Golden fool, p.42
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       Golden Fool, p.42

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “I love you,” he said quietly. “I set no boundaries on my love. None at all. Do you understand me?”

  “Only too well, I fear!” I replied, and my voice shook. I took a deep breath and my words grated out. “I would never . . . do you understand me? I could never desire you as a bed partner. Never. ”

  He glanced aside from me. A faint rose came to his cheeks, not of shame, but of some other deep passion. He spoke quietly in a controlled voice. “And that too is a thing that we both have known for years. A thing that never needed speaking, those words that I must now carry with me for the rest of my life. ” He turned to look at me, but his eyes seemed blinded. “We could have gone all our lives and never had this conversation. Now you have doomed us both to recall it forever. ”

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  He turned and began to walk slowly toward his bedchamber. His pace was measured, as if he truly were ill. Then he stopped and looked back at me. Anger gleamed in his eyes and it shocked me that he could look at me so. “Did you ever truly believe I might seek from you something that you did not share my desire for? Well do I know how distasteful you would find that. Well do I know that seeking that from you would irreparably damage all else that we have shared. So I have always avoided this very discussion that you have forced upon our friendship. It was ill done, Fitz. Ill done and unnecessary. ”

  He went another halting step or two, like a man who walks dazed after a blow. Then he suddenly halted. Hesitatingly, from the pocket of his dressing gown, he took the black-and-white posy. “This isn’t from you, is it?” he asked. His voice was suddenly husky. He did not look at me.

  “Of course not. ”

  “Then from whom?” His voice trembled.

  I shrugged, irritated by the strange question in the midst of a serious discussion. “The garden woman. She puts one on your tray every morning. ”

  He drew a deeper breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “Of course. They were never from you, not any of them. Then, who?” A long pause. He closed his eyes and from the set of his face I suddenly thought he might faint. Then he spoke softly. “Of course. There would be one who saw past my semblances, and if there was one, it would be she. ” He opened his eyes again. “The garden woman. She is about your age. Freckles on her face and arms. Hair the color of clean straw. ”

  I called the woman’s image back into my mind. “Freckles, yes. Her hair is light brown, not gold. ”

  He clenched his eyes shut. “Then it must have darkened as she grew older. Garetha was a garden girl here, when you were just a boy. ”

  I nodded. “I recall her, though I had forgotten her name. You’re right. So?”

  He gave a short laugh, almost bitterly. “So. So love and hope blind us all. I thought the flowers were from you, Fitz. A fatuous notion. Instead they are from someone who, long ago, was infatuated with the King’s Fool. Infatuated, I thought. But like me, she loves where love is not returned. Yet she remained true enough of heart to recognize me, despite all other changes. True enough of heart to keep my secret, yet let me know privately that she knew it. ” He held the posy up again. “Black and white. My winter colors, Fitz, back when I was the King’s jester. Garetha knows who I am. And she still harbors some fondness for me. ”

  “You thought I was bringing you flowers?” I was incredulous at his fancy.

  He looked aside from me suddenly, and I perceived that my words and tone had shamed him. Head bowed, he walked slowly toward his bedchamber. He made no reply to my words and I felt a sudden rush of sympathy for him. As my friend, I loved him. I could not change my feelings about his unnatural desires, but I had no wish to see him shamed or hurt. So of course I made it worse as I blundered in with “Fool, why do you not let your desires go where they would be welcome? Garetha is a fairly attractive woman. Perhaps, if you gladly received her attention—”

  He rounded on me suddenly, and the true anger that flared up in his eyes lit them to a deep gold. His face flushed darker with the emotion as he demanded caustically, “Then? Then what? Then I could be like you, sate myself with whoever was available merely because it was offered to me? That, I would find ‘distasteful. ’ I would never use Garetha or any person that way. Unlike some we both know. ” He weighted those last two words for me. He took two more steps toward his room, then rounded on me again. A terrible, bitter smile was on his face. “Wait. I see. You imagine that I have never known intimacy of that sort. That I have been ‘saving myself’ for you. ” He gave a contemptuous snort. “Don’t flatter yourself, FitzChivalry. I doubt you would have been worth the wait. ”

