Golden fool, p.71
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       Golden Fool, p.71

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb

  Bosk stood up and walked toward her slowly, his fists knotted. His threat would have been pathetic if it had not been so sincere. “Maybe I should take my revenge where I can get it,” he suggested breathlessly. His voice nearly broke on the next words. “If I posted your name as Witted, and you were hung and burned, would it scald your Piebald friends? Perhaps I should take your advice. Do to them exactly what was done to me. ”

  “You are so stupid! Can’t you see they are fighting for all of us, and deserve our support? I had heard rumors, that Laudwine had discovered something, something that could topple the Farseers from power. Perhaps that secret died with him, but perhaps it did not. ”

  “Now you are the one being stupid,” Civil broke in determinedly. “Topple the Farseers? Now there is a plan! Bring down the only queen who has ever tried to halt the hanging and burning. And what will that gain us? Only widespread persecution, with no fear of reprisals or guardsmen coming to intervene. If Old Blood even attempts to overthrow the monarchy, it will be seen as proof that we are as evil and untrustworthy as our enemies have said. Are you mad?”

  “She is,” Web said quietly. “And for that we should pity her, not condemn her. ”

  “I don’t want your pity!” Silvereye spat out. “I need no one’s pity. Nor do I need your help. Grovel to this Farseer Queen. Forgive all that has been done to you, and let them use you as their servants. I do not forgive, and in my time I will have my revenge. I will. ”

  “We’ve done it,” Chade whispered by my ear. “Or perhaps I should say that Silvereye has done it for us. She has driven into our fold any who do not dream of blood and burning. And that is most of them, I think. See if I am not right. ”

  And with that he left me, scuttling off like a gray spider through the tunnels. It wasn’t until late that night that I finally left my post to go and find food and then to take some sleep. But it went as he had said it would. Civil remained with the Old Bloods, and when the Queen, Chade, and the Six Duchies delegates returned, he stood before them and greeted them as a Witted noble. I saw the discomfort on the faces of the delegates as he assured them that in every duchy, there were Witted nobility, forced for generations to keep their magic small and silent. Several of the young men he spoke to now knew him well. They had ridden with him, drunk with him, and gamed at table with him. They exchanged glances with one another, and their plain message was “If he is Witted, who else might be also?” But Civil either did not see or ignored their reservations as he pushed on with his proclamation. He intended now to let his magic burn bright for the good of Prince Dutiful and the Farseer reign. He pledged himself to this, and I thought I saw grudging admiration on three of the delegates’ faces. Perhaps this Old Blood youth could act as a proof against their prejudice.

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  The last day of the Queen’s Witted convocation showed solid progress. The minstrel appeared unmasked, and asked her permission to remain at court. The Queen presented to her Six Duchies delegates a proclamation that from this date henceforward, executions could only be legally carried out under the aegis of each of her ducal houses, with the head of each house liable for any injustices that occurred in his own duchy. Each duchy was to have only one gallows, and that was to be under the control of the ruling house. Not only was each duchy to prevent local officials from executing prisoners, but dukes and duchesses must review individually every such execution. Killings carried out otherwise would be seen as murders, and the Queen’s judgment would be available against such killers. It did not solve the problem of how Old Bloods could safely bring such charges without fear of reprisals, but it at least formally established consequences for them.

  Of such tiny steps, Chade assured me, would our progress be made. When I rode forth with the Queen’s Guard to escort our Old Blood delegates back to their friends and receive our prince and Laurel in return, I marked a solid change in the folk. There was talk and laughter amongst themselves as they rode, and some interchanges even with the guard. Cow-woman, her cow and her calf trailing her, rode alongside Lord Civil Bresinga, and seemed to feel great honor at this fine young lord’s conversation with her. On his other side rode Boyo. His evident efforts to claim equality with Lord Bresinga were rather undermined by that young man’s egalitarian attitude toward cow-woman. Civil’s cat rode on his saddle behind him.

