Golden fool, p.37
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       Golden Fool, p.37

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “As I stand before you without the benefit of my mothers to speak for me, I would myself propose a challenge that would prove the Prince worthy of me. ”

  I had known Kettricken in the days when she was the daughter of the Mountain Sacrifice, before she was Queen of the Six Duchies. I had known her in the days when she was transforming herself from a girl barely a woman into both woman and queen. Others might have been at her side longer, or spent more recent years with her, but I think my early knowledge of her let me read her as no one else could. I saw in the tiny movement of her lips how disappointed she was. All the months of effort spent crawling toward an alliance between the Six Duchies and the Out Islands were erased in the rush of an impetuous girl’s words. For Kettricken could not allow the worthiness of her son to be questioned. When Elliania looked askance at Dutiful, she looked askance at the entire Kingdom of the Six Duchies. It could not be tolerated, not because of maternal pride, but because of the danger of debasing the value of the Six Duchies alliance. I held my breath, waiting to hear how Kettricken would sever the negotiations. So focused was I on the Queen’s face that I only caught from the tail of my eye the furtive grab that Chade made at the young Prince’s shoulder as Dutiful surged to his feet.

  “I will accept your challenge. ” The Prince’s voice rang out, young and strong. Violating all protocol, he stepped clear of his chair and moved to face the Narcheska as if this were truly a confrontation between lovers. His action seemed to exclude the Queen, as if she had no say in the matter at all. “I will do it, not to prove myself worthy of your hand, Narcheska. I will not do it to prove anything about myself to you, or to anyone else. But I will do it because I would not see the days of negotiation toward a peace between our peoples put into jeopardy over a prideful girl’s doubts of me. ”

  She was equal to his scalded pride. “It matters little to me why you do it,” she said, and suddenly her crisp diction and precise pronunciation were back. “So long as the task is performed. ”

  “And the task?” he demanded.

  “Prince Dutiful,” said the Queen. Any son would have recognized the meaning of those words. In the naming of his name, she commanded him to be silent and step back. But the Prince did not seem to even hear them. His entire attention was focused on the girl who had humiliated him and then spurned his efforts at apology.

  Elliania took a breath. And when she spoke now, I recognized plainly the polished diction of a prepared speech. Like a courser who finds solid ground beneath her feet, she sprang to the chase.

  “You know little of our God’s Runes, Prince, and less of our legends. For legend many will name the dragon Icefyre, though I assure you he is real. As real as your Six Duchies dragons were, when they overflew our villages, snatching memories and sense from those who lived there. ” Bitter words that could only wake bitter memories in the Six Duchies folk who heard them. How dare she complain of what our dragons had done to her people, after the years of raids and Forging had provoked us to it? She walked on very thin ice, black water seeping up in her footprints. I think that only the sheer drama of the moment saved her. She would have been shouted down, had not all ardently wished to know what this Icefyre was. Even the Bingtown Traders had suddenly come to a more pointed attention.

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  “Our ‘legend’ is that Icefyre, the black dragon of the God’s Runes, sleeps deep in the heart of a glacier on Aslevjal Isle. His slumber is a magic one, preserving the fires of his life until some deep need of the God’s Runes folk awakens him. Then, he will rip himself free of the glacier and come to our aid. ” She paused and slowly scanned the whole room. Her voice was cool and emotionless when she observed, “Surely, he should have done so when your dragons flew over us? Surely that was an hour of great need for us. Yet our hero failed to arise. And, for that, as for any hero who forsakes his duty, he deserves to die. ” She turned back to Dutiful. “Bring me Icefyre’s head. Then I will know that, unlike him, you are a worthy hero. And I will wed you and be your wife in all ways, even if you never become the King of the Six Duchies. ”

  I felt Dutiful’s instantaneous reaction. NO, I forbade him, and for the first time since I had accidentally Skill-imprinted on him the command not to fight me, I hoped with all my heart that it was well and truly still in place.

  And it was. I felt him hit that barrier like a rabbit finding the length of the snare. Like a rabbit, he struggled against the choking restriction of my command. But unlike a rabbit, I felt him, even in his panic and outrage, consider the type of stricture it was. He acted swift as thought. He lifted his head, and almost like a tracing finger, I felt him follow the noose back to me.

