Golden fool, p.44
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       Golden Fool, p.44

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Page 162


  With difficulty I disentangled myself from Thick’s song. I wondered at how so simple a mind could conceive of so convoluted and intricate a music. And in the next moment, I grasped an understanding of him. This embroidery of music was the framework of his thoughts and world. It was what he paid attention to, putting each sound he heard into its proper place in the vast scheme of sound. Little wonder, then, that he had so little thought or focus to spare for the petty concerns of the world Chade and I perceived. How much consideration did I give to the sound of water trickling or the ringing of a blade against a sharpening stone?

  I came to myself sitting in Verity’s chair. I felt as if my mind were a sponge that had been dipped into a water of music. I had to let Thick’s song drain away from me before I could recall my own thoughts and intents. After a time, I once more drew breath into my lungs, settled my mind, and reached out.

  This time I made sure I only brushed against the edges of his music. I hesitated there, trying to decide how to make him aware of me without startling him. As gently as I could, I made contact. Thick?

  I felt the impact of his fear and anger like a fist in the belly. It was like poking a sleeping cat. He fled, but not before he had clawed me. Shaken, I opened my eyes to the tower’s view of rolling waves. Even so, it was hard to settle myself into my body again and persuade myself I belonged there. Nausea roiled through me. Well, that first effort had gone well, I thought sourly. I sat for a time in discouragement. Dutiful was not coming and Thick was not going to accept any sort of training from me. To that linked chain of defeat, I added the thought that I had heard nothing from Hap since I had bid him make his own peace with his master. I marveled at my knack for sowing disillusion and discontent among those I most cherished.

  One more effort, I promised myself. Then I would return to my dismal chamber, and from thence announce to Lord Golden that his lowly servant was taking the day off. I’d go down to Buckkeep Town and make some sort of contact with Hap. I took out the red whistle and considered it. The Fool had outdone himself. It was much fancier than any pennywhistle I’d ever seen before. It was decorated with tiny birds. I set it to my lips and tried a few notes on it. When I was a youth, Patience had tried to teach me to play several musical instruments. I’d had little success with any of them. Still, I could pick out the notes of a simple child’s song. I played it several times, trying in vain to smooth out the roughness. Then I leaned back, the whistle still set to my lips. As I played, I reached out to Thick, trying to send him only the piping notes of the whistle rather than any thoughts or hints of my presence. It broke in on his own music, and for a time we jangled discordantly together. Then his notes died away as he focused on mine.

  What’s that?

  The thought was not intended for me: He merely reached out to see where the sound was coming from. I tried to make the thought I sent him very delicate. I did not stop playing as I told him, It’s a red whistle. On a green string. It’s yours, if you want to come and get it.

  A long moment of guarded thought. Then, Where?

  That gave me a moment of thought. There was a guard on duty at the base of the Skill tower steps. I couldn’t tell Thick to come that way. He’d be turned back. Chade had trusted him with at least some of the labyrinth passage of the keep. I knew I should consult Chade before I revealed more to him, but this was too good of an opportunity to miss. I wanted to see if I could guide Thick through the passages via our mind link. Not only would it test the current limits of our ability to Skill to one another, but it would give me an insight into just what he was capable of. I refused to spend too much time in hesitation. Come to me this way. I showed him a mental image of Chade’s tower room. Then I showed him, step by step, the passages he must use to come to the Skill tower. I did not rush through them, but neither did I linger. I finished with If you get lost, reach out to me. I will help you.

  Then I gently broke the link between us. I leaned back in the chair, and considered the whistle in my hand. I hoped it would be bait enough. I set it down on the table, and beside it I placed the figurine of a woman. It was the one the Prince had found on the beach that the Skill stones had taken us to. Without any clear idea why, I had brought it from Chade’s tower, to give it back to the Prince. With a sudden lurch of my heart, I thought of the feathers I had found on the same beach. I had never shared that discovery with the Fool. The time had never seemed right. Now I wondered if I ever would. I pushed the thought from my mind. I had to focus on what I did now.

  I wiped the sweat from my brow. I found I was a bit shaky when I stood. This morning’s exercise was more Skill than I had used in quite some time. The headache was proportionately larger, rather too big for my skull. If I’d had a kettle, cup, water, and elfbark, I probably would have indulged. Instead I had to settle for pouring myself a measure of brandy and leaning out the window for a time.

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  When I heard the scuff of footsteps coming up the tower stairs, I thought it was the guard. I took the bottle and my glass, retreated to a dim corner of the room and stood very still. I heard the key turn slowly in the lock, and the door opened. Then Dutiful entered. He shut the door firmly behind himself and then glanced about the apparently empty room. His irritation was plain on his face. He crossed to the table and once more looked about the room. A slow realization came to me. Witted the Prince might be, but not as strongly as I was. Even in the room with me, he remained unaware of my presence. This was a new idea to me: that, just as with the Skill, men could possess the Wit magic in various strengths. I set the thought aside to ponder later.