  I felt as if he had struck me, yet he was the one who suddenly rolled up his eyes and collapsed limply on the floor. For a moment, I stood frozen with both fury and terror. As only friends can do, we had found each other’s most tender spots to wound. The worst part of me bade me let him lie where he had fallen; I owed him nothing. But in less than a moment I went down on one knee by his side. His eyes were nearly closed, showing only a slit of white. His breath puffed in and out as if he had just run a race. “Fool?” I said, and my pride forced annoyance into my voice. “Now what is wrong with you?” Hesitantly I touched his face.

  His skin was warm.

  So he had not been feigning illness these last few days. I knew that ordinarily the Fool’s body was cool, much cooler than an ordinary man’s, so this mild warmth in him now was as a raging fever would be to me. I hoped it was no more than one of those strange times that came on him occasionally, when he was febrile and weakened. My experience of them was that in a day or two he recovered, with much peeling of skin to reveal a darker complexion beneath. Perhaps this fainting was only that weakness. Yet even as I stooped to slide my arms under him and lift him, my heart pinched with the fear that perhaps he was seriously ill. Truly, I had picked the worst possible time for my little confrontation with him. With him feverish and me dosed with elfbark, no wonder all our words to one another had gone awry.

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  I lifted him and carried him to his room, kicking the door open. The room smelled heavy and oppressive. The bedding was rucked about as if he had tossed restlessly all night. What sort of a senseless clod was I, not even to have wondered if he could have been truly ill? I set his limp body down on the bed. I shook a pillow fat again and awkwardly slid it under his head, then tried to tug the bedding straight around him. What was I going to do? I knew better than to run for the healer. The Fool had never allowed any healer to touch him in all his years at Buckkeep. Occasionally he had gone to Burrich for some remedy or other when Burrich was the Stablemaster, but that help was far beyond my reach now. I patted his cheek lightly but he showed no sign of waking.

  I went to the windows. I pushed the heavy drapes aside, and then unfastened the shutters and pushed them open to the cold winter day. Clean, chill air flowed into the room. I found one of Lord Golden’s kerchiefs, and gathered snow from the windowsill into it. I folded it into a compress and carried it back to the bed. I sat down on the bed beside him and pressed the kerchief gently to the Fool’s forehead. He stirred slightly, and when I pressed it to the side of his neck he suddenly revived with a frightening alacrity. “Don’t touch me!” he snarled, thrusting my hands aside.

  His rejection of my concern ignited my anxiety into anger. “As you wish. ” I jerked away from him and slapped the compress down onto the bedside table.

  “Please leave,” he replied in a voice that rendered the courtesy an empty word.

  And I did.

  In a sort of frenzy, I put the other chamber to rights, clattering the dishes back onto the tray. Neither of us had eaten anything. So be it. My appetite had fled anyway. I took the tray back to the kitchens and cleared it there. Then I hauled water and wood for our chambers. When I came back upstairs with my load, I found the door to the Fool’s bedchamber closed. Even as I stood there, I heard the window shutters inside it slammed shut. I knocked loudly on his door
. “Lord Golden, I’ve firewood and water for your room. ”

  He made no reply, so I replenished the main room’s hearth and my wash water. I left the remaining supplies outside the door of his room. Anger and pain simmered in my heart. A great deal of my anger was for me. Why hadn’t I realized he was truly ill? Why had I insisted on pursuing this discussion over all his objections? Above all, why had not I trusted the instincts of our own friendship over the gossip of know-nothings? And the pain that ate at me was the pain of knowing what Chade had told me so often; that saying I was sorry could not always mend everything. I greatly feared that the damage I had done today was not something I could repair; that, as the Fool had warned me, today’s conversation was something that we both must carry to the very end of our days. I could only hope that the sharp-edged memory of my words would eventually dull with time. His still sliced me like razors.

