Golden fool, p.68
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       Golden Fool, p.68

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  One man immediately caught my attention. He was probably about fifty, but he wore his years well as some active men do. He walked with a sailor’s roll, leading a horse that he obviously mistrusted. Both the hair of his head and his short-trimmed beard were steely gray, and his eyes the same but with a hint of blue. Other than the woman who had first greeted us, he was the only Old Blood who went unmasked. Yet it was not his appearance that struck me so much as the deference the other Old Bloods accorded him. They stepped back for him as if he were either holy or mad. The Old Blood woman who had first greeted us indicated him with a flourish.

  “You have entrusted us with Prince Dutiful. This we little expected you would do, despite the word that was sent to us. Yet I was determined that if you gave us a hostage that indicated you had true respect for us, we would do the same. We give you Web. He is of the oldest Old Blood, an unmingled bloodline and the last of that heritage. We have no nobility amongst ourselves, no kings or queens. But from time to time, we do have one such as Web. He does not rule us, but he does listen to us, and we listen to him. Mind that you treat all my people well, but Web treat as if he were your prince. ”

  It seemed a very strange introduction to me. I knew little more about the man than I had when she started speaking, and yet all the Old Blood behaved as if she had bestowed a gift upon us. I saved it up to expound on to Chade.

  I thought of Skilling ahead to Thick to ask him to tell Chade what the Queen had done, but I decided against it. The little man often scrambled messages, and I did not want Chade spurred into rash action. I’d seen enough of that for one day. As our two groups parted, leaving the Prince and Laurel sitting their horses and surrounded by armed Witted, the rain suddenly came pelting down. The woman who had spoken to us called after us, “Three days! Return my people unharmed in three days!”

  The Queen turned back and nodded to her gravely. The reminder had scarcely been needed. It already seemed far too long a time to entrust the well-being of our prince to them.

  Marshcroft did his best to form up his troops protectively about the Old Bloods, but they were more than we had expected and his guard was spread thin. I was toward the end of the procession, riding behind the woman who led her Wit-cow. I had thought the bearded man would insist on some sort of honored place in the formation, perhaps riding alongside the Queen. Instead Web rode toward the rear, right in front of me. I glanced back for a final glimpse of my prince sitting his horse in the freezing rain. When I looked forward again, I found the man watching me.

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  “Braver than I thought a boy of his years would be. Tougher than I thought a prince would be,” Web observed to me. The guardsman to my right scowled at the Old Blood, but I only nodded gravely. Web held my eyes for a time before he looked away. I felt uneasy that he had singled me out for his words.

  Before we reached Buckkeep, I was soaked through. The rain turned to a sloppy snow, making the trail treacherous and slowing our progress. The guards at the gate admitted us without question or delay, but as we rode past, I saw one’s eyes widen and read his lips as he whispered to his fellow, “The Prince is gone!” So the rumor fled before us into Buckkeep.

  In the courtyard, Marshcroft assisted the Queen’s dismount. Chade was there to meet us. He lost control for an instant when he realized the Prince had not returned. His sharp green gaze immediately sought me. I avoided meeting it, as much because I had no information for him as because I did not want folks to connect us. It was not difficult. The courtyard had become a place of trampled snow and mud, full of milling folk and animals. The milk cow’s distressed intermittent mooing mingled with the general discord of voices. There were folk from our stables waiting to take our beasts and those of our guests, but they had not been prepared for the pregnant cow, nor for a soaking and masked woman who would not leave her animal but feared to enter our stables alone.

  At length both Web and I volunteered to accompany her. I found an empty stall and made her weary cow as comfortable as she could be made in an unfamiliar place. The woman said little to either of us, instead seeming completely concerned for the cow’s welfare. But Web was affable and talkative, not just to me, but to the horses in their stalls and the stable boys that I sent running for water and fresh hay. I introduced myself as Tom Badgerlock of the Queen’s Guard.

