Golden fool, p.58
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       Golden Fool, p.58

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “Coterie?” The slack-jawed look of astonishment on Chade’s face suddenly made me realize that he had not seen what was obvious to me.

  “Coterie,” I repeated. “You. Me. Dutiful. The Fool. And Thick. ” I paused, waiting for him to say something. Instead, I heard the soft sound of the Fool’s chair being pushed back from his desk. And the even quieter sounds of his feet as he crossed the room to stand near us. I wondered what expression he wore, but I didn’t look away from Chade’s gaze. When he continued silent, I reminded him, “Chade. I was there. I was not in full possession of myself, I know, but I would have had to be dead to have been unaware of what happened to me. What you all united to do to me. Didn’t you understand that that was how a coterie functioned? The pooling of strength and abilities to achieve some goal. That was what you did. Thick’s strength. Your knowledge of a man’s internal structure. Dutiful’s control and purpose. And the Fool’s link to me. All were necessary to do what you did. And can do again, if needed. Dutiful has his coterie. Not much of one, in many ways, but a coterie, nonetheless. But only if we function as one. If you lead Thick astray, to use him as your personal reservoir of strength, you’ll destroy us before we find our potential. ”

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  I halted. My mouth was dry, and I’d run out of breath. At any other time, I would have been horrified to discover how weak I was. At the moment, I could not afford to spare it a thought. I felt I had come to a balancing point with the old man. For so many years, he had been my mentor and guide. As his apprentice, I had seldom questioned his wisdom or his ways; I had always been certain that he knew what was best. Yet, since summer, I had seen that his bright mind was failing and his memory not as tightly taloned as once it had been. But worse for both of us, I had begun to consider his decisions and even his thought processes from a man’s perspective. I was no longer willing to concede to him that he knew best in everything. And when I applied the perspective of my thirty-odd years to the decisions he had made for me and for the Farseers in the past, I was not sure that I agreed with them any longer. Now that I could see his wisdom was not absolute, I felt more justified in demanding that he recognize there were areas in which I knew more than he did. It was a strange equality I sought to claim, one that did not assert I knew as much as he did, but rather that, although he was still wiser than I in many things, there were areas in which he must give way to me.

  For so long he had been my mentor and above question. Now it was hard for both of us that I saw him as a man. I hated that I had become aware of his flaws. I never wanted to be the one to hold a mirror to him and point them out. I had to admit to myself, difficult as it was, that he had always been ambitious and eager for power. Limited by politics in his quest for his magic, scarred by an accident that doomed him to working unseen, he had still become a powerful force. It was his will that had sustained the Farseer throne in the days when King Shrewd was failing and his two remaining sons vied for his throne. It had been Chade’s network of spies and servants who had assisted Queen Kettricken in retaining her power until her son could come of age. He was close now, so close, to putting another Farseer-born heir on the throne.

  Yet I could look at him and see that these successes would not be enough for him. He would not count any achievement a true victory until he had acquired for himself the things he had always hungered for. Power he had now, and the trappings that went with it. He could openly wield it, and folk accepted it as his right as the Queen’s Councilor. Yet within the esteemed advisor there still lurked the deprived bastard, the disinherited child. No triumph would ever be enough for him until he mastered the Skill, yes, and let others know that he had mastered it.

  I feared he would undermine all else he had engineered in attaining that one goal. His determination could blind him. And so I watched him as he weighed my words and thought his own thoughts about them. I studied him as I waited. He could not reverse the march of the years. Not even the Skill could make him young again. But perhaps, as Kettle had done, he could halt the progression of aging, and repair the damage it had done to him. His hair was as white, the lines in his face graven as deep. But the knobbiness of his knuckles had subsided, and his cheeks were flushed with robust health. The whites of his eyes were clear.