  He severed it. Not easily. In the moment before I lost my contact with him, I could feel the sweat burst from his skin. For me, it was like being slammed brow first onto an anvil. I reeled with the impact, but had no time for considering the pain. For I was suddenly aware that the veiled Trader’s pale blue eye-light was indeed visible through his lacy veil. And he stared, not at the Prince, but at the peephole where I cowered, out of sight. I would have given much to see his expression just then. Even as I prayed it was some bizarre coincidence, I longed to huddle down, to shut my own eyes and hide until his gaze had swept past me.

  But I could not. I had a duty, not just as a Farseer but as Chade’s extra eyes. I kept my gaze fixed on the room. My head pounded with pain, and Selden Vestrit continued to stare at the wall that should have shielded me. Then Dutiful spoke.

  His voice boomed forth, Verity’s voice, a man’s voice. “I accept the challenge!”

  So swift it all had happened. I heard Kettricken’s gasp. She had not had time to shape a refusal. A stunned silence followed Dutiful’s words. Outislanders, including Arkon Bloodblade, exchanged worried glances at the thought of a Six Duchies prince slaying their dragon. At the Six Duchies tables, the palpable thought was that Dutiful did not need to meet this foreign challenge. I saw Chade wince. Yet a moment later, the old assassin’s eyes opened wide and I saw hope gleam in them. For cheers erupted, not just from the Six Duchies tables but from the Outislanders as well. The enthusiasm for a young man roaring like a bull that he would meet a challenge overpowered any shred of common sense that any man in the room might have held. Even I felt a surge of pride in my chest for this young Farseer prince. He could have refused the challenge, and rightfully so, with no loss to his honor. But he instead had stepped up to it, to defy the Outislanders’ slighting assumption that he was less than worthy of their narcheska’s hand. At the Outislander table, I suspected that wagers were already being laid that the boy would fail. But even if he failed, his willingness to step up to Elliania’s challenge to him had increased their regard for him. Perhaps they were not marrying their narcheska off to a farmer prince at all. Perhaps there was a bit of hot blood in his veins.

  And for the first time I noted the looks of consternation, even horror, amongst the Bingtown Traders. The veiled Trader was no longer staring at my wall. Selden Vestrit gestured frantically, speaking urgently to the others at his table, trying to make himself heard through the roar of sound that filled the Great Hall.

  I caught a glimpse of Starling Birdsong. She had leapt to a tabletop, and her head pivoted like a beleaguered wind-vane as she tried to take in every aspect of the scene, mark every man’s reaction and harvest every comment. There would be a song to be made from all this, and it would be hers.

  “And!” Prince Dutiful shouted into the din. Something in the set of the lines around his eyes warned me.

  “Eda, mercy,” I prayed, but knew no god or goddess would stop him. There was a wild and stubborn gleam in his eyes, and I feared whatever it was he was about to say. At his shout, the uproar in the Great Hall quieted abruptly. When he spoke again, his words were pitched for the Narcheska. Nonetheless, in the brimming silence in the room, they carried clearly.

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  “And I’ve a challeng
e of my own. For if I must prove myself worthy to wed the Narcheska Elliania, who has no prospects of being queen of anything, save that she give her hand to me, then I think she must first prove herself worthy of being a Queen of the Six Duchies. ”

  Now it was Peottre’s turn to start and then grow pale, for the words were scarcely out of the Prince’s mouth before Elliania replied, “Call me this challenge, then!”

  “I shall!” The Prince took a breath. The eyes of the two youngsters were locked. They might have stood in the midst of a desert for all the care they took for the rest of us. The glance between them was not fixed, but alive, as if for the first time they saw one another as they clinched in this battle of wills. “My father, as you may know, was ‘only’ the King-in-Waiting when he embarked on a quest to save the Six Duchies. With little more than his own courage to guide him, he set forth to find the Elderlings that would rise to our aid and end the war your people had forced upon us. ” The Prince paused, almost, I think, to see if his words had struck home. Elliania remained icily silent in her stern contemplation of him. He cut on. “When months passed, and no word was heard from him, my mother, who by then was the besieged but rightful Queen of the Six Duchies, set out after him. With but a handful of companions, she sought and found my father, and aided him in waking the dragons of the Six Duchies. ” Again, that pause. Again, Elliania refused to put words in it.

