Golden fool, p.66
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       Golden Fool, p.66

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  I do not like to recall that mishap. It was not just that Chade was unfurling in the Skill. It was that there was so much of him to unfurl. Every moment of all his years of life streamed away from him. After struggling for a time to gather him in, I realized that the Skill was not shredding him. Rather, the old man was sending out seeking threads of himself. Like the roots of a thirsty plant, he spread himself in every direction, heedless of the way the Skill current tore and scattered his filaments. Even as I gathered the bits of him, he was glorying in the wild rush of connection. At length I tore him from the cataract of the Skill, powered as much by my great anger as by any magic. When at last we came back to our bodies, I found mine under the great table, trembling and twitching at the edge of a convulsion.

  “You stupid, stubborn old bastard!” I gasped at him. I had not the strength to shout. Chade himself was sprawled in his chair. As his eyelids fluttered and he came to awareness of himself, he muttered only, “Magnificent. Magnificent. ” And then he dropped his head down onto the table and sank into a deathly sound sleep from which there was no rousing him.

  Dutiful and Thick hauled me out from under the table and back into my chair. Dutiful poured me a brimming glass of wine with shaking hands while Thick stood regarding me with his round little eyes very wide. When I had drunk half the wine, Dutiful said in an abashed voice, “That was the most frightening thing I’ve ever witnessed. Was that what it was like when you came in after me?”

  I was too shaken and angry with both Chade and myself to admit to the Prince that I didn’t know. “Let it be a lesson to the two of you as well,” I scolded. “Any one of us who commits such a foolish act risks all of us. Well do I understand now why the Skillmasters of old might put a pain barrier between the Skill and a willful student. ”

  The Prince looked shocked. “You would not do such a thing to Lord Chade?” His tone was as if I had proposed clapping the Queen in irons for her own good.

  “No,” I admitted grudgingly. I rose shakily and circled the table. I nudged the snoring old man, and then prodded him. His eyes opened to slits. He smiled at me, head still on the table. “Ah. There you are, my boy. ” His smile grew fatuously wider. “Did you see me? Did you see me fly?” And then, I was not sure if his eyes rolled up or his lids closed, but he was gone again, as exhausted as a child after a day at a fair. I despaired that he seemed to have carried away no sensation at all of tragedy narrowly averted. It was an hour before he awoke, and then for all his apologies, there was a gleam in his eye that filled me with trepidation. Even after he promised me to make no wild experiments on his own, I privately impressed on Thick that if he sensed Chade Skilling, he must contact me at once. Thick’s earnest assent was a bare comfort to me; such promises did not usually stay long in his mind.

  The next morning was to bring me no greater serenity. Exhorting Chade to do nothing this time, save witness as best he could, I attempted to guide Dutiful in borrowing Thick’s strength to increase his own use of the Skill. Although they all had experienced in my healing what their joined strength could do, none of the three could really explain how they had tapped it or what had happened. It seemed to me that Dutiful at least needed to be able to reliably draw on Thick’s power. So I set them a simple exercise, or so I thought.

  Alone, Dutiful could reach Chade’s mind only as the barest whisper. He could make Chade aware of his efforts, but not of the message he sought to convey. I was not sure if this indicated that Chade was still too closed to the Skill, or if Dutiful could not sufficiently target him. I wanted to see if by tapping Thick’s strength, Dutiful could make Chade hear him. “Prince Verity told me that a coterie member or Solo used in such a fashion was referred to as a King’s Man. So. Thick will be serving as King’s Man to Dutiful. Shall we try this?” I asked them.

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  “He’s the Prince. Not a king,” Thick interrupted anxiously.

  “Yes. And?”

  “Can’t be a King’s Man then. It won’t work. ”

  I found my patience. “It’s all right, Thick. It will work. You will be serving as a Prince’s Man. ”

  “Serving. Like a servant?” He was instantly affronted.

  “No. Helping. Like a friend. Thick will be helping Dutiful as a Prince’s Man. Shall we try this?”

