Golden fool, p.48
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       Golden Fool, p.48

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 177

 

  I heard Dutiful’s footfall on the stair outside the door, and there was no time to ponder such things anymore. He shut the door firmly behind him and came to the table. I sighed silently. His posture plainly said that he had not completely forgiven me. The first words out of his mouth were “I don’t want to learn the Skill with a half-wit as my partner. There must be someone else. ” Then he stared at me. “What happened to you?”

  “I got in a fight. ” I made the reply short, to let him know that was as much as I would say. “And as far as Thick working with you on the Skill, I know of no other suitable candidates. He’s our only choice. ”

  “Oh, he can’t be. Have you made an organized search for ones?”

  “No. ”

  Then, before I could say anything further, he picked up the little figurine from the table. The chain dangled from it. “What’s this?” he asked.

  “It’s yours. You found it on that beach where we encountered an Other. Don’t you remember it?”

  “No. ” He stared at it with dread. Then, unwillingly, “Yes. Yes, I do. ” He swayed in his chair, looking at it. “It’s Elliania, isn’t it? What does it mean, Tom? That I found it there, before I’d ever even met her?”

  “What?” I held out my hand for it, but he didn’t seem to notice. Instead he just sat, staring at it. I got up and walked around the table. When I looked at the small face and the coils of black hair, and bared breasts and the black, black eyes, I suddenly saw he was right. It was Elliania. Not as she was now, but as she would be, when she was a woman grown. The blue ornament carved in the woman’s hair was identical to the one that the Narcheska had worn. I drew a deep breath. “I don’t know what it means. ”

  The Prince spoke as a man does when he dreams. He looked down into the doll’s face. “That place where we were, that beach . . . it was like a vortex. Like a whirlpool that draws magic to itself. All sorts of magic. ” He closed his eyes for an instant. He still clutched the carved figurine in his hand. “I nearly died there, didn’t I? The Skill sucked me in and pulled me to pieces. But you came after me and . . . someone helped you. Someone—” He groped helplessly for a word. “Someone great. Someone bigger than the sky. ”

  It was not how I would have expressed it, but I knew what he meant. I suddenly recognized how reluctant I had been to discuss the events on the beach or even think about them. There was a nimbus around the hours we had spent there, a light that obscured rather than illuminated. It filled me with dread. It was why I hadn’t shown the feathers to the Fool or discussed them with anyone. They were a vulnerability. They were a door to the unknown. When I picked them up, I had set something larger in motion, something that was beyond anyone’s controlling. Even now, my mind cringed away, as if by refusing to remember, I could undo those events.

  “What was that? Who was that, that we encountered there?”

  “I don’t know,” I said shortly.

  A deep enthusiasm suddenly kindled in the Prince’s eyes. “We have to find out. ”

  “No. We don’t. ” I took a breath. “In fact, I think we should be very careful to avoid finding out. ”

  He stared at me in consternation. “But why? Don’t you remember what it felt like? How wonderful it was?”

  I remembered only too well, especially now that we spoke of it together. I shook my head, and suddenly wished I’d kept the figurine hidden. The sight of her was pulling all the memories back into my mind, just as a familiar perfume or the few notes of a song will suddenly recall all of an evening’s foolishness. “Yes. It was wonderful. And it was dangerous. I didn’t want to come back from there, Dutiful. Neither did you. She made us. ”

  “She? It wasn’t a she. It was like . . . like a father. Strong and safe. Caring. ”

  “I don’t think it was either of those things,” I said unwillingly. “I think that we each shaped it into what we wanted it to be. ”

  “You think we made it all up to ourselves?”

  “No. No, I think we encountered something that was bigger than we could grasp. And so we set it into a familiar shape, so we could behold it. So our minds could encompass it. ”

  “What makes you think that? Something you read in the Skill scrolls?”

  I answered reluctantly. “No. I’ve found nothing in the Skill scrolls about anything like that. I just think that because . . . because I do. ”

  He stared at me and I shrugged hopelessly, because I had no better explanation for the boy or myself. Only a stirring anticipation at the memory of the creature we had encountered, backed by an ominous dread.

