Golden fool, p.45
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       Golden Fool, p.45

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  He stood silent, and then shook his head unwillingly. In some corner of my mind, I was amused that he was more distressed at the idea of Thick being his fellow student than he was by my declaration that I would treat them both the same during lessons. I decided to take advantage of his temporary distraction. “Good. That’s settled, then. And I believe we’ve all learned enough for one morning. I shall expect you both to be on time tomorrow. For now, you are dismissed. ”

  Thick was just as happy to leave. Still clutching his whistle, he scuttled for the mantel door. As he shut it behind him, the Prince asked in a low voice, “Why are you doing this to me?”

  “Because I am sworn to the Farseer reign. To serve it as best I can. And you, Dutiful, are now dismissed. ”

  I hoped he would turn toward the door, but he did not. Not until there was a sharp rap at it. We both started. I glanced at the Prince, who loudly called out, “What is it?”

  The voice of a young page reached us through the stout timbers of the door. “A message for you, Prince Dutiful, sir, from Councilor Chade. He bade me beg your pardon, but also said to let you know it was immediately urgent. ”

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  “A moment. ”

  I faded back to a corner of the room as the Prince went to the door, unlatched it, opened it a crack, and accepted a small, sealed scroll. As I watched him, I reflected sourly that, despite all else Skillmaster Galen had been, he had been right in several areas. No students of his would ever have dared attack one another, let alone question his authority over them. He had immediately reduced all his students to a harsh equality, though I had been the exception to that; all had known that he regarded me as beneath them. As much as it choked me, I needed to emulate at least some of his attitudes, even as I refused his harsh techniques. Discipline is not the same as punishment, I thought, and recognized it as an echo of some old words of Burrich’s.

  The Prince had shut the door behind him and picked the wax off the scroll. Then he frowned as he unrolled it to reveal a second, sealed scroll within it. “I think this must be for you,” he said uneasily. In a script I would never have recognized as Chade’s, the word “teacher” was written on the outside of the scroll. At the sight of my own charging Farseer buck impressed in the wax, I took the scroll from the Prince’s hand.

  “It is,” I agreed shortly. I turned aside from him, broke the wax, and read the single sentence. Then as the Prince watched, I consigned it to the fire.

  “What was it?” the Prince demanded.

  “A summons,” I said shortly. “I must go now. But I expect to see you on time tomorrow, and ready to learn. Good day, my prince. ”

  His stunned silence followed me as I squeezed behind the fireplace mantel and shut and latched the little door behind me. Once within the narrow passageway, I hurried as much as I could. I silently cursed the low ceilings, the corners I must squeeze past, and the labyrinthine wandering of the burrows when I wished to run as fast as I could in the straightest possible line.

  When I arrived at my peephole outside the Queen’s private audience chamber, my mouth was parched and I was panting like a hound. I took several deep breaths, forced myself to stand still until my breathing was steady and silent again. Then I flung myself down on the little stool and applied my eye to the tiny peephole. I was late. Chade and Queen Kettricken were already there, the Queen seated while the Councilor stood at her shoulder. Their backs were to me. A gangly boy of perhaps ten years stood before them. His dark curls were sweated to his skull, and the hem of his cloak dripped muddy snow water on the floor. The low shoes he wore had never been intended for winter travel. Caked snow was still melting on his leggings and feet. Wherever he had come from, he must have walked all night. His dark eyes were immense but he met his Queen’s gaze steadily. “I see,” she said quietly.

  Her answer seemed to embolden him. I wished I had heard the entire conversation. “Yes, ma’am,” he agreed. “And so, hearing that you would not tolerate what was being done to the Witted, I came to you. Maybe here in Buckkeep I can just be what I am and not get beat for it. I promise I’ll never use it to any low end. I will vow myself to the Farseers and serve you well in any way you ask of me. ” He lifted his eyes to meet the Queen’s, not a bold stare but an honest, direct look from a boy confident that he had chosen the right path. I stared at Burrich’s son, seeing Molly mingled in the boy’s cheekbones and lashes.

  “And your father approved of this?” Chade asked, stern but gentle.

