Golden fool, p.51
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       Golden Fool, p.51

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “It’s nice to sit in it and be warm all over. And to smell nice afterward. ”

  He made a sound, neither agreement nor denial. He thrust his hand deeper into the water. It soaked the ragged cuff of his shirt.

  I stood up and walked away, leaving him alone by the water. It took him quite a while to investigate the water completely. When his sleeves were both soaking wet, I suggested that he should take his shirt off. The water had cooled substantially before he decided he would risk taking off his shoes and trousers and getting into the tub. He had no smallclothes. He was very suspicious when I tried to add more hot water, but after thinking it over, he allowed it. He more played with the soap and washing cloth than used them. As the warm water reached him, he gradually relaxed. Persuading him not only to wash his face, but also to rub soap in his hair and then rinse it out was not an easy task.

  In scraps of conversation, I learned he had not washed at all since Spring Fest. No one told him to after his mother died. It made me realize how recent his bereavement was. When I asked him how he had come to work in the castle, he could not really tell me. I suspected he had wandered in one day, and with the general influx of people for Spring Fest and then the betrothal ceremony, the folk of the keep had simply assumed he had belonged to someone. I would have to ask Chade how he had come to be his personal servant, I decided.

  As Thick experimented with the water and soap, I hastily stitched up what I could of his clothing. Where seams had given out, the work was fairly easy despite the grime crusted onto the fabric. He had simply worn through his clothes at the knees and elbows, and with nothing to use for a patch, I had to leave them as they were.

  When his fingers began to wrinkle, I found him a towel to dry on and told him to stand before the fire. I tossed his clothes into the silty water and gave them a quick scrubbing. When I wrung them out and hung them on the chair backs, they were not clean, but they were cleaner than they had been.

  Persuading him to sit down and let me work the knots out of his hair was just as difficult as coaxing him into the bath had been. He was suspicious of the comb, even when I let him hold the looking glass and watch what I was doing. I had not had such a demanding task since I had first taken Hap in and emphasized that nits and lice were not an ordinary part of one’s hair.

  Scrubbed and dried, his hair combed, Thick sat lethargically before the fire wrapped in one of Chade’s quilts. I think the warm bath had worn him out. I turned one of his cracked shoes in my hand. This was something I knew how to do from Burrich’s tutelage. “I can make you some new shoes as soon as I go to town and buy some leather,” I told him. He nodded sleepily, no longer shocked by this largesse. I moved his clothing closer to the hearth to dry. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about clothes for you right now. My sewing skills are limited to repair rather than construction. But we’ll think of something. ” He nodded again. I thought a time, and then went to Chade’s old wardrobe in the corner of the chamber. A number of his old wool workrobes were still in it. One was scorched, and almost all the others had blotches and stains of various kinds on them. I doubted that he had worn any of them in recent years. Even so, they were cleaner and in better repair than Thick’s rags. I took one out, held it up to gauge the length of it, marked it, and then ruthlessly sheared it off short. “This will give you something to wear until we can get more clothes made for you. ” He barely nodded as he stared, half-dozing, into the fire. As he relaxed, the music of his spilling Skill became more expansive. I started to firm my walls against it. Then, instead of that, I opened myself to it.

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  I settled myself, robe, needle, and thread, in the other chair. I glanced at Thick. He looked almost asleep. I threaded the needle and began a new hem for the robe as I asked him, very quietly, “So. They call me a ‘stinking dog,’ do they?”

  “Erhm. ” The music changed slightly. Sharper notes. The ringing of a smith’s hammer on hot iron. The slamming of a door. Somewhere a goat bleated and another answered it. I let his music into my mind, and let it carry my thoughts with it as I watched my needle mindlessly dive and then surface from the fabric of the robe.

  “Thick. Do you remember the first time you met them? The ones who call me ‘stinking dog’?” Please show me. I let the Skill request float with my quiet words and the rhythmic motion of my needle. I listened to the quiet rip of the thread as it moved through the fabric, and the soft crackling of the fire, making those small sounds one with my request.

  For a time Thick was silent save for the Skill music that flowed from him. Then, I heard the sounds of my needle and the fire creep into his music.

  “He said, ‘Put down that bucket and come with me. ’ ”

  “Who said?” I asked too avidly.

