Golden fool, p.36
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       Golden Fool, p.36

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Well. I suppose that’s sensible then. But it’s damned inconvenient for me. Look, Fitz, can’t you just go in and talk to him? See if he has any ideas about this Selden Vestrit being Skilled?”

  “As he has no Skill himself, I don’t think he could possibly have detected that aura from Vestrit. ”

  Chade set down his wine cup. “But you haven’t asked him, have you?”

  I lifted my cup and drank from it to gain a moment. “No,” I said as I set it down. “I haven’t. ”

  He peered at me. After a moment, he said in amazement, “You two have had a falling-out of some sort, haven’t you?”

  “I’d rather not discuss it,” I said stiffly.

  “Hmf. Wonderful timing on everyone’s part. Let’s mix the Bingtown Traders with the Outislanders, and in the midst of it you can offend the Queen’s favorite minstrel, and then have some silly squabble with the Fool that renders you both all but useless. ” He leaned back in his chair in disgust as if we had done it solely to inconvenience him.

  “I doubt he would have any insights on this,” I replied. I had not been able to bring myself to say more than a dozen words to him in the last three days, but I was not going to share that with Chade. If the Fool had noticed my coldness, he had ignored it. He had given Tom Badgerlock an order to turn away all guests at the door until he was feeling more like himself, and so I had. I spent as little time in the chambers we shared as possible. Yet several times, when I returned to the room, I saw small signs that someone had called while I was gone, and it was not just Char the serving boy tidying things. Jek came and went when I was not there, then, for I recognized Jek’s spicy perfume lingering in our chambers.

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  “Well. That’s as may be. ” He scowled at me. “Well, whatever it is, you’d best patch it up soon. You’re not worth a tinker’s damn when something like this has your back up. ”

  I took a breath to keep my temper down. “It’s not the only thing I’ve had on my mind lately,” I excused myself.

  “No. We’ve all had far too much on our minds. What did your boy want, the other day when he came up to the castle? Is all well with him?”

  “Not exactly. ” I had been shocked when one of the kitchen boys had tapped at the door to tell me that a young man was asking for me in the kitchen yard. I hastened down to find Hap standing outside in the courtyard, looking both angry and sheepish. No, he wouldn’t come in, not even to the guards’ room, though I assured him none of them would mind. They’d become accustomed to seeing me there of late. He didn’t want to take much of my time, for he knew I was busy with tasks of my own. And at that my guilt began to build, for I had been busy of late, often too busy to see him when I knew I should have. By the time he worked up the courage to tell me that Jinna had turned him out and why, my resolve was already wavering.

  He looked past my shoulder as he spoke to the lowering sky. “So, with no coin of my own, I’ve been sleeping wherever I could find a bit of shelter the last two nights. But I can’t do that the rest of winter. So I’ve no choice save to move into the apprentice house with the others. Only . . . it seems so awkward for me to ask after Master Gindast has suggested it so often and I’ve always refused it. ”

  This was news to me. “He has suggested it? Why? Seems he saves himself a bit of money, not having to give you your breakfast or supper. ”

  Hap squirmed unhappily. He took a breath. “He suggests it whenever my work is poor. He says if I slept a proper night and rose with the others, if I were on time to work and on time to bed, I would do better. ” He glanced away. There was a gruff pride as he added, “He says he can see that I could do better, far better, at my work, if I weren’t so sleepy in the mornings. I’ve always insisted I could manage my own hours. And I have. Oh, I’ve been late a time or two, but I’ve been there every day since I came to Buckkeep Town. I have. ”

  He said this as if I might doubt it. I kept to myself that I had wondered if he had been faithful to his master’s hours.

  I had let some little time lag. “So, then? What is the difficulty now? It seems that as he has asked you several times, he’d be pleased to see you take his suggestion. ”

  Hap was silent. He went a bit pinker about the ears. I waited. Then he steeled himself to it. “I wonder if perhaps you couldn’t go by and tell him you had decided it was best for me. It just seems simpler that way. Less awkward. ”

  I spoke slowly, wondering if the words were wise. “Less like you knuckling under to his suggestion, perhaps? Or less like Jinna turning you out because she didn’t want trouble on her doorstep?”

