Golden fool, p.39
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       Golden Fool, p.39

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  I sat down and crossed my arms on my chest. I tried to hold in my anger as I asked, “Then you’ve found a Skillmaster to teach other candidates if you find them?”

  He knitted his brows at me. “We have you. ”

  I shook my head. “No. I teach the Prince at his request. And you’ve coerced me into trying to teach Thick. But I am not a Skillmaster. Even if I had the knowledge to be one, I would not be one. I cannot. You are asking me for a lifetime commitment. You’re asking me to eventually take on an apprentice who would assume the duties of a Skillmaster when I died. There is no possible way I could take on a class of students and instruct them in the Skill without revealing to all of them who I am. I won’t do that. ”

  Chade stared at me, mouth slightly ajar at my contained anger. It seemed to give my words momentum.

  “Furthermore, I’d prefer that you let me settle my quarrel with the Prince in my own way. It will go better so. It’s a personal matter, between him and me. As for when and where I will be able to teach Thick? Never and nowhere,” I said shortly. “He doesn’t like me. He’s unpleasant, ill-mannered, and smelly. And, if you haven’t noticed before, he’s a half-wit. A bit dangerous to trust him with the Farseer magic. But even if he weren’t all those things, he has rejected all my efforts to teach him anything. ” That was true, I defended it to myself. He had quickly terminated all of my halfhearted attempts at conversation, leaving me in a cloud of Skilled insults. “And he’s strong. If I push him, he may take that dislike of me to a violent level. Frankly, he scares me. ”

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  If I had thought to provoke Chade to anger, I failed. He slowly sat down across from me and took a sip from his wineglass. He regarded me silently for a moment, then shook his head. “This won’t do, Fitz,” he said in a low voice. “I know that you doubt you can instruct the Prince and create a coterie for him in the time we have, but as it is something we must do, I have faith you will find a way. ”

  “You are convinced the Prince needs a coterie at his side before he undertakes this quest. I’m not even sure this is a real quest, let alone that a coterie will be able to assist him better than a troop of soldiers with shovels. ”

  “Nevertheless, sooner or later the Prince will need a coterie. You might as well begin to create one now. ” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. “I’ve an idea of how to find likely candidates for a coterie. ”

  I stared at him silently. He blithely ignored my refusal to be Skillmaster. His next words incensed me.

  “I could simply ask Thick. He easily located Nettle. Perhaps if he put his mind to it and was rewarded for each success, he could find others. ”

  “I really want nothing to do with Thick,” I said quietly.

  “A shame,” Chade replied as softly. “For I’m afraid this is no longer a matter for discussion between you and me. Let me say this plainly: it is your queen’s command for us. We met for several hours this morning, discussing Dutiful and his quest. She shares my opinion that he must have a coterie to accompany him. She asked what candidates we had. I told her Thick and Nettle. She wishes their training to begin at once. ”

  I crossed my arms on my chest for a moment and held my silence in. I was shocked, and not just by Nettle being included. I knew that in the Mountain Kingdom, babes such as Thick must have been were usually exposed shortly after birth. I had surmised that she would be dismayed at the thought of such a man serving her son. In fact, I had been relying on her to refuse him. Once more, my queen had surprised me.

  When I was sure I could speak in a steady voice, I asked, “Has she sent for Nettle yet?”

  “Not yet. The Queen wishes to handle this matter herself, with great tact. We know that if she requests this, Burrich may refuse again. If she commands it, well, neither of us can decide what response he might make to that. She wishes both Burrich and the girl to agree to this. And thus the precise way to phrase the summons will demand thought, but right now, the Bingtown delegation takes every spare moment she has. When they have departed, she will invite both Burrich and Nettle here to explain the need to both of them. And perhaps Molly as well. ” Very carefully he added, “Unless, of course, you would like to broach the matter to them for the Queen. Then Nettle could begin her lessons sooner. ”

  I took a breath. “No. I would not. And Kettricken should not waste her time considering how to approach them. Because I won’t teach Nettle to Skill. ”

  “I thought you might feel that way. But feelings no longer have anything to do with it, Fitz. It is our queen’s command. We have no choice except to obey. ”

  I slid down in my chair. Defeat rose like bile in the back of my throat. So. There it was. The command of my queen was that my daughter be sacrificed to the need of the Farseer heir. Her peaceful life and the security of her home were as nothing before the needs of the Farseer throne. I’d stood here before. Once, I would have believed I had no choice except to obey. But that had been a younger Fitz.