  Thick’s music stopped. He spoke aloud. “I’m not to talk about him. Or he’ll kill me. Kill me dead with a big knife. Cut open my belly and my guts fall in the dust. ” In his mind he stood and watched his own entrails unwind into the grit of a Buckkeep Town street. “Like pig guts. ”

  “I won’t let that happen to you,” I promised.

  He shook his head stubbornly. He began to take short breaths through his nose. “He said, ‘No one could stop me. I’d kill you. ’ If I tell about him, he’ll kill me. If I don’t watch the gold man and the old man and you, he’ll kill me. If I don’t peek at the door and listen and tell him, he’ll kill me. All my guts in the dust. ”

  And in our joining, I knew that Thick believed this down to his bones. I’d have to leave it alone for now. “Very well,” I said mildly. I leaned back in my chair and once more focused my mind on my work. “Don’t think about him,” I suggested. “Only the others. The ones you went to meet. ”

  He nodded his heavy head ponderously as he stared into the flames. After a time, his music seeped back. I set my breathing to its rhythm, and then my work as well. Gradually, I eased my mind closer and then let it brush Thick’s.

  I scarcely dared to breathe. I pushed my needle in and out of the fabric, and drew the long thread rippling after it. Thick was breathing slowly through his nose as he stared into the fire. I asked no questions but let his Skill flow through me. He hadn’t liked that first meeting, not at all, not the long trot from the castle down to the town, nor the way his companion kept a grip on his sleeve all that long and weary way. He was taller than Thick, the one who clutched him as they walked, and it made Thick walk crooked and too fast. His legs ached and his mouth was dry with the long walk that he hadn’t wanted to come on. In his memory, the man who gripped his sleeve shook him until Thick answered each question that the people in the room asked him.

  Thick’s memories were not vague. If anything, they were too detailed. He recalled as much of the blister on his heel as he did of the man’s words. The sounds of a goat bleating somewhere and the creaking of wagons lumbering down the street were weighted as heavily as the voice of his interrogator. Thick was repeatedly shaken to rattle loose an answer, and he well recalled both his fear and his confusion at why he was treated so.

  Thick’s answers to his questions were vague as much from Thick’s lack of knowledge as from his odd sense of priorities. He told them about his work in the kitchen. They asked him what nobles he served. Thick wasn’t sure of their names. They were impatient and muttering at first, and one cursed the man who had brought him for wasting their time. Then Thick complained of his extra work, up all the stairs, for the tall old man with the spotted face. “Chade, Lord Chade, the Queen’s Councilor” someone hissed. And they all drew closer to him.

  Thus they had learned that Chade wanted the firewood stacked with little logs to one side and bigger pieces on the other side, and that Thick had to wipe up any water he spilled on the stairs. Never touch Chade’s scrolls. Don’t spill the ashes on the floor. Don’t open the little door if anyone else can see you. Only the last fact seemed to interest them, but when their other questions yielded them little, Thick recog
nized the displeasure in their voices. He had cringed from it, but the man who had brought him insisted that this was only the first time, that the dummy could be taught what to watch for. Then someone had given him other targets to watch: “A fancy Jamaillian noble, with yellow hair and tanned skin. He rides a white horse. And he keeps a stinking dog of a servant, with a crooked nose and a scar down his face. ”

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  Thick had not known Lord Golden or me. But the man who gripped Thick’s sleeve had recognized us from that description, and promised to point me out to Thick. That was when they had put gold into the man’s outstretched hand, thick gold that clinked. And a man had given coins to Thick, also, three little silver coins that tinkled as he dropped them on Thick’s flat palm. And he had warned both Thick and the faceless servant who gripped him that they should be wary of “that stinking, traitorous dog. He’ll kill you as soon as look at you if he thinks you’re watching him. ”

  I felt the man’s black eyes boring into mine. Floating in the Skill amongst Thick’s memories, I tried to see his face, but all Thick recalled were those piercing eyes. “That stinking dog cut the arm right off a man, last time I saw him. Chop! Like a sausage on the table. And he’ll do worse to you if he finds out you’re watching him. So you be careful, dummy. Don’t let him see you. ” Those words and the bleating goat and the rumbling of the wagons mixed in Thick’s mind with the blustery winter wind from the street outside. Blacksmith hammers rang somewhere, setting a clanging cadence.

