Golden fool, p.5
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       Golden Fool, p.5

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Chade slowly sank down into my chair. He reached out to take one of my hands in his as if that would make my words more comprehensible. Or perhaps he sought to feel if fever had taken me. “Thick has the Skill magic,” he said carefully. “That’s what you’re telling me. ”

  “Yes. It’s raw and untrained, but it burns in him like a bonfire. I’ve never encountered anything like it before. ” I shut my eyes, put my palms flat to my temples, and tried to push my skull back together. “I feel like I’ve taken a beating. ”

  A moment later, Chade said gruffly, “Here. Try this. ”

  I took the cold wet cloth he offered me and placed it across my eyes. I knew better than to ask him for anything stronger. The stubborn old man had made up his mind that my pain drugs would interfere with my ability to teach Dutiful to Skill. No good to long for the relief that elfbark could bring. If there were any left in Buckkeep Castle, he’d hidden it well.

  “What am I going to do about this?” he muttered, and I lifted a corner of the cloth to peer at him.

  “About what?”

  “Thick and his Skill. ”

  “Do? What can you do? The half-wit has it. ”

  He resumed his seat. “From what I’ve translated of the old Skill scrolls, that makes him something of a threat to us. He’s a wild talent, untaught and undisciplined. His Skilling can inadvertently disrupt Dutiful just as he is trying to learn. Angered, he can use his Skill against people; apparently, he has already done so. Worse, you say he is strong. Stronger than you?”

  I lifted one hand in a futile gesture. “I have no way of knowing. My talent has always been erratic, Chade. And I know no way of measuring it. But I have not felt so besieged since all of Galen’s coterie turned their collective strength on me. ”

  “Mmh. ” He leaned back in his chair and considered the ceiling. “The most prudent course might simply be to put him down. Kindly, of course. It is not his fault he is a threat to us. Less radical would be to begin dosing him with elfbark to dampen or destroy his talent. But as your reckless abuse of that herb over the last decade has not completely scoured the Skill ability from you, I have less faith in its efficacy than the writers of the Skill scrolls did. Yet I tend toward a third path. More dangerous, perhaps. I wonder if that is not why it appeals to me, because the possibilities are as great as the hazard. ”

  “Teach him?” At Chade’s tentative smile, I groaned. “Chade, no. We don’t know enough between the two of us to be certain that we can teach Dutiful safely, and he is a tractable boy with a bright mind. This Thick of yours is already hostile to me. His insults make me fear that somehow he has detected that I am Witted. And what he has learned on his own is potent enough to be dangerous to me if I try to teach him more. ”

  “Then you think we should kill him? Or cripple his talent?”

  I didn’t want that decision to be mine. I didn’t even want to know that such a decision was being made, yet here I was again, neck deep in Farseer plotting. “I don’t think either of those things,” I muttered. “Cannot we just send him very far away?”

  “The weapon we throw away today is the one at our throats tomorrow,” Chade returned implacably. “That is why King Shrewd chose, long ago, to have his bastard grandson close to hand. We must make the same sort of decision with Thick. Use him, or render him useless. There is no middle path. ” He held one hand out toward me, palm up, and added, “As we have seen with the Piebalds. ”

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  I do not know if he intended it as a rebuke to me, but his words stung nonetheless. I leaned back in my chair and let the wet cloth fall over my eyes.

  “What would you have had me do? Kill them all, not just the Piebalds who lured the Prince away but also the Old Blood elders who came to our aid? And then the Queen’s own Huntswoman? And then the Bresinga family? And Sydel, young Civil Bresinga’s intended, and—”

  “I know, I know,” he cut me off as I pointed out the widening circle of assassinations that still would not have completely protected our secret. “And yet, there we are. They have shown us they are swift and competent. You have scarcely been back at Buckkeep for two days, and yet they were watching and ready for you. Am I correct in saying that last night was the first time you had ventured into town?” At my nod he continued. “And they immediately located you. And made very sure that you knew they were aware of you. A deliberate gambit. ” He took a deep breath and I saw him turning it over in his mind, trying to see what message they had intended to convey. “They know the Prince is Witted. They know you are Witted. They can destroy either of you whenever they please. ”

