The Captive KingdomJennifer A. Nielsen
SNEAK PEEK AT BOOK FIVE IN THE ASCENDANCE SERIES, THE SHATTERED CASTLE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY JENNIFER A. NIELSEN
At sixteen years of age, Jaron Artolius Eckbert III claimed victory in a war launched against Carthya. A year later, he would go on to marry his great love, Imogen, but the events of this story describe some of what happened during that missing year.
One may ask, how is the great King Jaron described by those who know him?
The answer rarely includes the word “great,” unless the word to follow is “fool,” though I have also heard “disappointment,” “frustration,” and “chance that he’ll get us all killed.”
There are other answers, of course.
“He was born to cause trouble, as if nothing else could make him happy.” My nursemaid said that, before I was even four years of age. I still believe her early judgments of me were unfair. Other than occasionally climbing over the castle balconies, and a failed attempt at riding a goat, what could I have possibly done to make her say such a thing?
My childhood tutor: “Jaron has a brilliant mind, if one can pin him down long enough to teach him anything he doesn’t think he already knows. Which one rarely can.”
It wasn’t that I thought I already knew everything. It was that I had already learned everything I cared to know from him, and besides, I didn’t see the importance of studying in the same way as my elder brother, Darius. He would become king. I would take a position among his advisors or assume leadership within our armies. My parents had long abandoned the idea of me becoming a priest, at the tearful request of our own priest, who once announced over the pulpit that I “belonged to the devils more than the saints.”
To be fair, I had just set fire to the pulpit when he said it. Mostly by accident.
My mother loved me, and so did my father, though I frequently upset him with my inability to live up to Darius’s example. That’s why I had to be sent away at age ten, to save my father embarrassment while I was molded into a proper prince overseas.
I had no intention of becoming a proper anything, but I left willingly and for one reason above all others: I no longer wished to be the subject of so many conversations.
If only life were that simple.
Soon after my ship launched across the Eranbole Sea, pirates attacked and the ship was lost. I was presumed dead, which was a surprise to me since I considered myself very much alive. The second surprise came after my father found me in Avenia. Rather than bring me home, he asked that I remain missing, preserving our small country of Carthya from having to go to war.
And so I became Sage the orphan, certain no one would ever speak of me again.
Yet they did.
Mrs. Turbeldy, the mistress of the Orphanage for Disadvantaged Boys, called me a liar and a thief. I resented the insult. Lying was beneath me.
Master Bevin Conner, the man who took me from the orphanage with a plan to install an orphan boy as a false prince on the throne, called me a devil prince. That may be true enough, but what he didn’t know was that I was the true prince, now to become king since Conner had killed my parents and brother, hoping to overthrow the kingdom.
Two other boys competed against me in the plot to become the false prince. Tobias believed me to be uneducated, and perhaps compared to him, I was. Roden believed himself to be a superior swordsman, and in that, he was mistaken, though I have yet to convince him of that fact.
Conner’s servant, Mott, became my trusted friend and most reliable companion in battle. No doubt he had plenty to say about me, though most of his cursings against me were well deserved.
And then there was Imogen, the one person who always saw me for who I truly was. Not as a prince, or as an orphan who too often caused trouble, or even as a fool. She simply saw me. Though we’re both still young, I hope to marry Imogen one day.
It took a near revolution, a defeat of the pirate king, war, more than a few near-death experiences, and one poorly conceived jump over a cliff, but eventually Carthya was at peace.
Now I am king, known as the Ascendant King of Carthya. The title is a great honor. But since I have never held on to a kind word about me for more than a few months, change is certainly coming.
And when it comes, if the worst I am called is a “great fool,” I will be very relieved.
For the past several months, my country of Carthya had been at peace. Imogen and I were happier than ever, our enemies were at bay, and the closest thing I had to a mortal wound was a bruise on my thigh from when I’d bumped into my own throne last month.
In other words, I was bored.
I was also irritable, restless, and, according to Imogen, the sole reason we’d gone through eight cooks in the last month. Nine, if we counted the one who ran out crying before we’d even offered her the position. That was only half of my recent failings. I had yet to fully explain to Imogen why the Carthyan flag appeared to have been torn free from the center spire of the castle.
For those reasons, when Imogen had ducked her head into my meeting with the regents three weeks ago, suggesting we go on a trading mission to Bymar, servants had actually come running into the throne room to see what all the commotion was. There was no commotion, only me doing a literal somersault across the meeting table and frightening Mistress Kitcher so much that she leapt away and lost her wig. Hence all the screaming. Mine, not hers.