  As I watched him, I saw him come to a decision. And my heart sank as he rose hastily, for in his rush to leave I saw his desire to end the conversation. “You are not well yet, Fitz,” he said as he stood. “It will be days until you are strong enough to continue teaching Dutiful and Thick what you know of the Skill. And those days represent time I am not willing to waste. Therefore, while you are recuperating, I will continue my own explorations of the Skill. I will be circumspect, I promise you. I will risk no one except myself. But having begun this, having felt the first touch of what it can mean to me, I will not draw back. I will not. ”

  He started toward the door. I drew a ragged breath. I was very nearly at the end of my strength. “Don’t you understand, Chade? What you feel is the pull all Skill students are warned against! You venture into the Skill current at your peril. If we lose you, the strength of the whole coterie is diminished. If you take Thick with you, the coterie is destroyed entirely. ”

  His hand was on the latch. He did not turn to look back at me. “You need your rest, Fitz, not to work yourself up like this. When you are feeling better, then we will discuss this again. You know I am a cautious man. Trust me in this. ” And then he was gone, closing the door behind him. He moved swiftly, like a child hurrying out of the room to escape a scolding. Or a man fleeing a truth he did not want to hear.

  I sagged back into the chair. My throat and mouth were dry, my head pounding. I lifted my hands to shut out the light from my eyes. Into that small darkness, I asked, “Have you ever suddenly realized that there was someone you loved, but presently did not like very much?”

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  “Strange you should ask me that,” the Fool observed dryly from close behind me. Then I heard him walk away.

  I must have fallen asleep there. When I awoke, it was afternoon, and I ached from my cramped position in the chair. There was a tray of food on a table beside the chair. Even covered, it had gone cold. Fat was congealed in little floating lumps on top of the broth. There was meat, but it had gone cold. After two bites, the chewing of it wearied me. I forced myself to finish it, but felt that it sat like a lump in my stomach. They had given me watered wine, and bread in milk again as well. I didn’t want it, yet could not have said what I did want. I forced myself to eat it.

  The terrible weakness that was on me made me feel childishly weepy. I tottered back to my room. I wanted to wash my face to see if I could rouse myself from my lethargy. There was water in the pitcher, and a cloth to dry on, but my looking glass was gone, probably tidied away when Kettricken changed my room. I washed, but felt no livelier for it. I went back to bed.

  Two more days passed in the same haze of weakness and lassitude. I ate and I slept, but my strength seemed terribly slow to return. Chade did not visit me. I was not surprised at that, but Dutiful did not come, either. Had Chade ordered him to stay away from me? Lord Golden had little to say to me, and turned my visitors away with the warning that I was still not well enough to see them. Twice I heard Hap’s anxious tones, and once I heard Starling. I had no energy to move, but the inactivity made me ache. I lay alone in my bed, or sat on the chair near the fireside. I was both worried and bored. I thought about the Skill scrolls up in Chade’s old chamber, but the challenge of all the stairs daunted me. Nor could I bring myself to ask that favor of the Fool. It was not just that he never ventured forth from Lord Golden’s façade. It was that we were both mired into coolly and correctly ignoring one another. It could only make our quarrel worse, and yet I could not bend enough to try any other way. It seemed to me I had already made enough efforts to mend things and been rebuffed. I wanted him to show some sign of wishing to make things right between
us. But he did not. So two slow days of misery trickled past.

  The next day I arose determined to put myself to rights. Perhaps if I stood and moved about as if I were healthy, I would begin to feel so. I began by washing myself, and then decided I would shave. The accumulation of whiskers was approaching a fair beard. I walked slowly to the door of my chamber and looked round. Lord Golden sat at the table, inspecting a dozen silk kerchiefs in different shades of yellow and orange and trying them against one another. I cleared my throat. He did not move. Very well, then.

  “Lord Golden, pardon me if I disturb you. I seem to have misplaced my shaving mirror. Could I perhaps borrow the use of one?”

  He did not look round. “Do you think that’s wise?”

