Golden fool, p.4
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       Golden Fool, p.4

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “. . . and two to the side, one back, and turn,” she chanted breathlessly as her small feet followed her own instructions. As she spun lightly about in a whirl of embroidered skirts, I glimpsed her face for an instant. It was the Narcheska Elliania, Dutiful’s intended. No doubt she practiced for their first dance together tonight.

  “And again, two steps to the side, and two steps back and—”

  “One step back, Elli,” the old man interrupted her. “And then the turn. Try it again. ”

  She halted where she stood and said something quickly in her own language.

  “Elliania, practice the farmers’ tongue. It goes with their dance,” he replied implacably.

  “I don’t care to,” the girl announced petulantly. “Their flat language is as insipid as this dance. ” She dropped her hold on her skirts, clasped her elbows, and folded her arms on her chest. “It’s stupid. All this stepping and twirling. It’s like pigeons bobbing their heads up and down and pecking each other before they mate. ”

  “Yes. It is,” he agreed affably. “And for exactly the same reason. Now do it. And do it perfectly. If you can remember the steps of a sword exercise, you can master this. Or would you have these haughty farmers think that the God’s Runes have sent them a clumsy little boat-slave to wed their pretty prince?”

  She showed her very white teeth to him in a grimace. Then she snatched up her skirts, held them scandalously high to reveal that she was barefoot and bare-legged, and went through the steps in a frenzy. “Two-steps-to-the-side-and-one-step-back-and-spin -and-two-steps-to-the-side-and-one-step-back-and-spin-and-two-steps-to-the-side-” Her furious chant changed the graceful dance to a frantic cavorting. The man grinned at her prancing, but did not intervene. The God’s Runes, I thought to myself, and unearthed the familiar ring of the words. It was what the Outislanders called the scattered isles that made up their domain. And the single Outislander chart that I had ever seen did impart a runic rendering to each of the small pieces of land that broke their icy waters.

  “Enough!” the warrior suddenly snorted.

  The girl’s face was reddened with her efforts, her breath coming swift. But she did not stop until the man came suddenly to his feet and caught her up in an embrace. “Enough, Elliania. Enough. You have shown me that you can do it, and do it perfectly. Let it go for now. But tonight, you must be all grace and beauty and charm. Show yourself as the little spitfire that you are, and your pretty prince may decide to take a tamer bride. And you wouldn’t want that. ” He set her down on her feet and resumed his chair.

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  “Yes I would. ” Her response was instantaneous.

  His reply was more measured. “No. You wouldn’t. Unless you’d like my belt across your backside as well?”

  “No. ” Her reply was so stiff that I immediately perceived his threat was not an idle one.

  “No. ” He made the word an agreement. “And I would not relish doing it. But you are my sister’s daughter, and I will not see the line of our mothers disgraced. Would you?”

  “I don’t want to disgrace my mothers’ line. ” The child held herself poker-straight as she declared this. But then her shoulders began to shake as she went on. “But I don’t want to marry that prince. His mother looks like a snow harpy. He’ll make me fat with babies, and they’ll all be pale and cold as ice wraiths. Please, Peottre, take me home. I don’t want to have to live in this great cold cave. I don’t want that boy to do the thing to me that makes babies. I just want our mothers’ low house, and to ride my pony out in the wind. And I want my own boat to scull across Sendalfjord, and my own skates of gear to set for fish. And when I am grown, my own bench in the mothers’ house, and a man who knows that it is right to dwell in the house of his wife’s mothers. All I want is what any other girl my age wants. That prince will tear me away from my mothers’ line like a branch is torn from a vine, and I will grow brittle and dry here until I snap into tiny pieces!”

