Golden fool, p.33
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       Golden Fool, p.33

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “That’s easy enough for me to do, for such I have been. And you speak truly when you say we are friends. It hurts me still that you thought any of this deception was needed between us. Still, I suppose I can forgive it. But I wish I understood it. When your man, this. . . Tom Badgerlock, when he came in and I recognized his face, I was filled with joy for you. I watched you carve that figurehead. Don’t deny to me what you feel for him. ‘They are reunited at last,’ I thought to myself. But then you bark at him and send him off as if he were a servant. . . Lord Golden’s serving man, in fact, is what he told me he was. Why the masquerade, when it must be so difficult for both of you?”

  A long silence followed. I heard no sound of footsteps, but I recognized the chink of a bottle’s neck against a glass’ lip. I guessed that he poured wine for both of them as Jek and I awaited his answer.

  “It is difficult for me,” the Fool replied in Amber’s voice. “It is not so difficult for him, because he knows little of it. There. Fool that I am and have been, truly, to have ever let that secret have breath to anyone, let alone shape. Such a monstrous vanity on my part. ”

  “Monstrous? Immense! You carved a ship’s figurehead in his likeness, and hoped no one would ever guess what he meant to you? Ah, my friend. You manage everyone’s lives and secrets so well and then when it comes to your own. . . Well. And he doesn’t even know that you love him?”

  “I think he chooses not to. Perhaps he suspects. . . well, after chatting with you, I am certain that he suspects now. But he leaves it alone. He is like that. ”

  “Then he’s a damned fool. A handsome damned fool, though. Despite the broken nose. I’ll wager he was even prettier before that happened. Who spoiled his face?”

  A small sound, a little cough of laughter. “My dear Jek, you’ve seen him. No one could spoil his face. Not for me. ” A pretty little sigh. “But come. I’d rather not talk of it, if you don’t mind. Tell me of other things. How is Paragon?”

  “Paragon. The ship or the pirate princeling?”

  “Both. Please. ”

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  “Well, of the heir to the Pirate Islands throne, I know little more than what is common gossip. He’s a lively, lusty boy, the image of King Kennit, and his mother’s delight. The whole Raven fleet’s delight and darling, actually. That’s his middle name, you know. Prince Paragon Raven Ludluck. ”

  “And the ship?”

  “Moody as ever. But in a different way. It’s not that dangerous melancholy he used to sink into, more like the angst of a young man who fancies himself a poet. For that reason, I find it much more annoying to be around him when he’s moping. Of course, it’s not entirely his fault. Althea’s pregnant, and the ship obsesses about the child. ”

  “Althea’s pregnant?” This “Amber” took a woman’s delight in such tidings.

  “Yes,” Jek confirmed. “And she’s absolutely furious about it, despite Brashen walking on air and choosing a new name for the child every other day. In fact, I think that’s half of why she’s so irritable. They were wed in the Rain Wild Traders Concourse. . . I wrote to you about that, didn’t I? I think it was more to placate Malta, who seemed humiliated by her sister’s cavalier attitude toward her arrangement with Brashen than for any desire on Althea’s part to be married. And now she’s with child, and puking her guts up every dawn, and spitting at Brashen whenever he gets solicitous of her. ”

  “She must have known that eventually she’d get with child?”

  “I doubt it. They’re slow to conceive, those Traders, and half the time, they can’t carry the calf to term. Her sister Malta’s lost two already. I think that’s half of Althea’s anger; that if she knew she’d have a baby to show for all the puking and cramps, she might accept it gracefully, even welcome it. But her mother wants her to come home to have it, and the ship insists the babe will be born on his decks and Brashen would let her give birth in a tree, so long as he had a baby to dandle and brag over afterward. The constant stream of advice and suggestions just leaves her spitting mad. That’s what I told Brashen. ‘Just quit talking to her about it,’ I said to him. ‘Pretend you don’t notice and treat her like you always have. ’ And he said, ‘And how am I to do that, when I’m watching her belly rub the lines when she tries to run the rigging?’ But of course, she was just around the corner when he said that, and she overheard, and like to burn his ears off with the names she called him. ”

  And so they went on, gossiping together like good wives at a market. They discussed who was pregnant, and who was not but wished to be, doings at the Jamaillian harbors and courts, politics of the Pirate Islands, and Bingtown’s war with Chalced. If I had not known who was in the other room, I would not have guessed. Amber bore no resemblance to Lord Golden or the Fool. The change was that complete.