  Hap flushed a deep scarlet and I knew I had struck true. He started to turn away. I put a hand on his shoulder and when he tried to shrug it off, I tightened my grip. He started when he could not twist free of it. So my daily practices on the weapons court had counted for something. I could hold a squirming lad against his will now. Such an accomplishment. I waited until he stopped struggling. He hadn’t tried to hit me, but neither had he turned back to face me. I spoke quietly, for his ears only, not for those who had turned to stare at our little contest. “Go to Gindast yourself, son. You might save face with the other apprentices by saying your father had forced you to move in with them. But in the long run, Gindast will respect you more if you go to him and say you’ve thought it over and decided it would be for the best if you lived there. And you might recall that Jinna has been kind, not just to you but to both of us, far beyond what any coin would buy and far beyond what either of us deserves from her. Don’t shun her because she wanted no trouble in her home. Trouble shouldn’t be the price of her being our friend. ”

  Then I had loosened my hold and allowed him to shrug free of me and stalk off. I didn’t know what he had done. I hadn’t gone to check on him. I had to let him sort that much of his life out for himself. He had food and shelter if he chose to accept them on the terms they were offered. More than that, I could not do for him. I dragged my thoughts back to my conversation with Chade.

  “Hap’s had some difficulties adjusting to life in town,” I admitted to the old assassin. “On our holding, he was used to setting his own hours, as long as his chores were done. It was a simpler life. Less of a daily grind, and more choices for him. ”

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  “Less beer and fewer girls, too, I imagine,” Chade added, and I suspected that, as usual, he knew far more about everything than he was letting on. But he smiled as he said it, and I let it pass. Not only because he meant no insult to Hap or me by it, but because it was a relief to me to see the old man as sharp as he had ever been. It seemed that the thicker the intrigue in Buckkeep Castle, the more Chade throve on it. “Well. I hope you know that whatever your Hap gets into, you can turn to me for help. If it’s needed. Without a price on it. ”

  “I know that,” I had replied, if a bit gruffly, and he had let me go. We both had to prepare ourselves for the afternoon’s event. Chade had to dress appropriately for the formal farewell ceremony for the Outislanders. He was hoping desperately that tonight’s honors and gifts would heal the cracks and rifts, and that they would depart on the morrow with the betrothal confirmed. As for me, I had to gather my supplies and make my way to my spy post to watch from that vantage and store up any tidbits that might escape Chade’s eyes.

  He departed to his chambers to make himself ready. My own preparations were far different. I gathered a supply of candles, a pillow from his bed and a blanket, a bottle of wine and some victuals. I expected to crouch in my hiding place for several hours, and I was determined that this time I would be comfortable. Winter had clenched its grip on the castle over the last few days, and the hidden tunnels and corridors were chill and comfortless.

  I bundled it all together, removing Gilly several times from my efforts. The ferret had become a social little fellow of late, greeting me with whiskers twitching and sniffing whenever we encountered one another in the hidden
network. As much as he enjoyed his hunting and despite the numerous trophies he left about to demonstrate his prowess, he surprised me often by begging for raisins or bits of bread. These he seemed to relish hiding behind the scroll rack or under the chairs more than he did eating them. His mind darted like a hummingbird, inquisitive and restless. Like most animals, he was completely uninterested in bonding with a human. Our Wit senses of one another brushed often but never engaged. Still, he was companionably intrigued in what I did, and followed me curiously as I made my way through the cramped passages.

  I arrived in plenty of time to witness the farewell banquet. I set my cushion atop a rickety stool that I had gathered on the way, put my food on the dusty floor beside me and my candle and extra tapers beyond it. I seated myself, wrapped the blanket about my shoulders, and settled myself by the peephole. This one offered a good vantage, I decided with approval. From here, I could see the high dais and almost a third of the hall.

