Golden fool, p.61
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       Golden Fool, p.61

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  “You are neither,” I told him, knowing he could not believe me. “Walking away from it is the wisest thing to do. Fight him and win her back, and what do you have? A woman no better than a bitch in season that goes with the strongest dog. Confront her and have her disdain you, and you will only have added to your humiliation. Think of it this way, if it comforts you at all. She will always wonder at how easily you seemed to let her go. ”

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  “A sour comfort. Tom. Is there any such thing as a true woman?” He asked this so wearily that it twisted my heart to see him so soon disillusioned.

  “Yes, there is,” I asserted. “And you are young yet, with as good a chance as any of finding one. ”

  “Not really,” he declared. He abruptly stood up. A tired smile twisted his mouth. “For I’ve no time to look for one. Tom, I’m so sorry to come and visit so briefly, but I must run now to be back to the woodshop on time. Old Gindast is a taskmaster. Since I discovered you were hurt, he’s given me time each dawn to come and try to see you, but he insists I make up the work in the evening. ”

  “He’s wise. Work is the best cure for worry. And for heartbreak. Throw yourself into your tasks, Hap, and don’t berate yourself for foolishness. Every man makes his share of mistakes in that area. ”

  He stood looking at me a time longer. He shook his head. “Every time I think I’ve grown up a bit more, I look round and see myself acting like a child again. I came here to see you, sick with worry about you, and the instant that I saw you could stand, well, all I did was bend your ear with my woes. You’ve told me nothing of all you went through. ”

  I managed a smile. “And that is how I’d like to leave it, son. Nothing there that I care to remember. Let’s put it behind us. ”

  “For now, then. I’ll come back and see you again tomorrow. ”

  “No, no, don’t do that. If you’ve been coming every day, as I know you have, then I know you must be wearied of it. I’m mending nicely, as you can see. Soon enough I’ll be down to visit with you, and then I’ll ask Gindast to give you an afternoon off and we can sit and talk together. ”

  “I’d like that,” he said, and the sincerity in his voice gave me heart. He hugged me before he left and I feared his youthful strength would snap my weakened bones. Then he left me and I sat staring after him. For the first time in months, I felt I had my Hap back again, I thought as I laboriously took out clean clothing and clambered into them. My relief at regaining Hap was tinged with guilt. I couldn’t keep him a boy. I shouldn’t expect him to be “my Hap” any more than Chade should hope me to be his “boy. ” To be relieved that his heartbreak and disappointment had brought him back to me and convinced him of my wisdom was a sort of betrayal on my part. Next time I saw him, I’d have to admit to him that I hadn’t known that Svanja would be false to him, only that she distracted him from his apprenticeship. I didn’t relish the idea.

  Dressed, I left my room and went out into Lord Golden’s chamber. I was no longer tottering about, but it was more comfortable to move slowly and carefully. His serving boy hadn’t brought breakfast up yet. The table was bare. He sat before the fire, looking weary. I nodded to him, and then set the cloth-wrapped feathers on the table. “I think these were meant for you,” I said. I put no inflection in my voice. As I unrolled the cloth, he rose from his chair and came to see what I was doing. He watched, not saying a word, as I nudged the feathers into a row.

  “They are extraordinary. How came you by these, Badgerlock?” he asked at last, and I felt my silence had dragged the question from him. It burned me that he still spoke with Golden’s Jamaillian accent.

  “When Dutiful and I went through the Skill pillar, it took us to a beach. I picked these up along the tide line there. They were lying amongst the driftwood and seaweed like flotsam. As I walked the beach, I found them, one after the other. ”

  “Indeed. Never have I heard such a tale. ”

  There was an unspoken question in his neutral comment. Had I concealed these from him deliberately or dismissed them as unimportant? I answered as best I could. “The time spent on that beach still seems strange to me. Disconnected from all else. When I did get back, so much happened all at once: the fight to regain Dutiful, and Nighteyes’ death and then our journey back here, with no privacy to speak to one another. Then, once we got to Buckkeep, there was the betrothal and all. ” Even as I made my excuses, they seemed weak. Why hadn’t I told him about the feathers? “I put them away up in Chade’s workroom. And the time just never seemed right. ”

  He was just staring at them. I looked at them again. Set out in a row on the rough cloth, their flat grayness made them even more unremarkable. Yet at the same time they seemed profoundly strange, artifacts too perfect to have been shaped by men’s hands and yet obviously manufactured. I felt oddly reluctant to touch them.

  “I see,” Lord Golden said at last. “Well. Thank you for showing them to me. ” He turned and walked back toward the hearth.

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  I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. I tried again. “Fool. I think they belong in the Rooster Crown. ”

  “Doubtless, you are correct,” he replied levelly, without interest. He sat down before the fire and stretched his legs out toward it. After a moment, he crossed his arms on his chest and sank his chin down. He stared into the flames.

