The false prince, p.21
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       The False Prince, p.21

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 21


  “Why was that necessary?” Tobias asked. “What was she before? Some sort of criminal?”

  “Bite those words!” Conner ordered. “She was your queen, Tobias, and a respectable woman, always. My only point is that Eckbert wanted to avoid a similar uproar with his son. Now that Darius has been killed, the betrothal will pass to Prince Jaron, if he is found. If you take the crown, you will one day take Amarinda as your wife. ”

  “But if she was engaged to Darius —” Roden asked.

  “She was betrothed to the throne, not the prince. Amarinda will marry the man who becomes king. ”

  “Marry?” Tobias chuckled loudly, echoed by Roden and me.

  “Not until you’re older, of course,” Conner said. “But when the time comes, she will be yours. ”

  “What does she look like?” I asked. Conner raised an eyebrow, and I added, “Seems to me a girl whose marriage is guaranteed might not need to take care of her looks as much as one who has yet to catch a man’s eye. ”

  “You shall see for yourself,” Conner said. “I have invited her to dinner at the end of this week. ”

  “But if she sees us —” Tobias said.

  “You three will be in disguise as servants amongst my staff. She is a betrothed princess and will hardly deign to look at any of you. But I want you to see her, to gain an understanding of her mannerisms and style. It will help you after you take the throne. ”

  “So what is she like?” Roden asked.

  “I’ll have you judge that for yourselves. But I suspect she will appeal to you boys, and make our contest that much more interesting. ”

  Roden and Tobias perked up at the prospect of seeing her, but I only slumped back in my chair. Conner had collected another victim in this hideous game, and the princess would never even know it.

  Back in our rooms that night, Roden went straight to bed. Tobias was at his desk, reading another book. I lay on my bed, staring out the window. Tucked beneath my pillow was a spool of thread, a needle, and a small pair of sewing shears. I did have a tear in a shirt from the horse ride, but I wasn’t going to repair it. When I had enough privacy, I planned to cut the shirt up and sew a few pockets into the linings of my clothes. The vest I wore in the daytime had only one useless pocket on the outside. I needed a way to hide items inside my clothes, where nobody would think to look.

  After verifying the sewing items were well hidden, I sat up and stared out the window near my bed. I pulled a garlin from my vest pocket, stolen from Conner’s pocket after dinner, and absentmindedly let it roll over my knuckles. When it reached my pinky finger, I carried it with my thumb back to my forefinger.

  “Nice trick,” Tobias said.

  “It helps me think. ”

  “What are you thinking about?”

  “Ways to get you to stop talking to me. ”

  Tobias wasn’t fazed. “While I have candlelight in this room, you can’t possibly see outside. What are you staring at?”

  “Nothing. ”

  “This is what you do during lessons as well. Are you lost in your daydreams?”

  “Dreaming of what my life might have been like if I’d made other decisions. ”

  Tobias set his book down flat on the table. “Like what?”

  “If I’d stayed with my family. ”

  “Then you’d have become a drunken musician like your father was. ”

  “Probably. But I wouldn’t be here. ” I turned back to him. “Are you content with the choices you’ve made?”

  “I never made any choices,” Tobias said. “After my parents died, I was told to live with my grandmother, so I did. After she died, I was told to go to the orphanage, so I did. Then I was told to come here, so I did. ”

  “And when Conner tells you what you’ll do as king, you will. ”

  “No!” Tobias took a deep breath, picked up his book again, and then in a calmer voice added, “I have a plan. I know what I’ll do after I’m crowned. ”

  I went back to looking out the window. “I hope it works for you. ”

  “It will. I’ve worked out every detail. Stop staring out that window!”

  “Why does it matter to you?”

  “Because it’s pointless when I know you can’t see outside. Perhaps you’re using it as a mirror to admire yourself. ” Then Tobias looked down at his papers and suddenly gathered them all together in a pile.

  “I can’t see your papers,” I said tiredly. “You’re being foolish. ”

  “Nevertheless. ” Tobias took his papers and threw them in the fire. He blew out his candle and said, “I’m going to bed now. ”

  It was a long time until he fell asleep. I’d had a hard time outlasting him, but I was determined to get outside Farthenwood tonight.

  I inched the window open and crept onto the narrow ledge directly beneath it. There was little room for error, but it was a calm night and there were plenty of places to grip on to the walls. I’d be fine.

  A neighing sound in the pasture caught my attention first. Conner’s wild mare had returned home. That was good news for me. It would diminish any sting in Conner’s anger toward me for having lost her. It was good news for Cregan as well. Time off from his sentence of service to Conner.

  It was amazing how much I could learn about Farthenwood from the exterior. With a fair amount of climbing and using the ledges, I could see into many of the windows. I only saw a few people still awake this late at night, and there were windows in nearly every room. The more-favored servants’ quarters were on the main floor in the corners of the house. A few of the windows were covered in curtains. The rooms with curtained windows likely belonged to Imogen and other female servants, but I never tried to see into them. The idea of being caught staring into a room of sleeping women was not a pleasant one. They’d mark me as a Peeping Tom with no idea that it was the farthest thought from my mind. The center of the main floor was living space such as Conner’s office, the library, the music room, a dance hall, and the dining room. The kitchen and other servant areas were in the back. Bedrooms were on the upper floor. Conner’s room was on the opposite side of the house from ours. There were other rooms between them, few of which interested me.

  I wasn’t sure yet how to get onto the top floor of Farthenwood, which was only a third of the area of the other floors. The nursery/schoolroom where Roden and I took lessons was up there, but I wasn’t sure of what else. Likely, there were apartments for a governess and possibly more bedrooms. I might eventually find my way up to that level, but I wasn’t trying too hard. It didn’t seem that anything interesting was up there.

  I shinnied down a drainpipe to reach solid ground — always a nice feeling — and set about exploring the grounds. I passed through the stables, the archery courtyard, a wide vegetable garden, and then another carefully tended flower garden. The thought nagged at me again to just run.

  But I knew I wouldn’t dare. The assurance of that confirmed my worst suspicions about myself. That deep inside, I really was a coward.

  The crescent moon had shifted in the sky before I decided to return to my bedroom, where Conner so smugly believed he held us prisoner. It was dark enough that I had to feel for the edges of the window to find the small gap to open it again.