Golden fool, p.47
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       Golden Fool, p.47

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Tom!” he barked in rebuke. He glanced behind his shoulder at a passing couple.

  “You fear they will misunderstand what I say?” I sneered. At the anger in my voice, the man took the woman’s arm and hurried her past us. I must have looked a madman. I didn’t care. “I fear you’ve misunderstood it all along. You came to Buckkeep Town and forgot everything that I ever tried to teach you. I don’t even know how to talk to you anymore. ” I went back to the eaves for another scoop of snow. I glanced back at Hap, but he was staring stonily into the distance. In that instant, my heart gave him up. He was gone from me, following his own path, and there was nothing I could do. This arguing with him was as useless as all the words Burrich and Patience had spent on me. He’d go his own way, make his own mistakes, and maybe, when he was my age, learn his own lessons from them. Wasn’t that what I had done? “I’ll still finish paying for your apprenticeship,” I said quietly. I spoke as much to myself as to him, telling myself that there it would end. That it had already ended save keeping that bargain with myself.

  I turned and began the long walk back up to Buckkeep Castle. Breathing the cold air made my battered ribs ache. Not much choice about that. There was a sick familiarity to the pain of my puffing knuckles. I wondered dully when was I going to be old enough and wise enough to stop getting into physical fights. And I wondered at the curious disconnection in my chest, the gap where Hap had been in my life but moments before. It felt like a mortal injury.

  When I heard running footsteps behind me, I spun to confront them, fearing another attack. Hap skidded to a halt at sight of my battle grimace. For a frozen instant, we just stood and regarded one another. Then he reached out and clutched at my sleeve, saying, “Tom, I hate this. I’m trying hard, and I’m doing and saying all the wrong things. Svanja’s parents are angry with her all the time, and when she complained to me about it and I said perhaps I should meet them and promise to go more slowly, she got angry at me. And she’s mad at me for living at Gindast’s and having to stay in most nights. But I did go to Gindast, on my own, and ask to move in. And he made me eat dirt, but I kept my head down and took it, and I’m there now, doing it his way, like you said. I hate how early we get up, and how he rations how many candles we can burn at night, and how I can’t go out at all most nights. But I’m doing it. And today, for the first time, he sent me on an errand, to pick up some brass fittings over on the smith’s street. And now I’m going to be late getting back with them, and I’ll have to bow my head to that when he scolds me. But I can’t let you walk away and think I’ve forgotten everything you taught me. I haven’t. But I have to find my own life here, and sometimes the things you taught me just don’t seem to fit with how everyone else thinks. Sometimes the things you taught me don’t seem to work here. But I’m trying, Tom. I’m trying. ”

  The words tumbled out from him in a rush. When they had cascaded away and silence threatened to fill in, I put my arm across his shoulders and hugged him despite the pain in my ribs. “Hurry on your errand,” I said by his ear. I tried to think of other words to add, but couldn’t find any. I couldn’t tell him it would come out right, because I wasn’t sure it would. I couldn’t tell him that I’d trust his judgment, because I didn’t. Then Hap found the words for both of us.

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  “I love you, Tom. I’ll keep trying. ”

  I sighed in relief. “Me, too. I love you, and I’ll keep trying. Hurry, now. You’re long-legged and swift. Perhaps you won’t be late if you run. ”

  He gave me a fleeting smile, and turning, raced off toward the smith’s street. I envied him the easy movement of his body. I turned back toward Buckkeep Castle.

  Halfway up the hill road to Buckkeep Castle, I met Burrich coming down. Swift rode behind him, his hands clutching his father’s waist. Burrich’s game leg stuck out awkwardly. He’d modified the stirrup for it. For one instant, I stared at him. Swift gaped at me, but doubtless my purpling face was a sight. I damped my Wit to an ember. I kept my head down and trudged past them without another glance. My heart strained to look back at them after they had passed, but I refused it. I feared too terribly that Burrich would be looking back at me.