  I took a moment and considered it. Kettricken, my friend, the wife of my uncle Verity, was a Farseer by virtue of marriage. The vows I had sworn as a child and a youth and as a young man bound me to the Farseers, to serve as they commanded me, even to giving up my life. To Chade, my duty seemed clear. But what was a vow? Words said aloud with good intentions of keeping them. To some, they were no more than that, words that could be discarded when the situation or the heart changed. Men and women who had vowed faithfulness to one another dallied with others or simply abandoned their mates. Soldiers under oath to a lord deserted in the cold and lean winters. Noblemen vowed to one cause cast off their obligations when another side offered them more advantage. So. Truly, was I bound to obey her? I found that my hand had strayed to the little fox pin inside my shirt.

  There were a hundred reasons I did not wish to obey her, reasons that had nothing to do with Nettle. The Skill, I had told Chade before, was a magic better left dead. Yet I had allowed myself to be persuaded to teach Dutiful. Reading the Skill scrolls had not made me more secure in my decision to teach him. The scope of the Skill that I had glimpsed from these forgotten scrolls was vaster than anything Verity had ever dared imagine. Worse, the more I read, the more I realized that what we had was not the Skill library, but only the remaining fragments of it. We had the scrolls that spoke of the duties of instructors, and the scrolls that delineated the most sophisticated uses of the Skills. There must have been other Scrolls, ones that spoke of the basics and how a Skill-user could build his abilities and control to the level demanded for the most advanced purposes. But we did not have those ones. El alone knew what had become of them. The bits and pieces of Skill knowledge that I had glimpsed had convinced me that the magic offered abilities almost on a footing with the powers of the gods. With the Skill, one could injure or heal, blind or enlighten, encourage or crush. I did not think I was wise enough to wield such authority, let alone decide who should inherit it. The more Chade read, the more eager and avid he became for the magic that had been denied to him by his illegitimate birth. He frightened me, often, with his enthusiasm for all the Skill seemed to offer. It frightened me in a different way that he insisted on venturing into the magic alone. That he had lately said nothing made me hope he had had no success.

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  Yet I dared not hope that left the decision in my hands. I could refuse, I could flee, but even without me, Chade would pursue the magic. His will was strong, as was his desire for the Skill. He would try to teach, not only himself, but also Dutiful and Thick. And Nettle, I realized. Because Chade saw the Skill, not as dangerous, but as desirable. He felt he was entitled to it. He was a Farseer, and the Farseer magic was rightfully his, but his birthright had been denied him, because he was a bastard Farseer. Just as my daughter was.

  I suddenly put my finger on a sore that had festered in me for years. The Farseer magic. That was what the Skill was. Supposedly, the Farseers had a “
right” to this magic. And with that assumption went the notions that a Farseer had the wisdom to deploy such a magic within the world. Chade, born on the wrong side of the sheets, had been judged unworthy and callously denied any education in the Skill. Perhaps he had never had any talent for it; perhaps it had withered away, unnourished. But the unfairness of being denied the opportunity still ate at the old man, after all these years. I was certain that his thwarted ambition was behind his consuming desire to restore the Skill to use. Did he see me as depriving Nettle in the same way he had been denied? I looked at him. Had not Verity and Chade and Patience intervened for me, I might be as he was.

  “You’re very quiet,” Chade said softly.

  “I’m thinking,” I replied.

