Golden fool, p.46
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       Golden Fool, p.46

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Burrich met her gaze squarely. “My lady queen, would you command me to break my word to my own lady?”

  Kettricken gravely bowed her head to him. “Good man, your honor is the only thing as stiff as your stubbornness. No, Burrich, I would never command you to break your word. Too often has my own life depended upon it. I will let you go then, as you please. But you shall delay long enough to allow me to pack such gifts as I wish you to take back to your family. And while I do so, you may as well eat a hot meal and warm yourself at the hearth. ”

  Burrich was silent for a moment. Then, “As you wish, my lady. ” Again, he went ponderously and painfully down upon one knee.

  When he rose and waited her permission, Kettricken sighed. “You may go, my friend. ”

  When the door had closed behind him, Kettricken and Chade sat silently for a time. They were the only people left in the chamber. Then Chade turned and looked toward my peephole. He spoke softly. “You have a little time while he eats. Think hard. Shall I summon him back to this chamber? You could be alone here with him. You could put his heart at ease. ” He paused. “This is your decision, my boy. Neither Kettricken nor I will make it for you. But . . . ” His words died away. Perhaps he knew just how much I did not want his advice on this. In a soft voice, he added, “If you wish me to ask Burrich to come back to this chamber, tell Lord Golden to send me a message. If you do not, then . . . do nothing. ”

  Then the Queen arose, and Chade escorted her from the audience chamber. She gave one pleading backward glance at my wall before she left the room.

  I don’t know how long I sat there in the dust and dimness. When my candle began to drown in its own wax, I rose and made my way back to my own small chamber. The corridor seemed long and dreary. I walked unseen, through dust and cobwebs and mouse droppings. Like a ghost, I smiled stiffly to myself. Just as I walked through my life.

  In my room, I took my cloak from its hook. I listened a moment at the door, then stepped out into the central chamber of Lord Golden’s apartments. He sat alone at the table. He had pushed his breakfast tray aside. He did not appear to be doing anything. He gave me no greeting. I spoke without preamble.

  “Burrich is here. He followed his son Swift, Nimble’s twin. Swift is Witted, and sought asylum in the Queen’s service. Burrich refused to let her have the boy. He’s taking him home with him, to teach him not to use the Wit. He still thinks the Wit is evil. He blames it for my death. He also blames himself, that he did not beat it out of me. ”

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  After a moment, Lord Golden turned his head indolently to look at me. “An interesting bit of gossip. This Burrich, he was Stablemaster here at one time, was he not? I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. ”

  For a time, I just looked at him. He returned my stare with a gaze devoid of interest. “I’m going down to Buckkeep Town today,” I announced flatly.

  He turned back to his contemplation of the tabletop. “As you will, Tom Badgerlock. I’ve no need of your services today. But be ready to ride out tomorrow at noon. Lady Thrift and her niece have offered to take me out hawking. I don’t care to keep a bird of my own, you know. Their talons spoil the sleeves of my coats. But perhaps I shall be able to add some feathers to my collection. ”

  My hand was on the door latch before he had finished his hateful charade. I shut it firmly behind me and went briskly down the stairs. I dared fate and myself. If I ran into Burrich in the hallway, he would know me. Let the gods decide for themselves if he should walk in guilty ignorance or pain-wracked truth. But I did not encounter him in the halls of Buckkeep, nor even glimpse him as I went past the guards’ dining hall. Then I snorted at my own foolish fancy. Doubtless they would take the Queen’s guest to the main hall, and there feed him well, alongside his wayward son. I did not let myself pause to consider any other temptations. I went out into the courtyard, and soon was striding down the road to Buckkeep Town.

  The day was fine, clear and cold. It bit the tops of my cheeks and the tips of my ears, but my pace kept the rest of me warm. I played a dozen scenes in my head of how it might go were I to confront Burrich. He would embrace me. He would strike me and curse me. He would not recognize me. He would faint with shock. In some he welcomed me warmly with tears of joy, and in others he cursed me for all the years I had let him live in guilt. But in none of those scenes could I imagine how we would speak of Molly and Nettle, nor what would come after. If Burrich discovered that I was alive, could he keep it from Molly? Would he? Sometimes his honor operated on such a lofty scale that what was unthinkable for any other man became the only correct option for him.