Three days after that, to the relief of a significant percentage of the Carthyan population, we had set sail for Bymar, where Amarinda was born and raised. She had been a princess there and betrothed to the throne of Carthya, which originally meant she was intended to marry my brother Darius. After his death, the task fell to me, but since Amarinda would have rather married a mossy rock, we broke the arrangement. She and Tobias were now betrothed, as were Imogen and I, and all was well.
The voyage had been an enormous success, an advantage to all parties, and now, a little over two weeks later, we were headed home as guests of the Avenian pirates aboard the Red Serpent, a small but comfortable cog ship. It felt right to be going home, though I already dreaded what awaited me. More meetings, more formal suppers. More routine.
With only three days left in our journey, I was spending the waning hours of sunlight studying Bevin Conner’s old journal. I had read through
it dozens of times since his death, always searching for a better understanding of his twisted motives and corrupted sense of heroism.
Conner had clearly specified the items that were to be passed along to his heirs, but as he had none, the items had stayed with me. Imogen wanted all his former possessions destroyed. She believed they were holding me too much in the past, but I felt there was more to be learned from them. Particularly his journal.
I glanced up as a cheer rose from the lower deck, where nearly all the pirates were at supper. That was a good thing. If they were eating, they weren’t stealing.
Over the last few days on this ship, I had often pointed out to Imogen that other than their constant attempts to steal from us, these pirates had been a pleasant crew. That was small comfort to her, but as I also had a long history of thieving, I could hardly criticize the pirates for the same behavior.
“Many of these same pirates tried to kill you once,” she observed.
To be accurate, it was more than once, though I didn’t feel the need to correct her. And to be perfectly accurate, I was one of “these same pirates” myself.
“Jaron, there’s a ship on the starboard side,” Erick called down to me. He was the pirate king, our helmsman, and a fine cook of fresh-caught fish, I’d recently discovered. But now his usually friendly voice bore a note of concern. “It’s on a course aimed directly for us.”
I replaced Conner’s book in my shoulder bag and hurried up to the quarterdeck where he was. The ship he had observed was a caravel with a total of four mainsails; two large sails above the deck rose as high as the crow’s nest, which was flanked by two smaller topsails. The crow’s nest itself was accessed by a rope ladder. Above the topsail a flag hung from a mast. It was neither Avenian nor pirate, but instead a simple green flag with white trim. I did not recognize it.
A bowsprit jutted out from the front of the ship with a raised forecastle deck that would give the ship’s crew an advantage in fighting. It was wide enough for two rooms to fit below the quarterdeck, wherein we had only one, the captain’s quarters. Erick and I had debated multiple times about whether he or I should have that room. I had won, on the condition that I let my thirteen-year-old adopted brother, Fink, bunk there too, so he would keep fewer crewmen awake with his talking each night.
The ship angled to match our exact change in course, and this time, a shiver crawled up my spine.
“What’s the firepower on our ship?” I asked Erick.
“The usual number of cannons, but they’ve shown us no aggression.”
I disagreed. “The cannons on their deck are already manned. Can we outrun them?”
Erick shook his head and turned the wheel again to steer us away. He whistled at another pirate to take the helm, leaving him with instructions that sent my heart pounding. “Take us in any direction away from that ship. Whatever else happens, don’t let it get broadside of us.”
Because if it did, its cannon fire would sink us.
Erick and I raced down the stairs, with Erick shouting orders to every pirate we passed along the way. He called back to me, “I’ll get our cannons loaded as well, but they’re a bigger ship. Unless we get a lucky hit first, if they intend to harm us, they can do it. You’d better get your people to safety.”
I nodded at him and ran into the wardroom on the main deck where Imogen, Fink, and Mott were playing cards. “There’s trouble,” I said. “We’ve got to hide as many people as we can.”
Without a word, Mott stood and went belowdecks, calling for all Carthyans on board to meet him near the bunks.
Imogen looked at Fink. “Go into the galley and get as much food together as you can carry. Then report directly to Mott.”
She followed me back onto the deck where it was evident the other ship was closing in. A captain stood at the forecastle with a sword aimed directly at us.
“Is this another pirate ship?” she asked. “Are we being raided?”
I shook my head. “Erick assured me this part of the Eranbole Sea belongs to the Avenian pirates. I don’t think this is a raid.”
“Then it’s targeting us?” Her brows pressed together. “Why?”
I gave Imogen my shoulder bag and took her by the hand belowdecks where Mott was in the middle of assigning everyone a task.
“There are a few false walls in the storage areas. Take your places and the rest of us will seal you in. Stay as long as you can stand it, or until one of us pulls you out.” He looked around the group. “Fink, Amarinda, Imogen —”
“No!” she said. “Mott, I want to help fight!”
