Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(4)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(4)
Mark Lawrence

I made my way towards my nine siblings and cousins. It seemed this was to be an audience exclusively for the royal grandchildren: the nine junior princes and singular princess of Red March. By rights I should have been tenth in line to the throne after my two uncles, their sons, and my father and elder brothers, but the old witch who’d kept that particular seat warm these past forty years had different ideas about succession. Cousin Serah, still a month shy of her eighteenth birthday, and containing not an ounce of whatever it is that makes a princess, was the apple of the Red Queen’s eye. I won’t lie, Serah had more than several ounces of whatever it is that lets a woman steal the sense from a man, and accordingly I would gladly have ignored the common views on what cousins should and shouldn’t get up to. Indeed I’d tried to ignore them several times, but Serah had a vicious right hook and a knack for kicking the tenderest of spots that a man owns. She’d come today wearing some kind of riding suit in fawn and suede that looked better suited to the hunt than to court. But damn, she looked good.

I brushed past her and elbowed my way in between my brothers near the front of the group. I’m a decent-sized fellow, tall enough to give men pause, but I don’t normally care to stand by Martus and Darin. They make me look small and, with nothing to set us apart, all with the same dark-gold hair and hazel eyes, I get referred to as “the little one.” That I don’t like. On this occasion, though, I was prepared to be overlooked. It wasn’t just being in the throne room that made me nervous. Nor even because of Grandmother’s pointed disapproval. It was the blind-eye woman. She scares the hell out of me.

I first saw her when they brought me before the throne on my fifth birthday, my name day, flanked by Martus and Darin in their church finest, Father in his cardinal’s hat, sober despite the sun having passed its zenith, my mother in silks and pearls, a clutch of churchmen and court ladies forming the periphery. The Red Queen sat forwards in her great chair booming out something about her grandfather’s grandfather, Jalan, the Fist of the Emperor, but it passed me by—I’d seen her. An ancient woman, so old it turned my stomach to look at her. She crouched in the shadow of the throne, hunched up so she’d be hidden away if you looked from the other side. She had a face like paper that had been soaked then left to dry, her lips a greyish line, cheekbones sharp. Clad in rags and tatters, she had no place in that throne room, at odds with the finery, the fire-bronzed guards and the glittering retinue come to see my name set in place upon me. There was no motion in the crone; she could almost have been a trick of the light, a discarded cloak, an illusion of lines and shade.

“. . . Jalan?” The Red Queen stopped her litany with a question.

I had answered with silence, tearing my gaze from the creature at her side.

“Well?” Grandmother narrowed her regard to a sharp point that held me.

Still I had nothing. Martus had elbowed me hard enough to make my ribs creak. It hadn’t helped. I wanted to look back at the old woman. Was she still there? Had she moved the moment my eyes left her? I imagined how she’d move. Quick like a spider. My stomach made a tight knot of itself.

“Do you accept the charge I have laid upon you, child?” Grandmother asked, attempting kindness.

My glance flickered back to the hag. Still there, exactly the same, her face half-turned from me, fixed on Grandmother. I hadn’t noticed her eye at first, but now it drew me. One of the cats at the Hall had an eye like that. Milky. Pearly almost. Blind, my nurse called it. But to me it seemed to see more than the other eye.

“What’s wrong with the boy? Is he simple?” Grandmother’s displeasure had rippled through the court, silencing their murmurs.

I couldn’t look away. I stood there sweating. Barely able to keep from wetting myself. Too scared to speak, too scared even to lie. Too scared to do anything but sweat and keep my eyes on that old woman.

When she moved, I nearly screamed and ran. Instead just a squeak escaped me. “Don-don’t you see her?”

She stole into motion. So slow at first you had to measure her against the background to be sure it wasn’t imagination. Then speeding up, smooth and sure. She turned that awful face towards me, one eye dark, the other milk and pearl. It had felt hot, suddenly, as if all the great hearths had roared into life with one scorching voice, sparked into fury on a fine summer’s day, the flames leaping from iron grates as if they wanted nothing more than to be amongst us.

She was tall. I saw that now, hunched but tall. And thin, like a bone.

“Don’t you see her?” My words rising to a shriek, I pointed and she stepped towards me, a white hand reaching.

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