Golden fool, p.52
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       Golden Fool, p.52

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  Then another voice spoke, a woman’s voice. “He’s worked well for us, horseman. Don’t try to change . . . what is your saying? To change horses in the middle of the stream? Yes. If you wish what we have to offer, then do not disrupt what is working well for us. ”

  I’d heard her voice before, I thought. I pummeled my memories, trying to place it, but could only decide that she was someone from inside the keep. I kept the thought tiny and to myself, fearful of breaking the unwinding thread of Thick’s memories. He had been confused and frightened that day, overshadowed by the arrival of the tall man with one arm, and intimidated by the way they all spoke over and past him. Yet never once did the man who gripped his arm let him go.

  Laudwine’s voice was the hammering of a smith’s blows. “I don’t care what is working well for you, woman, nor do I care for your offer. My vengeance belongs to me, and I won’t sell it to you for your foreign gold. I care nothing about this Chade. I want Lord Golden’s head, yes, and the bloody arm of that dog that works for him. Or have you forgotten that, Padget, in your quest to sell the Piebalds out? That Lord Golden owes me a life, and his traitorous servant an arm?”

  “I haven’t forgotten, Laudwine. I was with you, man!” Padget’s voice was the low rumble of a rolling wagon wheel, grinding out anger and rebuke. “Do you forget it was me who rode double with you that day, to keep you from falling from your saddle? When she made her offer, I only thought, well, what do we care how they die? Let her have them, and let us use her gold for our cause, to bring the Farseer’s false throne down. ” Now his voice rose with self-righteousness, but it merged with the distant bleat of a goat in Thick’s mind.

  “Shut up!” Laudwine’s voice was hot and heavy, ringing like hammers on red iron. “I care how they die! Their deaths belong to me! And my blood vengeance is not for sale. ‘Our’ cause will wait until my cause has been satisfied. I told you what I wanted, Padget. I want to know when they rise and where they eat, when they ride and where they sleep. I want to know when and where I can kill them. That’s what I want to know. Can your half-wit give us that?” Each word fell like a sledge blow, and they shaped Padget’s anger.

  “Yes. He can. And he’s already given us a lot more than that, if you’d only listen to me. This Lord Chade and what the dummy knows of him, that is important knowledge. But if all you want is revenge, with no thought of what more we can have, well, you can have that. If you ask him right. Tell him, Dummy. Tell him about the stinking traitor dog who chopped his arm off, and what the old man calls him. Then maybe he’ll realize I’ve done better for the Piebalds while he was healing than he ever did for them when he had two hands. ”

  And then Thick recalled the sound of a hand striking meaty flesh, and Laudwine’s voice following it, a trifle out of breath at the effort. “Remember your place, Padget. Or lose it. ”

  Thick made a sharp movement, rocking forward, his hands clasped over his head. He made small animal sounds to himself as he rocked briefly, agitated at recalling the witnessed violence. “Na, na, na,” he begged, and for a time I let him be. I held scissors and comb aloft from him and waited for him to calm himself. There was cruelty in what I did, forcing the stubby little man to relive his fear. I had no taste for it, and yet do it I must. So I waited until he quieted, and as subtly as I knew, I used the Skill to soothe him and take him back again to that room. “It’s all right to think about it,” I suggested. “You’re safe now, here. They can’t find you here or hurt you here. You’re safe. ” Through our Skill link, I felt him scowl. He resisted. I pushed gently, and suddenly his memories flowed again.

  Thick took a long breath and sighed it out. I resumed my grooming of him. I think the stroking of the comb and the tickling of the falling hair had half-stupefied him. I doubted that anyone touched him much, and seldom with gentleness. His muscles were loosening like a stroked puppy. He made an affirmative noise.

  Page 193

 

  “So. After all that. What did you tell him about?” I kept my voice very soft.

