Golden fool, p.8
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       Golden Fool, p.8

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “And this conversation is,” the Fool observed wryly. His comment made the Prince laugh, easily dispersing a building tension between us that I had not been aware of until the Fool disarmed it. Strange, suddenly to recognize his gift for doing that, after all the years I had known him.

  “I see your point,” the Prince conceded easily, and now the conversation included all of us as we rode three abreast. For a short time, the steady clopping of the horses’ hooves and the whispering of the cool wind were the only sounds. Dutiful took a breath. “He did not ask me to promise. But . . . Civil humbled himself to me. He knelt at my feet to offer his apology. And I think any man who does that has a right to expect it will be kept from the public gossip. ”

  “It would not become public gossip through me, my prince. Nor through the Fool. I promise. Please tell me what passed between you. ”

  “The fool?” Dutiful turned a delighted grin on Lord Golden.

  Lord Golden snorted contemptuously. “An old joke between old friends. One that is becoming far too worn to be humorous anymore, Tom Badgerlock,” he added warningly to me. I ducked my head to his rebuke, but smirked also, hoping the Prince would accept the hasty explanation. Inside my chest, my heart sank down to the pit of my belly as I castigated myself for my carelessness. Did some part of me long to reveal myself to the Prince? I felt an old familiar twist in my gut. Guilt. Secrets withheld from ones who trusted me. Had not I once promised myself never to do that again? But what choice did I have? I guarded my own secret even as Lord Golden worked at prying the Prince’s secret loose from him.

  “But if you would tell us, I promise that my tongue will wag it no further. Like Tom, I am dubious of Civil Bresinga’s loyalty to you, as friend or subject. I fear you may be in danger, my prince. ”

  “Civil is my friend,” the Prince announced in a voice that brooked no argument. His boyish confidence in his own judgment cut me. “I know that in my heart. However,” and here a strange look flickered over Dutiful’s face, “he warned me to be wary of you, Lord Golden. He seems to regard you with . . . extreme distaste. ”

  “A small misunderstanding between us when I guested at his home,” Lord Golden demurred casually. “I am sure we will soon resolve it. ”

  I rather doubted that myself but the Prince seemed to accept it. He pondered for a time, turning his horse to the west and skirting the edges of the forest. I maneuvered Myblack to put myself between Dutiful and possible ambushers hiding amongst the trees. I tried to keep one eye on the woods and one on my prince. When I spotted a crow in a nearby treetop, I sourly wondered if it were a Piebald spy. Little I could do if it was, I told myself. Neither of the others seemed to take notice of the bird. The Prince’s words broke from him just as the bird rose cawing from the trees and flew away.

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  Dutiful’s words came reluctantly. “The Bresingas were threatened. By the Piebalds. Civil would not say how, only that it was very oblique. The cat was delivered to his mother with a note, directing her to give the cat to me as a gift. If she did not, well, reprisal was threatened, but Civil didn’t tell me exactly what. ”

  “I can guess,” I said bluntly. The crow had disappeared from sight. It did not make me feel any more secure. “If they didn’t give the cat to you, one of them would be betrayed as Witted. Probably Civil. ”

  “I think that is likely,” Dutiful conceded.

  “That doesn’t excuse it. She had a duty to her prince. ” Privately I resolved to find a way to spy on Bresinga’s room. A quiet visit to it and a search through his possessions might also be a good idea. I wondered if he had brought his cat with him.

  Dutiful gave me a very direct look and he seemed to speak with Verity’s bluntness as he asked me, “Could you put your duty to your monarch ahead of protecting a member of your own family? That is what I asked myself. If my mother were threatened, what could I be forced to do? Would I betray the Six Duchies for the sake of her life?”

