The False Prince, Page 7Jennifer A. Nielsen
“I know of Veldergrath,” Tobias said. “He owned the land my grandmother lived on. One day a messenger came ’round and told her the rent would be doubled. She hated him to the end of her life. ”
“He has his enemies, yes, but he also has powerful friends. Veldergrath has no compassion for the people and will suck every good thing from Carthya to himself until it’s swallowed up. ”
“So which do you prefer?” Tobias asked. “A reign of Veldergrath or civil war?”
“Neither. That is why you are here. ” Conner tossed the remaining bread to the ground for us to divide amongst ourselves, then brushed his hands together and said to Mott and Cregan, “Wipe away any trace of our being here as best you can. I wish to leave within the hour. ”
Roden and Tobias dove for the bread, but I stayed where I was, watching Conner walk back to the cart. The hints he left for us about his plan were not subtle. It was clear what he wanted. But there was obviously some crucial information he was still leaving out. I didn’t dare wonder what that might be.
Conner met my gaze as he passed by, and stopped walking. He gave me an appraising look as we stood there, then slowly nodded his head before walking on.
I closed my eyes, horrified that my suspicions might be true. Conner was holding us on the brink of treason.
Conner lectured us about Carthya for nearly the entire ride to wherever we were going that morning. He faced backward in the wagon seat while Mott drove and Cregan did vigil duty from the rear.
He pointed out the various towns all over Carthya, gesturing their direction from us and describing in detail the qualities of the different large cities.
“Drylliad is that way,” he said, pointing to the south. “The capital of Carthya and home of the royal family. Have any of you ever been there?”
Tobias spoke up. “My father brought me there when I was very young, but I don’t remember it. ”
“I’ve been there too, but it was some time ago,” I added. “Tried to steal a pigeon from the king’s dovecote. It didn’t work out so well. ”
They laughed, which was odd since I hadn’t meant it as a joke. I’d been hungry at the time and barely escaped without being detected. Sprained my ankle in a fall as I ran that didn’t heal for a week.
I’d been to many of the towns he spoke of. It was clear that I was better traveled than either Roden or Tobias. Roden said he’d been born somewhere in southern Carthya and left on the steps of the orphanage in Benton. He had no idea who his parents were or anything about them. He’d never left Benton until Conner came for him.
Tobias said that he had been born in a town near Gelvins, but his mother died at birth and his father died of disease a few years later. His grandmother had taken over his care afterward, but after she died two years ago, he’d been sent to the orphanage.
“Who educated you?” Conner asked him.
“My grandmother. She worked for a man who had a vast library and let her borrow a different book each week to read to me. I miss the books almost as much as I miss her. ”
“Do you read?” Conner asked Roden, who shook his head.
“I’ve always wanted to, though,” Roden said. “I’m good on my feet and thought maybe I’d join the king’s army. But to rise in rank, I’d be expected to read. ”
“So you’re a patriot,” Conner said admiringly. “Then we shall have to teach you to read. What about you, Sage? Can you read?”
I shrugged. “Didn’t you already ask me that?”
“You chose to insult me last time rather than answer,” Conner said. “I don’t expect you’ve had much education. ”
“My father said a person can be educated and still be stupid, and a wise man can have no education at all. ”
“Your father was a worthless musician,” Conner said. “It sounds to me like he was both stupid and without education. And Mrs. Turbeldy told me your mother was a barmaid. I hate to think of the education she might have given you. ”
I stared at my hands resting on my knees. “If you can give me anything worth reading, I’ll make my way through it. ”
“Who amongst you rides a horse? In a gentleman’s style?”
Again, none of us answered. I’d ridden a horse several times before, but in all my recent experience, it was usually stolen and always in an attempt to escape the horse’s owner. That probably wasn’t a gentleman’s style.
“I hardly dare ask whether any of you have been taught your manners and other social graces. ”
“I have, a little,” Tobias said.
Roden actually laughed at Conner’s question, though he quickly corrected himself. “Master Conner, make me into a gentleman. I’ll learn. ”
“You will all learn,” Conner said. “And at the end of the next two weeks, I intend to make each of you into a gentleman, so flawless in your learning, you could pass as a noble before the king himself. ”
“We’re going to see the king?” I asked.
Conner shook his head. “I didn’t say that. Only that you could stand in front of him and make him believe you are a noble. ”
Roden looked over at me and smiled. I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“Two weeks?” I asked. “What’s the hurry?”
Conner locked eyes with me. “Because that’s when the boy I choose will be tested. ”
Tobias cleared his throat, and then asked, “What happens to the other two boys, sir? The two boys who you don’t choose?”
Conner looked at each one of us before answering. When he spoke, he only said, “Two weeks, boys. Pray you are the one I choose. ”
Then he turned his back to us and we continued riding.
Tobias, Roden, and I looked at one another. Cregan read the unspoken conversation and chuckled. Roden seemed a little more pale again. Tobias lost any expression on his face whatsoever, as if he’d turned to stone. Undoubtedly, we were all remembering how casually Conner had ordered Latamer’s death, and then had quickly justified it based on the higher moral status of his plan.
He would choose his winner in two weeks, and most likely the other two boys would follow Latamer’s fate at the same time.
It was late afternoon when our wagon pulled up to a large estate several miles outside the town of Tithio. An engraved wooden sign at the entrance identified this as Conner’s home. It rose two stories above the ground with a partial third floor arching over the center of the house. The roof was nearly flat and bordered by a low parapet. I wondered if any stairways led up to the rooftop for what was certain to be an impressive view of Conner’s extensive grounds. The building was made of thick tan bricks and cut stone. This alone was impressive, since it didn’t look like there were any quarries in this region of Carthya, meaning the rocks would have had to come from some distance away. Veins of a thin ledge ran between the first and second floor. I counted nearly twenty windows just in the front of the house. The orphanage in Carchar didn’t have a single window.
Conner stood and gestured toward the estate. “Welcome to my home, boys. I call it Farthenwood. It was my father’s home and the home of my childhood. I know its every secret and dearly love to come here whenever I can get away from the king’s business in Drylliad. This will be your home as well for the next two weeks. I have arranged everything in advance of our arrival. I’m sure you have many questions, but we have other business first. ”