Golden fool, p.64
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       Golden Fool, p.64

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Page 237


  Lord Golden was not in his chambers. I went into my room and put on a shirt that wasn’t sweated through. I took off the charm necklace Jinna had given me. When Dutiful’s cat had attacked me, his teeth had left nicks in two beads. I hadn’t noticed that before. For a short time I looked at it, and found that I was still grateful to Jinna for this gesture of goodwill. Yet that gratitude was not enough to allow me to continue wearing it. She had given it to me because she liked me, despite my Wit. That thought would always taint it now. I dropped it into the corner of my clothing chest.

  As I was leaving my chambers, I encountered Lord Golden entering his. He halted at the sight of me. I had neither seen nor spoken to him since the feather incident. Now he looked me up and down as if he had never seen me before. After a moment, he said stiffly, “It is good to see you up and about again, Tom Badgerlock. But from the look of you, I think it will still be some days before you are fit to resume your duties. Take some time to recover yourself. ” There seemed something odd in his diction, as if he could not quite get his breath.

  I offered him a servant’s bow. “Thank you, my lord, and thank you for the additional time. I shall put it to good use. I’ve already been down to the practice courts today. As you observed, it may be some days before I am effectively able to serve as a bodyguard again. ” I paused, then added, “I was told in the kitchens that you had sent a boy to seek for me earlier today?”

  “A boy? Oh. Yes. Yes, I did. Actually, I sent him at Lord Chade’s behest. In truth, I near forgot. Lord Chade came here seeking you, and when you were not in your room, I set a boy running to see if you were in the kitchens. I think he wanted you to come to him. I didn’t . . . in truth, we had some talk that has . . . ” Lord Golden’s voice tottered to an uncertain halt. A silence fell. Then, in a voice that was almost the Fool’s, he said, “Chade came here to talk to me about something that he’d asked you to discuss with . . . There’s something I want you to look at. Have you a moment to spare?”

  “I am at your service, my lord,” I reminded him.

  I expected some response to that little jab. Instead, looking distracted, he said, “Of course you are. A moment, then. ” His Jamaillian accent had faded from his words. He went into his bedchamber, shutting the door behind him.

  I waited. I walked over to the fire, poked it up a bit, and added a log. Then I waited some more. I sat down in a chair, noticed that my fingernails had grown, and pared them back with my belt knife. I continued to wait. Finally, I rose and, with a sigh of exasperation, went to tap on the door. Perhaps I had misunderstood. “Lord Golden. Did you wish me to wait here?”

  “Yes. No. ” Then, in a very uncertain voice, “Would you come in here, please? But first make sure the corridor door is well bolted. ”

  It was. I rattled it to be sure and then opened the door of his room. The room was dim, the windows shuttered. Several candles illuminated Lord Golden standing with his back to me. He wore a sheet from his bed like a cape. He glanced at me over his shoulder and someone I had never met looked out of those golden eyes. When I was three steps into the room, he said quietly, “Stand there, please. ”

  With one hand, he lifted his hair up and out of the way to bare the nape of his neck. The sheet fell away from his naked back, but his free hand continued to clutch it to his chest. I gasped and took an inadvertent step closer. He flinched away but then stood his ground. In a small shaky voice, he asked, “The Narcheska’s tattoos. Were they like these?”

  “May I come closer?” I managed to say. I didn’t really need to. If his tattoos were not identical to hers, then they were at least extremely similar. He nodded jerkily, and I took another step into the room. He did not look at me but stared off into a dim corner. The room was not cold, but he was shivering. The exotic needling began at the nape of his neck and covered every part of his back before vanishing beneath the waistband of his leggings. The twining serpents and wingspread dragons sprawled in exquisite detail over his smooth golden back. The shining colors had a metallic gleam to them, as if gold and silver had been forced under his skin to illuminate them. Every claw and scale, every shining tooth and flashing eye, was perfect. “They are very alike,” I managed to say at last. “Save that yours lie flat to your skin. One of hers, the largest serpent, stood swollen from her back as if inflamed. And it seemed to cause her great pain. ”

  He drew in a shuddering breath. His teeth were near to chattering as he observed bitterly, “Well. Just when I thought there was no way she could increase her cruelty, she finds one. That poor, poor child. ”

  Page 238


  “Do yours hurt?” I asked cautiously.