  I broke from my thoughts to find myself in the center of Buckkeep Town. Men and women alike gave me a wide berth, and I realized I was scowling darkly and probably muttering to myself. I tried to find a more pleasant expression, but my face could not seem to recall how to form one. Nor could I decide where I wished to be. I went by the woodjoiner’s shop where Hap was apprenticed. I lingered outside until I caught a glimpse of him within. There were tools in his hands. I wondered if that meant he was being given more responsibility, or if it only meant he was fetching them for someone. Well, at least he was where he was supposed to be. I would not trouble him today.

  I next wandered by Jinna’s shop, but found it closed up tight. A quick check of her shed showed that the pony and cart were gone. Something must have called her away today. I was not sure if I felt relief or disappointment. To quench my loneliness in her company would not have eased me, but if she had been home, I would probably have given myself over to the temptation.

  So I made the next most foolish decision that I could make, which was to go to the Stuck Pig. A tavern fit for the Witted for the Witted Bastard. I entered, and as I stood in the doorway with the bright winter sunlight flowing in from behind me, I decided it was one of those places that always looked better by lamplight. Daylight revealed not just the weariness of the leaning tables and the damp straw that begged pardon on the floor, but the dreariness of the folk who came to such a tavern on a bright winter afternoon. People such as myself, I surmised sourly. A gaffer and a man with a twisted leg and only one arm sat together at a table near the hearth, some game bones between them. At another table, a man with a badly bruised face sat nursing a tankard and muttering to himself. A woman looked up as I came in. When she raised one brow inquiringly, I shook my head. She scowled at me and returned to staring at the hearth fire. A boy with a bucket and rag was scrubbing tables and benches. When I sat down, he wiped his hands on his trouser legs and came over to me.

  “Beer,” I said, not because I wanted it, but because I was there and I had to order something. He bobbed acknowledgment, took my coin, brought me a mug, and went back to his tasks. I took a sip of it and tried to remember why I had walked down to Buckkeep Town. I decided it had simply been the need to be moving. But now I was sitting still. Stupid.

  I was still sitting still when Svanja’s father walked in. I don’t think he saw me at first, coming into the dim tavern from the bright winter day. When I recognized him, I looked down at the tabletop, as if by not looking at him, I could make myself invisible. It didn’t work. I heard his heavy boots on the sodden straw, and then he dragged out a chair and sat down across from me. I nodded at him guardedly. He stared at me blearily. His eyes were red-rimmed, but whether from weeping, lack of sleep, or drink, I could not tell. His dark hair had been brushed that morning, but he had not shaved. I wondered that he was not at his trade. The tavern boy soon scurried over with a mug of ale for him. He took the man’s coin and went back to his scrubbing. Hartshorn took a drink of his ale, scratched his whiskery cheek, and said, “Well. ”

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  “Well,” I agreed mildly and drank from my beer. I wished so intensely to be somewhere else that it seemed unbelievable that my body remained where it was.

  “Your boy. ” Hartshorn shifted in his chair. “Does he intend to
marry my girl, or just ruin her?” His face remained calm as he spoke, but I could see both anger and pain bubbling up in him like vapors from the bottom of a stagnant pond. I think I knew then that we would come to blows. I realized it as a sort of enlightenment. The man had to do something to regain some self-respect, and I presented the first opportunity. Both the gaffer and the maimed man had lost interest in their game and were watching us. They knew what was coming as well as I did. They’d be Hartshorn’s witnesses.

  There wasn’t a way out of what was to come, but I tried to find one. My voice was low and steady and earnest. I tried to reach him, father to father. “Hap tells me that he loves Svanja. So there is no intent there to ruin her, or to use her and cast her aside. They are both very young. But, yes, there is a danger of ruining, and for my son as well as your daughter. ”

  I made a mistake when I paused then. I think if I had kept speaking, he would have stayed seated and paid some attention to my words. I had intended to ask him what he thought that we, as parents, could do to curb our children until their passions found some sort of foundation in planning for a future. Perhaps if I had not been thinking so earnestly of what to say to him, and what we actually could do, I would have noticed that he was earnestly thinking of the best way to give me a beating.

