Golden fool, p.59
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       Golden Fool, p.59

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  The Skill was not taught to royal bastards, even if they had the aptitude for it. Some kings ruthlessly administered elfbark to illegitimate youngsters, to kill the Skill ability in them. I did not doubt that other Farseer monarchs had saved time and simply killed the bastards. I had only been taught the Skill because both Lady Patience and Chade had pleaded on my behalf. Even then, if the need for a Skill coterie had not been so desperate, I am sure King Shrewd would have refused me.

  Chade had never been taught. And in the ways that boys do, I had always simply accepted that piece of knowledge about my master. I had never asked him, “Were you ever tested for Skill ability? Did you ask to be taught and were refused, or did you never even ask?” I had never asked for the details. Yet I knew that he had longed for that forbidden knowledge. I knew it in how ardently he had pursued it for me, and how badly he had hoped that I would succeed at it. My failure to master the magic had smarted as keenly for him as it had for me.

  Yet I had never, until now, considered what these factors might mean when those scrolls came into his hands. Ever since he had come to my cottage, I had known that he had been reading the scrolls. Knowing Chade, I should have known that with or without a teacher, he would try to master what he read there. I should have offered to teach him what I knew. Every time he had brought up the question of Skill candidates, had he secretly hoped I would look at him? And why hadn’t I ever seriously considered the idea? Oh, yes, once I had thrown it out, as a man throws a bone to a hungry dog to appease it. But I had not truly considered him capable of learning it. Why not?

  I had more questions about myself than I did about Chade. While I was pondering them, I heated water and found his looking glass. In Chade’s assassin’s armory were any number of knives sharp enough to shave with. I made a credible job of it, taking my time and watching my unscathed face emerge. I was sitting at the table, looking at myself in the mirror when Chade entered. I didn’t wait for him to speak.

  “I didn’t realize that my old scars were gone. I think the coterie started the wheels turning, and after that my healing was like a runaway cart on a steep street. It just kept going on its own. I don’t even really know how it was done. ”

  He spoke as humbly as I did. “So Lord Golden managed to convey to me. ” Then he came closer. When he stood over me, he studied my face, cocking his head to one side. When I looked up at him, he smiled reminiscently. “Oh, my boy. You do look like your father. Far too much for our purposes now. You should not have shaved; the beard at least covered some of the changes in your face. Now you must wait until it grows back enough to disguise how much you’ve changed before you can go about the keep again. ”

  I shook my head. “It wouldn’t do, Chade. Not even a heavy beard would be enough. ” I took a long final look at myself as I might have been. Then I laughed and pushed the mirror away. “Come sit down. We both know what must be done. I’ve read your scrolls, but they don’t seem to apply. In this effort tonight, we are going to have to feel our way. ”

  Page 219

 

  We did not work well together. I think by nature we were both Solos, and yet we would have to learn to function together as part of Dutiful’s Coterie. And so we made a number of false starts, and irritably blamed Galen’s fogging of me and my use of elfbark and those shortsighted folk who had not trained Chade when he was a boy. But at length, the Skill flowed hesitantly between us, and as I so often had before, I trusted myself to his long-fingered hands. I fed him strength and the Skill itself, for his ability was as yet only a sporadic trickling of the magic. Chade’s knowledge of how a man’s body was put together combined with my own body’s awareness of itself to guide what we did. In some ways it was a more difficult task than my healing had been, for each piece had to be done separately, and in defiance of what my body felt was correct. But we prevailed.

  And when we were finished, I took up the mirror again. My new scar was less noticeable than the old one, and my nose not quite as crooked. But it would suffice. The marks were there. As were the old bite scar on my neck, the star from the arrowhead near my spine, and a new web of scarring where the sword wound should have been. These new scars were easier to tolerate than the old ones, for we involved only the skin and did not anchor them to the muscles underneath. Still, they pulled irritatingly. I knew I’d eventually get used to them. It was Chade who noticed that my “badgerlock” was now growing in dark at the roots. He shook his head over that. “I’ve no idea how to change that. Nothing in the scrolls mentions a change in the color of hair. Dye the whole shock of white hair black is my advice. Let that change be obvious. Folk will think you’ve become vain. Vanity is easy to explain. ”

  I nodded and set the mirror down. “But later. Not now. Right now, I’m exhausted,” I said, and spoke the simple truth.

