Golden fool, p.72
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       Golden Fool, p.72

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Page 266


  Nettle suddenly stood. Reaching up, she seized the hissing creature in both hands. She glared at me gaping at her. It’s only a dream. This is only a dream. You will not trick any secrets from me this way. This is only a dream and I break it and I awake. NOW!

  I do not know what she did. It was not so much that she shifted her shape out of the dream as that she trapped the dragon. It became blue glass in her hands, and then she flung it from her. It struck the soil at my feet and exploded in a storm of sharp fragments. The pain of the cuts it dealt me jabbed me back into wakefulness. I sat up with a gasp, throttling Chade’s old blanket between my hands. I sprang from the bed and brushed my hands down my chest, expecting to sweep away shards of glass and feel the sting of bloody cuts. But there was only sweat. I shivered suddenly, and then shook as with an ague. I spent the rest of the night sitting up before the fire wrapped in a blanket and staring into the flames. Try as I might, I could make no sense of what I had experienced. What parts were a dream, what parts a Skill-sharing with Nettle? I could not draw any lines, and I feared. I feared not only that something from the Skill current had found us both, but also I feared the Skill talent I had sensed in Nettle as she had saved us both from its deadly regard.

  I told no one of that dream. I knew what Chade’s answer would be to my concerns. “Bring the girl to Buckkeep where we can protect her. Teach her to Skill. ” I would not. It had just been the bizarre ending to a dream in which my worst fears mingled. With all the strength I possessed, I believed that, as if my belief could make it the truth.

  By daylight, it was easier to shelve those fears. I had many other concerns to occupy me, and much to arrange before my departure. I went down to Gindast and paid far ahead on Hap’s education. My lad seemed to be prospering at his apprenticeship. Gindast himself told me that the boy now surprised him almost daily. “Now that he has put his mind to his learning,” he added heavily, and I heard there the master’s rebuke of my slovenly parenting. But it was Hap who had applied the discipline to himself, and I gave him full credit for it. Every third or fourth day, I would make time in my schedule to visit him at least briefly. We did not speak of Svanja, only of how his work progressed and the approaching Spring Fest and the like. I had not yet told him that I would be leaving Buckkeep with the Prince. If I had, I was sure he would tell the other apprentices and perhaps pass it on to Jinna as well, for he was still occasionally a guest in her home. Habit made me wish to keep my traveling plans quiet until close to my departure date. Just as well not to connect me with the Prince, I told myself. I did not want to admit that part of that was my own dread at being parted from my foster son for that long, especially as I expected to be going into danger.

  I had taken the Fool’s warning to heart. In addition to raiding Chade’s armory for an impressive array of small and deadly items, I had undertaken modifying my clothing to accommodate them. It was a lengthy and frustrating process and I often missed the Fool’s deft suggestions and defter hands. I saw little of him in those days. I might glimpse Lord Golden about the halls and courtyards of the keep, but other young and dashing nobles of the court always accompanied him. The halls of Buckkeep seemed to be swarming with such youngsters. The Prince’s quest seemed to have a fascination for a certain type of young man, one eager both to prove himself and to spend his ancestral fortune on amusing himself at the same time. They were attracted to Lord Golden as moths are to a lamp. Then I heard a rumor that Lord Golden was completely enraged that Chalcedean vessels were disrupting trade and delaying the arrival of the Jamaillian cloaks that he had specially commissioned for the Outislander expedition wardrobe. They were, according to gossip, to have been patterned with dragons in black, blue, and silver thread.

  I asked Chade about it. Chade had come up to the tower that evening to help me work on speaking basic Outislander. The language shared many words with the common tongue of the Six Duchies, but they twisted them and spoke gutturally. My throat was sore from my attempts. “Did you know that Lord Golden still plans to accompany us?” I asked him.