  The winter finery of the Great Hall had been renewed. Evergreen boughs and garlands trimmed the entrances and hearths, and the minstrels played softly as folk entered and sought their places. All in all it reminded me very much of the betrothal ceremony, witnessed from a different angle. Embroidered cloths covered the long tables, and bread and fruit preserves and wineglasses awaited the guests. Southern incense, a gift from the Bingtown Traders, sweetened the air of the hall. There was a bit less ceremony as the dukes and duchesses entered this time. I suspected that even the nobility had become a bit weary of all the festivities and pomp of late. The Bingtown delegation, I noted with interest, entered with the lesser aristocrats and was seated well away from the Outislanders’ dais. I wondered if the distance would be enough to prevent sparks flying.

  What I had begun to think of as Arkon Bloodblade’s contingent entered next. They seemed in high spirits, and were once more decked in their extravagant versions of Buckkeep garb. Heavy furs had been replaced with satin and velvet, lace had been used indiscriminately, and the colors seemed to favor the red and orange section of the spectrum. Strange to say, it suited them well, both the men and the women. The barbaric excess in adopting our modes of dress made them the Outislanders’ own style. And that they had chosen to emulate some of our ways indicated to me that the doors would soon open wide to trade of all sorts. If Arkon Bloodblade had his way.

  Peottre Blackwater and Elliania were not with them.

  They still had not entered when the Queen and the Prince made their way to the high dais, with Chade trailing demurely behind them. I saw the Queen’s eyes widen with dismay, but she did not let it reach her smile. Prince Dutiful kept a lordly reserve, apparently not noticing that his fiancée had not yet seen fit to join the ceremony intended to honor her departure. When the Farseers had assumed their places, an awkward little delay ensued. Ordinarily, the Queen would have ordered the servants to pour the wine and begun with a toast to her honored guests. It had just reached the point where folk had begun to mutter when Peottre Blackwater appeared at the entrance to the hall. He had retained his Outislander skins and chains but the richness of the furs and the gold that weighted his forearms bespoke his very best. He stood in the entry until the startled murmur at his appearance had stilled. Then he stepped silently aside and the Narcheska entered. The narwhal symbol of her matriarchal line was picked out in ivory beads on her leather vest. It was trimmed with white fur, probably snowfox. She wore a sealskin skirt and slippers. Her arms and fingers were innocent of all jewelry. Her hair flowed unfettered as night down her back, and upon her head she wore a curious blue ornament, almost like a crown. It reminded me of something but I could not quite recall what.

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  She stood a moment in the doorway. Her gaze met Kettricken’s and held it. Head up, she paced the length of the room toward the high dais with Peottre Blackwater coming slowly behind her. He let her lead him by enough that his presence did not distract from hers, but as always, he was close enough to protect her should any seek to do her harm. Never once did she look away from the Queen as she trod the length of the hall. Even when she ascended the steps to the dais, their gazes remained locked. When finally she stood before Kettricken, she made her a solemn curtsy, yet she did not bow her head or avert her gaze as she did so.

  “I am so pleased you have joined us,” Kettricken said graciously in a low voice. There was genuine welcome in her tone.

  I thought for a moment that I saw a flicker of doubt pass over the Narcheska’s face. But then her resolve seemed to harden. When she spoke, her young voice was clear, her enunciation crisp, and her voice pitched to carry. They were not private words she spoke. “I am here, Queen Kettricken of the Six Duchies. But I fear I have begun to have doubts that I will ever truly join you, as wife to your son. ” She turned then, and her gaze slowly swept the assembly. Her father was sitting very straight. I surmised that her words were a surprise to him, one he sought to cover. The initial look of shock on the Queen’s face had been replaced with a cold and courteous mask.

  “Your words disappoint me, Narcheska Elliania Blackwater of the God’s Runes. ” That was all Kettricken said. She spoke no question that would have invited a reply. I saw Elliania hesitate, fumbling for a way to begin her planned speech. I suspected she had expected more of a reaction from the Queen, including a demand for an explanation. Lacking that introduction, she had no choice but to tone her words to meet the Queen’s attitude of polite regret.

