Golden fool, p.38
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       Golden Fool, p.38

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Page 140


  I knew that a quiet meeting of the Queen and Chade with Blackwater and Bloodblade had followed the formal banquet. It had been hastily arranged and lasted into the early hours of the morning. The behavior of the wayward Prince and Narcheska had doubtless been discussed, but more important, the Prince’s quest had now metamorphosed into but one element of an extended visit to the Out Islands. Chade told me later that the slaying of the questionable dragon had not been discussed so much as the schedule for the Prince to meet not only the Hetgurd of the Out Islands but to visit the motherhouse of Elliania’s family. The Hetgurd was a loose alliance of headmen and tribal chiefs who functioned more as trade negotiators than any sort of a government. Elliania’s motherhouse was a different matter. Chade told me later that Peottre had seemed very uneasy when Blackwater had calmly assumed that it must be a part of Dutiful’s visit to the Out Islands, almost as if he would have refused it if he could. The Prince and his entourage would depart for the Out Islands in the spring. My private response to that was that it gave Chade precious little time for his information-gathering.

  I was not a witness to that hastily convened negotiation, nor to any of the farewell events. Lord Golden, much to Chade’s annoyance, still begged off from any public appearances, citing his health. I was just as glad not to go. I was cramped and stiff from an evening spent wedged in a wall peering through a spyhole. A nice stormy ride down to Buckkeep Town and back was not alluring.

  In the wake of the departure of the Outislanders, many of the lesser lords and ladies of the Six Duchies began to leave the court also. The festivities and occasions of the Prince’s betrothal were over, and they had many stories to share with the folks at home. Buckkeep Castle emptied out like an upended bottle. The stables and servants’ quarters suddenly became roomier, and life settled into a quieter winter routine.

  To my dismay, the Bingtown Traders lingered on. This meant that Lord Golden continued to keep to his rooms lest he be recognized, and that at any hour I might encounter Jek visiting with him. Propriety meant nothing to her. She had grown up rough, the daughter of fisherfolk, and had kept the carefree ways of that people. Several times I met her in the halls of Buckkeep Castle. Always she grinned at me and gave me a jovial good-day. Once, when our steps were carrying us in the same direction, she thumped me on the arm and told me not to be so somber all the time. I made some neutral reply to that, but before I could get away, she clamped her hand on my forearm and drew me to one side.

  She glanced all about us to be sure the hall was deserted and then spoke in a low voice. “I suppose this will get me into trouble, but I can’t stand to see the two of you like this. I refuse to believe you don’t know ‘Lord Golden’s secret. ’ And knowing it—” She paused a moment, then said quietly and urgently, “Open your eyes, man, and see what could be yours. Don’t wait. Love such as you could have doesn’t—”

  I cut her off before she could say anything more. “Perhaps ‘Lord Golden’s secret’ is not what you think it is. Or perhaps you have lived among Jamaillians for too long,” I suggested, offended.

  At my sour look, she had only laughed. “Look,” she said, “you might as well trust me. ‘Lord Golden’ has, for years now. Believe in my friendship for both of you, and know that, like you, I can keep a friend’s secrets, when they deserve to be kept. ” She turned her head and regarded me as a bird looks at a worm. “But some secrets beg to be betrayed. The secret of undeclared love is like that. Amber is a fool not to voice her feelings for you. It does neither of you any good to ignore such a secret. ” She stared into my eyes earnestly, her hand still gripping my wrist.

  “I don’t know what secret you refer to,” I replied stiffly, even as I wondered uneasily just how many of my secrets the Fool had shared with her. At that moment, two serving maids appeared at the end of the hall and continued toward us, gossiping merrily.

  She had dropped my wrist, sighed for me and shaken her head in mock pity. “Of course you don’t,” she replied, “and you won’t even see what is put right on the table before you. Men. If it was raining soup, you’d be out there with a fork. ” She slapped me on the back, and then our ways parted, much to my relief.