  “Here. ” When I spoke, he jumped, and then became aware of me as I stepped from the shadows, bottle and glass in hand. He glared at me as I advanced to the table and set the glass down. “Good morning, my prince. ”

  He spoke firmly, with great disdain. “Tom Badgerlock, you are dismissed. I no longer wish to have you teach me anything. I will be speaking to my mother to have you removed from Buckkeep entirely. ”

  I kept my calm. “As you wish, my prince. Undoubtedly, that would be the easiest route for me as well. ”

  “This is not about what is ‘easiest’ for me. This is about treachery and betrayal. You have used the Skill against me, your rightful prince. I could ask for your banishment. Even your execution. ”

  “You could, my prince. Or, you could ask for my explanation. ”

  “No explanation could excuse what you did. ”

  “I did not say you could ask for my excuse. I said you could ask for my explanation. ”

  And there the conversation stopped. I refused to lower my eyes. I met his gaze steadily. I was determined that he would ask, courteously, for my explanation before he would hear another word from me. He seemed equally determined that he would cow me with his princely stare until I decided to beg his pardon.

  Suspense was on my side.

  “An explanation is long overdue. ”

  “Perhaps it is,” I conceded, and waited again.

  “Explain yourself, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  A “please” would have been nice, but I sensed he had bent as far as he could. A boy’s pride can be a brittle thing.

  I walked back over to the table and refilled my glass. I lifted the bottle questioningly toward him, but he shook his head, an abrupt refusal to share drink with such as me. I sighed. “How much do you recall of the beach? The one that we fled to through the standing stone?”

  His face clouded a bit and he looked wary. “I . . . ” He came very close to lying. Then, “I recall parts of it. It fades, like a dream, and then sometimes bits of it come back to me bright and clear. I know you used the Skill magic to take us there. It weakened and confused me somehow. I imagine that is when you cast your power spell over me. ”

  I sighed. This was going to be even more difficult than I had feared. “Do you remember a time by the fire, when you attacked me? Attacked me with every
intent of killing me?”

  He looked aside from me briefly, then nodded as if surprised that he did recall such a thing. “But that was not entirely of my own will. You know that! Peladine was striving even then to control my body. And I did not know you then. I thought you were my enemy!”

  “Nor did I know you. Not as I do now. Yet already we were bound by a Skill link, for I had had to go after your soul once before, and haul it back to your body. ” I hesitated, then decided I would not speak of that other being I had encountered, the great being that had aided us both to return. That memory remained hazy even for me. Best not to bring up what I could not explain. I took a breath. “I knew Peladine was within you. And that she would stop at nothing to kill me, even if she had to damage you in the process. It frightened me. And then, in my anger and fear for my life, I commanded you, ‘Dutiful, stop fighting me. ’ It was a Skill command. One that printed itself onto your mind with far more force than I intended. I never meant to do it, Dutiful. It was an accident, one I have regretted, and one I have tried to amend. I thought I had amended it. ” I felt an unwanted smile twist my mouth. “I thought I had lifted it from you, right up until the very moment when I tried to keep you from your foolish declaration in the hall. Only then did I perceive that some final shadow of it remained, and only when you broke it. ”

  “Yes. I broke it. ” He spoke with satisfaction. Then he glared at me again. “But knowing that it existed, knowing that you can do such a thing to me, how can I ever trust you again?”

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  I was still pondering an answer to that when Thick pushed the mantel-side door open. The entry was an even tighter fit for the stout-bodied man than for me, and he was festooned with cobwebs and powdered with dust. For a moment he stood blinking his sleepy-looking eyes at the startled Prince and me. His jaw was thrust forward, his tongue protruding thoughtfully. Then he spoke. “I come for my whistle. ”

  “And you shall have it,” I said. I scooped it up from the table and held it out to him, dangling by its green string. Gently, I added, “And that was good Skilling, Thick. You followed my directions and here you are. ”

  He shuffled forward suspiciously. I doubt that he recognized Prince Dutiful, out of context of his throne and robes of state. He included him in his scowl as he said, “You made me come a long way. ” He snatched the whistle and held it close to his peering little eyes. Then he frowned, “This isn’t my whistle!”

  “It is now,” I told him. “It’s a new one, made especially for you. Did you see the birds on it?”

  He turned it in his hands, then grudgingly admitted, “I like birds. ” Then he turned to go, the whistle clutched to his chest.

  The Prince was staring at him with dismay bordering on disgust. I knew the Mountain way for such babes as Thick had been; he would have been exposed to a swift and perhaps merciful death, much as Burrich would have drowned a deformed puppy. But Queen Kettricken had commanded that I train this man. Would his Mountain values prevent Dutiful from accepting Thick? I tried not to hope that the Prince would refuse him as a coterie member. I wanted to delay Thick’s leaving. “Aren’t you even going to try it, Thick?”

  “No. ” Thick was shuffling toward the door.

  “Try that tune you Skill to yourself. The one that goes la-da-da-da-de—” Even as I tried to mimic back to him the music I had come to know by heart, Thick spun around to face me. Outrage glittered in his little eyes.

  “Mine!” he roared. “My song! My mam’s song!” He came at me with murder in his eyes. He lifted the whistle as if it were a knife that he could plunge into my heart.