  All around us in the forest, the snow had melted down to thin icy fingers clawing at the soil in the shadows. New green things were beginning to brave the sunlit world, and the breeze that flowed past us indeed seemed the wind of change. Amongst all this, Silvereye rode alone in our midst. Web rode alongside me and made conversation about everything, for both the Queen and Chade had insisted that he must make the journey so that all Old Bloods might witness that he returned to Buckkeep Castle of his own free will.

  When we made our rendezvous, Civil and Pard seemed equally glad to see their prince. Dutiful professed himself surprised and pleased to have them come to meet him. His warm welcome of his friend and his Wit-beast impressed the Old Bloods, both those who had been to Buckkeep Castle and those who awaited them. He had, of course, known of his friend’s coming through my Skill.

  When we returned to Buckkeep Castle, not only the Prince and Laurel returned with us, but also Web and the minstrel, whose name was Cockle. He sang as he rode with us, and I gritted my teeth to his rendition of “Antler Island Tower. ” That stirring and maudlin lay told the tale of the Antler Island defense against the Red Ship raiders, with much emphasis placed on the role that Chivalry’s bastard son had played. It was true that I had been there, but I doubted half the exploits attributed to my axe. Web laughed aloud at my pained expression. “Don’t sneer so, Tom Badgerlock. Surely the Witted Bastard is a hero both our folk can share. He was a Buckkeep man and Old Blood both. ” And his bass joined the minstrel on the next refrain about “Chivalry’s son, with eyes of flame, who shared his blood if not his name. ”

  Didn’t Starling write that ballad? Dutiful asked with false concern. She considers it her property. She may not take kindly to Cockle singing it at Buckkeep.

  She wouldn’t be alone in that. I may strangle him myself to save her the time.

  Yet on the next refrain, not only Civil and Dutiful lifted their voices, but half the guardsmen as well. That, I told myself, is the effect that a spring day can have on folk. I hoped it would wear out soon.

  Chapter XXVII


  In the beginning of the world, there were the Old Blood folk and the beasts of the fields, the fish in the water and the birds of the sky. All lived together in balance if not in harmony. Among the Old Blood folk, there were but two tribes. One was comprised of the blood takers, and they were the people who bonded to creatures who ate the flesh of other creatures. And the other folk were the blood givers, and they bonded to those who ate only plants. The two tribes had nothing to do with each other, not any more than a wolf has to do with a sheep; that is, they met only in death. Yet each respected the other as an element of the land, just as a man respects both a tree and a fish.

  Now the laws that separated them were stern laws and just. But there are always people who think they know better than the law, or think that, in their special situation, an exception should be made for them. So it was when a daughter of a blood taker, bonded to a fox, fell in love with the son of a blood giver, bonded to an ox. What harm, they thought, could come of their love? They would do no injury to one another, neither woman to man nor fox to ox. And so they went apart from their own peoples, lived in their love, and in time brought forth children of their own. But of their children, the first son was a blood taker and the first daughter was a blood giver. And the third was a poor witless child, deaf to every animal of every kind and doomed always to walk only in his own skin. Great was the sorrow of the family when their eldest son bonded to a wolf and their eldest daughter to a deer. For his wolf killed her deer, and she took the life of her brother in rec
ompense. Then they knew the wisdom of the oldest ways, for a predator cannot bond with prey. But worse was to come, for their witless child sired only witless children, and thus were born the folk who are deaf to all the beasts of the world.

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  Spring overwhelmed the land. Pale green hazed the trees on the hills behind the castle. Over the next two days, the leaves unfurled and grew, and the forest cloaked the hills again. The grasses rushed up from the earth, displacing the dry brown stalks of last year. The startling white of new lambs appeared amongst the grazing flocks. Folk began to talk of Spring Fest. It shocked me that only a year had passed since I had allowed Starling to take Hap off to Buckkeep from our quiet cottage. Too much had happened. Far too much had changed.