  He shook his head, still without looking at me. Some of his hair fell free of his grasp to brush across his shoulders. “No. Not now. But the application of them was extremely painful. And of great duration. They held me very still, for hours at a time. They apologized and tried to comfort me as they did it. That only made it worse, that people who otherwise treated me with such love and regard could do that to me. They were meticulously careful to needle them in just as she instructed them. It is a horrible thing to do to a child. Hold him still and hurt him. Any child. ” He rocked slightly, his shoulders hunched. His voice was distant.

  “They?” I asked very softly.

  His voice was tight, all melody gone from it. He shuddered out his words. “I was at a place rather like a school. Teachers and learned folk. I told you about it before. I ran away from it. My parents sent me there, parting from me with both pride and sorrow, because I was a White. It was a long way from our home. They knew they would probably never see me again, but they knew it was the correct thing to do. I had a destiny to fulfill. But my teachers insisted there already was a White Prophet for this time. She had already studied with them, and already set forth to fulfill her destiny in the far north. ” He suddenly turned his head and met my eyes. “Do you guess of whom I speak?”

  I nodded stiffly. I felt cold. “The Pale Woman. Kebal Rawbread’s advisor during the Red Ship War. ”

  He returned my nod as stiffly. Again he looked away from me, staring into a darkened corner of the room. “So, a White I might be, but I could not be the White Prophet. Therefore, I must be an anomaly. A creature born out of my time and place. They were fascinated by me and listened to my every word and recorded every dream I spoke. They treasured me and treated me very well. They listened to me, but they never heeded what I said. And when she heard of me, she commanded that they keep me there. And they did. Later, she commanded that I be marked this way. And so they did. ”


  “I don’t know. Save, perhaps, that we had both dreamed of these creatures, of sea serpents and dragons. But perhaps it is what you do with an extra White Prophet. Cover him over so he is no longer white. ” His voice tightened until the words were hard as knots. “It has shamed me so to be marked like this, at her will. It is worse now, to know that the Narcheska is also decorated with the Pale Woman’s markings. As if she claimed us as her tool, her creatures . . . ” His words faded away.

  “But why did they obey her? How could anyone do a thing like that?”

  He laughed bitterly. “She is the White Prophet, come to set time in a better path. She has a vision. You do not question her will. Questioning her command can have severe repercussions. Ask Kebal Rawbread. You do as the Pale Woman tells you. ” His shivering had become a wild shaking.

  “You’re cold. ” I would have put a blanket around him, but I would have had to step closer. I don’t think he could have allowed me to do that.

  “No. ” He gave me a sickly smile. “I’m afraid. I’m terrified. Please. Please go out while I get dressed again. ”

  I withdrew, shutting the door quietly behind myself. Then I waited. It seemed to take him a long time to put a shirt on.

  When he emerged, he was meticulously attired, and every strand of his hair had been restored to its ri
ghtful place. Still, he did not look at me. “There’s brandy by the fire for you,” I told him.

  He crossed the room in short nervous steps. He took up the glass but did not drink from it. Instead, arms crossed as if he were cold, he stood very close to the fire, hugging his cup to him. He stared fixedly at the floor.

  I went into his room and took one of his thick woolen cloaks from the wardrobe there. Coming to him, I put it around him. I pulled his chair closer to the hearth, then took him by the shoulders and sat him down in it. “Drink the brandy,” I told him. My voice sounded harsh. “I’ll put on the kettle for tea. ”

  “Thank you. ” He whispered the words. Horribly, tears began to track down his face. They cut runnels in his carefully applied paint, and dripped paleness onto his shirt.

