Golden fool, p.1
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       Golden Fool, p.1
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         Part #2 of Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb
Golden Fool
Page 1

 

  Prologue

  LOSSES SUSTAINED

  The loss of a bond-beast is a difficult event to explain to the non-Witted. Those who can speak of the death of an animal as “It was only a dog” will never grasp it. Others, more sympathetic, perceive it as the death of a beloved pet. Even those who say, “It must be like losing a child, or a wife,” are still seeing only one facet of the toll. To lose the living creature that one has been linked with is more than the loss of a companion or loved one. It was the sudden amputation of half my physical body. My vision was dimmed, my appetite diminished by the insipid flavor of food. My hearing was dulled and

  The manuscript, begun so many years ago, ends in a flurry of blots and angry stabbings from my pen. I can recall the moment at which I realized I had slipped from writing in generalities into my own intimate rendering of pain. There are creases on the scroll where I flung it to the floor and stamped on it. The wonder is that I only kicked it aside rather than committing it to the flames. I do not know who took pity on the wretched thing and shelved it on my scroll rack. Perhaps it was Thick, doing his tasks in his methodical, unthinking way. Certainly I find nothing there that I would have saved.

  So it has often been with my writing efforts. My various attempts at a history of the Six Duchies have too often meandered into a history of myself. From a treatise on herbs my pen would wander to the various treatments for Skill ailments. My studies of the White Prophets delve too deeply into their relationships with their Catalysts. I do not know if it is conceit that always turns my thoughts to my own life, or if my writing is my own pathetic effort to explain my life to myself. The years have come and gone in their scores of turnings, and night after night, I still take pen in hand and write. Still I strive to understand who I am. Still I promise myself, “Next time I will do better” in the all-too-human conceit that I will always be offered a “next time. ”

  Yet I did not do that when I lost Nighteyes. I never promised myself that I would bond again, and do better by my next partner. Such a thought would have been traitorous. The death of Nighteyes gutted me. I walked wounded through my life in the days that followed, unaware of just how mutilated I was. I was like the man who complains of the itching of his severed leg. The itching distracts from the immense knowledge that one will ever after hobble through life. So the immediate grief at his death concealed the full damage done to me. I was confused, thinking that my pain and my loss were one and the same thing, whereas one was but a symptom of the other.

  In a curious way, it was a second coming-of-age. This one was not an arrival at manhood, but rather a slow realization of myself as an individual. Circumstances had plunged me back into the intrigues of the court at Buckkeep Castle. I had the friendship of the Fool and Chade. I stood at the edge of a true relationship with Jinna the Hedge-witch. My boy Hap had flung himself headlong into both apprenticeship and romance, and seemed to be floundering desperately through both. Young Prince Dutiful, poised on the lip of his betrothal to the Outislander Narcheska, had turned to me as a mentor; not just as a teacher for both Skill and Wit, but as someone to guide him through the rapids of adolescence to manhood. I did not lack for people who cared about me, nor for folk I deeply cherished. But for all that, I stood more alone than ever I had before.

  The strangest part was my slow realization that I chose that isolation.

  Nighteyes was irreplaceable; he had worked a change on me in the years that we had shared. He was not half of me; together, we made a whole. Even when Hap came into our life, we regarded him as a juvenile and a responsibility. The wolf and I were the unit that made the decisions. Ours was the partnership. With Nighteyes gone, I felt I would never again share that arrangement with any other, animal or human.

  When I was a lad, spending time in the company of Lady Patience and her companion Lacey, I often overheard their blunt appraisals of the men at court. One assumption Patience and Lacey had shared was that a man or woman who had passed their thirtieth year unwed was likely to remain so. “Set in his ways,” Patience would declare at the gossip that some graying lord had suddenly begun to court a young girl. “Spring has turned his head, but she’ll find soon enough there is no room in his life for a partner. He’s had it all his own way too long. ”

  And so I began, very slowly, to see myself. I was often lonely. I knew that my Wit quested out for companionship. Yet that feeling and that questing were like a reflex, the twitching of a severed limb. No one, human or animal, could ever fill the gap that Nighteyes had left in my life.

