Golden fool, p.7
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       Golden Fool, p.7

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  I left the steam chamber and walked through to the washing chamber, where I sluiced the last of the salt from my skin and toweled myself dry. I went back into the first room, dressed, and headed out feeling clean but not renewed. A glance at the sun told me it was nearly time for Lord Golden’s afternoon ride. I headed for the stables, but as I started to go in, I met a stable hand leading Myblack, Malta, and an unfamiliar gray gelding. All the mounts were groomed to gleaming and already saddled. I explained to him I was Lord Golden’s man, but he regarded me with suspicion until a woman’s voice greeted me, with, “Ho, Badgerlock? Do you ride with Lord Golden and our prince today?”

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  “Such is my good fortune, Mistress Laurel,” I greeted the Queen’s Huntswoman. She was dressed in forest green, in the tunic and leggings of a hunter, but her figure gave them an entirely different air. Her hair was bundled out of the way in a most unfeminine way that somehow only made her more womanly. The stableman abruptly offered me a short bow and let me take the horses from him. When he was out of earshot, Laurel smiled at me and asked quietly, “And how is our prince?”

  “In good health, I am sure, Mistress Laurel. ” I apologized with my eyes, and she did not seem to take my careful words amiss. Her glance flickered over the goodwill charm at my throat. Jinna had used her hedge-witch magic to make it for me. It was supposed to make folk regard me kindly. Laurel’s smile grew warmer. I casually turned up my collar to conceal more of the charm.

  She glanced aside from me and then spoke with more formality, Huntswoman to serving man. “Well. I hope you enjoy your ride today. Please pass on my greetings to Lord Golden. ”

  “That I shall, mistress. A good day to you as well. ” As she walked away, I grumbled to myself over the role that I must wear as a shirt to my back. I would have liked more talk with her, but in the middle of the stableyard was not the place for private conversation.

  I led the horses around to the great front door of the hall and waited there.

  And waited there.

  The Prince’s gelding seemed accustomed to such delays, but Malta was plainly put out, and Myblack tested my patience with tactics from a quick tug on her reins to a steady even pull. I’d need to put in more hours with her if I expected to make a good mount of her. I wondered where I would find those hours, cursed the time that was being wasted now, and then dismissed the thought. A servant’s time belonged to his master; I had to behave as if I believed that. I was beginning to feel chilled as well as annoyed before a commotion alerted me to stand straight and put an obliging expression on my face.

  A moment later, both the Prince and Lord Golden emerged, surrounded by well-wishers and hangers-on. I did not see Dutiful’s intended or any Outislanders among this party. I wondered if that was odd. There were several young women, including one pouting with disappointment. Doubtless she had hoped the Prince would invite her along for the ride. Several of his male companions also looked a bit disgruntled. Dutiful wore a pleasant expression, but the pinch at the corners of his mouth and eyes let me know that he held it in place with an effort. Civil Bresinga was there, on the outskirts of the circle of admirers. Chade had said he was expected to arrive today. He gave me one dark glance, and I perceived that he maneuvered to stand closer to the Prince, but on the side away from Lord Golden. His presence sent a prickle of both irritation and fear up my spine. Would he leave this farewell and hasten to let others know that I had ridden out with the Prince? Did he spy for the Piebalds, or was he as innocent as had been claimed?

  It was obvious to me that the Prince wished to make a swift departure, but even so we lingered some time longer, as he made individual farewells and promised his later time and attention to many of them. All of this he managed graciously and well. It came to me that it was the thread of Skill between us that made me aware of his impatience and irritation with all the finely dressed nobility that surrounded them. As if he were a restive horse, I found myself sending thoughts of calm and patience to him. He glanced at me, but I could not be sure he was aware of my reaching toward him.

  One of his companions took his horse’s head from me, and held the animal while the Prince mounted. I held Malta for Lord Golden and then, at a nod from him, mounted my own horse. There was yet another round of farewells and good wishes, as if we were setting off on a long journey rather than merely an afternoon ride. Finally, the Prince firmly reined his gelding to one side and touched heels to him. Lord Golden followed him and then I let Myblack go. A chorus of good-byes rained down behind us.