  “Elliania, Elliania, dear heart, don’t!” The man came to his feet with the fluid grace of a warrior, yet his body was stocky and thick, a typical Outislander. He caught the child up and she buried her face in his shoulder. Sobs shook her, and tears stood in the warrior’s eyes as he held her. “Hush, now. Hush. If we are clever, if you are strong and swift and dance like the swallows above the water, it will never come to that. Never. Tonight is but a betrothal, little shining one, not a wedding. Do you think Peottre would abandon you here? Foolish little fish! No one is going to make a baby with you tonight, or any other night, not for years yet! And even then, it will happen only if you want it to. That I promise you. Do you think I would shame our mothers’ line by letting it be otherwise? This is but a dance we do. Nevertheless, we must tread it perfectly. ” He set her back on her little bare feet. He tilted her chin up so she must look at him, and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of one scarred hand. “There, now. There. Smile for me. And remember. The first dance you must give to the pretty prince. But the second one is for Peottre. So, show me now, how we will dance together, this silly farmer’s prancing. ”

  He began a tuneless humming that set a beat, and she gave her small hands into his. Together they stepped out a measure, she moving like thistledown and he like a swordsman. I watched them dance, the girl’s eyes focused up at the man’s, and the man staring off over her head into a distance only he could see.

  A knock at the door halted their dance. “Enter,” Peottre called, and a serving woman came in with a dress draped over her arm. Abruptly, Peottre and Elliania stepped apart and became still. They could not have been more wary if a serpent had slithered into the room. Yet the woman was garbed as an Outislander, one of their own.

  Her manner was odd. She made no curtsy. She held the dress up for their inspection, giving it a shake to loosen the folds of the fabric. “The Narcheska will wear this tonight. ”

  Peottre ran his eyes over it. I had never seen anything like it. It was a woman’s dress, cut for a child. The fabric was a pale blue, swooping low at the neckline. A gush of lace on the front along with some clever gathers drew up the fabric. It would help the Narcheska pretend a bosom she did not yet possess. Elliania reddened as she stared at it. Peottre was more direct. He stepped between Elliania and the dress as if he would protect her from it. “No. She will not. ”

  “Yes. She will. The Lady prefers it. The young Prince will find it most attractive. ” She offered, not an opinion, but a directive.

  “No. She will not. It is a mockery of who she is. That is not the garb of a God’s Runes narcheska. For her to wear that is an insult to our mothers’ house. ” With a sudden step and a slash of his hand, Peottre knocked the dress from her hands to the floor.

  I expected the servant woman to cower back from him or beg his pardon. Instead she just gave him a flat-eyed stare. She spoke after a brief pause. “The Lady says, ‘It has nothing to do with the God’s Runes. This is a dress that Six Duchies men will understand. She will wear it. ’ ” She paused as if thinking, then added, “For her not to wear it would present a danger to your mothers’ house. ” As if Peottre’s action had been no more than a child’s willful display, she stooped and lifted the dress again.

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  Behind Peottre, Elliania gave a low cry. It sounded like pain. As he turned to her, I caught a quick glimpse of her face. It was set into a determined stillness, but sweat suddenly misted her brow and she had gone as pale as she had been flushed before.

  “Stop it!” he said in a low voice, and I first thought that he spoke to the girl. Then he glanced over his shoulder. Yet when he spoke again, he did not appear to be addressing the servant at all. “Stop it!” he repeated. “Dressing her like a whore was not a part of our arrangement. We will not be driven into it. Stop it, or I will kill her, and you will lose your eyes and your ears here. ” And he drew his belt knife, and advancing to the serving woman, he laid the edge of
it along her throat. The woman did not blanch or shrink away. She stood still, her eyes glittering, almost smirking at his threat. She made no response to his words. Then suddenly Elliania drew a deeper, ragged breath, and her shoulders sagged. A moment later, she squared them and stood upright. No tears escaped her.

  In a fluid motion, Peottre snatched the dress from the woman’s arm. His knife must have been honed to a razor’s edge, for it slashed effortlessly down the front of the gown. He threw the fluttering ruins to the floor and trod upon them. “Get out!” he told the woman.

  “As you will, my lord, I am sure,” she muttered. But the words were a mockery as she turned and retired. She did not hurry, and he watched her leave until the door closed behind her. Then he turned back to Elliania. “Are you much hurt, little fish?”

  She shook her head, a quick gesture, chin up. A brave lie, for she looked as if she would faint.

