Golden fool, p.53
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       Golden Fool, p.53

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  She only sobbed harder, clinging to me. Her horse shifted restlessly and stepped on his reins. One arm still around Starling, I managed to step sideways and catch hold of his reins. Calmness. Wait, I told him, and he lowered his head a trifle.

  I held her, thinking she would stop crying soon, but still she wept. I had thought her heartless. Careless was a better word for her, like a child who takes what she wants with no thoughts for the consequences. I knew better than she about consequences, and I should have behaved better. I spoke quietly, and as I had hoped, her sobbing softened so she could hear my words. “I want you to know the truth about something. What I said last time, about thinking of Molly when you were in my arms. That wasn’t true. Never. It was an unworthy thing for me to say, belittling to both of you. When you were in my arms, you filled my senses. I’m sorry that I tried to hurt you with a lie. ” Her tears still did not calm. “Starling. Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

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  “It’s not . . . it’s not all from your being cruel to me. It’s—” She took a shuddering breath. “I think . . . I suspect my husband is . . . That night, he had said he had never realized how much he might want a child. Even though he cannot inherit and needs no heir of his own, he said that. And . . . and I think he is, or might be . . . ” Her voice trailed off, unable to form the words of her greatest dread.

  “Has he taken a mistress?” I asked quietly.

  “I think so!” she wailed suddenly. “When first we were wed, he wanted me every night! Well, I knew that would not last forever, but when his heat cooled, he still . . . but lately, he hardly seems to notice me. Even when I have been away from him for a few days, he no longer seems full of desire for me. He stays up late gaming with his friends, and comes to bed drunk. Dresses, jewelry, perfume, no matter how I adorn myself, he pays no heed. ” Her words came out in a flood with her tears. Her sleeve smeared her wet face without drying it. I found a handkerchief and offered it to her.

  “Thank you. ” She wiped her face again. She took a sudden deep breath that lifted her shoulders and then exhaled. “I think he is tired of me. That he looks at me and sees an old woman. I stand before my glass, and I look at my breasts and my belly and the lines in my face . . . Fitz, have I aged that much? Do you think he regrets marrying a woman so many years older than he?”

  I had no way of knowing the answers to her questions. I put my arm around her. “It’s cold here. Let’s keep walking,” I said to gain a few moments to think. She kept her arm around my waist as we set off, her horse trailing us. For a time we both walked silently.

  Then she said quietly, “I married him to be safe, you know. Finally safe. He did not need children, he had wealth, he was comely, and he found me exciting. I overheard him once, telling a friend what a keen pleasure it was that he never needed to introduce me as other than his wife. That all knew my name as the Queen’s minstrel. He took such satisfaction in my fame that it gave me new pride in it. When he asked me to marry him and always be his, it was . . . it was like coming into safe harbor, Fitz. After all the years of wondering what would become of me when my voice faded or if I fell out of favor with the Queen. I never thought that to have him I must lose you. Then, when you insisted that was so, well . . . I was angry with you. I had come to think of our times together as a thing we owned. It shocked me that you could take them away from me, whether I would or no. But even so, I still had my Lord Fisher. And I told myself that losing you was a small price to pay for security when I was old. ”

  She fell silent for a time and the wind blew between us. I thought she was finished and then she said, “But if he takes a mistress and gets her with child, or merely finds her more interesting than me . . . then I will have lost you for nothing, and still come up with my nets empty. ”

  “Starling. How can you imagine that Queen Kettricken and Chade would ever let you lack for anything? You know you will always be provided for. ”

  She sighed and suddenly looked older. “A bed and food and clothes to my back. Those things, I suppose, I shall be sure of. But a time will come when my voice fails and my lungs cannot hold the notes long. A time will come when no one finds me comely or desirable. And then all regard for me will fade and Starling the Minstrel will become Starling the Crone in the Corner. And I will not be important to anyone. No one will hold me high in regard. I will still, in the end, be alone. ”