  I had said as much to the Fool during a rare moment of conversation on our way back to Buckkeep. It had been one of the nights when we had camped beside our homeward road. I had left him with Prince Dutiful and Laurel, the Queen’s Huntswoman. They had huddled around the fire, making the best of the cold night and sparse food. The Prince had been withdrawn and morose, still raw with the pain of losing his bond-cat. For me to be near him was like holding a previously burned hand near a flame; it woke all my own pain more sharply. So I had made the excuse of getting more wood for the fire and gone apart from them all. Page 2

 

  Winter was announcing its approach with a dark and chill evening. There were no colors left in the dim world, and away from the firelight, I groped like a mole as I searched for wood. At last I gave it up and sat down on a stone by the creekside to wait for my eyes to adjust. But sitting there alone, feeling the cold press in around me, I had lost all ambition to find wood, or indeed to do anything at all. I sat and stared, listening to the sound of the running water and letting the night fill me with its gloom.

  The Fool came to me, moving quietly through the darkness. He sat down on the earth beside me and for a time we said nothing. Then he reached over, set a hand on my shoulder, and said, “I wish there were some way I could ease your grieving. ”

  It was a useless thing to say, and he seemed to feel that, for after those words he was silent. Perhaps it was the ghost of Nighteyes who reproached me for my surly silence to our friend, for after a time I groped for some words to bridge the dark between us. “It is like the cut on your head, Fool. Time will heal it, but until it does, all the best wishes in the world cannot make it heal faster. Even if there were some way to disperse this pain, some herb or drunkenness that would numb it, I could not choose it. Nothing will ever make his death better. All I can look forward to is becoming accustomed to being alone. ”

  Despite my effort, my words still sounded like a rebuke. Worse, it seemed a self-pitying one. It is a tribute to my friend that he did not take offense at them. He only rose gracefully. “I’ll let you be, then. I think you are choosing to mourn alone, and if that is your choice, I’ll respect it. I do not think it is your wisest choice, but I’ll respect it. ” He paused and gave a small sigh. “I perceive something about myself now; I came because I wanted you to know that I knew you were in pain. Not because I could heal you of it, but because I wanted you to be aware that I shared that pain through our connection. I suspect there is an aspect of selfishness to that; that I wished you also to be aware of it, I mean. A burden shared not only can lighten it; it can form a bond between those who share it. So that no one is left to bear it alone. ”

  I sensed there was some germ of wisdom in his words, something I should consider, but I was too weary and wracked to reach for it. “I’ll come back to the fire in a little while” was what I said, and the Fool knew it was a dismissal. He took his hand from my shoulder and walked away.

  It was only when I later considered his words that I understood them. I was choosing to be alone then; it was not the inescapable consequence of the wolf’s death, nor even a carefully considered decision. I was embracing my solitude, courting my pain. It was not the first tim
e I had chosen such a course.

  I handled that thought carefully, for it was sharp enough to kill me. I had chosen my isolated years with Hap in my cabin. No one had forced me into that exile. The irony was that it had been the granting of my often-voiced wish. Throughout my youth, I had always asserted that what I truly wanted was to live a life where I could make my own choices, independent of the “duties” of my birth and position. It was only when fate granted that to me that I realized the cost of it. I could set aside my responsibilities to others and live my life as I pleased only when I also severed my ties to them. I could not have it both ways. To be part of a family, or any community, is to have duties and responsibilities, to be bound by the rules of that group. I had lived apart from that for a time, but now I knew that had been my choice. I had chosen to renounce my responsibilities to my family, and accepted the ensuing isolation as the cost. At the time, I had insisted to myself that fortune had forced me into that role. Just as I was making a choice now, even though I tried to persuade myself I was but following the inescapable path fate had set out for me.

  To recognize you are the source of your own loneliness is not a cure for it. But it is a step toward seeing that it is not inevitable, and that such a choice is not irrevocable.