  Within the keep, all was bustle and excitement. It was far more than the ordinary preparations for Spring Fest. During that auspicious time, the Prince would take ship to the Out Islands, and all must be prepared for that. The captain and crew of the Maiden’s Chance were pleased that their ship had been chosen as the transport vessel. There was much vying amongst the guardsmen to be amongst those chosen for the Prince’s own guard. In the end, too many volunteered, myself amongst them, and the Prince was reduced to having the guardsmen draw lots to see who would be amongst the fortunate few. I was not surprised to be chosen; after all, Chade had given me the lot I would “draw” the night before.

  Civil Bresinga would, indeed, be going with us. Chade was also part of the company, as was Thick, much to the surprise of the Prince’s court. Web, rapidly on his way to becoming a favorite with the Queen, had begged her permission to accompany her son and been granted it. He promised that his seabird would range far ahead of the vessel and keep a watch on the weather.

  Civil was not the only noble hoping to accompany the Prince. Quite a variety of his lords and ladies expressed the intent of going along. It quickly put me in mind of the immense expedition that had set out for the Mountains so many years ago when Kettricken was Verity’s bride-to-be. Now as then, every noble brought an entourage of servants and beasts with them. Secondary ships were rapidly hired. Nobles who could not afford the time or money to accompany the Prince would still make their presence felt. Gifts were also amassing at Buckkeep Castle, not just for the Narcheska but also for her motherhouse and her father’s clan.

  In Verity’s tower, the Skill lessons continued, but all my pupils were distracted and difficult. Thick sensed too well Dutiful’s anxiety and anticipation and responded to it with excitability that made it well nigh impossible to get him to concentrate on anything. Prince Dutiful arrived and left with a harried air. He constantly seemed to have a clothing fitting that he must go to, or a lesson in Outislander courtesy or language.

  I pitied him, but pitied myself more as I struggled to learn all I could from scrolls in the evening. Even Chade was distracted. He puppeteered far too many situations within Buckkeep to be able to leave the castle easily. Despite his keen interest in pursuing the Skill, much of his attention was given over to selecting folk to handle his responsibilities while he was gone. I was relieved that Rosemary would not be accompanying us, yet felt unhappy with the idea that she would be left in charge of much of Chade’s spy network. I suspected that Chade was also burning some night oil with further experiments on his explosive powder, but the less I knew of that, the more contented I was.

  Our imminent departure was more than enough to fill my mind, and yet life never allows a man to focus on one task at a time. Dutiful and Civil also had nightly lessons with Web in the history and customs of the Old Blood folk. These were held before a hearth in the Great Hall, and Web had made it plain that any who were interested were welcome to attend. The Queen herself had been present on several occasions. At first, his “lessons” were sparsely attended, and many of the faces were set in disapproving lines. But Web was a masterful storyteller and many of his tales were new to the folk of Buckkeep. He rapidly gained an audience, especially amongst the children of the keep. And soon those who were ostensibly busy carding wool or fletching arrows or mending garments began to set up those tasks within earshot of Web’s voice. I do not know that many became convinced the Old Blood were not to be feared, but at least they learned more of how such people lived and thought.

  Web had one other student at those sessions, one I had never thought to see at Buckkeep. Swift, Burrich’s son, often sat silently on the outskirts of Web’s circle.

  Word that Queen Kettricken had said she would welcome Witted folk had gone out. Few had responded, as far as the public was aware. The difficulty was plain. How could one offer his son or daughter as page and Witted without revealing that it was in the family bloodline? Here at court, the Queen might be able to protect such a child, but what of his kin at home? Lord Brant, a lesser noble of Buck, had brought his ten-year-old son and sole heir. He had presented him to the Queen as Old Blood, but claimed that the magic came from his mother, dead these six years and with few surviving kin. The Queen had accepted him at his word. I also suspected one seamstress who had recently come to Buckkeep, but if she did not wish to openly declare her Wit, I would not ask.