  I saw Starling from a new perspective. Perhaps it had always been the only perspective she had. Starling operated solely from her own needs. She was a good musician, even excellent, but she did not have the brilliance that led to eternal fame. She was also a woman who could not bear children, and thus would always fear losing her man to another woman’s charms and fertility. And as she aged and her beauty began to fade, that fear would only increase. With no children to bind her husband to her, she feared to lose him when the excitement of her bed palled. Perhaps that had been a great part of my charm for her: that I had always found her desirable, that I had never wearied of her body. In addition, I had been something that she had possessed, a powerful secret that she was privy to, as well as a lover and a man who never asked more of her than what she so casually offered. Bereft of my unquestioning enthusiasm for her bed, and faced with her husband’s fading ardor, she had begun to wonder if her desirability was fading. Yet I could neither sweep her into an hour of lovemaking to prove to her that she was still womanly, nor assure her that her husband still loved her. I tried to think of something that I could offer her.

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  I stopped her suddenly, turned and held her at arm’s length. I pretended to appraise both her face and her body, as if making a judgment about her. In truth, I could only see her as Starling, not as another might. But I managed a grin and told her, “If your husband does not find you desirable, then he is a fool. I am sure that any number of men at Buckkeep would be very willing to share your bed. Myself among them, were circumstances different. ” I tried to look thoughtful. “Shall I tell him so?”

  “No!” she exclaimed, and then managed to laugh, although it was a fragile thing. I took her hand to keep her at a more appropriate distance from me and we walked a bit farther down the road. “Fitz,” she asked in a small voice some time later. “Do you still care for me, at all?”

  I knew I could not let that question hang unanswered for long. And, in fact, the truth was right before me. “Yes. I do. ” I met her eyes as we walked. “You’ve hurt me sometimes. You’ve said some cruel things to me, and acted in ways I don’t approve. And I’ve done the same to you. But, it’s as you said, Starling: fifteen years. When people have that much history together, we tend to take everything for granted. We accept as given the faults as well as the graces. How many songs have you sung before my hearth, for me alone? How many meals have I cooked for you? Fifteen years of knowing one another goes past likes and dislikes, into simple being. We’ve been careless of one another’s feelings, even as Chade and I are careless of one another. Because we trust that what we are and what we know from all the years are more important than words flung in anger. ”

  “I deceived you,” she said after a time, quietly.

  “Yes. You did. ” I found I could speak without rancor. “And I disappointed you. And just as I felt I had the right to decide what I would do with my life, regardless of what you thought about it, so did you. You married. I chose obscurity. Both those decisions came between us. Not just yours. But let me assure you of one thing. No matter how the years may pass for us, even though we never share a bed again, when we are old, I will still hold you high in my regard. Always. ”

  Did I completely believe all I said to her? No. But, despite all, she was a friend, and she needed. The words I gave her eased that need, and cost me nothing. A small smile twisted my mouth. She had bedded me for the very reasons that I now gave her the small lies she needed to hear.

  She nodded, and no more tears flowed. After a time of wal
king, she asked me, “What should I do about my husband?”

  I shook my head to that. “I don’t know, Starling. Do you still love him? Want him?”

  She nodded stiffly to both my questions.

  “Well, then. I think you should tell him that. ”

  “That’s all?”

  I shrugged. “I think you are asking the wrong man for advice about this. Someone more successful in love might be able to give you better advice. ”

  “Like Chade, perhaps. ”

  “Chade?” I was both appalled and amused, but the temptation was too great. I kept a straight face. “Chade’s the ideal man to consult. ” I wished I could be present at that discussion.

  “I think you are right. He always manages to keep his lovers both satisfied and discreet. Even when he chooses to let one go,” she mused, and then laughed at the shocked look on my face. “I see. Not even you know of his affairs. Ah, well, you are right, he is the man to ask. I’ve never heard of a woman turning him out of her bed; it’s always the opposite. And he is not exactly the most youthful of men. Well. I shall discuss it with him when I report to him tonight. ”

  Her last words sparked a sudden suspicion. I risked it. “Then you think you’ll discover where the one-handed man is staying?”

