Golden fool, p.62
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       Golden Fool, p.62

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “If my grandfather could have a skinny albino boy as a jester and companion, why should I not have a half-wit as mine?”

  I winced. “You do not let folk mock him, do you?”

  “Of course not. Did you know he could sing? His voice gives the music an odd tone, but the notes are true. I do not keep him by me always, but often enough that no one remarks him any longer. And it helps that he and I can speak privately, so that he knows when I wish him by me and when I wish him to go. ” He nodded, well pleased with himself. “I think he is happier now. He has discovered the pleasures of a hot bath and clean clothes. And I give him simple toys that please him. Only one thing worries me. The woman who helps him take care of himself told me that she has known two others like him in her life. She says they do not live as long as an ordinary man does, that Thick might already be close to the end of his days. Do you know if that is true?”

  “I’ve no idea, my prince. ”

  I offered the honorific without thinking. It made him grin. “And what shall I call you, if you call me that? Honored cousin? Lord FitzChivalry?”

  “Tom Badgerlock,” I reminded him flatly.

  “Of course. And Lord Golden. I confess, it is much easier for me to accept you as Lord FitzChivalry than for me to imagine Lord Golden as a jester in motley. ”

  “He has traveled a far journey from those days,” I said, and tried to keep regret from my voice. “When did the Queen decide to tell you all the family secrets?”

  “The night after we healed you. She brought me back later through the secret corridors to your chamber, and we spent all night sitting by your bed. After a time, she just started talking. She told me that, with your scars erased, you looked very like my father. That sometimes, when she looked at you, she saw him in your eyes. And then she told me all of it. Not in one evening. I think it was three nights before the tale was told out. And all the while she sat by your bed on a cushion and held your hand. She made me sit on the floor. She allowed no one else in the room. ”

  “I did not even know you had been there. Nor she. ”

  He lifted one shoulder. “Your body was healed, but the rest of you was as close to dead as makes no difference. I could not reach you with the Skill, and to my Wit you were like the spark at the end of a candlewick. At any moment, you could have winked out. But while she held your hand and spoke, you seemed to burn brighter. I think she sensed that as well. It was as if she tried to anchor you to life. ”

  I lifted my hands and let them fall helplessly back to the table. “I don’t know how to deal with this,” I confessed abruptly. “I don’t know how to react to your knowing all these things. ”

  “I should think you’d feel relieved. Even if we must still maintain the charade of Tom Badgerlock about the keep for some time yet. At least here, in private, you can be who you are and not worry so much about guarding your tongue. Which you don’t do very well in any case. Eat your soup. I don’t want to have to warm it again. ”

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  It seemed a good suggestion and bought me time to think without having to speak. Yet he sat watching me so intently that I felt like a mouse under a cat’s eye. When I scowled at him, he laughed aloud and shook his head. “You cannot imagine how it feels. I look at you, and wonder, will I be that tall when I am grown? Did my father scowl like that? I wish you had not put the scars back. It makes it harder for me to see myself in your face. You sitting there and me knowing who and what you are . . . it is as if my father has walked into my life for the first time. ” The lad bounced and wiggled in his chair as he spoke, as if he were a puppy that longed to jump up on me. It was hard to meet his eyes. Something burned there that I was not prepared for. I did not deserve the Prince’s adulation.

  “Your father was a far better man than I am,” I told him.

  He took a deep breath. “Tell me something about him,” he begged. “Something that only you and he would know. ”

  I sensed the importance to him and could not refuse him. I cast about in my mind. Should I tell him that Verity had not loved Kettricken at first sight, but rather had grown to love her? It sounded too much like a comparison to his lack of feelings for Elliania. Verity had not been a man for secrets, but I didn’t think Dutiful was asking for a secret. “He loved good ink and paper,” I told him. “And cutting his pens himself. He was very particular about his pens. And . . . he was kind to me when I was small. For no reason at all. He gave me toys. A little wooden cart, and some carved soldiers and horses. ”

  “He did? That surprises me. I thought that he had to keep his distance from you. I knew he watched over you, but in his letters to your father, he complains that he scarce sees the little Tom-cat save when he is trotting at Burrich’s heels. ”

  I sat very still. It took a moment for me to recall how to breathe and then I asked, “Verity wrote about me? In letters to Chivalry?”