  “We already knew that. I think this was intended in a different way. ” I took a breath, put my thoughts in order, and gave him a skeletal account of my encounter. “I see this in a new light now. They wanted me to be frightened, and to think what I could do to be safe from them. I can either be a threat to them, one they would eliminate, or I can be useful to them. ” That wasn’t exactly how I had seen it earlier, but the implications now seemed obvious. They had frightened me, and then let me go, to give me time to realize I could not possibly kill them all. Impossible to know how many now shared my secret. The only way I could survive was to become useful to them. What would they ask of me? “Perhaps as a spy within Buckkeep Castle. Or as a weapon within the keep, someone they could turn against the Farseers from within. ”

  Chade had followed my thoughts effortlessly. “Is not that what we could choose? Hm. Yes. For a time at least, I counsel you to be wary. Yet open, too. Be ready for them to contact you again. See what they demand, and what they offer. If necessary, let them think you will betray the Prince. ”

  “Dangle myself like bait. ” I sat up and lifted the cloth off my eyes.

  A smile twitched at his mouth. “Exactly. ” He held out a hand and I gave him the wet cloth. He tilted his head and regarded me critically. “You look terrible. Worse than a man coming off a weeklong drunk. Are you in much pain?”

  “I can deal with it,” I replied gruffly.

  He nodded to himself, pleased. “I’m afraid you’ll have to. But it grows less each time, doesn’t it? Your body is learning to handle it. I think perhaps it is like a swordsman training his muscles to tolerate the hours of drill. ”

  I leaned forward with a sigh to rub my stinging eyes. “I think it is more like a bastard learning to tolerate pain. ”

  “Well. Whatever it is, I am pleased. ” His reply was brisk. I would get no sympathy from the old man. He stood. “Go and get cleaned up, Fitz. Eat something. Be seen. Go armed, but casually so. ” He paused. “You recall where my poisons and tools are kept, I am sure. Take whatever you need, but leave me a list so I can have my apprentice replace the inventory. ”

  I didn’t retort that I would take nothing, that I was no longer an assassin. I had already thought of one or two powders that might be useful if I found myself outnumbered as I had this morning. “When will I meet this new apprentice of yours?” I asked casually.

  “You have. ” Chade smiled. “When will you know my new apprentice? I am not sure that would be wise, or comfortable, for either of you. Or for me. Fitz, I am going to ask you to be honorable about this. Leave me this secret, and do not attempt to pry into it. Trust me that it is better left alone. ”

  “Speaking of prying, there is something else I should tell you about. I paused on my way up the stairs, and heard voices. I looked in on the Narcheska’s room. There is some information I think I should share with you. ”

  He cocked his head at me. “Tempting. Very tempting. But you failed to distract me completely. Your promise, Fitz, before you try to lure me into thinking of other things. ”

  I did not wish to give it, in truth. It was not just curiosity that burned in me, nor even jealousy of an odd sort. It went against all the training I had ever received from the old man. Discover as much as you can about all that is going on around you, he had taught me. You never know what might
prove to be useful. His green eyes stared at me balefully until I lowered my gaze before his. I shook my head but I said the words. “I promise I will not deliberately attempt to discover the identity of your new apprentice. But may I ask one thing? Is he aware of me, of what and who I was?”

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  “My boy, I do not give out secrets that are not mine to share. ”

  I gave a small sigh of relief. It would have been uncomfortable to imagine someone in the keep watching me, knowing who I was but shielded from my gaze. At least I was on an equal footing with this new apprentice.

  “Now. The Narcheska?”

  And so I reported to him, as I had never expected to do again. As I had when I was a boy, I spoke to him the exact words I had overheard, and afterward he quizzed me as to what I had thought those words had meant. I spoke bluntly. “I do not know the man’s status in the Narcheska’s offering to Queen Kettricken. But I do not think he feels bound by the betrothal, and his advice to the girl affirms to her that she need not feel bound. ”

  “I find that most interesting. It is a valuable tidbit, Fitz, and no mistake. Their strange servant intrigues me as well. When your time permits, you could look in on them again, and let me know what you discover. ”

  “Cannot your new apprentice do that just as well?”

