Golden fool, p.40
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       Golden Fool, p.40

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Shoaks has always wrangled with Chalced about the border they share. ”

  “And Farrow and Tilth have always executed Witted ones. ”

  “That’s not completely true. ” I leaned back in my chair. I had enjoyed having access to Chade’s scroll collection and the Buckkeep library. “Prior to the time of the Piebald Prince, the Wit was regarded in the same light as the hedge magics. Not particularly powerful magic, but if a man had it, he had it. It did not make him evil and disgusting. ”

  “Well,” Chade conceded. “That’s so. But the attitude of the people is so set now that it is near impossible to root it out. Lady Patience has done her best in Farrow. When she has not been able to prevent an execution, she has most assiduously punished those involved afterward. No one can accuse her of not trying. ” He chewed his upper lip. “Last week, the Queen received an anonymous message. ”

  “Why wasn’t I told?” I instantly demanded.

  “Why should you be told?” he demanded in reply. Then, at my scowl, he softened his tone. “There was little to tell. It made no demands or threats. It simply listed by name those who had been executed in the Six Duchies for the Wit in the last six months. ” He sighed. “It was a sizable list. Forty-seven names. ” He cocked his head at me. “It was not marked with the piebald horse. So, we think this comes from a different faction of Witted. ”

  I pondered this for a time. “I think the Witted know they have the Queen’s ear. I think they are letting her know what is happening, to see what she will do. To take no action would be a mistake, Chade. ”

  He nodded at me, grudgingly pleased. “So I saw it also. The Queen says it shows we are making progress in gaining the trust of the Witted. They would not send such a list to her unless they thought there was something she could do. We are making an effort to find kin of the executed ones. Then each duchy will be informed by the Queen that they must pay blood-gold to them. ”

  “I doubt you will have much success finding kin. Folk are not comfortable admitting they are related to anyone with the Wit. ”

  Again he nodded. “We have found a few, however. And the blood-gold for the others will be held here at Buckkeep by the Queen’s counting man. Where she cannot find kin, she will command that notices be posted, informing that those related to the executed can come to Buck for compensation. ”

  I pondered a bit. “For the most part, they’ll be afraid to come. And gold may be seen as a cold thing. Some nobles may even think it is worth the price to rid their realms of Witted ones. Like a fee paid to a rat catcher. ”

  Chade bent his head down and rubbed his temples. When he lifted his face and looked at me, his face was weary. “We do the best we can, FitzChivalry. Have you any better suggestions?”

  I thought a bit. “Not really. But I should like to see the scrolls they have sent. This one listing the names, and any earlier ones. Especially the one that came right before the Prince was taken. ”

  “If you wish to see them, then you shall. ”

  There was something in his voice. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I spoke carefully. “I’ve already said that I wished to see them. Several times. I do wish to see them, Chade. When can I look at them?”

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  He gave me a look from under lowered brows. Then he got up and with ponderously slow steps he walked to his scroll rack “I suppose that, eventually, all of my secrets must pass on to you,” he observed reluctantly. Then, by a means I did not discern, he did something to release a catch. The decorative crown piece atop the scroll rack folded down. He reached inside, and after a moment he drew out three scrolls. They were all small and rolled tightly into cylinders that could be concealed in a man’s closed fist. I stood, but he shut the rack front before I could see what else might be concealed there.

  “How did you open that?” I demanded.

  His smile was very small. “I said ‘eventually,’ Fitz. Not ‘today. ’ ” His tone was that of my erstwhile mentor. He seemed to have set aside his earlier annoyance with me. He came back to me and offered me the three rolled scrolls on his outstretched palms. “Kettricken and I had our reasons. I hope you will think them good enough. ”

  I took the scrolls, but before I could open even one, the scroll rack swung to one side again and Thick entered. I flipped all three scrolls up my sleeve with a move so practiced it was almost instinctive. “And now I must be going, FitzChivalry. ” He turned from me to Thick. “Thick. You were to meet with Tom earlier. Now that you are both here, I want you to spend some time together. I want you to be friends. ” The old assassin gave me a final withering look. “I’m sure that you’ll have a pleasant chat now. Good night to both of you. ”

  And with that he left us. Did he sound relieved to leave? He hastened out before the rack could even close behind Thick. The dim-witted serving man carried a double load of wood in a canvas sling over one shoulder. He looked around, perhaps surprised to see Chade leave so swiftly. “Wood,” he told me. He dumped his burden to the floor, straightened up, and turned to go.

