Golden fool, p.69
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       Golden Fool, p.69

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  The talk lasted until the evening meal. Chade and the Queen left them to eat in privacy, but I did not scruple to watch them remove their hoods and masks. I saw no one I recognized either from my contacts with Rolf’s Old Bloods or from the Piebalds I had hunted. They ate well, commenting freely on how good the food was. One small Wit-beast that had passed unnoticed by me now emerged. A woman had a squirrel that came out and scampered about on the table, foraging amongst the serving dishes with no remonstrance from anyone. This meal and the casual conversation were what the Queen and Chade truly wished me to witness. I was not surprised when Chade soon joined me at my post.

  Silently we listened to our guests discuss the direction of the conversation and if they thought the Queen was truly listening to them. There were two Old Bloods, a man calling himself Boyo and a woman using the name Silvereye, who were particularly vocal. I sensed that they knew one another well, and perceived themselves as the leaders of this group. They attempted to rally the others into taking a firm stance with the Queen. Boyo recited a list of demands they should make, with Silvereye enthusiastically nodding to each one. Several were unrealistic and others raised difficult questions. Boyo claimed descent from a noble family that had been stripped of title and estates during the time of the Piebald Prince frenzy. He wanted all restored to him, with the promise that those who helped him insist on it would be made welcome as dwellers and workers on his family lands. Surely all could see that a noble of acknowledged Old Blood could better conditions for all of them. I myself did not see that clear connection, but some of them nodded to his words.

  Silvereye had more vengeance than restitution in mind. She proposed that those who had executed Witted ones should themselves receive the same treatment. Both were adamant that the Queen must offer reparations for old wrongs before any discussion of how Witted and un-Witted could live peaceably alongside one another.

  My heart sank at these words. In the dim light of our hooded candle, Chade looked weary. I knew the Queen had hoped to take the opposite approach and attempt to solve today’s problems and eliminate tomorrow’s rather than go back scores of years and try to render justice. Chade leaned over close to me to whisper in my ear, “If they hold that line, then all of this will have been for naught. Three days will not suffice to even discuss such things. And even a presentation of such demands will drive the dukes to equally stringent demands of their own. ”

  I nodded. I set my hand to his wrist. Let us hope they are but two, and that calmer heads will prevail. That Web, for instance. He did not seem bent on revenge.

  Chade’s brow had furrowed when I began my Skill attempt. After I had finished, he nodded his head slowly. I got the gist of his returned thought: Where . . . Web?

  In the far corner. Just watching them all.

  And indeed he was. It almost appeared as if he were dozing, but I suspected that he was watching and listening as carefully as we were. For a time longer, Chade and I crouched there together. Then he suggested to me quietly, “Go and eat. I’ll keep watch while you’re gone. We shall want you to remain at this post as much as you can this evening. ”

  And so I did. When I returned, I brought more cushions and a blanket, a bottle of wine, and a handful of raisins for the ferret who accompanied me. Chade gave a sniff, plainly indicating that he thought I indulged myself, and then vanished. The Old Bloods remasked before they allowed the servants into the room to clear away. Musicians and jugglers followed, and the Queen and Chade joined them for this entertainment. Also included were the dukes’ representatives. These were all fairly young men. They did not make a good showing. They clustered together, plainly uneasy at the thought of spending the evening in the company of Witted folk, and spoke mostly amongst themselves. They were supposed to join the Queen and Chade in a discussion tomorrow with the Old Bloods. I foresaw that little progress would be made and felt some concern for my prince.

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  I reached for him, and in a moment felt his acknowledgment. Where are you and what are you doing?

  I’m sitting and listening to an Old Blood minstrel sing songs from olden days. We’re at a sort of shelter at the head end of a valley. From the look of it, I would say it was thrown together especially for this purpose. I guess they did not want to take us to any of their real homes for fear of later reprisals.

  Are you comfortable?

  A bit cold, and the food is very basic. But it’s no worse than an overnight hunt would be. They are treating us well. Let my mother know I am safe.

