Home > The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(8)

The Wheel of Osheim (The Red Queen's War #3)(8)
Mark Lawrence

I was pretty sure Tarelle and Danelle’s sheep had turned their puffy eyeballs my way and I didn’t dare scrape away the rice from my own for fear of finding the thing staring back at me. I managed, by dint of continuously sampling from the dishes in the centre, to eat a vast amount of food whilst continuing to increase the mound on my own plate. After months in the deadlands it would take more than a severed head on my plate to kill my appetite. I drank at least a gallon from my goblet, constantly refilling it from a nearby ewer, only water sadly, but the deadlands had given me a thirst that required a small river to quench and the desert had only added to it.

“This danger that you claim to have come to warn us of.” Mahood pushed back his plate. “What is it?” He rested both hands on his stomach. As lean as his father, he was taller, sharp featured, pockmarked, as quick to shift from friendly to sinister with just the slightest movement of his face.

“Bad.” I took the opportunity to push back my own plate. To be unable to clear your plate is a compliment to a Liban host’s largesse. Mine simply constituted a bigger compliment than usual, I hoped. “I don’t know what form it will take. I only pray that we are far enough away to be safe.”

“And God sent an infidel to deliver this warning?”

“A divine message is holy whatever it may be written upon.” I had Bishop James to thank for that gem. He beat the words, if not the sentiment, into me after I decorated the privy wall with that bible passage about who was cleaving to whom. “And of course the messenger is never to be blamed! That one’s older than civilization.” I breathed a sigh of relief as my plate was removed without comment.

“And now dessert!” The sheik clapped his hands. “A true desert dessert!”

I looked up expectantly as the servers returned with smaller square platters stacked along their arms, half expecting to be presented with a plate of sand. I would have preferred a plate of sand.

“It’s a scorpion,” I said.

“A keen eye you have, Prince Jalan.” Mahood favoured me with a dark stare over the top of his water goblet.

“Crystallized scorpion, Prince Jalan! Can you have spent time in Liba and not yet tried one?” The sheik looked confounded.

“It’s a great delicacy.” Tarelle’s knee bumped mine.

“I’m sure I’ll love it.” I forced the words past gritted teeth. Teeth that had no intention of parting to admit the thing. I stared at the scorpion, a monster fully nine inches long from the curve of the tail arching over its back to the oversized twin claws. The arachnid had a slightly translucent hue to it, its carapace orange and glistening with some kind of sugary glaze. Any larger and it could be mistaken for a lobster.

“Eating the scorpion is a delicate art, Prince Jalan,” the sheik said, demanding our attention. “First, do not be tempted to eat the sting. For the rest customs vary, but in my homeland we begin with the lower section of the pincer, like so.” He took hold of the upper part and set his knife between the two halves. “A slight twist will crack—”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the scorpion on my plate jitter toward me on stiff legs, six glazed feet scrabbling for purchase on the silver. I slammed my goblet down on the thing crushing its back, legs shattering, pieces flying in all directions, cloudy syrup leaking from its broken body.

All nine al’Hameeds stared at me in open-mouthed astonishment.

“Ah . . . that’s . . .” I groped for some kind of explan-ation. “That’s how we do it where I come from!”

A silence stretched, rapidly extending through awkward into uncomfortable, until with a deep belly-laugh Sheik Malik slammed his goblet down on his own scorpion. “Unsubtle, but effective. I like it!” Two of his daughters and one son followed suit. Mahood and Jahmeen watched me with narrowed eyes as they started to dismember their dessert piece by piece in strict accordance with tradition.

I looked down at the syrupy mess of fragments in my own plate. Only the claws and stinger had survived. I still didn’t want to eat any of it. Opposite me, Mina popped a sticky chunk of broken scorpion into her pretty mouth, smiling all the while.

I picked up a piece, sharp-edged and dripping with ichor, hoping for some distraction so that I could palm the thing away. It was a pity the heathens took against dogs so. A hound at a feast is always handy for disposing of unwanted food. With a sigh I moved the fragment toward my lips . . .

When the distraction came I was almost too distracted to use the opportunity. One moment we sat illuminated by the fluttering light of a dozen oil lamps, the next the world outside lit up brighter than a desert noon, dazzling even through the tent walls. I could see the shadows of guy ropes stark against the material, the outline of a passing servant. The intensity of it grew from unbelievable to impossible, and outside the screaming started. A wave of heat reached me as if I had passed from shadow to sun. I barely had time to stand before the glow departed, as quickly as it came. The tent seemed suddenly dim. I stumbled over Tarelle, unable to make out my surroundings.

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