  “Ah,” he said, and nodded as if confirming something he had already suspected. “You would be Laurel’s friend, then. She spoke well of you, and commended you to my attention. ”

  On that unnerving note, he turned back to his exploration of the stables. He seemed interested in all that was going on around him, asking questions not just about how many animals were stabled here, but what sort of a horse was that and had I been a guardsman long and did I look forward to a set of dry clothes and something hot to drink as much as he did.

  I was taciturn with him without being rude, but it was still a relief to escort them into the keep and up to the east wing where the Queen had decided to quarter all her Old Blood guests. Those quarters offered them privacy from the rest of the keep folk. There was a large room where they could dine together unmasked, once the food was set out and the serving folk were banished. They all seemed very concerned that their identities remain hidden. All save Web. I escorted him and the cow-woman up to the floor where the bedchambers were. There a maid greeted them and asked them to follow her to their guestrooms. Cow-woman left without a backward glance at me, but Web clasped wrists with me heartily and told me that he expected we’d have a chance to talk again soon. He wasn’t three steps away from me before he was asking the chambermaid if she enjoyed her work and had she lived at the castle long and wasn’t it a shame the spring day had ended in such a downpour.

  My duties discharged, this wet and weary guardsman went immediately to the guardroom. There all was in an uproar as the Queen’s decision was discreetly discussed at the top of our lungs. The hall was packed, not only with the guards who had just come in but also with all who wanted to hear the tale firsthand. It was too late for that, however. Amongst guardsmen, tales multiply faster than rabbits. As I wolfed stew and bread and cheese, I heard how we had been surrounded by a force of threescore Witted ones with bows, swords, and at least one wild boar, tusking and snorting and eyeing us all the while. I had to admire the last addition to the tale. At least the man shouting out his account most loudly told how brave and cool our prince had been.

  Still dripping and cold, I left the guardroom and headed down a corridor that led past the kitchens and toward the pantries. In a quiet moment, I slipped inside Thick’s small room, and from thence into the hidden corridors of the keep. I fled to my workroom as swiftly as I could and changed into dry clothes, spreading my wet ones to drip over the tables and chairs. The tiny note from Chade merely said, “Queen’s private council room. ” From the splattered ink, I deduced he had been in high temper when he penned it.

  And so I made another hurried dash through the twisting labyrinth. I cursed its construction, wondering if the men who had built it had been as short as the ceilings seemed to indicate, even as I knew that no one had ever planned this whole maze. Rather it utilized gaps between walls and abandoned servants’ stairs as well as bits added deliberately in the course of repairing the old keep. I was out of breath when I reached the secret entrance to the Queen’s private rooms. I halted to catch my breath before knocking, and became aware of the fierce argument on the other side of the concealed door.

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  “And I am the Queen!” Kettricken stated in fierce reply to whatever Chade had said. “As well as his mother. In either capacity, do you think I would risk heir or son if I had not thought it of the highest importance?”

  I didn’t hear Chade’s reply. But Kettricken’s was clear and almost strident. “No, it has nothing to do with my ‘damnable Mountain upbringing. ’ It has to do with me forcing my nobles to treat with the Old Bloods as if they had s
omething to lose. You witnessed how they trivialized my efforts before. Why? Because it cost them nothing to leave things as they were. The injustice did not bother them. None of their sons or wives were at stake. They had never lain awake at night, fearing that someone they cared about would be found out as Witted and murdered for it. But I have. I will tell you something, Chade. My son is in no more danger as hostage to the Witted than he was yesterday, here in the keep, where proof of his Wit could have turned his own dukes against him. ”

  In the silence that followed her words, I rapped overly loud on the door. In a moment, I heard, “Enter,” and did so, to find them both pink-cheeked but composed. I felt as if I were a child who had walked in on his parents’ secret quarrel. But in an instant, Chade endeavored to make it mine.

  “How could you allow this to happen?” he demanded of me. “Why didn’t you keep me informed? Is the Prince well? Has he been harmed?”