  I shall.

  And how goes it at Buckkeep?

  Slowly. I’m sitting behind a wall watching Old Bloods watch a juggler. Dutiful, I doubt that any real progress will be made in the next three days.

  I suspect you are right. I think we should take the attitude of one old man here. He keeps telling everyone it will be a triumph if we have these talks at all without bloodshed. That that will be more than any Farseer has offered Old Blood in his lifetime.

  Hm. Perhaps he has something there.

  The Old Bloods I watched made an early night of it. Doubtless they were weary both from the journey and the tension. I was glad to seek my own bed but first decided on a trip down to the guardroom to see what gossip might be offered. The guardroom, I had long ago discovered, was the best place to hear rumor and innuendo, and to judge the temper of the folk at large.

  On my way there, I was shocked to encounter Web wandering about in the quiet night halls of the castle. He greeted me warmly by name. “Are you lost?” I asked him courteously.

  “No. Only curious. And my head too full of thoughts to sleep. Where are you going?”

  “To find a late meal,” I told him, and he suddenly decided that was the very thing he needed himself. I was reluctant to take one of our Old Blood emissaries into the guardroom, but he refused the suggestion that he find a quiet hearth in the Great Hall and wait there for me. As he walked beside me, dread rose in me that we might face some sort of encounter there, but he seemed immune to such fears, asking me endless questions about the tapestries, banners, and portraits we passed.

  When we entered the guardroom, all talk died for a moment. My heart sank at the hostile glances we received, and sank still more when I saw Blade Havershawk at the end of the table nearest the hearth. I averted my face as I observed, “Our queen’s guest would like a slice off the joint, fellows, and a mug of ale. ” I made this heavy-handed reminder of the hospitality we owed in the hopes it would warm the room. It didn’t.

  “Rather we was sharing it with our prince,” someone said portentously.

  “As would I,” Web agreed heartily. “For I scarce got the chance to say two words to him before he rode off with my comrades. But as he dines with them tonight and listens to their tales, so I would break bread with you and hear the stories of Buckkeep Castle. ”

  “Don’t know as we feed Witted at the table round here,” someone observed snidely.

  I took breath, knowing I must make some reply and find some way to get Web out of the room uninjured, but Blade spoke before me. “Once we did,” he said slowly. “And he was one of our own and we loved him well, until we were stupid enough to let Regal take him from us. ”

  “Oh, not that old tale!” someone groaned, and another chimed in with “Even after he killed our king, Blade Havershawk? Did you love him well then?”

  “FitzChivalry didn’t kill King Shrewd, you young knothead. I was there and I know what happened. I don’t care what a drove of snake-tongued minstrels have sung since. Fitz didn’t kill the King he loved. He did kill those Skill-users, and I warrant it was as he claimed. They killed Shrewd. ”

  “Aye. That’s how I always heard the tale, too. ” Web sounded enthused. As I watched in horror, he squeezed past men who pointedly did not step out of his way until he reached Blade’s side. “Is there room beside you on that bench, old warrior?” he asked him amiably. “For I would hear it told again, fro
m the lips of a man who was there. ”

  There followed for me the longest evening I’d ever spent in the guardroom. Web was full of curiosity, and stopped Blade a hundred times in his telling of that fateful night to pose piercing questions that soon had the men around the table making queries of their own. Had the torches truly burned blue and the Pocked Man been seen on that night when Regal claimed the throne was rightfully his? And the Queen had fled that night of blood, had she not? And when she returned to Buckkeep, had she shed no light on those events?

  Full strange it was to hear that debate, and know that speculation still raged after all the years. The Queen had always asserted FitzChivalry had murdered in justified rage the true killers of the King, but no proof had ever been offered that it was so. Still, the men agreed, their queen was no fool, nor had she reason to lie on that topic. As if one Mountain-bred as she was would ever lie! And from there they clambered on to the hoary tale of how I had clawed my way out of the grave, leaving an empty coffin behind. The empty coffin at least had been shown, though no man could say if my body had been spirited away or if I had truly transformed into a wolf and escaped it. The gathered guards were skeptical of Web’s claim that no Witted one could transform that way. From there, the talk went to his own beast, a gull of some sort. Again, he extended the invitation that any who wished might meet his bird on the morrow. A few shook their heads in superstitious fear, but others were plainly intrigued and said they would come.

