The false prince, p.2
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       The False Prince, p.2

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
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Page 2

 

  Conner looked at me again. “He doesn’t look so humble now. ”

  “I got over that too,” I said.

  “So why’d you let him stay?” Conner asked Mrs. Turbeldy.

  Mrs. Turbeldy hesitated. She didn’t want to tell him it was because I picked up goodies for her now and then, ribbon for her hats or chocolates from the cake shop. Because of that, Mrs. Turbeldy didn’t hate me nearly as much as she pretended to. Or maybe she did. I stole from her too.

  Conner walked back to me. “A thief and a liar, eh? Can you manage a sword?”

  “Sure, if my opponent doesn’t have one. ”

  He grinned. “Do you farm?”

  “No. ” I took that as an insult.

  “Hunt?”

  “No. ”

  “Can you read?”

  I stared up at him through the parts of my hair. “What are you wanting me for, Conner?”

  “You’ll address me as Sir or Master Conner. ”

  “What are you wanting me for, Sir Master Conner?”

  “That’s a conversation for another time. Gather your things. I’ll wait for you here. ”

  I shook my head. “Sorry, but when I leave the comfort of Mrs. Turbeldy’s fine establishment, I go on my own. ”

  “You’re going with him,” Mrs. Turbeldy said. “You’ve been bought and paid for by Master Conner, and I can’t wait to be rid of you. ”

  “You’ll earn your freedom by doing whatever I ask of you and doing it well,” Conner added. “Or serve me poorly and serve me for life. ”

  “I wouldn’t serve anyone for an hour until freedom,” I said. Conner took a step toward me, hands out. I threw the roast I’d been holding at him and he flinched to avoid it. Using that moment, I pushed past Mrs. Turbeldy and darted into the street. It would’ve been helpful to know that he’d left a couple of vigils at the door. One grabbed my arms while the other clubbed me over the head from behind. I barely had time to curse their mothers’ graves before I crumpled to the ground.

  I awoke with my hands tied behind my back, and lying in the bed of a wagon. A throbbing headache pulsed inside me, worsened by the jostling of the wagon as we rode. The least Conner could have done was give me something soft to lie on.

  I resisted the temptation to open my eyes until my situation became clearer. My wrists were tied behind my back with a coarse rope, one that might be used to lead a horse. If it was, then I wondered if the rope was a last-minute idea. Maybe Conner hadn’t expected to be taking me by force.

  Conner should have come more prepared. This thick rope worked to my advantage. It was easier to loosen the knots.

  Someone coughed near me. Didn’t sound like Conner. Maybe it was one of his thug vigils.

  As slowly as possible, I inched one eye open. The cool spring day had become a bit overcast but wasn’t yet threatening rain. Too bad. I could’ve used a bath.

  One of Conner’s vigils was at the far end of the wagon, looking at the view behind us. That probably meant Conner and the other vigil were on the seat at the front of the wagon.

  Another cough, to my left. I let my head bounce with the next jolt of the wagon to see where it had come from.

  Two boys sat there. The shorter one closest to me seemed to be doing the coughing. Both were near my age. The coughing boy looked sickly and pale, while the other was larger and tanned. They each had light brown hair, though the coughing boy’s hair was nearer to blond. He had rounder features as well. I suspected wherever he came from, he’d spent more time sick in bed than at work. And just the opposite for the other boy.

  I judged myself to be a blend of the two. Nothing about me was remarkable. I was only of medium height, one of many ways I disappointed my father, who had felt that it would hinder my success (I disagreed — tall people fit in fewer hiding places). My hair was badly in need of cutting, tangled, and dark blond but getting lighter with each passing month. And I had a forgettable face, which, again, worked in my favor.

  The boy coughed again and I opened both eyes to determine if he was sick or had something to say and was clearing his throat to get our attention.

  Only he caught me looking at him. Our eyes focused so solidly on each other that it was pointless to pretend I was still asleep, at least to him. Would he give up my secret? I hoped not. I needed time to think, and time for some unfortunately placed bruises to heal.

  Time was not on my side.

  “He’s awake!” That was the larger boy, who got the attention of Conner’s backseat vigil.

  The vigil crawled across the wagon to slap my cheek, which wasn’t necessary because my eyes were mostly open. I swore at him, then winced as he yanked me into a sitting position.

  “Not too rough,” Conner called from his seat. “He’s a guest, Cregan. ”

  The vigil now known as Cregan glared at me. I didn’t say anything else, figuring the phrase I’d just used to curse at him had satisfactorily explained my wishes for the cause of his death.

  “You’ve met Cregan,” Conner said, then added, “Mott is our driver. ”

  Mott glanced back to nod a hello at me. He and Cregan couldn’t have been designed to look more different from each other. Mott was tall, dark-skinned, and nearly bald. What little hair he did have was black and shaved to his scalp. He was the one by the tavern who’d tripped me when I was trying to escape the butcher. In contrast, Cregan was short — not much taller than I was, and shorter than the tanned boy near me. He was surprisingly pale for a man who likely spent much of his day outdoors, and he had a thick crop of blond hair that he tied back at the nape of his neck. Mott was lean and muscular while Cregan looked softer than I knew him to be, judging by the way he’d clubbed me at the orphanage.

  How strange that there could be two people so different from each other and yet my dislike for them was equally fierce.

  Conner motioned to the boys in the wagon with me. “That’s Latamer and Roden. ”

  Latamer was the cougher. Roden had ratted me out for being awake. They nodded at me, then Latamer shrugged, as if to say he had no more of an idea why we were here than I did.

  “I’m hungry,” I said. “I’d planned on having roast for dinner, so whatever you’ve got had better be good. ”

  Conner laughed and tossed an apple onto my lap, which sat there because my hands were still tied behind me.

  Roden reached over, snatched the apple, and took a big bite of it. “One of the rewards for not having fought coming along. I’m not tied up like a prisoner. ”

  “That was mine,” I said.

  “The apple was for anyone willing to take it,” Conner said.

  There was silence for another moment, except for the sound of Roden eating. I stared icily at him, though I knew it’d do no good. If he came from an orphanage as I did, he knew the rules of survival. Rule number one said you took food whenever it was available, as much as you could get.

  “Neither of you fought Conner?” I asked Latamer and Roden.

  Latamer shook his head and coughed. He probably didn’t have the strength to fight. Roden leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his legs. “I saw the orphanage you came from. It was ten times the place I lived in. Then Conner comes and says if I cooperate, I could get a big reward. So no, I didn’t fight. ”