  The rest of the walk to Buckkeep Castle seemed cold and dreary. I went to the steams. The guardsmen, coming and going, left me alone. I had hoped the moist heat would ease some of my aches, but it didn’t. The long climb up to our chambers hurt, and I knew that if I sat still, I would stiffen, but all I could think of was my bed. The day had been a wretched waste, I told myself. I doubted that even my efforts with Dutiful and Thick would bear fruit.

  As I approached the door to our chambers, it opened. The garden maid came out of it. Garetha bore a basket of dried flowers. As I gazed at her, startled, she glanced up and her eyes met mine. She suddenly flushed a scarlet that all but obscured her freckles. Then she looked aside from me and rushed off down the hall, but not before I had caught sight of the necklace she wore. It was a single charm on a leather strand. The little carved rose was painted white, with a stem inked black. I knew the Fool’s work when I saw it. Had he taken my ill-conceived advice? Inexplicably, my heart sank in my chest. I tapped cautiously at the door and announced myself before I entered. As I shut the door behind me and looked round, I found a perfectly poised Lord Golden ensconced in the cushioned chair before the hearth. For an instant, his amber eyes widened at the sight of my bruises, but just as swiftly he had control of himself.

  “I thought you were going out for the day, Tom Badgerlock,” he observed convivially.

  “I did,” I said, and I thought that was all I was going to say. But I found myself rooted to the spot, regarding him as he sat looking back at me, so carefully contained. “I had a conversation with Hap today. I told him that loving someone and bedding someone were two different things. ”

  Lord Golden blinked slowly. Then he asked, “And did he believe you?”

  I took a breath. “I don’t think he completely understood me. But in time, I expect he will. ”

  “Many things take time,” he observed. He swung his gaze back to the fire, and my hopes, which had leapt high but a moment before, moderated themselves. I nodded a silent agreement to his words and went into my room.

  I stripped off my clothes and lay down on my narrow bed. I closed my eyes.

  The day had taken more from me than I realized. I slept, not just that afternoon, but into the night. Deep and dreamless was my rest, until in the dark of night I found myself nudged from that blissfully empty sleep into that hovering place that is between sleep and waking. What had roused me? I wondered, and then became aware of it. Outside my Skill walls, Nettle wept. She no longer assaulted those walls or entreated me angrily. She simply stood outside them and mourned. Endlessly.

  I lifted my hands and covered my eyes as if that would hold her at bay. Then, I drew a deep breath and let my walls collapse. A single step carried my thoughts to hers. I wrapped her in comfort and told her, You worry needlessly, my dear. Both your father and your brother are on their way home to you. They are safe. I promise you this is true. Now. Stop your fretting and rest.

  But . . . how can you know this?

  Because I do. And I offered her my absolute certainty, and my brief glimpse of Burrich and Swift riding double on a horse.

  For a moment, she collapsed into formlessness, so great was her relief. I began to withdraw, but she suddenly clutched at me. It has been so horrid here. First Swift disappeared, and we thought something awful had befallen him. Then the smith in town told Papa that he had asked him which roads led to Buckkeep Castle. Then Papa was furious and rode off in a temper, and Mama has done nothing but either weep or rant since then. She says that of all places in the world, Buckkeep is the most dangerous for Swift. But she will not say why. It frightens me when she is like this. Sometimes she looks at me, and her eyes don’t even see me. Then she either shouts at me to make myself useful or she starts weeping and cannot stop.
None of it makes sense. We all have been creeping about the house like mice. And Nim feels as if half of himself is missing, and somehow it is his fault.

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  I interrupted her cascading words. Listen to me. It is going to be all right.

  I believe you. But how can I make them know that?

  I pondered. Should she tell Molly she had a dream? No. You can’t. I’m afraid they must endure. So, be strong for them, knowing all will be well. Help your mother, care for your little brothers, and wait. If I know your father at all, he will be at your side as soon as his horse can bear them there.

  You know my father?

  Such a question. Very well indeed. And then I knew I had gone too far, that I had given her words that were dangerous to both of us. So I Skill-suggested to her, more gently than a willow leaf moves in a breeze, that she would sleep now, truly sleep, and wake refreshed in the morning. Her grip on me weakened and I slipped away from her, back behind the safety of my walls. I opened my eyes to the dark of my own chamber. I took a deep breath, rolled over, and shouldered deeper into my bedding. I was hungry, but morning and breakfast would come soon enough.

