Golden fool, p.41
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       Golden Fool, p.41

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Page 151


  The last scroll was rolled so tight it seemed almost solid. Likely it was the oldest. As I forced it open it broke in pieces: two, three, and eventually five. I regretted doing it, but it was the only way to read it. If it had stayed coiled much longer, it would have crumbled into bits, never to be read again.

  After I had read it, I wondered if that had not been Chade’s hope and intention.

  This was the scroll that had come before the Prince vanished. This was the message that had precipitated Chade’s sending a rider to my door with the urgent demand that I come to Buckkeep at once. He had told me what the unsigned threat had said. Now I read the words for myself. “Do what is right and no one else ever need know. Ignore this warning, and we will take action of our own. ”

  What Chade had left out were the words that preceded those. The ink had soaked into the bark paper unevenly and the curled surface made it hard to read. Stubbornly, I pieced it together. Then I sat back and tried to remember how to breathe.

  “The Witted Bastard lives. You know it and so do we. He lives and you shield him from harm, because he has served you. You protect him even as you let honest men and women die simply because they have the Old Blood. They are our wives, our husbands, our sons, our daughters, our sisters, and our brothers. Perhaps you will stop the slaughter when we show you what it is like to lose one of your own. How close must the cut be to you before you bleed as we do? We know much of what the minstrels do not sing. The Wit runs still in the Farseer bloodline. Do what is right, and no one else ever need know. Ignore this warning and we will take action of our own. ” There was no signature of any kind.

  Very slowly I came back to myself. I pondered all that Chade had wrought, and why he had deliberately withheld this threat to me from my knowledge. The moment the Prince vanished, the moment he knew the threat was serious, he had sent for me. He had led me to believe that the Piebalds had sent a note threatening the Prince before his disappearance. Certainly, this scroll could be read that way. But the more overt threat was to me. Had he called me close to protect me, or to shield the Farseer reign from scandal? Then I pushed Chade’s actions from my thoughts and leaned forward once again to peruse the faded ink on the bark. Who had sent this? The Piebalds seemed to take delight in signing their missives with their stallion emblem. This was unsigned, as was the one that listed the dead. I put them side by side. Some of the letters were similar. The same hand could have written them. The one signed by the Piebalds was written boldly, in larger letters and more flourishes. A different person could have written it, yet that would prove little. The choice of paper for all was the same. Not surprising: good paper was expensive, but anyone could strip bark paper from a birch. It did not mean the notes came from only one source, or even two. I tried theories against one another. Even before the Prince was taken, had there been two factions of the Witted striving to put an end to the persecution of their fellows? Or did I think so only because I so longed for it to be true? Bad enough that Black Rolf and his friends had suspected who I was, and therefore surmised that the Witted Bastard hadn’t died in Regal’s dungeon. I did not want the Piebalds to know that FitzChivalry lived.

  I looked again at the list of the dead. There was one other name on there, Nat of the Fens. He might have been someone I had met once when I was staying with Black Rolf. I could not be sure. I drummed my fingers on the table, wondering if I dared visit the Witted community near Crowsneck. To do what? Ask them if they had sent the Queen a note threatening my life? That didn’t seem the best strategy. Perhaps it had only been a bluff. If I went there and they saw me, it would confirm to them that I did still live, even after all the years. At the very least, I’d be a valuable hostage to them, an embarrassment to the Farseers whether I was displayed dead or alive. No. This was not a time for confrontations. Perhaps in truth Chade had taken the best action. He had removed me from where I had been, whilst outwardly behaving as if the threat had no teeth in it. My annoyance with him faded. Nonetheless, I must convince him that this withholding of truth from me was a poor idea. What had he feared? That I would not come to the Prince’s aid, that I would flee the country to begin life elsewhere? Was that what he thought of me?

  I shook my head to myself. Plainly it was time I had it out with Chade. He needed to accept that I was a man now, in full control of my own life and capable of making my own decisions. And with Kettricken. I’d have Chade arrange a meeting with her, so that I could tell her myself my fears for my daughter, and ask her promise that Nettle be left alone. And the Fool. Best to settle that festering as well. Those were my thoughts as I left Chade’s tower and sought my bed for the night.

