden, and as if you are my agent in Bingtown and Jamaillia. ”

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