  The boy looked aside at that. When he spoke, his voice was softer. “My father doesn’t know, sir. I just left when I knew that I couldn’t take it anymore. I won’t be missed. You saw our home. He has other sons, good sons who are not Witted. ”

  “That does not mean he won’t miss you, Nim. ”

  For the first time, the boy looked annoyed. “I’m not Nim. Nimble doesn’t have the Wit. I’m Swift, the other twin. See, that’s another reason that my father won’t miss me. He already has one of me that’s perfect. ”

  A shocked silence followed his words. I am sure he mistook the cause of it. When Kettricken spoke, she tried to mend it.

  “I knew Burrich, years ago. However much he may have changed, I am still certain that, Witted or no, he will miss you. ”

  Chade added, “When I spoke with Burrich, he seemed very fond and proud of all his children. ”

  For a moment, I thought the boy would break. Then he took a breath and said matter-of-factly, “Well, yes, but that was before. ” Chade must have looked at him blankly, for the boy painfully elaborated, “Before the taint come out in me. Before he knew I had the Wit. ”

  I saw the Queen and Chade turn to one another and silently confer. After a moment, the Queen said softly, “Then, Swift, Burrich’s son, I say this to you. I am willing to take you into my service. But I think it best that I do so with your father’s consent. He must be told of your whereabouts. It is unfair to let your parents fear that you have come to a bad end. ”

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  Even as she spoke, we all became aware of raised voices in the corridor outside the chamber. There was a light knock at the door, and before they could respond, a hasty and heavier one. Kettricken nodded to a little page at her side, who went to answer it. When the door was opened, a guard stood before it, ready to relay a message. Behind him hulked Burrich, dark and scowling, and despite all the years that had passed, I quailed before that look. His black eyes glowered as he peered past the sentry into the room. Plainly dismissing the man as inconsequential, Burrich called out, “Chade. A word with you, please. ”

  It was Queen Kettricken who replied. “Burrich. Please come in. Page, you are dismissed. Close the door behind you. No, Guardsman Senna, I assure you, all is well. We have no need of your service just now. Close the door. ”

  Even as Burrich strode angrily into the chamber, the quiet courtesy of her words and her calm air as she received him took much of the wind from his sails. He walked with a swing to one leg where that joint did not bend well.

  He went down on one knee before her, despite her, “Oh, Burrich, that is hardly necessary. Please. Get up. ”

  It cost him to haul himself back to his feet, yet he did. When he lifted his eyes to hers, I saw something that smote me. The palest of cataracts, the barest beginning of a creeping cloud, hazed his dark glance. “My Queen. Lord Chade,” he greeted them formally. Then, as if there were no more to say to them, he turned to Swift and said, “Boy. Get home. Now. ” When the lad dared to glance at the Queen for confirmation, Burrich growled, “I said, get home! Do you forget who your father is?”

  “No, sir. I do not. But how . . . how did you find me?” Swift demanded in dismay.

  Burrich snorted contemptuously. “Easily enough. You asked the smith in Trura which road led to Buckkeep. Now I’ve had a long, cold ride and you’ve annoyed these people enough. I’m taking you home now. ”

  I admired Swif
t then, for he stood his ground gamely before his father’s rising wrath. “I have asked asylum of the Queen. And if she grants it to me, I intend to stay. ”

  “You’re talking nonsense. You need no asylum. You’ve worried your mother to hysteria and had your sister in tears for two nights. Now you’ll come home, and settle back into your place and do your duties. Without complaint. ”

  “Sir,” Swift replied. It was not assent, only a confirmation that he had heard Burrich’s words. Silently he lifted his dark eyes to the Queen. It was a strange sight, Burrich, older and grayer, and beside him, his son mirroring the stubborn gaze of his father.

