Golden fool, p.60
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       Golden Fool, p.60

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  He was very closemouthed about the other news of the keep. What little I squeezed out of him worried me. The Queen was still in negotiations with the Bingtown Traders, but had graciously given the Dukes of Shoaks and Farrow permission to pressure Chalced along their borders as they wished. There would be no formal declaration of warfare, but the normal harrying and raiding that went on along the boundary between Chalced and the Six Duchies would be increased, with her tacit blessings. There was little new in that. The slaves of Chalced had known for generations that they could claim freedom if they could manage to escape to the Six Duchies. Once free, they often turned against their old masters, raiding across the border the flocks and herds that once they had tended. For all that, trade between Chalced and those Six Duchies remained lively and prosperous. For the Six Duchies to openly side with Bingtown could put an end to that.

  The Bingtown war with Chalced had disrupted horribly Chade’s flow of spy information from that area. He had to rely on second- and third-hand accounts, and as with all such heavily handled information, there were contradictions. We were both skeptical of the “facts” we received. Yes, the Bingtown Traders had a dragon-breeding plantation far up the Rain Wild River. One, or perhaps two, full-grown dragons had been seen in flight. They were variously described as blue, silver, or blue and silver. The Bingtown Traders fed the dragons, and in return, the dragons guarded Bingtown Harbor. But they would not fly out of sight of shore; that was why the Chalcedean ships still were able to menace and plunder Bingtown’s trading fleet. The dragon-breeding farm was tended by a race of changelings, half-dragon and half-human. It was in the midst of a beautiful city, where wondrous gems glowed from the walls at night. The humans who also dwelt there preferred to live in lofty timber castles high in the tops of immense trees.

  Such information more frustrated than enlightened us. “Do you think they lied to us when they told us about the dragons?” I asked him.

  “They likely told us their truth,” Chade replied tersely. “That is the whole purpose of spies: to give us the other truths of the story, so that from all of them, we can cobble together our own truth. There is not enough meat here to make a meal from, only enough to torment us. What can we deduce for certain from these rumors? Only that a dragon has been seen, and that something peculiar is going on somewhere on the Rain Wild River. ”

  And that was as much as he would say on that subject. But I suspected he knew far more than he admitted, and that he had other irons in the fire than the ones he discussed with me. So my days passed in sleep, study, and rest. Once, when rustling through Chade’s scrolls for one I recalled on the history of Jamaillia, I found the feathers from the treasure beach. I stood looking at them in the dimness, and then carried them over to Chade’s worktable. I examined them there in a better light. Just touching them was unsettling. They stirred to life my memories of my days on that desolate beach, and awoke a hundred questions in me.

  There were five feathers in all, about the size of the curving feathers in a cockerel’s tail. They were carved in extreme detail, so that each separate rib of the feather lay against the next. They seemed to be made from a gray wood, though they weighed oddly heavy in my hands. I tried several blades against them; the sharpest one made only a fine silvery scratch. If this was wood, it was near as hard as metal. Some trick of their carving seemed to catch the light strangely. They were plain and gray, and yet, seen from the tail of my eye, color seemed to run over them. They had no discernible smell. Setting my tongue to one gave me a faint taste of brine followed by bitterness. That was all.

  And having tested all of my senses against them, I surrendered to the mystery. I suspected they would fit the Fool’s Rooster Crown. I wondered again whence that strange artifact had come. He had unwrapped it from a length of fabric so wondrous that it could only have come from Bingtown. Yet the old wooden circlet seemed too humble to have come from a city of marvels and magic. When he had shown the ancient crown to me, I had recognized it immediately. I had seen it once before, in a dream. In my vision, it had been colorfully painted and bright feathers had stood up above the circlet to nod in the breeze. A woman had worn it, pale even as the Fool had been pale then, and the folk of some ancient Elderling city had paused in their celebration to listen and laugh at her mocking words. I had interpreted her status as jester to the folk. Now I wonder if I had missed a subtler meaning. I looked at them, spread like a fan, and a sudden shiver ran over me. They linked us, I knew with a sudden chill. They linked the Fool and me, not only to one another, but also to another life. Hastily I wrapped them in a cloth. I hid them under my pillow.