  A flash of anger, cleansing as flame, washed through me. For an instant I wanted to seize him and shake him, to demand that he be the Fool again for me. Then the fury was gone and in its wake I stood trembling and sick. I felt then that I’d killed the Fool somehow, that I had destroyed him when I had demanded answers to the questions that had always floated unasked between us. I should have known that I could never understand him as I understood other people. Explanations had seldom worked between us. Trust had. But I had broken that, like a child who takes something apart to see how it works and ends up with a handful of pieces. Perhaps he could not be the Fool again, any more than I could go back to being Burrich’s stable boy. Perhaps our relationship had changed too profoundly for us to relate as Fitz and the Fool. Perhaps Tom Badgerlock and Lord Golden were all that was left to us.

  I felt suddenly weary and weak again. Without a word, I rolled the feathers up in the cloth again. Carrying them in my fist, I went back into my chamber and shut the door behind me. I opened the secret door, closed it behind me, and began the long climb back up to my workroom.

  I was shaking with weariness by the time I reached my bed. Without undressing, I crawled back under the covers. After a time, I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke hours later, I was hungry and the fire had burned almost out. Waking up, eating, and feeding the fire: none of it seemed worth the effort. I shouldered deeper into the bed and fled back into unconsciousness.

  The next time I awoke, it was because someone was bending over me. I came awake with a yell of alarm and had seized the Prince by the throat before I knew it was he. An instant later, I was sitting back on my bed, panting as my panic subsided. “Sorry, sorry,” I managed.

  The Prince stood well away from the bed, rubbing his throat and staring at me. “What is the matter with you?” he croaked, caught between anger and alarm.

  I gulped air in a dry throat, feeling sweaty and shaky. My eyes and mouth were sticky. “Sorry,” I managed again. “You woke me too suddenly. I was startled. ” I struggled free of my blankets and staggered out of bed. I couldn’t catch my breath. My alarm seemed a continuation of a nightmare I could not recall. I felt bleary and disoriented as I looked about my chamber. Thick was sitting in Chade’s chair, his shoes stretched out toward the fire. His tunic and trousers were servant blue, but they looked new and as if they had been cut to fit him. How long ago had I intended to get him shoes and better clothing? Chade must have done it. The fire burned merrily on the hearth and there was a tray of food on the table.

  “Did you do this? Thank you. ” I
made my way to the table and poured wine into a glass.

  The Prince shook his head in confusion. “Do what?”

  I lowered the glass I had drained. My mouth still felt dry. I poured another glass of wine and drank it down, then drew a breath. “The food and the fire,” I explained. “The wine. ”

  “No. That was there when we came in. ”

  My senses were gradually coming back to me and my heart was resuming its normal rhythm. Chade must have come and gone while I was asleep. Then, as it dawned on me, “How did you get here?” I demanded of the Prince.

  “Thick brought me. ”

  At his name, the simpleton turned his head. He and the Prince exchanged conspiratorial grins. I sensed something pass between them, too swift and controlled for me to follow. Thick chuckled and turned back to the fire with a sigh.

  “You are not supposed to be here,” I said heavily. I sat down at the table and poured more wine. I put my hand on the covered pot of soup on the tray. It was barely warm. Eating it seemed like too much trouble anyway. I drank the wine.

  “Why shouldn’t I be here? Why shouldn’t I know the secrets of the castle where I shall someday be King? Am I considered too young, too stupid, or too untrustworthy?”

  That was a sorer point than I had expected to touch. I suddenly realized I had no good answer to his query. I said mildly, “I thought Chade didn’t want you up here. ”

  “He probably doesn’t. ” He came to sit down beside me at the table as I poured more wine. “There are probably a lot more things that Chade would just as soon keep to himself. That man loves secrets. He has stuffed Buckkeep full of secrets like a magpie collecting shiny pebbles. And for the same reason, solely that he loves to have them. ” He regarded me critically. “The scars are back. Did the Skill healing wear off, then?”

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  “No. Chade and I put them back. We judged it the most sensible thing to do. Fewer questions, you know. ”

  He nodded, but continued to stare at me. “You look both better and worse than you did. You shouldn’t be drinking all that wine before you’ve eaten. ”

  “The food’s cold. ”

  “Well, it’s simple enough to heat it. ” He spoke with impatience for my stupidity. I thought he would put Thick to the task. Instead, he took up the pot himself, gave it a stir, and covered it again. As if well practiced at such things, he attached it to the hook and swung it over the fire again. He tore the small loaf of bread in half, and set it on a plate near the flames to warm. “Do you want water for tea? It would do you more good than all that wine you’re slogging down. ”

  I set my empty glass down on the table but did not fill it again. “You amaze me sometimes. The things you know, for a prince, are surprising. ”

  “Well, you know how my mother is. Servant of the people. When I was younger, she wished me educated in the way her people educate their Sacrifice, that is, that I should know how to do the most common tasks as well as any peasant boy would. When she had a hard time teaching me all she wished me to know at Buckkeep, she decided to foster me out, away from servants who leapt to my every desire. She wished to send me to the Mountains for a time, but Chade urged her to keep me in the Six Duchies. That left her only one choice, she decided. And so when I was eight, she sent me to Lady Patience, to page for her for a year and a half. Needless to say, I was not treated like a coddled princeling there. For the first two months, she kept forgetting my name. Yet Lady Patience taught me a wonderful array of things. ”

  “You didn’t learn cooking skills from Lady Patience,” I observed before I could guard my tongue.

