Golden fool, p.70
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       Golden Fool, p.70

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  By the time Silvereye had finished, there were not a few other Old Bloods anxious to take up the tally of all that had been lost to the persecution. Names were called out of folk who deserved death, and the anger in the room swirled like a gathering storm. But my queen held up a hand and asked them quietly, “Then where should it end?”

  “When every last one has been punished!” Silvereye declared passionately. “Let the gallows sway with their weight, and the smoke of their burning blacken the skies all summer. Let me hear their families wail aloud in a sorrow like the sorrows that we have been forced to conceal, lest others know us for Old Bloods. Let the punishment be apportioned exactly. For every father killed, let a father die. For every mother, a mother. For every child, a child. ”

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  The Queen sighed. “And when those who have suffered your vengeance come seeking from me a vengeance of their own? How then could I turn them aside? You propose that if a man has killed the children of an Old Blood family, then the children of his family should die alongside him. But what of the cousins of those children and the grandparents? Should not they then come before me and ask of me what you now demand? Would not they be just as right in saying that innocents had died in mad persecution? No. This cannot be. You ask what I cannot give you, and well you know it. ”

  I saw hatred and fury leap into Silvereye’s gaze. “So I knew it would be,” she declared bitterly. “Empty promises are what you offer us. ”

  “I offer you the same justice that anyone in the Six Duchies may seek,” the Queen said wearily. “Come before me on a judging day, with witnesses to the wrongs done to you. If murder has been done, then the murderer will be punished. But not his children. There is no justice in what you seek, only revenge. ”

  “You offer us nothing!” Silvereye declared. “Well you know that we do not dare come before you seeking justice. Too many would stand between us and Buckkeep Castle, anxious to silence us with death. ” She paused. Queen Kettricken remained still in the face of her wrath, and Silvereye made the mistake of pressing what she thought was her advantage. “Or has that always been your intention, Farseer Queen?” Silvereye swept the gathering with a righteous glance. “Does she lure us out into the open with empty promises so that she can do away with all of us?”

  A brief silence followed her words. Then Kettricken spoke quietly. “You throw words that you do not yourself believe. Your intention is to wound. Yet, if your accusations had any basis in fact, I would not be wounded by them, but would rather feel justified in hating Old Bloods. ”

  “Then you admit that you hate Old Bloods?” Silvereye demanded with satisfaction.

  “That is not what I said!” Kettricken responded both in horror and anger.

  Tempers were rising, and not just amongst the Old Bloods. Kettricken’s Six Duchies councilors looked both insulted and uneasy at the brewing storm in the room. I do not know what would have become of the negotiation if fate had not intervened in the person of the cow-woman. She stood abruptly, saying, “I must go to the stables. It is Wisenose’s time, and she wishes me to be there. ”

  Someone in the back of the room laughed resignedly, and someone else cursed at her. “You knew she was due to calve. Why did you bring her?”

  “Would you have me leave her alone at home, then? Or that I stay away entirely, Briggan? Well do I know that you think me scatterbrained, but I’ve as good a right to be here as you. ”

  “Peace,” Web suddenly said. He croaked the word, then cleared his voice and tried again. “Peace. It is as good a time as any to let tempers and hearts cool, and if Wisenose has need of her partner, then surely no one here will argue that she must go. And I will accompany her, if she wishes it. And perhaps by the time we return, all here will recall that we seek a solution to our present problems, not a way to change what is past, however grievous it may be. ”

  It struck me then that Web had a firmer control over this meeting than the Queen herself, but I doubt that any within the room noticed it. That is the advantage to watching from the outside, as Chade had often told me. Then it all becomes a show, and one scrutinizes the players equally. I observed them now as the Six Duchies delegation filed out behind the Queen and Chade, and then Web accompanied the cow-woman down to the stables. I remained at my post, for I judged that what would follow might be most revealing of all.