  “If I might offer a suggestion—” Chade began, but Kettricken cut in with “Swift, you have come far and quickly. I know you are wet, cold, and tired. Tell the guardsman at the door to take you down to the kitchens and see you are fed, and then to let you stand before the hearth and get warm and dry. I wish to speak to your father. ”

  The boy hesitated, and Burrich’s scowl deepened. “Obey her, boy!” he snapped at the lad. “That is your queen. If you cannot show the filial piety to obey your father, at least show you’ve the upbringing to obey your rightful queen. Make your bow, and then go as you were told. ”

  I saw the boy’s hopes die. He bowed stiffly but correctly and left. Even then, Swift did not scuttle from the room, but strode out, with dignity, as if to his own execution. When the door had closed behind him, Burrich swung his glance back to Kettricken. “I beg my queen’s pardon that you have been troubled with this. He’s a good enough lad, ordinarily. He’s just at . . . a difficult age. ”

  “He has not troubled us. Truth to tell, I would willingly be so troubled, if that is what it takes to bring you to visit us. Will you sit down, Burrich?” She gestured at an empty chair, one of several in a row before her.

  Burrich held himself stiffly erect. “You are kind to offer it, but I have not the time to linger, my lady. I promised my wife I would return to her, with the boy, as swiftly as I could and—”

  “Must I command you to sit down, my stubborn old friend? Your good lady will forgive you the delay to rest yourself for a moment, I am sure. ”

  He was silent. Then, like a dog commanded to sit and stay, he walked to one of the chairs and sat down in it. Again, he waited.

  After a pause, Kettricken tried again. “After all these years, this is an awkward way for all of us to come together again. And yet, no matter how awkwardly it came about, I am glad to see your face again. Yes, and to see that you have a son with his father’s proud spirit. ”

  Another man might have warmed to that paternal compliment, but Burrich only glanced down and tempered it with “And I fear he has many of his father’s faults as well, my lady. ”

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  Kettricken did not waste words or time. “The Wit, you mean. ”

  Burrich twitched to that as if she had cursed at him.

  “Swift told us, Burrich. I do not see it as a shameful thing. He told me he had come to me as I have forbidden men to persecute those with the Wit. He asked to take service with me. In truth, I would be glad to have such a stouthearted lad to page for me. But I told him it must be with his father’s consent. ”

  He shook his head as he refused her. “I do not give it, my lady. Swift is far too young to live amongst strangers. To be raised so quickly and so far above his natural station could spoil him. He needs to remain at my side for some years yet, until he learns to control his boyish impulses. ”

  “Until you’ve extinguished the Wit in him. ” Chade filled it in.

  Burrich considered, then frowned. “I don’t believe that can be done. I’ve tried for many years to wipe it from myself. Still, it lingers. But if it cannot be purged from a man, he can nevertheless be taught to refuse it. Just as a man must learn to refuse all sorts of other vices. ”

  “And you are so certain that it is a vice, and something to despise?” Kettricken’s voice was gentle. “But for your possession of the Wit, I would have died at Regal’s hands, all those years ago. But for your Wit, Fitz would have perished in Regal’s dungeons. ”

  Burrich took a short breath. It seemed to catch in his throat, and he took another one, as a man who fights for control of himself. He looked up, blinking, and it wrung me to see that his lashes were wet with unshed tears. “You can speak his name,” he said huskily. “And yet do not perceive that he is why I take the stand I do? My lady queen, but for the Wit, Fitz would have learned the Skill well. But for the Wit, he could never have been thrown into Regal’s dungeons. But for the Wit, he might even now be alive. The Wit doomed him to die, and not even as a man. As a beast. ” He dragged in a shuddering breath. His voice rasped but he held himself straight and retained command of himself. “Every day I live, I live with my failure. My prince, Prince Chivalry, entrusted me with his only child, with the sole command that I raise him well. I failed my prince. I failed Fitz and I failed myself. Because I was weak. Because I had not the strength of will to be harsh with the boy where harshness was needed. And so he fell into the way of that vile magic, and he practiced it, and it brought about his downfall. He paid the price for my misplaced tenderness. He died, horribly, and alone, and as a beast.

  “My lady queen, I loved Fitz, first as my friend’s son, and then as my friend. I loved him just as I love my own son now. And I will not lose another boy to that low magic. I will not. ” Only on the last words did his deep voice begin to shake. His hands knotted and unknotted and then clenched into fists at his side. He regarded them both through his misted eyes.