  He looked at me oddly. “And your headache?”

  I frowned and lifted a hand to my brow. “Is no worse than an ordinary headache, despite all the Skilling we’ve done tonight. Perhaps you were right. Perhaps it only took getting used to. ”

  He shook his head slowly and came around the table to set his hands to my skull. “Here,” he said, tracing the now nonexistent scar that had birthed my badgerlock of white hair. “And here. ” He prodded an area near my eye socket.

  I winced from habit, then sat still. “It doesn’t hurt. My head always hurt, when I combed my hair, and my face always ached if I was long in the cold. I never thought about it before. ”

  “I’d date the injury by your eye to when Galen tried to kill you on the tower top. In the Queen’s garden, when you were his student. Burrich said you nearly lost the vision in that eye. Have you forgotten the beating he gave you?”

  I shook my head silently.

  “Neither had your body. I’ve seen you from the inside out, Fitz. Seen the damage done to your skull in Regal’s dungeons, and other long-healed fractures in your face and spine. The Skill healing seems to have put right a lot of old damage. It interests me that you do not have a headache after Skilling. It will interest me even more if you cease having to fear seizures. ”

  He left my side and went to his scroll rack. He returned with a copy of that most horrific of books, Man’s Flesh by Verdad the Flayer. It was a beautifully made thing, layers of paper bound between carved covers of hinkwood, and still smelled of its inks. Obviously this copy had been recently created. That corrupt and ruthless Jamaillian priest had flayed and dismembered bodies for years in a monastery in that distant land, but when his depravity was discovered, his notoriety spread even as far as the Six Duchies. I had heard of this treatise, but never before seen a copy.

  “Where did this come from?” I asked in surprise.

  “Some years ago, I sent for it. It took me two years to find one. And the text is obviously corrupted. Verdad never referred to himself as ‘the flayer’ as this manuscript does. And I doubt that he rejoiced in the smell of rotting flesh, as this claims he did. No, I sought it out for the copies of his illustrations, not the words others have added. ”

  Chade opened it reverently and set it before me. As he had bid me, I ignored the ornate Jamaillian lettering and focused instead on the detailed depictions of the interiors of bodies. As a boy, I had seen the sketches that Chade had made, and those he had from his master before him, but they had been crude things compared to these. Charts that show the most swiftly lethal places to thrust a dagger are not to be compared with a map of a man’s exposed vitals. The colors were very true. It was strange to look at them and find myself reminded of the steaming entrails of a gutted deer. How can I explain how vulnerable I suddenly felt? All these soft structures, deep red and glistening gray, gleaming liver and intricately coiled intestines, fit so precisely inside my body. Then Laudwine had thrust a sword blade through my back and into them. Without thinking, I set a hand to the false sword scar on my lower back. No ribs had shielded me there, only overlapping strands of muscle. Chade saw the gesture. “Now you see why I
feared so for you. From the start, I suspected that only the Skill could restore you to health. ”

  Page 220

 

  “Close it, please,” I said, and turned away from his treasured book, feeling ill. He ignored me, turning a page to yet another drawing. This was of a hand, skin and muscle pulled aside and pinned to show the bone and hinges.

  “I studied this before I tried to repair my hands. I do not think his drawings are precisely correct, and yet I feel they were helpful to me. Who would have imagined there were so many individual bones in a man’s hands and fingers?” Then he finally glanced up and, becoming aware of my discomfort, closed the tome. “When you are better recovered, I recommend you study this, Fitz. I think perhaps every Skilled one should. ”

  “Even Thick?” I asked wryly.

  He surprised me by lifting a shoulder. “It would not hurt to show it to him. Sometimes he is capable of very fixed thought, Fitz. Who knows how much he retains in that misshapen skull?”

  This brought a new thought to me. “Misshapen. Do you think, then, that the Skill might be used on Thick? To repair what is wrong and make him normal?”