  Despite Chade’s advice, I had little chance to suggest any route for our afternoon ride. The Prince led and we followed to the gates of Buckkeep, where again we had to pause to allow the guards to formally salute and then pass their young prince through the gate. The moment we cleared the gate, Dutiful put his heels to his horse. The pace he set precluded any conversation. He soon turned off the road onto a lesser-traveled trail, and then kicked his gray to a canter. We followed, and I felt Myblack’s satisfaction in the chance to stretch her muscles. She was not so pleased that I held her back, for she knew that she could easily outdistance both Malta and the gray if given her head.

  The Prince’s route led us out onto the sunny hillsides. Once there had been forest here, and Verity had hunted deer and pheasant. Now sheep grudgingly ambled out of our way as we crossed open pasturage, and then ventured into the wilder hills beyond. And all this time, we rode in silence. When we left the flocks behind, Dutiful gave his gray a free head and we galloped through the hills as if fleeing an enemy. Myblack had lost a little of her edginess when the Prince finally pulled in his mount. Lord Golden moved up to ride behind him as the walking horses snorted and blew. I kept my place behind them until the Prince turned in his saddle and irritably waved me up beside him. I let Myblack move up and the Prince greeted me coldly with, “Where have you been? You promised me that you would teach me, and I haven’t even seen you since we returned to Buckkeep Castle. ”

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  I bit back my first response, reminding myself that he spoke as a prince speaks to a servant, not as a boy would address his father. Yet that brief moment of silence seemed to rebuke him as much as words would have. Not that he looked chastened, but I recognized the stubborn flex of his lips. I took a breath. “My prince, it has been scarcely two days since we returned. I had assumed that you would be very busy with the tasks of your reign. In the meantime, I resumed the chores of my own life. If it please my prince, I thought that you would summon me when you required me. ”

  “Why do you speak to me like this?” the Prince demanded angrily. “My prince this and my prince that! You didn’t address me in this fashion on our way home. What happened to our friendship?”

  I saw the Fool’s warning in Lord Golden’s quick glance, but I ignored it. I kept my voice low and even as I answered. “If you rebuke me as you would a servant, my prince, then I assume that I am to respond in a style appropriate to my station. ”

  “Stop that!” Dutiful hissed at me, as if I had mocked him. I suppose in truth that I had. The result was awful. For a moment, his face tightened as if he were on the verge of tears. He spurred ahead of us, and we let him go. Lord Golden gave me a minuscule shake of his head, and then nodded at me that I should catch up with the lad. I debated making the Prince pull in and wait for us, then decided that perhaps he could not bend so far. A boy’s pride can be very stiff.

  I let Myblack move up alongside the trotting gray as she wished, but before I could speak to Dutiful, he addressed me. “I’ve started this all wrong. I’m beleaguered and frustrated. These last two days have been horrible . . . just horrible. I’ve had to behave with perfect courtesy even when I wanted to shout, and smilingly accept flowery compliments on a situation I wish to flee. Everyone expects me to be happy and excited. I’ve heard enough ribald tales about wedding nights to gag a goat. No one knows or cares about my loss. No one even noticed my cat
was gone. I have no one that I can speak to about it. ” He suddenly choked. He abruptly pulled his horse to a halt and turned in his saddle to face me. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I apologize, Tom Badgerlock. ”

  The bluntness of his words and the honest offering of his hand were so like Verity that I knew it was truly his spirit that had fathered this boy. I felt humbled. I gravely gripped the offered hand, then pulled him close enough that I could set a hand to his shoulder. “It’s too late to apologize,” I told him seriously. “I’ve already forgiven you. ” I took a breath as I released him. “And I have felt as badgered, my lord, and it has shortened my own temper. So many tasks have fallen to me lately that I’ve scarcely had time to see my own boy. I’m sorry I did not seek you out sooner. I am not sure how we can arrange our meetings without making others aware that I teach you, but you are right. It must be done, and putting it off will not make it easier. ”

  The Prince’s face had gone very still at my words. I sensed a sudden distancing in him but could not perceive the cause until he asked quietly, “Your ‘own boy’?”