  Dutiful was grinning, but it did not mock his man. Thick turned to him, caught the grin from him, and settled himself next to the Prince. “It should be easy for both of you,” I suggested. I didn’t know if I lied or not. “Thick must simply be open to the Skill, but not making any effort. Dutiful should draw strength from him and use the Skill to try to reach Chade. Dutiful. Go slowly. And if I tell you to stop, you must break the contact immediately. Now. Begin. ”

  I thought I had planned for every possibility. I had sweet foods such as Thick loved and brandy if we needed a restorative. Both waited on the table. I wondered now if that had been a bad idea. Thick’s eyes kept wandering to some currant buns. Would they distract him too much from his Skilling? I had wanted to have elfbark and hot water ready as well, but Chade had sternly overruled me. “Far better if the Prince’s coterie is never exposed to such a destructive drug,” he opined righteously. I didn’t remind him that he had taught me the use of it.

  I hovered anxiously behind the Prince as he set his hand to Thick’s shoulder. If it appeared he were draining the little man, I was prepared to physically break the link between them. Well did I know that a Skill-user could deliberately kill that way. I wanted no tragic accidents.

  We waited. After a time, I gave Chade a significant look. He raised his eyebrows at me.

  “Begin,” I suggested to the two of them.

  “I’m trying,” said Dutiful in exasperation. “I can Skill to Thick. But I don’t know how to draw his strength off and use it. ”

  “Hm. Thick, can you help him?” I suggested.

  Thick opened his eyes and looked at me. “How?” he asked.

  I didn’t know. “Just be open to him. Think of sending him your strength. ”

  Again, they settled. I watched Chade’s face, hoping for some sign that Dutiful had touched minds with him. But after a short time, Dutiful lifted his eyes to mine. His mouth twisted in a small smile. “He’s Skilling ‘strength, strength, strength’ to me,” he confided.

  “You said to!” Thick protested angrily.

  “Yes. So I did,” I assured him. “Calm down, Thick. No one is mocking you. ”

  He glared at me, breathing through his nose. Dogstink.

  Dutiful flinched. Chade’s lips twitched but he managed not to smile. “Dog stink. Is that the message you wished to convey to me?”

  “I believe Thick intended that comment for me,” I said carefully.

  “But it went through me to Chade, my target. I felt it,” Dutiful said excitedly.

  “Well. At least we make progress,” I said.

  “Can I have a bun now?”

  “No, Thick. Not yet. We all need to work on this. ” I pondered a moment. Dutiful had directed Thick’s Skill. Did that mean he had actually taken strength from Thick to break through to Chade, or that he had simply diverted Thick’s message intended for me to Chade?

  I didn’t know. I didn’t think there was any way I could be absolutely certain of what had happened. “Try it together,” I suggested. “Both of you attempt to send the same message to Chade, and only Chade. Try to make a concerted effort. ”

  “Concerted?”

  “Do it together,” Dutiful supplied to Thick. There was a moment of silent conference between the two. I suspected they chose a message. “Now,” I suggested and watched Chade’s face.

  He furrowed his brow. “Something about a bun. ”

  Dutiful gave a sigh of exasperation. “Yes, but that wasn’t what we were supposed to be conveying. Thick is having a bit of difficulty concentrating. ”

  “I’m hungry. ”

  “No you aren’t. Y
ou just want to eat,” Dutiful told him. Which put Thick into a sulk. No amount of prodding or persuasion would induce him to try again. We eventually allowed him the food and resolved to take a lesson from it on the morrow.

  Yet the next morning we seemed doomed to have as little luck as before. Spring was in the air. I had thrown the window shutters open wide to the dawn. As yet, the sun was only a promise on the horizon, but the wind off the ocean had a lively and freshened air to it that spoke of life and change in the seasons. I stood breathing it in for a long time while I waited for the others to arrive.

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  I was no more at ease in conscience over what I had planned against Lord Golden. I had begun to wish I had not divulged that conversation to Chade, or told him of the Fool’s tattoos. Surely if he had wished Chade to know of them, he would have told him during the course of their conversation about the Narcheska’s tattoos. I had a deep and profound sense of having made a wrong choice. There was no way to undo it, and confessing it to the Fool seemed unimaginable. The only thing more unimaginable was to allow him to go to Aslevjal if he believed he would die there. So, childish though it felt, I had decided that I would simply hold my tongue and leave the matter in Chade’s hands. He would be the one who would not allow Lord Golden to accompany us. I drew another deep breath of spring air, hoping it would make me feel rejuvenated. Instead, I only felt more deeply anxious.