  “Oh, nothing. Only about the old man. How to stack his wood. Not to shake the wine bottles when I bring them to him. To take away the dirty dishes and old food every morning. Not to move his papers, even though he lets you move his papers. That he says I have to do what you say, even though I don’t want to come to you. About how you want to talk to me. And they said, ‘Don’t go! Say you forgot!’ About how you talk at night sometimes. ”

  “Who talks? Chade and I?” I drew the comb slowly through his hair and trimmed the hair below it. The damp black points fell to the floor as my heart rose hammering in my throat at his next words.

  “Yea. That you talk about Skill and Old Blood. That he calls you a different name. Fizshovly. That you don’t like me to know about the girl who cries. ”

  The sharp fear from his mangled naming of me was swallowed in his mention of “the girl. ” “What girl?” I asked dully, longing for him to say only “that girl” or “I don’t know. ” My guts were water inside me.

  “She cries and cries,” Thick said softly.

  “Who does?” I asked again with a sinking heart.

  “That girl. That Nettle that whimpers at night and won’t stop. ” He cocked his head, making my scissors take too deep a cut. “She cries right now. ”

  That stretched the bowstring of my fear tighter. “Does she?” I asked. Gingerly, I lowered my walls. I opened myself to Nettle, but felt nothing. “No. She’s quiet now,” I observed.

  “She cries to herself. In a different place. ”

  “I don’t know what you mean. ”

  “In the empty place. ”

  “I don’t know what you mean,” I repeated with a growing sense of alarm.

  He frowned intently for a moment, then suddenly his face eased. “Never mind. She stopped. ”

  “Just like that?” I asked incredulously. I set my scissors and comb down.

  “Yea. ” His finger casually investigated his nose. “I’m going now,” he suddenly announced. He stood up and glanced around the room. “Don’t eat my cake!” he warned me abruptly.

  “I won’t. Are you sure you won’t stay and eat it?” A kind of shock had left me immune to all feeling. Had Laudwine untangled my true name from Thick’s maiming of it? He definitely knew my daughter’s name. Danger yawned below us, and I spoke to a half-wit about sugar cakes.

  “If I eat it, then it would be gone. ”

  “There might be another. ”

  “There might not,” he pointed out with incontrovertible logic.

  “I’ve an idea. ” I went to one of Chade’s less cluttered shelves and began to move things. “We’ll make a spot for you, here. And we’ll put Thick’s things on this shelf. So they’ll always be where you can find them. ”

  For some reason, this seemed a difficult idea for him to master. I explained it several ways, and then had him put both the sugar cake and the feather on the shelf. Hesitantly, he picked up the bowl that had held the raisins and nuts. Only a handful of the sugared nuts remained. “You can put that there, too,” I told him. “And I will try to put more nice things to eat in it. ” So he did, and then stood and admired it for a time.

  “Going to go now,” he abruptly announced again.

  “Thick,” I began carefully. “Tomorrow, on washing day. Will a man come to take you to One-arm?”

  “Don’t talk about him. ” He was adamant. Adamant and scared. I could hear the roiling of his Skill music.

  “Do you want to go, Thick? To see the one-arm man?”

  “I have to go. ”

  “No you don’t. Not anymore. Do you want to go?”

  This seemed to require a lot of thought. Then, “I want the pennies. To buy the sweet. ”

  “If you told me where One-arm is, I could go for you. And get the pennies for you, and bring you the sweet. ”

  He scowled and shook his head. “I get my pennies for myself. I like to buy it mys
elf. ” He was suspicious again, edging away from me.

  I took a breath and counseled myself to patience. “I’ll see you tomorrow, for our lessons, then. ”

  He nodded somberly and left Chade’s chambers. I went over and picked up his wet pants from the floor. I hung them on the chair back again. I doubted that anyone would wonder about the robe Thick now wore. It was a long-outdated style for Buckkeep Castle, and servants, especially the lowest level of servants, were often dressed in their masters’ castoffs. I sighed and sat down in the chair and stared into the fire. What was I going to do?

