Golden fool, p.65
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       Golden Fool, p.65

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Delnar, the wise old priest of Sa, has written in his Opinions that not only the followers of this heresy are to be pitied, but also the “White Prophets” themselves. He proves conclusively that such self-deluded fanatics are actually suffering from a rare disorder that drains all pigment from their flesh, at the same time inducing hallucinations of prophetic dreams sent by gods.


  CHADE! I need you, I need you now! Come to me in the workroom.

  CHADE! Please hear me, please come!

  I Skilled the summons wildly as I staggered up the stairs to my workroom. I do not even recall what urgent errand I had invented for my departure. I’d left him, the Fool and yet no longer the Fool, sitting by his fire with the brandy bottle. Now, heart hammering, I cursed my wasted body as I forced my legs to bend and push me along. I could not tell if Chade could hear me. Then I cursed myself and shifted my attention to Dutiful and Thick. I need to see Lord Chade immediately. It is the greatest urgency. Find him and send him to me in my workroom.

  Why? This from Dutiful.

  Just do it!

  Then, when I did stagger, sweating and puffing, into the workroom, I found Chade sitting impatiently by the hearth. He turned to glare at me. “What has kept you? I heard you’d come back into the castle, and I know Lord Golden would pass on my message. I don’t have all day to wait on you, boy. Important things are afoot, things that require your presence. ”

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  “No,” I gasped. And then, “I talk first. ”

  “Sit down,” he growled at me. “Breathe. I’ll get you some water. ”

  I made it to the chair by the fire before I collapsed. I’d tried to force my body too much today. The ride and the practice bout by itself were enough to exhaust me. Now I was shaking as badly as the Fool had been.

  I drank the water Chade brought me. Before he could begin to speak, I told him everything that the Fool had told me. When I had finished, I was still panting. He sat thinking while my breathing gradually slowed.

  “Tattoos,” he muttered in disgust. “The Pale Woman. ” He sighed. “I don’t believe him. And I don’t dare disbelieve him. ” He scowled as he pondered my tale. Then, “You saw my spy’s report? He found no trace of a dragon on Aslevjal. ”

  “I don’t think he made a very thorough search. ”

  “Perhaps not. That is the trouble with hired men. When the money trickles away, their loyalty goes with it. ”

  “Chade. What are we going to do?”

  He gave me an odd look. “The obvious. Really, Fitz, you do need to recover your health. You are so easily rattled these days. Though I confess that the Fool’s tattoos are as great a surprise to me as to you. As is the connection he makes of them. When I spoke to him earlier today, to ask if he knew anything of such tattoos as an Out Island custom, he said he did not and calmly changed the subject. I can scarcely believe he would so dissemble to me, but . . . ” I watched Chade reorder to himself all that he knew of both the Fool and Lord Golden. Then he sighed heavily and admitted, “We do know there was a Pale Woman advising Kebal Rawbread for much of the Red Ship War. But we assumed that she perished alongside him. What could she have to do with Elliania? And even if she had lived, why should she attempt to be a part of our matchmaking, let alone have an interest in you or Lord Golden? It is all too far-fetched. ”

  I swallowed. “The maid, Henja. Elliania’s servant. She spoke of a ‘she,’ as did Elliania and Blackwater. Those two spoke of her with dread. Perhaps this ‘she’ is the Pale Woman, and perhaps she is the Fool’s ‘other White Prophet. ’ Then she could have plans of her own, plans that cross our own in ways we cannot foresee. ”

  I watched the old assassin mentally work through all the permutations of such a situation. Then he shrugged. “Regardless,” Chade replied ruthlessly. “Our solution remains the same. ” He held up two fingers. “One. The Fool promised you that it would be your decision, to keep your oath to the Farseers or try to save this frozen dragon for him. So. You’ll keep your oath. I don’t doubt your loyalty. ”

  It did not seem that simple to me at all. I kept silent.