  Page 178

 

  The mantel door scraping open saved me. Thick entered, sneezing. He wore the whistle outside his shirt. The contrast between the shiny paint on the whistle and the ragged, grimy garment suddenly made me see him anew. I was appalled. His lank hair was flat to his head, and the flesh that showed through his rent garments was grimy. I suddenly perceived him as Dutiful did, and realized that the Prince’s abhorrence went past the man’s physical deformity and mental limits. Dutiful literally drew back as Thick came closer, his nose wrinkling. My years with the wolf had led me to accept that certain things smelled certain ways. But the reek of Thick’s unwashed body was not simply a part of him as intrinsic as the ferret’s musk. It could be changed, and it would have to be changed if I expected the Prince to work with him.

  For now, “Thick, would you sit here?” I invited him, and drew out the chair farthest from the Prince. Thick looked at me suspiciously. Then he dragged it out, looked at the seat as if there might be some trick to it, and then plopped down into it. He began to scratch at something behind his left ear. When I glanced at the Prince, he seemed transfixed with a horrified fascination. “Well. Here we all are,” I announced, and then wondered what I was going to do with them.

  Thick’s eyes wandered to me. “That girl’s crying again,” he informed me, as if it were my fault.

  “Well. I’ll attend to that later,” I told him firmly as my heart gave a lurch.

  “What girl?” the Prince instantly demanded.

  “It’s nothing to worry about. ” Thick, let’s not talk about the girl just now. We’re here to do lessons.

  Thick slowly stopped scratching. He dropped his hand to the tabletop and stared at me earnestly. “Why you do that? Talk in my head like that?”

  “To see if I could make you hear me. ”

  He sniffed thoughtfully. “I heard you. ” Dogstink.

  Don’t do that to me.

  “Are you Skilling to each other?” the Prince asked with earnest curiosity.

  “Yes. ”

  “Then why can’t I hear it?”

  “Because we are selecting only one another to Skill to. ”

  The Prince’s brow furrowed. “How did he learn to do that when I cannot?”

  “I don’t know,” I had to admit. “Thick seems to have developed his Skill abilities on his own. I don’t really know all he can and can’t do with them. ”

  “Can he stop making that music all the time?”

  I unfolded my own Skill awareness. I hadn’t realized that I had been straining Thick’s thoughts free of the music that surrounded them. I turned to him now. “Thick, can you stop making the music? Can you think only the thoughts to me, without the music?”

  He looked at me blankly. “Music?”

  “Your mothersong. Can you make it be quiet?”

  He considered this for a time, chewing on his fat little tongue. “No,” he decided abruptly.

  “Why can’t you stop the music?” the Prince demanded. He had been sitting quietly. I suspected he had been trying to sort through the music and see if he could pick Thick and me out Skilling to one another. He sounded frustrated. Frustrated, and jealous.

  Thick looked at him, a look both dull and uncaring. “I don’t want to. ” He looked away from the Prince and went back to scratching behind his ear.


  Dutiful looked shocked. He took a breath. “And if, as your prince, I command it?” There was suppressed fury in his voice.

  Thick looked at him. Then he swung his gaze to me. His tongue thrust out a bit farther as he pondered something. Then he asked me, “Both students here?”

  I had not expected that from Thick. I hadn’t expected him to hold tenaciously to that idea, let alone apply it. It gave me both new hopes and new fears. “Both students here,” I confirmed for him. He sagged back in his chair and crossed his stubby arms on his chest.

  “And I am the teacher,” I continued. “And students obey the teacher. Thick. Can you stop your music?”

  He looked at me for a time. “Don’t want to,” he said, but in a different tone.

  “Perhaps not. But I am the teacher and you are the student. The student obeys the teacher. ”

  “Students obey, like servants?” He stood up to go.