  Lord Golden shot me a Fool’s glance, one that was well pleased with this boy. I nodded to it, but felt distracted. Dutiful’s words itched at me. I suddenly felt as if there were something important I needed to remember but could not trace the thought any further. I could not think of an answer to Dutiful’s question, either, so the silence lengthened. At last I said, “Be careful, my prince. I caution you against taking Civil Bresinga into your confidence, or making his friends your own. ”

  “There is little to fear there, Badgerlock. I’ve no time for friends right now; all is duty. It was hard for me to wrench this hour out of my schedule and say that I would go riding with only the two of you. I have been warned that it will look odd to the dukes, whose support I must court. Far better had I ridden out with some of their sons accompanying me. But I needed this time with you. I’ve something important to ask you, Badgerlock. ” He paused, then asked bluntly, “Will you come to my betrothal ceremony tonight? If I must endure this, I’d like to have a true friend nearby. ”

  I immediately knew the answer, but I tried to look as if I were pondering it. “I cannot, my prince. It would not be fitting to one of my station. It would look even odder than this riding out together. ”

  “Could not you be there as Lord Golden’s bodyguard?”

  Here Lord Golden himself intervened for me. “That would appear as if I did not trust my prince’s hospitality to protect me. ”

  The Prince pulled in his horse, a stubborn look coming over his face. “I want you to be there. Find a way. ”

  This direct command set my teeth on edge. “I’ll consider it,” I replied stiffly. I was still not completely confident of my anonymity at Buckkeep. I wanted to settle more firmly into my role as Tom Badgerlock before I had any more chance confrontations with folk who might recall me from the past. There would be many of them at the betrothal ceremony tonight. “But I wish to point out to my prince that even if I am present, conversing with you will be out of the question. Nor should you take any sort of an interest in me that might call undue attention to our connection. ”

  “I’m not a fool!” he retorted, very close to anger at my indirect refusal. “I simply would like to have you there. To know I had one friend in the crowd of those watching me being sacrificed. ”

  “I think you are being overly dramatic,” I said quietly. I tried not to let it sound like an insult. “Recall that your mother will be there. And Chade. And Lord Golden. All people with your best interests at heart. ”

  He reddened a bit as he glanced at Lord Golden. “I do not discount your value as a friend, Lord Golden. Forgive me if my words were ill considered. As for my mother and Lord Chade, they are, like me, obliged to duty before love. They want what is best for me, that is true, but the largest facet of that is always what is best for my reign. They see the well-being of the Six Duchies as intrinsic to my own well-being. ” He looked suddenly weary. “And when I disagree, they say that when I have been King for a time, I will understand that what they obliged me to do was actually in my own best interests as well. That ruling a country that is prosperous and at peace will bring me far more satisfaction over the years than the choosing of my own bride. ”

  We rode for a time in silence. When Lord Golden broke the quiet, his voice was reluctant. “My prince, I fear the sun does not wait for us. It is time to turn back toward Buckkeep Castle. ”

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  “I know,” Dutiful replied dully. “I know. ”

  I knew they were the wrong words to offer as comfort even as I said them, but the customs of society dictate strongly to all of us. I tried to make him content with what he must face. “Elliania does not seem such a terrible choice for a bride. Young as she is, she is still lovely, with the potential for true beauty as she matures. Chade speaks of her as a queen in the bud and seems well pleased with the match the Outislanders have offered us. ”

  “Oh, she is that,” Dutiful agreed as he turned his gray. Myblack snorted as
the other horse cut her path and seemed reluctant to turn and follow him. The hills and a longer gallop enticed her. “She is a queen before she is a child or a woman. She has not said one incorrect word to me. Nor one word that might betray what goes on behind those bright black eyes. She offered me her gift quite correctly, a chain of silver fitted with the yellow diamonds of her land. I must wear it tonight. To her I gave the gift my mother and Chade had selected, a coronet of silver set with one hundred sapphires. The stones are small, but my mother favored their intricate patterning over larger gems. The Narcheska curtsied as she took it and told me in measured words how lovely she found it. Yet I could not help but notice how general her thanks were. She spoke of ‘my generous gift,’ never once saying a word on the designs or that she liked sapphires. It was as if she had memorized a speech that would suffice for any gift we gave her, and then recited it faultlessly. ”

  I was almost certain that was exactly what she had done. Yet I did not feel it was right to fault her for that. She was, after all, only eleven years old, with as little say in these proceedings as our prince had. I said as much to the Prince.