  She gave me a sideways look, as if awarding me a point in a game. “Sooner than you will. And he asked me, when I overtook you, to let you know that he expects you to stay well away from Laudwine. Not that the man is known by that name in Buckkeep Town, or Chade would have him by now. So. I have passed on his wishes to you. He assures you that in this, he still knows best. ”

  “Or at least, he believes he does,” I returned coolly. I was putting together that this was no chance meeting. Chade had somehow discovered that I had left the castle and had sent Starling to intercept me and deflect me from Laudwine. Providing me with the opportunity to apologize to the ruffled minstrel was likely a part of his plan. How that old man loved pulling the strings! I found a smile and plastered it onto my face. “Well, you’d best mount up then and be on your way, if you’re to discover Laudwine before I do. ”

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  She gave me a quizzical look. “Are you still going down to Buckkeep Town?”

  “Yes. I have other business down there. ”

  “Such as?”

  “Hap. ”

  “He’s in Buckkeep Town? I thought he would have stayed at your cabin. ”

  So Starling did not know everything that Chade knew. That was a small comfort. “No. Part of my reason for returning to Buckkeep, a large part of it, was to make it possible for Hap to get a good apprenticeship. He’s apprenticed to Gindast. ”

  “Is he? And is he doing well?”

  By all the gods, I longed to lie to her and tell her that he was excelling. “It hasn’t been easy for him to adapt to city life,” I hedged. “But I think he is beginning to master it now. ”

  “I shall have to go by and see him. Gindast is a great admirer of mine. My expressing an interest in Hap cannot hurt him there. ” There was an innocence to her assumption of fame and importance that made it impossible for me to take offense at it. Then she paused abruptly, and, as if the thought surprised her, asked, “The boy is not still angry with me, is he?”

  She gave injury so carelessly; perhaps she expected others to forgive it as easily. Perhaps that was the curse of a minstrel’s tongue; to be gifted at wounding with words. At my hesitation, she filled in, “He is still angry, isn’t he?”

  “I really have no idea,” I said hastily. “You did injure his feelings rather deeply. But he’s had so much on his mind, as I have, also. I’ve never discussed it with him. ”

  “Well. I suppose I must make amends with him, then. If I get a chance, I’ll steal him for an afternoon. I know Gindast will let me have him. I’ll take him out for a fine meal and show him the parts of Buckkeep Town an apprentice isn’t likely to see. Don’t frown like that. Hap’s just a boy; I’ll soon soothe his ruffled feathers. Now, as you say, I must be hastening along. Fitz, I’m glad things are better between us. I’ve missed you. ”

  “I’ve missed you, too,” I said, abandoning all attempts at honesty. I wondered how Hap would react to her invitation, and if she would even recognize how much he had grown and changed. In truth, I wished she would just leave him alone, but I didn’t know how to ask that without offending her again. Evidently Chade wanted her well disposed toward me. I’d corner him on the whys of that later. For now, I gave her an assist into her saddle, and smiled up at her as she looked down on me. When her smile answered me, I discovered that, yes, I had missed her. And that I preferred this to her festering anger at me. Then she nearly ruined it by quirking the smile to a grin and saying, “So. Tell me true and take the sting from my last insult to you. Does Lord Golden prefer boys to girls? Is that why the ladies have had so little success with him?”

  I managed to hold my smile in place. “So far as I know, he prefers to sleep alone. For all the wild flirtations I’ve witnessed, I’ve never had to shake anyone out of his sheets in the morning. ” I paused, then added in a lower voice, hating myself, “I suspect the man is extremely discreet. I’m just his bodyguard, Starling. You can’t expect me to know all his secrets. ”

  “Oh,” she replied, clearly disappointed at my lack of gossip. Minstrels are ever hungry for scraps of scandal. She had often told me that the best songs are found at the end of a trail of rumors. I thought she would ride off, but she surprised me again. “Well, then. And yourself, these days?”

