The false prince, p.14
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       The False Prince, p.14

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 14


  If he was hoping for a reward now, he’d be disappointed. I nodded curtly at him. “When they’re in my drawer, you will. You can go now, Errol. Tell the others to come in quietly because I’ll be asleep. ”

  Errol closed the doors of my wardrobe. I saw Mott peek in at me while the doors were opened, but when they closed I was finally alone.

  I opened the window, intending to climb out, but stopped as the cool evening breeze brushed against my face. Now the emotions washed over me like a tide. Conner’s plan was worse than I’d anticipated, and no matter what Mott had said, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge. I looked out into the dark night and wondered how long it would take me to run the length of Conner’s property. Beyond that was a river that would mask my escape. I could walk all night and for as long as it took until I got to Avenia, to freedom.

  But I couldn’t do it. Now that I knew his secret, Conner would never stop hunting me down. I was trapped here. And my choice was clear. Become the prince, or he’d kill me.

  The next morning, my eyes opened before the servants came to wake us. The soft pastel light of morning seeped through the window at a low angle, so it must have been very early. I lay in bed for several seconds, orienting myself to the unfamiliar feelings of warmth and comfort. Then I remembered where I was and the strange game I was caught up in. The reality was stark and cold. I sat up in bed to have a better look outside.

  “You awake too?” Roden asked quietly.

  “Couldn’t sleep any longer. ”

  “I hardly slept at all. ” There was silence for a moment, then Roden asked, “What do you think happens to those boys Conner doesn’t choose?”

  Neither of us lingered too long on the convenience of speaking of “those boys,” as if they were strangers. After a slow exhale, I said, “You know the answer. ”

  Roden sighed as if he had hoped I’d have something better to offer. “The saddest thing is there won’t be anyone to miss us when we’re gone. No family, no friends, no one waiting at home. ”

  “It’s better that way,” I said. “It’ll be easier for me, knowing my death doesn’t add to anyone’s pain. ”

  “If you can’t give anyone pain, then you can’t give them joy either. ” Roden clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the plaster ceiling. “We’re nobodies, Sage. I should’ve left the orphanage months ago, but I couldn’t do it. With no education or skills, there was nothing for me on the outside. How would I have earned my keep?”

  “Tobias would be fine on his own,” I said. “He could work in a trade or open a shop. He’d probably have been pretty successful. ”

  “What were your plans?” Roden asked.

  I shrugged. “Everything for me was just staying alive for another week. ” The irony struck me as funny. “Now I just have to live out the next two weeks. ”

  “Conner has to choose me,” Roden said. “It’s not about becoming king or anything — we all know it’s Conner who’ll have the power. But for me, it might be my only chance in life. I know that sounds harsh because of what it means for you and Tobias, but that’s just how I feel. You know the other day when you nearly got away from us in the wagon?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “I wish you’d have made it. And if you have the chance to run sometime in the next two weeks, I think you should take it. ”

  “Good to know, Roden. ” He’d like things to be that easy.

  “Why don’t you two talk a little louder and maybe you can wake the entire estate?” Tobias said with a groan.

  “Hush,” I said. “Soon as they know we’re awake, we’ll get people in here. ”

  Tobias sat up on one arm. “You and Roden have been chatting like old friends all this time and now you tell me to hush?”

  “Hush,” Roden said.

  Tobias lay back down. “I wonder what Conner has planned for us today. ”

  “We have two weeks to learn everything Prince Jaron would know,” Roden said. “I think this might be the last moment of quiet we’ll have until then. ”

  “It’s really not a bad plan,” Tobias said. “Conner’s right. This might be the only way to save Carthya. ”

  “It’s an insult to the real prince,” I said. “When this is discovered — and we all know that one day it will be — what we are doing here will be worse than treason. For a nobody orphan to pretend to be a prince? Who do we think we are?”

  “Calm down,” Tobias said. “Who says it will be discovered one day? Conner will be there at every step to guide us. He has to, because he’ll hang, too, if we’re found out. ”

  “None of us is a perfect fit to what the prince should look like now,” I continued. “Not to mention that two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to learn everything he would know, whether Conner’s there or not. If we three stick together, he can’t force us to do this. ”

  “But I want to do it. ” Tobias sat up and swung his feet out of bed. “You two can lie around if you want, but I intend to start learning what I need to as soon as possible. ”

  He surprised the servants in the hallway, who insisted they had been waiting for us, though their sleepy eyes said otherwise. Errol dug into the drawers of my wardrobe, stifling a yawn.

  “You can go back to bed if you want,” I told him. “I’m fine here. ”

  “You don’t give the orders,” Errol reminded me. “Conner does. Your clothes will be more casual today, to allow for the afternoon activities. ”

  Reluctantly, I rolled out of bed so I could get dressed and Errol could get lost. I made Errol stand there while I dressed myself, although he insisted on inspecting me when it was finished. “Not to offend you,” he said as I fumbled with a buckle, “but it’s obvious you’ve never dressed in clothes such as these. ”

  I smiled. “If I have my way, I won’t have to dress in them much longer. ”

  Mott was waiting for us as we left the bedroom. He informed Tobias that he’d be working with a tutor in the library while Roden and I were trained in the basics of reading and writing upstairs in a room that had long ago been converted from a nursery. Tobias smirked at us as his servant escorted him away. He probably figured that being more educated gave him an advantage with Conner, and he was probably right. Roden whispered to me that he wouldn’t want to study with Tobias anyway. I agreed.

  Our tutor was a man who instructed us to call him Master Graves, an appropriate name since he looked more like a grave-digger than a teacher. He was tall and thin as a shovel with pale skin and limp black hair that he combed in a way to make it appear as though he had more hair than he really did. I immediately decided to dislike him. Roden, however, seemed to be keeping an open mind about whether he was in fact a member of the walking dead. At least, when I whispered this possibility to Roden, he smothered a grin and quickly told me to hush.

  Master Graves directed Roden and me to sit in chairs that were clearly intended for small children and faced a chalkboard. He began to write the alphabet, and then said to me, “I told you to sit down and we’ll get started. ”

  Roden looked up. He was already seated with his knees halfway up his chest.