  “It seems fitting to me, that as she proved herself by joining my father’s quest to wake the dragons, so you should play a similar role in my quest to slay your country’s dragon. Go with me, Narcheska Elliania. Share the hardship and witness the deed you have laid upon me. And if, in truth, there be no dragon to slay, witness that. ” Dutiful spun suddenly to the room and shouted, “Let no man here ever say it was the will of the Six Duchies alone that slew Icefyre. Let your narcheska who has commanded this deed see it through beside me. ” He turned back to her and his voice dropped to a sugary whisper. “If she dares. ”

  Her lip curled in disdain. “I dare. ”

  If she had said more, the words would have gone unheard, for the hall erupted in noise. Peottre stood as pale and still as if he had been turned to ice, but every other Outislander, including Elliania’s father, was pounding on the table. A sudden rhythmic chant in their own tongue burst from them, a song of determination and blood lust more fit to the rowers on a raiding ship than to treaty negotiators in a foreign hall. The lords and ladies of the Six Duchies shouted as they attempted to be heard. The comments seemed to run the gamut from the Narcheska deserving the Prince’s scornful challenge to the view that she had responded bravely and perhaps there was a worthy queen inside the Outislander girl.

  Amidst it all, my queen stood still and tall, silently regarding her son. I saw Chade’s mouth move as if he offered some quiet bit of counsel to her. She only sighed. I suspected I knew what he had said. Too late to change it; the Six Duchies must follow through on the Prince’s thrust. To one side of them, Peottre was struggling to mask his deep dismay. And before them, the Prince and the Narcheska still stood, their eyes locked in duel.

  The Queen spoke, her voice low, the first words intended only to quell the sound in the hall. “My guests and my lords and ladies. Hear me, please. ”

  The uproar died slowly, ending with the thumping at the Outislander table that gradually slowed and ceased. Kettricken took a deep breath and I saw resolve firm her features. She turned, not to Arkon Bloodblade and his table, but to where she knew the true power resided now. She looked toward the Narcheska, but I knew her focus was actually on Peottre Blackwater. “It seems we now have a firm agreement. Prince Dutiful is hereby affianced to the Narcheska Elliania Blackwater of the God’s Runes. Providing that Prince Dutiful can bring to her the head of the black dragon Icefyre. And providing that Narcheska Elliania accompany him to witness the doing of this task. ”

  “BE IT SO!” roared out Arkon Bloodblade, unaware that the decision had never been his to make.

  Peottre nodded twice, grave and silent. And to my queen, the Narcheska Elliania turned and lifted her chin. “Be it so,” she agreed quietly, and the deed was done.

  “Bring in the food and wine!” the Queen commanded suddenly. It was not at all the proper way the meal should have been commanded, but I suspected she needed to sit down, and that a glass of wine to fortify her would be welcome. I was trembling myself, not just in fear of what must eventually come of this but from the thundering pain that Dutiful had inflicted on me in the course of severing my power over him. The minstrels struck up suddenly at a signal from Chade as the serving folk flooded into the hall. All resumed their seats, even Starling the Minstrel, stepping gracefully from the tabletop into her husband’s waiting arms. He swung her to the floor, infected with the court’s heady elation. It seemed whatever their quarrel had been, it was mended now.

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  As if Dutiful sensed me wondering at how he had freed himself of my Skill command, the Prince swept suddenly into my skull. Tom Badgerlock. You will answer to me later for this. As abruptly, he was gone. When I falteringly reached after him, he was simply unavailable to me. I knew he was there, but I could not find a handle to open his mind to mine. I drew a deep breath. This did not bode well. He was angry with me, and quite likely the trust between us was badly damaged. It would not make teaching him any easier. I pulled my blanket more tightly around my shoulders.