  I sighed heavily. “I’ve been emulating my master. I sleep alone, thank you. ”

  “You don’t have to,” she offered, one eyebrow lifting archly.

  “Starling,” I warned her.

  “Oh, very well,” she laughed, and I saw that in some strange way my answer had reassured her. She had not been replaced. In refusing her offer, I forced myself to go without. I supposed that pleased her. She blew me a kiss as she rode off. I shook my head as I watched her go and then resumed my trudge down the hill.

  A few minutes later, Civil Bresinga passed me, headed toward Buckkeep Town at a good clip despite the steep and snowy road. He did not slow his horse and scarcely gave me a glance. I doubt that he recognized me or would have cared if he did. But he rode gloveless and bareheaded, his cloak fluttering behind him, as if he had left the castle in a very great hurry. Did it have something to do with the Prince refusing to ride out with him this morning? Did he have to notify someone of a failed plan? I muttered a curse to myself and hurried after him through the snow, but he was already out of sight.

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  I halted, out of breath and panting. Calm, I counseled myself. Calm. I had no way of knowing what was going on with Civil. I would stay with my original idea, and search for Laudwine. In that process, I suspected I might discover where Civil had gone.

  My first stop in Buckkeep was the weekly market. I bought a red scarf and a serviceable belt knife, and all the while I made casual inquiries as to where I might get fresh goat flesh for a Jamaillian dish my master suddenly desired. I received a number of suggestions, but most were for goatherds who lived in the hills behind Buckkeep. There were only two suggested who lived in Buckkeep Town, and only one of them was near Smithy Row.

  The short wintry day was ending as I headed toward Smithy Row. The fading of the light was fine with me. The recommended goatkeeper kept only a few beasts, more for milk than for flesh. I located his home as much from the smell as from my directions. In the dusk, I moved quietly closer to it. Through a window, I glimpsed a family with three young children settling in for the evening. In the shed behind their house were a dozen goats. Cheeses were stored in the rafters. The most nefarious creature around was a sullen old billy with evil yellow eyes. I left as quietly as I had come, wondering if I had tricked myself. Perhaps the sounds I had heard when I Skill-shared memories with Thick had nothing to do with wh
ere Laudwine was now. Perhaps it had been a temporary meeting place, not where the Piebald leader stayed.

  I ghosted three more cottages nearby, discovering only families retiring for the night. Between a neglected shed and the next cottage, I discovered Civil’s horse. He was tethered there, saddled still and steaming. Had he been put between the house and the shed to be less obvious? I stood very still. If I were approaching Laudwine’s hiding place, then there were certainly Witted on watch, beasts as well as men. It was possible they were already aware of me. That thought broke a sweat on my back. In the next instant, I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I drifted closer, trying to muffle my tread in the unpacked snow between the buildings.

  As I crouched there, I heard a horse approach in the street. There are few riding horses in Buckkeep Town. The steep, cobbled streets are unsuited to them, and they are expensive to keep in a town where they are virtually useless. This was a large and heavy beast by the sound of him. There at the front of the cottage, the sounds of his hoofbeats stilled. Almost immediately, I heard the door open. Someone heavy came out onto the porch and greeted the rider with “It’s not my fault. I don’t know why he came here and he won’t say anything to me. Says he’ll only speak to you. ” I knew the voice from Thick’s Skill memory. This was the first man he had been taken to see.

  “I’ll take care of it, Padget. ” Laudwine’s voice. His tone cut off the man’s attempt at explanation. I heard him dismount. I crouched down behind Civil’s horse. “Hammer, go with him,” Laudwine told the horse and I saw a passing shadow as a stout man led his chief’s Wit-beast past the alley mouth and toward the ramshackle shed. At a glance, I recalled him. I had first seen him riding at Laudwine’s stirrup. Laudwine entered the cottage, shutting the door heavily behind him. A few moments later, Padget returned from tending the horse and followed him in.

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