Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War)

Ace Books by Mark Lawrence

The Broken Empire

PRINCE OF THORNS

KING OF THORNS

EMPEROR OF THORNS

The Red Queen’s War

PRINCE OF FOOLS

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

Copyright © 2014 by Bobalinga, Ltd.

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Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

ACE and the “A” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-63093-8

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lawrence, Mark, 1966–

Prince of fools / Mark Lawrence. — First Edition.

pages cm. — (The Red Queen’s War; 1)

ISBN 978-0-425-26878-0 (hardback)

1. Queens—Fiction. 2. Imaginary wars and battles—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3612.A9484P45 2014

813'.6—dc23

2013048142

FIRST EDITION:
June 2014

Cover art by Christian McGrath.

Map reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd © 2014 Andrew Ashton.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

CONTENTS

Ace Books by Mark Lawrence

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Map

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

Dedicated to my daughter, Heather

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many thanks to the good folk at Ace Books who have made this all happen and put the book in your hands. Special thanks to Ginjer Buchanan and Rebecca Brewer.

Thanks also to Justin Landon, who read the early portion of the book and provided much-appreciated feedback.

And finally, another round of applause for my agent, Ian Drury, and the team at Sheil Land for all their sterling work.

ONE

I’
m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery.

I
’ve always found hitting a man from behind to be the best way to go about things. This can sometimes be accomplished by dint of a simple ruse. Classics such as, “What’s that over there?” work surprisingly often, but for truly optimal results it’s best if the person doesn’t ever know you were there.

“Ow! Jesu! What the hell did you do that for?” Alain DeVeer turned, clamping his hand to the back of his head and bringing it away bloody.

When the person you hit doesn’t have the grace to fall over, it’s generally best to have a backup plan. I dropped what remained of the vase, turned, and ran. In my mind he’d folded up with a pleasing “oofff” and left me free to leave the mansion unobserved, stepping over his prone and senseless form on the way. Instead his senseless form was now chasing me down the hall bellowing for blood.

I crashed back through Lisa’s door and slammed it behind me, bracing myself for the impact.

“What the hell?” Lisa sat in the bed, silken sheets flowing off her nakedness like water.

“Uh.” Alain hammered into the door, jolting the air from my lungs and scraping my heels over the tiles. The trick is to never rush for the bolt. You’ll be fumbling for it and get a face full of opening door. Brace for the impact; when that’s done, slam the bolt home while the other party is picking himself off the floor. Alain proved worryingly fast in getting back on his feet and I nearly got the door handle for breakfast despite my precautions.

“Jal!” Lisa was out of bed now, wearing nothing but the light and shade through the shutters. Stripes suited her. Sweeter than her elder sister, sharper than her younger sister. Even then I wanted her, even with her murderous brother held back by just an inch of oak and with my chances for escape evaporating by the moment.

I ran to the largest window and tore the shutters open. “Say sorry to your brother for me.” I swung a leg over the casement. “Mistaken identity or something . . .” The door started to shudder as Alain pounded the far side.

“Alain?” Lisa managed to look both furious with me and terrified at the same time.

I didn’t stop to reply but vaulted down into the bushes, which were thankfully the fragrant rather than thorny variety. Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief.

Landing is always important. I do a lot of falling and it’s not how you start that matters so much as how you finish. In this instance, I finished concertinaed, heels to arse, chin to knees, half an azalea bush up my nose and all the air driven from my lungs, but with no bones broken. I fought my way out and limped towards the garden wall, gasping for breath and hoping the staff were too busy with predawn chores to be poised and ready to hunt me down.

I took off, across the formal lawns, through the herb garden, cutting a straight path through all the little diamonds of sage, and triangles of thyme and whatnot. Somewhere back at the house a hound bayed, and that put the fear in me. I’m a good runner any day of the week. Scared shitless I’m world class. Two years ago, in the “border incident” with Scorron, I ran from a patrol of Teutons, five of them on big old destriers. The men I had charge of stayed put, lacking any orders. I find the important thing in running away is not how fast you run but simply that you run faster than the next man. Unfortunately my lads did a piss-poor job of slowing the Scorrons down, and that left poor Jal running for his life with hardly twenty years under his belt and a great long list of things still to do—with the DeVeer sisters near the top and dying on a Scorron lance not even making the first page. In any event, the borderlands aren’t the place to stretch a warhorse’s legs, and I kept a gap between us by running through a boulder field at breakneck speed. Without warning I found myself charging into the back of a pitched battle between a much larger force of Scorron irregulars and the band of Red March skirmishers I’d been scouting on behalf of in the first place. I rocketed into the midst of it all, flailed around with my sword in blind terror trying to escape, and when the dust settled and the blood stopped squirting, I discovered myself the hero of the day, breaking the enemy with a courageous attack that showed complete disregard for my own safety.

So here’s the thing: Bravery may be observed when a person tramples one fear whilst in secret flight from a greater terror. And those whose greatest terror is being thought a coward are always brave. I, on the other hand, am a coward. But with a little luck, a dashing smile, and the ability to lie from the hip, I’ve done a surprisingly good job of seeming a hero and of fooling most of the people most of the time.

The DeVeers’ wall was a high and forbidding one, but it and I were old friends: I knew its curves and foibles as well as any contour Lisa, Sharal, or Micha might possess. Escape routes have always been an obsession of mine.

Most barriers are there to keep the unwashed out, not the washed in. I vaulted a rain barrel, onto the roof of a gardener’s outbuilding, and jumped for the wall. Teeth snapped at my heels as I hauled myself over. I clung by my fingers and dropped. A shiver of relief ran through me as the hound found its voice and scrabbled against the far side of the wall in frustration. The beast had run silent and almost caught me. The silent ones are apt to kill you. The more sound and fury there is, the less murderous the animal. True of men too. I’m nine parts bluster and one part greed and so far not an ounce of murder.

I landed in the street, less heavily this time, free and clear, and if not smelling of roses then at least of azalea and mixed herbs. Alain would be a problem for another day. He could take his place in the queue. It was a long one and at its head stood Maeres Allus clutching a dozen promissory notes, IOUs, and intents to pay drunkenly scrawled on whores’ silken lingerie. I stood, stretched, and listened to the hound complain behind the wall. I’d need a taller wall than that to keep Maeres’s bullies at bay.

Kings Way stretched before me, strewn with shadows. On Kings Way the town houses of noble families vie with the ostentation of merchant-princes’ mansions, new money trying to gleam brighter than the old. The city of Vermillion has few streets as fine.

“Take him to the gate! He’s got the scent.” Voices back in the garden.

“Here, Pluto! Here!”

That didn’t sound good. I set off sprinting in the direction of the palace, sending rats fleeing and scattering dungmen on their rounds, the dawn chasing after me, throwing red spears at my back.

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