  “He is fine—” I began, but Kettricken cut in suddenly with “How could he allow this to happen? Councilor, you go too far. For many years you have advised me, and you have advised me well. But if you forget again your place in this hierarchy, we will part company. You are to counsel, not to make decisions and certainly not to circumvent my will! Do you think I have not well considered every aspect of this? Follow my thoughts, then, you who taught me to plot this way. Fitz is here, and through him I shall know if my son suffers even an indignity. At my son’s side is a woman familiar with Old Blood ways, loyal to me, and capable of handling a weapon if she must. In my possession are a dozen folk, all at risk if anything befalls the Prince, plus one man who seems of great significance to them. You dismissed their request for a hostage, saying that if we failed to offer one, they might protest but in the end would still vouchsafe their people to us. Laurel counseled me otherwise; she knows well the distrust they have for the Farseers, and the generations of abuse it is founded on. She said we must offer a hostage, one of good standing. Who, then, could I offer? Myself? That was my first thought. But then, who remains here to treat with them? My son, seen by many as an untried lad? No. I had to remain here. I pondered my other choices. A noble, fearful and disdainful of them, over the protests of my other dukes? You? Then I would be bereft of your counsel. FitzChivalry? To make him valuable enough, his complete identity would have to be revealed. And so I settled on my son. He is valuable to both sides, and most valuable alive. They have made no secret to me in these negotiations of the fact they know he is Witted. Hence, in some ways, he is one of their own as much as he is ours. He is sympathetic to their situation, for he shares it. I doubt not that while he is with them, he will learn more than he would if he had stayed here by my side during these formal negotiations. And what he learns will make him, ultimately, a better king for all his people. ” She halted. A bit breathlessly, she added, “Well, Councilor. Show me my error. ”

  Chade sat looking at her, mouth a trifle ajar. I did not bother to conceal my admiration. Then Kettricken grinned at me, and I saw green sparks ignite in Chade’s eyes.

  He shut his mouth with a snap. “You might have told me first,” he said bitterly. “I do not relish being made to look like a fool. ”

  “Then choose to look merely surprised, like the rest,” Kettricken advised him tartly. Then, more gently, she added, “Old friend, I know that I have made you concerned for my son’s safety and hurt your feelings. But if I had taken you into my confidence on this, you would have prevented me from doing it. Wouldn’t you?”

  “Perhaps. But that still—”

  “Peace,” she hushed him. “It is done, Chade. Now accept it. And I beg you, do not let it hinder you from being just and resourceful as we enter into this negotiation. ” As quickly as that, she silenced him. She turned to me. “You I shall want behind the wall, FitzChivalry, witness to everything. And of course, it is also your function to monitor my son’s well-being. He may well be able to convey to you information that can put us at an advantage. ” She pretended calmness as she asked, “Are you aware of him right now?”

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  “Not in a direct way,” I admitted. “Not riding with him as once Verity rode with me. That is an aspect of the Skill that he has not yet fully acquired. But . . . a moment. ” I took a breath and reached for him. Dutiful? I am with Chade and the Queen. All is well with you?

  We are fine. Is Chade very angry with her?

  Don’t be concerned with that. She deals well with him. They merely wanted to be sure we could reach one another.

  That we can. I am in a conversation with Fleria, their leader. Let me pay attention to it now, or she will think I am more half-wit than Witted.

  When I brought my attention back to Chade and Kettricken, the old man was scowling at me. “And what makes you smile?” he demanded, as prickly as if I had mocked him.

  “My prince made a jest with me. He is, indeed, well. And as the Queen surmised, he is conversing with their leader. Fleria. ”

  The Queen turned to Chade triumphantly. “There. Do you see? Already he has her name for us, a bit of information long denied us. ”

  “You mean, she has told him some name to call her by,” Chade rejoined irritably. Then, to me, “Why cannot I hear him? What must I do, to perfect my talent to work as I need it to?”

