The false prince, p.25
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       The False Prince, p.25

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 25


  She offered me more water, which I gratefully accepted. “I should have brought you more to eat,” she said. “But I was afraid they’d notice. ”

  I closed my eyes to rest them for a moment, then opened them and asked, “That bruise I saw the other night, was it my fault?”

  “I had troubles before you came, and they’ll continue after you’re gone. Besides, right now you should worry more about yourself. ”

  “Who hurts you?”

  “Do you know how ridiculous that question is, coming from someone in your position?” The encouraging smile she had forced onto her face faded. “I’m fine. Some days are harder than others, that’s all. And it’s easy for them to pick on me, because they know I’ll never tell. ”

  “Why do you pretend to be a mute?”

  She lowered her eyes, then looked back into mine. “It turned Conner’s attention away. It’s better this way, trust me. ”

  We fell silent for a moment, then Imogen tilted the flask. “It’s finished. I’ll bring you more later if I can get away. ”

  “Don’t risk it. He’ll let me go soon. He has to. ”

  Imogen exited the dungeon, fastening the door as it had been before. Looking back through the bars, she said, “Don’t give up, Sage, and don’t give in to him. Please. A lot of us are watching you, and we need to see that it’s possible to win. ”

  She disappeared as quickly and quietly as she had come. With just the bit of food in my stomach, I was able to relax a little. And for the first time ever, I learned to sleep standing up.

  It was impossible to know what time it was when Mott and Cregan returned for me again. It didn’t feel as if I’d had any rest, but my arms ached so badly, I was sure I’d slept for some time. Whatever food Imogen gave me had long ceased to offer any comfort.

  Cregan reached the dungeon first and got directly in my face. With a snarl, he asked, “Where’s the rock?”

  “Gold,” I mumbled.

  “Enough!” Mott pulled Cregan’s outstretched arm down. “This is between the boy and the master. Not you. ”

  Cregan grabbed my hair to force me to look at him. “You’re not the prince yet, so I can tell you this. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that Conner chooses one of the other two boys. Because after they ride off to the castle, I’m going to kill you myself. And you will beg for mercy, but you’ll come to understand just how merciless I can be. ”

  “I said, enough,” Mott repeated. “Let him down, Cregan. ”

  They released the chains and I crumpled to the floor like a rag doll. Cregan kicked me lightly until I let him have the satisfaction of a groan, and then dropped an armful of clothes on me. “The master wishes to speak with you. Get dressed. ”

  I didn’t move until Mott finally crouched to the floor and began dressing me. Then he cursed and said to Cregan, “He’s bled through on his bandages. Get me some more. ”

  “I’ll have to get them from upstairs,” Cregan said. “We didn’t have much down here before. ”

  “Then get them. ”

  Cregan’s footsteps pounded up the stairs. While I lay facedown on the filthy floor, Mott worked silently to remove my bandages. One of them pulled where dried sweat and blood had bonded it to my skin. I cringed and Mott breathed an apology.

  With tears in my eyes I said, “You have to help me. Please, Mott. I can’t do this. ”

  “I work for Conner, not you. ” Then after a moment, he sighed tiredly and added, “After all this, the master is still considering you. That says a lot. It’s time to stop thinking of yourself as an orphan and look at yourself as a prince. ”

  “I will always be an orphan now. ” And for the first time in as long as I could remember, I cried. I cried for my lost family, and for every circumstance in my life that had led me here. Mott held my forehead until calm slowly returned to me.

  “Forgive me,” I mumbled.

  “You’re half-starved and exhausted,” he said. “Forgive me that it was my job to bring this upon you. ”

  Moments later, Cregan returned. He handed the new bandage to Mott and then stood back as Mott carefully peeled away the rest of the old one.

  “Give me a light,” he directed Cregan.

  Cregan handed him a candle, which they held close to me. “It’s going to scar,” Mott said. “It cut deeper than I had thought. But I think, so far, we saved it from any infection. ” They poured more of the liquid onto the cut. I clawed at the floor for relief from the pain but made little sound. There was no energy for that.

  The sting passed and they wrapped me in a new bandage. It took both Mott’s and Cregan’s help to get me dressed, then they walked me up the stairs. The early morning light was fierce on my eyes and I stumbled backward, anything to get away from so much sun.

  “Get him some water,” Mott said to someone nearby while still holding me firmly.

  A cup appeared and Mott pressed it to my lips. I took a few sips, then turned my head away. The light didn’t hurt so badly now. I faintly realized how much I’d missed seeing it.

  “We can’t delay any longer,” Mott said. “Let’s take him to Conner. ”

  They sat me in a chair facing Conner’s desk. Conner stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, and then said, “You look terrible. ”

  I said nothing.

  “If you learn nothing else during your time here, Sage, perhaps you will learn not to defy me. You were two nights down there; did you know it’s been so long? I hope you had time to reflect that disobedience to me will bring you nothing but misery. ”

  Again, I had no response. It occurred to me that obedience to him offered its own form of misery, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Besides, it hurt to talk.

  Conner nodded at Mott, who brought out a tray and set it on Conner’s desk. It was filled with items I recognized as having come from various hiding places around my bed and my drawers.

  Conner picked up a few things that I’d pickpocketed over the last few days: a butter knife, a gold cuff link, several coins. “No need to ask about these,” he said. “You’ve obviously managed to find time amongst your other studies to steal from me and those in this household. ”

  Yes, that was obvious, so I remained silent.

  Then Conner picked up some papers. “But I must ask about these. Do you know what’s on them?”

  “I don’t know what you’re looking at,” I mumbled.

  “They’re notes someone made. Whoever wrote them seems to have detailed some strange plans. They may be interpreted as ways to get rid of me should he become king. Everything from the rather nonoffensive appointing me as a foreign ambassador to poisoning my wine. Who wrote this, Sage?”

  I shook my head. “Is your name on it?”

  “Of course not. As I said, this is only my interpretation of the notes. Tell me who wrote them so I can ask about it. ”

  “I wanted to practice writing with my right hand. I found these in a bin, set for fire kindling. ”

  “I must ask you directly, did you write these notes?”

  I started to laugh, then choked on it as a pain thumped in my side. “You can’t think I’m that foolish. ”