  It was hopeless but I tried anyway. “Students obey like students. So they can learn. So everyone can learn. If Thick obeys, then Thick is still a student. If Thick won’t obey, then Thick is not a student. Then we send Thick away, to be a servant instead. ”

  Page 179

 

  He stood for a time, silent. I could not tell if he was thinking. I could not tell if he had understood what I said at all. Dutiful sat slumped in his chair, chin sunk to his chest and arms crossed, glowering. He plainly hoped that Thick would leave. But after a moment, the little man sat down again. “Stop the music,” he said. He closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and, squinting at me, said, “There. ”

  I had not realized how his steady Skilling had been battering my walls. In the stillness that followed, I felt an immense sense of relief. It was like the pause in the storm, when suddenly the winds cease howling and silence flows in. I gave a great sigh and Dutiful suddenly sat up straight. He rubbed at his ears, looking puzzled, then looked at me. “All of that was him?”

  I nodded slowly, still recovering myself.

  A great uncertainty dawned over Dutiful’s face. “But I thought . . . I thought that was the Skill itself. The great river you speak about . . . ” He looked at Thick again, but his attitude toward the little man had changed. It wasn’t respect, but it was wariness, which often precedes respect.

  Then, like a sudden curtain of rain, the music swept to life again around my thoughts, separating me from Dutiful like hunters fogged from one another by mist. I glanced at Thick. His face had fallen back into its normal lax lines. The realization came to me that Skilling was, to him, the natural state. Not-Skilling was what required his effort. And where had he learned that?

  Did your mother talk to you, like this?

  No.

  Then how did you learn to do this?

  He frowned. She sang to me. We sang together. And she made the bad boys not see me.

  Excitement filled me. Thick. Where is your mother? Do you have brothers or—

  “Stop that! It isn’t fair!” The Prince sounded as petulant as a child.

  It startled me from my thoughts. “What isn’t fair?”

  “You two Skilling to each other where I can’t hear. It’s rude. It’s like whispering behind someone’s back. ”

  I heard the jealousy in his voice as well. Thick, the half-wit, was doing something that the Prince of all the Six Duchies could not. And I was obviously enthused about it. I’d have to go carefully here. I suspected that Skillmaster Galen would have created a rivalry between them, to urge each to try harder. But that was not my goal. Instead, these two must be hammered into a unit.

  “I’m sorry. You’re right, that was not courteous. Thick just told me that his mother used the Skill to sing to him, and that they sang together. And that sometimes she used it to make bad boys not see him. ”

  “Then his mother has the Skill? Is she a half-wit, also?”

  I saw Thick wince to the words, as I had once cowered from the word “bastard. ” That cut me. I wanted to correct the Prince, sharply, but knew that was hypocrisy. Was not that how I thought of Thick, as “the half-wit”? For now, I would let it pass, but I would privately make sure that Thick never again heard that epithet from our lips.

  “Thick, where is your mother?”

  For a time, he just stared at me. Then, with the inflection of a wounded child, he said slowly, “She di-ed. ” His voice drew out the word. He looked around himself as if he had lost something.

  “Can you tell me about it?”

  He scowled in thought. “We come to town with the others. For the crowd time, for the Spring Fest. Yes. ” He nodded at having recalled the right name for it. “Then, one morning, she didn’t wake up. And the others took my stuff and said I didn’t travel with them anymore. ” He scratched the side of his face miserably. “Then, it was all done, all gone, and I was here. And then . . . I was here. ”

  It was not a very satisfactory account, but I doubted I would get more from him. It was Dutiful who asked gently, “What did your mother and the others do when they traveled?”

  Thick took a deep breath, as if aggrieved. “Oh, you know. Find the big crowd. Mother sings and Prokie drums and Jimu dances. And Mother goes ‘Don’t see him, don’t see him’ while I go about and get the purses with my little silver scissors. Only Prokie took them, and my tassel hat and my blanket. ”

  “You were a cut-purse?” Dutiful asked incredulously.

  What a use for the Skill—to hide your son while he cuts purses, I thought silently.

  Thick nodded, more to himself than to us. “And if I do good, I get my own penny, to buy a sweet. Every day. ”

  “Had you any brothers or sisters, Thick?”