  After that, I began to long to have things out with the Fool. Like an aching tooth, I jiggled over and over what I would say to him. The frustration was that he excluded me from his bedchamber, even as he seemed to welcome Jek in for private talks. Not that I rapped at his door and demanded entrance. I had been maintaining a sullen silence toward him, waiting hungrily for him to demand just what ailed me. The problem was that he did not. He seemed focused elsewhere; it was as if he did not notice my silence or my surliness. Is there anything more provoking than waiting for someone to open the lowering quarrel? My mood became ever darker. That Jek believed the Fool was some woman named Amber did nothing to soothe my irritation. It only made the situation ever more bizarre.

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  In vain, I tried to distract myself with other mysteries. Laurel was gone. In the dwindling days of winter, I had noticed her absence. My discreet inquiries as to where the Huntswoman was had led me to rumors that she had gone to visit her family. Under the circumstances, I doubted that. When bluntly asked, Chade informed me that it was not my concern if the Queen had decided to send her Huntswoman out of harm’s way. When I asked where, he gave me a scathing look. “What you don’t know is less danger for you and for her. ”

  “And is there more danger, then, that I should know of?”

  He considered a moment before answering, then sighed heavily. “I don’t know. She begged a private audience with the Queen. What was said there, I don’t know, for Kettricken refuses to tell me. She gave some foolish promise to the Huntswoman that it would remain a secret between the two of them. Then, Laurel was gone. I don’t know if the Queen sent her away, or if she asked permission to leave, or if she simply fled. I have told Kettricken that it is not wise to leave me uninformed about this. But she will not budge from her promise. ”

  I thought of Laurel as I had last seen her. I suspected she had gone forth to fight the Piebalds in her own way. What that could be, I had no idea. But I feared for her. “Have we had any word about Laudwine and his followers?”

  “Nothing that we know is absolutely true. But three rumors might as well be the truth, as the saying goes. And there are plentiful rumors that Laudwine has recovered from the injury you dealt him, and that he will once more take up the reins of power over the Piebalds. The closest we have to good news is that some may dispute his right to lead them. We can only hope that he has problems of his own. ”

  And so I hoped, fervently, but in my heart I did not believe it.

  There was little to lighten my life elsewhere. The Prince had not come to the Skill tower on the morning of the Narcheska’s departure. I thought little of that. He had had a late night, and his presence was demanded early on the docks. But on the two mornings since then, I had waited in vain for him. I arrived at our appointed hour, I waited, laboring over scroll translations alone, and then I left. He sent me no word of explanation. After simmering in my own anger through the second morning, I made a firm decision that I would not contact him. It was, I told myself firmly, not my place. I tried to put myself in the Prince’s skin. How would I have felt if I had found that Verity had given me a Skill command to be loyal? I knew too well how I felt about Skillmaster Galen fogging my mind and masking my Skill talent from me. Dutiful had a right to both his anger and his royal contempt of me. I’d let them run their course. When he was ready, I’d give him the only explanation I could: the truth. I had not meant to bind him to obey me, only to keep him from attempting to kill me. I sighed at the thought and bent over my work again.

  It was evening and I was sitting up in Chade’s tower. I had been there since afternoon, waiting for Thick. It was yet another meeting that he had missed. As I had pointed out to Chade, there was little he or I could do if the half-wit
would not voluntarily come to meet me. Still, I had not wasted my time. In addition to several of the older and more obscure Skill scrolls that we were deciphering piecemeal, Chade had given me two old scrolls that dealt with Icefyre, the God’s Runes’ dragon. They both dealt with legends, but he hoped I could sift whatever seed of truth had begun them. He had already dispatched spies to the Out Islands. One had sailed secretly aboard the Narcheska’s vessel, ostensibly working his way across to visit relatives there. His true mission was to reach Aslevjal, or at least to discover as much about that isle as could be learned, and to report back to Chade with it. The old man feared that having committed himself to the quest, Dutiful must actually go. But he was determined the Prince would go well prepared and well accompanied. “I myself may go with him,” Chade had informed me at our last chance encounter in the tower. I had groaned, but managed to keep it a silent one. He was too old for such a trip. By an amazing effort of will, I managed to keep those words to myself also. For I knew what would follow any protest: “Who, then, do you think I should send?” I was no more in favor of visiting Aslevjal myself than I was for Chade going. Or Prince Dutiful, for that matter.