  “Thick. ” My voice stopped him. Chade was right. I should at least teach the man to obey me. “You know that is not what you are supposed to do. Stack the wood in the holder by the hearth. ”

  He glared at me, flexing his shoulders and rubbing his stubby hands together. Then he seized one end of the sling and dragged the wood toward the hearth, spilling logs, bits of bark, and dirt as he went. I said nothing. He crouched down beside it, and with a great deal more vehemence and noise than was required, he began to stack the wood. He looked over his shoulder at me frequently as he worked, but I could not decipher if his squint was antagonism or fear. I poured myself a glass of wine and tried to ignore him. There had to be a way out of dealing with Thick each day. I did not want him around me, let alone to teach him. In truth, I found his malformed body and dim ways somewhat revolting.

  As Galen had me. Just as Galen had not wanted to teach me.

  That thought nudged me in a bruised place that had never quite healed. I felt a moment of shame as I watched him labor sullenly at his task. He hadn’t asked to become a tool for the Farseer crown, any more than I had. Like me, the duty had fallen upon him. Nor had he chosen to be born malformed and dim-witted. It grew in my mind that there was a question that no one had asked yet, one that suddenly seemed important to me. One that might put the entire question of a coterie for Dutiful in a different light.

  “Thick,” I said. He grunted. I said nothing more until he stopped in his wood tantrum and turned to glare at me. It was, perhaps, not the best time to ask him anything. But I doubted that there would ever be a favorable time for Thick and me to have this conversation. When I was sure he was paying attention, his small eyes beetling at me, I spoke again. “Thick. Would you like me to teach you to Skill?”

  “What?” He looked suspicious, as if he expected me to make him the butt of a joke.

  I took a breath. “You have an ability. ” His scowl deepened. I clarified. “A thing you can do that others can’t. Sometimes you use it to make people ‘not see’ you. Sometimes you use it to call me names, names that Chade can’t hear. Like ‘dogstink. ’ ” That made him smirk. I ignored it. “Would you like me to teach you to use it in other ways? In good ways that could help you serve your prince?”

  He didn’t even think about it. “No. ” He turned back and resumed thunking the wood chunks onto the pile.

  The swiftness of his reply surprised me a bit. “Why not?”

  He rocked back on his heels and looked over at me. “I got e-nough work. ” He glared meaningfully from me to the firewood. Dogstink.

  Don’t do that. “Well. We all have work we have to do. That’s life. ”

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  He made no reply of either kind, just kept on deliberately clunking each log into place. I took a breath and resolved not to react to that. I wondered what it would take to make him even a little
more agreeable. For I suddenly wanted to teach him. I could make a start with him, as a sign to the Queen of my commitment. Could Thick be bribed to try to learn to Skill, as Chade suggested? Could I buy my daughter’s safety by enticing him? “Thick,” I asked him. “What do you want?”

  That made him pause. He turned to look at me and his brow wrinkled. “What?”

  “What do you want? What would make you happy? What do you want out of life?”

  “What do I want?” He squinted at me, as if by seeing better he could understand my words. “You mean, to have? My own?”

  At each query, I nodded. He stood slowly, and scratched at the back of his neck. His lips pushed out as he thought, his tongue sticking out with them. “I want . . . I want that red scarf that Rowdy has. ” He stopped and stared at me sullenly. I think that he expected me to tell him that he could not have it. I didn’t even know who Rowdy was.

  “A red scarf. I think I could get that for you. What else?”

  For minutes he just stared at me. “And a pink sugar cake, to eat it all. Not a burnt one. And . . . and a whole bunch of raisins. ” He stopped, and then looked at me challengingly.

