Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(6)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(6)
Mark Lawrence

Martus snorted at that, though quiet enough that it would be missed. Martus had been commissioned into the heavy horse, destined for knight-general, commander of Red March’s elite. The Red Queen in a fit of madness five years earlier had all but eliminated the force. Centuries of tradition, honour, and excellence ploughed under at the whim of an old woman. Now we were all to be soldiers running to battle on foot, digging ditches, endlessly practising mechanical tactics that any peasant could master and that set a prince no higher than a potboy.

“. . . greater foe. Time to put aside thoughts of empty conquest and draw in . . .”

I looked up from my disgust to find Grandmother still droning on about war. It’s not that I care overmuch about honour. All that chivalry nonsense loads a man down and any sensible fellow will ditch it the moment he needs to run—but it’s the look of the thing, the form of it. To be in one of the three horse corps, to earn your spurs and keep a trio of chargers at the city barracks . . . it had been the birthright of young nobles since time immemorial. Damn it, I wanted my commission. I wanted in at the officers’ mews, wanted to swap tall tales around the smoky tables at the Conarrf and ride along the Kings Way flying the colours of the Red Lance or Iron Hoof, with the long hair and bristling moustache of a cavalryman and a stallion between my legs. Tenth in line to a throne will get you into a not-insignificant number of bedchambers, but if a man dons the scarlet cloak of the Red March riders and wraps his legs around a destrier, there are few ladies of quality who won’t open theirs when he flashes a smile at them.

At the corner of my vision the blind-eye woman moved, spoiling my daydream and putting all thoughts of riding, of either kind, from my head.

“. . . burning all dead. Cremation is to be mandatory, for noble and commoner alike, and damn any dissent from Roma . . .”

That again. The old bird had been banging on about death rites for over a year now. As if men my age gave a fig for such things! She’d become obsessed with sailors’ tales, ghost stories from the Drowned Isles, the ramblings of muddy drunkards from the Ken Marshes. Already men went chained into the ground—good iron wasted against superstition—and now chains weren’t enough? Bodies must be burned? Well, the church wouldn’t like it. It would put a crimp in their plans for Judgment Day and us all rising from the grave for a big grimy hug. But who cared? Really? I watched the early light slide across the walls high above me and tried to picture Lisa as I’d left her that morning, clad in brightness and shadow and nothing more.

The crash of the chamberlain’s staff on flagstones jerked my head back up. In fairness I’d had very little sleep the night before and a trying morning. If I hadn’t been caught a yard from my bedchamber door I would have been safely ensconced therein until well past noon, dreaming better versions of the daydream Grandmother kept interrupting.

“Bring in the witnesses!” The chamberlain had a voice that could make a death sentence boring.

Four guardsmen entered, flanking a Nuban warrior, scar-marked and tall, manacled wrist and ankle, the chains all threaded through an iron ring belted around his waist. That perked my interest. I misspent much of my youth gambling at the pit fights in the Latin Quarter, and I intended to misspend much of what life remained to me there too. I’ve always enjoyed a good fight and a healthy dose of bloodshed, as long as it’s not me being pummelled or my blood getting spilled. Gordo’s pits, or the Blood Holes down by Mercants, got you close enough to wipe the occasional splatter from the toe of your boot, and offered endless opportunity for betting. Of late I’d even entered men on my own ticket. Likely lads bought off the slave boats out of Maroc. None had lasted more than two bouts yet, but even losing can pay if you know where to place your wagers. In any event, the Nuban looked like a solid bet. Perhaps he might even be the ticket that could get Maeres Allus off my back and silence his tiresome demands for payment for brandy already consumed and for whores already fucked.

A weedy half-caste with a decorative arrangement of missing teeth followed the Nuban to translate his mumbo jumbo. The chamberlain posed a question or two and the man answered with the usual nonsense about dead men rising from the Afrique sands, elaborating the tales this time to make it small legions of them. No doubt he hoped for freedom if his story proved sufficiently entertaining. He did a fine job of it, throwing in a djinn or two for good measure, though not the normal jolly fellows in satin pantaloons offering wishes. I felt tempted to applaud at the end, but Grandmother’s face suggested that might not be a wise idea.

Two more reprobates followed, each similarly chained, each with a more outrageous fable than the last. The corsair, a swarthy fellow with torn ears where the gold had been ripped from him, spun a yarn about dead ships rising, crewed by drowned men. And the Slav spoke of bone-men from the barrows out in the grass sea. Ancient dead clad in pale gold and grave goods from before the Builders’ time. Neither man had much potential for the pits. The corsair looked wiry and was no doubt used to fighting in close quarters, but he’d lost fingers from both hands and age was against him. The Slav was a big fellow, but slow. Some men have a special kind of clumsiness that announces itself in every move they make. I started to dream about Lisa again. Then Lisa and Micha together. Then Lisa, Micha, and Sharal. It got quite complicated. But when more guards marched in with the fourth and last of these “witnesses,” Grandmother suddenly had all my attention. You only had to look at the man to tell the Blood Holes wouldn’t know what had hit them. I’d found my new fighter!

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