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  The Queen’s other new page was none other than Swift. He had come, alone and on foot, wearing new boots and a new jacket and bearing a letter from Burrich. I had witnessed him presenting it to the Queen from my usual vantage point. The letter ceded the boy to the Farseers, admitting that Burrich had done his best with the lad but failed to shake him from his course. If he would not leave that base magic, then let him embrace it, and his father was done with him. He could not afford to have the boy around his younger brothers. It also directed that the lad not be known as Burrich’s son at the court. When Queen Kettricken gently asked of him how he wished to be known then, Swift had lifted his pale face and answered quietly but firmly, “Witted. It is what I am and will not deny. ”

  “Swift Witted it shall be then,” she had replied with a smile. “And I think it a name that will fit you well. I turn you over to my Councilor Chade now. He will find appropriate duties for you, and lessons as well. ”

  The boy had given a small sigh, and then bowed deeply, obviously relieved that the ordeal of his royal audience was over. He had walked very stiff and straight as he left the audience chamber.

  That Burrich would discard the boy shocked me to the depths of my soul, but I was also relieved. While Swift remained in Burrich’s household and the Wit was a point of contention between them, it could only lead to strife and misery. I suspected the decision had been both difficult and bitter for Burrich, and I lay awake nearly all of one night wondering what Molly thought of it and if she had wept at her son’s departure. I was sorely tempted to reach out to Nettle. I had refrained from doing so since the day of Thick and Dutiful’s wild Skilling. It was not only that I did not wish to connect what we shared with that Skill summons. I still feared the echoing memory of that alien voice. I would not chance a strong sending that would draw its attention to myself or to my daughter.

  Yet on that night, as if my heart betrayed my mind, Nettle’s mind touched mine. It seemed almost a chance encounter, as if we had happened to dream of one another at the same moment. I wondered again at how effortlessly our minds could unite with the Skill, and wondered if Chade were correct. Perhaps this was something that I had taught her from the time she was small. I dreamed of her sitting on the grass beneath a spreading tree. She held something in her cupped hands, something secret and small, and stared at it sorrowfully.

  What troubles you? I asked her. Even as I spoke to her and she focused on me, I felt my dream self assume the shape she always gave me. I sat down and curled my tail around my forefeet. I grinned at her wolfishly. I do not look like this, you know.

  How would I know what you look like? she asked me peevishly. You tell me nothing about yourself. Abruptly, there were daisies growing at her f
eet. A tiny blue bird alighted in a branch over her head and sat fanning its delicate wings.

  What do you have there? I asked her curiously.

  Whatever I have, it is mine. Just as your secrets are yours. Her hands closed around the treasure she clasped. She pressed it to her chest, concealing it within her heart. Had she fallen in love, then?

  Let me see if I can guess yours, I offered playfully. It pleased me unreasonably to think of my daughter in love and treasuring that first secret realization. I hoped the young man was worthy of her.

  She looked alarmed. No. Stay away from it. It isn’t even mine. It was only entrusted to me.

  Has a young man, perhaps, spoken his heart to you? I hazarded merrily.

  Her eyes widened in dismay. Go away! Don’t guess. A wind stirred the tree branches above her head. We both looked up just as the blue bird changed into a bright blue lizard. Its silver eyes sparkled and whirled as it scuttled closer, coming down the trunk almost to her hair. “Tell me,” it chirruped. “I love secrets!”

  She looked at me disdainfully. Your ruse does not deceive me. She flapped a hand at the lizard. Go away, pest.

  Instead the creature leapt into her hair. It dug its claws in, tangling itself in her tresses. It grew suddenly larger, the size of a cat, and wings sprouted from its shoulders. Nettle shrieked and swatted at it, but it clung there. It lifted its head, suddenly at the end of a long neck, and regarded me with silver spinning eyes. Small but perfect, a blue dragon sneered at me. Its voice changed terribly. Alien and freezing, it rasped against my soul. Tell me your secret, Dream Wolf! it demanded. Tell me of a black dragon and an island! Tell me now or I tear her head from her shoulders.

  The voice tried to set hooks in me. It endeavored to seize me and know me exactly as I was. I sprang to my feet and shook myself. I willed the wolf seeming to fly free of me so that I could escape the dream, but it held me. I felt the creature’s regard, the prying of another mind at mine, as it demanded silently that I give up my true name.

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