  I stood up silently. My forehead was gritty with dust from leaning against the wall as I spied on them. I wondered if Chade knew the Narcheska did not wish to wed our prince. I wondered if he knew that Peottre did not consider the betrothal to be a binding gesture. I wondered what illness ailed the Narcheska, and wondered too who “the Lady” was and why the servant was so disrespectful. I tucked my bits of information away alongside my questions, gathered up my clothing, and resumed my trek to Chade’s tower. At least my spying had made me forget my own concerns for a short time.

  I climbed the last steep stair to the tiny room at the top, and pushed on the small door there. From some distant part of the castle, I caught a strain of music. Probably minstrels limbering their fingers and instruments for tonight’s festivities. I stepped out from behind a rack of wine bottles into Chade’s tower room. I caught my breath, then shouldered the rack silently back into place and set my bundle down beside it. The man bent over Chade’s worktable was muttering to himself, a guttural singsong of complaints. The music came louder and clearer with his words. Five noiseless steps carried me in toward the hearth corner and Verity’s sword. My hand just touched the hilt as he turned to me. He was the half-wit I had glimpsed in the stableyard a fortnight ago. He held a tray stacked with bowls, a pestle, and a teacup, and in his surprise he tipped it and all the crockery slid to one end. Hastily he set it down on the table. The music had stopped.

  For a time, we stared at one another in mutual consternation. The set of his eyelids made him appear permanently sleepy. The end of his tongue was pushed out of his mouth against his upper lip. He had small ears that were snug to his head below his raggedly cropped hair. His clothing hung on him, the sleeves of his shirt and the legs of his pants sawed off, marking them as the castoffs of a larger man. He was short and pudgy, and somehow all his differences were alarming. A shiver of premonition ran over me. I knew he was not a threat, but I did not wish him near me. From the way he scowled at me, the feeling was mutual.

  “Go away!” He spoke in a guttural, soft-mouthed way.

  I took a breath and spoke evenly. “I am permitted to be here. Are you?” I had already deduced that this must be Chade’s servant, the boy who hauled his wood and water and tidied behind the old man. But I did not know how deeply he was in Chade’s confidence, and so I did not say Chade’s name. Surely the old assassin could not be so careless as to entrust his secret ways to a half-wit.

  You. Go away. Don’t see me!

  The solid thrust of Skill magic that he launched at me sent me staggering. If I had not already had my walls up, I am certain that I would have done as he told me, gone away and not seen him. As I slammed my Skill walls tighter and thicker around me, I fleetingly wondered if he had done this to me before. Would I even recall it if he had?

  Leave me alone! Don’t hurt me! Go away, stinkdog!

  I was aware of his second blast, but less cowed by it. Even so, I did not lower my walls to Skill back at him. I spoke my words in a voice that shook despite my best effort to hold it steady. “I won’t hurt you. I never had any intention of hurting you. I’ll leave you alone, if that is what you wish. But I won’t go away. And I won’t allow you to push me like that. ” I tried for the firm tones of someone reprimanding a child for bad manners. He probably had no idea what he was doing; doubtless he was only using a weapon that had previously worked for him.

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  But instead of chagrin, his face flared with anger. And fear? His eyes, already small, nearly disappeared in his fat cheeks when he narrowed them. For a moment, his mouth hung ajar and his tongue stuck out even farther. Then he picked up his tray and slammed it back to the table so that the dishes on it jumped. “Go away!” His Skill echoed the angry commands of his mouth. “You don’t see me!”

  I groped my way into Chade’s chair and sat down in it firmly. “I do see you,” I replied evenly. “And I’m not going away. ” I crossed my arms on my chest. I hoped he could not see how rattled I was. “You should just do your work and pretend that you don’t see me. And when you are done, you should go away. ”

  I was not going to retreat from him; I could not. For me to leave would reveal to him how I had come, and if he did not already know that, I wasn’t going to show him. I leaned back in my chair and tried to look as if I were relaxing there.