  His inflection puzzled me. “My foster son, Hap. He is apprenticed to a woodworker in Buckkeep Town. ”

  “Oh. ” The single word seemed to fade into silence. Then, “I did not know you had a son. ”

  The jealousy was courteously masked but it rang green against my sense of him. I did not know how to react to it. I gave him the truth. “I’ve had him since he was eight or so. His mother abandoned him and he had no other folk willing to take him in. He’s a good lad. ”

  “But he is not truly your son,” the Prince pointed out.

  I took a breath and replied firmly, “In every way that matters, he is a son to me. ”

  Lord Golden sat his horse at the outskirts of our circle. I dared not glance to him for advice. After a time of silence, the Prince tightened his knees and his horse moved forward at a walk. I let Myblack pace him. I was aware of the Fool dawdling along behind us. Just when I thought I must break the silence before it became a wall between us, Dutiful blurted out, “Then what need have you of me, if you already have a son of your own?”

  The hunger in his voice shocked me. I think he startled himself, for he suddenly kicked his horse into a trot and rode ahead of me again. I made no effort to catch up with him until the Fool at my side whispered, “Go after him. Don’t let him close himself off from you. You should know by now how easy it is to lose a person, just by letting someone walk away from you. ” Even so, I think it was more the prompting of my own heart that made me set my heels to Myblack and catch up with the boy. For boy he very much looked now, chin held firm, eyes straight ahead as he trotted along. He did not look at me as I came alongside him, but I knew he listened when I spoke.

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  “What need do I have of you? What need do you have of me? Friendship is not always based on need, Dutiful. But I will tell you plainly that I need you in my life. Because of who your father was to me, and because you are your mother’s son. But mostly because you are you, and we have too much in common for me to walk away from you. I would not see you grow up as ignorant of your magics as I did. If I can save you that torment, then perhaps in some way I will have saved myself as well. ”

  I suddenly ran dry of words. Perhaps, like Prince Dutiful, I was surprised by my own thoughts. Truth can well out of a man like blood from a wound, and it can be just as disconcerting to look at.

  “Tell me about my father. ”

  Perhaps for him the request logically followed what I had said. For me, it jolted. I walked a line here. I felt I owed him whatever I could give him of Verity. Yet how could I tell him stories of his father without revealing my own identity? I had firmly resolved that he would know nothing of my true bloodlines. Now was not the time to reveal to him that I was FitzChivalry Farseer, the Witted Bastard, nor that my body had fathered his. To explain that Verity’s spirit, by strength of his Skill magic, had occupied my flesh for those hours was far too complicated an explanation for the boy. In truth, I could barely accept it myself.

  So, much as Chade once had with me, I hedged, asking him, “What would you know of him?”

  “Anything. Everything. ” He cleared his throat. “No one has spoken to me much of him. Chade sometimes tells me stories of what he was like as a boy. I’ve read the official accounts of his reign, which become amazingly vague after he leaves on his quest. I’ve heard minstrels sing of him, but in those songs he is a legend, and none of them seem to agree on exactly how he saved the Six Duchies. When I ask about that, or what it was like to know him, everyone falls silent. As if they do not know. Or as if there were a shameful secret that everyone knows but me. ”

  “There is no shameful secret of any kind attached to your father. He was a good and honorable man. I cannot believe that you know so little of him. Not even your mother has told you of him?” I asked incredulously.