  And that was the second thing that scalded me that evening. Not just that he had spoken of me to strangers, in such detail that Jek could recognize me and believe I was his lover, but that there still remained a life or lives of his that I had no knowledge about. Strange, how being left out of a secret always feels like a betrayal of trust.

  I sat alone by the light of my candle and wondered who, in truth, the Fool was. I scraped together in a small heap all the tiny hints and clues that I had gathered over the years and considered them. I’d put my life in his hands any number of times. He’d read all my journals, demanded a full reporting of all my travels, and I’d given them to him. And what had he offered to me in return? Riddles and mysteries and bits of himself.

  And like cooling tar, my feelings for the Fool hardened as they grew colder. The injury grew in me as I thought about it. He had excluded me. The heart knows but one reaction to that. I would now exclude him. I stood and then walked to the door of my room. I shut it completely, not loudly, but not caring if he noticed that it had been ajar. I triggered the secret door and then crossed the room to open it. I entered the spy labyrinth. I wished that I could close that door and leave that part of my life behind me. I tried. I walked away from it.

  There are few things so tender as a man’s dignity. The affront I felt was a thing both painful and angry, a weight that grew in my chest as I climbed the stairs. I fingered all my grievances, numbering them to myself.

  How dared he put me in this position? He had compromised his own reputation when we visited Galekeep in search of Prince Dutiful. He had kissed young Civil Bresinga, deliberately setting off a social flap that misled Lady Bresinga as to the purpose of our visit at the same time it got us expelled from her home. Even now, Civil avoided him with distaste, and I knew that his act had inspired a squall of excited gossip and speculation about his personal preferences at Buckkeep. I thought I had managed to hold myself aloof from those rumors. Now I reconsidered. There had been Prince Dutiful’s question. And suddenly my confrontation with the guardsmen in the steams took on a new connotation. Blood burned my face. Would Jek, despite her assurances of a still tongue, become a source of even more humiliating talk? According to her words, the Fool had carved my countenance onto a ship’s figurehead. I felt violated that he would do such a thing without my consent. And what had he said to folk while he was carving it, to lead to Jek’s assumption?

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  I could not fit what he had done with either what I knew of the Fool or what I knew of Lord Golden. It was the act of this Amber, a person I knew not at all.

  Hence I did not truly know him at all. And never had.

  And with that, I unwillingly knew I had worked my way down to the deepest source of my injury. To discover that the truest friend I had ever had was actually a stranger was like a knife in my heart. He was another abandonment, a missed step in the dark, and a false promise of warmth and companionship. I shook my head to myself. “Idiot,” I said quietly. “You are alone. Best get used to it. ” But without thinking, I reached toward where there had once been comfort.

  And in the next instant, I
missed Nighteyes with a terrible physical clenching in my chest. I squeezed my eyes shut, and then walked two more steps and sat down on the little bench outside the spyhole to the Narcheska’s apartments. I blinked, denying the stinging boy’s tears that clung to my eyelashes. Alone. It always came back to alone. It was like a contagion that had clung to me since my mother had lacked the courage to defy her father and keep me, and since my father had abandoned his crown and holdings rather than own up to me.

  I leaned my forehead against the cold stone, forcing control onto myself. I steadied my breathing, and then became aware of faint voices through the wall. I sighed deeply. Then, as much to retreat from my own life as for any other reason, I set my eye to the spyhole and listened.

  The Narcheska sat on a low stool in the middle of the room. She was weeping silently as she clasped her elbows and rocked back and forth. Tears had tracked down her face and dripped from her chin and they still squeezed out from her closed eyes. A wet blanket shawled her shoulders. She held herself in such silence amidst her pain that I wondered if she had just endured some punishment from her father or Peottre.