  A fumbling thought intruded, wafting on music. The Skilling was hesitant, not with lack of ability but with a squeamish reluctance to touch his mind to mine. You finally made her stop crying. Now Thick can sleep, too.

  His touch vanished from my mind, leaving me to stare restlessly at my ceiling. But even as I recentered my mind and tried to convince myself that Thick’s Skilling to me should be viewed as a positive step, not an invasion, another mind touched mine. It was distant and immense, and impossibly foreign. There was nothing human to the way her thoughts moved as she observed with bitter amusement, Now perhaps you will learn not to dream so loud. He is not the only one it bothers. Nor is he the only one you reveal yourself to, little man. What are you? What do you mean to me?

  Then her thoughts abandoned me as a retreating wave leaves a drowned man on a beach. I rolled to the edge of my bed and retched dryly, more battered by that prodigious mind contact than by the beating I’d taken from Rory. The foreignness of the being that had pressed against my mind disrupted me, gagging my thoughts as if I had tried to breathe oil or drink flame. Panting in the dark, I felt the sweat slide down my brow and back and wondered what my errant Skilling had awakened in the world.

  Chapter XVII

  EXPLOSIONS

  . . . and overheard a conversation between Erikska and the captain. He complained that the wind battled the ship, as if El himself begrudged bearing their homecoming. Erikska laughed at him, and mocked him for believing in “such old gods. They have grown feeble of muscle and wit. It is the Pale Lady who commands the winds now. As she is displeased with the Narcheska, she makes all of you suffer. ” At her words, the captain turned aside from her. His face was angry, as an Outislander looks angry because he hates to show fear.

  Of the handmaid you bade me especially watch, I have seen no sign. Either she has remained within the Narcheska’s cabin for this entire voyage, or she is not aboard this vessel. I think the second is likelier.

  — UNSIGNED REPORT TO CHADE FALLSTAR ON THE NARCHESKA’S JOURNEY HOME

  Sleep was gone. I ended up rising, dressing, and ascending to my tower. It was cold up there, and dark save for a few coals in the fireplace. I lit candles from the embers on the hearth and restored the fire. I damped a cloth in water and held it to my aching face. For a time I just stared into the fire. Then, in a useless effort to distract myself from all the questions I could not answer, I sat down at the table and tried to study the current set of scrolls that Chade had left out on the tabletop. These were the Outislander dragon legends, but there were two there that were new, the ink clean and black on the pale cream vellum. He would not have left them there if he had not wanted me to see them. One dealt with a report of a silver-blue dragon seen over Bingtown Harbor during a decisive battle between the Bingtown Traders and the Chalcedeans. The other looked like a child’s practice of the alphabet, the letters sprawling and malformed. But long ago he had taught me several ciphers by which we could leave messages for one another, and this parchment rapidly gave way to my efforts to decode it. Indeed, so simple was the secret of it that I scowled, wondering if Chade were losing his grip on our need for secrecy or if the quality of spies he retained had somehow lessened. For that is what it proved to be, an early report from the spy he had sent off to the Out Islands. It was mostly an account of gossip, rumors, and overheard conversations on the Narcheska’s ship during the voyage to the Out Islands. I found little that was immediately useful there, though a reference to a Pale Woman did disturb me. It was as if an old shadow out of my previous life had reached out toward me, with claws instead of insubstantial fingers.

  I was making myself tea when Chade arrived. He thrust the scroll-rack door open and staggered in. His cheeks and nose were red, and for a shocked moment, I thought the old man was drunk. He clutched at the table edge and seated himself in my chair and said plaintively, “Fitz?”

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  “What’s happened?” I asked him as I went to him.

  He stared at me, and then said overloudly, “I can’t hear you. ”

  “What’s happened to you?” I asked again, more loudly.