  He scowled, pondering. “Mother was old, too old for babies. So I was born stupid. Prokie said so. ”

  Page 180

 

  “My, Prokie sounds charming,” the Prince muttered sarcastically. Thick swung a suspicious glare to him.

  I clarified it for him. “The Prince is saying that he thinks Prokie was mean to you. ”

  Thick sucked on his upper lip for a moment, then nodded as he warned us, “Don’t call Prokie ‘Papa. ’ Not ever. ”

  “Not ever,” the Prince agreed wholeheartedly. And I think that moment was when Dutiful’s feelings toward Thick changed. He cocked his head as he regarded the grimy misshapen little man. “Thick. Can you Skill to me? So that only I can hear, not Tom?”

  “Why?” Thick demanded.

  “To be a student here, Thick,” I intervened. “To be a student and not a servant. ”

  For a time, Thick sat silent. The end of his tongue curled over his upper lip. Then the Prince laughed aloud. “Dogstink? Why do you call him ‘dogstink’?”

  Thick made a face and then rolled one shoulder as if he didn’t know. And in the moment I sensed a secret. It wasn’t that he didn’t know why. He held something back. Did he fear something?

  I feigned a laugh I didn’t feel. “It’s okay, Thick. Go ahead and tell him, if you want. ”

  For a moment, it seemed to confuse him. Had someone told him that I must not be told something? Chade? He had a small frown on his brow as he regarded the Prince. Then he spoke. I expected him to reveal to the Prince that he knew I had the Wit, and that somehow he had sensed that my Wit-beast had been a wolf. Instead, he said words that made me sick with fear. “S’what they call him when they ask me about him. The town ones that give me pennies for nuts and sweets. Stinking dog of a traitor. ” He turned to me, smirking, and I forced my rictus grin to widen. I chuckled.

  “They do, do they? Those rascals!” Smile, Dutiful. Laugh aloud, but do not Skill back to me. I kept the sending as small and tight as I could. Even so, I saw Thick’s gaze flicker from me to the Prince. Dutiful’s face was white, but he laughed aloud, a stark “ha-ha-ha” that sounded more like a man retching than laughter. I took a last chance. “That would be the one-armed man that says it most, isn’t it?”

 
; Thick’s smile grew uncertain. I thought I had guessed wrong, but then he said, “No. Not him. He’s new. He hardly talks. But when I tell, and they give me pennies, then he says, sometimes, ‘Watch that bastard. Watch him well. ’ And I say, ‘I do. I do. ’ ”

  “Well. And a fine job you do, Thick. A fine job and you earn your pennies well. ”

  He rocked back and forth in his chair, pleased with himself. “I watch the gold man, too. He’s got a pretty little horse. And a hat, with eye feathers in it. ”

  “Yes, he does,” I admitted, my mouth dry. “Like the eye feather you wanted. ”

  “I can have it, when he’s gone,” Thick told me complacently. “The town ones said so. ”

  I felt I could not find air to breathe. Thick sat there, nodding and pleased. Chade’s dim servant, too dim to know a secret if it bit him, had sold us for pennies. And all because I was too dim to see that he who walks unknowingly among one man’s secrets may still carry other secrets of his own. But what had he seen, and to whom had he told it? “Lessons are over for today,” I managed to say. I hoped he would just go, but he sat still, musing.

  “I do a fine job. I do. Not my fault the rat died. I didn’t want him anyway. He said, ‘The rat will be your friend,’ and I said no, I got bit by a rat once, but they said, ‘Take him anyway, this rat is nice. Bring him food and bring him back to visit us each week. ’ So I did. Then he died, under the bowl. I think the bowl fell on him. ”

  “Probably so, Thick. Probably so. But that’s not your fault. Not at all. ” I wanted to race through the corridors of Buckkeep and find Chade. But the slow, cold truth was rising up around me. Chade hadn’t seen this. Chade hadn’t known about this. Chade could no longer protect his apprentice. It was time I learned to fend for myself. I lifted a finger as if I had suddenly recalled something. “Oh, Thick. Today isn’t the day you go to see them, is it?”

 
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