Golden fool, p.9
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       Golden Fool, p.9

         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
 

  “Well. A pleasant ride,” Lord Golden observed, and dismounted. As his boot lightly touched the ground, his foot seemed to fly out from under him and he fell badly. I had never seen the Fool so ungraceful. He sat up, lips pinched tight, then with a groan leaned forward to clutch at his booted ankle.

  “Such a wrench!” he cried, and then, imperiously, “No, no, stay back, see to my horse,” as he waved the stable boy away. Then, quite sharply to me, “Well, don’t stand there, you dolt! Give the stable boy your horse and help me up. Or do you propose that I shall hop up to my chambers?”

  The Prince had already been borne away on a wave of chattering ladies and lords. I doubted that he was aware of Lord Golden’s mishap. Some of the Prince’s attendants looked our way, but most were intent on Dutiful. So I crouched and as Lord Golden put his arm across my shoulders, I asked quietly, “How bad is it?”

  “Bad enough!” he snapped sharply. “I shall not be dancing tonight, and my new dancing slippers were just delivered yesterday. Oh, this is intolerable! Help me to my rooms, man. ” At his irritated scolding, several lesser nobles hastened toward us. His manner instantly changed as he replied to their anxious queries with assurances that he was certain he would be fine, and that nothing could keep him from the betrothal festivities tonight. He leaned most of his weight on me, but one sympathetic young man took his arm, and a lady sent her maid scuttling off to order hot water and soaking herbs immediately taken to Lord Golden’s chambers, and to fetch a healer as well. No less than two young men and three very lovely young ladies trailed us as we made our way into Buckkeep.

  By the time we had lurched and hobbled our way up the stairs and corridors to Golden’s chambers, he had sharply rebuked me for clumsiness a dozen times. We found the healer and the hot water awaiting us outside the door. The healer took Lord Golden out of my hands, and I was almost immediately sent off to fetch brandy to steady his shaken nerves and something from the kitchens to settle his stomach. As I left, I cringed in sympathy for his sharp cries of pain as the healer carefully freed his foot from his boot. By the time I returned with a tray of pastries and fruit from the kitchen, the healer had departed and Lord Golden was ensconced in his chair with his well-propped foot stretched out before him while his sympathizers filled the other chairs. I set out the food upon the table and carried brandy to him. Lady Calendula was sympathizing with him over the heartless and incompetent healer. What kind of a bumbler was he, to cause Lord Golden such pain and then declare that he could find very little indication of an injury? Young Lord Oaks told a long, detailed, and plaintive story of how the healer at his father’s house had nearly let him die of a stomach ailment under similar circumstances. When he was finally finished with his tale, Lord Golden begged their understanding that he needed to rest after his disaster. I concealed my relief as I bowed them all out the door.

  I waited until the door was well closed behind them and the sound of their chattering voices and tapping feet had died away before I approached the Fool. He leaned back in his chair, a rose-scented kerchief draped over his eyes.

  “How bad is it?” I asked in a low voice.

  “As bad as you wish it to be,” he replied, not taking the fabric from his face.

  “What?”

  He lifted the cloth and smiled up at me beatifically. “Such a display, and all for your benefit. You might at least show your gratitude. ”

  “What are you talking about?”

  He lowered his bound foot to the floor, stood up, and strolled casually to the table where he picked through the leftover food there. He didn’t even limp. “Now Lord Golden has an excuse to have his man Tom Badgerlock at his side tonight. I shall lean on your arm when I walk, and you shall carry my little footstool and cushion about for me. And fetch for me and run my greetings and messages about the room for me. You’ll be there for Dutiful to see, and I don’t doubt that you’ll find it a better vantage point for your spying than sneaking about through the walls. ” He looked at me critically as I gaped. “Luckily for us both, the new clothing I ordered for you was delivered this morning. Come. Sit down and I’ll trim your hair now. You can’t go to the ball looking like that. ”

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  Chapter IV

  THE BETROTHAL

  The use of intoxicants can be of benefit in testing an aspirant’s aptitude for the Skill, but the master must use caution. Whereas a small amount of a suitable herb, such as Hebben’s leaf, synxove, teriban bark, or covaria may relax a candidate for Skill testing and enable rudimentary Skilling, too much may render the student incapable of sufficient focus to display the talent. Although some few Skillmasters have reported success using an herb during the actual training of Skill students, it is the consensus of the Four Masters that more often such drugs become crutches. Students never properly learn how to place their minds into a receptive Skill state without these herbs. There is also some indication that students trained with herbs never develop the capability for the deep Skill states and the more complicated magic that can be worked there.