  “I’m sorry, Thick. I didn’t realize that was private. ” But I should have, I suddenly knew. I gave ground before him. His body was thick, his limbs short and awkward, and his belly pudgy. I knew that in a physical struggle, I could master him. I also knew it would involve hurting him, because that would be the only way to defeat him. I didn’t want to do that. I needed his goodwill. I darted behind the table.

  “My song!” Thick repeated. “Dog poop stink stealer!”

  An unwilling bubble of laughter burst from the Prince’s lips. I think he was both horrified and fascinated by the spectacle of the dimwit attacking me over a song. Then a sudden frown divided his brow. Even as I circled the table, trying to keep it between Thick and me until I could find a way to calm him, the Prince suddenly exclaimed, “I know that song!” He hummed a short bit of it, making Thick’s scowl deepen. “It’s the first thing that I always hear when I try to Skill. It comes from you?” His question was incredulous.

  “My song!” Thick asserted again. “My mam’s song! You can’t hear it. Only me!” He diverted his steps and suddenly charged the Prince in a wild run. As he went, he caught up the brandy bottle, lifting it like a club, heedless of the liquor that galloped out of it and down his arm. The Prince’s eyes went wide, but he was too foolishly proud to retreat before Thick’s onslaught. He stood his ground, dropping into the fighter’s crouch I’d taught him. His hand moved to his belt knife. In response, I felt Thick’s mind-numbing cloud of Don’t see me, don’t see me, don’t see me even as he closed on the Prince. I saw Dutiful struggle against the little man’s Skill and felt him begin to mount a blast of his own to thrust through it.

  “No!” I roared in dismay. “Don’t hurt each other!”

  And my command shimmered with an edge of Skill. I saw them both flinch to it, saw them both spin to confront me, arms upraised as if that would ward off the magic. I could almost see it rebound from them, but just for an instant it dizzied them both. The backwash of my command as they instinctively repulsed it giddied me, but I recovered faster than they did. The Prince staggered back a step, while Thick dropped the bottle and lifted his pudgy hands to cover his eyes. I was horrified at what I had done; yet when they stood still and for a moment docile, I added, “That’s enough. You must never attack one another that way. Not if you are going to work together to master the Skill. ” I was proud that I kept my voice from shaking.

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  Dutiful shook his head and then spoke in a dazed voice. “You did it again! You dared to use the Skill against me!”

  “That I did,” I admitted, and then demanded, “What else would you have me do? Watch you blast the sense from one another? Have you ever met your cousin August, Dutiful? That drooling, doddering old man? What happened to him was an accident. Yet there have been instances of Skill-users maiming one another in a battle such as you both nearly engaged in. Yes, and there have been deaths as well, deaths that seared the ones who wrought them almost as severely as the ones that died. ”

  Dutiful leaned against the table. Thick slowly lowered his hands from his eyes. He’d bitten his tongue and it dripped blood. Dutiful spoke to both of us. “I am your prince. You are sworn to me. How dare you attack me?”

  I took a breath and reluctantly stepped up to the task Chade had laid upon me. “Not here,” I said quietly. “It is true that I am sworn to the Farseers. I serve them, as best I may. And to serve them best in this, know this well, Dutiful. In this room, you are not my prince, but my student. And just as your swordmaster deals you bruises with a blunt blade to teach you, so will I use whatever force is necessary. ” I swung my eyes to Thick, who was pouting sourly at us both. “In this room, Thick is not a servant. Here, he is my student. ” I looked from one to another and buckled them into the harness they must share. “Here you are equals. Students. I will respect you as such, and I will demand that you respect each other as such. But make no mistake. Within this chamber, during the hours of our lessons, my authority is absolute. ” I looked from one to the other. “Do you both understand this?”

  The Prince looked stubborn, and Thick suspicious. “Not a servant?” he asked slowly.

  “Not if you choose to be a student here. To learn what I have to teach. So that, eventually, you can help the Prince. ”

  He scowled, working through it slowly. “Help
the Prince. Work for him. Servant. More work for Thick. ” His little eyes glittered maliciously as he exposed what he thought was my hidden intention.

  I shook my head again. “No. Help the Prince. As his coterie. His friend. ”

  “Oh, please,” the Prince groaned disdainfully.

  “Not a servant. ” This obviously pleased Thick. It gave me yet another insight into him. I would have thought him too dull to care what his position was in the world. Yet plainly, he would prefer not to be a servant.

  “Yes. But only if you are a student. If you do not come here, every day, and try to learn what I teach, then you are not a student. Thick is the servant again. Haul the wood, fetch the water. ”

  He set the empty bottle down on the table. Hastily he looped the string of the whistle around his neck. “I’m keeping the whistle,” he insisted, as if that were an important part of the bargain.

  “Servant or student, the whistle belongs to Thick,” I told him. This seemed to set back his understanding of the situation. His fat little tongue pushed farther out of his mouth as he considered it.

  “You cannot be serious,” the Prince said in an undertone. “That is to be a member of my coterie?”

  I knew both an instant of sympathy for him and a strong irritation with his disdain for Thick. I spoke levelly. “He is the best candidate that Chade and I have discovered so far. Unless, of course, you have encountered others with his natural predilection for the Skill?”

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