The Prince of Lies: Night's Masque - Book 3

BOOK: The Prince of Lies: Night's Masque - Book 3
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THE PRINCE OF LIES

NIGHT’S MASQUE VOL. III

Anne Lyle

 

 

PART ONE

 

 

“Seems he a dove? his feathers are but borrowed,

For he’s disposed as the hateful raven:

Is he a lamb? his skin is surely lent him,

For he’s inclined as is the ravenous wolf.

Who cannot steal a shape that means deceit?”

 

William Shakespeare, Henry VI pt 2

 

CHAPTER I

 

Mal reined in his mount and rested his gloved hands on the saddlebow, letting the gelding snatch a mouthful of new spring grass from the roadside. From here he could see the whole of London laid out below him, from the crumbling splendour of the Tower in the east to the gilded turrets of Whitehall Palace in the west, with Southwark a grubby stain on the farther bank of the Thames.

“See? I told you we weren’t lost. Stretch your legs if you like. I won’t be a moment.”

Sandy said nothing, only stared at the city as if he could close the distance by sheer force of will. Which admittedly he could, if he wanted to.

“And don’t go disappearing on me,” Mal added in a low voice. “I don’t need you affrighting half of London by using your magics in broad daylight.”

“I am not such a fool as that. Brother.”

“Well. Good, then.”

He dismounted and strolled over to the nearest bush. A hawthorn, vivid green leaves bursting from the bud, clusters of white flowers already open. In his mind’s eye he saw the design inked into his left shoulder: a roundel of flowers and thorns, a reminder of the sacred grove back in Vinland where skraylings went to die and be reborn… No. Pissing on a hawthorn was sacrilegious whichever way you looked at it. He moved further into the thicket, where a great clump of holly stood like a fortress within a curtain wall of gorse and brambles. Did everything on this godforsaken heath have thorns? He unbuttoned his breeches and sighed, breath frosting the air.

A voice from the road behind him. And not Sandy’s. Mal hurriedly refastened his clothing and padded back to the road, drawing his rapier silently.

“Hold! Or…” The man with a pistol to Sandy’s head looked from one to the other, taking in their identical dark wavy hair and neatly trimmed beards. “Or your brother’s a dead man. He is your brother, right?”

“Twins, as you see,” Mal said, letting the tip of his rapier droop towards the ground as if on the verge of surrendering it. The fellow looked desperate enough to kill: hollow of cheek and with scabby red skin showing through his ripped and filthy finery. Stolen from other victims, no doubt.

“So if I shoot him,” the footpad said, “do you die as well?”

Mal shrugged. “I’m not eager to test that hypothesis.”

“Oi, don’t you try and maze me with no fancy Latin.”

“Actually,” said Sandy, “it’s Greek. From–”

“Shut up!” The pistol began to shake. “Shut up, the pair of you. Hand over the chinks. Now. And that pretty pigsticker. Bet it’s worth ten times what you’ve got in your purse.”

“You’ve a fine eye,” Mal said, throwing his rapier onto the ground about halfway between them. The curving lines of the hilt flashed as they caught the afternoon sunlight. That gave him an idea…

“And the knife,” the footpad said. “Come on, I can see the hilt sticking out behind your back.”

The dagger joined its mate on the grass.

“Get on with it!”

Mal hefted his purse for a moment then tossed to the footpad in a high arc. The fool went to catch it with his free hand – and looked straight up into the sun. Sandy stepped aside and Mal ducked forward, snatching up the rapier and lunging in a single fluid movement that ended with the point of his blade pressing into the tender flesh under the man’s chin.

“Once you pull the trigger,” Mal said, “it’ll take at least two heartbeats for the powder to ignite and the gun to fire. How many do you think it’ll take for me to open your veins?”

The footpad’s throat worked as he weighed the relative consequences of speaking and staying silent. After a moment he lowered the pistol.

“Drop it on the ground,” Mal told him. “Carefully.”

He did so, never taking his eyes off Mal. Sandy stepped behind him and took the man’s head in both hands. The footpad whimpered and squirmed in Sandy’s grasp, and his eyes rolled back in his skull.

“What are you doing?” Mal strode over and laid a hand on his brother’s arm. “I told you–”

Sandy released the footpad, who fell to the ground in an untidy heap.

“–not to use magic openly.”

“There is no one here to see us.”

“There’s him. Assuming you haven’t killed him.”

Mal sheathed his sword and crouched beside the man, taking hold of his jaw and turning his head from side to side. Drool trickled out between the slack lips, but the footpad appeared to still be breathing.

“You know I can’t do that,” Sandy replied.

“Do I? I’m not certain what you’re capable of any more.” Mal retrieved his fallen purse and straightened up.

“You’re afraid, aren’t you? Afraid of becoming like me.”

Mal looked away, unable to meet his brother’s eye. It was hard to keep secrets from someone when you shared a soul.

“You didn't need to do it. I had him disarmed and at swordspoint.”

“He could have been an assassin.”

“Him?” Mal shook his head over the sorry figure on the ground. “He’s naught but a common thief. Plenty of them on the roads into London; the only wonder is we haven’t been troubled by any before now.”

“Still, I had to be sure.”

“And was he?”

Sandy pulled a face. “No.”

“Don’t fret yourself. We were in London for weeks after we first got back from France; if someone was set on killing me, they’d have tried it before now.” He stepped over the man, picked up his dagger and returned it to its sheath. “No, whoever sent that assassin after me on Raleigh’s ship seems to have backed off. Probably doesn’t want to upset the prince.”