  Chapter I

  PIEBALDS

  The Piebalds always claimed only to want freedom from the persecution that has been the lot of the Witted folk of the Six Duchies for generations. This claim can be dismissed as both a lie and a clever deceit. The Piebalds wanted power. Their intent was to mold all of the Witted folk of the Six Duchies into a united force that would rise up to seize control of the monarchy and put their own people into power. One facet of their ploy was to claim that all kings since the abdication of Chivalry were pretenders, that the bastardy of FitzChivalry Farseer was wrongly construed as an obstacle to his inheriting the throne. Legends of the “True-hearted Bastard” rising from the grave to serve King Verity in his quest proliferated beyond all common sense, ascribing powers to FitzChivalry that raised the Bastard to the status of a near-deity. For this reason, the Piebalds have also been known as the Cult of the Bastard.

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  These ridiculous claims were intended to give some sort of legitimacy to the Piebald quest to overthrow the Farseer monarchy and put one of their own on the throne. To this end, the Piebalds began a clever campaign of forcing the Witted to either unite with them or risk exposure. Perhaps this tactic was inspired by Kebal Rawbread, leader of the Outislanders during the Red Ship War, for it is said that he drew men to follow him, not by his charisma, but by fear of what he would do to their homes and families if they refused to fall in with his plans.

  The Piebalds’ technique was a simple one. Either families tainted with the Wit magic joined their alliance or they were exposed by public accusations that led to their execution. It is said that the Piebalds often began an insidious attack on the fringes of a powerful family, exposing first a servant or a less affluent cousin, all the while making it clear that if the head of the stalwart house did not comply with their wishes, he too would eventually meet such an end.

  This is not the action of folk who wish to bring an end to persecution of their kin. This is the act of a ruthless faction determined to gain power for themselves, first by subjugating their own kind.

  — ROWELL’S “THE PIEBALD CONSPIRACY”

  The watch had changed. The town watchman’s bell and cry came thin through the storm, but I heard it. Night had officially ended and we were venturing toward morning and still I sat in Jinna’s cottage waiting for Hap to return. Jinna and I shared the comfort of her cozy hearth. Jinna’s niece had come in some time ago and chatted with us briefly before she sought her bed. Jinna and I passed the time, feeding log after log to the fire and gossiping of inconsequential things. The hedge-witch’s little house was warm and pleasant, her company congenial, and waiting for my boy became an excuse that allowed me to do what I wished, which was simply to sit quietly where I was.

  Conversation had been sporadic. Jinna had asked how my errand had gone. I had replied that it had been my master’s business and that I had but accompanied him. To keep that from sounding too brusque, I added that Lord Golden had acquired some feathers for his collection and then chatted to her about Myblack. I knew Jinna had no real interest in hearing about my horse, but she listened amiably. The words filled the small space between us comfortably.

  In truth, our real errand had had nothing to do with feathers, and had been more mine than Lord Golden’s. Together, we had recovered Prince Dutiful from the Piebalds who had first befriended and then captured him. We had returned him to Buckkeep with none of his nobles the wiser. Tonight the aristocracy of the Six Duchies feasted and danced, and tomorrow they would formalize Prince Dutiful’s betrothal to the Outisland Narcheska Elliania. Outwardly, all was as it had been.

  Few would ever know how much the seamless continuation of their normality had cost the Prince and me. The Prince’s Wit cat had sacrificed her life for him. I had lost my wolf. For close to a score of years, Nighteyes had been my other self, the repository of half my soul. Now he was gone. It was as profound a change in my life as the snuffing of a lamp makes in an evening room. His absence seemed a solid thing, a burden I must carry in addition to my grief. Nights were darker. No one guarded my back for me. Yet I knew I would continue to live. Sometimes that knowledge seemed the worst part of my loss.