  “And what else?” I asked him. None of those things sounded too difficult.

  He peered at me, coming closer. He thought I was mocking him. I made my voice gentle as I asked, “If you had all those things, right now, what else would you want?”

  “If I . . . raisins and a cake?”

  “Raisins and a cake, and a red scarf. Then what else?”

  His mouth worked, his small eyes squinting. I don’t think he’d ever considered the possibility of wanting more than those things. I’d have to teach him to be hungry if I was going to use bribery. At the same time, the simplicity of the things that this man longed for as unattainable cut to my heart. He wasn’t asking for better wages or more time to himself. Just the small things, the little pleasures that made a hard life tolerable.

  “I want . . . a knife like you got. And one of those feathers, those big feathers with the eyes in them. And a whistle. A red one. I used to have one—my mam gave me a red whistle, a red whistle on a green string. ” He scowled more deeply, pondering. “But they took it and broke it. ” For an instant he said no more, breathing hoarsely as he remembered. I wondered how long ago it had happened. His little eyes were squinted nearly shut with the effort of the recall. I had thought him too stupid to have memories that went back to his childhood. I was rapidly revising my image of just who Thick was. His mind certainly did not work as mine or Chade’s did, but work it did. Then he blinked his small eyes several times and took a long shuddering breath. The next words came out on a sob. His words, blunted at the best of times, were barely understandable now. “They didn’t even want to blow it. I said, ‘You can blow it. But then give it back. ’ But they didn’t even blow it. They just broke it. And laughed at me. My red whistle that my mam gave me. ”

  Perhaps there was an element of humor in the tubby little man with the jutting tongue weeping for the loss of his whistle. I’ve known many men who would have laughed aloud. As for me, I caught my breath. Pain radiated off him like heat from a fire, and it ignited boyhood memories of my own, long buried. The way Regal would give me a casual push as he passed me in the hallway, or trample through my playthings as I sat in one of my private games on the floor in the corner of the Lesser Hall. It broke something in me, some wall I had held between Thick and myself because of all the differences I perceived between us. After all, he was dim-witted and fat, awkward bodied and ill-made, rude. Ragged and smelly and ill-mannered. And as much an outcast in this castle of wealth and pleasure as I had been when I was Nameless the dog-boy. It did not matter that he had a man’s years to him. The boy was suddenly who I saw, the boy who could never be a man, could never say that such hurts were a part of his past when he was vulnerable. Thick would always be vulnerable.

  I had intended to bribe him. I had intended to find out what he wanted, and then hold it over him to get him to do what I wanted. Not in a cruel way, but to barter with him for obedience to my will. It would not have been so different from how my grandfather once bought me. King Shrewd had given me a pin and a promise of an education. He had never offered me his love, though I believe he had eventually come to care for me as I had for him. Yet I had always wished that his compassion had been the first thing he had offered me, instead of the last. Toward the end, I had suspected that he shared that vain wish.

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  And so I found myself speaking words aloud before I knew I had thought them. “Oh, Thick. We haven’t done well by you, have we? But we will do better. That I promise you. We will do better by you before I ask you again to learn this thing for me. ”

  Chapter XV

  QUARREL

  In the Out Islands, there are but three places worthy of a traveler’s time. The first of these is the Ice Boneyard on Perlious Island. This is a place where the Outislanders have for centuries interred their greatest warriors. Women are customarily buried within the confines of their own family’s lands. Mingling one’s blood, flesh, and bones with the poor soil most holdings farm is considered to be the last sharing offered to their families. Men, on the other hand, are customarily offered to the sea. Only the very greatest of their heroes are interred within the glacier field on Perlious Island. The monuments that cover each grave are of sculpted ice. The oldest ones are weathered past recall, though from time to time, they seem to be renewed by the folk of the island. In an effort to stave off the inevitable polishing away of the ice, the monuments are carved many times life-size. The creatures depicted are usually the hero’s clan sign. Thus the visitor will discover here immense bears, looming seals, gigantic otters, and a fish that would fill an oxcart.

