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     “…attentions?”

     Such a whoop of laughter rose from my friend that I could not tell if the reaction had been contrived for Lord Golden or if it was the Fool’s honest amusement. Dutiful looked between us in confusion as his words were met with such blatant mockery, and the line between his brows reminded me neither of Kettricken nor Verity, but uncomfortably of my own expression of distaste mingled with confusion. I shook my head at him slowly and turned to regard my master, who had a hand over his mouth as if trying to contain his laughter.

     “Sa’s breath,” Lord Golden gasped. “I had never thought to hear such a query from you, my Prince.”

     Dutiful was not amused. “I don’t find it that funny.”

     “Well…Duchy humour never has been quite as refined as that of Jamaillia. Still…” He shook his head, trailing off into fresh peals of laughter.

     Hoping to salvage the situation, I addressed the Prince: “So I told you, Dutiful. An absolutely ridiculous notion.”

     That caught Lord Golden’s attention. “Oh?” he asked, raising his head to regard us. “So you asked Tom first, did you?”

     “It was significantly more comfortable,” said Dutiful with a tension that I marked easily as the feeling of having been slighted. “And you still have not answered me.”

     “Do you believe Tom would lie to you?” he asked with a raised brow. All trace of laughter had gone from his voice. The ability to switch to effortlessly from one mood to another was a childhood skill of his, but it unnerves me to this day. It was sufficient to distract Dutiful from the question he had asked, however.

     “Well…no,” the Prince answered carefully. “Unless he was sworn to secrecy by you. This would not surprise me, given the depth of the accusation.”

     “Suspicion,” I corrected. “You accused him of nothing, my prince, merely voiced a suspicion.”

     “He accused us of nothing, Tom. This particular suspicion does require two people.” Lord Golden shot me a Fool’s grin, but I looked away. He was not helping the situation. “But, as I said before, I doubt Tom would have lied to you, Prince Dutiful. Be content with that.”

     I knew he was avoiding a direct answer of the question, and I felt a wave of anger rise in me as I contemplated how far he would go to incense the political intrigue at the court. If Dutiful sensed my anger, he gave no sign of it, though I could only imagine what he might assume from such a reaction. He nodded stiffly and walked from Lord Golden’s chambers. Once his footfalls were beyond my hearing and I had closed the door, I turned towards the Fool. He had moved across his chamber and sank into a low chair, an amused expression still apparent as he regarded me.

     “What was that?” I asked him, a hard edge to my voice.

     “What was what?” His feigned ignorance angered me further still, and I only glared. “Really, Fitz, you cannot be so lacking in spirit as that,” he conceded. He still seemed to find the entire situation amusing.

     “You did not deny it.”

     “I should not have had to,” he remarked. “After all, hurried denials sound more like excuses.”

     “Your reaction could not possibly have helped to abate the rumour. I told you but a few days ago that this was a concern.” I sat in the chair opposite him, but looked aside at the hearth.

     The Fool tapped his chin with a long forefinger. “As I recall, you simply said that news of the tensions between Lord Golden and Civil Bresinga had reached Buckkeep.”

     “I also mentioned that folk have begun questioning my nature as your servant.” My teeth were clenched, and my words hissed out through them. “There are no longer many who doubt that I have a ‘special’ connection to you, and I was once referred to as a ‘bodyservant’ as opposed to a ‘bodyguard’ only two days ago. You must do something about this.”

     “Why?” he asked calmly, and the fashion in which he drew out the vowel sound put his voice somewhere between Lord Golden and the Fool.

     “Because if the rumours are given too much credence, we will both lose any respect at court. Surely you should know this.” For years he had woven the narrow paths between rumours and found just those that would sway the court the way King Shrewd had needed.

     “Nonsense,” he dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. “Folk will simply see another foreign custom, an eccentricity.”

     “There is only so much they will dismiss.”

     He had half closed his eyes as if immensely pleased with himself, but opened them now and sat up straighter to fix me with his amber gaze. It seemed he was trying to convey something with that glare alone, but I could not interpret it. At length, when I thought he might not speak at all, he stood up brusquely. “To the dining hall,” Lord Golden commanded. “I don’t trust you to find anything satisfactory on your own.” He swept past me and I had no choice but to follow in the wake of his perfume, three steps behind and to his right.

     The familiar odours of the kitchen washed over me long before we reached the doors of the Great Hall, though not as soon as they might have if my sense of smell was as strong as it once had been. With the admission came a stab of pain and loss which I quickly shoved down into the recesses of my soul. I could not afford to think of my bond-mate just now. As we walked among the tables that had been laid out with food for a midday meal, I pitched my voice low enough that only Lord Golden could hear me. “Why can you not simply deny it to those who ask?”

     The Fool had long ago mastered the art of speaking from only one corner of his mouth, his head turned just slightly so it appeared he was considering the tables beside us. His voice floated back to me over his shoulder. “And rob the other courtiers of their greatest speculations and debates? There is a fine line that must be walked here. They are only rumours, and no one will acquire any evidence with which to prove them.”

     “Sometimes it takes only rumours,” I retorted. “If everyone believes a rumour, it becomes the truth.”