  “Well, I’ve given him no reason to think otherwise. Use your head, Fitz. He’s a very resourceful man. As long as he thinks he will simply take ship with the Prince, he will make no alternate arrangements. And the less time we give that one to think of alternate arrangements, the less chance that he can circumvent our will. ”

  “I thought you said that you could prevent him from taking ship from Buckkeep. ”

  “I did. I can. But he seems to have a goodly supply of coin at his command, Fitz, and that can make many things possible. Why give him any extra time to plan?” He glanced away from me. “When the time comes to board, he will simply be told that there has been a miscalculation. There is no room for him. Perhaps he can follow on a later vessel. But I will be sure that there are no such vessels with available space. ”

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  I was silent for a time. I tried to imagine that scene and winced from it. Then I spoke softly in reply to his words. “It seems a hard way to treat a friend. ”

  “We treat him thus precisely because he is your friend. You were the one who wished him stopped. He told you he had foreseen his death on Aslevjal, and that you must somehow prevent the Prince from slaying the black dragon. As I told you then, I put little weight on either event happening. If Lord Golden does not accompany us, he cannot die there. Nor can he provoke you into interfering with the Prince’s mission. I doubt it will be much of an adventure, anyway. He will have missed only some cold and difficult work. I think that the Prince’s ‘slaying’ may be no more than chopping free the head of something that was buried in the ice ages ago. How are you two getting along lately?”

  He added the final question so adroitly that I answered it without thinking. “Not well and not poorly. Mostly I don’t see much of him. ” I looked down at my fingers and scraped at a hangnail. “It’s as if he has become someone else, someone I don’t know very well. And would have no reason to know, in this life we live now. ”

  “And I the same. I’ve the feeling that he has been very busy of late, and yet I am not sure with what. The common gossip tells me only that he has begun to gamble heavily on games of chance. He spends his money lavishly, on dinners and gifts of wine and fine garments for his friends, but he spends even more on gambling with them. No fortune will withstand that for long. ”

  I scowled. “That does not sound like the man I know. He so seldom does anything without a purpose, yet I see no reason to that. ”

  Chade laughed without humor. “Well, so many say when they see a friend fall to a weakness. He would not be the first intelligent man I’ve known to succumb to an unreasoning appetite for games of chance. And in a way, you may blame yourself. Since Dutiful introduced the Stone game, it has roared into popularity. The young men call it “the Prince’s Stones. ” As with all such caprices, what started out as simple has become terribly expensive. Not only do opponents wager against each other, but now men back favorite players, and the wagers on a single game may mount to a small fortune. Even the game cloths and stones have increased in value. Instead of a cloth, Lord Valsop has created a board of polished walnut set with lines of ivory, and his playing pieces are of jade, ivory, and amber. One of the better taverns in town has refitted its upper room exclusively for Stones players. It is expensive even to enter it. Only the finest wine and foods are served there, by only the comeliest servants. ”

  I was appalled. “All this from a simple game supposed to help Dutiful focus his mind on the Skill. ”

  Chade laughed. “One never knows where such things will lead. ”

  It recalled another question to my mind. “Speaking of something that led to something else: of those we felt stir when Dutiful and Thick Skilled out, have any come to Buckkeep?”

  “Not yet,” Chade replied, and tried to keep disappointment from his voice. “I had hoped they would hasten here, but I suppose that summons was both to
o strange and too abrupt. We should make a time when we can all sit down and intentionally reach forth in that way again. Last time, it only occurred to me in that instant that we could summon those we had wakened. My thoughts to them were rushed and unclear. And now we have so little time before we sail that there is no point to calling them here. Nonetheless, it should be one of the first things we attend to when we return. How I wish that our prince were setting out with a traditional coterie of six trained Skill-users at his beck and call. Instead we are five, and one is the Prince himself. ”

  “Four, for we leave Lord Golden behind,” I pointed out.