“The boy is barely four years old; I cannot think he leads our enemies yet.”

“Not Henry; his father, Robert.” Mal looked around for the horses. “It’s a good hour’s ride to Southwark. If we want to talk to the skraylings before Youssef’s ship docks, we’d best hurry.”

 

The suburb of Southwark had grown outwards in all directions except one. On its eastern edge the boundary was still the stream just past Morgan’s Lane, crossed by a wooden bridge. The common land beyond lay as empty as ever, apart from a few grazing cattle and of course the skrayling encampment. Evidently no one was so desperate for land that they wanted to build within a stone’s throw of the aliens.

“Remember,” Mal said as they drew near the gates, “we offer help first, ask favours after.”

He dismounted and stepped onto the near end of the bridge across the moat surrounding the camp. He recalled his very first visit here, trailing after Ambassador Kiiren in the pouring rain, shirt sticking to the bloody welts on his back. The fact that he had been the first human to set foot inside the compound had been lost on him at the time. He wondered if others had been admitted since then, though he knew of none for certain apart from himself and Sandy. The skraylings kept to themselves, even more so now they knew that traitors within their own people had infiltrated the English aristocracy in the past and might try to do so again.

“Sir Maliverny Catlyn and Alexander Catlyn, to see Outspeaker Adjaan,” he said to the guard. The title still sounded foolish to his own ears, but there it was. The Queen had decided his actions in Venice had deserved a knighthood, and who was he to gainsay her?

The skrayling’s tattooed face remained impassive, but he bowed politely and waved them through. Mal breathed a sigh of relief. He had not been sure they would be welcome here in the wake of Ambassador Kiiren’s death, which was why he had not visited the skraylings upon his return to England. Only the necessity of protecting his family drove him to it now, and though the skraylings were a peaceable folk for the most part and he did not fear an attack, still he could not help but glance about him, hand on rapier hilt, as they entered the compound.

The camp was much as Mal remembered it: an area of about two acres filled with domed tents of a heavy canvas patterned in cream and black triangles, zigzags and interlocking squares. In the centre a great pavilion rose amongst the smaller tents, and trees grew here and there, hung with the blown-glass spheres the skraylings used for lamps. This early in the evening the trees were dark, but already a lamp-tender was passing among them with his ladder, emptying out the spent lightwater into a bucket that glowed faintly when he passed into the shadow of a tent.

“Do you know this new outspeaker?” Mal asked his brother as they dismounted.

“Adjaan?” Sandy shook his head. “The name is not familiar to me.”

A movement in the crowd caught Mal’s eye and he shifted his grip on the rapier hilt, but it was only a young skrayling in a clerk’s brown tunic and trousers. The lad stumbled to a halt, his amber eyes wide at the sight of the visitors, then he seemed to remember himself and made a hesitant obeisance, hands raised palms outwards.

“Erishen-
tuur
?”



,” Sandy replied, returning the obeisance.

Mal forced a smile. Erishen was the name of the skrayling soul that had reincarnated in the twins. He supposed he should find it reassuring that at least some of the skraylings still considered the Catlyn brothers near-kinsmen, but it made him uneasy nonetheless.

The clerk rattled something off in Vinlandic and beckoned to the two men.

“He says the outspeaker will see us now,” Sandy told Mal. “She is in her office.”

“She?” Mal caught his brother’s arm, slowing him down so that they were out of earshot of the young clerk. “I thought female skraylings never ventured across the ocean?”

“Times change,” Sandy replied. “Even for us.”

Mal bit back a comment. If Sandy now thought of himself as more skrayling than human, was that not Mal’s own fault as much as anyone’s? He was the one who had handed his brother over to the creatures to be “cured” of his madness.

The clerk led them along a raised wooden causeway to a cabin on the far side of the compound. It resembled the skraylings’ dome-shaped tents, except that it was roofed with a spiral of wooden tiles shaped like fish scales, and its walls were carved in simple lines to emphasise the grain of the timber. Folding doors on all sides let in the spring air and revealed its inhabitant kneeling at a low table heaped with books and papers. Turquoise-blue lamps hung from the ceiling, giving the cabin interior the appearance of an underwater cave. Sandy muttered something under his breath but Mal had no time to ask him what he meant, since Outspeaker Adjaan was already rising to greet them.

She was tall as skraylings went, though she still barely reached Mal’s chin, and broader than most. Her face was an even bluish-grey, lacking the mottled pattern that male skraylings enhanced with tattooed lines, and she wore a robe of deep lapis blue over tunic and trousers of the same colour. Mal recalled Ambassador Kiiren’s explanation of his own garb: that male outspeakers dressed as women to form a bridge between the two sexes, who normally lived apart. He wondered what had brought Adjaan here to live among her menfolk. Nothing good, he suspected.

“Gentlemen. Welcome to my humble
lirraan
.” Adjaan bowed, a little awkwardly. Her English however was flawless, with even less of an accent than Kiiren’s.


Senlirren-tuur
.” Sandy returned the courtesy in the skrayling fashion, palms forward and head turned to one side to expose his throat.

Mal did likewise, and Adjaan replied in Vinlandic. He racked his brains, willing the words to mean something, but unlike his brother he had limited access to Erishen’s powers and even less to his memories.

“Forgive me,” Adjaan said in English. “It was impolite of me to use the language of my kinfolk, when we are the strangers here. Please, sit.” She went over to the brazier in the rear doorway and picked up a wooden-handled jug that steamed in the cool evening air. “What brings you back to London so soon?”

BOOK: The Prince of Lies: Night's Masque - Book 3
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