Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(3)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(3)
Mark Lawrence

“Master Jal!” He woke with a start and came perilously close to tipping the chair over backwards.

“As you were.” I gave him a wink and went by. Fat Ned kept a tight lip and my excursions were safe with him. He’d known me since I was a little monster bullying the smaller princes and princesses and toadying to the ones big enough to clout me. He’d been fat back in those days. The flesh hung off him now as the reaper closed in for the final swing, but the name stuck. There’s power in a name. “Prince” has served me very well—something to hide behind when trouble comes, and “Jalan” carries echoes of King Jalan of the Red March, Fist of the Emperor back when we had one. A title and a name like Jalan carry an aura with them, enough to give me the benefit of the doubt—and there was never a doubt I needed that.

I nearly made it back to my room.

“Jalan Kendeth!”

I stopped two steps from the balcony that led to my chambers, toe poised for the next step, boots in my hand. I said nothing. Sometimes the bishop would just bellow my name when he discovered random mischief. In fairness I was normally the root cause. This time, however, he was looking directly at me.

“I see you right there, Jalan Kendeth, footsteps black with sin as you creep back to your lair. Get down here!”

I turned with an apologetic grin. Churchmen like you to be sorry and often it doesn’t matter what you’re sorry about. In this case I was sorry for being caught.

“And the best of mornings to you, Your Excellency.” I put the boots behind my back and swaggered down towards him as if it had been my plan all along.

“His Eminence directs me to present your brothers and yourself at the throne room by second bell.” Bishop James scowled at me, cheeks grey with stubble as if he too had been turfed out of bed at an unreasonable hour, though perhaps not by Lisa DeVeer’s shapely foot.

“Father directed that?” He’d said nothing at table the previous night, and the cardinal was not one to rise before noon whatever the good book had to say about sloth. They call it a deadly sin, but in my experience lust will get you into more trouble and sloth’s only a sin when you’re being chased.

“The message came from the queen.” The bishop’s scowl deepened. He liked to attribute all commands to Father as the church’s highest, albeit least enthusiastic, representative in Red March. Grandmother once said she’d been tempted to set the cardinal’s hat on the nearest donkey, but Father had been closer and promised to be more easily led. “Martus and Darin have already left.”

I shrugged. “They arrived before me too.” I’d yet to forgive my elder brothers that slight. I stopped, out of arm’s reach as the bishop loved nothing better than to slap the sin out of a wayward prince, and turned to go upstairs. “I’ll get dressed.”

“You’ll go now! It’s almost second bell and your preening never takes less than an hour.”

As much as I would have liked to dispute the old fool, he happened to be right and I knew better than to be late for the Red Queen. I suppressed a sneer and hurried past him. I had on what I’d worn for my midnight escapades and whilst it was stylish enough, the slashed velvets hadn’t fared too well during my escape. Still, it would have to serve. Grandmother would rather see her spawn battle-armoured and dripping blood in any event, so a touch of mud here and there might earn me some approval.

THREE

I came late to the throne room with the second bell’s echoes dying before I reached the bronze doors, huge out-of-place things stolen from some still-grander palace by one of my distant and bloody-handed relatives. The guards eyed me as if I might be bird crap that had sailed uninvited through a high window to splat before them.

“Prince Jalan.” I rolled my hands to chivvy them along. “You may have heard of me? I am invited.”

Without commentary the largest of them, a giant in fire-bronze mail and crimson-plumed helm, hauled the left door wide enough to admit me. My campaign to befriend every guard in the palace had never penetrated as far as Grandmother’s picked men; they thought too much of themselves for that. Also they were too well paid to be impressed by my largesse, and perhaps forewarned against me in any case.

I crept in unannounced and hurried across the echoing expanse of marble. I’ve never liked the throne room. Not for the arching grandness of it, or the history set in grim-faced stone and staring at us from every wall, but because the place has no escape routes. Guards, guards, and more guards, along with the scrutiny of that awful old woman who claims to be my grandmother.

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