  He surged suddenly to his feet. His mug was in his hand and desperate fury flamed in his eyes. “Your son’s fucking her! My little girl, my Svanja! And you think that isn’t ruin for her?”

  I was coming to my feet when the heavy mug hit me in the face. A miscalculation, some part of me observed. I had thought he would club me with it, and I thought I’d leaned back out of his range. When he let it fly, that small distance was not enough. It hit my left cheekbone with a crack I heard, and white pain spiderwebbed out from the impact.

  Sharp pain makes some men retreat and paralyzes others. My time under Regal’s torture had branded in me a different reaction. Attack now, before it gets any worse, before your attacker can overcome you and torment you at his leisure. I had launched myself over the table at him before the thrown mug even thudded to the floor. The pain in my face reached its zenith at about the same time my fist slammed into his mouth. His teeth cut my knuckles and my left hand slammed into his breastbone, above my intended target.

  Jinna’s warning about him had been valid. He did not go down, but roared his fury at me. I had one of my knees on the tabletop. I got my other leg under me and pushed off from there, my hands going for his throat as the weight of my body bore him down to the dirty floor. The bench behind his knees helped me knock him down, but I clipped my own shins against it painfully as I landed atop him.

  He was stronger than he looked, and he fought without restraint, without concern for his own body. His entire aim was to hurt me, with no concern for himself, and as we rolled and grappled, I heard his knuckles crack as his fist met my skull. I had not made good my grip on his throat, and the benches and tables that crowded the tavern added obstacles to our struggle. At one point he was on top of me, but we were under a table, and I was able to surge up against him and slam his head against the underside of the board. That stunned him for a moment and I rolled clear of his grasp. I scuttled clear of the table and came to my feet. He snarled at me from under the table, showing no sign of relenting in his anger.

  Fights are simultaneous things: in one moment, I readied myself to kick him as he came out from under the table, the tavernkeeper roared, “I’ve called for the guard! Take your fight outside,” while the gaffer at the game table shouted in a cracked voice, “Watch out, Rory! He’s gonna kick you, watch out!” But the voice that broke my concentration was Hap’s crying, “Tom! Don’t hurt Svanja’s father!”

  Rory Hartshorn seemed to have no compunction about hurting Hap’s father. He delivered a strong kick to my ankle that unbalanced me as he rolled out from under the table. I fell, but I fell atop him. I grabbed his throat, but he tucked his chin, trying to defeat my strangle while his fists pounded my ribs.

  “City Guard!” a bass voice bellowed in warning. As one we were plucked from the floor by two brawny armsmen. They didn’t waste time trying to break our clinch, but dragged us bodily to the door and tumbled us out into the snowy street. A circle of men surrounded us as I still strove to clench my fingers into Rory’s throat. He gripped my hair, forcing my head back as his fingers clawed at my eyes. “Kick them apart!” bellowed a sergeant and my determination suddenly seemed foolish. I let go my grip and twisted myself off Rory’s body. I left a scant handful of my hair in his fist as I did so. Someone grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet. Whoever it was, he gripped both my wrists and hauled them expertly up behind my back. I gritted my teeth and concentrated all my will on not resisting him. As I stood panting and docile, I felt his grip ease slightly.

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  Rory Hartshorn was not thinking as clearly. He struggled as a guard dragged him to his feet, and was soundly thumped with her truncheon several times for it. When he was finally still, he was on his knees. Blood from his mouth dripped from his chin. He glared at me malevolently.

  “Penalty for brawling in a tavern is six silvers. Each. Pay it now and part peacefully, or go to the lockup, and pay twice as much to get out of there. Tavernkeeper. Any damages within?”

  I didn’t hear the man’s reply because Hap hissed suddenly by my ear, “Tom Badgerlock, how could you?”

  I turned to look at my boy. He recoiled from my face. I wasn’t surprised. Even in the cold of the winter day, my cheek burned hot. I could feel it puffing. “He started it. ” I meant it by way of an explanation, but it sounded like a boy’s sulky excuse.

  The guard who held me gave me a shake. “You! Pay attention. Captain asked you if you got the six? Do you?”

  “I’ve got it. Give me a hand free to reach for my purse. ” I noted that the tavernkeeper had not tallied up any damages against us. Perhaps that was a benefit of being a regular customer there.

