Golden fool, p.63
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       Golden Fool, p.63

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Halfway down the steep hill path to town, I began regretting my decision to ride. Myblack seemed bent on arguing with the reins and she showed me just how little strength had come back to my hands and arms. Despite our little battle of wills, she did carry me to Gindast’s shop. There I was both disappointed and elated to find that Hap had little time to visit. Although he came swiftly to me when he saw me at the door, he explained apologetically that one of the journeymen was allowing him to help with the roughing in of a carving on a headboard. If he went with me, the man would likely choose one of the other apprentices for the task. I assured him that another day would be soon enough and that I had no news for him other than that I was feeling better. I watched him hurry off, chisel and scribe in hand, and felt only pride in my boy.

  As I remounted Myblack, I glimpsed three of the younger apprentices. They were peering at me around the corner of a shed and whispering to one another. Well, I was known in Buckkeep Town now as a man who had killed three other men. Murder or justified slaying, it mattered not. I’d have to expect a certain amount of finger-pointing and gossip. I hoped it would not hurt Hap’s standing amongst them. I pretended not to notice them and rode off.

  I went next to Jinna’s cottage. When she opened her door to me, she first gave a little breathless gasp at sight of me. She stared at me for a moment, and then looked past me and up and down the street, as if expecting Hap. “I’m alone today,” I said. “May I come in?”

  “Well. Tom. Of course. Come inside. ” She stared at me as if my wasted appearance rattled her. Then she stepped back to allow me into her house. Fennel snaked into the cottage between my feet.

  Inside, I sank down into the chair by her fireside gratefully. Fennel immediately settled in my lap. “So sure of your welcome, aren’t you, cat? As if the world were made for you. ” I stroked him and then looked up to find Jinna watching me apprehensively. Her concern touched me. I managed a smile. “I’m going to be all right, Jinna. I had both feet in death’s mouth but I managed to step back. I’ll be myself again, with time. Right now, I’m a bit dismayed at how tired I am just from the ride down here. ”

  “Well. ” Her hands tangled together as she spoke. Then she gave herself a little shake as if coming back to herself. She cleared her voice and spoke more strongly. “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’re no more than bones, Tom Badgerlock. Look how your shirt hangs on you! Sit still a bit and I’ll make you a strengthening tisane. ” At the look on my face, she amended that to “Or perhaps just a cup of tea. And some bread and cheese. ”

  Fish? Fennel asked me.

  Jinna says cheese.

  Cheese isn’t fish, but it’s better than nothing.

  “Tea and bread and cheese sounds good. I grew very weary of broth and tisanes and mush when I was recovering. In truth, I am most tired of all of being an invalid. I’m determined that I’ll get up and move around a bit every day from now on. ”

  “Probably the best thing for you,” she agreed distractedly. She cocked her head and stared at me. “But what’s this? Your badgerlock is gone!” And she pointed at my hair.

  I managed a blush. “I’ve dyed it. In an effort to look more youthful, I’m afraid. My sickness has taken a grave toll on my appearance. ”

  “It has, I must agree. But to dye your hair as a remedy . . . well. Men. Now. ” She gave her head a small shake as if to clear it. I wondered what was troubling her, but an instant later she seemed to have set it aside. “Have you heard what has happened between Hap and Svanja?”

  “I have,” I assured her.

  “Well. I saw it coming. ” And then, as she put water on to heat, she went on to tell me, with many tongue-cluckings, what I already knew: that Svanja had forsaken Hap for her returning sailor, and had shown her silver earrings to every other girl in town.

  I let her explain it all to me as she sliced bread and cheese for us. When she had finished her say, I observed, “Well, it’s likely the best for both of them. Hap is more focused on his apprenticeship, and Svanja has a suitor her parents approve. His heart is a bit bruised over it, but I think he’ll recover. ”

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  “Oh, aye, he’ll recover, while Svanja’s sailor boy is in port,” Jinna observed sourly as she brought a tray to the little table between the chairs. “But you mark my words. The moment that lad has a deck under his feet again, Svanja will be after Hap again. ”

  “Oh, I doubt that,” I observed mildly. “And even did she come to him, I think Hap has learned his lesson. Once burnt, twice shy. ”

  “Hmf. Once bedded, ever eager, would be a better saying in this case. Tom, you need to warn him and warn him severely. Don’t let him fall to her wiles again. Not that she’s a wicked girl, only one that wants what she wants, when she wants it. She does as much damage to herself as she does to those young men. ”

  “Well. I hope my lad has more common sense than that,” I observed as she took the other chair.