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  I did not sleep well. Nettle battered at my dreams like a moth trying to destroy itself in a lantern’s flame. I slept, but it was the rest of a man who sleeps with his back braced against a besieged door. I was aware of her. At first she was determined, then angry. Toward morning, she became desperate. Her pleas then were the hardest to hold my walls against. “Please. Please. ” That was all she said. But her Skill made it a sweeping wind of pleading against my senses.

  I awoke with my head pounding dully. All my senses felt abraded. The yellow candlelight in my room seemed too bright, and any sound too loud. The guilt that gnawed me for ignoring her didn’t improve any of it. It was definitely a morning that deserved a bit of elfbark, and with or without Chade’s approval, I wasn’t going to begin the day without it. I rose, splashed my face, and dressed. The shock of the cold water on my face and the necessity of bending down to fasten my shoes seemed as punishing as a beating.

  I left our chambers. Slowly I descended to the kitchens. On my way down, I met Lord Golden’s serving boy. I dismissed Char for the morning, telling him that I would fetch the lord’s breakfast that day. His delighted grin and repeated thanks reminded me that once I had been a boy who could have easily filled any free hour with a dozen activities. It made me feel old. His heartfelt thanks gave me a moment of shame. I wanted to eat alone in our rooms, and fetching Lord Golden’s breakfast was my best pretense for doing so.

  The clatter and steam and shouting in the kitchen did nothing for my headache. I filled the tray, including a generous pot of hot water, and headed back up the stairs. I was halfway up the second landing when a panting woman overtook me. “You’ve forgotten Lord Golden’s flowers,” she told me.

  “But it’s winter,” I grumbled as I reluctantly halted. “There are no flowers to be found anywhere. ”

  “Nevertheless,” she replied with a warm smile that made her a maid again. “There will always be flowers for Lord Golden. ” I shook my head at the Fool’s curious particulars. She set a small nosegay on the tray, a confection of stark black twigs with white ribbon stitched into tiny buds on them. The creation was finished with two narrow bows, one white and one black. I thanked her dutifully, but she assured me that it was her pleasure before she went off about her other duties.

  When I carried the tray into our chambers, I was surprised to see the Fool up and sitting in a chair by the hearth. He wore one of Lord Golden’s elaborate dressing gowns, but his hair was in loose disarray down to his shoulders. He was not posing as the nobleman right now. It put me off balance. I’d planned on taking food into my room and then rapping on his door to let him know there was food on the table for him. Well, at least Jek was not here. Perhaps I’d finally be able to have private words with him. He turned his head slowly as I came in. “There you are,” he said languidly. He looked as if he’d had a late night.

  “Yes,” I agreed shortly. I thunked the tray on the table and went back to latch the door. Then I went to my room for the dishes I’d been gradually purloining from the kitchens, and set up breakfast for both of us at the table. Now that the moment had come to confront him, I couldn’t find a place to begin. I hungered to have this over with. Yet, the first words out of my mouth were “I need a red whistle. On a green string. Do you
think you could make one for me?”

  He rose, a pleased but puzzled smile on his face. He came slowly to the table. “I suppose so. Do you need it soon?”

  “As soon as possible. ” My voice sounded flat and hard, even to my own ears. As if it hurt me to ask him this favor. “It isn’t for me. It’s for Thick. He had one once, but someone took it from him and broke it. Evidently just to cause him pain. He’s never forgotten it. ”

  “Thick,” he said, and then, “He’s an odd one, isn’t he?”

  “I suppose,” I conceded stiffly. He seemed not to notice my reserve.

  “Whenever I encounter him, he stares at me. But if I look back at him at all, he scuttles away like a whipped dog. ”

  I shrugged. “Lord Golden is not the kindliest noble in the keep, as far as the servants are concerned. ”

  He took a small breath and sighed it out. “True. A necessary deception, but it pains me to see the man react to it. A red whistle on a green string. As soon as possible, then,” the Fool promised.