  Civil Bresinga had returned to Buckkeep. The guard that had accompanied him on his journey was nominally to express Farseer sympathy at the loss of his mother. Yet he still knew, even if others did not, that he could look forward to years of being monitored at Buckkeep. He would remain at the castle until he reached his majority, with the crown benevolently managing his lands. Galekeep was closed save for a skeleton staff provided by the Queen. It seemed to me a mild rebuke compared to his treasonous conduct. His Wit had been kept confidential; I supposed that the revelation of it could be used as a threat to discourage him from further wrongdoing. He had not been connected at all to the deaths of three men in Buckkeep Town. I seethed that he had gotten off so lightly for exposing my prince to so much danger. From what Chade had told me, Dutiful had insisted that Civil had passed on very little information about the Prince to the Piebalds, and most of it was knowledge that even the humblest serving boy in the keep would have. It did not comfort me. Even more unsettling was that not only Laudwine but Padget had expressed an avid interest in whatever information Civil could discover about both Lord Golden and me. He knew little, so he had told them little. Still, Civil had confessed to the Prince that their interest made him very curious about us.

  I’d spied on Civil in his rooms shortly after his return. He had looked like a forlorn and devastated young man. A single family servant remained with him at Buckkeep. He was a lad stripped of family and home, whittled down to his barest possessions, and his Wit-beast consigned to the stables. The simplicity of the chamber and furnishings offered to him was appropriate to a minor noble, but doubtless he had enjoyed far better at home. He had spent a good portion of his evening sitting and staring at the fire. I suspected he communed with his cat, but had not detected a flow of Wit between them. Instead, I had felt his misery as an almost tangible weight in his chamber.

  I still didn’t trust him.

  I was still staring out the window when I heard the Prince’s footfalls on the stairs. A moment later, he entered, shutting the door firmly behind him. Chade and Thick would be coming soon, by the secret passage, but for now I had a moment or two alone with him. I didn’t look at him as I asked him, “Does Civil’s cat speak to you?”

  “Pard? No. He’s a cat, so he could, of course, if he wished. But it would be regarded as. . . rude, I suppose. ” He made a considering noise. “It’s an odd thing to think of. Amongst the Old Blood who prefer cats, there are a number of shared customs. I would never attempt to initiate speech with someone else’s cat partner. It would be like, well, like flirting with someone’s intended. In all the time I’ve known Pard, he has never shown any interest in communicating with me. Of course, he did convey to me, that one time, that Civil was in danger. But that was more in the nature of a threat. Civil had brought him to me in a great canvas sack. I gathered from what Civil told me that he’d tricked the cat into getting into the sack in the course of some rough game they were playing. Only then Civil tied the sack shut and dragged him up the stairs to my chamber. And I do mean dragged. Pard’s a big cat. ”

  He heaved a sudden sigh. “I should have known, from that alone. If Civil had not been distraught, he never would have treated Pard so disrespectfully. But Civil seemed so distressed and in such a hurry that I agreed to keep the cat in my chamber until he returned for it and asked few questions. But then, after he’d gone, I couldn’t stand to hear Pard snarling and doing that singsong whine. He was trying to gut his way out of the sack with the claws on his hind feet, but Civil had chosen a very heavy canvas. After a while, he just lay there, panting, and I began to fear that he would suffocate. He sounded as if he were in distress. But the moment I opened the mouth of the bag, he came out clawing and knocked me down. He grabbed me here,” and Dutiful’s hand measured the side of his throat, “and dug his hind claws into my belly. He swore he’d kill me if I didn’t let him out of the room. Then, before I could take any action, he yowled and raked his claws down me. That was when Civil was attacked. He said it was my fault and he’d kill me for it unless I saved him. So I Skilled to you. ”

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  He had joined me at the window, looking out over the water’s wrinkling face as the sunrise coaxed color out of the black waves. He stared for a time in silence.

  “Then what happened?” I nudged him.

  “Oh. I suppose I was thinking of what must have been happening to you then. Why didn’t you Skill to me? Don’t you think I would have sent you aid?”