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  I could not decide what it meant that the feathers had come to me, and I still did not want to discuss them with Chade. The Fool might have the answers, I suspected, and yet I felt a shamed reluctance to take them to him. There was not only the gulf of our present quarrel between us, but the fact that I had had them for so long and hadn’t spoken of them to him. I knew that neither of those things would be improved by waiting longer, yet I truly felt too weak to present them to him. So I slept with them under my pillow each night.

  In the deeps of my third night in the workroom, Nettle invaded my sleep. She came as a weeping woman. In my dream, a statue stood in a stream of the tears she had shed. Her tears were a silvery gown that she wore, and her mourning was a fog around her. I stood for a time, watching her cry. Each silver tear that ran down her cheeks splashed into a thread of gossamer that became part of her raiment before it turned into the stream that flowed past her. “What is wrong?” I asked the apparition at last.

  But she only continued to weep. I approached her, and finally put my hand on her shoulder, expecting to encounter cold stone. Instead she turned to me with eyes that were gray as fog. Her eyes were made of tears. “Please,” I said. “Please talk to me. Tell me why you weep?”

  And suddenly she was Nettle. She leaned her brow on my shoulder and wept on. Always before, when I had encountered her in dreams, I had had the feeling she was seeking for me. This time I sensed that I had come to her, drawn by her sorrow into some other place that was usually private to her. I think my coming surprised her. Yet I was not unwelcome, only unlooked for.

  What is it? Even in my sleep, I knew I Skilled to her.

  “They quarrel. Even when they do not speak, their quarrel hangs like cobwebs in the room. Every word anyone says gets tangled in the quarrel. They act as if I cannot love them both, as if I must choose between them. And I cannot. ”

  Who quarrels?

  “My father and my brother. They came home safely, as you said they would. But as soon as they got down from the horse, I felt the storm hanging between them. I don’t know what it is about. My father refuses to speak of it, and he has forbidden my brother to tell me. It is something shameful and dark and horrid. Yet my brother wishes to do it. He desires it with all his heart. I cannot imagine why. Swift has always been such a good boy; quiet and meek and obedient. What can he have discovered that he longs to do and my father so abhors?”

  I could almost feel her mind groping toward dark suspicions of her gentle brother. She longed to know what had so disgraced him in her father’s eyes. Her imagination could not conjure anything sufficiently evil that a boy of his years could possibly do. That led her toward the idea that her father was being irrational. Yet that idea too was untenable for her. And so her speculation wobbled between two unacceptable ideas. And all the while the tension in the household grew heavier and heavier.

  “He does not allow my brother to go outside by himself. All day long, he must accompany my father as he goes about his chores. Yet he is not allowed to help him exercise or groom the horses. Instead, he must simply stand and watch. It makes no sense to me, or to my brothers. But if we ask about it, my father becomes very strict and silent. It is making all of us miserable and I do not know how much longer my brother can stand it. I fear he will do something desperate. ”
r />   What do you fear he might do?

  “I don’t know. If I knew it, I could prevent it. ”

  I do not know of any way I can help you with this. I framed the thought very carefully, fencing it off from all I knew. What would she think of Swift if she knew he was Witted? How did Burrich and Molly speak of that magic in their home, if they spoke of it at all? She had not mentioned how her mother had reacted to the situation. I could not find the courage within me to ask.

  “I did not think you could, Shadow Wolf. That was why I did not come to you. But I am grateful you came to me, even if you cannot help me. ” A sigh. “When you wall me out, I feel more isolated than I can explain, even to myself. For so long, you were always there, at the edges of my dreams, watching them through me. Then, you took yourself away. And I do not know why. Nor do I know who or what you truly are. Will not you explain yourself to me?”

  I cannot. I heard the harshness of my own refusal and felt in a Skill echo her hurt at my words. Against my will, I felt myself try. I cannot explain. In some ways, I am a danger to you, and so I seek to stay away from you. You do not truly need me. Yet, in all ways that I can, I will watch over you and protect you. And come to you when I think you need me.

