The false prince, p.10
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       The False Prince, p.10

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 10


  “No, Sage,” Conner said. “Scoop the soup into your spoon by pushing the liquid away from you, like this. ” He demonstrated, and added, “That way, if you spill, it will go onto the table, not onto your lap. ”

  The last bowl of soup I’d eaten had been consumed by my holding both sides of the bowl and drinking it as from a cup. My right hand was sloppy, and as soon as Conner looked away, I switched back to my left. He noticed but said nothing.

  Conner corrected Roden on how to hold his spoon: “It’s not a hammer, boy. ” He lectured Tobias on leaning over his bowl: “Bring the food to your mouth, not the mouth to your food. ” But he said nothing else to me about manners. I suspected he’d given up.

  Following the soup, we had some bread and more cheese. Conner demonstrated the use of the cheese slicer and bread knives. I thought both of those were obvious, so I didn’t pay much attention. Roden and Tobias seemed captivated.

  The girl who had caught my attention before returned to clear our soup bowls and the bread and cheese while other servants brought us the main course. She frowned at me again, which bothered me because I didn’t see what I possibly could have done so soon to irritate her this much.

  “I’m already full,” Tobias said.

  “It’s considered rude to say that,” Conner said. “A host plans to serve his guests throughout the entire meal and does not want to think that he is forcing half his meal down their throats. ”

  Tobias apologized and said his dinner smelled good, which Conner also seemed to think was a little rude. I didn’t think Tobias meant to be rude. It’s just that the way he said certain things made him sound haughty.

  I was plenty hungry, even after the first two courses. It had been nearly two days since I’d eaten anything substantial, and months since I’d ever eaten enough to consider myself full.

  Food is considered a luxury in Carthyan orphanages. They operate on whatever money an orphan inherited upon the deaths of his parents, which inevitably is little more than the shirt on his back after debts were settled. Private donations come in from time to time by wealthy citizens hoping to buy forgiveness for their favorite sins. And, like what had just happened to the three of us, an orphan was sometimes purchased from the orphanage by a wealthy family to be a servant until his debt was worked off.

  Since there was so little to eat, we learned to eat fast and to eat selfishly. Which was why I hadn’t understood Mrs. Turbeldy’s anger about my stealing that roast yesterday. It was meant for all of us.

  The final course was dessert, a cherry tart with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on it. The same girl returned who had served me before, but this time I gave her no extra notice. Even if she had difficulties here, I had plenty of my own to worry about. I needed to focus on Conner, who had yet to reveal the worst of his intentions for us.

  “Leave the room now,” Conner ordered all his servants. “I won’t need you again until we’ve finished our supper. ”

  When the last of the servants closed the doors, Conner set his knife and fork down and clasped his hands together.

  “We’ve come to it at last,” he said, looking over each of us carefully. “I am ready to tell you my plan. ”

  An hour seemed to pass before Conner continued. When he finally did, it was in hushed tones, as if he expected the servants’ ears were pressed against the doors of our room.

  “Some of you may believe you’ve already guessed my plan,” he began. “But I assure you it is not treason. Indeed, in a roundabout way, it may prevent treason in King Eckbert’s court. Carthya is on the brink of civil war and very few citizens are aware of it. A major change is coming to this country. ”

  “What is it?” Tobias asked. We all had that same question, but Conner’s glare reflected his irritation at being interrupted.

  “I will come to that in a moment,” he said. “Do you remember what I told you about Veldergrath? He has long planned for this day and even now has begun to amass those loyal to him so that he can force the rest of us to give him the king’s crown. But other regents are also aspiring to the crown. They are quietly gathering their supporters. In two weeks, war will erupt in Carthya. It will split the country along lines of loyalty or alliances and may pit families against each other, friends against friends, and town against town. Thousands will inevitably die in that war. Avenia, the country of your origin, Sage, is watching closely, waiting for an opportunity to strike. They are hungry for our rich farmlands and the minerals our mountains provide. When Carthya is weakest and most divided, Avenia will strike, and swallow up Carthya with the force of a tidal wave. Avenia is a cesspool at best. In a generation we’ll be no better. ” Conner tilted his head at me. “Don’t pretend to look horrified at my words, Sage. You know my description of Avenia is true. ”

  “It is,” I quietly agreed.

  “Then you hope to prevent the civil war,” Tobias said. “But you said yourself that you could never hope to become king. ”

  “Do you remember this morning when I asked how many heirs King Eckbert has?” Conner said. “What was your answer, Sage?”

  “Two. But as Tobias pointed out, I was wrong. There is only the crown prince Darius still alive. Eckbert’s younger son was lost at sea. ”

  “The younger son was named Jaron. Since coming to court, I’ve been told many stories about him, some of which could not possibly be true with the castle still standing in one piece. ”

  “I heard he set fire to the throne room as a child,” Tobias said.

  “And he challenged the king of Mendenwal to a duel of honor when he was ten years old,” Roden added. “He lost of course, but not by much, so the story goes. ”

  “We’ve all heard the stories,” I snapped. “What’s the point?”

  “Let me finish,” Conner said. “Four years ago, when he was nearly eleven years of age, Jaron was to be sent north to the country of Bymar, always a friend to Carthya. He was sent there not only to be educated abroad but, frankly, to stop embarrassing the king and queen. However, on the way, his ship was attacked by pirates. There were no survivors. Pieces of the boat washed ashore for months, but Jaron’s body was never found. ”

  “I did hear about this once,” I said. “Avenia was accused of hiring the pirates. If King Eckbert had any proof, he would have gone to war. ”

  “At least you know about your own country,” Conner said. “It probably was Avenia; piracy is certainly their style. Some say the pirates have more power there than the Avenian king. But Eckbert couldn’t rule out the possibility that as a border country to Avenia, Gelyn had hired them. Both countries have easy access to the waters where Jaron’s ship went down. ”

  “My father followed that news carefully,” I said. “He didn’t want war, no matter what else was sacrificed. ”

  “If he was still alive, my father would have been honored to fight on behalf of Carthya,” Tobias said. “I’m not the son of a coward. ”

  It would have felt good to defend my father’s honor by punching Tobias in the face. But although my father was not a coward, he would have avoided being in a war at any cost. That fact was one of the last things he and I ever fought about.