  —“ FOUR MASTERS” SCROLL—TRANSLATION, CHADE FALLSTAR

  “I never imagined I would wear stripes,” I muttered again.

  “Stop complaining,” the Fool managed around the pins in his mouth. He removed them a pin at a time as he fastened the tiny pocket in place, and then swiftly began to make it permanent with his needle and thread. “I’ve told you. It looks astounding on you and complements my garb perfectly. ”

  “I don’t want to look astounding. I want to be nondescript. ” I thrust a needle through the waistband of the trousers and into the meat of my thumb. That the Fool refrained from laughing as I cursed only made me more irritable.

  He was already impeccably and extravagantly attired. He sat cross-legged in his chair, helping me hastily add assassin’s pockets to my new garb. He didn’t even look up at me as he assured me, “You will be nondescript. Folk will remember your clothing, not your face, if they remark you at all. You will be in close attendance upon me for most of the evening, and your clothing will obviously mark you as my serving man. It will conceal you, just as a servant’s livery can make a lovely miss simply another lady’s maid. Here. Try this now. ”

  I set down the trousers and put on the shirt. Three tiny vials from Chade’s supply, fashioned from bird’s bones, fitted neatly into the new pocket. Fastened, the cuff betrayed nothing. The other cuff already held several pellets of a powerful soporific. If afforded the chance, I would see that young Lord Bresinga slept well tonight while I had an opportunity to look through his chamber. I had already ascertained that he had not brought his hunting cat with him; rather, I told myself, that it was not in his rooms or stabled with the other coursing beasts. It could very well be prowling the wooded lands that bordered Buckkeep. Lady Bresinga, Lord Golden had learned through court gossip, was not in attendance at Buckkeep Castle for the betrothal ceremony. She pleaded a painful spine following a bad fall from her horse during a hunting accident. If it was a sham, I wondered why she had chosen to stay home at Galekeep while she sent her son to represent her name. Did she think she had sent him out of danger? Or into it, to save herself?

  I sighed. Speculation was useless without facts. While I had been tucking the vials of poison into my cuff pocket, the Fool had finished the stitching in the waistband of my trousers. That was a sturdier pocket, to hold a slender blade. No one would openly wear arms to the betrothal ceremony tonight. It would be a discourtesy to the hospitality of the Farseers. Such niceties did not bind assassins, however.

  As if following my thoughts, the Fool asked as he handed me my striped trousers, “Does Chade still bother with all this? Little pockets and hidden weapons and such?”

  “I don’t know,” I replied truthfully. Yet somehow I could not imagine him going without it. Intrigue came as naturally to him as breathing. I pulled up the trousers and sucked in a breath to fasten them. They fit more snugly than I liked. I reached behi
nd my back, and with the end of a fingernail managed to snag the concealed blade’s brief hilt. I slipped it out and inspected it. It had come from Chade’s tower stores. The entire weapon was no longer than my finger, with only enough of a hilt to grasp between my finger and thumb. But it could cut a man’s throat, or slip between the knobs of his spine in a trice. I slid it back into its hiding place.

  “Does anything show?” I asked him, turning for his inspection.

  He surveyed me with a smile and then assured me salaciously, “Everything shows. But nothing that you’re worried about showing. Here. Put on the doublet and let me see the entire effect. ”

  I took the garment from him reluctantly. “Time was when a jerkin and leggings was good enough to wear anywhere in Buckkeep,” I observed resentfully.

