Golden fool, p.34
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       Golden Fool, p.34

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  I stiffened and became a correct Buckkeep servant. I bowed from the waist. “Good evening, sir. May I be of service?”

  “I. . . Yes. . . Perhaps you could. ” He lifted his veil and pushed back his hood as he spoke, baring his scaled face. I could not help but gawk at him. Up close, his visage was even more remarkable than what I had glimpsed earlier. I had overestimated his age. He was years younger than Hap or Dutiful, though I could not guess his exact age. His height made his boyish face incongruous. The silvery gleam in the scaling on his cheekbones and brow reminded me of the Narcheska’s glimmering tattoos. Abruptly, I recognized that this scaling was what the Jamaillian makeup Lord Golden sometimes wore mimicked. It was an odd little insight, one I stored away with all the other significant things that the Fool had never bothered to explain to me. Doubtless, when it suited his purpose, he would reveal it to me. Doubtless. Bitterness welled in me like blood from a fresh wound. But the Bingtowner was beckoning me closer, even as he backed away from me. I followed him unwillingly. He glanced into a small sitting room and then gestured me into it. He was making me nervous. I repeated my question like a good servant. “How may I be of service?”

  “I. . . that is. . . I feel as if I should know you. ” He peered at me closely. When I only stared at him as if puzzled, he tried again. “Do you understand what I speak about?” He seemed to be trying to help me begin a conversation.

  “I beg your pardon, sir? You are in need of help?” It was all I could think of to say.

  He glanced over his shoulder and then spoke to me more urgently. “I serve the dragon Tintaglia. I am here with the ambassadors from Bingtown and the representatives from the Rain Wild. They are my people, and my kin. But I serve the dragon Tintaglia, and her concerns are my first ones. ” He spoke the words as if they should convey some deep message to me.

  I hoped that what I felt did not show on my face. It was confusion, not at his strange words, but at the odd feeling that rang through me at that name. Tintaglia. I had heard the name before, but when he spoke it, it was the sharp tip of a dream breaking through into the waking world. I felt again the sweep of wind under my wings, tasted dawn’s soft fogs in my mouth. Then that blink of memory was gone, and left behind only the uncomfortable feeling of having been someone other than myself for a sliced instant of my life. I said the only words I could think of. “Sir? And how can I assist you?”

  He stared at me intently, and I’m afraid I returned that scrutiny. The dangles along his jawline were serrated tissue. The fleshy fringe was too regular to be a scar or unnatural growth. It looked as if it belonged there as rightfully as his nose or lips. He sighed, and as he did so, I clearly saw him close his nostrils for a moment. He evidently decided to begin anew, for he smiled at me and asked gently, “Have you ever dreamed of dragons? Of flying like a dragon or of. . . being a dragon?”

  That was too close a hit. I nodded eagerly, a servant flattered at conversing with his betters. “Oh, haven’t we all, sir? We Six Duchies folk, I mean. I’m old enough to have seen the dragons that came to defend the Six Duchies, sir. I suppose it’s natural that I’ve dreamed of them, sometimes. Magnificent they were, sir. Terrifying and dangerous, too, but that’s not what stays with a man who has seen them. It’s their greatness that stays in my mind, sir. ”

  He smiled at me. “Exactly. Magnificence. Greatness. Perhaps that is what I sensed in you. ” He peered at me, and I felt the bluish gleam in his eyes was more probing than the eyes themselves. I tried to retreat from that scrutiny.

  I glanced aside from him. “I’m not alone in that, sir. There are many in the Six Duchies who saw our dragons a-wing. And some that saw far more than I did, for I lived far from Buckkeep then, out on my father’s farm. We grew oats, there. Grew oats and raised pigs. Others could tell you far better tales than I could. Yet even a single glimpse of the dragons was enough to set a man’s soul on fire. Sir. ”

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  He made a small dismissive gesture with his hand. “I don’t doubt that they were. But I speak of another thing, now. I speak of real dragons. Dragons that breathe, that eat and grow and breed just as any other creature does. Have you ever dreamed of a dragon like that? One named Tintaglia?”