  He took a breath and slowed his horse to a walk. Myblack tugged at her bit but I held her pace to match the Prince’s mount. “My mother speaks of her king. Occasionally, of her husband. When she does talk of him, I know that she still grieves for him. It makes me reluctant to pester her with questions. But I want to know about my father. Who he was as a person. As a man among men. ”

  “Ah. ” Again, it rang in me, the similarities we shared. I had hungered for the same truths about my own father. All I had ever heard of was Chivalry the Abdicator, the King-in-Waiting who had been tumbled from his throne before he ever truly occupied it. He had been a brilliant tactician, a skilled negotiator. He had given it up to quiet the scandal of my existence. Not only had the noble Prince sired a bastard, he had got me on a nameless Mountain woman. It only made his childless marriage the more stinging to an heirless kingdom. That was what I knew of my father. Not what foods he liked, or whether he laughed easily. I knew none of the things a son would know if he had grown up seeing his father daily.

  “Tom?” Dutiful prodded me.

  “I was thinking,” I replied honestly. I tried to think what I would like to know about my own father. Even as I pondered this, I scanned the hillside around us. We were following a game path through a brushy meadow. I examined the trees that marked the beginning of the foothills, but saw and felt no sign of humans there. “Verity. Well. He was a big man, near as tall as I am, but bull-chested with wide shoulders. In battle harness, he looked as much soldier as prince, and sometimes I think he would have preferred that more active life. Not that he loved battle, but because he was a man who liked to be outdoors, moving and doing things. He loved to hunt. He had a wolfhound named Leon that shadowed him from room to room, and—”

  “Was he Witted, then?” the Prince asked eagerly.

  “No!” The question shocked me. “He simply had a great fondness for his dog. And—”

  “Then why am I Witted? They say it runs in families. ”

  I gave a halfhearted shrug. To me, it seemed the lad’s mind leapt from topic to topic as a flea hops from dog to dog. I tried to follow it. “I suppose the Wit is like the Skill. That is supposed to be the Farseer magic, yet a child born in a fisherman’s cot may suddenly show the potential for it. No one knows why a child is born with or without magic. ”

  “Civil Bresinga says the Wit winds through the Farseer line. He says that perhaps the Piebald Prince got his Wit as much from his royal mother as his baseborn father. He says that sometimes it runs weak in two family lines, but when they cross, the magic shows itself. Like one kitten with a crooked tail when the rest of the litter is sound. ”

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  “When did Civil say these things to you?” I demanded sharply.

  The Prince gave me an odd look but answered. “Early this morning, when he arrived from Galekeep. ”

  “In public?” I was horrified. I noticed that Lord Golden had edged his horse closer to us.

  “No, of course not! It was very early this morning, before
I had breakfasted. He came to the door of my bedchamber himself, urgently begging audience with me. ”

  “And you just let him in?”

  Dutiful stared at me in silence for a moment. Then he said stiffly, “He has been a friend to me. He gave me my cat, Tom. You know what she meant to me. ”

  “I know how that gift was intended, as do you! Civil Bresinga may be a dangerous traitor, my prince, one who has already conspired with the Piebalds to snatch you away from your throne and eventually from your own flesh. You must learn more caution!”

  The Prince had gone pink about the ears at my rebuke. Yet he still managed to keep his voice level. “He says he is not. And that they didn’t. Conspire, that is. Do you think he would have come to me to explain if he had? He and his mother did not know about . . . the cat. They were not even aware I was Witted when they gave her to me. Oh, my little cat. ” His voice suddenly faltered on his last words, and I knew how all his thoughts had diverted to the loss of his Wit-partner.

  The chill grief of his loss blew through his words. It stirred my own loss of Nighteyes to a sharper ache. I felt as if I were probing a wound as I relentlessly asked, “Then why did they do it? It must have seemed a strange request. Someone comes to them and gives them a hunting cat and says, ‘Here, give this to the Prince. ’ And they’ve never said who gave it. ”

  He took a breath, then stopped. “Civil spoke to me in confidence. I don’t know if I should break that trust. ”

  “Did you promise not to tell?” I demanded, dreading the answer. I needed to know what Civil had told him, but I would not ask him to break his promise.

  An incredulous look came over Dutiful’s face. “Tom Badgerlock. A noble does not ask his prince to ‘promise not to tell. ’ It would not be appropriate to our stations. ”

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