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  “You deceive yourself,” the Fool replied implacably. “You got away with such dress because you were little more than a boy, and Shrewd did not wish attention called to you. I seem to recall that once or twice Mistress Hasty had her way with your garments and dressed you stylishly. ”

  “Once or twice,” I conceded, cringing at the memory. “But you know what I mean, Fool. When I was growing up, folk at Buckkeep dressed, well, like folk from Buck. There was none of this ‘Jamaillian style’ or Farrow cloaks with tailed hoods that reach to the floor. ”

  He nodded to that. “Buckkeep was a more provincial place when you were growing up. We had a war, and when a war demands your resources, there is less to spend on dress. Shrewd was a good king, but it suited him to keep the Six Duchies a backwater. Queen Kettricken has done all she can to open the Duchies to trade, not just with her own Mountain Kingdom, but with the Jamaillians and Bingtowners and folk even farther away. It’s bound to change Buckkeep. Change isn’t a bad thing. ”

  “Buckkeep as it was wasn’t a bad thing, either,” I replied grumpily.

  “But change proves that you are still alive. Change often measures our tolerance for folk different from ourselves. Can we accept their languages, their customs, their garments, and their foods into our own lives? If we can, then we form bonds, bonds that make wars less likely. If we cannot, if we believe that we must do things as we have always done them, then we must either fight to remain as we are, or die. ”

  “That’s cheery. ”

  “It’s true,” the Fool insisted. “Bingtown just went through such an upheaval. Now they war with Chalced, mostly because Chalced refuses to recognize the need for change. And that war may spread to include the Six Duchies. ”

  “I doubt it. I don’t really see where it has anything to do with us. Oh, our southern duchies will jump into the fray, but only because they have always relished the conflict with Chalced. It’s a chance to carve away a bit more of their territory and make it ours. But as far as the whole Six Duchies engaging . . . I doubt it. ”

  I shrugged into the Jamaillian doublet and buttoned it. It had far more buttons than it needed. It fitted tightly to my waist, with skirtlike panels that reached nearly to my knees. “I hate dressing in Jamaillian clothing. And how am I to reach my knife if I need it?”

  “I know you. If you need it, you’ll find a way to reach it. And I assure you, in Jamaillia you’d be at least three years out of date. In Jamaillia, they’d assume you were a provincial from Bingtown, attempting to dress like a Jamaillian. But it’s enough. It reinforces the myth that I am a Jamaillian nobleman. If my clothing looks exotic enough, folk accept the rest of me as normal. ” He stood up. His right foot wore an embroidered dancing slipper. The left was bound as if his ankle needed support. He took up a carved walking stick. I recognized it as the work of his own hands; to anyone else, it would seem extravagantly expensive.

  Tonight, we were purple and white. Rather like turnips, I thought to myself savagely. Lord Golden’s garments were far more elaborate and showy than mine were. The cuffs of my striped shirt were loose at the wrist, but his were dagged and extended past his hands. His shirt was white, but the purple Jamaillian doublet that snugged his chest had embroidered skirts that glittered with thousands of tiny jet beads. Rather than the trousers of a servant, he wore silk leggings. He had chosen to let his hair fall loose to his shoulders in long ringlets of gleaming gold. I had no idea what he had put on his hair to persuade it to such excess. And as I had heard some Jamaillian nobles did, he had painted his face, a scalelike pattern of blue above his brows and across the tops of his cheeks. He caught me staring at him. “Well?” he demanded, almost uneasily.

  “You’re right. You’re a very convincing Jamaillian lord. ”

  “Then let us descend. Bring my footstool and cushion. We’ll use my injury as an excuse for arriving early in the Great Hall and watching the others come in. ”

  I picked up his stool in my right hand and tucked the cushion for it under my right arm. My left I offered to him as he affected a very convincing hobble. As always, he was a consummate actor. Perhaps because of the Skill bond between us, I was aware of the keen pleasure he took in such dissembling. Certainly, it did not show in his demeanor as he grumbled and rebuked me for clumsiness all the way down the stairs.

  A short distance from the immense doors that led to the Great Hall, we paused briefly. Lord Golden appeared to be catching his breath as he leaned heavily on my arm, but the Fool spoke closely by my ear. “Don’t forget you’re a servant here now. Humility, Tom Badgerlock. Regardless of what you see, don’t look at anyone in a challenging way. It wouldn’t be proper. Ready?”