  But even as I wondered, Peottre came into the room. A tight little whimper burst from her at the sight of him. His jaw was clenched, and at the sound, his face went tighter and whiter. He carried his cloak, but it was bundled to serve as a sack. He hurried to Elliania’s side and set the laden cloak on the floor before her. Kneeling, he took her by the shoulders to get her attention. “Which one is it?” he asked her in a low voice.

  She gasped in a breath, and spoke with an effort. “The green serpent. I think. ” Another breath. “I cannot tell. When he burns, he burns so hot that the others seem to burn, too. ” And then she lifted her hand to her mouth and bit down on the meat on her thumb. Hard.

  “No!” Peottre exclaimed. He caught up the dripping hem of the blanket, folded it twice, and offered it to her. He had to shake her hand free of her jaws. Then, eyes closed, she clamped her teeth on the blanket edge. I saw the clearly demarcated prints of her teeth on her hand as it fell away to her side. “I am sorry I took so long. I had to go secretly, so no one would mark what I did and ask questions. And I wanted it fresh and clean. Come, turn this way, into the light,” he told her. Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her so that her back was toward me. She let the wet blanket fall from her shoulders.

  She was stripped to the waist above doeskin trousers. From shoulder to waist, she was tattooed. That was shocking enough to me, but the markings were like none I had ever seen. I knew that the Outislanders tattooed themselves, to show clan and claim victories and even to show the status of a woman, with marks for marriages and for children. But those were like the clan tattoo on Peottre’s brow, a simple pattern of blue marks.

  Elliania’s tattoos were nothing like that. I’d never seen anything to compare to them. They were beautiful, the colors brilliant, the designs sharp and clear. The colors had a sparkling metallic quality to them, reflecting the lamplight like a polished blade. The creatures that sprawled and twined on her shoulders and spine and down her ribs gleamed and glis-tened. And one, an exquisite green serpent that began at the nape of her neck and meandered down her back amongst the others, stood out puffily, like a fresh burn blister. It was oddly lovely, for it gave the impression the creature was trapped just below her skin, like a butterfly trying to break free from its chrysalis. At the sight of it, Peottre gave a sharp exclamation of sympathy. He opened the bundled cloak at his feet to reveal a mound of fresh, white snow. He cupped a handful of it, and then held it to the serpent’s head. To my horror, I heard a sizzling like a quenched blade. The snow melted immediately, to run down her spine in a narrow rivulet. Elliania cried out at the touch, but the sound was both shock and relief.

  “Here,” Peottre said gruffly. “A moment. ” He spread his cloak out and then pushed the snow out into an even layer on it. “Lie down here,” he instructed her, and helped her from the stool. He eased her back on the bed of snow and she whimpered as it quenched the burning. I could see her face now, and the sweat that ran from her brow as well as the tears that still flowed down her face. She lay still, eyes closed, her new breasts rising and falling with each ragged breath she took. After a few moments, she began to shiver, but she did not roll away from the snow. Peottre had taken the discarded blanket and was wetting it fresh with water from a pitcher. He brought it back to her and set it by her side. “I’m going out for more snow,” he told her. “If that melts and stops soothing your back, try this blanket. I’ll be back as soon as I can. ”

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  She unclenched her jaws and wet her lips. “Hurry,” she pleaded in a gasp.

  “I will, little one. I will. ” He stood up, and then said gravely, each word solemn, “Our mothers bless you for what you endure. Damn these Farseers and their stiff-necked ways. And damn those dragon-breeders. ”

  The Narcheska rolled her head back and forth on the snow bed. “I just. . . I just wish I knew what she wanted. What she expected me to do about it, past what we have done. ”

  Peottre had begun moving about the room, looking for something to carry snow in. He had picked up and rejected the washbasin. Now he took up the Narcheska’s cloak. “We both know what she expects,” he said harshly.

  “I am not a woman yet,” she said quietly. “It is against the mothers’ law. ”

  “It is against my law,” Peottre clarified, as if his will were the only one that mattered in this. “I will not see you used that way. There must be another path. ” Unwillingly, he asked, “Has Henja come to you? Has she said why you are tormented like this?”