  “Burrich. Old friend. ” Chade’s voice was thick. “Long ago, you sent me word Fitz had perished. I doubted it then. I still do. How can you be sure of his death? Remember what he said to both of us. That he intended to go south, to Chalced and beyond Chalced. Perhaps he did as he said he would and—”

  “No. He did not. ” Burrich’s hands went slowly to his throat. He unfolded his collar, and then from beneath it, he drew a small and shining thing. My heart turned over in my chest and tears flooded my eyes. He showed it to both of them, gleaming on his callused palm. “Do you recognize it? It’s the pin King Shrewd gave him, when he claimed the boy as his own. ” He sniffed loudly, and cleared his throat. “When I found his body, Fitz was long dead. Many a creature had gnawed on him. But this was still there, in the collar of the shirt he died in. He died as an animal, fighting with beasts almost like himself. He was the son of a prince, the son of the finest man I ever knew, and he died like a dog. ” He abruptly closed his hand around the stickpin. He spoke not a word as he refastened it into his collar.

  I sat in the dark, behind the wall, my hand tight over my own mouth. I tried not to choke on my tears and betray myself. I must keep my secret. I must remain dead to him. Never had I thought what his assumption of my death might mean to him. I had little considered how much grief and guilt he might bear over how he supposed I had died. Burrich still believed that I had succumbed to the Wit, had reverted to an animalistic lifestyle, a beastman living in the woods until the Forged Ones attacked and killed me. It was not so far from the truth. For a time I had retreated into being a wolf in a man’s body. But I had dragged myself up and out of that refuge, and forced myself to become a man again. When the Forged Ones had raided my home and attacked me, I had fled. Days passed before I realized that I had left my precious pin behind. Burrich had found the body of a Forged One I had killed. The shirt with the pin thrust into the collar had been on that body. And so he had assumed it was mine. For all these years, it had suited my purposes to leave him in ignorance of my survival. I had thought it the kindest thing for all of us. He and Molly had found a love and a life together. To discover I still lived could only damage that bond between them. It must remain so. It must. In a numbed stillness, I stood and peered at the man who felt responsible for my death. He must continue to carry that guilt. I could not change it.

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sp; “Burrich. I do not think you failed anyone. ” Kettricken spoke softly. “And I do not see the Wit as a flaw in your son. Leave him here with me. Please. ”

  Burrich shook his head slowly and heavily. “You would not say that if he were your son. If he walked daily in danger of folk discovering what he was. ”

  I saw Kettricken’s shoulders rise as she drew breath and knew she was about to tell him that her own son was Witted. Chade realized the danger as well, for he cut in smoothly with “I see your point, Burrich. I do not agree with it, but I see it. ” He paused, then asked, “What will you do to the boy?”

  Burrich stared at him. Then he gave a brief bark of laughter. “What? Do you fear I’ll take the hide off him? No. I’ll take him home, and keep him well away from animals, and daily work him until he is so tired that he falls asleep before he gets into his bed at night. No worse than that. His mother’s tongue will probably flay him worse than a cane ever could. Nor will his sister easily forgive him for the worry he’s given us. ” Then suddenly he scowled more blackly than ever. “Did the lad tell you he was in fear of life or limb from me? For that’s a lie, and he knows it, and for that he might get the back of my hand. ”

  “He said nothing of the kind,” Kettricken said quietly. “Only that he could not stand it anymore, to live at home and be forbidden the Wit. ”

  Burrich snorted. “No one dies from being forbidden the Wit. There’s a loneliness to giving it up, and well do I know that. But no one dies from avoiding the Wit. Using the Wit is how one dies from it. ” Burrich abruptly rose from his chair. I heard his bad knee crackle as he rose and he winced at it. “My lady queen, forgive me, but if I sit too long, I’ll stiffen, and this day’s ride home will be all the harder for me. ”

  “Then take a day here, Burrich. Go to the steams to ease that leg of injuries twice taken in defending a Farseer’s life. Eat well, and sleep in a soft bed tonight. Tomorrow is soon enough for your journey home. ”

  “I cannot, my lady. ”

  “You can. Must I command this comfort to you, also?” The Queen’s voice was fond.

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