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  “Fer what’s a birdie agonna do t’you?” one drunkenly demanded of a less courageous fellow. “Shittapon you, praps? You oughta be ’customed to that, Reddy. That woman of yers does it oft enou’. ”

  And that made for a brief and very cramped fistfight at that end of the table. When the combatants had been ejected by their fellows into the chilly night, Web declared that he’d had all the ale and stories he could hold for one evening, but he’d be pleased to join them again tomorrow, if he were welcome. To my dismay, Blade and several others heartily decided he was welcome, Witted or not, yes, and his bird, too.

  “Well, my Risk’s not one for coming within walls, or for flight by dark. But I’ll see you get a chance to meet her tomorrow, if you’ve a mind. ”

  As we parted from them and crossed the castle to the east apartments, it gradually came to me that Web had probably done more to further the cause of the Witted tonight than all the talk of the earlier day had. Perhaps he truly was a gift to us.

  Chapter XXVI


  One man armed with the right word may do what an army of swordsmen cannot.


  I reported on Web to Chade, of course, and in turn he reported to the Queen. And thus at the next day’s meeting, with the Six Duchies’ representatives present, she made certain that Web had the first opportunity to speak. I crouched behind the wall, my eye to the crack, and listened to him. She introduced him to the Six Duchies’ delegates before he spoke, saying that he represented the oldest of the Old Blood lines, and that she desired that he be treated with all courtesy. Yet when she yielded her audience to him, he assured them all that he was only a humble fisherman who happened to be descended of parents wiser far than he would ever be. Then, with an abruptness that left me gasping, he introduced his proposals for ending the unjust persecution of the Witted. He spoke as much to the Witted as he did to our queen as he suggested that perhaps her best method to begin to bring the two groups together would be to admit some Witted into her own household.

  As he spoke, he sounded more like a Jhaampe Wise-man settling a dispute than a spokesman for the Old Blood. My queen’s eyes shone as she listened to him. I caught not just Chade, but at least two of the Six Duchies men, nodding thoughtfully to what he proposed. Step by step, he revealed the reasoning behind his suggestion. He attributed much of the unjust persecution to fear, and much of the fear to ignorance. The ignorance he blamed on the Witted’s need to remain hidden for their own safety. Where better to begin an end to ignorance than in the Queen’s own household? Let an Old Blood woman with birding-skill assist in the mews, and a Witted dog-boy come to help her Huntswoman. Let her have a Witted page or maid, for no other reason than to let folk discover that they were no different from un-Witted pages and maids. Let other nobles see that these folk did no harm to her household or to others, but rather prospered them. The Queen would, of course, commit to their protection from persecution until others had been won firmly to the cause. The Old Blood thus placed would take an oath to initiate no strife.

  Then, with a smoothness that left me gasping, he offered his own services to the Queen. This he did as courteously and correctly as any court-trained noble’s son, so that I wondered uneasily if he had truly come of a fishing family. Down on one knee he sank before her, and begged to be allowed to remain at Buckkeep when the others departed. Let him live in the keep, and both learn and teach. Carefully keeping the secret of the Prince’s Wit when speaking before her Six Duchies councilors, he nonetheless offered himself as “a rough tutor, admittedly, but one who would love to educate the Prince in how our folk live and our customs, that he might know this group of his subjects more thoroughly. ”

  Chade objected. “But if you do not return to your folk as we promised, will not some say we kept you hostage against your will?” I suspected my old mentor did not desire an Old Blood man counseling the Prince.

  Web chuckled at his concern. “All in the room have witnessed that I offer myself. If after they leave me here, you choose to chop and burn me, well, then let it be said that it was due to my own woodenheadedness, that I trusted wrong. But I do not think that will be so. Will it, my lady?”