  I spilled water and burned myself putting the kettle on the hook. When it was in place, I dragged my chair close to his. “Why are you so scared?” I asked him. “What does it mean?”

  He sniffled, an incongruous sound from dignified Lord Golden. Worse, he took the corner of the cloak and wiped his eyes with it. It smeared his Jamaillian cosmetics, and I saw his bare skin. “Convergence,” he said hoarsely. He drew a breath. “It means convergence. All comes together. I’m on the right path. I feared I had strayed. But this confirms it. Convergence and confrontation. And time set aright. ”

  Page 239


  “I thought that was what you wanted. I thought that was what White Prophets do. ”

  “Oh, yes. That is what we do. ” An unnatural calm came over him. He looked at me and met my eyes. I looked into a sorrow older and deeper than I wished to know. “A White Prophet finds his Catalyst. The one on whom great events may turn. And he uses him, ruthlessly, to turn time out of his track. Once more my tracks will converge with hers. And we will set our wills against one another, to see who prevails. ” His voice suddenly strangled. “Again, death will try to take you. ” His tears had stopped but moisture still glistened on his face. He caught up the hem of the cloak and smeared his face with it again. “If I don’t succeed, we’ll both just die. ” Hunched miserably in his chair, he looked up at me. “Last time was too close. Twice, I felt you die. But I held you and refused to let you go to peace. Because you are the Catalyst, and I win only if I keep you in this world. Alive no matter how. A friend would have let you go. I heard the wolves calling you. I knew you wanted to go to them. But I didn’t let you. I dragged you back. Because I had to use you. ”

  I tried to speak calmly. “That is the part that I have never understood. ”

  He looked at me sadly. “You understand. You simply refuse to accept it. ” He paused a moment, then stated it simply. “In the world that I seek to sculpt, you live. I am the White Prophet and you are my Catalyst. The Farseer line has an heir and he reigns. It is but one factor, but it is a key factor. In the world the Pale Woman seeks to advance, you do not exist. Failing that, you do not survive. There is no Farseer heir. The Farseer line fails completely. There is no renegade White. ” He dropped his head into his hands and spoke through his fingers. “She engineers your death, Fitz. Her machinations are subtle. She is older than I am, and far more sophisticated. She plays a horrible game. Henja is her creature. Make no mistake about that. I do not understand her ploy there, nor why she offers the Narcheska to Dutiful. But she is behind it all, I am certain. She sends death for you, and I try to snatch you out of the way. So far, we have always matched her, you and I. But it has been more your luck than my cleverness that has saved you. Your luck and your . . . dare I say it? Your magics. Both of them. Still, always, always the odds are against your survival. And the deeper we go in this game, the worse the odds become. This last time . . . This last time was too much. I don’t want to be the White Prophet anymore. I don’t want you to be my Catalyst. ” His voice had degraded to a cracked whisper. “But there isn’t any way to stop. The only thing that stops this is if you die. ” He suddenly looked about frantically. I found the brandy bottle and set it within his reach. He didn’t even bother to pour. He uncorked it and drank from the bottle. When he set it down, I reached over and took it.

  “That won’t help anything,” I told him severely.

  He gave me a loose-lipped smile. “I can’t go through another one of your deaths. I can’t. ”

  “You can’t?”

  He gave a giggle of despair. “You see. We’re trapped. I’ve trapped you, my friend. My beloved. ”

  I tried to fit my mind around what he was telling me. “If we lose, I die,” I said.

  He nodded. “If you die, we lose. It’s all the same. ”

  “What happens if I live?”

  “Then we win. Not much chance of that, now. Not much chance and getting worse all the time, I’d say. Most likely we lose. You die and the world spirals down into darkness. And ugliness. Despair. ”

  “Stop being so cheerful. ” This time I drank out of the bottle. Then I passed it to him. “But what if I do live? What if we win? What then?”