  He frowned. “Fitz. It is the Queen’s command. Not a request to think about. An order to obey. ”

  Not a request to think about. In my youth, there had been so many things that I hadn’t thought about. I’d simply done my duty. But I had been a boy then. Now I was a man. And I teetered, not between duty and not duty, but between right and wrong. I took a step back from the question. Was it right to teach another generation the Skill and preserve it in our world? Was it right to let that knowledge fail and pass beyond humanity’s reach? If there would always be some who could not have it, was it more righteous to deny it to all? Was the guarded possession of magic like the hoarding of wealth, or was it simply a talent one did or did not have, like the ability to shoot a bow well or sing each note of a song perfectly?

  I felt besieged by the questions whirling in my head. In my heart, another question clamored at me. Was there no way to preserve Nettle from this? For I could not bear it. I could not bear to see all that I had sacrificed made useless as the secrets of her birth and of my survival were suddenly revealed to those most vulnerable to them. I could refuse to teach the Skill, but that would not preserve her peace. I could steal her from her home and flee, but then I would have been every bit as destructive as what I feared.

  When Kettle had taught me the Stone game, I had had a sudden shift in perception one day. The wolf had been with me then. I had seen the little stones set in their places on the crossing lines of the game cloth not as a fixed situation but as only one point in a spreading flow of possibilities. I could not win Chade’s game by saying no. But what if I said yes?

  You always chose to be bound by who you are. Now choose to be freed by who you are.

  I caught my breath as that thought floated unbidden into my mind. Nighteyes? I reached after it but it was sourceless as the wind. I was not sure if the Skill had carried the thought to me from some other person, or if the conviction had welled from some place deep within me. Whencever it had come, it rang with truth. I handled the conviction delicately, fearing it might cut me. So I was bound by who I was. I was a Farseer. But in a strange, detached way that freed me.

  “I want a promise,” I said slowly.

  Chade sensed the sea change in me. Carefully, he set down his wineglass. “You want a promise?”

  “It always went both ways between King Shrewd and me. I was his. And in exchange for that, he provided for me and saw that I was taught. He provided for me very well, something that I have only realized the fullness of since I have been a man. I would ask a similar promise now. ”

  Chade knitted his brows at me. “Are you lacking anything? Well, I know your present quarters leave much to be desired, but as I have told you, this chamber may be modified however you please to suit your needs. Your present mount seems a good one, but if you prefer a better horse, I could arrange—”

  “Nettle,” I said quietly.

  “You wish Nettle provided for? It could most easily be done if we brought her here, to be educated and offered the opportunity to meet young men of good position and—”

  “No. I do not wish her provided for. I wish for her to be left alone. ”

  He shook his head slowly. “Fitz, Fitz. You know I cannot give you that. The Queen commands that she be brought here and taught. ”

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  “I don’t ask it of you. I ask it of my queen. If I agree to become her Skillmaster, then she must agree to let me teach in my own way, whom I choose, in secret. And she must promise to leave my daughter in peace. Forever. ”

  A terrible expression crossed his face. His eyes lit with the wild hope that I would step into the role of Skillmaster. But the price I had set upon it made him quail. “You would ask a promise of your queen? Do you not think you presume too much?”

  I set my jaw. “Perhaps. But perhaps for a long time, the Farseers have presumed too much of me. ”

  He took in a long breath through his nose. I knew he bottled his anger with his hope. His words were icily formal. “I shall present your proposal to Her Majesty and relay to you her reply. ”

  “Please,” I replied in a low and courteous voice.

  He rose stiffly and without another word to me he departed. I realized in that silence that his anger went deeper than I had supposed. It took me a moment to put my finger on it. I was not as he was, neither as a Farseer nor as an assassin. I was not sure that made me a better man than he was. I longed to let him leave just then, but I knew there were other matters we had to discuss.

