The false prince, p.18
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       The False Prince, p.18

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 18


  “From Roden and Tobias?” I shook my head. “No. ”

  “From me? Conner?”

  “You work for Conner. If there’s any danger from him, there’s danger from you. ”

  Mott didn’t disagree. He couldn’t. He replaced his knife in the sheath strapped to his ankle, then pointed at the dinner. “Eat up and get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be harder than today. ”

  “There’s nothing to do up here but stare at Tobias’s stack of books. ”

  “Try to read one. It could only help you. ”

  “I’d rather join the others. It’s not fair that I’m kept up here while Roden and Tobias get to show off to Conner. ”

  “Conner is furious with you for losing a prize mare. Trust me when I say it’s better that you stay up here tonight. ”

  “It’d take a miracle for Conner to choose me as prince. ” Despite the truth of my words, I couldn’t help but smile.

  “Yes,” Mott agreed, and then added, “Though I doubt even a miracle could save you now. ”

  I was already in bed when Tobias and Roden came in. If they realized that I might be asleep, they spoke to me anyway.

  “We heard about the trick you pulled with Mott’s knife,” Roden said. “Conner wanted to give you a few lashes, but Mott said he handled it with you already. ”

  “Who’s my dressing servant now?” Tobias asked.

  “Dress yourself,” I muttered. “You’ve managed for your entire life until now. ”

  “Conner’s made us into gentlemen,” he said. “A gentleman would never stoop to dress himself. ”

  “If he put us in dresses, we wouldn’t suddenly become women,” I said. “You’re an orphan in a costume, Tobias. Nothing more. ”

  Roden’s servant was in the room, gathering Roden’s nightclothes. Tobias looked at him and said, “Build us a fire. ”

  Roden and I both groaned. “It’s already warm enough,” Roden said. “Do you want to cook us in our beds tonight?”

  Tobias began gathering the papers on the desk near his bed. “I want to burn these. ”

  “Why?” I asked, propping myself up by my elbows. “What’s on them?”

  “Notes I’ve made in studying to be the prince. I don’t want you or Roden to read them and gain from my efforts. ”

  “Neither of us can read,” Roden said. “It’s chicken scratch on those pages as far as I’m concerned. ”

  “Sage can read a little,” Tobias said.

  I yawned. “True, but you’re an imbecile. If I wanted to learn about something important, you’re the last person I’d come to for information. ”

  Tobias slammed a book closed. “I hope you continue in your ways. It makes Conner’s decision that much simpler. ”

  “Conner’s decision is made,” I said.

  “Oh?” Tobias asked. “Who is it?”

  “You. ” Now I sat up entirely. “You’re the most willing to do anything he wants, the most pliable. He knows I’d be difficult to manage, and he can’t be sure about Roden. But you, you’re a puppet master’s dream. ”

  Tobias’s mouth opened wide, then closed. Finally, he said, “Conner may think what he likes. I’m also the smartest of the three of us, and if I become the prince, then I will rule, no one else. ”

  “If Conner puts you in, then he can take you out,” Roden said. “How do you know it won’t be the way Sage says?”

  Tobias shook his head. “Don’t you two worry about me. Worry about your own necks instead. ”

  Lessons the next day were much the same as the day before. Master Graves rapped my knuckles several times for staring off into space when he thought I should stare at his chalkboard instead. Mistress Havala educated us on the names of everyone connected with King Eckbert’s family.

  “Very few members of Eckbert’s family remain alive, and most of them are distant relations, so there is little chance of meeting anyone who knew the prince well enough to identify him,” she said. “But everyone will expect you to know these names. ”

  Tobias took steady notes. I ate most of his lunch and he never noticed.

  Mistress Havala spent the remainder of our time after lunch describing Prince Jaron’s older brother, Darius.

  “He was everything a future king ought to be,” she said. “Educated, compassionate, wise. ”

  “That’s what Carthya will expect from whichever of us is chosen, then,” Tobias said. “We have to do better than just imitate Jaron. We have to exceed the people’s expectations for Darius. ”

  “Leave it to you and by the end of the week, the chosen prince will have to raise the dead too,” I scoffed. “None of us is going to exceed Darius. ”

  “You won’t,” Roden said.

  I had no comeback for him. My whole life was a testament to the truth of that fact.

  There’s an old saying in Avenia that goes, “Just because it’s calmer than a hailstorm doesn’t mean it’s calm. ” Several times during our horseback lessons later that day, that thought ran through my mind. The tension in the air was thick and tangible. Cregan and I quickly settled into a truce of not speaking.

  Or rather, I wasn’t speaking to him. He had plenty to say to me.

  “Conner blamed me for you losing Windstorm,” he said. “You get to say whatever you want to me, challenge my authority here, and I take the blame? You think you’re a fine gentleman now, so you can look down on me? Well, you’re still that pathetic orphan, Sage. You smelled like a pig when you came in here, and no matter what scents they add to your bathwater, you always will. ”

  I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that in all fairness, I probably had smelled pretty bad before.

  “I’ll have to pay for that horse, the master says,” Cregan continued. “Paying it off will take so many years of service, I can’t count them. But I won’t be his servant much longer. I have plans of my own. ”

  He wanted me to ask what his plans were so he would have the satisfaction of telling me it was none of my business. I didn’t care an inch about his plans. So I stared at him steadily, which infuriated him further.

  “From now on, any horse you ride will be tethered to mine. And you will get the calmest, least excitable horse in the stables. You won’t be able to get it to do anything I don’t want it to do. ”

  “Wait!” Tobias said. “If he gets the easiest horse, then it will appear to Conner that he’s the best rider. ”

  I smiled at Tobias, whose eyes narrowed.

  “That was your plan all along,” Roden whispered.

  “I don’t have Tobias’s brains or your strength,” I said to them. “Give me this one area to compete with you two. ”

  Cregan stared at us for a moment, clearly trying to decide whether to give me the easiest horse or not. He didn’t want to help me, nor did he want to risk getting himself in trouble again with a horse out of my league.

  “I’m not even best with horses,” he said. “I’m a swordsman, but Mott ordered me here so he could teach swords. ”

  “Teach us both,” Roden said. “I’ll learn. ”