  “Four,” Chade agreed sourly. He looked at me and Nettle’s name hung, unuttered, between us. Then, as if to himself, he said, “And there is no time now to train any others. In truth, there is scarcely time enough to train those we have. ”

  I cut him off before he could voice his frustration with himself. “It will come with time, Chade. I am convinced you cannot force it, any more than a swordsman can use will alone to make himself better. It must be coupled with endless practice and with drills that seemingly have nothing to do with its ends. Patience, Chade. Patience with yourself, and with us. ”

  He still could not hear any individual of the coterie Skill to him, unless there was physical contact as well. He was aware of Thick’s Skilling but it was like the humming of a gnat by his ear; it conveyed nothing. I did not know why we could not break through to him, and I did not know why he could not reach out to us. He had the Skill. Both my healing and my scarring had proven that he possessed great talent with it in that specialized area. But Chade was a man consumed by his ambition, and he would not rest until he had mastered the full spectrum of his magic.

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  But my effort to reassure Chade had only turned his thoughts into a different channel. “Would you rather have an axe?” he asked me abruptly.

  I goggled at him for a moment, and then grasped his thought. “I haven’t fought with an axe in years,” I told him. “I suppose I could try to get some practice in before we sailed. But I thought you just told me that this would probably be more drudgery than battle. After all, what enemy do we expect to fight?”

  “Even so. Still, an axe might prove more useful against the ice around the dragon than a sword. Request one from the Weaponsmaster tomorrow. And begin some drill with it to refresh your skills. ” He cocked his head at me and smiled. I knew that smile. I was already braced when he added, “You’ll be teaching weapons to Swift, along with reading and figuring. He is not doing well in the hearth classes with the other children. Burrich has taught him ahead of his years, so he is bored when put with the lads his own age and uncomfortable with the older boys. Kettricken has decided he would do best with an individual tutor. The Queen chose you. ”

  “Why me?” I demanded. What I had seen of the boy at Web’s lessons did not make me anxious to take him on as a student of anything. He was a dark and moody child, who sat solemn through the stories that had other children rolling with laughter. He spoke little and looked much with Burrich’s black eyes. He carried himself as stiffly as a guardsman who had just taken a lashing, and had as much cheerfulness, also. “I am not suited to be a tutor. Besides, I think the less I have to do with the boy, the better for both of us. What if Burrich came to visit him and the boy wished him to meet his teacher? It would cause great difficulties. ”

  Chade shook his head sorrowfully. “Would that there was a chance of that happening. In the ten days the boy has been here, there has not been one word from his father to say he regretted sending him. I think Burrich has well and truly disowned him. That is one reason why Kettricken thinks it is so important that one man take him over. He needs such a man in his life. Give him a sense of belonging, Fitz. ”

  “Why me?” I asked again sourly.

  Chade smiled even wider. “I think the symmetry of it pleases Kettricken. And I confess to seeing a certain rough justice there, as well. ” Then he took a breath and spoke more seriously. “Where else would you have us put him? With someone who despises the Wit? With someone who finds him a burden but has no sense of obligation to him? No. He’s yours, now, Fitz. Make something of him. And teach him the axe. The lad should have Burrich’s build when he is grown. Right now, he’s just skin over bone. Take him to the practice courts each day and put some muscle on his frame. ”

  “In my spare time,” I promised him sourly. I wondered if Burrich had regarded me with as much dread as I did his son. I considered it probable. Yet no matter how much I dreaded it, Chade’s words had made it inevitable. The moment he had asked me “Where else should I put the boy?” I had known dread of what might befall Swift in someone else’s hands. It was not that I wanted an extra responsibility, least of all now. It was that I could not bear the thought of someone else taking him and being cruel or ignoring him. Such is the conceit all men have once they have been parents. One becomes convinced that no one else is better suited to the task.

  I thought with dread of taking up the axe again. That was going to hurt. Yet Chade was right. It had always been my best weapon. Fine blades were wasted on me. I thought with regret of the beautiful sword that the Fool had given me. It had remained with him, along with my extravagant wardrobe, when I had left his service. I had not been comfortable masquerading as his servant, but now I found that I missed it. At least it had given me an opportunity to spend time with him. Our last conversation had healed some of the rift between us, but in another way it had created a distance of its own. I had come face to face with the fact that the Fool was but one aspect of the man I had thought I’d known. I wanted to restore my friendship with the Fool, but how could I, knowing that he was but one of the man’s façades? It was, I reflected sourly, like being friends with a puppeteer’s puppet and trying to ignore the man who gave it speech and made it dance.