  “Of a certainty, not!” Queen Kettricken declared. “And whatever else may come of these meetings, I will count it a benefit that I have added such a clear-minded fellow to my household men. ”

  His careful pondering of the situation and his suggestions had taken all the morning. When it was time for the noon meal, Web declared that he himself would eat with his new friends in the guardroom and then introduce them to his bird. Before Chade could suggest that would not be wise, the Queen announced that indeed she and Chade and her Six Duchies councilors would join him there, for she too wished to see his Risk.

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  How I longed to be present for that, not just to witness it, but also to see the reaction of the guards when they found themselves honored with the Queen at their table. It could not damage Web’s standing with them that he had brought such a thing about. And I did not doubt that more would come to meet his bird if the Queen herself did not fear his Wit-beast.

  But I was trapped in my watching place, being Chade’s eyes when he was not in the room. I watched the Old Bloods unmask after their food had been brought in. As before, Boyo and Silvereye spoke loudly of injustices done and the need for retribution, but theirs were not the only voices raised. Some spoke of Web’s performance with amazement. I heard at least one woman say to another that, having met Kettricken, she would not mind entrusting a son to her to be her page, for she had heard that all children in the keep were given a chance to learn both figuring and writing. And a young man, clearly a minstrel from his voice, wondered aloud what it would be like to sing the Old Blood songs at the Queen’s own hearth, and if such a thing would not truly be the best way to teach the un-Witted that his people were neither fearsome nor monstrous.

  A crack had been opened. Tomorrow’s possibilities were gaining strength, growing in the light of Web’s optimism. I wondered if they could grow enough to cast their shadows over the weeds of yesterday’s wrongs.

  The afternoon, however, was a disappointment, long and tedious. When the Queen and her councilors returned with Web, Boyo rose to claim his turn to speak. Forewarned of him by Chade and myself, my queen listened calmly as he detailed first all the generalized wrongs the Farseers had ever done to the Old Bloods, and then the sp
ecifics of his case. There, at least, my queen was able to muffle him. Firmly but courteously, she told him that now was not the time for her to settle personal wrongs. If lands and wealth had been unjustly taken from his family, then that was a matter to be settled before her on a judging day rather than at this time. Chade would help him to make an appropriate appointment, and would also tell him what documentation he would need. Most of it would likely relate to the need for him to define a clear line of succession from his dispossessed ancestor to himself, including a minstrel who could attest to his being of the line of the eldest child of an eldest child for the intervening generations.

  Very neatly she made it seem that he was putting his own interests ahead of the others at the meeting, as indeed he was. She did not refuse to find justice for him, but relegated his seeking of it to the path that any Six Duchies citizen would have to follow. She reminded them all that this convocation was intended to allow all to join their thoughts as to how unjust persecution of the Old Bloods might be ended.

  Silvereye stirred a muck more difficult to settle. She spoke of those who had murdered her family. As she spoke, her voice rose in anger and hatred and pain, and I saw those emotions echoed in many faces around her. Web looked sick and sorrowful, and my queen’s face grew very still. Chade’s features were graven in stone. But anger most often begets anger, and the faces of Queen Kettricken’s Six Duchies representatives became set in surly expressions. The vengeance and punishment she demanded were far too steep for anyone to consider granting.

  It was as if she set a jump that no negotiator could clear and then declared that she could be satisfied with nothing less. This, she declared, was the only way to end persecution of the Old Blood. Make it a crime so hideously punished that none would consider committing it again. Further, search out and eliminate all who had ever committed or tolerated such treatment of Old Bloods. From her personal sorrow Silvereye expanded her grievance to include all Witted executed in the last century. She demanded both punishment and restitution, with the punishment to mirror exactly what had befallen their victims. My queen had the wisdom to allow her to keep speaking until she had run out of words. Surely I could not have been the only one to hear the edge of madness in her demands. And yet if grief powered that madness, then who was I to criticize it?

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