  I reined back before I plunged completely into self-pity. I was not the only one who was bereaved. Despite the Prince’s briefer bond with his cat, I knew he suffered deeply. The magic link that the Wit forms between a human and an animal is a complex one. Severing it is never trivial. Yet the boy had mastered his grief and was stalwartly going through the motions of fulfilling his duties. At least I did not have to face my betrothal tomorrow night. The Prince had been plunged immediately back into his routine since we returned to Buckkeep yesterday afternoon. Last night he had attended the ceremonies that welcomed his bride-to-be. Tonight, he must smile and eat, make conversation, accept good wishes, dance, and appear well pleased with what fate and his mother had decreed for him. I thought of bright lights and skirling music and laughter and loud conversations. I shook my head in sympathy for him.

  “And what makes you shake your head like that, Tom Badgerlock?”

  Jinna’s voice broke in on my introspection, and I realized that the silence had grown long. I drew a long breath and found an easy lie. “The storm shows no sign of dying, does it? I was pitying those who must be out in it this night. I am grateful that I am not one of them. ”

  “Well. To that, I’ll add that I am thankful for the company,” she said, and smiled.

  “And I the same,” I added awkwardly.

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  To pass the night in the placid companionship of a pleasant woman was a novel experience for me. Jinna’s cat sat purring on my lap, while Jinna’s hands were occupied with knitting. The cozy warmth of the firelight reflected in the auburn shades of Jinna’s curly hair and the scattering of freckles on her face and forearms. She had a good face, not beautiful, but calm and kind. Our conversation had wandered wide this evening, from the herbs she had used to make the tea to how driftwood fires sometimes burned with colored flames, and beyond to discussing ourselves. I had discovered she was about six years younger than I truly was, and she had expressed surprise when I claimed to be forty-two. That was seven years past my true age; the extra years were part of my role as Tom Badgerlock. It pleased me when she said that she had thought I was closer to her age. Yet neither of us really gave our minds to our words. There was an interesting little tension between us as we sat before the fire and conversed quietly. The curiosity suspended between us was like a string, plucked and humming.

  Before I had left on my errand with Lord Golden, I had spent an afternoon with Jinna. She had kissed me. No words had accompanied that gesture, no avowals of lov
e or romantic compliments. There had been just the one kiss, interrupted when her niece had returned from marketing. Right now, neither of us quite knew how to return to the place where that moment of intimacy had been possible. For my part, I was not sure that I wished to venture there. I was not ready even for a second kiss, let alone what it might bring. My heart was too raw. Yet I wanted to be here, sitting before her fireside. It sounds a contradiction, and perhaps it was. I did not want the inevitable complications that caresses would lead to, yet in my Wit bereavement, I took comfort in this woman’s company.

  Yet Jinna was not why I had come here tonight. I needed to see Hap, my foster son. He had just arrived at Buckkeep Town and had been staying with Jinna. I wished to be sure his apprenticeship with Gindast the woodworker was going well. I must also, much as I dreaded it, give him the news of Nighteyes’ death. The wolf had raised the lad as much as I had. Yet even as I winced at the thought of telling him, I hoped it would, as the Fool had said, somehow ease the burden of my sorrow. With Hap, I could share my grief, however selfish a thing that might be. Hap had been mine for the last seven years. We had shared a life, and the wolf’s companionship. If I still belonged to anyone or anything, I belonged to my boy. I needed to feel the reality of that.

  “More tea?” Jinna offered me.

  I did not want more tea. We had already drunk three pots of it, and I had visited her backhouse twice. Yet she offered the tea to let me know I was welcome to stay, no matter how late, or early, the hour had become. So, “Please,” I said, and she set her knitting aside, to repeat the ritual of filling the kettle with fresh water from the cask and hanging it from the hook and swinging it over the fire again. Outside the storm rattled the shutters in a fresh surge of fury. Then it became, not the storm, but Hap’s rapping at the door. “Jinna?” he called unevenly. “Are you awake still?”

  “I’m awake,” she replied. She turned from putting the kettle on. “And lucky for you that I am, or you’d be sleeping in the shed with your pony. I’m coming. ”

  As she lifted the latch, I stood up, gently dumping the cat off my lap.

 
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