  I shook my head at him. “I don’t dream much, sir. ” I left a little pause there and let it grow just long enough to be slightly uncomfortable. Then I bobbed a bow to him again and asked, “And how can I be of service to you, sir?”

  He stared past me for so long that I thought he had forgotten me entirely. I thought of simply leaving him there and slipping away, except that I seemed to feel something in the air. Does magic hum? No, that is not quite the way of it, but it is a similar wordless vibration that one feels, not with the body but with that part of a man that does magic or receives it. The Wit whispers and the Skill sings. This was something like to both of them, and yet its own. It crept along my nerves and stood up the hair on the back of my neck. Suddenly his eyes snapped back to me. “She says you are lying,” he accused me.

  “Sir!” I was as affronted as I could manage for the terror I felt. Something groped at me angrily. I felt as if swiping claws passed through me. Some instinct warned me to leave my Skill walls as they stood, that any effort to reinforce them now would only display me to her. For it was unmistakably a “she” that sought to seize me. I took a breath. I was a servant, I reminded myself. Yet any servant of Buckkeep would have taken righteous offense at such words from a foreigner. I stood a bit straighter. “Our queen keeps a good cellar, sir, as all in the Six Duchies know. Perhaps it has been too good a cellar for your sensibilities. It is known to happen to foreigners here. Perhaps you should retire to your chamber for a time. ”

  “You have to help us. You have to make them help us. ” He did not seem to hear my words. Desperation tinged his own. “She is stricken to the heart over this. Day after day, she strives to feed them but there is only one of her. She cannot feed so many, and they cannot hunt for themselves. She herself grows thin and weary with the task. She despairs that they will ever grow to proper size and strength. Do not doom her to being the last of her kind. If these Six Duchies dragons of yours are any kind of true dragons, then they will come to her aid. In any case, the least you can do is persuade your queen that she must ally with us. Help us put an end to the Chalcedean threat. Tintaglia is true to her word; she keeps their ships out of the Rain Wild River, but she can do no more than that. She dares not range farther to protect us, for then the young dragons would die. Please, sir! If you have a heart in you, speak to your queen. Do not let dragons pass away from this world because men could not stop their bitter squabbling long enough to aid them. ”

  He stepped forward and tried to catch at my hand. I hastily retreated from him. “Sir, I fear you have taken too much to drink. You have mistaken me for someone of influence. I am not. I am but a servant here in Buckkeep Castle. And now I must be about my master’s errands for me. Good evening, sir. Good evening. ”

  And as he stared after me, I backed hastily from the room, bobbing and bowing as if my head were on a string. Once I was in the hall, I turned and strode hastily away. I know he came to the doorway and looked after me, for I felt his blue gaze on my back. I was glad to turn the corner to the kitchen wing, and gladder still to put a door between him and me.

  Outside it was snowing, huge white flakes wafting down with the nightfall. I left the keep, barely nodding to the guards on duty at the gate, and began the long walk down to town. I had no set destination in mind, only a desire to be away from the castle. I hiked down through the gathering darkness and thickening snowfall. I had too much to think about: Elliania’s tattoos and what they meant, the Fool and Jek and what she believed of me because of something he had said, dragons and boys with scales and what Chade and Kettricken would say to the Bingtowners and to the Outislanders. Yet the closer I came to town, the more Hap pushed into my mind. I was failing the boy I considered my son. No matter how serious
the events up at Buckkeep Castle were, I couldn’t let them displace him. I tried to think how I could turn him around, make him return to his apprenticeship with a willing heart and eager hands, make him set aside Svanja until he could make an honest offer for her hand, make him take up residence with his master. . . make him live a tidy life, abiding by all the rules that could keep him safe but never ensure him success or happiness.

  I thrust that last traitor thought aside. It angered me and I turned the anger on my boy. I should do as Jinna had suggested. I should take a firm line with him, punish him for disobeying my wishes for him. Take away both money and security until he agreed to do as I wished. Turn him out of Jinna’s and tell him he must live with his master or fend for himself. Force him to toe the line. I scowled to myself. Oh, yes, that would have worked so well on me at that age. Yet something must be done. Somehow, I had to make him see sense.