  I pushed the Icefyre scroll to one side and rubbed my eyes. It was interesting, but I doubted that anything there was going to prepare the Prince for his quest. From what I knew of our stone dragons, even from what the Fool had told me of the Bingtown dragons, it seemed highly unlikely to me that there was a dragon asleep in a glacier on an Outislander isle. Far more likely that a “slumbering dragon” was fancifully blamed for earthquakes and glaciers calving. Besides, I’d had enough of dragons for a time. The more I worked on the scroll, the more troubling thoughts of the veiled Bingtowner menaced my sleep. Yet I could wish those were my only concerns.

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  My eyes fell on a heavy pottery bowl, upside down on the corner of the table. There was a dead rat under it. Well, there was most of a dead rat under. I’d taken it from the ferret last night. From a sound sleep, a Wit scream of hideous pain had awakened me. It was not the ordinary snuffing of a small creature’s life. Anyone with the Wit had to become inured to those constant ripples. Usually, little creatures went like popping bubbles. Among animals, death is a daily chance one takes in the course of living. Only a human bonded to a creature could have given such a roar of dismay, outrage, and sorrow over a creature’s death.

  Once jolted awake by it, I had given up all hope of going back to sleep. It was as if my wound of losing Nighteyes had suddenly been torn afresh. I had arisen and, loath to awaken the Fool, had instead come up to the tower. On the way I had encountered the ferret dragging the rat. It had been the largest, most glossily healthy rat I had ever seen. After a chase and a tussle, the ferret had surrendered it to me. There was no way I could prove that this dead rat had been someone’s Wit-beast, but my suspicions were strong. I had saved it to show it to Chade. I knew we had a spy sneaking about within the keep’s walls. Laurel’s lynched sprig of laurel was proof enough of that. Now it seemed possible that the rat and his Wit-partner had not only penetrated to the royal residence, but knew something of our hidden lairs. I hoped the old man would come to the tower this evening.

  I now turned to the two old Skill scrolls we’d been piecing together. They were more challenging than the Icefyre vellums, and yet more satisfying to work on. Chade believed the two were part of the same work, based on the apparent age of the vellum and the style of lettering used. I believed they were two separate works, based on the choice of words and the illustrations. Both were faded and cracked, with portions of words or whole sentences unreadable. Both were in an archaic lettering that gave me headaches. Beside each scroll was a clean piece of vellum, with Chade’s and my line-for-line translations of the two. Looking at them, I realized that my handwriting predominated now. I glanced at Chade’s latest contribution. It was a sentence that began “The use of elfbark. ” I frowned at that, and found the corresponding line in the old scroll. The illustration beside it was faded, but it was definitely not elfbark. The word Chade had translated as “elfbark” was partially obscured by a stain. But squinting at it, I had to agree that “elfbark” did seem the most likely configuration of the letters. Well, that made no sense. Unless the illustration did not pertain to that part of the text. In which case, the piece I had translated might be all wrong. I sighed.

  The wine rack swung open. Chade entered, followed by Thick bearing a tray of food and drink. “Good evening,” I greeted them, and carefully set my work to one side.

  “Good evening, Tom,” Chade greeted me.

  “Evening, master,” dogstink Thick echoed him.

  Don’t call me that. “Good evening, Thick. I thought you and I were going to meet here earlier today. ”

  The half-wit set the tray down on the table and scratched himself. “Forgot,” he said with a shrug, but his little eyes narrowed as he said it.

  I gave Chade a glance of resignation. I had tried, but the old man’s surly stare seemed to say I had not tried hard enough. I tried to think of a way to be rid of Thick so I could discuss the rat with Chade.

  “Thick? Next time you bring up wood for the fire, could you bring an extra load? Sometimes in the evening, it gets quite cold up here. ” I gestured at the dwindling flames. I’d had to let it die down, as there was no more wood to fuel it.

  Cold dogstink. The thought reached me clearly but he simply stood and stared at me slackly as if he had not understood my words.