  “I know, I know,” he conceded tiredly. “Yet I tried to meet her eyes, and to let her see something of who I am. When first she stood beside me, Badgerlock, my heart truly went out to her. She seemed so young and small, and such a foreigner in our court. I felt for her as I would for any child snatched away from her home and forced to serve a purpose not her own. I had chosen a gift to give her that was from me, not the Six Duchies. It was in her room, awaiting her, when she first arrived. She has made no mention of it, not even a word. ”

  “What was it?” I asked.

  “Something I would have liked, when I was eleven,” the young man replied. “A set of puppets carved by Bluntner. They were dressed as if to tell the tale of the Girl and the Snow Steed. I was told it is a well-known tale in the Out Islands as well as the Six Duchies. ”

  Lord Golden’s voice was neutral as he observed, “Bluntner is a skillful carver. Is that the tale where the girl is borne far away from a cruel stepfather by her magic steed, and carried off to a rich land where she weds a handsome prince?”

  “Perhaps not the best tale in these circumstances,” I muttered.

  The Prince looked startled. “I never considered it in that light. Do you think I insulted her? Should I apologize?”

  “The less said, the better,” Lord Golden suggested. “Perhaps when you know her better you can discuss it with her. ”

  “Perhaps when ten years have passed,” the Prince conceded lightly, but I felt the thrumming of his anxiety across our Skill bond. For the first time, I understood that one aspect of his dissatisfaction was that he did not feel he was doing well with the Narcheska. His next words echoed that knowledge.

  “She makes me feel like a clumsy barbarian. She is the one from a log village near an ice shelf, but she makes me feel uncultured and awkward. She looks at me and her eyes are like mirrors. I see nothing of her in them, only how stupid and doltish I appear to her. I have been raised well, I am of good blood, but she makes me feel as if I am a grubby peasant that might soil her with my touch. I do not understand it!”

  “There will be many differences you must resolve as you come to know one another. Understanding that each of you comes from a different, but no less valuable, culture may be the first one,” Lord Golden suggested smoothly. “Several years ago, I pursued my own interest in the Outislanders and studied them. They are matriarchal, you know, with their mother-clans indicated by the tattoos they wear. As I understand it, she has already done you great honor by coming to you rather than demanding that her suitor present himself at her motherhouse. It must feel awkward for her to face this courtship without the guidance of her mothers, sisters, and aunts to sustain her. ”

  Dutiful nodded thoughtfully to Lord Golden’s words, but my glimpse of the Narcheska made me suspect the Prince had measured her feelings for him accurately. I did not utter that thought. “She has obviously studied our Six Duchies’ ways. Have you given any consideration to learning about her land, and who her family is there?” Dutiful cast me a sidelong glance, a student who had skimmed his lesson but knew he had not studied it well. “Chade gave me what scrolls we have, but he warned me that they are old and possibly outdated. The Out Islands do not commit their history to writing, but entrust it to the memories of their bards. All we have is written from the view of the Six Duchies folk who have visited there. It betrays a certain intolerance for their differences. Most of the scrolls are travelers’ accounts, expressing distaste for the food, for honey and grease seem to be the prized ingredients for any guest dish, and dismay at the housing, which is cold and drafty. The folk there do not offer hospitality to weary strangers, but seem to despise anyone foolish enough to get themselves into circumstances where they must ask for shelter or food rather than barter for it. The weak and the foolish deserve to die; that seems to be the main credo of the Out Islands. Even the god they have chosen is a harsh and unforgiving one. El of the sea they prefer, over the bountiful Eda of the fields. ” The Prince heaved a sigh as he finished.

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  “Have you listened to any of their bards?” Lord Golden asked quietly.

  “I’ve listened, but not understood. Chade urged me to learn the basics of their language, and I have tried. It shares many roots with our own. I can speak it well enough to make myself understood, though the Narcheska has already told me that she would rather speak to me in my own tongue than hear hers so twisted. ” For an instant, he clenched his teeth to that insulting reproof. Then he went on. “The bards are more difficult to understand. Evidently the rules of their language change for their poetry, and syllables can be stretched or shortened to make them fit a measure. Bard’s Tongue, they call it, but add their windy music blasting past the words and it is difficult for me to get more than the basics of every tale. All seem to be about chopping down enemies and taking bits of their bodies as trophies. Like Echet Hairbed, who slept under a coverlet woven from the scalps of his enemies. Or Sixfinger, who fed his dogs from skull bowls of those he had defeated. ”

  “Nice folks,” I observed wryly. Lord Golden scowled at me.