  He touched his second finger. “Two. Lord Golden does not go to Aslevjal with us. Therefore, if we discover a dragon in the ice, which I very much doubt, he doesn’t try to interfere with Dutiful killing the dragon. Or at least chopping the frozen head off some ancient carcass, which I consider far more likely. Then, even if this ‘Pale Woman’ does still exist and is some sort of threat to him, he never comes near her. Hence, Lord Golden doesn’t die. ”

  “What if he comes to Aslevjal anyway, with or without us?”

  Chade gave me a look. “Fitz. Think, lad. Aslevjal is not an easy island to visit, even from the other Out Islands. Not that he’ll get that far. Don’t you think I can issue an order that forbids Lord Golden to take passage on any ship outbound from Buckkeep Town? I’ll do it subtly, of course. But it will be done. ”

  “What if he changes his appearance?”

  He raised a white eyebrow at me. “Do you wish me to have him locked in a dungeon while we are gone? I suppose I could arrange that, if it would put your mind at rest. A comfortable dungeon, of course. All the amenities. ” His tone plainly said that he thought I was worrying unnecessarily. Confronted with his calm skepticism, I found it difficult to support the frantic fear the Fool had raised in me.

  “No. Of course I don’t want that,” I muttered.

  “Then trust me. Trust me as you used to. Have a little confidence in your old mentor. If I don’t want Lord Golden to take ship from Buckkeep, then he won’t. ”

  I CAN’T FIND HIM. WHAT SHOULD I DO? Dutiful sounded panicked.

  Chade cocked his head. “Did you hear something?”

  “A moment. ” I held up a finger to Chade. Never mind, Dutiful. He’s with me; it will be all right now.

  What’s it all about?

  Never mind, I tell you. Never mind. I shifted my attention from Dutiful to Chade. “That which you ‘heard’ was Dutiful shouting at me that he couldn’t find you. A widespread Skilling, such as he still does when he’s anxious. ”

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  A slow smile dawned over Chade’s features, even as he said, “Oh, you must be mistaken. I was sure I heard a shout in the distance. ”

  “So the Skill can seem at first. Until your mind learns to interpret what it senses. ”

  “Oh, my,” Chade said quietly. He looked afar, smiling pensively. Then he came back to me with a jolt. “I’d nearly forgotten why I’d summoned you. The Queen’s convocation of the Witted. It is actually going to happen, much to my surprise. We’ve had word to expect them in six days. It’s taken them time to gather themselves, and they ask that the Queen send her own guard to bring them in under a safe-passage flag. They asked for an exchange of hostages, too, of course, but I told her that was nonsense! Six days from now, they will send us a bird telling us where to meet them. They promise it will be within a day’s ride of Buckkeep. When we get to the rendezvous, they will come to us. They will be cloaked and hooded to protect their identities. I’d like you to go with them when they ride out. ”

  “Wouldn’t that seem very odd? Lord Golden’s personal bodyguard riding out with the Queen’s Guard on such a delicate mission?”

  “It would, but for one thing. By then, you will have left Lord Golden’s service, and taken a position with the Queen’s Guard. ”

  “Won’t that be a rather abrupt change? How do we explain that?” And when did you decide that, you old fox?

  “Easily enough. Captain Marshcroft will be anxious to secure your services, as he was so impressed with your ability to slay three men merely for attempting to steal your master’s pouch. A man that good with a blade would always be a welcome addition to the Queen’s Guard. If anyone asks, you can say that they offered you excellent wages, and tha
t Lord Golden was only too willing to gain favor with the Queen by allowing her to hire his man away from him. Perhaps he is now comfortable enough at our court to see that he never needed a bodyguard at all. ”

  Chade stacked his logic nicely. I suspected he had a stronger motive than simply to have more access to me as a spy. I wondered if he wanted to separate me from Lord Golden lest he make any inroads on my loyalty to the Farseers. I edged around the question, asking him, “Why is it so essential to you that I ride with the Queen’s Guard now?”