  Her nod was a jerk of her head. “She insists I must bind him to me. Open my legs to him to be sure of him before I leave. It is the only path she believes in. ” Elliania spoke through gritted teeth. “I slapped her and she left. And then the pain became fourfold. ”

  Anger froze his features. “Where is she?”

  “She is not here. She took her cloak and left. Perhaps it is to avoid your temper, but I think she has gone into the town again, to further her cause there. ” Elliania’s teeth clenched in a smile. “Just as well. Our position here is difficult enough without having to explain why you’ve killed my maid in a fury. ”

  I think her words recalled him to practicality, even if they did not calm him.

  “It is well that slut is out of my reach. But aren’t you a bit late to counsel me to restraint? My little warrior, you have inherited your uncle’s temper. Your act was not wise, but I cannot find it in me to rebuke you for it. That empty-souled whore. She truly believes that is the only way a man can be bound to a woman. ”

  Unbelievably, the Narcheska gave a small laugh. “It is the only one she believes in, Uncle. I did not say it was the only one I knew. Pride may bind a man, even where there is no love. That is the thought I cling to now. ” Then her brow clenched in pain. “Fetch more snow, please,” she gasped, and he nodded sharply and went out.

  I watched him go. Then she sat up slowly. She scraped the melting snow into a narrower pallet. The tattoos on her back stood out as glowingly as ever. Around them, her bared flesh was bright red from cold. Gingerly she lay back down on her snow couch. She took a breath and lifted the backs of her hands to her brows. I recalled that one scroll had said that was how Outislanders prayed. But the only words she said were “My Mother. My Sister. For you. My Mother. My Sister. For you. ” It soon became a toneless chant in time with her breathing.

  I sat back on my stool. I was trembling, as much with awe at her courage as pity for what she suffered. I wondered what I had just witnessed and what was the significance of it. My candle had burned down to half its length. I took it up and slowly climbed the rest of the stairs to Chade’s tower room. I was exhausted and downhearted and sought familiar comfort somewhere. But when I reached there, the room was empty and the fire gone out. A sticky wineglass stood empty on the table by the chairs. I cleaned the ashes from the
hearth, muttering to myself at Thick’s neglect of his duties, and built a fresh fire.

  Then I took paper and ink and wrote down what I had witnessed. I coupled it to the previous interplay I had witnessed between Elliania, Peottre, and the serving woman Henja. Plainly the last one was a woman to be watched. I sanded the fresh ink, tapped it off, and left the paper on Chade’s chair. I hoped he would come up to the rooms tonight. I reflected again, bitterly, on the stupidity that he refused to let me have a way of contacting him directly. I knew what I had witnessed was important; I hoped he would know why.

  Then I reluctantly went back down the stairs to my own chamber. There I stood for a time, in silence, listening. I heard nothing. If Jek and Lord Golden were still there, they were either sitting silently or they were in his bedchamber. After what she had implied about me, that did not seem likely. After a time, I eased the door open a crack. The room was darkened, the fire banked on the hearth. Good. I had no wish to confront either of them just now. I had, I decided, words to say to both of them, but I was not yet calm enough to say them.

  Instead I took my cloak from its hook and left Lord Golden’s chamber. I would go out, I decided. I needed to be away from the castle for a time, away from all the interconnecting webs of intrigue and deceit. I felt I was drowning in lies.

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  I made my way down the stairs and toward the servants’ entrance. But as I walked down the main hall, I felt a sudden shiver in the Wit. I lifted my eyes. Coming toward me from the opposite end of the hall was the veiled Bingtown youth. Through the lace that obscured his features I caught the faint blue glow of his eyes. It tightened the flesh on the nape of my neck. I wanted to turn aside, or even turn around and walk away, anything to avoid him. But such an action would have looked very strange. I steeled myself and resolutely walked toward him. I averted my eyes, but then when I dared to glance up at him, I felt his gaze on me. He slowed as we approached one another. When he was very close, I bobbed my head, a servant’s gesture of acknowledgment. But before I could pass him, he stopped and stood still. “Hello,” he greeted me.

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