  He glared at me, and the beat of his Skill fury against my walls was daunting. He was strong. If he were this strong, untrained, what would his talent be if he could learn to master it? It was a frightening thought. I stared at the cold hearth, but watched him from the corner of my eye. Either he had finished his work, or he decided not to do it. In any case, he picked up his tray, stalked across the room, and tugged at a scroll rack. This was the entry I had seen Chade once use. He vanished inside it, but as the rack swung into place behind him, both his voice and his Skill reached me again. You stink like dog poop. Chop you up and burn you.

  His anger was like an ebbing tide that slowly left me stranded. After a time, I lifted my hands and pressed them to my temples. The stress of holding my walls so tight and solid was beginning to tell on me, but I dared not let them down just yet. If he could sense my lowering them, if he chose then to blast me with a Skill command, I would be prey to it, just as Dutiful had been prey to my impulsive Skill command not to fight me. I feared that his mind still bore the stamp of that decree.

  That was yet another worry that I must tend to. Did that order still restrain him? I made the resolution then that I must discover how to reverse my Skill command. If I did not, I knew it would soon become a barrier to any true friendship between us. Then I wondered if the Prince were cognizant at all of what I had done to him. It had been an accident, I told myself, and then despised my lie. A burst of my temper had imprinted that command on my prince’s mind. It shamed me that I had done so, and the sooner it was removed, the better for both of us.

  Dimly I became aware of music again. I made a tentative connection. As I gradually lowered my walls, it became louder in my mind. Putting my hands over my ears did not affect it at all. Skilling music. I had never even imagined such a thing, yet the half-wit was doing it. When I drew my attention away from it, it faded into the shushing curtain of thoughts that always stood at the edges of my Skill. Most of it was formless whispering, the overheard thoughts of the folk who possessed just enough talent to let their most urgent thoughts float out onto the Skill. If I focused my abilities on them, I could sometimes pluck whole thoughts and images from their minds, but they lacked enough Skill to be aware of me, let alone reply. This half-wit was different. He was a roaring Skill fire, his music the heat and smoke of his wild talent. He made no effort to hide it; possibly he had no idea how to hide it, or had any reason to do so.

  I relaxed, keeping only the wall that ensured my private thoughts would remain hidden from Dutiful’s budding Skill talent. Then with a groan, I lowered my head into my hands as a Skill headache thundered through my skull.


  I was aware of Chade’s presence an instant before he
touched my shoulder. Even so, I started as I awoke and raised my hands as if to ward off a blow.

  “What ails you, boy?” he demanded of me, and then leaned closer to peer at me. “Your eyes are full of blood! When did you last sleep?”

  “Just now, I think. ” I managed a feeble smile. I ran my hands through my chopped hair. It was sweated flat to my skull. I could recall only tatters of my fleeting nightmare. “I met your servant,” I told him shakily.

  “Thick? Ah. Well, not the brightest man in the keep, but he serves my purpose admirably. Hard for him to betray secrets when he hasn’t the sense to recognize a secret if he fell over it. But enough of him. As soon as Lord Golden’s message reached me, I came up here, hoping to catch you. What is this about Piebalds in Buckkeep Town?”

  “He wrote that down in a message?” I was incensed.

  “Not in so many words. Only I would have picked out the sense of it. Now tell me. ”

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  “They followed me last night . . . this morning. To scare me and to let me know they knew me. That they could find me anytime. Chade. Set that aside for a moment. Did you know your servant—what is his name? Thick? Did you know Thick is Skilled?”

  “At what? Breaking teacups?” The old man snorted as if I had made a bad jest. He heaved a sigh and gestured at the cold fireplace in disgust. “He’s supposed to set a small fire in the hearth each day. Half the time he forgets to do that. What are you talking about?”

  “Thick is Skilled. Strongly Skilled. He nearly dropped me in my tracks when I accidentally startled him here. If I had not been keeping up my walls to ward my mind from Dutiful, I think he would have blasted away every thought in my head. ‘Go away,’ he told me, and ‘Don’t see me. ’ And ‘Don’t hurt me. ’ And Chade, you know, I think he’s done that before. To me, even. Once, in the stableyard, I saw some of the boys teasing him. And I heard, almost as if someone said it aloud, ‘Don’t see me. ’ And then the stable boys were all going about their business and after that, I don’t recall that I did see him there. Anymore, I mean. ”

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