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  My thoughts were interrupted by the hoofbeats of a horse on the road behind me. Instantly, Laurel’s warning leapt foremost in my mind. I moved to one side as the horse and rider came abreast of me, and set my hand lightly to my knife. I expected them to pass me without comment. It wasn’t until the horse was reined in that I recognized Starling in the saddle. For a moment, she just looked down on me. Then she smiled. “Get up behind me, Fitz. I’ll give you a ride down to Buckkeep Town. ”

  The heart will flee anywhere when it is seeking comfort. I knew that and kept a rein on mine. “Thank you, but no. This road can be treacherous in the dark. You’d be risking your horse. ”

  “Then I’ll lead him and walk beside you. It has been so long since we talked, and I could use a friendly ear tonight. ”

  “I think I would prefer to be alone tonight, Starling. ”

  She was silent for a moment. The horse jigged restlessly and she pulled him in too tightly. When she spoke, she did not hide her irritation. “Tonight? Why do you say ‘tonight’ when you mean ‘I’d always prefer to be alone rather than with you. ’ Why do you make excuses? Why don’t you just say that you haven’t forgiven me, that you’ll never forgive me?”

  It was true. I hadn’t. But that would have been a stupid thing to tell her. “Can’t we just let it go? It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said, and that was true as well.

  She snorted. “Ah. I see. It doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. I make one mistake, I fail to tell you one thing that doesn’t really concern you at all, and you decide not only that you will never forgive me, but that you will never speak to me again?” Her fury was building in an astounding way. I stood looking up at her as she ranted. The failing light touched her face indistinctly. She looked older and wearier than I had ever seen her. And angrier. I stood stunned in the flow of her wrath. “And why is that, I ask myself? Why does ‘Tom Badgerlock’ dispose of me so easily? Because perhaps I never mattered at all to you, save for one thing. One convenient little thing that I brought right to your door for you, one thing that I thought we shared in friendship and fondness and, yes, even love. But you decided you don’t want that from me anymore, so you throw all of me aside. You make that the whole of what we shared, and discard me with it. And why? I confess, I’ve given much more thought to it than I should. And I think I’ve found the answer. Is it because you’ve found another place to quench your lusts? Has your new master taught you his Jamaillian ways? Or was I wrong, all those years ago? Perhaps the Fool was truly a man, and you’ve simply gone back to what you preferred all along. ” She jerked her horse’s head again. “You disgust me, Fitz, and you shame the Farseer name. I’m glad you’ve given it up. Now that I know what you are, I wish I had never bedded with you. Whose face did you see, all those times when you closed your eyes?”

  “Molly’s, you stupid bitch. Always Molly’s. ” It was not true. I had not played that cheat on her or myself. But it was the most hurtful reply I could think of to her insult. She did not, perhaps, deserve it. And it shamed me that I would use Molly’s name that way. But my festering anger had finally found a target this evening.

  She took several deep breaths, as if I had doused her with cold water. Then she laughed shrilly. “And no doubt you mouth her name into your pillow as your Lord Golden mounts you. Oh, yes, that I can imagine well. You’re pathetic, Fitz. Pathetic. ”

  She gave me no chance to strike back, but spurred her horse cruelly and galloped off into the snowy night. For a savage instant, I hoped the beast would stumble and that she would break her neck.

  Then, just when I needed that fury most, it deserted me. I was left feeling sick and sad and sorry, alone on the night road. Why had the Fool done this to me? Why? I resumed my trudge down the road.

  Yet I did not go to the Stuck Pig. I knew I wouldn’t find Hap or Svanja there. Instead I went to the Dog and Whistle, an ancient tavern I had once frequented with Molly. I sat in the corner and watched patrons come and go and drank two tankards of ale. It was good ale, far better than I’d been able to afford when Molly and I last sat here. I drank and I remembered her. She, at least, had loved me true. Yet comfort in those memories trickled away. I tried to remember what it was to be fifteen years old and in love and so terribly certain that love conveyed wisdom and shaped fate. I recalled it too well, and my thoughts spun aside to Hap’s situation. I asked myself, once I had lain with Molly, could anyone have said anything to persuade me that it was not both my right and my destiny to do so? I doubted it. The best thing, I concluded a tankard later, would have been not to have allowed Hap to meet Svanja in the first place. And Jinna had warned me of that, and I hadn’t paid attention. Just as Burrich and Patience had once warned me not to begin with Molly. They’d been right. I should have admitted that a long time ago. I would have told them that, that very minute, if I could have.