  “I find that this betrothal does not meet my expectations, which are those of my mothers’ house. I was told that I would come here to promise my hand to a king. Instead I find my hand offered to a youngster who is but a prince, not even a King-in-Waiting, as you term one who learns the duties of his crown. This is not to my satisfaction. ”

  Kettricken did not reply immediately. She let the girl’s words die away. When the Queen did speak, she spoke with simplicity, as if she were explaining something to a child who might be too young to understand it. The effect was that of a mature and patient woman addressing a wayward young girl. “It is unfortunate that you were not taught our customs in this matter, Narcheska Elliania. Prince Dutiful must be at least seventeen before he may be declared the King-in-Waiting. After that, it is up to his dukes to decide when he may be crowned as a full king. I do not expect it will take long for him to earn that responsibility. ” She lifted her eyes and scanned her dukes and duchesses as she spoke. She honored them when she acknowledged their role and they were sensible of that. Most of them nodded sagely to her words. It was smoothly done.

  I think Elliania sensed her moment slipping away from her. Her voice was just the least bit shrill and she spoke perhaps a second too soon when she said, “Nevertheless. If I accept my betrothal to Prince Dutiful now, none can deny that I am taking the chance of binding my fate to a prince who may never be declared king. ”

  As she drew breath, Kettricken quietly interjected, “That is most unlikely, Narcheska Elliania. ”

  I felt, almost as if it were my own, Dutiful’s prodded pride. A Farseer temper lurked behind his cool Mountain exterior. The Skill link between us throbbed with his rising anger.

  Steady. Let the Queen handle this. I kept my thread of suggestion small and tight between us.

  I suppose I must, he replied recklessly. However little I like it. Just as I must tolerate this arranged marriage at all.

  In the heat of his provocation, his control was more absent than sloppy. I winced at it and glanced toward the veiled Bingtown Trader. Selden Vestrit sat very straight, and perhaps his intentness was only the interest in the proceedings that he shared with all the other Bingtown Traders. Yet he seemed entirely too still, as if he listened with every pore of his body. I feared him.

  “Nevertheless!” the Narcheska said again, and this time her accent flawed the word more sharply. I could see her losing her aplomb, but she plowed ahead stubbornly. Doubtless this speech had been endlessly practiced in her room, but now it
was delivered without finesse or gestures. It was only words, pebbles hurled in desperation. Doubtless many thought it was to save herself from the betrothal. My suspicions were different.

  “Nevertheless, if I am to accept this custom of yours as good, and give my promise of marriage to a prince who may never become a king, then it seems to me fair and good that in return I ask him to honor a custom of my land and people. ”

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  There were too many faces to watch for responses from everyone. One I made sure of was Arkon Bloodblade. I was certain that his daughter’s speech was a complete surprise to him. Yet at her naming this condition, he seemed pleased. But then, I reflected, he was obviously a man who enjoyed a challenge and a gamble, as well as putting on a show. He was content to let her stir the pot while he waited to see what would bob to the top. Perhaps it would be to his advantage. Several of the people seated alongside him did not look so sanguine. They exchanged apprehensive glances, fearing the girl’s effrontery would endanger the betrothal and cripple their trade negotiations.

  The blood had started to rise in Prince Dutiful’s face. I could see and feel him fighting to maintain a serene demeanor. Kettricken held her calm almost effortlessly.

  “Perhaps that might be acceptable,” she said quietly, and again it sounded as if she were indulging a child. “Would you care to explain this custom to us?”

  Narcheska Elliania seemed to know that she was not showing well. She pulled herself straighter, and took a breath before she spoke. “In my land, in the God’s Runes, it is customary that if a man seeks to marry a woman, and the woman’s mothers are uncertain of his blood or his character, then the mothers may propose a challenge to him whereby he can prove himself worthy. ”

  And there it was. Insult bald enough that no duchy would have blamed their queen if she had immediately voided the betrothal and alliance. No, they would not have blamed her, yet in the faces of more than one, pride warred with the possible loss of trade profits. Eyes flickered as dukes and duchesses silently conferred with one another, faces set in stillness, mouths flat. But before the Queen could even draw breath to compose a reply, the Narcheska added to her words.

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