  “The fault may not be with you. Dutiful has finally mastered directing his thoughts only to me. Not even Thick would have been aware of his Skilling to me. I think. It could be that, as you and the Prince work together, you will establish a stronger link of your own. And you may become more receptive to the magic as you work with it more often. But, until then—”

  “Until then, you must wait to discuss this later. Even the most laggard of our guests should be warm and clad in dry garb by now. Come, Chade. We are to meet them in the east gathering hall. And you, Fitz, off to your post. If we hear anything that will affect my son’s safety, I wish him to know of it immediately. ”

  Another woman might have waited for Chade, or have gone to a looking glass briefly. Not Kettricken. She rose and swept from the room, completely confident that her councilor would be on her heels and that I would scuttle off to my spy post. The look Chade shot me as he left mingled pride and chagrin. “I may have taught her too well,” he observed to me in a whisper.

  I reentered the rat warren of corridors. In the workroom, I provided myself with sufficient candles and a cushion for my comfort. As I made my roundabout way to my listening post, Gilly joined me. He was disappointed to discover I had no raisins with me today, but contented himself with the adventure instead.

  All the negotiations I have ever witnessed begin with at least a day of boredom. This was no exception. Despite the mystery of the masked Old Bloods, that first long afternoon was a morass of maneuvering and suspicion cloaked behind extreme courtesy and reserve. The delegates did not wish to reveal where in the Six Duchies each came from, let alone their names. That was nearly all that was resolved by the end of that first session: that they must at least name the duchy each came from, and that complaints of treatment in that duchy must be documented with the names of the person who was wronged as well as dates and specific details.

  Web remained the exception to every rule in this. He furnished the only moment that was interesting to me that entire first day. He introduced himself as coming from Buck, from a small coastal town on our border with Bearns. He was a fisherman by trade, and the last scion of what had once been a large Old Blood family. Most of his immediate family had perished during the Red Ship War, with his aged grandmother surrendering to her years only last spring. He was unmarried and childless, but did not count himself alone as he was bonded to a sea bird, one that was even now riding the winds over Buckkeep Castle. Her name was Risk, and if the Queen was interested in meeting her, he would be happy to call her down to one of the tower tops.

  He alone lacked the reserve and the suspicion that the rest of the Old Blood shared. His loquaciousness more than made up
for the silence of many of the others. He seemed to take Queen Kettricken at her word that she wished to put an end to Old Blood persecution. He not only took some moments to publicly thank her for that, but also for making this gathering possible. He said she had brought together Old Blood people in a way that had not happened for generations, not since they had been forced to hide their magic and no longer live together in communities. From there, he launched into the importance of Old Blood children being able to acknowledge openly their magic so that they might learn it completely. He included Prince Dutiful amongst them, and said he shared her sorrow that her son’s magic must remain both hidden and uneducated.

  He paused then. I wondered what he expected. That the Queen would thank him for his sympathy and concern? I saw Chade’s tension. Despite what the Old Blood claimed to “know,” Chade had counseled Kettricken not to admit to them that her son was Witted. The Queen skirted the issue nicely, telling him that she shared his concern for children who must grow up in an atmosphere of secrecy, their talents uneducated.

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  And so it went for that long evening. Web was the only one who seemed not only willing but insistent to share information about himself and his Wit. I began to recognize the distance that the Old Blood folks kept from him. It was as much confusion as awe. Folk were unsure what to make of him, like many a man labeled either god-touched or mad. He made them uneasy; they were not sure if they should emulate him or drive him from their midst. I swiftly deduced that alone of the folk there, he had come on his own. No community had selected him to represent them; he had simply heard of the Queen’s summoning and answered it. The woman in the forest had seemed to set great store by him, but I was not at all sure that every Witted person in the room shared her high regard. And then he won my queen.

  “A man with nothing to lose,” he said at one point, “is often in the best position to sacrifice himself for the gain of others. ”

  That set my queen’s eyes to shining at him, and I knew both Chade and I wished that he had chosen any other word but “sacrifice. ”

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