  “Thank you. ” My reply was crisp. His words had reminded me yet again that Lord Golden was only a role he played. I already wished I hadn’t asked anything of him. Asking a favor is a poor way to begin a quarrel. I refused to meet his puzzled gaze. I carried my cup to my room. I shook a measure of elfbark into the bottom of it and then returned to the table. When I got there, the Fool was bemusedly turning his posy in his fingers, his mouth twisted in a small smile. I poured the hot water over my elfbark and over the tea herbs in the waiting pot. As he watched, the smile ran away from his face and eyes.

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  “What are you doing?” he asked softly.

  I groaned, then spoke briskly. “Headache. Nettle was rattling my shutters all last night. It’s getting harder and harder to keep her out. ” I lifted my cup and swirled the water. Inky black tendrils were rising from the steeping elfbark. The brew darkened and I sipped at it. Bitter. But the throbbing in my head quieted almost immediately.

  “Should you be doing that?” the Fool asked me evenly.

  “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be doing it,” I pointed out pleasantly.

  “But Chade—”

  “Chade has not the Skill, and does not know the pains of it, nor understand the remedies for those pains. ” I spoke more sharply than I intended, from a well of unexpected annoyance. I realized then that I was still angry with Chade for withholding from me the full content of the note. As he always had, he was still trying to control my life. It is strange to find that an emotion you thought you had set aside is still simmering under the surface. I took a second mouthful of the bitter brew. As elfbark always did, it would plunge my spirits into a low even as it fired me with restlessness. It was a bad combination, but better than trying to wade through the day with a Skill headache hammering through my skull.

  The Fool sat deathly still for several long moments. Then, with his eyes on the teapot as he lifted it and delicately filled his cup, he asked, “Will not the elfbark interfere with your teaching Prince Dutiful to Skill?”

  “The Prince himself has already interfered with that, by not coming to his lessons for the last several days. Elfbark or no, I cannot teach a student who does not come to me. ” Again, I felt a small twinge of surprise to find how much I was upset by that. Somehow, the act of sitting down at table with my old friend, knowing I intended to confront him, was making all these odd and painful truths bubble out of me. As if somehow they were all his fault for holding himself so aloof from me for the past week, while allowing his friend to believe falsehoods about us.

  The Fool leaned back in his chair, the cup of tea cradled between his long and graceful hands. He looked past me. “Well. It seems as if that is a matter to take up with the Prince. ”

  “It is. But there is also a matter that I must take up with you. ” I heard how my voice dropped accusingly as I said those words, but could not control it.

  A long silence held between us. For a moment the Fool folded his lips, as if holding in words. Then he took a sip of his tea. He lifted his eyes to meet mine, and I was surprised by the weariness on his face. “Is there?” he asked unwillingly.

  Reluctance tugged at me but I forced the word out. “Yes. There is. I want to know what you have said to that Jek woman to make her think that I, that we, that—” I hated that I could not form the words. It was as if I feared to express the thought, that by speaking it aloud it would gain some sort of reality.

  An odd expression fleeted over the Fool’s face. He shook his head. “I’ve said nothing to her, Fitz. ‘That Jek woman,’ as you name her, is capable of concocting her own theories on just about anything. She is one of those people you never need lie to; simply withhold information, and she makes up her own stories. Some, wildly inaccurate, as you have seen. Rather like Starling, in some ways. ”

  I didn’t need to hear that name right then. She was another one who had believed that my bond with the Fool went beyond friendship. I recognized now that he had led her to believe that by the same technique he had used with Jek. No denials of it, leading remarks and witticisms, all encouraging her to form a mistaken opinion. At one time it had seemed a trifle uncomfortable but humorous all the same, to watch her laboring under her delusion. Now it seemed humiliating and deceitful that he had led her to believe that.

  He set his teacup down on the table. “I thought I was feeling stronger, but I am not,” he said in Golden’s aristocratic tones. “I think I shall retire to my room. No visitors, Tom Badgerlock. ” He started to rise.

  “Sit down,” I said. “We need to talk. ”

  He stood. “I think not. ”

  “I insist. ”

  “I refuse. ” He looked past me, into a distance I could not see. He lifted his chin.