  “Our songs must sound as strange to her, especially the romantic tragedies of maidens who die for love of a man they cannot possess and such,” Lord Golden gently pointed out. “These are barriers you must overcome together, my prince. Such misunderstandings yield most easily to casual conversation. ”

  “Ah, yes,” the Prince conceded sourly. “Ten years from now, perhaps we’ll have a casual conversation. For now, we are so ringed by her hangers-on and my well-wishers, that we speak to one another through a throng, in raised voices to reach one another. Every word we exchange is overheard and discussed. Not to mention dear Uncle Peottre, standing over her like a dog over a bone. Yesterday afternoon, when I attempted to stroll through the gardens with her, I felt more as if we were leading a horde to war. There were over a dozen people chattering and trampling along behind us. And when I did pluck a late flower to offer to her, her uncle stepped between us to take it from my hand and examine it before he passed it on to her. As if perhaps I were offering her something poisonous. ”

  I grinned in spite of myself, recalling the noxious herbs that Kettricken herself had once offered to me when she considered me a threat to her brother. “Such treachery is not unknown, my prince, even in the best of families. Her uncle is doing no more than his duty. It has not been long since our lands warred against one another. Give time for old wounds to close and heal. It will happen. ”

  “But for now, my prince, I fear we must put our heels to our horses. Did not I hear you say that you had an afternoon appointment with your mother? I think we had best put a little haste into our pace. ”

  “I suppose,” the Prince replied listlessly to Lord Golden’s words. Then he turned a commanding stare on me. “So then, Tom Badgerlock. When will we next meet? I
am most anxious to begin my lessons with you. ”

  I nodded, wishing I shared his enthusiasm. I felt obligated to add, “The Skill is not always a kindly magic to deal with, my prince. You may find these lessons less than pleasant after we begin them. ”

  “I expect that to be so. My experiences of it to date have been both unsettling and confusing. ” His gaze became clouded and distant as he said, “When you took me . . . I know it had something to do with a pillar. We went to . . . somewhere. A beach. But now when I try to recall that passage, or the events that occurred there or immediately afterward, it is like trying to recall a dream from childhood. The ends of it don’t meet somehow, if you know what I mean. I thought I understood all that had happened to me. Then, when I tried to discuss it with Chade and my mother, it all fell to tatters. I felt like an idiot. ” He lifted one hand to rub his wrinkled brow. “I cannot make the pieces go in order to make a complete memory. ” Then he fixed me with a direct stare and said, “I cannot live with that, Tom Badgerlock. I have to resolve it. If this magic must be a part of me, then I must control it. ”

  His words were far more sensible than my reluctance to deal with it. I sighed. “Tomorrow, dawn. In Verity’s tower room,” I offered, expecting him to refuse me.

  “Very well,” he replied easily. An odd smile curved his mouth. “I thought only Chade called the Seawatch tower ‘Verity’s tower. ’ Interesting. You might have at least referred to my father as ‘King Verity. ’ ”

  “Your pardon, my prince” was the best reply I could think of, and he merely snorted at it. Then he fixed me with a truly royal look and added, “And you will make every attempt to be at my ceremony tonight, Tom Badgerlock. ”

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  Before I could reply, he set his heels to his gray. He rode back to Buckkeep like a man pursued by demons, and we had little choice but to follow. He did not slow until we reached the gate. We paused to be formally recognized and admitted. From there we walked our horses, but Dutiful was silent and I could think of nothing to say. When we arrived at the tall doors of the main hall, courtiers were already gathered to meet him. A groom hurried up to take his horse’s head, and a stable boy took Malta’s reins. I was left to fend for myself, for which I was grateful. Lord Golden formally thanked the Prince for the extreme pleasure of his exclusive company and the Prince courteously replied. We sat our mounts, watching Dutiful as he was engulfed by his nobles and carried off. I swung off Myblack and stood awaiting my master.

 
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