  And as they walked back up to Buckkeep, the other servant had warned Thick again to be careful not to get caught by “that stinking dog he warned you about. You’re to watch him, but not let him see you. You hear me, boy? Give us away, and you won’t only be dead, I’ll be out of a job. So you be careful. Don’t let him see you. Hear me? Hear me?”

  And as Thick had cowered from him, muttering that he heard, the servant had demanded the coins that he had been given. “You don’t even know what to do with them, dummy. Give them to me. ”

  “They’re mine. To buy a sweet, he said. A sugar cake. ”

  But the other servant had struck Thick and taken his coins.

  I floated in the flow of Thick’s Skill, experiencing it again with him. As the servant slapped him, an open-handed blow that left his ear ringing, the Skill wave leapt and nearly overwhelmed me. Useless to try to see the servant. Thick avoided looking at him, cowering away, squinting his eyes shut before the descending fist.

  Look at him, Thick. Please, let me see him, I begged. But Thick’s recalled agitation as much as my surge of hatred for the man blasted us both out of the Skill reverie we had been sharing. Thick gave a wordless cry and recoiled from the remembered blow, falling from the chair to roll perilously close to the fire. I leapt to my feet, head spinning from the sudden break in our contact. When I seized his blanket-wrapped body to pull him away from the hearth, he must have thought I was attacking him, for he abruptly struck back.

  No, Dogstink man, no! Don’t see me, don’t hurt me, don’t see me, don’t see me!

  I went down as if axed. I had been so open to him that for a time I saw absolutely nothing, and I swear that I thought I smelled the clinging scent of a mangy hound.

  In a little while, my vision came back to me. Getting my Skill walls up took every bit of my concentration. A bit more time, and I got to my hands and knees. I ran my hands through my hair, expecting blood, for the pain was so great. Then I shakily sat up and looked around the room. Thick was fighting with his wet pants, making frantic grunts of fear and frustration as he struggled to put them on. I took a deep breath and croaked, “Thick. It’s all right. No one is going to hurt you. ”

  He paid me no mind but kept struggling. I dragged myself up by the chair. I picked up the robe I had been working on. “Wait a moment, Thick. I’ll have this finished for you. It’s dry and warm. ” I sat down carefully. Well. Now I knew. I knew why I was the dogstink man, to be hated and feared, and I knew why he had commanded me not to see him. Even the story of someone hitting him and taking his coins made more sense now. Thick had never tried to hide his secrets from us. We had simply been too foolish to notice them in front of us. Focusing my eyes on the needle was difficult, but I did it. Another dozen looping stitches and I was finished. I knotted the thread, bit it off, and held up the robe. “Put this on for now. Until your own clothes dry. ”

  He dropped his wet pants to the floor but came no closer. “You’re mad at me. You’ll hit me. Maybe chop my arm off. ”

  “No, Thick. You hurt me, but you were scared. I’m not mad at you and I won’t ever chop your arm off. I don’t want to hit you. ”

  “The one-arm man said—”

  “The one-arm man lies. So do his friends. A lot. Think about it. Do I smell like dog poop?”

  A grudging moment of silence. Then, “No. ”

  “Do I hit you or chop your arms off? Here, come take this robe. You look cold. ”

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  He approached me cautiously. “No. ” He looked at the robe suspiciously. “Why are you giving me this?”

  “Because it’s like a pink cake or raisins or a feather. Your prince wants you to have better clothes. This will keep you warm until your old clothes dry. And soon, the Prince will have new clothes made for Thick. ”

  Walls up, I took a cautious step toward him. I held the neck hole of the robe open, looked at him through it, then slipped it over his head. It was still too long. It fell to the floor around him, and even after he had found the sleeves, the cuffs hung past his hands. I helped him fold them back. I used a piece from the cut-off length of robe to make a makeshift tie for the robe. With the robe belted up, he could walk without tripping. He hugged it against himself. “It’s soft. ”

  “Well. Softer than your old clothes, perhaps. Mostly because it’s cleaner. ” I walked back to my chair and sank down in it. The headache was already abating. Perhaps Chade had been right about Skill-pain. My body was still smarting from my fall to the floor; it had wakened the bruises and lumps that Svanja’s father had dealt me. I sighed heavily. “Thick. How many times have you been to see them?”