  “Well, for one thing, it will make it much easier to explain why you are chosen to accompany the Prince to the Out Islands in spring. You’ll be one of the lucky ones whose lot is chosen for the honor. But mostly because the Witted have asked that, as a token that we mean them no harm, Prince Dutiful ride out as part of their escort. ”

  I was instantly distracted. “Do you think that’s safe? It could be a trap to lure him into danger. ”

  He smiled grimly. “Why do you think I want you riding at his heels? Of course it’s possible it’s a trap. But the Witted must fear the same thing, must they not? So they ask for him, knowing that we would not risk the sole Farseer heir if there were any chance of a skirmish. ”

  “Old Blood,” I told him. “You must learn to say ‘Old Blood,’ not ‘Witted. ’ Then you’ll send him out to escort them in?”

  Chade scowled and admitted, “He has little choice in that, as little as I do. The Queen has already promised it to them. ”

  “In spite of your disapproval. ”

  Chade gave a snort of disdain. “My approval or disapproval means little to the Queen these days. She thinks, perhaps, that she has outgrown her need for me as a councilor. Well. We shall see. ”

  I could think of nothing to say to that. Truth to tell, and though it cost me a pang of disloyalty, I secretly rejoiced in my queen’s assertion of her strength.

  The days to come were so full that the tensions of them almost crowded from my mind my concerns for the Fool. Despite the fragility of my health, Chade, Thick, Dutiful, and I began to meet every morning in the Seawatch tower. The Fool was not included in our meetings. Chade made no comment on this; given what I had told him, perhaps he viewed it as more desirable that the Fool not be a part of our coterie. I never brought the topic up. Only we four gathered, and there we pursued the Skill with an avidity that frightened me and enthused the rest of them. We made progress, careful and controlled progress that satisfied no one except me. Thick learned to confine his music, though it seemed to distress him in a way he could not explain. Dutiful became better at directing his Skill messages to individuals. Chade, as was to be expected, lagged the other two pupils. If we were physically touching, he could reach my mind faintly, and I his. Thick could direct an onslaught at him that would catch his attention but convey nothing. Dutiful could not seem to find him. Or Chade couldn’t be aware of him. I could not tell which problem it was so we worked on both of them. The mornings were both exhausting and nerve-wracking for me. I still got headaches, though they did not compare to the ones that had previously afflicted me.

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  Under Chade’s strict directions, I ate a nourishing meal of bland and healthful food every noon. I might have taken control of his Skill magic, but he still remained my mentor and believed he knew best where my physical health was concerned. It was at this time that he confronted me about the elfbark and carryme that he had found and removed from my room when I was recovering from my “healing. ” It was a sharp quarrel between us, and uncomfortable for us both. He maintained that I had a duty not to do anything that might injure or inhibit my Skill, especially now that I was Skillmaster to the Prince and his coterie. I maintained that I had a right to the privacy of my possessions. Neither of us either conceded or apologized. It simply became an area we avoided discussing.

  Lord Golden had dismissed me from his service shortly after Chade had suggested he might. I was offered employment with the Queen’s Guard and accepted it with alacrity. They accepted me into their midst with an equanimity that surprised me. Evidently I was not the first odd man that Chade had slipped into their ranks. I wondered how many of them were more than what they seemed. They asked me few questions, but measured me instead with their routine drills and practices. Early afternoons I spent with the Queen’s Guard on the practice grounds. I was often found lacking, and wore the bruises to show for it.

  Ostensibly, I had a bunk in the barracks with the rest of the guards but as often I slept in my workroom. If anyone wondered at my oddly loose attachment to the Queen’s Guard, no one commented on it to me. When I encountered Wim at the practice court, he congratulated me on “being an honest fighter again. ” In dress, I went back to the plain blue of a Buck Guardsman, with a purple and white tunic for the times when I must show myself as belonging to the Queen. I derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from openly wearing her Fox badge on my breast. It matched the fox pin I wore within my shirt and above my heart.

  I seemed to weary more swiftly and heal much more slowly than I ever had before, but despite Chade’s suggestions I did not attempt to use the Skill to speed that process. Late afternoons, while Chade was busy with diplomacy, Thick raided the kitchens for me. Together we gorged ourselves on sweets and rich pastries and fat meat. We discovered that Gilly loved raisins as much as Thick did. The ferret’s pleading dance for them could reduce Thick to tears of laughter. We all began to put on flesh, Thick probably more than was good for him. He became as round and his hair as glossy as a noble lady’s fat little lapdog. Blessed as he was now with food, care, and acceptance, a placid and sweet nature sometimes showed in the little man. I enjoyed those simple hours with him.