  Below, in the hall, only the Bingtown Traders were subdued. Their talk was quiet and confined to their own group. Even so, it did not prevent them from filling their plates and their glasses generously. Alone amongst them, Selden Vestrit sat, seemingly in deep thought. His plate and his glass were empty and he seemed to stare at nothing.

  But at every other table, the talk was lively and the eating as ravenous as if they were men-at-arms fresh returned from battle. The excitement in the hall was palpable, as was the sense of triumph. It was done. For now, at least, the Six Duchies and the Out Islands had a firm understanding with one another. The Queen had done it, well, yes, and the Prince, and the glances that were tossed his way seemed more appraising of him than previously. Obviously, this lad was proving himself spirited, to both his lords and ladies, and to the Outislander folk.

  The guests in the hall settled down to their meat and drink. A minstrel struck up a lively tune, and the talk subsided as folk began to eat. I opened the bottle of wine I had brought with me. From my folded napkin, I took bread and meat and cheese. The ferret miraculously appeared at my elbow, his tiny paws on my knee. I broke off a piece of meat for him.

  “A toast!” someone shouted in the hall. “To the Prince and the Narcheska!”

  A lusty cheer followed the words.

  I raised my bottle, grinned grimly, and drank.

  Chapter XIV


  Owan, a fisherman, lived on the rune island called Fedois. His wife’s mothers’ house was of wood and stone, and stood well above the tide line, for tides can run both exceedingly high and very low in that place. It was a good place. There were clams on the beach to the north, and enough pasturage below the glacier that his wife could keep three goats of her own in a flock of many, even though she was a younger daughter. She bore for them two sons and a daughter, and all helped him fish. They had enough and it should have been enough for him. But it was not.

  From Fedois, on a clear day, a keen-eyed man can see Aslevjal with its glacier glinting blue beneath the azure sky. Now all know that when the lowest tide of the winter season comes, a boat can venture under the glacier’s skirts and find a way to the heart of the island. There, as all know, the dragon sleeps with a hoard of treasure scattered about him. Some say a bold man can go there and ask a favor of Icefyre as he sleeps locked in the glacier’s cold, and some say it is only a man both greedy and foolish who would do such a thing. For it is told that Icefyre will give such a man not only what he asks, but what he deserves, and that is not always good luck and gol
d. To visit Icefyre by that path, a man must go swift, waiting for the tide to lower away from the ice, and then darting under it as soon as his boat will slide between the water and the icy roof. Once in that cold sapphire place, he must count the beats of his own pulse, for if he tarries too long, the tide will return to grind him and his boat between water and ice. And that is not the worst thing that can befall a man who ventures there. Few are there who tell the tale of visiting that place, and even fewer are truthful men.

  Owan knew this well, for his mother had told him, and so had his wife and his wife’s mother. “No call have you to go begging at the dragon’s door,” they warned him. “For you will get no better of Icefyre than would an impudent beggar that came to our own door. ” Even his younger son knew this was so, and he was a lad of only six winters. But his older son had seventeen years, and his heart and his loins burned hot for Gedrena, daughter of Sindre of the Linsfall mothers. She was a rich bride, high above choosing the son of a fisherman for her mate. So his older son buzzed in Owan’s ear like a gnat by night, whining and humming that if they had the courage to visit Icefyre, they both could be the richer for it.


  The following morning, the Outislanders departed, sailing with the dawn tide. I didn’t envy them their trip. The day was rough and cold, spray flying from the tips of the waves. Yet they seemed to make little of the harsh weather, accepting it as routine. I heard that there was a procession down to the docks, and a formal farewell as Elliania boarded the ship that would carry her back to the God’s Runes. Dutiful bent over her hand and kissed it. She curtsied to him and to the Queen. Then Bloodblade made his formal farewells, followed by his nobles. Peottre was the last to bid good-bye to the Farseers. He was also the one who escorted the Narcheska aboard the ship. They all stood on the deck to wave as the ship was pulled out of the harbor. I think the folk who went to witness it were disappointed that there were no last-minute dramatics. Almost, it was a calm following a storm. Perhaps Elliania was still too dazed from the previous evening’s late night and cataclysmic agreements to present any final hurdles.

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