     Lord Golden chuckled. “Ah, but you do not believe it.”

     “Nor do you,” I ventured.

     He did not answer that, commanding me instead to find a clean platter and start filling it with what he indicated.

     “Although, it hardly counts if the subjects of the rumours are the only ones who deny them,” I pressed on, determined to sort this out.

     A sly smile crossed his face. “I cannot understand your vehemence on the matter. Would a universal belief of such whispers really be so terrible? You would, after all, be envied by all the ladies of the court.”

     Setting my jaw, I answered his question, “Yes, it would be.”

     He stopped so suddenly I nearly ran into him. Then, with a shake of his head, he turned and strode purposefully away from the table and back the way we came. “Leave that,” Lord Golden called over his shoulder.

     I grimaced, but nonetheless set the platter down on the table and hurried after him. “That defeats the purpose of coming to the dining hall.”

     “I’m not hungry,” came the Fool’s ice-cold voice. I had seldom heard him so harsh, and the statement left me reeling with shock until we came back to Lord Golden’s chambers. As he was preceding me, he opened the door himself, slipped inside, and shut me out without a backwards glance. I heard the key turn in the lock just as I reached for the handle.

     For a few minutes I simply stood outside, waiting for him to let me in. I then realized this was not forthcoming and resolved to perform some of my other tasks. I visited Chade’s tower through the entrance in an abandoned withdrawing room and when I was finished there I took the steps down to my own chambers within Lord Golden’s. Letting the door close behind me and submerge me into darkness, I took a deep breath. I did not know what I had done to offend my friend, but perhaps there was a reason he had locked me out. When I had collected myself beyond the anger and discomfort at the earlier topic of conversation, I opened the adjoining door to his chambers.

     The Fool was sitting on his bed, leaning against the headboard with his knees drawn up close to his chest. He had stacked his pillows between his body and the hard wood, and his elbow rested on one of them. Upon hearing me enter, he looked up from the scroll he was reading, stared at me expressionless for nearly ten seconds, and went back to his task. With no forthcoming conversation, I simply began tidying his chambers as a good serving man would do. I thought perhaps if I lingered he might open up to me, yet I did not wish to appear idle.

     I have always had very little patience, especially to the Fool’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves. Setting down a candlestick after dusting underneath it, I turned to face him again. “Fool?”

     “Yes?” he asked without looking up.

     “Are you going to talk to me?”

     “Is that not what I am doing?”

     I scowled. I was in the mood for his word play even less than ever. “Are you going to hold a significant discussion with me?”

     He sighed, carefully rolling up the scroll and setting it beside him. “Well, it would be rude to ignore you.”

     I dropped into a chair, resting my arms on the back of it and putting a leg on each side. “I have never seen you this angry. Why does it offend you so that I wish to deny these slanderous rumours?”

     Some of the fight seemed to go out of him. “Of course Tom Badgerlock would be offended. I suspect he is not overly fond of Lord Golden in any case. No, Tom Badgerlock reacted completely correctly. What affected me was the raw disgust I heard in FitzChivalry’s voice.”

     I had no idea what he was talking about. “Fool, we speak with the same voice.”

     “Exactly!” The force of his words drove him to sit up fully. “I should hope that you hold me in higher regard than you do Lord Golden. A bond as close as ours should not incite disgust from you at the thought, even if you do not desire a connection such as that insinuated.”

     I stood, pushing the chair away. “You know it is wrong,” I argued. “Your ideals have always been different than those commonly held here.”

     “How can you say it is wrong after all we have been through?” Though he had raised his voice, he sounded on the verge of tears. I was simply shocked that he was yelling at me; he was usually quite docile, even when angry.

     “If you are referring to our childhood,” I warned him quietly, “then you know you twist the facts. I told you my feelings were mistaken, and the only reason I developed them in the first place was because I believed you to be a girl.” I had been lonely, and the Fool my only friend. I had not known how else to feel, and he had made a jest of my confusion.

     “No, you asked what I was. And I have told you time and again that it should not matter.” He was staring at me defiantly, but with a tenuous look of desperation behind his eyes.

     I had had enough. “You act as if you wish the rumours to continue, no matter how they will affect either of us!”

     He opened his mouth to respond to me, but no sound came out. When he steeled his expression, only Lord Golden was visible to me. “You’re dismissed, Tom.”

     “Pardon me?” Everything had happened so quickly that I hardly knew how to react.

     “I know you want to see your son. Go on. I suspect I will be better off without you this evening.” His eyes met mine, daring me to challenge him, and suddenly there was a gaping emptiness in my chest. I dropped my gaze from his. “Yes, sir.”

     It was only when I was far away from his room that I realized that the emptiness had gone from me. Upon further analysis, it became clear to me that it was not a void I had felt for a long time: it was rooted in a different part of my soul than my loss at Nighteyes. At the time, I had thought that the strain of my argument with the Fool had merely dislodged the feelings I had shoved down earlier, but what I felt in that moment was more akin to my reaction at the loss of Molly. I wondered at this, but as the feeling had dissipated, I dismissed it.

     Years later, I was to find out that the Skill bond between the Fool and I was deeper than I had ever imagined, and that it was his loss that I felt.