Home > The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(10)

The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(10)
Mark Lawrence

“Prince Jalan.” Aslaug stepped from the shadows of the hall. They clung to her, dark webs, not wanting to release their hold. She pulled clear as the sun kissed the horizon. No one would mistake her for human but she wore a woman’s form and wore it well, her flesh like bone, but dipped in ink so it soaked into every pore, revealing the grain, gathering black in any hollow. She fixed me with eyes that held no colour, only passions, set in a narrow and exquisite face. Oil-dark hair framed her, falling in unnatural coils and curls. Her beauty owed something to the praying mantis, something to the inhumanity of Greek sculpture. Mask or not though, it worked on me. I’m easily led in matters of the flesh. “Jalan,” she said again, stepping around me. She wore tatters of darkness as a gown.

I didn’t answer, or turn to follow her. Villagers were still arriving, and the cheers and laughter from inside the hall were drawing more by the minute. None of them would see Aslaug but if they saw me spinning around and talking to the empty air it wouldn’t look good. Northmen are a superstitious lot, and frankly with what I’d seen over the last few months they were right to be so. Superstition though does tend to have a sharp end, and I didn’t want to find myself impaled on it.

“Why are you out here in the wilds with all these ill-smelling peasants?” Aslaug reappeared at my left shoulder, her mouth close to my ear. “And why”—a harder edge to her tone, eyes narrowing—“is that light-sworn here? I can smell him. He was going away . . .” A tilt of her head. “Jalan? Have you followed him? Tagged along like a dog at heel? We’ve talked about this, Jalan. You’re a prince, a man of royal blood, in line for the throne of Red March!”

“I’m going home.” I whispered it, hardly a twitch in my lips.

“Leaving your beauties behind?” She always held a note of disapproval when it came to my womanizing. Obviously the jealous type.

“I thought it time. They were getting clingy.” I rubbed the side of my head, not convinced that Tuttugu had gotten all the splinters out.

“For the better. In Red March we can begin to clear your path to succession.” A smile lit her face, the sky crimson behind her with the sun’s death throes.

“Well . . .” My own lips curled with an echo of her expression. “I’m not one for murder. But if a whole bunch of my cousins fell off a cliff I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” I’d found it paid to play along with her. Whilst I’d rejoice in any misfortune that fate might drop upon my cousins, three or four of them in particular, I’ve never had an appetite for the more lethal games played at some courts with knife and poison. My own vision for my glorious path to the throne involved toadying and favouritism, lubricated with tales of heroism and reports of genius. Once selected as Grandmother’s favourite and promoted unfairly into the position of heir it would just be a case of the old woman having a timely heart attack and my reign of pleasure would begin!

“You know that Snorri will be plotting your destruction, Jalan?” She reached an arm around me, the touch cold but somehow thrilling too, filled with all the delicious possibilities that the night hides. “You know what Baraqel will be instructing. He told you the same when Snorri kept me within him.”

“I trust Snorri.” If he had wanted me dead he could have done it many times over.

“For how long, Prince Jalan? For how long will you trust him?” Her lips close to mine now, head haloed with the last rays of the sunset. “Don’t trust the light, Prince Jalan. The stars are pretty but the space between them is infinite and black with promise.” Behind me I could almost hear her shadow mix with mine, its dry spider-legs rustling one against the next. “Returning with your body and the right story to Vermillion would earn Snorri gratitude in many circles for many reasons . . .”

“Good night, Aslaug.” I clenched what could be clenched and kept from shuddering. In the last moments before the dark took her she was always at her least human, as if her presence outlasted her disguise for just a heartbeat.

“Watch him!” And the shadows pulled her down as they merged into the singular gloom that would deepen into night.

I turned and followed the locals into their “great” hall. My moments with Aslaug always left me a touch less tolerant of sweaty peasants and their crude little lives. And perhaps Snorri did bear watching. He had after all been on the point of abandoning me when I most needed help. A day later and I could have been subjected to all the horrors of handfasting, or some even crueller form of Viking justice.

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