  “Not directly, of course. Patience had to explain to me what it meant. She showed the letters to me, when I complained that I knew little of my father. They were very disappointing. Only four of them, and they were short and boring for the most part. He is fine; he hopes Chivalry and Lady Patience are well. Usually he is asking his brother to have a word with one duke or another, to smooth over some political difference. Once he asks him to send him an accounting of how the taxes were apportioned in a previous year. Then there would be a few lines about the harvest or how the hunting has been. But there was always a word or two about you at the end. ‘The Tom-cat that Burrich adopted seems to be making himself at home. ’ ‘Near stepped on Burrich’s Tom-cat as he ran through the courtyard yesterday. He seems to get bigger every day. ’ That’s how they named you in the letters, against spies and even, at first, against Patience reading them. In the last one, you are just ‘Tom. ’ ‘Tom had crossed Burrich and been walloped for it. He seemed remarkably unrepentant. In truth, Burrich is the one I pitied. ’ And at the end of each letter, a few lines about looking forward to the new moon or hoping that the full-moon tides will be good for clamming. Patience explained that was how they set up a time to Skill to one another, when they could go apart from other people and be undisturbed. Our fathers were very close, you know. It was very difficult for them to be separated when Chivalry moved to Withywoods. They missed one another deeply. ”

  Tom. And Patience had, I thought, so carelessly hung that name on me. And I had kept it and little known its history. The Prince was right. Buckkeep Castle was stuffed full of secrets, and half of them were not secrets at all. They were only the things we dared not ask one another for fear the answers would be unbearably painful. I had never asked Patience to tell me about my father; never asked her or Verity what Chivalry had thought of me. Reluctance to ask metamorphosed into secrets. Silence had let me assume the worst of my father. He had never come to see me. Had he watched me through his brother’s eyes? Should I blame them for not telling me what they, perhaps, had assumed I knew? Or should I blame myself for never demanding to know?

  “The tea is brewed,” Dutiful announced, and lifted the teapot. For the first time, I became aware that the boy was serving me, much as I would have served Chade or Shrewd at his age. With respect and deference. “Stop,” I said, and put out a hand to cover his. I forced the teapot back to the table. As I picked it up and poured my own tea, I warned him, “Dutiful, my prince. Listen to me. I must be Tom Badgerlock to you, in every way. Today, for now, we will speak of this. But after this, I must revert to my role as Tom Badgerlock. You must see me as him, and you must see Lord Golden only as Lord Golden. You have been handed a blade with no handle. There is no safe way to grip or wield this secret that you know now. You rejoice in knowing who I am, and in seeing me as a link to your father. I wish, with all my heart, that it were as simple and good as that. But this secret, breathed in the wrong company, brings us all down. We know that our queen would try to protect me. Think what it would do. I am not only a known user of the Wit, but also the supposed
murderer of King Shrewd. Not to mention that I killed several of Galen’s Coterie, before a room full of witnesses. Nor am I as dead as many think I should be. For me to be revealed as living would stir the hatred and fear of the Witted to new heights just as our queen is trying to put an end to their persecution. ”

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  “To our persecution,” the Prince corrected me mildly. He sat back in his chair and pondered it a bit, as if working out the consequences for himself. He looked uncomfortable as he said, “You’ve already accidentally put a crimp in the Queen’s plans. Despite all Chade’s efforts to take no official interest in your fate, there were still rumors that the death of ‘Keppler,’ Padget, and that other man went unpunished simply because they were suspected to be Witted. ”

  “I know. Chade told me. And that you were accused of having the Wit as well. ”

  The Prince bowed his head to that. “Yes. Well, I do, don’t I? And the Piebalds know that, and perhaps some of those who style themselves Old Blood know it as well. Right now, the Old Blood have an interest in keeping my secret. They want this convocation as much as the Queen does. But the deaths of those three men have made them far more cautious than they were. They talk now of demanding more sureties before they will commit to endangering themselves by coming here. ”

  “They want hostages. ” My mind made the leap. “They want an exchange of people, some of ours to hold at risk while their folk are in our hands. How many?”