  I recall the next three or four days as a time foggy with misery. I did not see the Fool at all. He still admitted his young serving boy to his bedchamber, but as far as I was aware, he himself did not emerge at all. Evidently Jek saw him at least one more time before the Bingtown delegation departed, for she stopped me once on the stairs. With icy courtesy, she said that Lord Golden had completely cleared from her mind any erroneous opinions she might have formed about my relationship to my master. She begged my pardon if her assumptions had in any way distressed me. Then, in a low hiss, she added that I was the stupidest and cruelest person she had ever met. Those were the last words she said to me. The Bingtown delegation departed the next day. The Queen and her dukes had not given them any firm answer on an alliance, but had accepted from them a dozen messenger birds, and given into their care as many Bingtown pigeons. Those negotiations would continue.

  On the heels of their departure, there was an uproar in the keep when the Queen herself rode out with a company of her guards late that night. Chade told me that even he had found her action rather extreme. Evidently her dukes found it even more so. The purpose of her ride was to halt an execution in Bidwell, a small hamlet near Buck’s border with Rippon. They rode out in the deep of night, evidently in response to some spy’s report that a woman was to be hanged and burned the following morning. Torches streaming and the horses’ breath smoking, they had departed in haste. The Queen, dressed in her purple cloak and white fox tunic, had ridden in their midst. I had stood at the window and impotently wished that I were riding at her stirrup. My role as Lord Golden’s servant always seemed to condemn me to be where I least wished to be.

  They had returned the following evening. A battered woman, swaying in her saddle, rode with them. Evidently they had arrived at the last possible moment, literally plucking the rope from her neck. The lynch throng had made no physical resistance to the armed and mounted guardsmen. Kettricken had not been content with gathering the town elders for several hours of stern royal reprimand. She had commanded that every citizen of every cot be rousted out to stand in the town’s tiny square and attend to her. She herself had stood before them, to read aloud to them her royal proclamation that forbade the execution of folk solely for being Witted. Afterward, every soul down to the smallest child that could hold a pen was required to make a sign on that copy of the proclamation, attesting that they had been present, had heard the royal command, and would abide by it. As they lacked a town hall, Kettricken further decreed that the signed proclamation must be continuously displayed over the hearth of the sole tavern in the town. She assured the folk that her road guards would drop by often to be sure that it was still in place and intact. She also assured them that if any of the signers ever again participated in such an attempt against a Witted, he would forfeit all property and be banished, not just from Buck, but from the entire Six Duchies.

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  On the Queen’s return, the accused woman was taken to the guards’ infirmary and treated for her injuries. Her village had not been gentle with her. She was a newcomer there with few ties. She had come to visit her cousin, who had been the one to accuse her to the elders when she supposedly caught the woman conversing with pigeons. There was some talk of an inheritance dispute, which left me wondering if the accused were Witted at all, or merely a threat to her cousin’s holdings. As soon as the woman was well enough to travel, Queen Kettricken furnished her with funds, a horse, and some said a deed to a bit of land far away from her cousin’s village. In any case, the woman took herself well away from Buck as soon as she could travel.

  The incident became the center of a swirl of controversy. Some said the Queen had overstepped her bounds, that Bidwell actually straddled the border of Buck and Rippon and that she should not have taken action without at least consulting the Duke of Rippon. The Duke seemed to take her personal intervention as a criticism and an affront. Although he himself did not utter such words, it was gossiped about that perhaps the Mountain Queen was too eager to make ties with foreigners such as Outislanders and Bingtown Traders while not giving enough respect to the Dukes of the Six Duchies. Did she not trust her own nobility to manage their own domestic affairs? From there, the rumors and grumbling wandered farther afield. Did she not think a Six Duchies bride would be good enough for her half-Mountain son? And even more insidious, the gossip that the bloodlines of Duke Shemshy had been slighted, for the Prince had shown an obvious interest in Lady Vance until his lady mother had crushed it. Why did she court the disdainful Outislander Narcheska when even the young Prince could see that there was a worthier lady closer to hand?