  “Borrowing a mirror? Shaving without one strikes me as less wise. ”

  “I meant, do you think it’s wise to shave?”

  “I think I’m past due for it. ”

  “Very well, then. It’s your choice. ” His tone was neutral and chill, as if I did a risky thing and he wanted no part in it. He went to his room, and returned shortly with his own elaborate silver-framed hand mirror.

  I held it up, dreading what it would show me of my wasted face. The shock of my appearance numbed me; I dropped the mirror. Only good fortune decreed that it did not break when it fell to the rug. I have fainted from pain before, but never, I think, from pure surprise. Even so, I did not lose consciousness completely, but crumpled to sit in a heap on the floor.

  “Tom?” Lord Golden asked in annoyance and surprise.

  I had no attention for him. I slid the mirror across the rug to me and stared down into it. Then I touched my face. The scar I had borne for so long was gone. My nose was not precisely straight, but the long-ago break was far less evident. I thrust my hands inside my robe and felt my own back. The sword wound was gone, yes, but gone also was the ancient, pulling scar the festered arrowhead had left in my back. I inspected the place where my neck met my shoulder. Years ago, a Forged One had bitten a chunk from me there, leaving a puckered scar. The flesh was smooth.

  I looked up to find Lord Golden regarding me with consternation.

  “Why?” I asked him wildly. “Why, in Eda’s name, did you do this to me? All will mark this change in me. How will I explain it?”

  He came a step closer. There was confusion in his eyes. Lord Golden spoke reluctantly. “But Tom Badgerlock, we did nothing to you. ” I do not know what my face looked like at his words but he recoiled from me. In a neutral voice, he continued. “Truly, we did not do this to you. We worked to close the wound in your back and to clean your blood of poisons. When I saw your other scar start to pucker and then to expulse bits of flesh, I cried out to them we had to stop. But even after we dropped hands and stepped back from you . . . ”

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  I tried to remember that moment, and could not. “Perhaps what you set in motion, my body and Skill continued. I don’t recall. ”

  He covered his mouth with a hand as he stood looking down on me. “Chade—” He hesitated, then forced himself to go on. His voice was nearly the Fool’s. “I think Lord Chade felt . . . I should not surmise what he felt. Only I think he believes you knew how to do this, and that you kept it a secret from him. ”

  “Eda and El in a tangle,” I groaned. Chade was right. I never had been good at discerning what people felt unless they told me directly. I had sensed there was some knot between us, but this was the last thing I’d expected. Even if I’d known my body had been cleared of scars, I would not have suspected that Chade would feel slighted over some imagined secret. That was what was behind his huffy retreat; his resolution was that he would continue to discover whatever I’d concealed from him. I gathered my legs under me and stood without assistance. Not that Lord Golden had offered me any. I proffered the mirror to him and turned back to my room.

  “So. Changed your mind about shaving, Badgerlock?” Lord Golden asked me.

  “For now, yes. I’m going up to Chade’s old chamber. If you could let him know that I’d like to see him there, I’d be appreciative. ” I spoke to him as if he were the Fool. I didn’t expect a reply and I didn’t get one.

  I simply had no strength. I stopped to rest so many times on the stairs that I thought my candle would burn out and leave me in darkness. When I did reach the chamber, I had lost all ambition. At the door, the ferret leapt out to challenge me. Gilly did a wild dance, inviting me to battle for the territory. “You can have it,” I told him. “You’d probably win anyway. ” Ignoring his rushes at my feet, I went and sat down on the edge of the bed, then lay down and almost immediately fell asleep. I think I slept for a long time.

  When I awoke, the ferret was sleeping under my chin. The moment I stirred, Gilly fled. It was plain someone had come and gone. It disturbed me that I could sleep through that; when I had been bonded to my wolf, his mind had always kept watch through my senses. He would have wakened me as soon as he perceived I was hearing an intruder. I had grown too dependent on those wild senses, I decided as I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. I had grown too dependent on everything and everyone.