  The second place worthy of a visit is the Cave of the Winds. Here resides the Oracle of the Outislanders. Some say she is a young and nubile maid who walks forth naked despite the icy winds. Others say she is a crone, aged beyond imagining, and always clothed in a heavy garment of bird skins. Still others say she is one and the same. She does not venture forth to greet every traveler who comes to her door. Indeed, this one had no sight of her. The ground all around the cave’s mouth for several acres is littered with offerings to the Oracle. Even to stoop to touch one is rumored to bring death.

  The third place worth the traveler’s effort is the immense ice island of Aslevjal. Whereas many of the isles of the Out Islands are saddled with glaciers, Aslevjal is immersed in one. It can only be approached at a low tide that bares a hem of black and rocky beach on the east side of the island. From there, one must ascend the flank of the glacier with rope and axe. Guides to assist one in doing so can be hired at Island Rogeon. They are expensive, but greatly lessen the risk of the climb. The path to the Glacier Monster is a treacherous one. What appears solid ice may be but snowflakes blown across a crevasse to form a deceptive crust. Yet despite the cold, hardship, and danger, it is worth the risk to confront the Monster trapped within the ice. Upon arrival, expect your assistants to spend some time sweeping the latest layer of snow from the icy window on the beast. Once cleared, the traveler can gape his fill. Although little more than the creature’s back, shoulder, and wings are visible, and the view is hazy, the size of the Monster cannot be disputed. As each year the ice hazes more, this strange site will eventually vanish from all but man’s memory.

  — “ TRAVELS IN THE NORTH LANDS,” CRON HEVCOLDWELL

  For perhaps an hour after Thick had gone, I sat staring into the freshly fueled fire. My conversation with the man had left me heavy of heart. He bore such a burden of sadness, all for the cruelty of folk who could not tolerate his difference. A whistle. A red whistle. Well, I would do my best to see that he got one, regardless of whether it made him more receptive to learning to Skill.

  I sat a time longer, wondering what the Queen would say to Chade when he offered my bargain. I regretted it now: not that I had decided to ask for it, but t
hat I had not told him I would make the request myself. It seemed cowardly to send the old man in my stead, as if I feared to stand before her. Well. It could not be changed now.

  After a time of brooding on that, I recalled the little scrolls I had tucked into my cuff. One by one, I tugged them out. They were written on bark paper, crisp and stiff as it aged, and already reluctant to unfurl. I carefully coaxed one open on the table and weighted it flat. Then I had to bring a branch of candles near it before I could make out the crabbed and faded handwriting. The first one I opened was one Chade had not mentioned to me. It simply said, “Grim Lendhorn and his wife Geln of Buckkeep Town are both Witted. He keeps a hound and she has a terrier. ” This was signed only with the sketch of a piebald horse. There was nothing to indicate when it had been sent. I wondered if it had been sent directly to the Queen, or if this was an example of the sort of betrayals they posted to expose Old Bloods who did not wish to ally with the Piebalds. I’d have to ask Chade.

  The second scroll I managed to unfurl was the one he had mentioned to me that day. It was the freshest, and not as reluctant to uncoil. It simply said, “The Queen says that to be Witted is no crime. For what, then, were these folk executed?” Then there followed the list of names. I read them, noticing at least two family groups who had died together. I clenched my teeth and hoped they were not children, though how such a death might be easier for a grown man or an oldster, I could not say. There was only one name on the list that I thought I recognized, and even then I told myself I was not certain it was the same woman. Relditha Cane might not be the same as Rellie Cane. There had been a woman of that name among the Old Blood folk who lived near Crowsneck. I had met her several times at Black Rolf’s house. I had suspected that Rolf’s wife, Holly, had thought that Rellie and I might fancy one another, but Rellie had never been more than coolly courteous to me. It probably wasn’t her, I lied to myself, and tried not to imagine her curly brown hair shriveling when the flames touched it. There was no signature or symbol of any kind on the scroll.

 
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