  Chade shook his head slowly. “‘Different’ is not ‘wrong,’ Fitz. Thick’s body recognizes itself as correct. His differences are no more to him than . . . well, here I am guessing, but I suspect that just as one man is tall and another is short, so it is with Thick. His body grew to some plan of its own. Thick is what he is. Perhaps we should just be grateful that we have him, even if he is different. ”

  “You have been investigating this most thoroughly, then. ” I tried to keep condemnation from my voice.

  “You cannot imagine what this is like for me, Fitz,” he affirmed quietly. “It is like a cell door has opened and I am allowed to walk free in the world. I am dazzled by all that I see. A blade of grass is as wonderful to such a freed prisoner as is the wide spread of a valley. I resent everything that calls me away from this exploration. I do not want to sleep or pause for meals. It is difficult for me to force my mind to the Queen’s business. What do I care of Bingtown Traders and dragons and narcheskas? The Skill has seized my imagination and my heart. Exploring it is all I truly want to do. ”

  My heart sank. I recognized Chade’s obsession for what it was. Often and often had I seen him go through such fevers of fascination. Once his mind seized on an area of study, he would pursue it until he grasped it thoroughly. Or until another frenzy stole his attention away. “So. ” I attempted to speak lightly. “Does this mean you will set aside your explosive experiments for a time?”

  For an instant, he looked puzzled, as if he had completely forgotten. Then, “Oh. That. I think I’ve discovered what I was attempting to discern about that. There are ways it may be useful, but it is too difficult to regulate to rely upon it. ” He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “I have set it aside. This is far more important for me to grasp now. ”

  “Chade. ” I spoke quietly. “You must not venture alone into this. Even more, you must not draw Thick in after you. I hope you can see now that I speak for concern for you, not to hold you back from any selfish secret of mine. ” I took a breath. “You need a foundation. When I have my strength back, when Dutiful and Thick and I resume studying together, you must come to the tower with us. ”

  He was silent for a time, studying me. “And Lord Golden?” He cocked his head at me. “You did say, before, that he too was a member of this coterie. ”

  “Did I?” I feigned confusion for a moment. “Oh. He was there, at my healing. And I thought I felt . . . do you think he truly contributed to my healing?”

  Chade looked at me oddly. “Don’t you think you would be a better judge of that than I? You told me he did, but a day ago. ”

  I looked at my strange but strong reluctance to bring the Fool into our Skill lessons. He would not come anyway, I told myself, and then wondered if I were right. “I could tell he was there, but I could not tell what he was doing,” I amended.

  Chade’s manner was grave. “Guiding us, I thought. He said he had been part of something similar once, when Nighteyes was stricken. ” He paused, then said without inflection, “He knows you well. I think that was what he contributed most. He knows you well and he seemed to know . . . a way into you. ” He sighed. “Fitz, you have already admitted as much. ”

  “He was there when I used both the Wit and the Skill to heal the wolf. But he did not help with the healing. He helped me recover myself afterward. ” Then I stopped. After a time, I said, “The reticence and secrecy. Does it become a habit? I swear, Chade, I don’t know why . . . Damn this. Yes. The Fool and I have a Skill bond. Thin but there, a remnant from when he first got the Skill on his fingers when he touched Verity and then me. And when he used it to pull me back to my body, it grew stronger. I suspect that if I considered it, I would find it stronger still since this healing. I rather doubt that he has any true Skill of his own. Only what is on his fingers, and perhaps his bond can only be with me. ”

  Page 221

 

  Chade smiled almost guiltily. “Well. A double relief. To hear you speak truth to me, and to let me know that . . . well. I’ve known the Fool a long time. I value him. But there is still about him a strangeness, even when he masquerades as Lord Golden, that can make me uneasy at times. He knows too much, it sometimes seems, and at other times, I wonder if the things that matter to us concern him at all. Now that I have experienced the Skill a bit, and realized how open it makes us to one another . . . well. As you say, reticence and secrecy become a habit. A habit we both must preserve if we are to live. I am as reluctant to make the Fool privy to all my secrets as I am to share his. ”

  His honesty jolted me, and his opinion confounded me. And yet, he was right. It felt good to know there was honesty between us. “I will speak to Lord Golden myself about what place he holds in our coterie,” I said. “Much depends on what he is willing to do. No one can be forced to aid us. ”

  “Yes. And patch this foolish quarrel between you at the same time. Being in the same room with you two is as comfortable as standing between two snarling dogs. Who knows who will get bitten when they finally decide to rush one another?”