  The Prince shook his head. “Ask that of Chade. Or my mother. From the way they argue, I suspect that she communicates directly with the Old Bloods, and only tells the old man what she thinks he needs to know. It frustrates him. I think she has managed to calm their fears and reschedule the meeting. Chade swore that it would be impossible without granting them ridiculous demands. Yet she had done it. But she will not tell Chade how, and that agitates him. She has reminded him that she is Mountain-bred, and that granting a demand he would see as ‘ridiculous,’ or accepting a risk that he would declare ‘unacceptable,’ are for her a matter of principle. ”

  “It would. I can’t think of anything he would find more upsetting than to see a pie he couldn’t get his fingers into. ” I spoke mildly even as I uneasily wondered where Kettricken’s Mountain ethics on being Sacrifice for her people might lead us.

  Dutiful seemed to sense my reservations. “I agree. And yet, in this, I will side with my mother. It is time she forced him to cede the upper hand to her. If she does not insist upon it now, it does not bode well for me to have any real power when I come to the throne. ”

  His words put a chill down my spine. He was right. The only reassuring part was that he could look at it so levelly and coolly. Then a wry thought twisted my perception. He could see Chade’s machinations because he was as much Chade’s student as he was Kettricken’s Mountain son. Dutiful spoke on as casually as if we were discussing the weather.

  “But that is not what we were talking about. You say your true identity cannot become known. I agree that cannot happen right now. There would definitely be a faction interested in ensuring your death. A great many people would hate and fear you. And the Farseers would be accused of sheltering a regicide simply because you were one of the family. Even more interesting might be how it would affect both the Old Bloods and the Piebalds. The Witted Bastard has been a rallying point for them for years, and the rumor of your survival is like a revered legend amongst them. To hear Civil speak of you, you are almost a god. ”

  “You haven’t discussed me with Civil?” Alarm flooded me.

  “Of course not! Well, not you as you. The legend of FitzChivalry, the Witted Bastard, is what we have discussed. And only in passing, I assure you. Though I think your identity would be as safe with Civil as it is with me. ”

  I sighed, heartsick and weary. “Dutiful. Your loyalty is admirable. But I doubt Civil’s. The Bresingas have betrayed you twice. Will you allow them to do it a third time?”

  He looked stubborn. “They were coerced, Tom . . . It feels strange to call you that, now. ”

  I refused to be distracted. “Become accustomed to it again. And if Civil is threatened again, and again spies for them, or worse?”

  “He has no one left for them to threaten. ” He halted suddenly and looked at me. “You know, I have neither apologized nor thanked you. I sent you to Civil’s aid without considering that it might be a risk to you. And you went, and you saved my friend’s life, even though you yourself don’t like him much. As a result, you nearly died. ” He cocked his head at me. “How do I thank you for that?”

  “You don’t need to. You are my prince. ”

  His face grew very still. Kettricken lurked in his eyes as he said, “I don’t much like that. It seems to make us more distant. I would that you and I were only cousins. ”

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  I looked at him closely as I asked, “And do you think that would make a difference? That I would have refused to help your friend because you were ‘only’ my cousin?”

  He smiled at me, and then gave a sigh of vast satisfaction. “I still don’t quite believe it’s real,” he said quietly. A look somewhat like guilt crossed his face. “And Thick and I are not supposed to be coming to visit you yet. Chade forbade it, or any attempts to Skill to you until you were stronger. I didn’t mean to wake you when we came up here. I only wanted to look at you again. And when I saw the scars were back, I leaned too close. ”

  “I’m glad you did. ”

  I sat a time in silence, uncomfortable and yet basking in his regard. How strange to be loved simply for who I was. It was almost a relief when Thick reappeared. He pushed the secret door open with his shoulder. His hands were full and he was puffing with effort from his trot up the stairs. He had helped himself to a whole pie intended to serve a dozen men.