  “So do I,” she rejoined. “But I doubt it. ” Then, as she looked at me, her voice and face lapsed into stillness again. She looked at me as if she saw a stranger. I saw her start to speak twice and then each time still her words.

  “What?” I asked finally. “Is there more to this Svanja-sailor tale that I don’t know? What’s wrong?”

  After a heavy silence, she asked quietly, “Tom, I—We’ve been friends a time, now. And we know more than just a bit about each other. I’ve heard . . . Never mind what I’ve heard. What really happened that afternoon on Falldown Street?”

  “Falldown Street?”

  She looked aside from me. “You know the place. Three men dead, Tom Badgerlock. And some tale of a stolen purse of gemstones and a serving man determined to get them back. Another might believe it. But then, half-dead yourself, you stop to kill a horse?” She got up to take the purring kettle off the fire and poured water into the teapot. In a very soft voice, she said, “I’d been warned off you the week before, Tom. Someone told me you were a dangerous man to befriend. That something bad might befall you soon, and it would be better for me if it didn’t happen in my house. ”

  I gently pushed the cat from my lap and took the kettle of hot water from her shaking hands. “Sit down,” I suggested gently. She sat and folded her hands in her lap. As I put the kettle back on the hearth, I tried to think calmly. “Will you tell me who warned you?” I asked as I turned back to her. I already knew the answer.

  She looked down at her hands for a time. Then she shook her head slowly. After a moment, she said, “I was born here in Buckkeep Town. I’ve done my fair share of wandering about, but this is home when the snow comes down. The people here are my neighbors. They know me and I know them. I know . . . I know a great many people in this town, people of all kinds. Some of them I’ve known since I was just a girl. I’ve read the hands of many of them and I know many of their secrets. Now, I like you, Tom, but . . . you killed three men. Two of them Buckkeep Town men. Is that true?”

  “I killed three men,” I admitted to her. “If it makes a difference to you, they would have killed me first, if I’d let them. ” A cold was creeping through me. Suddenly it seemed that perhaps her hesitations and apprehension today weren’t concern for me at all.

  She nodded to that. “I don’t doubt that. But it remains that you went to where they were. They didn’t hunt you down. You went to them, and you killed them. ”

  I tried on the lie Chade had supplied for me. “I pursued a thief, Jinna. Once I was there, they gave me no choice. It was kill or be killed. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t seek it. ”

  She just sat and looked at me. I sat back down in my chair. Fennel stood, waiting for me to invite him back into my lap, but I didn’t. After a moment, I said, “You’d rather that I didn’t come here anymore. ”

  “I didn’t say that. ” There was an edge of anger in her voice, but I think it was anger that I’d stated it so flatly. “I . . . It’s difficult for me, To
m. Surely you can see that. ” Again, that telling pause. “When we first came together, well . . . I thought that the, that the differences between us would make no difference. I’ve always said that all the things that folk said of Witted ones were mostly lies. I’ve always said that!”

  She snatched the teapot up and poured tea defiantly, for both of us, as if to prove she still welcomed me there. She sipped from her cup and then set it down. She picked up a piece of bread, put a piece of cheese with it, and then set it down. She said, “I’d known Padget since we were babes. I played with his girl cousins when we were children. Padget was many things, and a number of them I didn’t like. But he wasn’t a thief. ”

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  “One of the men that you killed! Don’t pretend you don’t know his name! You had to know who he was to find him. And I know that he knew who you were. And his poor cousins were too frightened to even claim his body. For fear of being linked with him. Because it might make people think they were like him. But that is what I don’t understand, Tom. ” She paused, and in a quiet voice said, “Because you are like he was. You’re one, too. Why hunt and kill your own kind?”