  I ignored that. “And you will join us in the Skill tower for our lessons?”

  “I will. ”

  I waited, then decided that this too was a thing that must be spoken openly. “And your private Skill experiments?”

  “They will go on,” he said quietly. “As they must. Fitz, you know me. And you know the pattern of my years. Always I have learned alone and quietly, and always when I discovered a thread of learning that I felt I must possess, I pursued it ardently. Do not ask me to change that now. I cannot. ”

  And I truly believe he spoke the truth there, also. I sighed heavily, but did not dare try to forbid it to him. “Go carefully then, my friend. Go very carefully. The currents are strong and the footing treacherous. If you are ever swept away . . . ”

  “I’ll be careful,” he said. And then he left me, and I crawled into the bed that was now more mine than his, and dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

  Chapter XXII

  CONNECTIONS

  Your estimation of the funds needed for this journey has fallen far short of the reality; nor would I have undertaken this inquiry if I had fully known about the foul weather, foul food, and fouler people who inhabit these islands. I shall expect exceptional remuneration when I return.

  I succeeded at last in visiting your demon-blasted island. Securing passage to visit that piece of ice and rock took the last of my insufficient funds, plus a day’s labor of my stacking salt cod for a foul-tempered sea-bitch. The boat offered was leaky and unwieldy, of a kind I have never before seen and without proper oars. It was a miracle that I was able to navigate the icy waters to reach Aslevjal. Once there, I landed on a black and rocky shore. The glacier that once covered the entire island right down to the tide line seems to have retreated. An aban
doned dock and pilings are visible, but all pieces that were easily scavenged are gone. The beach gives onto a wasteland of black stone. Tiny pockets of soil support little more than moss and scrubby grasses. There may have been crude buildings here at some time, but like the docks, anything usable was taken. Stone quarrying has evidently taken place here in the past, but from the look of the place, the efforts have been abandoned for at least a decade. Immense blocks of stone were cut and lined up end to end as for an immense wall, but it is a wall that begins and ends with a single run of blocks. Apparently efforts were made to chisel this run of stone into some sort of a horizontal statue, but the attempt was abandoned before it was even a quarter finished. It was impossible for me to discern what it was meant to be.

  I walked as much of the beach as was bared and ventured briefly onto the glacial ice before nightfall caught me there. I saw no dragon, neither alive nor trapped in ice, nor anything even remotely resembling a live creature. I groped my way back to the beach and spent an icy night sheltered behind the stone blocks. Not a scrap of driftwood could I find for a fire. I slept poorly, being troubled by horrendous dreams in which I was one of a mob of Six Duchies folk trapped in a dreadful stone prison. When dawn came, I was thankful to leave. Any others who venture here should take care to bring with them everything to supply their needs, for this island certainly offers nothing to a man.

  — REPORT TO CHADE FALLSTAR, UNSIGNED

  Restoring my scars had delayed the recovery of my strength. For the next three days, I withdrew into myself and focused solely on regaining my health. I slept and ate and slept again. I remained in the workroom. Chade himself brought meals to me. They followed no regular schedule, but he brought ample quantities of food when he did come, and I had the hearth for making tea or heating soup so it mattered little to me.

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  There were no windows in the workroom, and time lost all meaning for me. I returned to the wolfish habits I had shared for years. At dawn and at twilight I was most alert, and during those times I studied the scrolls. Then I ate, and dozed before the fire, or slept in the bed for the rest of the day’s circle. Not all my waking hours were spent in reading. I amused myself and Gilly by hiding bits of meat when he was not in the room and then watching him ferret them out when he returned. I did simple projects such as suited my fancy. I made a board for playing the Stone game, burning the lines into it, and then carved the markers for it from a whale tusk that Chade had said I might use. I dyed them red and black, and left an equal quantity unmarked. I hoped for a game with Chade in vain, however. He spoke little to me of his Skill studies, and when he came and went, he seemed always in a hurry. Likely it was for the best. I slept more deeply when I was left alone.

 
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