  Because no such complaints were ever officially uttered, it was difficult for Kettricken to make any response to them. Yet she knew they could not be completely ignored, for that would feed the fires of Rippon’s and Shoaks’ discontent and encourage its spread to her other dukes. Kettricken’s solution was to command that her dukes each send a representative to a council, with the objective of creating solutions to end the persecution of the Witted. That yielded her only the results I could have predicted; they suggested that all Witted enter their names on a roll, to be sure they were not unfairly persecuted. A second suggestion was that the Witted be removed to certain villages and encouraged to live only within their boundaries, for their own protection. And most generous of all, a proposal that any person found to be Witted should be given passage to either Chalced or Bingtown, where they would undoubtedly be more welcome than in the Six Duchies.

  I knew my own reaction to such suggestions. The dullest could perceive that such a registration and resettlement within the Six Duchies could easily be a prelude to a wide-scale massacre. As for “passage” to Chalced or Bingtown, it was little different from banishment. The Queen tartly told these councilors that their solutions lacked imagination and bade them try again. This was when a young man from Tilth inadvertently gave the Queen a great advantage. He facetiously suggested that the executions of Witted ones “trouble most folks not at all. In truth, those who practice the Beast Magic bring these disasters upon themselves. As it is only the Witted they bother; perhaps you should seek your solution from them. ”

  The Queen seized his suggestion with alacrity. The smirk faded from his face and the chuckles of the other councilors died away as she announced, “Now this, at least, is a suggestion with both imagination and merit. As my councilors have suggested to me, so I will do in this matter. ” Perhaps only Chade and I knew it was an idea she had long cherished. She wrote up a royal proclamation and ordered couriers to bear it throughout the Six Duchies, where it was not only to be announced in the towns and cities but also to be posted prominently. The Queen invited the Witted ones, also known as those of Old Blood, to form a delegation to meet with her, to discuss ways in which their unlawful persecution and murder might be ended. The Queen chose her words deliberately, despite Chade’s beseeching that she be more circumspect. Many a noble was incensed by her indirect accusation that they sanctioned murder within their holdings. Yet I appreciated the stance she took, and surmised that other Witted would as well,
even as I doubted that any Witted delegation would ever come to speak out on their own behalf. Why would they risk their lives by becoming known?

  After my disastrous attempt to confront my differences with the Fool, I at least gained the wisdom to be more circumspect with Chade, the Queen, and the Prince. I left the bits of scroll where Chade must see them, on our worktable. A chance encounter in the tower gave me the opportunity to ask him, calmly, what had been his reason for keeping such knowledge from me. His assassin’s answer was one that I had not expected. “Under the circumstances, it was too personal a thing for you to know. I needed you to help me discover the Prince’s whereabouts and return him safely to Buckkeep. If I had shown you this, that would never have been your focus. Instead you would have devoted all your energies to discovering who had sent this note, even though we could not absolutely connect it to the Prince’s disappearance. I needed you to have a cool head for that, Fitz. I could not help but recall your temper of old, and how it had often led you to wild actions. So, I withheld what I feared might distract you from the most important part of our task. ”

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  It did not mollify me completely, but it made me realize that Chade often brought a very different perspective to a problem than what I had expected. I think my calm acceptance of his reasoning almost rattled him. He had expected the confrontation I had so recently planned. He was almost shamefaced as he, without prompting from me, assured me that he now knew I had matured and that it had been incorrect of him to keep the full missive to himself.

  “And if I turn my attention to it now?” I asked quietly.

  “It would be useful to us, to know who sent it,” he admitted. “But not at the price of losing or distracting the Prince’s Skillmaster. I have not been lax in pursuing all tracks that might lead us back to them. Yet they seem to vanish like mist. I have not forgotten about the rat, but despite all my queries, I have not found a single trace of a Wit spy. You know that our observations of Civil have yielded nothing. ” He sighed. “I beg you, Fitz, trust me to pursue this thread, and let me use you where you are most important to us. ”

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