  I had just lifted up my teacup. I set it down carefully. I took a breath, thinking I would speak. Then I let it out, waited, and began again. “I’m not surprised there is gossip about this. What folk say to the guard and what they say to one another are two different things. And I know there were Piebald scrolls put about town, claiming all sorts of wild things. So. Let us speak bluntly. Padget was Witted. Like me. That isn’t why I killed him, but it is true. It is also true that he was a Piebald. Which I am not. ” At her look of confusion, I asked her, “Do you know what a Piebald is, Jinna?”

  “Witted are Piebalds,” she said. “Some of your kind say ‘Old Blood’ instead. It’s all one. ”

  “Not quite. Piebalds are Witted who betray other Witted. They are the ones who post the little notices that say, ‘Jinna is Witted and her beast is a fat yellow cat. ’ ”

  “I am not!” she exclaimed indignantly.

  I perceived she thought that I had threatened her. “No,” I agreed calmly. “You are not. But if you were, I could destroy your livelihood and perhaps even take your life by making it public. That is what the Piebalds do to other Witted. ”

  “But that makes no sense. Why would they do that?”

  “To make the other Witted do what they want. ”

  “What do they want them to do?”

  “The Piebalds are seeking to gather power to themselves. To gain that, they need money and people willing to do what they tell them. ”

  “I still don’t understand what they want. ”

  I sighed. “They want the same things most Witted want. They want to exercise their magic openly, without fear of the noose or flame. They want to be accepted, not to have to live with their talents hidden. Suppose you could be killed, simply for being a hedge-witch. Would not you want to change that?”

  “But hedge-witches do no harm to anyone. ”

  I watched her face carefully as I said, “Neither do Witted. ”

  “Some do,” she rejoined instantly. “Oh, not all of them, no. But when I was but a child my mother kept two milk goats. They both up and died on the same day. And only the week before that she had refused to sell one to a Witted woman. So you see, Witted are like anyone else. Some of them are vengeful and cruel, and use their magic to that end. ”

  “The Wit doesn’t work that way, Jinna. That is like me saying a hedge-witch could look in my hand, and put a line there that would make me die sooner. Or blaming you because you looked at my son’s hand, said he had a short lifeline, and then he died. Would that be your fault? For saying what you’d seen there?”

  “Well, of course not. But that’s not the same as killing someone’s goats. ”

  “That is what I’m trying to tell you. I can’t use the Wit to kill anyone. ”

  She cocked her head at me. “Oh, come, Tom. That great wolf of yours would have killed that man’s pigs if you’d told him to, wouldn’t he?”

  I sat a long time silent. Then I had to say, “Yes. I suppose he would have. If I were that sort of a man, I might have used the wolf and my Wit that way. But I’m not. ”

  Her silence lasted even longer than mine did. At last, very unwillingly, she said, “Tom. You killed three men. And a horse. Wasn’t that the wolf in you? Wasn’t that your Wit?”

  After a time, I stood up. “Good-bye, Jinna,” I said. “Thank you for your many kindnesses. ” I walked toward the door.

  “Don’t go like this,” she begged me.

  I halted, miserable. “I don’t know any other way to go. Why did you even let me inside your door today?” I asked bitterly. “Why did you try to see me when I was hurt? It would have been a greater kindness simply to turn away from me than to show me what you truly thought of me. ”

  “I wanted to give you a chance,” she said dismally. “I wanted . . . I hoped there was some other reason. Something besides your Wit. ”

  Hand on the latch, I paused. I detested my last lie, but it had to be told. “There was. There was a purse that belonged to Lord Golden. ” I did not look back to see if she believed me. She already had more truth than was safe for her to own.

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  I closed her door softly behind me. The day had clouded over abruptly and the shadows on the snowy ground were dark gray. All had changed in that sudden way that early spring days can. Somehow Fennel had managed to slip out with me. “You should go back inside,” I told him. “It’s getting cold out here. ”

  Cold isn’t so bad. Cold can only kill you if you stand still. Just keep moving.

  Good advice, cat. Good advice. Good-bye, Fennel.

  I mounted Myblack and turned her head toward Buckkeep Castle. “Let’s go home,” I told her.