  “You are prying again, and you know it. But this time, I will answer. No. My apprentice is no more privy to the network of spy passages in the castle than you were. That is not a matter for apprentices. They have enough to do with minding themselves and their own secrets without being entrusted with mine. But I think I shall have my apprentice pay special attention to the serving woman. That is the piece I fear most in this new puzzle you have handed me. But the spy tunnels and secret ways of Buckkeep remain ours alone. So—” and here a strange smile crooked his mouth— “I suppose you could see yourself as having reached journeyman status. Not, of course, that you are an assassin anymore. We both know that is not so. ”

  That jest prodded me in a tender place. I did not want to think about just how deeply I had slipped back into my old roles as spy and assassin. I’d already killed again for my prince, several times. That had been in the heat of anger, while defending myself and rescuing Prince Dutiful. Would I kill again, in secret, by poison, in the cold knowledge of necessity, for the Farseers? The most disturbing part of that question was that I could not answer it. I reined my mind to more productive paths.

  “Who is the man in the Narcheska’s chamber? Besides being her uncle Peottre, I mean. ”

  “Ah. Well, your question unwittingly gives you the answer. He is her uncle, her mother’s brother. In the old ways of the Out Islands, that was more significant than being her father. To them, the mother’s lineage was the significant one. A woman’s brothers were the important men in the lives of her children. Husbands joined the clans of their wives, and the children took on the clan symbol of their mothers. ”

  I nodded silently to his words. During the Red Ship War, I had read what scrolls about the Outislanders the Buckkeep library held, trying to make sense of their war against us. I had also served alongside dissident Outisland warriors on the warship Rurisk, and from them learned something of their lands and customs. What he said now matched my recollections on the topic.

  Chade tugged at his chin thoughtfully. “When Arkon Bloodblade approached us with this offer of an alliance, he had the support of his Hetgurd behind him. I accepted that, and accepted that as her father, he could arrange Elliania’s marriage. I thought perhaps the Out Islands had left their matriarchal ways behind them but now I wonder if perhaps Elliania’s family clings to them still. But why, then, is there no female relative here, to speak on Elliania’s behalf and negotiate the betrothal? Arkon Bloodblade seems to be the one doing the bargaining. Peottre Blackwater has been acting as the Narcheska’s chaperon and bodyguard. But now I perceive that he is her advisor as well. Hm. Perhaps our attentions to her father have been misplaced; I will see that Peottre is accorded more respect. ” He furrowed his brow, hastily restructuring his concept of the marriage offer. “I knew of the woman servant. I thought she would be the Narcheska’s confidante, perhaps her old nursemaid or a poor relative. Yet your spying seems to put her at odds with both Elliania and Peottre. Something is not right here, Fitz. ” He sighed heavily, and reluctantly admitted his error. “I thought we were negotiating this marriage with Bloodblade, Elliania’s father. Perhaps it is Elliania’s mother’s family that I should know more about. But if they are truly the ones offering Elliania, then is Bloodblade a dupe or a puppet? Does he speak with any true authority at all?”

  His forehead was graven deep with thoughtfulness as he pondered these things. I abruptly realized that the Piebald threat against me had been reduced to a minor concern, something that Chade expected I could largely manage on my own. I could not decide if his confidence in me flattered me, or diminished me to a lesser game piece. An instant later he recalled me to myself.