  His question startled me. I took a moment to find the answer within myself. I laughed. “I suppose you would have, if I’d thought of it. But, for so many years, it was just the wolf and I. And when I lost Nighteyes . . . I never thought that I could call out to you for help. Or even let you know where I was. It just never occurred to me. ”

  “I tried to reach you. When they were. . . strangling Civil, his cat went wild. Pard leapt off me and went racing around the room, killing everything within reach. I had no idea of the damage his claws could do. The bed curtains, clothing. . . There’s still a tapestry rolled up under my bed that I haven’t had the courage to tell anyone about. I think it’s ruined. And I suspect it was priceless. ”

  “Don’t worry. I’ve got one you can have. ” He looked puzzled at my lopsided smile.

  “I tried to Skill to you. Even as Pard was shredding my room. But I couldn’t get through to you. ”

  I recalled something that I hadn’t in a long time. “Your father had the same complaint about me. That, when I went into battle, I could not sustain a Skill link to him. Nor could he establish one with me at such times. ” I shrugged. “I’d near forgotten that. ” Without thinking, I fingered the bite-scar at the angle of my neck. Then I realized Dutiful was staring at me with that look of boyish admiration and I snatched my hand down.

  “And that is the only time that Pard has ever spoken to you?”

  He shrugged. “Almost. Abruptly he stopped tearing up my things. Then he thanked me. Very stiffly. I think it must be difficult for a cat to thank anyone. After that, he got up into the middle of my bed and ignored me. He stayed there until Civil came for him. My room reeks of cat still. I think Pard sprays when he fights. ”

  From the little I knew of cats, it seemed likely. I said as much. Then, delicately, because this was a topic that was tender between us, I asked him, “Dutiful? Why do you trust Civil? I can’t understand why you allow him in your life after what he’s done. ”

  He gave me a puzzled glance. “He trusts me. I don’t think anyone could trust a man a
s he does me, and not be worthy of my trust in return. Besides. I need him if I am to understand the Old Blood people of my kingdom. My mother pointed that out to me. That I must know at least one, very well, if we are to treat with them at all. ”

  I hadn’t thought of that, but I knew what he meant. The Old Blood lifestyle was a culture hidden within our own Six Duchies culture. I’d had a glimpse of it, but I could not explain it to Dutiful, as could someone born and raised in it. Still, “There must be someone else who could serve you that way. I still do not see what Civil has ever done to deserve your regard of him. ”

  Dutiful gave a small sigh. “FitzChivalry. He entrusted his cat to me. If you knew you were going forth to die, and you did not want Nighteyes to die alongside you, where would you leave him? Who would you entrust him to? A man you had willingly betrayed? Or a friend whom you trusted to see past all shams?”

  “Oh,” I said, when his question had sunk in to my mind. “I see. You are right. ”

  No man would entrust half his soul to a man he cared nothing for.

  In a short time Chade and Thick emerged from the mantelpiece. The old man was scowling and shaking cobwebs from his elaborate sleeves. Thick was humming to himself, odd notes that filled in the gaps in a song that he Skilled to the morning. He seemed to be taking a great deal of pleasure in it. If I listened only with my ears, he seemed to be merely making annoying random sounds. What a difference access to another’s mind could make in my understanding of him.

  Thick’s eyes went immediately to the table and I sensed his disappointment that no pastries awaited him. With a sigh, I hoped that his dashed expectations would not interfere with today’s efforts. I seated my students as I had the day before, with Chade on one side of the table and Dutiful and Thick close beside each other on the other side. As before, I stood behind Dutiful and Thick, ready to fall on them and physically separate them if necessary. I knew Dutiful regarded this as somewhat dramatic, and even Chade seemed to think me overly anxious. But neither of them had ever been near drained of life by another Skill-user.

  As before, Dutiful set his hand to Thick’s shoulder. As before, they tried to reach Chade with a simple message and could not. Dutiful could reach my mind, as could Thick, but even in the familiar task of reaching me, they could not unite. I was beginning to think it was hopeless. One of the most basic tasks of a coterie was to be able to join their Skill and make it available to their king. We could not even do that. And the repeated failures were beginning to make us fractious with one another.

 
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