  I watched him with satisfaction as he brought his loot to the table. He was grinning broadly, well pleased with himself. I realized I had never seen that expression on his face before. His small, separated teeth and protruding tongue in his round wide face gave him the look of a cheerful goblin. If I had not known the man, I probably would have found the result appalling, but his smirk was answered by a conspiratorial grin from the Prince, and I found myself smiling on both of them.

  He set the pie down with a clack on the worktable, officiously pushing my dishes to one side to give himself room to work. He hummed as he set to work, and I recognized the refrain of his Skill song. The little man’s surliness seemed to have vanished. I noticed that the knife he used to cut the staggeringly large portions of pie was the one I had bought for him in town on that horrid day. So somehow my purchases had made it up to Buckkeep and to him. The Prince found plates and Thick plopped the servings onto them. He took great care not to soil his new clothes while he did so, and later ate with a caution worthy of a great lady in a new gown. We divided that monstrous pie and left nothing in the pan, and for the first time since I had been injured, food tasted good to me.

  Chapter XXIII

  REVELATIONS

  The un-Witted often tell fearsome tales of Witted ones who take on the forms of animals for nefarious reasons. Those of Old Blood will flatly state that no human, no matter how tightly bonded to his animal partner, can take on the shape of that animal. What Old Bloods speak about only reluctantly is that a human can inhabit the body of his beast partner. Usually this happens temporarily and only in extreme circumstances. The body of the human does not vanish; indeed, it remains very vulnerable at such times and may even appear dead. Extreme physical damage to a human’s body or imminent death may make a human consciousness take refuge in his Wit-beast’s body. Old Blood folk disparage this happening and strongly urge against it.

  Amongst Old Blood, it is strictly forbidden that such an arrangement become permanent. An Old Blood human who flees his dying body and takes refuge in that of his Wit-partner becomes an outcast from the Old Blood community. The same is
true for a human who takes in the fleeing soul of his animal partner. Such an act is regarded as extreme selfishness as well as being immoral and unwise. All who grow up in the Old Blood communities are warned that no matter how tempting the circumstance, no happiness will result for either partner. Death is better.

  In this significant way, Old Blood practitioners of the magic differ from the so-called Piebalds. Piebalds relegate their Wit-beasts to a lesser status than their human partners, and see nothing wrong with a human choosing to extend his life by sharing the body of his Wit-partner after his own human body has perished. In some cases, the human becomes the dominant spirit in the animal’s body, all but driving it out of its own flesh. Given the long life span of some creatures such as tortoises, geese, and certain tropical birds, an unscrupulous human could take such a partner late in life with the deliberate intention of providing himself a body after his own death. In such a way, a human could extend his life a century or more.

  — BADGERLOCK’S “OLD BLOOD TALES”

  I emerged from my convalescence like a new-hatched thing crawling out into the sunlight for the first time. The world dazzled and overwhelmed me, and I felt amazement at my life. More, Dutiful’s new regard for me was something that I wore like a warm coat. I felt that affirmation the next morning as I stood in the courtyard of Buckkeep Castle and watched the folk of the keep come and go around me at their daily tasks. The day seemed very bright, and to my surprise, I could smell the end of winter in the air. The trodden snow underfoot seemed heavier and denser and the blue of the sky overhead deeper. I drew in a deep breath and then stretched and heard my joints crackle from disuse. Today I’d cure that.

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  I still didn’t trust my legs to carry me down to Buckkeep Town, so I went to the stables. The stable boy who regularly cared for Myblack took one look at me and told me he’d ready my mare for me. I leaned gratefully on her manger and watched him. He treated her well and she was docile under his touch. When I took the reins from him, I thanked him for caring for the horse I had neglected. He gave me a puzzled look and confided, “Well, I can’t say that she’s seemed to miss you. Content with her own company, that’s this one. ”

 
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