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  “Well. I think we’ve resolved this as much as we can just now. Extend my regrets to your master, Tom Badgerlock. Let him know that a headache prevents me from enjoying the pleasures of his company this afternoon, but that my prince has been most happy to accept his invitation. That will give Dutiful the time with you that he has been pestering me for. I don’t need to remind you to be discreet in your contact with the boy. We don’t want to rouse any speculation. And I suggest that you keep your ride either to areas where your privacy is assured, or to very public areas where the Piebalds would have to be bold to seek a contact. In truth, I do not know which to offer as the wiser selection. ” He took a breath and his tone changed. “Fitz. Do not underestimate your influence on the Prince. In our private conversations, he speaks freely of you, with admiration. I am not sure you were wise to reveal your connection to me, but there, it is done. It is not just Skill instruction he seeks from you, but a man’s advice on all aspects of his life. Be careful. An incautious word from you could set our willful prince’s feet on a path where none of us could safely follow him. Please speak positively of his betrothal and encourage him to undertake his royal duties with a willing heart. And in the matter of the Piebalds threatening you . . . well, today might not be the best day to burden him with concerns for you. As it is, some may look askance that our prince chooses to go riding with a foreign noble and his bodyguard on such an important day in his life. ” He paused suddenly. “Not that I’m trying to dictate how you behave with our prince. I know that you have formed a relationship of your own. ”

  “That’s correct,” I said, and tried to keep from sounding brusque. In truth, I had known a moment of anger as he started his long list of directives. Now I took a deep breath. “Chade. As you have said, the boy is looking to me for a man’s advice. I am not a courtier, nor an advisor. If I endeavored to steer Dutiful merely to suit the goals of the Six Duchies . . . ” I let my words drain away before I told him that such a course would be false to all of us. I cleared my throat. “I wish to always be honest with Dutiful. If he asks for advice, I will tell him what I truly think. But I don’t think you need to fear that much. Kettricken has shaped her son. I think he will be true to that training. As for me, well, I suspect the boy does not want to have someone talk to him so much as he wants someone to listen to him. Today I will listen. And regarding my encounter with the Piebalds this morning, I see little need for Dutiful to know about that right now. I may warn him that they are not to be entirely dismissed from his thoughts. They are definitely a force to be reckoned with. Which brings me to a question of my own. Will the Bresingas be present for the Prince’s betrothal ceremony?”

  “I assume so. They have been invited, and are expected to arrive sometime today. ”

  I scratched the back of my neck. My headache was not fading, but it seemed to be changing to an ordinary one rather than the Skill variety. “If you would share such information with me, I would
like to know who accompanies them, as well as what horses they rode, the coursing beasts that journeyed with them, hawks, even pets. All in as much detail as can be discovered. Oh, and one other thing. I think we should acquire a ferret or rat dog for these chambers; something small and light-footed to patrol for rats and other vermin. One of the Wit-beasts I encountered this morning was a rat, or perhaps a weasel or squirrel. Such a creature could be a versatile spy in the castle. ”

  Chade looked dismayed. “I’ll request a ferret, I think. They are more quiet than rat dogs, and it could accompany you through the corridors. ” He cocked his head. “Are you thinking of taking it as a bond-beast?”

  I winced at the question. “Chade. It doesn’t work that way. ” I tried to remind myself that he had asked the question out of ignorance, not callously. “I feel like a newly widowed man. I’ve no wish to bond with any creature just now. ”

  “I’m sorry, Fitz. It’s a difficult thing for me to understand. The words may sound odd, but I meant no disrespect to his memory. ”

  I changed the subject. “Well. I’d best tidy myself if I’m to ride with the Prince this afternoon. And we should both ponder what to do about this servant of yours. ”

  “I think I shall arrange a meeting for all three of us. But not today, nor tonight. Nor even tomorrow, perhaps. The betrothal is what must be managed right now. Nothing must go wrong with that. Do you think that the situation with Thick can wait?”

  I shrugged. “It will have to, I suppose. Good luck with the rest of it. ” I rose to go, picking up the basin and wet cloth to tidy up in passage.

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  “Fitz. ” His voice made me pause. “You know, I have not said so directly, but you should treat these chambers as your own now. I know that a man in your position needs a private spot sometimes. If you wish things changed . . . the bed’s position, the hangings, or if you wish food left out for you here, or a supply of brandy. Whatever . . . let me know. ”

  The offer put a chill down my back. I never wanted this assassin’s workroom to belong to me. “No. Thank you, but no. Let’s just leave all as it is for now. Though I may keep some of my things up here. Verity’s sword, private things. ”

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