  “Ah, but I did,” he replied with a grin. “It was by necessity. She would want something heated, late at night in her room, and if left to herself, she burned it and filled the apartments with smoke. I learned a great deal from her, actually, but you are right. Cooking was not her strongest talent. Lacey taught me how to warm a meal at a hearth. And other things, as well. I can crochet better than half the ladies of the court. ”

  “Can you?” I asked in a voice of neutrally friendly interest. His back was to me as he stirred the pot. It suddenly smelled good. My small lapse had passed unnoticed.

  “Yes, I can. I’ll teach you someday, if you like. ” He fished the soup back from the flames, stirred it again, and brought it back to the table with the bread. As he set it before me as if he were my page, he observed, “Lacey said that you never learned as a boy. That you were too impatient to sit still that long. ”

  I had taken up my spoon. I set it down again. He went back to the hearth and checked the teakettle. “Not quite hot enough yet,” he said, and then added, “Lacey always told me that the steam should stand out a full handspan from the spout if the tea is to be brewed well. But I’m sure she said as much to you. Both Lady Patience and Lacey told many tales about you. I’d heard little about you here at Buckkeep. You were mentioned as often with a curse here as with regrets. But when I got there, it was as if they couldn’t help themselves, even though it often made Patience break down and weep. That’s the one thing I don’t understand about all this. She thinks you are dead and she mourns you. Every single day. How can you let her do that? Your own mother. ”

  “Lady Patience is not my mother,” I said weakly.

  “She says she is. Was,” he corrected himself sourly. “She was always telling me what I actually wanted to eat or do or wear. And if I protested that my true preference was different, she would declare, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I know what you want. I know about boys! I had a son of my own, once. ’ She meant you,” he added heavily in case the inference had escaped me.

  I sat there, silent. I told myself that I was not a well man yet, that the cold painful days in the prison and the Skill-healing and the remaking of my scars, and yes, even the Fool’s rejection of my overtures of peace had weakened and drained me. Thus I trembled and my throat closed and I could not think what to do when a secret so well and truly kept was suddenly spoken aloud. A terrible darkness engulfed me, worse than anything elfbark had ever produced. Tears welled in my eyes. Perhaps, I thought, if I do not blink, they will not spill. Perhaps if I sat very still long enough, somehow my eyes would reabsorb the tears.

  The kettle began to puff clouds of steam and Dutiful got up to tend to it. I hastily blotted my eyes on my sleeve. He brought the grumbling kettle to the table and poured hot water over the herbs in the teapot. As he carried it back to the fire, he spoke over his shoulder. Something in his subdued voice told me that my stillness had not deceived him. I think he sensed how close he had come to breaking me and it distressed him. “My mother told me,” he said, almost defensively. “She and Chade were both frantic over your being hurt and in prison. They were angry at one another and could not agree on anything. I was in the room when they had an argument. She told him that she was simply going to go down there and take you out of there. He said she must not, that it would only put you and me into greater danger. So then she said she was going to tell me who was dying for me down there; he tried to forbid that. She said it was time I knew what it was to be Sacrifice for one’s people. Then they sent me out of the room while they argued about it. ” He set the kettle back by the hearth and came back to sit at the table with me. I didn’t meet his eyes.

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  “Do you know what it means when she names you Sacrifice like that? Do you know how my mother thinks of you?” He pushed the bread toward me. “You should eat. You look awful. ” He took a breath. “When she names you Sacrifice, it means that she thinks of you as the rightful King of the Six Duchies. She probably has since my father died. Or went into his dragon. ”

  That jerked my eyes to him. Truly, she had told him all, and it shocked me to my spine. I glanced over at Thick dozing before the fire. The Prince’s eyes followed mine. He said nothing, but Thick suddenly opened his eyes and turned to face him. “This is terrible food,” the Prince observed to him. “Do
you think you could get us better in the kitchens? Something sweet, perhaps?”

  A wide grin spread over Thick’s face. “I can get that. I know what they got down there. Dried berry and apple pie. ” He licked his lips. When he stood, I saw with surprise the Farseer Buck sigil on the breast of his tunic.

  “Go the way we came, and come back the same way, please. It’s important to remember that. ”

  Thick nodded ponderously. “Important. I remember. I know that a long time now. Go through the pretty door; come back through the pretty door. And only when no one else can see. ”

  “Good man, Thick. I don’t know how I ever got along without you. ” There was satisfaction in the Prince’s voice, and something else. Not condescension, but . . . ah. I grasped it. Pride in possession. He spoke to Thick as a man might speak to a prized wolfhound.

  As the half-wit left, I asked him, “You’ve made Thick your man? Openly?”

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