The false prince, p.20
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       The False Prince, p.20

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 20


  Mott paired me with Roden for another round while he worked with Tobias. I held my own until Roden got me backed into a corner. I lowered my sword to end the duel, but Roden took the opportunity to strike a hard blow at my chest.

  I reeled backward, then dropped my sword and lunged at him. One solid punch from me would teach him a much-needed lesson about sportsmanship. Mott pulled me off of him and yelled, “Bad form, Roden! This is a practice, not a match. You should have stopped when Sage lowered his sword. ”

  “Sorry,” Roden mumbled. “I didn’t mean it. Just had a lot of energy. ”

  Mott turned to me. “And, Sage —”

  “I won’t apologize,” I said, folding my arms.

  Mott considered that a moment, then said, “No, I wouldn’t either. Shake hands, boys, then I’ll take you back. ”

  Roden offered me his hand and I reluctantly took it, but with a simple shake we both shrugged off the anger. While Roden replaced our swords, I watched as Mott brushed his fingers across the empty space where the imitation of Jaron’s sword had been. Mott clearly loved that sword. I couldn’t understand why.

  Roden walked along beside me back to Farthenwood. “No hard feelings, I hope, about the way that match ended. ”

  “Do that to me again and I’ll kill you,” I said.

  He smiled grimly, not sure whether it was a joke or not. I wasn’t sure either.

  “It’s safe to tell me if you took the sword,” he said.

  Not a bad way of changing the subject, so I played along. “A secret that is safe between you, me, and Master Conner,” I said with a wry sideward glance.

  “It’s not an accusation,” Roden said, then lowered his voice. “It’s more likely that Tobias took it anyway. ”

  “Why’s that?”

  Roden shook his head. “Don’t you know? You always seem to have everything figured out before any of the rest of us. ”

  I didn’t know, and I told him so.

  “You know how bad he is with a sword. I was obviously the best out there, and you’re not great, but you’re better than he is. ”

  I smiled. “If that were true, I wouldn’t have so many bruises. ”

  Roden continued, “Tobias needs the sword to help him look more like the prince. ”

  “Tobias would look foolish wearing a sword at his side that he can’t even use properly. So what do you propose?”

  “I hope Conner chooses me,” Roden said, “but if he doesn’t, then I hope he chooses you. Not Tobias. For Carthya’s sake, I wouldn’t want him as prince, whether Conner is behind the throne or not. If you and I band together, we can sabotage him. ”

  “Then what happens when it’s down to you and me? Will you sabotage me as well?”

  Roden looked down at the trail. “I might. And I know you might sabotage me too. ”

  “How did we get to this place?” I asked, fully aware there was no answer. “No matter what we do, the devils have us. ”

  Roden playfully knocked me in the side with his shoulder. “The devils had you long ago, Sage. ”

  Tobias had gotten quite a ways ahead of us by this point. He turned and called, “Hurry up, you two! I won’t be late for dinner because of your slacking!”

  Dinner with Conner was uncomfortable at best. Tobias and Roden were seated at his right and left. As a sign of his displeasure with me, I was in the third position, farthest away.

  I picked up my dishes and reset them at the far end of the table, so that I’d directly face Conner.

  “Why’d you do that?” Conner asked.

  “We can’t see each other where I was at,” I said. “This makes more sense. ”

  “Maybe I have no wish to see you,” Conner said.

  “If that were true, you’d have had Mott keep me in my room. ”

  “In any event, it was very rude. ”

  “It was princelike,” I said. “A prince would never let anyone else determine his seat. ”

  After a brief hesitation, Conner smiled and raised his glass in toast to me. “Indeed. ”

  Conner took several opportunities during dinner to point out the errors I was making in manners. Tobias and Roden weren’t making the same mistakes, so they must have had this lesson the night before, while I was lying on the ground by the river. I told him I’d make fewer mistakes if I didn’t have to use my right hand for everything. He pointed out that it wasn’t likely the prince would switch to the left hand for me, so I’d have to be the one to change. I corrected the errors, and Conner moved on.

  Despite my objection that it was a boring topic more suited for Master Graves than dinner conversation, he indulged us with a lecture on the customs of castle life, the daily schedule a king might manage.

  “If he’s king, why is he tied to a schedule?” I asked. “Why couldn’t he tell all his subjects that he’s off doing what he wants and they can wait?”

  “He could,” Conner said. “But his primary responsibility is to his country, not to himself. He is a manager, a decision maker, a leader. Not a child at play. ”

  “But if one of us takes the throne, you’d do most of that for us, wouldn’t you?”

  Conner shook his head. “I’ll be there to help you function in your role. I’ll be a counselor, a guide. But you will be king. ”

  Conner went quiet while Imogen and two other servants brought in the next course of our meal. She served Roden instead of me and didn’t look at any of us.

  When she turned, I got a glimpse of a dark bruise over her left cheek. She’d been wearing her hair to hide it, but when she bent over, the bruise was obvious.

  “Where’d you get that?” I asked her. She glanced up at me, then quickly looked down. So I turned to Conner. “Where’d she get that bruise?”

  He waved his hand noncommittally. “She has a reputation for clumsiness. I expect she ran into a cupboard door or a wall, isn’t that right, Imogen?”

  Imogen looked from Conner to me, then back at Conner and nodded. Nobody in that room could have missed the fear in her eyes.

  “Somebody did that to her,” I said.

  “Nonsense,” Conner said. “Imogen, if somebody hurt you, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” He laughed at his own joke. Obviously, Imogen could not have told him. And I suspected even if she could, she still wouldn’t have dared.

  “We have business,” Conner said to all of the servants in the room. “You may all go. ”

  When they left, Conner said, “You seem very interested in that girl’s affairs, Sage. ”

  “Somebody gave her that bruise. We both know it wasn’t an accident. ”

  “She’s a servant girl, beneath your station now. Let those in her circles look after her interests. ”

  “Those in her circles probably caused it. ”

  Conner brushed off my statement with an empty promise to look into the matter, then said, “Forget the servant girl and remember why you’re here. Did you know the prince is already engaged to be married?”

  That had Roden’s attention. “Already? To who?”

  “To whom, Roden. The betrothed princess Amarinda of Bultain was chosen at her birth for the crown prince Darius. She is the niece of the king of Bymar, and an alliance between Eckbert’s home and hers is necessary for continued peace in Carthya. The betrothal was King Eckbert’s idea. His wife, Queen Erin, was from an inconsequential border town in southern Carthya, unknown in any social circles of the upper class. He was expected to choose from amongst the noblemen’s daughters, so there was a great controversy when he married. Even today, little is known about her life before the marriage. For all his weakness in defending his borders, he was always a great defender of his wife. ”