  And it was. Some, including the minstrel and the woman who had earlier spoken of her son paging for the Queen, asked Silvereye if she would destroy their future for the sake of a past that could not be remedied. Even Boyo seemed inclined to think Silvereye had taken their argument too far. “If this Farseer Queen holds to her word, then perhaps our grievances could be brought before her at a judging. I have heard it said she is fair in her decisions. Perhaps we should accept her offer. ”

  Silvereye all but hissed. “Cowards, all of you. Cowards and bootlickers! She offers you bribes, safety for one or two of your children, and in return you are ready to let the whole past be forgotten. Do you forget the screams of your cousins, do you forget coming to visit friends and finding only a scorched patch by a stream? How can you be so false to your own blood? How can you forget?”

  “How can we forget? It isn’t a matter of forgetting. It is a matter of remembering. ” This from an Old Blood I had not particularly noted before. He was a man of middle years and slight build, a man with the look of a town about him. He was not a good speaker; he gulped his words and looked nervously about, but folk still listened to him. “I will tell you what I remember. I remember that when my parents were taken from their cottage, it was because Piebalds betrayed them. Yes, and a Piebald rode with those who hung and quartered them. Laudwine’s cult dared to call my parents traitors to Old Blood and threatened to punish them because they would not offer haven to those who stir the hatred against us. Well, who was the true traitor that day? My parents who only wished to live in what peace they could find, or the Piebald betrayer who carried the torch that burned their bodies? We have worse enemies than this Farseer Queen to fear. And what I intend to ask of her when she comes back is justice against those who terrorize and betray us. Justice against the Piebalds. ”

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  A silence thick as congealing blood filled up the room. The minstrel came and set a hand on the slight man’s sleeve. “Bosk. She cannot help us with that. That is for us to deal with. All you would do is put yourself at greater risk, yes, and your wife and daughters, too. ” The minstrel glanced about the room, almost fearfully. And my heart sank at what I realized. The Old Bloods feared their own. There might be Piebald informers in that very room. The thought spread silently, chilling all of them. Soon some of them made excuses to go visit their own chambers, and in a short time the room was nearly empty. Silvereye sat silently staring into the fire. The minstrel wandered about the room aimlessly. There was little talk amongst the few who remained.

  I heard a scuffling noise down the passage behind me, and in a moment Chade crept up to join me. “Anything important?” he whispered.

  I set my hand to his wrist and conveyed all I had seen. His face grew thoughtful. After a moment he said softly, “Well. That sets my thoughts in a new track. It would not be the first time I had turned an error to an advantage. Keep your watch here, Fitz. ” Then, almost as an afterthought, “Are you getting hungry?”

  “A bit. But I’ll be fine. ”

  “And our prince?”

  “I’ve no reason to think he is otherwise. ”

  “Ah, but you do. If there may be Piebald informers in that room, then there may be Piebalds amongst those who hold him hostage. Warn him, lad. And keep watch. ”

  And then he was gone, shuffling along bent almost double in the passage. I watched him go and wondered what he had in mind. Then I reached for Dutiful. All was well with him. He was cold, he was bored, but no one had offered him insult let alone injury. Most of the talk today had been about what might
be happening at Buckkeep. Evidently a bird, perhaps Risk or the hawk, had been ferrying notes back and forth. So far, all tidings had been reassuring. But Dutiful said that the air was one of waiting and worry.

  The cow had an easy labor and dropped a fine bull calf. Cow-woman was just as glad that she’d had the benefit of a tight stable and a warm stall for the calf was born unseasonably early. By the time she and Web returned to the east gathering hall, it was time for another meal. I watched the Old Bloods congregate again as their meal was brought in, and watched them as they unmasked after the servants had left. I studied every face more carefully, but if there were any who had been in Laudwine’s band, I did not recognize them.

  The meal was almost finished when there was a tap at the door. Several of the Old Bloods cried out to the supposed servants that they were not yet finished eating. Then a voice at the door said quietly, “Let me in. Old Blood greets Old Blood. ”

  Web was the one who rose and went to the door. He unlatched it and opened it to admit both Civil Bresinga and his cat. The squirrel on the table chittered in panic and then ran up his partner to hide under her hair. Pard didn’t bat an eye, but strolled into the room, glanced about, and then went over to the hearth where he made himself comfortable. No one could have watched the cat’s entrance and doubted that he was Wit-partnered to the boy who closed the door quietly behind himself and then turned to face the assembly.