  The guardsman released both my hands, warning me, “No stupid tricks, now. ”

  “I’ve already done my stupid trick for the day,” I muttered, and was rewarded with a grudging chuckle from him. My hands were starting to swell. It hurt to tug my purse strings open and count out the coins for them. Now there was my queen’s largesse well spent. My guard took the coins from me and walked away to hand them to his sergeant, who counted them and then slid them into a town bag at his belt. Rory Hartshorn, still gripped by a guard on either side, shook his head sullenly. “I don’t have it,” he said mushily.

  One of the guards snorted. “The way you’ve been spending coin on drink the last few days, it’s a wonder you had any money to buy beer today. ”

  “To the lockup,” the sergeant decreed stonily.

  “I’ve got it,” Hap said suddenly. I had almost forgotten he was there until I saw him tug at the sergeant’s sleeve.

  “Got what?” the sergeant asked in surprise.

  “His fine. I’ll pay Hartshorn’s fine for him. Please don’t lock him up. ”

  “Don’t want your money! Don’ wan nothin’ from him. ” Rory Hartshorn was starting to sag between the men that held him. Bereft of his fury, pain was taking him over. Then, horribly, he began to weep. “Ruined my daughter. Ruined our family. Don’ take his dirty money. ”

  Hap went white. The sergeant looked him up and down coldly. Hap’s voice cracked as he said, “Please, don’t lock him up. It’s bad enough, isn’t it?” The purse he lifted and tugged open was clearly marked with the sigil of his master, Gindast. Hap scooped coins out of it and proffered them to the guard. “Please,” he said again.

  The sergeant turned away from him abruptly. “Take Hartshorn to his home. Fine suspended. ” He turned coldly away from my boy, who reeled as if he had been struck. Shame burned his face scarlet. The two guardsmen holding Hartshorn hustled him away, but it was now plain that they were aiding him to walk rather than restraining him. The rest of the city patr
ol moved off on their regular rounds. Suddenly Hap and I were alone in the middle of the cold street. I blinked and my own hurts began clamoring to make themselves known. The worst was my cheekbone where the heavy mug had connected. My vision in that eye was blurred. I felt a moment of selfish gratitude that Hap was there to help me. But when he turned to look at me, he did not seem to see me at all.

  “It’s all ruined now,” he said helplessly. “I’ll never be able to make this right. Never. ” He turned to stare after the retreating Hartshorn. Then he swung his gaze back to me. “Tom, why?” he demanded heartbrokenly. “Why did you do this to me? I went to live with Gindast like you told me to. I was getting everything sorted out. Now you’ve ruined it. ” He stared after the departing men. “I’ll never make peace with Svanja’s family now. ”

  “Hartshorn started the fight,” I said stupidly, and then cursed my own pathetic excuse.

  “Couldn’t you have walked away?” he asked self-righteously. “You’ve always told me that’s the best choice in a fight. To walk away if you can. ”

  “He didn’t give me that opportunity,” I said. My anger was starting to swell worse than my face. I walked to the edge of the street and reached up to take a handful of somewhat clean snow from an eave edge. I held it to my face. “I don’t see how you can blame me for any of this,” I added sullenly. “You’re the one who set it all in motion. You had to rush her into bed. ”

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  For an instant he looked as if I had struck him. But even before I could feel regret for my words, he shifted into anger. “You speak as if I had a choice,” he said coldly. “But that’s to be expected, I suppose, from a man who has never known real love in his life. You think all women are like Starling. They’re not. Svanja is my true love forever, and true love should not be made to wait. You and her father and mother would have us hold back from completing our love, as if tomorrow were a certainty for any of us. But we won’t. Love demands that we grasp it all, today. ”

  His words inflamed my anger. I was certain that they were not his own, but had been harvested from some tavern minstrel. “If you think I’ve never known love, then you don’t know anything about me,” I retorted. “As for you and Svanja, she’s the first girl you’ve ever said more than ‘hello’ to, and you tumble into her bed and proclaim it love. Love is more than bedding, boy. If love doesn’t come first and linger after, if love can’t wait and endure disappointment and separation, then it’s not love. Love doesn’t require bedding to make it true. It doesn’t even demand day-to-day contact. I know this because I have known love, many kinds of love, and amongst them, I’ve known what I felt for you. ”

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