  “You contradict yourself. You are a danger that will protect me? I do not need you, yet you will come to me when I need you? You make no sense!”

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  No. I don’t, I admitted humbly. And hence I cannot explain myself to you. Nettle. All I can offer you is this. What is between your father and brother is between your father and brother. Do not let it stand between you and either of them, difficult as that might be. Do not lose faith in either of them. Or stop loving either of them.

  “As if I could,” she said bitterly. “If I could stop loving them, I could stop grieving for what they do to each other. ”

  And there we left it as I faded from her dream. There was no comfort for me in such contact with my daughter and very little comfort for her, I am sure. Her worry became mine. Burrich had always been strict, yet fair within his own sense of fairness. He had often been rough with me, but never harsh. An irritated cuff, an impatient shove he might have given, but he had seldom beaten me. The few thrashings I had suffered at his hands had been intended to teach a lesson, never to harm me. The times he had physically punished me I now saw as justified. Yet I feared that Swift would openly defy him as I had not, and I did not know what effect that would have on the man. He believed that one boy entrusted to his care had died horribly because he had failed to beat the Wit out of him. Would he see it as his duty to protect his own son from a similar fate, no matter how harsh he must be to do it? I feared for them both, and had no outlet for that worry.

  At dawn of the fourth day, I awoke feeling stronger and restless. Today, I decided, I was well enough to get out and move around the keep a bit. It was time for me to resume my life. I took the feathers from beneath my pillow. I went down to Tom Badgerlock’s chamber to get some fresh clothing. I had scarcely closed the door to the hidden staircase behind me before there was a tap on the connecting door. I reached it in two steps and opened it. Lord Golden took a startled step backward. “Well, I suppose he is awake after all. And dressed, too, I see. So. Are you feeling more yourself, Tom Badgerlock?”

  “A bit,” I replied, trying to look past him to discover for whom this mummery was intended. I barely had time to take in the shock on his face as he stared at my renewed scars before Hap almost shouldered him aside to get to me. My boy seized me by the shoulders and stared up at me in horror.

  “You look terrible. Go back to bed, Tom. ” Then, almost without drawing breath, he turned to Lord Golden. “Sir, I beg your pardon. You were right, I had thought that you were deceiving me as to how ill he was. But you were right to keep all visitors from his door. I see that now. I most humbly beg your pardon for my ill words. ”

  Lord Golden gave a small harumph. “Well. I scarcely expect court manners from a country boy, and I understand that you have been sore worried about your father. So, little as I have enjoyed your rousing me at such ungodly hours, nor your churlish manners when I forbade you access to Tom, I shall forgive your behavior. And I’m sure that you will both excuse me while you enjoy your visit. ”

  He turned away from us and left us alone in my small chamber. It did not take much urging from Hap to get me to sit down on the low bed. The long trek down Chade’s winding stairs had tired me. Hap kept one hand on my shoulder as he sat down beside me. His gaze wandered over my face, and he squinted in pity at my gauntness. “I’m so glad to see you,” he said tightly. For a moment longer he stared at me, face taut with some emotion. Then his eyes brimmed suddenly and he buried his face in both his hands and rocked back and forth on my bed. “Tom, I thought you were going to die,” he managed to say through his fingers. And then he sat panting, fighting the sobs that threatened to overtake him. I put my arm around his shoulders and hugged him close. The dry sobs broke from him. He was suddenly my boy again, and very frightened he had been. He spoke in gasps. “I’ve been here before dawn every day since they brought you here, and every day Lord Golden has told me that you were too weak for visitors. At first, I tried to be patient, but the last few days—” He gulped suddenly. “I’ve been very rude to him, Tom. I was horrid. I hope he won’t take it out on you. It was just—”

  I spoke by his ear, calmly and reassuringly. “I’ve been very ill, and my recovery is still slow. But I’m not going to die, son. Not this time. I’ll be here for you for some time yet. And Lord Golden has already told you that he forgives you. So. Don’t worry about any of that. ”

  He reached up to grip my hand tightly in both of his. After a moment, he straightened and turned to face me. Tears tracked his face. “I thought you would die and I’d never get the chance to tell you I was s-s-sorry. For how I behaved. I knew you’d nearly given up on me, in that you hardly spoke to me or came to see me anymore. And then you were hurt, and I could not get to you in that jail. Nor afterward, when they brought you up here. And all I could think was that you would die believing me both stupid and ungrateful for all you had done for me. You were right, you know. I should have listened to you. I wanted so badly to tell you that. You were right. And I’ve learned. ”

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  “About what?” I asked, but my heart sank with the answer I already knew.