  He parted the bottle’s mouth from his. “What then? Ah. ” He smiled beatifically. “Then the world goes on, my friend. Children run down muddy streets. Dogs bark at passing carts. Friends sit and drink brandy together. ”

  “Doesn’t sound much different from what we have,” I observed sourly. “To go through all this and make no difference at all. ”

  “Yes. ” He agreed beatifically. His eyes filled with tears. “Not much different from the wondrous and amazing world that we have now. Boys falling in love with girls that aren’t right for them. Wolves hunting on the snowy plains. And time. Endless time unwinding for all of us. And the dragons, of course. Dragons sliding across the sky like beautiful jeweled ships. ”

  “Dragons. That sounds different. ”

  “Does it?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Does it really? I think not. Remember with your heart. Go back, go back, and go back. The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not there, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at a blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know. Something that was supposed to be there faded and vanished. Something that we must bring back, you and I. ”

  Page 240


  I put my face in my hand and rubbed my brow. “I thought we had to save the world. What has that got to do with dragons?”

  “It’s all connected. When you save any part of the world, you’ve saved the whole world. In fact, that’s the only way it can be done. ”

  I hated his riddles. Hated them passionately. “I don’t know what you want from me. ”

  He was silent. When I lifted my face to regard him, he was watching me calmly. “It’s safe for me to tell you. You won’t believe me. ” He drew a steadying breath. He had the brandy bottle cradled in one arm as if it were his babe. “We have to go on the Prince’s quest with him. To Aslevjal. To find Icefyre. Then we must prevent the Prince from slaying him. Instead we must free the black dragon trapped beneath the ice so he can rise, to become Tintaglia’s consort. So that they can mate and there can be real dragons in the world again. ”

  “But . . . I can’t do that! Dutiful must cut off the dragon’s head and bring it to the hearth of Elliania’s motherhouse. Otherwise, she will not wed him. All these negotiations and hopes will have been for naught. ”

  He looked at me and I think he knew how torn I was. He spoke quietly. “Fitz. Set it out of your mind. Don’t think of it for now. The Convergence and the confrontation await us. We need not rush toward them. When the time comes, I promise, you alone will be the one to choose. Do you keep your vowed loyalty to the Farseers or do you save the world for me?” He paused. “One other thing I shall tell you. I should not, but I will. So you do not think that it is your fault when the time comes. Because, I promise you, it will not be. I prophesied it long ago, not understanding what I spoke of until this business of th
e tattoos was made clear to me. I dreamed it long ago, a child’s wild nightmare. Soon I will live it. So when it happens, you must promise me not to torment yourself with it. ”

  His shivering had returned as he spoke. His words came out between chattering teeth.

  “What is it?” I asked with dread, already knowing.

  “This time, on Aslevjal. ” A terrified smile trembled at the corners of his mouth. “It is my turn to die. ”

  Chapter XXIV


  The legend of the White Prophet and his Catalyst might be better described as a religion from the far south, only echoes of which have reached Jamaillia. Like many philosophies from the south, it is riddled with superstitions and contradictions, so that no thinking man could subscribe to such foolishness. At the core of the White Prophet heresy is the concept that for “every age” (and this space of time is never defined) there is born a White Prophet. The White Prophet comes to set the world on a better course. He or she (and in this duality of gender we may see some borrowing from the true faith of Sa) does this by means of his or her Catalyst. The Catalyst is a person chosen by the White Prophet because he stands at a juncture of choices. By changing what happens to the Catalyst in his lifetime, the White Prophet enables the world to follow a truer, better course of history. Any thinking man can see that, as there is no way to compare what has happened to what might have happened, White Prophets can always claim to have bettered the world. Nor can any of the adherents of this heresy explain the idea that the world and time roll in a circular track, endlessly repeating itself. A perusal of the history that we have recorded shows quite clearly that this is not so, yet adherents of this false belief will still cling to it.

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