The false prince, p.11
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       The False Prince, p.11

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 11


  “Three regents have made the trip to Isel, the seaport town from which Prince Jaron’s ship launched. They seek any proof of his death. Or his life. ”

  “His life?” Roden sat forward in his chair. “Is it possible Jaron’s alive?”

  “A body has never been found, Roden. But if Prince Jaron were alive, then he would be next in line for the throne. Not Veldergrath or any other noble could claim it, and Carthya would be saved from civil war. Then Avenia would not attack. ”

  “But it’s irrelevant,” Tobias said. “Eckbert and Erin rule now. Eventually, Crown Prince Darius will take the throne. ”

  Conner leaned in closer to us. “And this is the greatest secret of your lives thus far. They are dead, all three of the royal family. The few of us who know the truth have said the royal family is on a diplomatic mission to Gelyn. Meanwhile, their bodies secretly lie far beneath the castle. ”

  We sat there, beyond shock and too horrified to breathe. The news that not just one but all three royals were dead was impossible to bear. My stomach grew queasy at the thought of it, but I pushed those feelings down.

  “How did they die?” I whispered.

  “Murder. We believe they were administered some sort of poison at supper. They never awoke. ”

  “Any suspects?” Roden asked.

  Conner dismissed his question with the wave of his hand. “Don’t be naïve. Eckbert had many enemies, and frankly I wouldn’t trust most of his friends. I believe all three family members were intended victims, clearing the path for a noble to become king. ”

  “So was it Veldergrath?” I asked.

  “A lot of regents suspect him, but there’s no evidence of it,” Conner said. “We shall see who puts themselves forward to be king, and then judge. ”

  “And you hope to find Prince Jaron and stop the nobles from fighting over the throne,” Tobias said.

  “Not exactly,” Conner said. “Prince Jaron is long dead and I can prove it. ”

  “How?” I asked.

  Conner smiled. “I’m afraid for now I must ask you to trust me on that. It’s my secret and mine alone. However, since the regents are unaware of my proof, their trip to Isel is only to end any official doubt before another king is chosen. That is where you come in. Because you see, many Carthyans have small hopes that Jaron is alive. Nobody has seen him for nearly four years. He would be fourteen today, about the same age as you boys. Surely the three of you have noticed certain physical similarities between one another. ” He paused a moment and his smile widened. “You also have similarities in appearance to Prince Jaron as he might look today. My plan is simple, really. I intend to convince the court that Prince Jaron is one of you. ”

  A long silence followed Conner’s announcement. This was worse than my darkest suspicions of why Conner might have taken us, and I was at a complete loss for what to do next. At best, the plan was lunacy, and at least, it was treason, no matter how forcibly Conner denied it. No sane person could hope to turn an orphan into a prince in two weeks. And a person would have to be even crazier to think that this orphan could then convince an entire court he was a long-lost prince.

  Tobias politely voiced these same concerns, but was waved off by Conner, who asked, “Do you always think small, boy?”

  Tobias swallowed. “No, sir. ”

  “Do you think this is too ambitious?”

  “I just —” Tobias found his courage. “It seems like what you want would be impossible. ”

  “Nothing’s impossible. I haven’t come to this plan lightly or without a great deal of thought. But to succeed, I must have a boy who believes this can happen. ”

  “I believe it,” Roden said.

  I snorted. Conner turned to me. “You don’t believe it’s possible?”

  “Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s wise. ”

  With arched eyebrows, Conner said, “And you claim to have this wisdom?”

  “I claim to have nothing, sir. ”

  “That is a good starting place. Now, Tobias, stand up. ” Tobias stood, looking as nervous as if he were about to be asked the one most important question in the world, and he had no answer. As it turned out, Conner planned on doing all the talking.

  Conner said, “You have the right shade of hair. The face is a little narrower than I would have expected for the prince, but the resemblance has potential. Your height is acceptable and build is trim, like the queen’s. I like that you have education, but you are not as quick a thinker as I would want. If someone were to question you with an answer you did not know, I fear you might hesitate and spoil the plan. ”

  Tobias reacted to Conner’s assessment like he’d been punched. I couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much. None of what Conner said were things Tobias had any control over. And it wasn’t like Conner would find anyone he considered a perfect candidate.

  Next, Conner ordered Roden to stand. “Less of a resemblance to the prince when he was last seen, but a strong resemblance to the queen’s family, so we may convince people of your identity. Your ambition and determination is admirable, though you often lack confidence when necessary. You are completely uneducated, which may also prove a problem. However, you’re physically strong, which will give you an advantage with the sword and on horseback. ”

  Conner told him he could sit, but Roden remained standing and said, “Sir, now that I know what it is you’re seeking, I can make myself into this prince. ”

  “Sit,” Conner repeated, unimpressed by Roden’s pleas. He nodded his head at me and I stood. “You have the entirely wrong color of hair, though we might color it over with the proper dyes. You show a preference for the left hand when it absolutely must be the right. Nor are you as tall or strong as one might expect from the son of King Eckbert. You look the youngest of the three boys, though any of you will have to lie about your exact age. How are you at learning accents?”

  “You ask if I can learn a Carthyan accent in two weeks?” I asked.

  “You cannot claim the throne of Carthya while sounding like an Avenian. ”

  “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I don’t want the throne. Choose Roden or Tobias, and I’ll leave and go where you’ll never see me again. ”

  Conner’s face twisted in anger. “Do you think I care a devil’s inch what you want? You are here because, despite a few physical setbacks, you have seeds of the personality I might expect for Prince Jaron. If we can weed out your bad manners and defiant nature, I suspect you could convince the nobles that you are him. ”

  “If you weed those out, then there’s nothing left of me,” I said. “You’d strip those away and find I’m as boring as Tobias or predictable as Roden. Why don’t you take their physical similarities to the prince and give them a personality?”

  It was a rhetorical question. I didn’t actually think either of them could adopt a personality.

  “Prince Jaron was a fighter,” Conner said. “You’ve done nothing but fight since we met. ”

  “And if you try to use me for this fraud, then I’ll continue fighting,” I said. “You don’t want a prince, you want a puppet. You’ve taken on this plan in secret. Why? Maybe you can’t sit on the throne, but you plan to rule from behind it. Put Roden on the throne. He’ll happily let you guide his arms and feed him with the words he should say next. I won’t!”