  I don’t think he heard those words, either, but he explained, “It blew up. I was working on that same mix, the one I showed you at your cottage. This time it worked too well. It blew up!” He lifted his hands to his face, patting at his cheeks and brow. His face was tragic. I immediately knew what troubled him. I went and got him a looking glass. He stared into it while I fetched a fresh basin of water and a cloth. I wet it for him, and he held it against his face for a moment. When he took it away, some of the flush had gone from his skin, but most of his eyebrows had, also.

  “It looks as if a great flash of fire hit you. Part of your hair is singed also. ”

  “What?”

  I motioned to him to lower his voice.

  “I can’t hear you,” he repeated plaintively. “My ears are ringing as if my stepfather had boxed them for me. Gods, I hated that man!”

  That he spoke of him at all was a measure of his distress. Chade had never told me much of his childhood. He lifted his hands and fingered his ears as if to be sure they were still there, and then plugged and unplugged them with his fingers. “I can’t hear,” he repeated yet again. “But my face isn’t too bad, is it? I’m not going to be scarred, am I?”

  I shook my head at him. “Your eyebrows will grow back. This”—I touched his cheek lightly—“seems no worse than a sunburn or wind scald. It will go away. And I think your deafness will pass, also. ” I had no basis for saying the last, save that I hoped it so devoutly.

  “I can’t hear you,” he agonized.

  I patted his shoulder comfortingly and put my cup of tea in front of him. I touched my mouth to draw his attention to my lips and then said carefully, “Is your apprentice all right?” Well I knew he would not be conducting such experiments alone at such an hour.

  He watched my mouth move, and after a moment he seemed to comprehend my words because he said, “Don’t worry about that. I took care of her. ” Then, at my shocked look at his use of the feminine pronoun, he exclaimed angrily, “Mind your own business, Fitz!”

  His irritation was directed more at himself than at me, and if I had not been so worried about him, I would have laughed. Her. So I’d been replaced with a girl. I reined my mind away from considering who she was, or why Chade had chosen her, to giving Chade what comfort I could. After a time, I ascertained that Chade could hear me, but not well. I dared to hope his hearing would recover, and tried to convey that to him. He nodded and waved a hand dismissively, but I could see the haunting worry in his eyes. If his deafness remained, it would severely compromise his ability to counsel the Queen.

  Nevertheless, he bravely tried to ignore his injury, asking me lo
udly if I’d seen the scrolls on the table, and then asking me what on earth I’d done to my face. To keep him from shouting more questions, I wrote down brief answers to his questions. I dismissed my injuries as the result of accidentally getting involved in a random tavern brawl. He was too preoccupied with his own problems to question that. Next he wrote on the scrap of paper we were using, “Did you speak with Burrich?”

  “I judged it best not to,” I inked in reply. He pursed his lips, sighed, and said nothing, but I could tell that there was much he wished to say. He’d save it for later when conversation might be easier. Then we went over the spy scrolls, pointing out interesting bits to one another even as we agreed that there was nothing there that was immediately useful. Chade wrote that he was hoping to hear soon from a spy that he’d sent out to Aslevjal Isle, to see if there was any scrap of truth to the legend.

  I wanted to discuss my progress with Thick and Dutiful, but deferred that not only on account of his dampened hearing but because I was still trying to sort out how well I was doing. I’d already decided that I’d take my efforts with Thick further tomorrow.

  It was then that I realized tomorrow was nearly upon us. Chade seemed to realize the same thing. He told me that he would seek his own bed, and plead a stomach affliction when the servant came to wake him.

  I had no such luxury of bed rest. Instead, I retreated briefly to my room to put on fresh clothing before I made the trek to Verity’s tower to await both my students. I am sure I dreaded the day’s lesson more than either of them, for my head still pounded. I clenched my brow against it as I built a fire in the tower hearth and kindled some candles on the table. Sometimes I could not recall the last time I had been completely free of Skill-pain. I briefly considered going back to my room for elfbark. When I rejected the notion, it was not because I feared it would damage my ability to Skill. It was that I connected the drug too strongly with my stupid quarrel with the Fool. No. No more of that.

 
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