  The gazes he met would have daunted anyone. But again Web rose to the challenge, setting a friendly hand to Civil’s shoulder and loudly exclaiming, “Old Blood welcomes Old Blood. Come in and join us, lad. And you might be?”

  He took a breath and squared his shoulders. “I am Civil Bresinga. Lord Civil Bresinga, now, of Galekeep. I am a loyal subject of Queen Kettricken, and friend and companion to Prince Dutiful Farseer. I am Old Blood. And both my queen and my prince know that I am. ” He let them have a moment to consider that they looked at a Witted noble of the Farseer court. “I have come, at Councilor Chade’s behest, to tell you of how I am treated here. And to tell you too of my dealings with the Piebalds. And how I would have died at their hands, were it not for Farseer intervention. ”

  I watched in a sort of awe. The boy’s story was obviously unrehearsed. He wandered through it, often having to go back and explain earlier events. When he spoke of what his mother had endured and how she had died, he choked and could not go on. Web sat him down then and gave him a glass of wine and patted his back soothingly as if he were no more than a child. And I blinked and saw myself at fifteen, plunged into intrigue far beyond my ability to manage. Civil was little more than a child, I suddenly saw. Witted and constantly at risk, maneuvered into spying in a desperate bid to save his mother and his family fortune. He’d failed. Now he was deprived of parent and home, adrift: a very minor noble in a very political court. And the only reason he was alive, truly, was that he possessed the friendship of a Farseer. One whom he had betrayed not once, but twice, and yet each time, he had been forgiven.

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  “They have extended asylum to me,” he finished his tale. “The Queen and the Prince and Councilor Chade are all full aware that I am Old Blood. And they know how I was used against them. And what it cost me. ” He paused and shook his head. “I am not skilled with words. I cannot draw all the parallels that I would like you to see. Only . . . they have not judged me by what I did in the past. They have not judged the Old Bloods by what the Piebalds attempted against the Prince. The Queen has not flinched from her Witted son. Cannot we do as much for them? Deal with the Farseers for who they are now, without looking too deeply into the past?”

  Silvereye gave a contemptuous snort. But Boyo, perhaps seeing a kinship in this Witted noble and the title he hoped to reclaim, nodded thoughtfully. Civil suddenly looked at Web, and I sensed that something had just come into his mind, some idea of his own. As if in answer to my fervent wish, I heard the scuff of Chade’s tread again. I motioned to him frantically to join me at the spy post, even as I signaled silence to him. The boy was speaking to Web. His words barely carried to us.

  “Councilor Chade told me what you suggested. That if Old Bloods could come to Buckkeep and live openly here, alongside these ungifted folk, they might discover that we are not monsters to be feared. He also told me what you said. ‘A man with nothing to lose is often in the best position to sacrifice himself for the gain of others. ’ I have not had much time to ponder that, but I do not think I need much time to see that I am truly a man with nothing to lose. The only threat that remains is to me alone. I have no family left to suffer consequences for what I do. ” He glanced around the room. “I know that many of you fear that if you venture out of your hiding your neighbors will kill you. For long and long, it has been a valid fear. And one I have shared, as did my mother. ” His words died suddenly. Then he forced himself to go on, his voice cracking. “And so we stayed in hiding. And by doing so, we made it possible for our ‘friends’ to kill us instead. I see no point in hiding anymore. ” I could not decide if emotion choked him or if he paused to consider what he would say next. He glanced at Web again and then nodded as if to himself.

  “All in the keep have heard now of Web the Witted, who walks amongst us unafraid and unthreatening. I feel almost shamed that he, a stranger here, has stepped out into the light while I, who know Prince Dutiful best, have crept along in the shadows at the edge of the room. Tomorrow, I will change that. I will proudly declare my Old Blood and vow that I will demonstrate that such a one as I can be completely devoted to my prince, as he well deserves of me.

