Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(10)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(10)
Mark Lawrence

At last! I hurried out amongst the others, catching up with Serah. “Well, that settles it! The old bat’s cracked. The emperor!” I laughed and flashed her my cavalry grin. “Even Grandmother isn’t old enough to have seen the last emperor.”

Serah fixed me with a look of disgust. “Did you listen to anything she said?” And off she strode, leaving me standing there, jostled by Martus and Darin as they passed by.

FOUR

From the throne room I sprinted down the grand corridor, turning left where all my family turned right. Armour, statuary, portraits, displays of fanned-out swords, all of them flashed past. My day boots pounded a hundred yards of staggeringly expensive woven rug, luxuriant silks patterned in the Indus style. I turned the corner at the far end, teetering on the edge of control, dodged two maids, and ran flat-out along the central corridor of the guest range, where scores of rooms were laid ready against the possibility of visiting nobility.

“Out the fucking way!” Some old retainer doddered from a doorway into my path. One of my father’s—Robbin, a grey old cripple always limping about the place getting underfoot. I swerved past him—Lord knows why we keep such hangers-on—and accelerated down the hallway.

Twice guardsmen startled from their alcoves, one even calling a challenge before deciding I was more ass than assassin. Two doors short of the corridor’s end I stopped and made an entrance to the Green Room, gambling that it would be unoccupied. The room, chambered in rustic style with a four-poster bed carved like spreading oaks, lay empty and shrouded in white linens. I passed the bed, wherein I’d once spent several pleasant nights in the company of a dusky contessa from the southernmost reaches of Roma, and threw back the shutters. Through the window, onto the balcony, vault the balustrade, and drop to the peaked roof of the royal stables, an edifice that would put to shame any mansion on the Kings Way.

Now, I know how to fall, but the drop from the stables roof would kill a Chinee acrobat, and so the speed with which I ran along the stone gutter was a careful balance between my desire not to fall to my death and my desire not to be stabbed to my death by Maeres Allus or one of his enforcers. The giant Norseman could bludgeon me a way out of debt altogether if I managed to secure his services and make the right wagers. Hell, if people saw what I saw in the man and wouldn’t give me good odds, then I could just slip him some bonewort and bet against him.

At the far end of the stables hall two Corinthian pillars supported ancient vines, or vice versa. Either way a good, or desperate, climber could make his way to ground there. I slid the last ten foot, bruised my heel, bit my tongue, and ran off towards the Battle Gate spitting blood.

I arrived there winded and had to bend double, palms on thighs, heaving in great lungfuls of air before I could assess the situation.

Two guards watched me with undisguised curiosity. An old soak commonly known as Double, and a youngster I didn’t recognize.

“Double!” I straightened up and raised a hand in greeting. “What dungeon are the queen’s prisoners being taken to?” It would be the war cells up in the Marsail keep. They might be slaves but you wouldn’t put the Norseman in with common stock. I asked anyway. It’s always good to open with an easy question to put your man at ease.

“Ain’t no cells for them lot.” Double made to spit, then thought better of it and swallowed noisily.

“Wh—?” She couldn’t be having them killed! It would be a criminal waste.

“They’s going free. Tha’s what I heard.” Double shook his head at the badness of the business, jowls wobbling. “Contaph’s coming up to process them.” He nodded out across the plaza and sure enough there was Contaph, layered in his official robes and beetling towards us with the sort of self-importance that only minor functionaries can muster. From the high latticed windows above the Battle Gate I could hear the distant clank of chains, drawing nearer.

“Damn it.” I glanced from door to subchamberlain and back again. “Hold them here, Double,” I told him. “Don’t tell them anything. Not a thing. I’ll see you right. Your friend too.” And with that I hurried off to intercept Ameral Contaph of House Mecer.

We met in the middle of the plaza where an ancient sundial spelled out the time with morning shadows. Already the flagstones were beginning to heat up and the day’s promise simmered above the rooftops. “Ameral!” I threw my hands wide as though he were an old friend.

“Prince Jalan.” He ducked his head as if seeking to take me from his sight. I could forgive him his suspicions; as a child I used to hide scorpions in his pockets.

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