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  And the wisdom of three tankards of ale after a sleepless night and a long day of unsettling news persuaded me that the best thing to do would be to go to Jinna and tell her that she had been right. Somehow, that would make things better. The fuzziness of why that would be so did not dissuade me. I set out for her door through the quiet night.

  The snow had stopped falling. It was a clean blanket, mostly smooth, over Buckkeep Town. It draped eaves and gentled the rutted streets, hiding all sins. My boots scrunched through it as I walked the quiet streets. I nearly came to my senses when I reached Jinna’s door, but I knocked anyway. Perhaps I just needed a friend, any kind of a friend, that badly.

  I heard the thud of the cat leaping from her lap, and then her footsteps. She peeked out of the top half of her door. “Who’s there?”

  “It’s me. Tom Badgerlock. ”

  She shut the top half of the door. It seemed like a long time before she unlatched the whole door and opened it to me. “Come in,” she said, but her voice sounded as if she didn’t care if I did or didn’t.

  I stood outside in the snow. “I don’t need to come in. I just wanted to tell you that you were right. ”

  She peered at me. “And you are drunk. Come in, Tom Badgerlock. I’ve no wish to let the night cold into my house. ”

  And so I went in instead. Fennel had already claimed her warm spot in her chair, but he sat up to look at me disapprovingly. Fish?

  No fish. Sorry.

  “Sorry” is not fish. What good is “sorry”? He curled up again, and hid his face in his tail.

  I admitted it. “Sorry isn’t much good, but it’s all I have to offer. ”

  Jinna looked at me grimly. “Well, it’s far more than anything else you’ve given me lately. ”

  I stood with the snow from my boots melting on her floor. The fire crackled. “You were right about Hap. I should have intervened a lot sooner and I didn’t. I should have listened to you. ”

  After a time longer she said, “Do you want to sit down for a while? I don’t think you should try to walk back to the castle just now. ”

  “I don’t think I’m that drunk!
I scoffed.

  “I don’t think you’re sober enough to know how drunk you are,” she replied. And while I was trying to unravel that, she said, “Take your cloak off and sit down. ” Then she had to move her knitting off one chair and the cat off the other, and then we both sat down.

  For a short time we both just looked into her fire. Then she said, “There’s something you should know about Svanja’s father. ”

  I met her eyes unwillingly.

  “He’s a lot like you,” she said quietly. “It takes some time for him to get his temper up. Right now, he just feels grief over what his daughter is doing. But as it becomes common talk in town, there will be men who will goad him about it. Grief will change to shame, and not long after that, to fury. But it won’t be against Svanja that he vents it. He’ll go after Hap, as the culprit who has deceived and seduced his daughter. By then, he’ll be righteous as well as angry. And he is strong as a bull. ”

  When I sat silent, she added, “I told Hap this. ” Fennel came to her and wafted up into her lap, displacing her knitting. She petted him absently.

  “What did Hap say?”

  She made a disgusted sound. “That he wasn’t afraid. I told him that had nothing to do with it. And that sometimes being stupid and being not afraid were two twigs of the same bush. ”

  “That pleased him, no doubt. ”

  “He went out. I haven’t seen him since. ”

  I sighed. I was just starting to get warm. “How long ago?”

  She shook her head at me. “It’s no use your going after him. It was hours ago, before sundown. ”

  “I wouldn’t know where to look for him anyway,” I admitted. “I couldn’t find him last night, and wherever they were then is where they probably are now. ”

  “Probably,” she agreed quietly. “Well, at least Rory Hartshorn didn’t find them last night, either. So they’re probably safe for now. ”

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