  She was willing enough to head for her stall and manger. I let her set her own pace while I sat in the saddle and pondered my life. Yesterday I had felt Dutiful’s worship. Today, Jinna’s fear and rejection. More, today Jinna had shown me how deep and wide the prejudice against the Witted might go. I had thought she had accepted me for who and what I was. But she hadn’t. She had been willing to make an exception for me, but when I killed, I had proved her rule. The Witted were not to be trusted; they used their magic for evil. I felt myself sinking into despair as I realized the depth of it. For there was more than that. I had learned, yet again, that I could not serve the Farseers and still claim a life for myself.

  Not this again, Changer. How could the moments of your life belong to anyone but you? You are the Farseers, blood and pack. See the whole of it. It is neither a binding nor a separation. The pack is the whole of you. The wolf’s life is in the pack.

  Nighteyes, I breathed. And yet I knew that he was not there. As Black Rolf had told me it would be, it was. There were moments when my dead companion came back to me as more than a memory, yet less than his living part of me. The part of me that I had given to the wolf lived on. I sat up straighter in the saddle and took charge of my horse. She snorted, but accepted it. And then, because I thought it might be good for both of us, I put heels to her and sent her surging up the snowy road to Buckkeep Castle and home.

  I stabled Myblack and saw to her myself. It took me twice as long as it should have. It shamed me to be out of the habit of caring for my own horse, and shamed me more that she should be so willful that she made it difficult. Then I forced myself to go to the practice courts. I had to borrow a blade. I had gone into Buckkeep Town today unarmed save for the knife at my hip. Foolish, perhaps, but I’d had no alternative. I’d visited my room today, intending to get my ugly sword, only to discover it was missing. Most likely it was lost or adopted by an opportunistic city guardsman. The bright blade the Fool had given me was still hanging on the wall. I’d considered it but I could not bring myself to buckle it on. It was a symbol of an
esteem he no longer extended to me. I’d decided I’d no longer wear it save in my role as his bodyguard. For practice, a dummy sword was best anyway. Dulled blade in hand, I went looking for a partner.

  Wim was not about but Delleree was. In a very short time, she had killed me so many times I lost count, using either of her weapons at will. I felt it was all I could do to hold my sword up, let alone swing it. Finally, she stopped and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I’m fighting a stickman. Each time I hit you, I feel my blade clack against your bones. ”

  “So do I,” I assured her. I managed to laugh and thank her, and then limped away to the steams. The looks of pity I received from the guardsmen there made me wish I had never disrobed. From the steams, I went directly to the kitchens. A cook’s helper named Maisie told me she was glad to see me on my feet again. I am sure it was pity for me that made her cut an outside slice off a joint that was still roasting on the spit. She gave it to me on a slab of bread from the morning’s baking, and then told me that Lord Golden’s serving boy had been looking for me earlier in the day. I thanked her but did not rush to my lord’s summoning. Instead I stood outside, my back to the courtyard wall, and watched the folk of the keep while I wolfed down the food she had given me. It had been a very long time since I had just stood still and watched the folk of Buckkeep. I thought of all the other things I had not seen or done since I had returned to my childhood home. I had not visited the Queen’s Garden atop the tower. Not once had I gone walking in the Women’s Garden. I suddenly hungered to do simple things of that sort. Ride Myblack through the forested hills behind Buckkeep. Sit in the Great Hall of an evening and watch the fletchers work on their arrows and speculate on hunting prospects. To be a part of it all once more rather than a shadow.

  My hair was still damp and there was not enough flesh on me to stay warm for long standing still on a wintry afternoon. I heaved a sigh and went inside and up the stairs, both dreading and anticipating an encounter with Lord Golden. It had been days since he had expressed any personal interest in me. His benevolent dismissal of me was worse than if he had maintained a sulky silence. It was as if he truly had ceased caring about the rift between us. As if who we were now, Lord Golden and Tom Badgerlock, were all we had ever been. A tiny flame of anger leapt up in me, and then as swiftly expired. I did not have the energy to maintain it, I realized. And then, with equanimity I had not known I possessed, I suddenly accepted it. Things had changed. All my roles had shifted, not just with Prince Dutiful and Jinna and Lord Golden. Even Chade saw me differently. I could not force Lord Golden to revert to being the Fool. Perhaps he could not, even if he had wished to. Was it so different for me? I was as much Tom Badgerlock as FitzChivalry Farseer now. Time to let it go.

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