I turned to her. “There will be no fight when they attack. We cannot match their strength. You must hide.”
“As must you,” Mott said. “Jaron, there are four spaces. The fourth is for you.”
“Absolutely not!” I said. “Where’s my sword?”
Roden, the captain of my guard, touched my arm. “You’re the king. More than anyone else, you need to hide.”
I shook my head at him, ready with a response, but there was no time for even that before someone called from up on the main deck, “Jaron, you need to see this.”
I gave Imogen’s hand a squeeze and said to Mott, “Begin hiding the others. I’ll be back. Can someone find my sword?” Then I raced up the steps back onto the main deck.
The invaders had raised a new flag, one with painted black letters that had begun to drip with the spray of water, leaving long streaks beneath the writing itself. It read one word only: jaron.
My heart was nearly beating out of my chest as I called down to Mott. “No one comes onto this main deck until this is resolved. Those are my orders.”
“Why?” Imogen replied. “What is happening up there?”
“Get everyone into hiding! Every one of you.”
“What about you?” Amarinda cried. “Jaron, come down here with us!”
“Mott?” I called. “Do you have my orders?”
A long silence followed before he answered, “The king has spoken. You all know what to do.”
Erick pounded up the stairs, giving me a quick glare. “I’ll go anywhere I want on my ship, and I will give the order of when to fire and when to attack.” Then his eye turned to the sail with my name written on it. “Oh.”
“We’re not going to fire on them,” I said. “We’ve got to defeat them.”
I walked to the side of the ship as it turned broadside of us, revealing the ship’s name: Shadow Tide. On a single whistle I heard from where I stood, its gun ports opened to reveal a dozen cannons all aimed our way.
I looked over at Erick and sighed. “Well, that’s the part I haven’t figured out. But it seems defeating them is the only choice we have left.”
Now that we were closer, I got my first real look at the captain, a tall woman of strong stature, with a square face and eyes that seemed to penetrate the distance between our ships. Her short-cropped hair was black and mostly pulled to one side, enough that I wondered if her head naturally tilted sideways to rest. She wore a long, black leather coat with a green blouse barely visible beneath it, trousers, and tall boots.
The captain called out, “In the name of our monarch, I call on you to surrender, or you will all die.”
I shouted back, “All three of us? It hardly seems worth the trouble of you arming all those cannons.”
“You are not a crew of three.”
I looked around to be sure. “Three is all I count. In fact, if you have any spare crewmen, we could use a few extra. Unless you still intend to fire on us, in which case you’d only be drowning your own crew.”
The captain had moved from the forecastle of her deck to the side of her ship directly across from me, allowing me to have a better look at her. She’d given no orders to have her crewmen fire on us yet, so I assumed she wanted to figure me out as much as I needed to understand her.
She called out again, this time adding a new threat. “Surrender your ship, or we’ll sink it!”
p; I called back, “Go ahead and sink it. We’re all very capable swimmers here.”
There was a short pause as the captain looked at her other crewmen on deck. Then she shouted, “I meant that if we attack, you all will die.”
“No, I don’t think we will,” I replied. “But if you’re so concerned, you could lower your cannons and we can talk. What is it you want?”
“We want Jaron.”
Her tone was icy enough to send a chill through me. I glanced over at Erick, who was staring at the Shadow Tide with brows furrowed tight together. One hand was on his knife, but it was still sheathed. I said to him, “How difficult would it be for them to board this ship?”
Almost as if in answer, arrows were fired from their deck to ours, each one with hooks attached. Erick yelled for his crew to come up on deck as he and I raced to detach the hooks. They were embedded deeply into the wood, so prying them out was no small matter, and before I got one out, three more had attached. Groups of eight to ten men were at the other end of the ropes now attached to us and were pulling our ship closer to theirs.
The next set of arrows to be launched were fire tipped and these flew high, cutting through the sails and igniting them as they passed through.
“Lower the sails!” Erick cried. “Preserve what you can!”
Finally, our ships were so close that I could see the captain’s piercing eyes, and she was certainly focusing on me.
“My name is Captain Jane Strick, in service of our monarch.”
“Of what nationality?”
I squinted. “No, you’re not. The Prozarians are extinct.”
She widened her arms. “Do we look extinct?”
I scratched my jaw and looked over the great numbers of her crew. “Well, to be honest … a few of the people in back could pass as corpses.”
If she enjoyed my joke — which was reasonably accurate — she didn’t show it. “Your crew will fare no better, unless you turn over Jaron to me. Are you him?”
“Jaron will be sent over to you shortly,” I said. “Truly, the crew will be glad to be rid of him. In exchange, you will agree not to cause any further damage to this ship, nor attempt to board it.”