  “Thick? Two loads of firewood tonight. All right?” Chade spoke to him, a bit more loudly than was needed and saying each word clearly. Could he not sense how much that annoyed Thick? The man was simple, but not deaf. Nor stupid, really.

  Thick nodded slowly. “Two loads. ”

  “You could go get it right now,” Chade told him.

  “Now,” Thick agreed. As he turned to go, he gave me a brief glance from the corner of his eyes. Dogstink. More work.

  I waited until he had gone before I spoke to Chade. He had set the tray on the table opposite from the scrolls. “He doesn’t try to assault me with the Skill anymore. But he uses it to insult me, privately. He knows you cannot hear him. I don’t know why he dislikes me so much. I’ve done nothing to him. ”

  Chade lifted one shoulder. “Well, you will both just have to get past that and work together. And you must begin soon. The Prince must have some sort of Skill coterie to accompany him on this quest, even if it’s only a serving man he can draw strength from. Court Thick, Fitz, and win him. We need him. ” When I met his words with silence, he sighed. Glancing about, he offered, “Wine?”

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  I indicated my cup on the table. “No, thank you. I’ve been drinking hot tea this evening. ”

  “Oh. Very good. ” Chade walked around the table to see what I was working on. “Oh. Did you finish the Icefyre scrolls?”

  I shook my head. “Not yet. I don’t think we’re going to find anything useful in them. They seem to be very vague about the actual dragon. Mostly accounts of earthquakes that proved that the dragon would punish someone if he didn’t do what was just, and so the man realizes that he had best behave in a righteous way. ”

  “Nevertheless, you should finish reading them. There might be something in there, some hidden mention of a detail that could be useful. ”

  “I doubt it. Chade, do you think there even is a dragon? Or might not this be Elliania’s ploy to delay her marriage, by sending the Prince off to slay something that doesn’t exist?”

  “I am satisfied that some sort of creature is encased in ice on Aslevjal Isle. There are a number of passing mentions of it being visible in some of the very old scrolls. A few winters of very deep snowfalls and an avalanche seem to have obscured it. But for a time, travelers in that area would go far out of their way to stare into the glacier and speculate on what they were seeing inside it. ”

  I leaned back in my chair. “Oh, good
. Perhaps this will be more a task for shovels and ice saws than for a prince and a sword. ”

  A smile flickered briefly over Chade’s face. “Well, if it comes to moving ice and snow swiftly, I think I’ve come up with a better technique. But it still needs refinement. ”

  “So. That was you on the beach last month?” I had heard rumors of another lightning blast, this one witnessed by several ships out in the harbor. This explosion had happened in the deep of night during a snowstorm. It befuddled all who spoke of it. No one had seen lightning streak through the sky, nor would expect to on such a night. But no one could deny hearing the blast. A sizable amount of stone and sand had been moved by it.

  “On the beach?” Chade asked me as if mystified.

  “Let it go,” I conceded, almost with relief. I had no wish to be included in his experiments with his exploding powder.

  “As we must,” Chade agreed. “For we have other things to discuss, things of much greater importance. How is the Prince progressing with his Skill lessons?”

  I winced. I had not informed Chade that the Prince had not been coming to them. I hedged at first, reminding him, “I’ve been reluctant to let him do any actual Skilling while the scaled Bingtowner is still here. So we had only been studying the scrolls—” Then I suddenly saw little sense in withholding the truth, and no future at all in lying to Chade. “Actually, he hasn’t come to any of his lessons since the farewell banquet. I think he’s still angry at discovering I’d placed a Skill command on him. ”

  Chade scowled at the news. “Well. I’ll take steps to correct the young man. Regardless of how ruffled his feathers are, he had best put himself to that task. Tomorrow, he will be there. I will arrange that he will be able to spend an extra hour with you each morning and not be missed. Now. As to Thick. You must get to the task of teaching him, Fitz, or at least getting him to obey you. I leave how you do that to you, but I suggest that bribes will work better than threats or punishments. Now. On to our next task: how do you propose that we begin looking for other Skill candidates?”

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