The false prince, p.16
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       The False Prince, p.16

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 16

  “No,” Tobias said flatly. “I can ride, but I’m not stupid enough to challenge Cregan to a wild horse. ”

  “Just apologize and tell Cregan you want lessons,” Roden said.

  “And let everyone hold that over my head?” I asked. “I’ll just ride the horse in a circle or two. It’ll be fine. ”

  Cregan was practically laughing aloud as he escorted a horse outside the stables. It was already trying to buck, and it was work for him to hold on to the reins. Cregan grinned wickedly. “So you can outride me?”

  I backed up two steps. My father had warned me about my quick tongue countless times. Perhaps he should have warned me more often. “It doesn’t matter whether I could beat you or not. You’re the tutor here. ”

  That seemed to offend Cregan. His voice rose in pitch as he said, “And as your tutor, I’m ordering you onto this horse. ”

  I shook my head. “I’m not riding that horse. Get me a tamer one and I’ll do it. You just know you’ll lose if you play fair. ”

  Cregan walked so close that I could feel his breath on me. “Scared?”

  “Yeah. ” I was. It was a fierce horse.

  “Then it’s a good time to teach you some humility. Get on the horse or face the consequences. ”

  “Leave him alone. Sage was just talking big,” Roden said.

  Cregan pointed a finger at Roden. “Sage won’t help you in the end, boy. Don’t you help him. ” Then he looked at me. “If you don’t ride this horse now, then you won’t ride again during the next two weeks. I’ll tell Conner you failed here. ”

  After a very long moment, I reached for the reins. “Fine. But I need help getting up. ”

  Cregan laughed. “Can’t even mount a horse by yourself?”

  “It’s a riding contest, not a mounting one. Where’s your horse?”

  Cregan’s laugh widened. “You’ll fall off so quickly, I wouldn’t even have time to get into a saddle. ” He steadied the horse while I climbed on.

  The horse bucked and I had to grip tightly to stay in the saddle. “He doesn’t like me,” I said.

  “You should be used to that,” Cregan said. “And Windstorm is a she. ” With a laugh, he slapped the horse on the backside.

  Windstorm took off with a fury at her feet, throwing me hard against the curve of the saddle. She bucked twice, and I managed to hold on only because it entertained the devils to help me do it. Behind me, Cregan was laughing boisterously. Maybe Roden and Tobias were too; it was hard to tell with the world jostling around me. I yelped and held on as she pulled free of Cregan’s control and we sprinted away.

  Windstorm headed directly for a tree, as if she knew the low-hanging limb could knock me off. I ducked in time to avoid the worst of it, though some of the smaller branches scraped my shoulders as we passed beneath them.

  Somewhere behind us, Cregan yelled for me to come back, but Windstorm was on a full gallop to freedom. Cregan was left with the reality that by the time he got a horse to follow me, I’d be long gone. And I was on a horse running so fast that if I fell off, I was facing more than a few broken bones. Or worse.

  It was nearly dark before I heard them calling for me. I didn’t answer the first few times. They weren’t close enough to hear me, so there was no point in using up what little energy I had left.

  Finally, Mott passed close enough that I could see him through the trees. He was on horseback and carried a lantern.

  “The devils have you, Sage, answer me! Where are you?”

  “Over here,” I called. I had hoped it would be Mott who found me. If it had been Cregan, he’d have likely beaten the last of my strength from me as punishment. But Mott seemed to hate me less. I might have a chance with him.

  He found me lying on the bank of the river, legs half submerged in the water. The water was cold and my legs had gone numb long ago, but numb was preferable to the ache I’d felt before.

  Mott cantered over and slid off his horse. “There you are,” he said, sounding more relieved than angry. “How’d you get so far away?”

  Most of it was a blur in my mind, so I didn’t bother answering.

  Mott crouched beside me. “I told Conner he’s a fool to consider using you as his prince. ”

  “Princes ride in carriages, not on horseback,” I said.

  “As it so happens, a prince will often ride on horseback. ”

  “Not with that horse. ”

  Mott grinned. “No, not that horse. Where is she?”

  “Long gone. I can’t even tell you which direction. ”

  “Conner will be furious. He was going to have her broken soon. Are you hurt?”

  “I think bruises are the worst of it. She stopped to get a drink of water and I fell off. ”

  Mott chuckled. “You stayed on through the ride and fell off when she stopped? Cregan’s going to laugh all night about that. ”

  I rolled the rest of the way out of the stream and pulled my legs up close to me. “Just tell him I stayed on through the ride. Or he’ll make lessons just as bad tomorrow. ”

  “Sorry, but at some point, you will have to learn that you can’t say whatever you want to whomever you want. There are consequences for your sharp tongue, and this is one of them. I hope it will prove to be your most valuable lesson today. ”

  Valuable lessons were code words for pain that no one apologized for. I’d had enough of them for a lifetime. “I’m cold. Can we go back?”

  “You’ve got a cut on your cheek. ”

  I brushed a finger over it, though in the darkness of the woods and with my dirty hand, it was hard to tell if there was any blood on it. It didn’t feel wet. “I think it’s stopped bleeding. ”

  “Conner won’t like that. He doesn’t want to present a prince at court who’s got cuts and bruises all over him. ”

  “It’ll heal by then. ” Mott extended an arm to help me onto the back of his horse. I stared at the ground for a moment, and then looked up at him. “I need your help, Mott. Conner’s never going to choose me just as I am. ”

  Mott took my hand and lifted me up. “Not as you are right now. Let’s get you back and cleaned up. ”

  “Did I miss sword fighting?”

  “We canceled it to look for you. ”

  “What about dinner?”

  “They’re eating right now. ”

  “I can only imagine how Roden and Tobias will talk about me to Conner. ” It’d be a miracle if they didn’t talk him into hanging me at his earliest convenience.

  Mott began riding us back to the stables. The springtime night had cooled, and I shivered in my wet clothes. Mott must have felt sorry for me because he spent most of the ride instructing me on how to manage a wild horse. Unfortunately, I had other things on my mind, so I missed most of the lecture. Too bad, because what I did hear actually sounded interesting.

  Then Mott asked, “What’s your interest in Imogen?”

  I shrugged. “Nothing. Why?”

  “She passed me a note earlier today asking me to stop you from looking at her. So I’ll ask again, what’s your interest?”

  “There’s nothing,” I insisted. “It’s just that she seems so anxious all the time. Is she safe here?”