  There were dishes and a bottle of wine on the cleared end of the table. A pot of soup had been left warming at the edge of the hearth, and the wood had been replenished for the fire. I got up and went directly to the food. I ate and drank and waited. And while I waited, I perused the scrolls that had been left out for me. There was a report from someone about Icefyre and Outislander dragons. Another spy report on doings in Bingtown and their war with Chalced. An old scroll that showed a sketch of the muscles in a man’s back had been updated. The details and notes were in Chade’s hand. Well, at least my journey through death’s jaws had provided new knowledge. Beside that scroll were three more, bundled together. Tattered and faded they were, and all in the same hand. It was a set of Skill exercises, designed specifically for the Solo. I scowled at that, wondering what they meant. A few minutes of reading enlightened me. These were exercises for the Skill practitioner who had no coterie. It had never occurred to me before that there would be such, but when I thought about it, I saw it must be so. I had become one, hadn’t I? There had always been people who were socially inept, or simply preferred solitude. When coteries were formed, some would likely be excluded. These exercises were for ones such as those.

  In reading it, I found it likely that they had most often been used as spies or healers. The exercises in the first scroll seemed to focus especially on subtle uses of the Skill to either listen in or implant suggestions in someone’s thoughts. The second scroll dealt with repairing another’s body. This fascinated me, not just because I had recently undergone it, but because it confirmed a thing I had suspected. What a man started with the Skill and his will, the body often took over. The body understood healing. Yet it also understood that sometimes hasty repairs were more important than perfect ones, that closing the wound might be more important than smooth skin afterward. So the scroll put it. The body understood conserving one’s strength and reserves against tomorrow’s needs. The scroll cautioned Skill-users to be wary of ignoring the body’s own tendencies, and to be circumspect with how ardently they pursued a repair. I wondered if Chade had read that part.

  The third scroll dealt with maintaining one’s own body. On this last scroll, the clear notes in Chade’s hand contrasted strongly with the faded old ink. It chronicled his early failed efforts as well as his recent successes. This was what he had wanted me to see; these notes were why he had left it out. He wished me to know that ever since the Skill scrolls had come into his possession, he had been trying and failing to repair his own body. He had been successful only since he had witnessed the healing of mine, and discovered that he could tap Thick’s Skill talent to supplement his faltering and groping efforts.

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  I read the diary of his frustration, and knew the fear that had accompanied it. I knew only too well what it
was to live within a damaged body. And in witnessing Nighteyes’ decline, I had tasted what it must be to grow old. Chade had only resumed a normal life in the last decade. He had spent his prime sequestered here, in this room, working from the shadows and in disguise. How bitter would it be to emerge into a world of people and music, dancing and conversation, and, yes, power and the wealth to enjoy it, only to have one’s declining body threaten to take it all away again? I could not blame him for what he had done, despite the risks he had taken. I understood it only too well. I dreaded the day that I would have to face such a decision, for I feared I would decide the same.

  I read carefully, several times, the scroll that had to do with repairs to the body using the Skill. It told me much that was useful, but not all I needed to know. I knew with sad certainty why Chade had held these scrolls back from me. If I had seen them, I would have known that he was pursuing a lone quest to master the Skill. And he had obviously begun it years before I had been enticed to return to Buckkeep.

  I leaned back in my chair and tried to put myself in the old man’s place. What had he imagined, what had he dreamed? I pushed myself back through the years. The war with the Red Ships has finally ended. The raiders have been driven back by the Six Duchies dragons. Peace has returned to the land, the Queen is gravid with the Farseer heir, Regal has not only returned the missing library of Skill scrolls, but has conveniently died after renewing his loyalty to the crown. And Chade, after so many years spent in the shadows, can emerge as the Queen’s trusted Councilor. He can move freely about Buckkeep, enjoying food and drink and the companionship of the nobility. What is there left for him to desire? Only that which had been denied to him so many years ago.

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