The false prince, p.24
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       The False Prince, p.24

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 24

 

  “Please don’t do this, Mott. ” I wasn’t above begging.

  “You chose this!” he yelled. “Didn’t I warn you before?”

  “What’s so important about the rock?” Cregan asked.

  “It’s not about the rock,” Mott said. “The boy just wants to win. This is his way of proving that Conner doesn’t own him. ”

  “He doesn’t own me,” I said.

  That elicited Mott’s first snap of the whip. I’d prepared myself for pain, but not as great as this. A scream burst from my lips that didn’t sound like me. Mott snapped it again and then a third time. My legs collapsed beneath me, which pulled hard at my shoulders.

  “Where’s the rock?” Mott asked.

  Without waiting for an answer, he snapped the whip again. I felt myself separating from the pain, as if a part of me had stepped aside to watch it happen. That part of me cringed at the sound of strap hitting flesh. The other part continued to scream.

  “He doesn’t own me,” I whispered. “It’s my gold. ”

  The whip snapped again, ripping like a claw into my skin, then Mott scowled. “Get a towel. ”

  “Conner said not to draw blood!” Cregan said.

  “He said not to leave scars. Get me the bandages and then we’ll leave him alone. We’ll give him time to think about his next answer. ”

  Cregan disappeared for a moment while Mott cursed and threw the whip back into the corner of the room. A minute later, Cregan returned with a bottle of clear liquid and a cloth.

  “I’ll take care of this,” Mott said. “Don’t tell Conner anything more than you have to. ”

  “Give me five minutes alone with him,” Cregan said with a growl. “I’ll find out where the rock is. ”

  “Get out!” Mott commanded.

  When we were alone, Mott unscrewed the bottle. I caught a whiff of it and shook my head. “Don’t. No more. ”

  “This sting won’t be much better than the whip,” Mott warned.

  He poured the liquid onto the cloth, then pressed it to my back. I howled again and kicked Mott in the knee, and he stumbled backward.

  “You’ll get infected if I don’t clean this,” he said angrily. “I’m the only friend you’ve got right now, so don’t upset me. ”

  “If you’re my friend, then who are my enemies?”

  “You are your own enemy, Sage. Look in the mirror for the cause of your problems. Do you think I wanted to hold that whip?”

  He patted my back again with the cloth and I cursed at him.

  “Watch your mouth, or Conner will have me whip that out of you too. ”

  “It hurts!” My back was on fire and every nerve in my body felt it.

  “I don’t know why Conner hasn’t killed you already,” Mott said. “He sees something in you worth keeping, but his patience won’t last forever. Give him the rock, Sage. ”

  “No. ”

  Mott wrapped the wet cloth around my side and knotted it tightly. “You’re a fool,” he said. “If this is your strategy to become prince, it’s a terrible one. Bow to Conner, boy. And give him the rock. ”

  Before he left, he blew out both candles, leaving me suspended from the ceiling, half-naked, injured, and in complete darkness.

  They came to check on me two more times that day. The first time, Cregan brought a bowl of steaming soup. He said he knew I hadn’t eaten much that day and that I must be starved by now. All I had to do was tell them where the rock was hidden and they’d let me go.

  I told him the soup smelled awful and I’d rather lick the dungeon floors. Cregan said that could be arranged. Then he leaned against the wall and ate the soup. When he was full, he threw the remains on me and laughed.

  “I asked Conner to let me kill you right now,” he said.

  “If you make it quick, then go ahead. ” And I meant it.

  Cregan got so close to me that I could smell the onions from the soup on his breath. “Oh no, I wouldn’t make it quick. I’d take my time with you. Guess I have to be patient, though, because unfortunately, the master wants to keep you around a little while longer. ”

  “Go away, then. ”

  He seemed amused at my attempt to order him, and tried an order of his own. “Where’s the rock?”

  I turned my face away from him and was rewarded with a punch to the stomach.

  “I can do that all I want,” he said. “It won’t leave scars. ”

  “Keep it up,” I said when I recovered my breath. “After I’m king, it will lessen my guilt for having you executed. ”

  Cregan glared at me, issued a few threats for what he’d do the next time he came down, and stomped back up the stairs.

  Any number of hours later, Mott came with a rock that he said was as shiny as the one I’d had before. He pointed out that it was a little bigger than the other one and looked more valuable. I could have this rock. I only had to return the other one to Conner.

  “That’s imitator’s gold,” I said, irritated at his attempt to patronize me. “Mine was real. ”

  “Yours was just a worthless rock,” Mott said. “Even I could tell that. ”

  “Why does Conner want it, then?”

  “Why do you want it?” Mott said. “Neither of you could possibly care for what any other person wouldn’t even bother to pick up off the side of the road. Conner wants it because you want it, and you want it to defy Conner. If you think this fight proves anything, you’re wrong. ”

  “Tell Conner he needs me to be his prince,” I said. “Neither Roden nor Tobias will be able to convince the regents. But I can, and he knows it. ”

  “I’ll tell him,” Mott said. “But I think Conner would be a fool to pass you off as the prince. First chance after that crown landed on your head, you’d take a royal revenge on him. ”

  “Just tell him. Tell him I’ll be his prince. ”

  The next time I heard footsteps on the stairs, I expected it to be Mott or Cregan. But the footsteps fell too lightly. It was impenetrably dark in here, and when the glow from a candle rounded the corner, its dim light was harsh on my eyes.

  I squinted, and my dry voice was hoarse as I asked, “Who’s there?”

  There was no answer. The door to the dungeon opened, and only then did I recognize Imogen. She held a finger to her lips to silence any further questions, then withdrew a flask from her skirt. She raised it to my mouth and let me gulp in cool water until I shook my head that I’d had enough. Also hidden beneath her skirt was a warm roll. She helped me eat it, then wiped my mouth with her fingers so there would be no sign of food or water.

  “Thank you,” I said.

  After a slight hesitation, she whispered, “You look awful. ”

  My eyes widened. “You talk?”

  Her voice was soft and low. “You must keep two secrets for me. That I can talk, and that I came here tonight. ”

  “Why did you come?”

  “It’s been more than a day since they brought you here. I don’t know how much longer Conner will keep you here. Can’t you give him what he wants?”

  I shook my head. “He wants to own me. If I give in to him on this, then there’s nothing left of me. ”