  Yet, late that same night, I went to his chamber door and tapped lightly. Dim light seeped from beneath it, but I stood long in the hall before a voice within asked irritably, “Who is there?”

  “Tom Badgerlock, Lord Golden. Might I come in?”

  After a pause, I heard the latch lifted. I entered a room that I scarcely recognized. The reserved elegance had become sprawling opulence. Rich carpets overlapped one another on the floor. The candlesticks on the table were gold, and the rich perfume that the burning tapers gave off breathed as expensively as if he burned coins. The man who stood before me was robed in lavish silk and adorned with jewels. Even the hangings of the walls had been changed. The simple hunting scenes common to so many Buckkeep tapestries had been replaced with ornate depictions of Jamaillian gardens and temples.

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  “Will you come in and close the door, or did you merely wish to stand there and gawp?” he demanded peevishly. “It is late at night, Tom Badgerlock. Scarcely the hour for casual visitors. ”

  I shut the door behind me. “I know. I apologize for that, but when I’ve come round at more reasonable times, you haven’t been here. ”

  “Did you forget something when you left my service and moved out of your chambers? That hideous tapestry, perhaps?”

  “No. ” I sighed and decided that I would not let him force me back into that role. “I missed you. And I’ve regretted, over and over, that stupid argument I began with you when Jek was here. It is as you warned me. I’ve been doomed to remember it every day, and every day wished I could unsay those words. ” I walked over to his hearth and dropped into one of the chairs by the dwindling fire. There was a decanter of brandy on a small table beside it and a glass with a drop or two left in the bottom.

  “I’ve no idea what you are talking about. And I was just about to seek my bed. So. Your business here, Badgerlock?”

  “Be angry with me if you wish. I suppose I deserve it. Be whatever you have to be with me. But stop this charade and be yourself. That’s all I ask. ”

  He stood silent for a moment, l
ooking at me with haughty disapproval. And then he came to take the other chair. He poured himself more brandy without offering me any. I could smell that it was the apricot one that we had shared in my cabin less than a year ago. He sipped it and then observed, “Be myself. And who would that be?” He set down the glass, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms on his chest.

  “I don’t know. I wish you were the Fool,” I said quietly. “But I think we have come too far to go back to that pretense. Yet, if we could, I would. Willingly. ” I looked away from him. I kicked at the end of a hearth log, pushing it farther into the fire and waking new flames in a gust of sparks. “When I think of you now, I do not even know how to name you to myself. You are not Lord Golden to me. You never truly were. Yet you are not the Fool anymore, either. ” I steeled myself as the words came to me, unplanned but obvious. How could the truth be so difficult to say?

  For a teetering instant, I feared he would misunderstand my words. Then I knew that he would know exactly what I meant by them. For years, he had shown that he understood my feelings, in the silences he kept. Before we parted company, I had to repair, somehow, the rift between us. The words were the only tool I had. They echoed of the old magic, of the power one gained when one knew someone’s true name. I was determined. And yet, the utterance still came awkward to my tongue.

  “You said once that I might call you ‘Beloved,’ if I no longer wished to call you ‘Fool. ’ ” I took a breath. “Beloved, I have missed your company. ”

  He lifted a hand and covered his mouth. Then he disguised the gesture by rubbing his chin as if he thought something through carefully. I do not know what expression he hid behind his palm. When he dropped his hand from his face, he was smiling wryly. “Don’t you think that might cause some talk about the keep?”

  I let his comment pass for I had no answer to it. He had spoken to me in the Fool’s mocking voice. Even as it soothed my heart, I had to wonder if it was a sham for my benefit. Did he show me what I wished to see, or what he was?

  “Well. ” He sighed. “I suppose that if you were going to have an appropriate name for me, it would still be Fool. So let us leave it at that, Fitzy. To you, I am the Fool. ” He looked into the fire and laughed softly. “It balances, I suppose. Whatever is to come for us, I will always have these words to recall now. ” He looked at me and nodded gravely, as if thanking me for returning something precious to him.

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