  He stood, tongue out, considering. Then, “Washing days. ”

  “I know. You go on washing days. But how often? How many times?”

  His tongue curled up over his upper lip while he thought. Then he nodded and said emphatically, “Every washing day. ”

  That was as good as I was going to get. “Do you go alone to see him?”

  That brought a scowl to his face. “No. I could, but he don’t let me. ”

  “Because he wants the coins they give him. And the coins they give you. ”

  His scowl darkened. “Hit Thick, take the coins. Then one-arm got mad. I told him. Now he takes the coins, but gives me back some pennies. For sweets. ”

  “Who does?”

  He stood for a while. “I’m not to talk about him. ” I caught an echo of his dread as his Skill music surged, full of goat bleats and jangling harness. He scratched his head, then pulled his hair around to where he could see it. “Are you going to cut my hair? My mother used to cut my hair, sometimes, after I washed. ”

  “Actually, yes, that’s a good idea. Let’s cut your hair. ” I stood creakily. I must have hit my knee when I went down. It hurt. I was frustrated, but trying to force information from Thick would only bury it under his fear. “Sit at the table, Thick, while I find the scissors. Is there anything you can tell me about them? Can you tell me about the one-arm man? Where does he live?”

  Thick didn’t answer. He went back to the table and sat down. Almost immediately, he picked up the pink cake and examined it closely. As he turned it in his hands, he seemed to forget all else. I brought the shears to the table. “Thick. What does the one-arm man talk to you about?”

  Thick didn’t look at me; he spoke to the cake. “Not supposed to talk about him. To anyone. Or they’ll kill me, and my g
uts will fall in the dirt. ” With both hands he patted his round belly, as if comforting himself that it was still whole.

  I found the comb and smoothed his hair flat again. It calmed him and he went back to his contemplation of the cake. “I’ll cut your hair to chin-length. That way it will still keep your ears and the back of your neck warm. ”

  “Yea,” he agreed softly, lost in pink sugar musing.

  Cutting Thick’s hair again put me in mind of Hap. I suddenly and acutely missed him being a little boy. When Hap had been ten, it had been so much easier to know that I was doing the right things for him. Feed him well, teach him to fish, see that he had clean clothes and slept well at night. That was most of what a boy needed. A young man was a different animal entirely. Perhaps I could get away to check on him this evening. The silver blades snicked and uneven hanks of Thick’s hair fell to the floor around the chair. I thought of another approach. “I know you can’t tell me about the one-arm man. I know you are not to talk about that. So we won’t. I won’t even ask you what he asks you. But you can tell me what you told him, can’t you? They never said not to say that, did they?”

  “No-o,” he said in slow consideration. He sighed deeply, relaxing under my touch. Then, “The one-armed man,” he said softly, and an image of Laudwine rippled into my mind with his music. He was gaunter than I recalled him, but the loss of a limb and the fever that follows will do that to a man. He was looking down at me, and for a moment it disoriented me, and then I accepted Thick’s viewpoint of the towering man. Even so, the image was vague. Thick recalled more sound than sight; what he saw in his mind’s eye was far more indistinct than what he heard. I listened to Laudwine’s voice rippling through Thick’s memory and cowered with him at the disapproval. “This is your source of information? What were you thinking, Padget? Is this how you take charge of my most important concerns? He won’t do at all. He doesn’t have the sense to remember his own name, let alone anything else. ”

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  “He’ll be fine for you,” someone said. I suspected it was the one called Padget. “He’s told us a lot already, haven’t you, dummy? The old man’s taken a liking to him. Hasn’t he, Thick? Don’t you work for Lord Chade himself now? Tell him about Lord Chade and his special room. ” And then, obviously speaking to Laudwine and not Thick, “This was sheer good fortune. When the stable boy first dragged him down here, I thought as you do, that he’d be useless. But up at the keep, they let this moron wander wherever he wishes. He knows things, Laudwine. You just have to know how to drag them out of him. ” I could not see Padget through Thick’s eyes, but I felt him. A large man, wide rather than tall, threatening, who could make pain with his hands without hitting.

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