  “Chade. Before you go, there is something else I must tell you. I think we’ve had a spy in our secret corridors. ”

  He set his anger aside, almost visibly pulling himself back from it. As he turned, I lifted the bowl to reveal the rat. “The ferret killed this last night. I felt someone grieve for its death. I think this was the Wit-beast of someone within Buckkeep. It could be the same one I encountered on the road the night before the Prince’s betrothal. ”

  Grimacing with distaste, Chade bent over the rat and poked at it. “Is there any way to know whose?”

  I shook my head. “Not absolutely. But this will have greatly distressed someone. I suspect they would need a day or so at least to recover. So, if anyone vanishes from the social whirl of court for a day or so, you might want to pay a call on them, to see what ails them. ”

  “I’ll make inquiries. You think our spy is a noble, then?”

  “That’s the difficult part. It could be a man or a woman, noble or servant or bard. It could be someone who has lived here all his life, or someone who has been here only since the betrothal festivities began. ”

  “Is there anyone you suspect?”

  I frowned for a moment. “We might look most closely at the Bresinga group. But only because we know at least some of them are Witted and sympathetic to others with the Wit. ”

  “That’s a small group. Civil Bresinga is here, with a manservant, a page, and I think a groom for his horse. I’ll make inquiries about them. ”

  “It interests me that he remains when so many other nobles have returned to their own holdings. Could we discreetly find out why?”

  “He has become a close friend of the Prince. It is in the best interests of his family that he exploits that connection. But I will quietly ask how things are at Galekeep. I have a person there, you know. ”

  I nodded gravely.

  “She has said that the household seems to be declining in the last month or so. Old servants have left, and the new ones seem unmannered and undisciplined. She said there was an incident of some new cook’s assistants who helped themselves to the wine cellar. The cook was quite upset to find them drunk, and even more distressed to discover that the pilferage had been going on for some time. When Lady Bresinga did not send the guilty parties packing, the cook left, and she had been with the household for some years. And it seems there is a change in the guests entertained there. In place of the landed gentry and the lesser nobles who used to guest there, Lady Bresinga has hosted several hunting parties who seemed to my person to be rather unsophisticated, even boorish. ”

  “What do you think it means?”

  “That perhaps Lady Bresinga is forming new alliances. I suspect her new fr
iends are at best Witted, and at worst, Piebalds. Yet it may not be with the Lady’s willing consent. My person there says that Lady Bresinga spends more and more time alone in her own chambers, even when her ‘guests’ are dining. ”

  “Have we intercepted any letters between her and Civil?”

  Chade shook his head. “Not in the last two months. There don’t seem to be any. ”

  I shook my head. “I find that exceedingly curious. Something is going on there. We should watch young Civil more closely than ever. ” I sighed. “This rat is the first evidence of Piebald activity that we’ve had since Laurel’s lynched twig. I had hoped that their restlessness had settled. ”

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  Chade drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He came back to the table and sat down. “There have been other signs,” he said quietly. “But like this one, they have not been obvious ones. ”

  This was news to me. “Oh?”

  He cleared his throat. “The Queen has managed to quell executions of Witted ones in Buck. At least, public ones. I suspect that in the smaller towns and villages, it could happen and no word of it reaches us. Or it could be done under the pretense of punishment for some other crime. But in place of the executions, there have been murders. Are these citizens killing Witted? Or Piebalds moving against their own to force compliance upon them? We can’t tell. Only that the deaths go on. ”

  “We have discussed that before. As you said, there is little Queen Kettricken can do about that,” I said neutrally.

  Chade made a small sound in his throat. “It would be most helpful to me if you could convince our queen of that. It bothers her a great deal, Fitz. And not just because her son is Witted. ”

  I bowed my head in acknowledgment of her concern for me. “And outside Buck?” I asked quietly.

  “It is more difficult. The duchies have always resented the crown taking too deep an interest in what they regard as ‘personal’ questions of power and justice. To demand that Farrow or Tilth completely cease executing people for the Wit is like demanding that Shoaks cease all harassment along their border with Chalced. ”

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