  “I have taught him of our ways, and willingly has Prince Dutiful learned. He has said that when he goes in the spring to the Out Islands, to slay a dragon and claim a bride, that I may go with him. When I do, I shall go as his Witted companion. There is no Skillmaster at Buckkeep, and my prince will go alone, with no Skill coterie such as Farseer Kings of old always had to aid them. Since he is bereft of that magic, I will instead put ours at his service, and prove it every bit as able, I warrant. I will put my Old Blood magic before them all, proudly. ”

  Chade’s tight grip on my wrist told me that all of this was new to him, not just that Civil planned to reveal himself but also that Dutiful had said his friend might accompany him on his quest. Chade’s Skilling was erratic, but it reached me. Did I say I would turn an error to an advantage? I may have succeeded too well, and our advantage overshot into yet another error. I merely wanted the boy to say the Queen had treated him well and fairly, not make himself the ambassador for Old Blood at court.

  I joined my thoughts to his. He does not perceive it is a risk for the Prince to admit to an Old Blood friend. He sees only the danger to himself, and that he would gladly risk it for Dutiful. Do you think you can talk him out of it?

  I’m not sure I’d be wise to, Chade conveyed to me. His spirit has captured their imagination. Look.

  It was not an overwhelming outpouring of support. Web was the only one who was grinning wildly and proclaiming how proud he was of young Lord Bresinga. The others, with the notable exception of the scowling Silvereye, were more reserved in their approval, and it varied over a wide spectrum of levels. Both the minstrel and Boyo looked enthused. Cow-woman, partly won over already by how her beast had been treated, was smiling gently. Others were discussing it more pragmatically. The Queen couldn’t very well let him be put to death, not when he’d already claimed asylum and she had promised that no Witted ones would be killed solely because of their magic. Likely he was as safe as he could possibly be. And well it might be that a young man both noble and handsome might win some hearts over to the Old Blood side. His declaration could not hurt their cause.

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  Then the town man, Bosk, came to stand before Civil. He was twisting his fingers together as if he might unscrew them from his hands. Then, in an uncertain voice, he asked, “Farseers killed Piebalds. Are you sure?”

  “
I’m very sure,” Civil said softly. His hand went up and touched his throat. “Very sure indeed. ”

  “Their names,” the man whispered. “Do you know their names?”

  Civil stood still and silent for a moment. Then, “Keppler. Padget. And Swoskin. Those were the names I knew them by. But Prince Dutiful called Keppler by another name, from his time amongst the Piebalds. He called him Laudwine. ”

  Bosk shook his head, plainly disappointed. But someone else in the room loudly asked, “Laudwine?” She pushed to the front and I recognized Silvereye. “That can’t be so! He was the leader of the Piebalds. If he’d been killed, I’d have heard of it. ”

  “Oh, would you?” the minstrel asked curiously. The look on his face was not pleasant.

  “I would,” she snapped. “Make of that what you will. I know folk who know Laudwine, and yes, some of them are Piebalds. I am not one, myself, though my recent conversations here have made me see what drove them to such extreme acts. ” She turned a shoulder to the minstrel, excluding him as she demanded of Civil, “How long ago did this happen? And what proof do you have that what you say is so?”

  The lad took a step back from her, but he answered. “Well over a month ago. As for proof . . . what proof can you expect me to give? I saw what I saw, but I fled as soon as I could. It shames me to admit it, but it is so. Still, I doubt what is common talk in Buckkeep Town is false. A one-armed man and his horse were killed, as well as a small dog. And the other two men in the house. ”

  “His horse, too!” Silvereye exclaimed, and I saw her take it as a double loss.

  “If this is so, it is a major blow to the Piebalds,” Bosk declared. “It might well mean the end of them. ”

  “No. It will not!” She was adamant. “The Piebalds are stronger than a single man. They will not give up this fight until we have had justice. Justice and revenge. ”

 
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