  He sniffed, looking aside from me. “About Svanja. ” His voice grew deeper and thicker. “She’s cast me off, Tom. Just like that. And I’ve already heard that there is someone else for her—or maybe always was. A sailor on one of those big trading ships. ” He looked down at the floor between his feet. He swallowed. “I guess they had been . . . close, before his ship last sailed, in the spring. Now he’s back, with silver earrings for her, and fancy cloth and a spice perfume from far away. Gifts for her parents, too. They like him. ” His voice grew softer and softer as he spoke, so that his last words were barely audible. “If I’d known,” he said, and then his voice trailed away.

  It was a very good time for me to be silent.

  “I waited for her one night, and she just didn’t come. And I got very worried, frightened for her. I was scared that something bad had happened to her on her way to meet me. And finally I got up the courage and went to her house. Just as I was going to knock on her door, I heard her laughing inside. I didn’t dare to knock on the door because her father hates me so much. Her mother didn’t used to hate me so much, but then you got into that fight with her father and—Well. Anyway. So. I thought it was just that she hadn’t been able to get out, well, actually, to sneak out to meet me. Because her father had started to be very watchful, you know. ” He halted, face flushing. “It’s strange. As I look back at it now, it seems shameful and childish. Us sneaking about, hiding from her father, her lying to her mother to get time to spend with me. It didn’t seem like that at the time, not at all. It seemed romantic and, well, fated. That w
as what Svanja always said. That we were fated to be together, and should let nothing stand between us. That lies and deceit didn’t matter, because together we were a truth that no one could deny. ” He rubbed his brow with the heels of his hands. “And I believed it. I believed it all. ”

  I sighed, yet admitted, “If you had not believed it, Hap . . . well, then it would have been worse than foolish to do as you did. So. ” And then I halted, wondering if I had just made it worse.

  “I feel such a fool,” he admitted after a time. “And the worst part is, I’d take her back in a breath if she came to me. Faithless as I know she is, first to him and now to me, I’d still take her back. Even if I had to wonder ever after if I could hold her. ” After a time, he asked quietly, “Is this how you felt when I told you Starling was married?”

  A hard question, but mostly because I didn’t want to tell him that I had never truly loved Starling. So I just said, “I don’t think any two pains are ever exactly the same, Hap. But the part about feeling a fool, oh, yes. ”

  “I thought I would die from it,” he declared passionately. “The next day I was out on an errand for Master Gindast. He’s come to trust me with making his purchases about town, because I am very exact with what he wants and what he will pay for it. So. I was hurrying, and then I saw a couple coming toward me. And I thought, She looks so much like Svanja, she could be her sister. And then I saw it was Svanja, but wearing silver earrings and a shawl dyed such a violet as I had never seen. And the man beside her held her arm and she was looking up at him exactly as she looked up at me. I could not believe it. I stood gawking, and as they went by, she glanced at me. Tom, she blushed red, but pretended not to know me. I . . . I didn’t know what to do. We have had to sneak about so much that I thought, well, perhaps this is her uncle or a man her father knows, and she must pretend not to know me. But even then, I knew it was not so. And when I went into the Stuck Pig two days later, in hopes of seeing her, the men in the tavern mocked me, asking how it felt to be small fry now that the big fish was biting again. I did not know what they meant, but they soon explained it to me. In detail. Tom, I have never been so humiliated. I all but fled, and I’ve been too ashamed to go back, lest I encounter them. A part of me wants to, a part of me yearns to tell her sailor how faithless she is, and to tell her that I’ve discovered how worthless she is. Yet another part of me longs to fight and best him, to see if that would bring her back to my side. I feel both a fool and a coward. ”

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