  Page 194

 

  I wished I could make Thick tell me where Laudwine was, or at least who took him to the Piebald leader. I couldn’t force the information out of him without frightening him and shattering the fragile trust we’d built today. I could shadow Thick into Buckkeep Town tomorrow, but I was reluctant to do so; I’d be putting the little man into danger if Laudwine or anyone else recognized me following him. If I followed him and he met with Laudwine, what would I do then? Charge in, betraying myself to Laudwine, or allow Laudwine to question the little man again, and gain still more knowledge of us? I considered watching Thick until the Buckkeep man came to take him down to town, then capture the go-between. I suspected I could wring Laudwine’s location out of him, but when he didn’t keep the rendezvous, Laudwine would be alerted. I didn’t want to do anything that might startle that bird into flying before my nets were ready. My last available tactic seemed the simplest: find a ploy to keep Thick from going down to Buckkeep tomorrow. Distract him with toys, or simply busy him where no one could take him away without being noticed. Yet that would not put me one step closer to having a line on Laudwine. And I desperately wanted to have that man in my power.

  I ached to kill him. No enemy, I knew, is more to be feared than the one you have grievously injured. And I had taken not just Laudwine’s arm, but his sister’s stunted life, and ended their vain grasp for power. Perhaps at one time he had dreamed of building power for his Piebald group; now I suspected he was driven more by hatred of me and a lust for revenge on the Farseers. Would any revenge he could take against me be too cruel to consider? I doubted it.

  I crossed my arms on my chest and leaned back, scowling at the fire. Perhaps I had it all wrong. Perhaps Laudwine had come to town only to be an emissary from the Witted to Kettricken. Perhaps his spying was only caution. But I doubted it. I doubted it deeply.

  I did not want to discuss it with Chade. Mine was the name Laudwine knew, mine was the child he threatened. What to do about him was my decision now. Later, perhaps, Chade would rant and scold at me. But he could do that later, when Nettle and Dutiful were no longer in any danger.

  The more I pondered the situation, the greater my frustration with it. I left Chade’s chambers and went down the stairs and through my room. Neither the Fool nor Lord Golden was there. That did not lessen my exasperation. I needed to think, yet I could not keep still. I went down to the snowy practice courts. I took my old ugly blade. The fine sword that the Fool had given me remained hanging on the wall, a mute and unforgiving reminder of my own foolishness.

  Luck favored me and Wim was there. I did my limbering with my real blade, soon warming myself despite the chill day. Wim and I switched to dulled practice weapons for our more intense work. Wim seemed to sense that I only wanted to move my weapon and my body, not my tongue, nor engage my mind at all beyond the work of my body. I pushed all my concerns aside and focused only on attempting to kill him. When Wim abruptly stepped back and announced, “Enough!” I thought he intended for us to pause and breathe. Instead, he lowered the tip of his blade to touch the ground and announced, “I think that you have come back to what you used to be. Whatever that was, Tom. ”

  “I don’t understand,” I said after a moment of watching him blowing.

  He dragged in a deeper breath. “When first we began to whet our blades on one another, I felt you were a fighter trying to recall what it was to be a fighter. Now you simply are. You’ve stepped back into your old skin, Tom Badgerlock. I can keep up with you, but only that. And full glad will I be to continue to sharpen my skills against you. But if you want a true challenge to your skills, or someone to teach you something new, you’ll have to look beyond Wim now. ”

  And then he transferred his blade to his left hand and stepped forward to clasp hands with me. I felt a surge of warmth throughout my whole body. It had been years since I had felt a glow of pride such as that, and yet it was not for myself, but that this veteran fighter saw fit to honor me with such words. I went from the practice courts still bearing every problem that I had brought there with me, but buoyed with the idea that perhaps I possessed the wherewithal to face them.

  I went through the steams, still carefully not thinking about what I would do next. I emerged cleansed, my will firmed and my mind clear. I went down to Buckkeep Town.

  I had specific errands, I told myself. To see Hap. To buy a knife and a red scarf. And perhaps to discover a busy street where a goat might bleat while blacksmith hammers rang in the distance.