  I even managed several evenings with Hap. We did not go to the Stuck Pig, but to a quiet alehouse, relatively new, called the Wrecked Red Ship. There we ate cheap and greasy tavern food and talked like the old friends we were becoming. It reminded me of my days with Burrich in the time just before Regal killed me. We recognized one another as men now. On our best evening, he regaled me with a long account of how Starling had swept into the woodshop, dazzled Master Gindast with her charm and fame, and carried Hap off to a day of her Buckkeep Town. “It was so strange, Tom,” he told me in a sort of wonder. “She behaved as if there had never been any quarrel or hard words between us. And so what could I do, save do the same? Do you think she has actually forgotten what she said to me?”

  “I doubt she has forgotten,” I told him thoughtfully. “A forgetful minstrel soon starves to death. No. With our Starling, I think she believes that if she pretends hard enough that something is so, it becomes so. And, as you have seen, sometimes it works for her. Have you forgiven her, then?”

  He looked nonplussed for a moment. Then, with a wry grin, he asked, “Would she notice if I hadn’t? She was so adept at persuading Gindast that she was all but a mother to me that I was half-convinced myself. ”

  I had to laugh and shrug to that. Starling had taken him to an inn frequented by traveling minstrels and there introduced him to a number of musical young ladies. They had fed him mincemeat pastries and filled him up with ale and their songs, vying for his attention. I immediately warned him facetiously about the soft and easy ways of minstrels and their stony hearts. It was a mistake. “I’ve no heart left to give to any girl,” he informed me soberly. Nonetheless, from his descriptions of several of them, it seemed to me that even if he did not have the heart, he still had an eye for them. And so I silently blessed Starling and prayed for a swift healing for my lad.

  Both the Fool and Lord Golden assiduously avoided me. On several evenings when I quietly descended from the workroom to enter Lord Golden’s apartments through my old bedroom, I found him not at home. Dutiful told me that he gamed more frequently now, in Buckkeep Town where such amusements were gaining popularity as well as at private parties in the keep. I missed him, but also dreaded eventually confronting him. I did not want him to read in my
eyes that I had betrayed him to Chade. It was for his own good, I excused myself. Dragons be damned. If simply keeping him away from Aslevjal would keep him alive, then his displeasure would be a small cost. That was what I told myself at the times when I found myself believing his wild prophecies. At other times, I was sure there was no frozen dragon and no Pale Woman and hence no reason for him to go to Aslevjal at all. And thus I justified it that I plotted with Chade against him. As for why he avoided me, I suspected he harbored some odd sense of shame about the tattoos that I now knew he bore. I knew I could not demand his company, nor force mine upon him. I could only hope that as days passed, the healing rift between us would further close.

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  And so the days ticked by.

  I would not have admitted it to anyone, but my newfound dread of the Prince’s quest to Aslevjal Island was behind my renewed dedication to teaching him to Skill. No matter how I counted the days to our spring sailing, there were never enough of them. I now concurred with Chade that the Prince must have a coterie, one with at least a basic working knowledge of their magic. And so I applied myself to developing our Skill talents, with varying degrees of success. Chade’s Skill level slowly increased at our morning lessons. He was very dissatisfied with his progress, and that made it more difficult for him to focus. I could not get him to relax, no matter how I tried to force him into a calm and empty state. Dutiful seemed to find my arguments with my elderly student amusing while Thick was elaborately bored by them. Neither attitude helped Chade to be less irascible with me. My kindly and patient teacher, I discovered, was a terrible student, headstrong and insubordinate. I finally succeeded in opening him to the Skill after four days of unrelenting effort. At his first awareness of the Skill current, he rushed headlong into it. I had no choice but to go after him. Sternly forbidding Dutiful and Thick to follow, I plunged into the Skill.

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