The false prince, p.23
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       The False Prince, p.23

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 23

 

  Before folding the trousers, I checked the pockets. My eyes widened and I yelled for Errol to come back into the room.

  “I had something in this pocket,” I said. “Where is it?”

  Errol shook his head, but he clearly knew the answer. “You had nothing of value in there, sir. ”

  I moved closer to him and his face paled. “Did you throw it out, then?”

  In almost a whisper, Errol said, “Conner heard you wanted these back. He insisted on inspecting them before they were returned to you. If anything is missing, sir, you should ask him. ”

  Minutes later, I stormed into Conner’s small dining room, slamming the door against the wall. “Where’s my gold?”

  “Where’s Mott?” Conner asked. “He should have escorted you. ”

  “He doesn’t know I left. Where is it?”

  “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about. Now come, sit, and have some breakfast. ” He gestured to a seat near Roden and Tobias, who were both staring at me as if I’d gone completely insane.

  I had no intention of sitting. “The gold. In the pockets of the clothes I wore before coming here. You took it. ”

  “That’s what this is about?” Conner laughed. “Stupid boy. That rock you carried wasn’t gold. ”

  “Yes, it is and it’s mine. ”

  Conner shook his head. “It’s imitator’s gold, Sage. You probably bought it from a swindler in the marketplace. ”

  “It was a gift, and it’s real. I want it back. ”

  “No. ” Conner folded his hands together. “You’re training to become a prince, even a king. A king wouldn’t carry imitator’s gold in his pocket. Study hard to become royalty, and I’ll see that you carry real gold wherever you go. ”

  “We’re all imitators here. So if you’re right about the gold, then there’s no more appropriate thing for me to carry than that rock. Where is it?”

  “It’s mine now,” Conner said. “I’m sure I’ll find a useful purpose for it one day, maybe as a skipping stone in the nearby river. Now please sit down. We were about to discuss the royal lineage. ”

  “You discuss it,” I said. “I’ve got better things to do. ” And I stormed out.

  I didn’t make it to the reading or history lessons that morning. Tobias, Roden, and I were on our way out to the stables that afternoon when Mott and Cregan strode toward us. I was eating an apple swiped from the kitchen, but from the expressions on their faces, I didn’t think I’d get to finish it.

  “They look angry,” Tobias said to me. “What did you do?”

  “Is it always something I’ve done?” I asked. “Don’t you and Roden ever do anything worth their attention?”

  “It’s always something you’ve done,” Roden agreed.

  Although I was tempted, there was no point in running. We were trapped between the stables and the house, so they’d catch me anyway. Besides, whatever punishment was coming my way, I didn’t need to complicate it further.

  Cregan placed both hands on my chest and shoved me to the ground. Sure enough, the apple rolled out of my hand and into the dirt. “Where is that rock?” he asked.

  The fall to the ground knocked the breath from me, but I still muttered, “It’s gold. ”

  “You stole it from the master. ”

  “Who stole it from me. What I did only set the universe back in order. ”

  “You don’t want this fight, Sage,” Mott warned. “Now please, where’s the rock?”

  I set my jaw forward and dug the heel of my boot into the dirt. Maybe he was right, but I wasn’t going to admit it.

  “Take him,” Mott said to Cregan, who pulled out his knife and ordered me to stand. When I did, he pressed the knife to my neck and grabbed my arm. With Cregan by my side, and Mott on my heels, we walked back to Farthenwood.

  Conner was waiting for me in his office, standing behind his wide oak desk. Cregan threw me into the chair in front of the desk, and he and Mott stood on opposite sides of me.

  “Where is the rock?” Conner asked coldly.

  “Isn’t it in your desk where you left it?” I countered with an equal coolness to my voice.

  That set Conner off. He nodded at Cregan, who slapped me hard across my cheek. I tasted blood in my mouth and closed my eyes a moment before the sting eased enough that I could open them.

  “I bought you from the orphanage!” Conner yelled. “That means I own you, which means I own everything that belonged to you! That rock is mine. ”

  “If it’s not real gold, then why do you want it?” I asked.

  “Because I don’t want you to have it! I will not present someone to the court who carries imitator’s gold in his pocket. Where is it?”

  “Maybe you lost it,” I said.

  Cregan slapped me again, harder this time.

  “Take him to the dungeon,” Conner whispered. “Do what you must, but leave no scars. ”

  “No, wait!” My eyes widened as fear gripped me. I knew what would happen there. “Don’t do this, Conner! It’s just a rock. Is that what you want to hear?”

  Conner pressed both hands flat on his desk as he leaned toward me. “What I want, Sage, is for you to bend to my will. If I tell you to jump from a cliff, I want you to jump. If I tell you to swim to the far side of the ocean, I want you to swim. I don’t care about the rock. But if I tell you that it’s no longer yours, then I will have your loyalty, respect, and obedience. I’ll give you one last chance. Where is it?”

  My heart pounded so loudly in my ears that I barely heard him. All I knew was that he would not get that rock even if my life depended on it. And I suspected that it did.

  “Take him,” Conner said. Mott and Cregan grabbed each of my arms and literally dragged me, kicking and screaming, out the door.

  Conner’s dungeon smelled of rotting urine. I vaguely wondered who else had been brought here and how long ago. The dungeon was only a single room surrounded by rough-hewn rock walls and rusty iron bars. There were no windows and no lights except for the few lit candles in sconces on the wall outside the bars. It was damp down here, and I shivered in the cold air. Except it wasn’t that cold. I was terrified.

  When Cregan used a hand to open the barred door, I wrenched an arm free of his grasp and got in one good punch on his neck. Mott grabbed my arm and wrested it behind me with the other, pinching them tightly together.

  “I’ll make you pay for that,” Cregan hissed. Once we were inside, he sliced off my shirt and shackled my wrists with a chain that hung from the ceiling. When he raised the chain, I could only barely touch the floor with my arms suspended above me.

  Mott had gone to the far corner of the room, but now he approached me. In his hands was some sort of whip. It had a long handle, with a thick leather strap on the end that he held tightly bundled.

  “Conner said not to leave scars. ” It was impossible to control the tremble in my voice as I spoke.

  Cregan’s grin revealed his eagerness for that whip to fly. “He said nothing about bruises. As long as he hits you with the broad side of this strap, you’ll feel the pain, but it shouldn’t cut you. ”