  Chapter XIX

  LAUDWINE

  Now King Shield was a merry man, as all well knew, fond of wine and jest. The Skillmistress of his reign was Solem, and often he made a jest of her name, saying she was as solemn as she was called. For her part, she found him overly given to banter and humor. He came to be King when she was all of seventy summers, and with his crown he inherited the coterie that she had trained for Queen Perceptive. They had served his mother full well before him, but like their Skillmistress, their years far outnumbered the King’s. Oft he complained that both Skillmistress and coterie treated him as a child, and Solem, secure in her years, would disdainfully reply that it was because he so often behaved childishly.

  Page 195

 

  To escape his aging court and advisors, King Shield would sometimes by stealth leave Buckkeep, to travel the roads in disguise. Dressed as a roving tinker, it pleased him to mix with his common folk in inns and taverns of the ruder sort, where it was his pleasure to tell bawdy stories and sing comical songs for the entertainment of the folk who frequented such places. It was on one such evening when he was well in his cups that he began to tell his stories and ribald riddles. Now there was a youth working in the tavern, a lad of no more than eleven and unschooled in everything save how to draw a mug of ale and wipe a table. Yet as the King posed each riddle, this boy spoke the answers, not only correctly but also in the King’s own well-rehearsed words. At first the King was not pleased to have his acclaim thus stolen. But soon he perceived that his irritation with the lad’s too-swift answers was affording his audiences as much pleasure as the jests themselves. Before he left the inn that evening, he called the boy to his side and asked him, quietly, how it was that he knew the answers to so many riddles. The lad professed surprise. “Were not you yourself whispering them to me, even as you told the riddle?” he asked.

  Now the King was as perceptive as he was merry. That very night he took the boy back with him to Buckkeep and delivered him over to the Skillmistress, saying, “This merry lad comes to you well started on the Skill path. Find others like him, and train for me a coterie that can laugh as well as Skill. ” And so the boy became known as Merry and the coterie that formed around him was Merry’s Coterie.

  — SLEK’S “HISTORIES”

  It was a crisp, cold day. Packed snow squeaked under my boots as I strode down to Buckkeep Town. When I heard hoofbeats on the road behind me, I stepped aside to let horse and rider pass. I settled my hand on my sword hilt as I did so. Instead, Starling reined in and paced me with her mount. I glanced up at her and said nothing. She was almost the last person I wished to see today. She spoke to me anyway. “Did Chade give you my message?”

  I nodded and kept walking.

  “And?”

  “And I don’t think I have anything to say to it. ”

  She reined in her
horse so sharply that he snorted in protest. Then she jumped off him and ran around to stand in front of me. I stopped walking. “What is the matter with you? What do you want from me?” she demanded. “What can you possibly expect from me that I haven’t already given you?” Her voice shook, and to my astonishment, tears stood in her eyes.

  “I . . . nothing. I don’t . . . What do you want from me?”

  “What we had before. Friendship. Talking to each other. Being someone the other person can count on. ”

  “But . . . Starling, you’re married. ”

  “So you can’t even talk to me anymore? Can’t even smile when you see me in the Great Hall? You act like I don’t even exist anymore. Fifteen years, Fitz. We’ve known each other damn near fifteen years, and you discover I’m married and suddenly you can’t even say hello to me?”

  I gaped at her. Starling has often had that effect on me, but I’ve never become accustomed to it. My astonishment lasted too long. She attacked again.

  “Last time I saw you . . . I needed a friend. And you thrust me aside. I was a friend to you when you needed one, for many years. Damn you, Fitz, I shared your bed for seven years! But you couldn’t even be bothered to ask how I had been. And you refused to ride with me, as if I carried some disease you feared to catch!”

  “Starling!” I shouted at her to break into her tirade. I didn’t mean it as harshness, but she gasped suddenly and then burst into tears. And the reflexes of seven years put my arms around her and pulled her close to my chest. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I said by her ear. Her silky hair tangled against my chest, and the old familiar scent of her filled my nostrils. And I suddenly felt I had to explain what she already knew. “You hurt me, when I discovered that I wasn’t the only man in your life. Perhaps I was foolish ever to imagine that I was. You never told me I was. I know I deceived myself. But it did hurt me. ”

 
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