Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)
Mark Lawrence

ONE

I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery.

I’ve always found hitting a man from behind to be the best way to go about things. This can sometimes be accomplished by dint of a simple ruse. Classics such as, “What’s that over there?” work surprisingly often, but for truly optimal results it’s best if the person doesn’t ever know you were there.

“Ow! Jesu! What the hell did you do that for?” Alain DeVeer turned, clamping his hand to the back of his head and bringing it away bloody.

When the person you hit doesn’t have the grace to fall over, it’s generally best to have a backup plan. I dropped what remained of the vase, turned, and ran. In my mind he’d folded up with a pleasing “oofff” and left me free to leave the mansion unobserved, stepping over his prone and senseless form on the way. Instead his senseless form was now chasing me down the hall bellowing for blood.

I crashed back through Lisa’s door and slammed it behind me, bracing myself for the impact.

“What the hell?” Lisa sat in the bed, silken sheets flowing off her nakedness like water.

“Uh.” Alain hammered into the door, jolting the air from my lungs and scraping my heels over the tiles. The trick is to never rush for the bolt. You’ll be fumbling for it and get a face full of opening door. Brace for the impact; when that’s done, slam the bolt home while the other party is picking himself off the floor. Alain proved worryingly fast in getting back on his feet and I nearly got the door handle for breakfast despite my precautions.

“Jal!” Lisa was out of bed now, wearing nothing but the light and shade through the shutters. Stripes suited her. Sweeter than her elder sister, sharper than her younger sister. Even then I wanted her, even with her murderous brother held back by just an inch of oak and with my chances for escape evaporating by the moment.

I ran to the largest window and tore the shutters open. “Say sorry to your brother for me.” I swung a leg over the casement. “Mistaken identity or something . . .” The door started to shudder as Alain pounded the far side.

“Alain?” Lisa managed to look both furious with me and terrified at the same time.

I didn’t stop to reply but vaulted down into the bushes, which were thankfully the fragrant rather than thorny variety. Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief.

Landing is always important. I do a lot of falling and it’s not how you start that matters so much as how you finish. In this instance, I finished concertinaed, heels to arse, chin to knees, half an azalea bush up my nose and all the air driven from my lungs, but with no bones broken. I fought my way out and limped towards the garden wall, gasping for breath and hoping the staff were too busy with predawn chores to be poised and ready to hunt me down.

I took off, across the formal lawns, through the herb garden, cutting a straight path through all the little diamonds of sage, and triangles of thyme and whatnot. Somewhere back at the house a hound bayed, and that put the fear in me. I’m a good runner any day of the week. Scared shitless I’m world class. Two years ago, in the “border incident” with Scorron, I ran from a patrol of Teutons, five of them on big old destriers. The men I had charge of stayed put, lacking any orders. I find the important thing in running away is not how fast you run but simply that you run faster than the next man. Unfortunately my lads did a piss-poor job of slowing the Scorrons down, and that left poor Jal running for his life with hardly twenty years under his belt and a great long list of things still to do—with the DeVeer sisters near the top and dying on a Scorron lance not even making the first page. In any event, the borderlands aren’t the place to stretch a warhorse’s legs, and I kept a gap between us by running through a boulder field at breakneck speed. Without warning I found myself charging into the back of a pitched battle between a much larger force of Scorron irregulars and the band of Red March skirmishers I’d been scouting on behalf of in the first place. I rocketed into the midst of it all, flailed around with my sword in blind terror trying to escape, and when the dust settled and the blood stopped squirting, I discovered myself the hero of the day, breaking the enemy with a courageous attack that showed complete disregard for my own safety.

So here’s the thing: Bravery may be observed when a person tramples one fear whilst in secret flight from a greater terror. And those whose greatest terror is being thought a coward are always brave. I, on the other hand, am a coward. But with a little luck, a dashing smile, and the ability to lie from the hip, I’ve done a surprisingly good job of seeming a hero and of fooling most of the people most of the time.

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