  I stood. “I need to know, Fool. You look at me sometimes, you say things, apparently in jest, but . . . You let both Starling and Jek believe that we could be lovers. ” The word came out harshly, like an epithet. “Perhaps you deem it of little importance that Jek believes you are a woman and in love with me. I cannot be so blithe about such assumptions. I’ve already had to deal with rumors of your taste in bed partners. Even Prince Dutiful has asked me. I know that Civil Bresinga suspects it. And I hate it. I hate that people in the keep look at us, and wonder what you do to your servant at night. ”

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  At my harsh words, he shuddered and then swayed, like a sapling that feels the first blow of the axe. When he spoke, his words were faint. “We know what is real between us, Fitz. What others may wonder about should remain their issue, not ours. ” Slowly he turned from me, ending the discussion.

  I almost let him go. It was such a long habit with me, to accept the Fool’s decisions on such things. But suddenly it did matter to me what others in the keep gossiped about, what Hap might overhear as a crude jest in a Buckkeep Town inn. “I want to know!” I suddenly roared at him. “It does matter, and I want to know, once and for all. Who are you? What are you? I’ve seen the Fool, I’ve seen Lord Golden, and I heard you speak to that Jek in a woman’s voice. Amber. I confess that baffles me most of all. Why would you live as a woman in Bingtown? Why do you allow Jek to go on believing that you are a woman and in love with me?”

  He did not look at me. I thought he would let my questions go unanswered, as he so often had before. Then, he took a breath and spoke quietly. “I became Amber because she most suited my purpose and needs in Bingtown. I walked amongst them as a foreigner and a woman, unthreatening and without power. In that guise, all felt free to speak to me, slave and Trader, man and woman. That role suited my needs, Fitz. Just as Lord Golden fulfills them now. ”

  His words cut right to my heart. I spoke coldly what injured me most. “Then the Fool too was only a role? Someone you became because it ‘suited your purpose’? And what was your purpose? To gain a doddering king’s trust? To befriend a royal bastard? Did you becom
e what we most needed in order to get close to us?”

  He was not looking at me, but as I gazed at his motionless profile, he closed his eyes. Then he spoke. “Of course I did. Make of that what you will. ”

  His words were like spurs to my fury. “I see. None of it was real. I’ve never known you at all then, have I?” I expected no answer as for an instant I strangled silently on my anger and insult.

  Then, “Yes. You have. You more than anyone in my life. ” He looked down now and stillness seemed to grow around him.

  “If that is true, then I think you owe me the truth about yourself. What is the reality, Fool, not what you jest about or allow others to suspect? Who and what are you? What is it you feel for me?”

  He looked at me at last. His eyes were stricken. But as I continued to gaze at him, demanding this knowledge, I saw his own anger come to life there. He suddenly stood straight and gave a small huff of disdain, as if unbelieving that I could ask. He shook his head then drew a deep breath. The words rushed out of him in a torrent. “You know who I am. I have even given you my true name. As for what I am, you know that, too. You seek a false comfort when you demand that I define myself for you with words. Words do not contain or define any person. A heart can, if it is willing. But I fear yours is not. You know more of the whole of me than any other person who breathes, yet you persist in insisting that all of that cannot be me. What would you have me cut off and leave behind? And why must I truncate myself in order to please you? I would never ask that of you. And by those words, admit another truth. You know what I feel for you. You have known it for years. Let us not, you and I, alone here, pretend that you don’t. You know I love you. I always have. I always will. ” He spoke the words levelly. He said them as if they were inevitable. There was no trace of either shame or triumph in his voice. Then he waited. Words such as that always demand an answer.

  I took a deep breath and managed the elfbark’s black mood. I spoke honestly and bluntly. “And you know that I love you, Fool. As a man loves his dearest friend. I feel no shame in that. But to let Jek or Starling or anyone think that we take it beyond friendship’s bound, that you would want to lie with me, is—” I paused. I waited for his agreement. It did not come. Instead, he met my eyes with his open amber gaze. There was no denial in them.

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