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  I nodded, thinking I scarcely needed his reminder, and tucked his cushion more firmly under my arm. We entered the Great Hall. And here too I encountered change. In my boyhood, the Great Hall had been the gathering place for all of Buckkeep. Near that hearth I had sat to recite my lessons to Fedwren the scribe. Often as not, there would have been other gatherings at the other hearths throughout the hall: men fletching arrows, women embroidering and chatting, minstrels rehearsing songs or composing new ones. Despite the roaring hearths and the serving boys who fetched wood for them, the Great Hall was always, in my memories, slightly chill and dank. The light never seemed to reach to the corners. In winter, the tapestries and banners that draped the walls retreated into dimness, a twilight interior night. For the most part, I recalled the cold flagged floor as being strewn with rushes, prone to mildew and damp. When the boards were set for meals, dogs sprawled beneath them or cruised amongst the benches like hungry sharks awaiting the tossed bone or dropped crust. It had been a lively place, noisy with the tales of warriors and guardsmen. King Shrewd’s Buckkeep, I thought to myself, had been a rough and martial place, a castle and keep before it was a king’s palace.

  Was it time or Queen Kettricken that had changed it so?

  It even smelled different, less of sweat and dogs, more of burning applewood and food. The dark that the hearth fires and candles had never been able to disperse had yielded, albeit grudgingly, to the overhead candelabras suspended by gilded chains over the long blue-clothed tables. The only dogs I saw were small ones, temporarily escaped from a lady’s lap to challenge another feist or sniff about someone’s boots. The reeds underfoot were clean and backed by a layer of sand. In the center of the room, a large section of the floor was bared sand, swept into elaborate designs that would soon fall prey to the dancers’ tread. No one was seated at the tables, yet there were already bowls of ripe fruit and baskets of fresh bread upon them. Early guests stood in small groups or sat in the chairs and on the cushioned benches near the hearths, the hum of their conversations mingling with the soft music of a single harper on a dais near the main hearth.

  The entire room conveyed a carefully constructed sense of waiting. Rows of standing torches lit the tiered high dais. Their brightness drew the eye, the light as much as the height proclaiming the importance of those who would be seated there. On the highest level, there were thronelike chairs for Kettricken and Dutiful and Elliania and t
wo others. The slightly humbler but still grand chairs of the second dais would be for the Dukes and Duchesses of the Six Duchies who had gathered to witness their prince’s betrothal. A second dais of equal height had been provided for Elliania’s nobles. The third dais would be for those who were high in the Queen’s regard.

  Almost as soon as we entered the Great Hall, several lovely women broke away from the young noblemen they had been talking to and converged on Lord Golden. It was rather like being mobbed by butterflies. Gauzy wraps seemed to be the fashion, an imported foolishness from Jamaillia that offered no sort of warmth in the permanent chill of the Great Hall. I studied the goose bumps on the arms of Lady Heliotrope as she sympathized with Lord Golden. I wondered when Buckkeep had become so avid for these foreign styles of dress. I grudgingly admitted that I resented the changes I saw around me, not only because they eclipsed more and more of the Buckkeep I remembered from my childhood, but also because they made me feel stodgy and old. Cooing and clucking over his injured foot, the women escorted Lord Golden to a comfortable chair near a hearth. I obediently assisted him there, set his footstool in place, the cushion upon it. Young Lord Oaks reappeared and, with a firm “Let me do that, man,” insisted on helping Lord Golden position his foot upon it.

  I stepped aside, lifted my eyes, and seemed to glance past a group of Outislanders who had just entered. They moved almost as a phalanx of warriors might, entering the hall as a compact group. Once within the hall, they did not disperse but kept to their own. They reminded me of the Out Island warriors I had fought on Antler Island, so long ago. The men wore not only their furs and leather harness but some of the older men flaunted battle trophies: necklaces of fingerbones, or a braid dangling at the hip that was made from locks of hair taken from vanquished foes. The women among them moved as dauntlessly as their men. Their robes were woven of wool, richly dyed, and trimmed with white fur only: fox, ermine, and tufts of ice bear.

 
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