The false prince, p.27
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       The False Prince, p.27

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 27

 

  Tobias grabbed his papers and threw them into the fire. He marched over to my bed and stuck a finger in my face, then yelled, “You think you’re so clever, but if you push me any further you’ll see how foolish you are. ”

  “I never denied being a fool,” I said, lying back down on my bed. “That’s the difference between us. ”

  I slept the rest of that evening and through the night, waking up only when Imogen came to check on my bandages.

  There was so much I wanted to ask her, but someone else was always in the room with us, and any real conversation was impossible.

  I was more careful this time to let her do her job without giving her any particular attention, though I still felt the entire charade was ridiculous. Most of these servants came to Farthenwood in better circumstances than I had. And right now, I was much more like the servants than Conner. My friendships with Imogen or Errol or Mott shouldn’t have threatened any of them.

  Morning brought stiffness to my muscles. I must’ve been too tired the day before to notice how sore they were, or maybe it was that I didn’t have to move around much before now. Errol insisted on helping me dress, even brought Mott into the room to ensure I accepted that help. It wasn’t necessary. Standing there with my arms out while Errol dressed me was about as much as I could do.

  With considerable struggle, I managed to stay awake that day and even paid a semblance of attention to the morning tutors. Master Graves made it very clear that they had moved on without me and had no time to return to the lessons of the previous few days, so I would have to catch up as best as I could.

  “It’s been a week since you came to Farthenwood, Sage, and you’re no further along than the first day we started. ”

  I told him that was probably because I’d only had two of his lessons and, in all fairness to myself, hadn’t really bothered to pay attention to either of them. This only darkened his glares at me, and he focused the rest of the lesson on Roden.

  Mistress Havala also said there wasn’t enough time to review what had been discussed while I was — she generously used the word indisposed — but gave me two books that she said contained much of the same information.

  “You probably can’t read them without help,” she said. “Perhaps Tobias will help you in the evenings. ”

  “I’m certain that Tobias has already given me too much help,” I said.

  Tobias gripped the sides of his chair and said whatever he might do to please Master Conner would please him.

  Roden and Tobias did horseback and sword-fighting lessons that afternoon. I was excused from participating, but Mott insisted I watch them. I watched the horseback lessons until they rode too far away for me to see them and I fell asleep. The sword-fighting lesson was somewhat more interesting. Tobias was still a disaster with a sword, but Roden had improved significantly. I wondered if he was naturally talented or if he’d been putting in a lot of extra hours of practice.

  Mott commented on it too. Roden shrugged and said Cregan had offered to help him during free hours.

  “Cregan is skilled with a sword, but he’s self-taught,” Mott warned. “With him as your teacher, you will learn to fight, but your style will not reflect the training of a prince. ”

  “My lessons with you will help me pass for the prince,” Roden said. “But Cregan’s lessons will keep me alive. ”

  Dinner that evening was relatively quiet. Conner vaguely inquired after our progress but said he’d already had full reports from all our instructors. He asked me what I was doing to try to catch up.

  I shrugged and said I planned to study Tobias’s notes after he was asleep. Tobias shot me a glare, but Conner laughed.

  “And what is your response to that?” Conner asked Tobias.

  Tobias shook his head. “I have no notes, sir. And Sage couldn’t read them if I did. ”

  “If you did have notes, Sage could get them and perhaps even read them. You had better be careful, Tobias, or Sage will end up as my choice. ”

  “That would be a mistake, sir,” Tobias mumbled.

  “Your mistake,” Conner corrected, “is that you are more interested in pleasing me than in becoming like the boy Prince Jaron was. Learn to fight back, Tobias. Be strong!” His eyes drifted to me, and he shook his head. “Don’t be smug about that, Sage. Jaron didn’t seek fights either, the way you do. I can see you all still have much to learn about who the prince really was. ”

  After we returned to our room that night, I fell onto my bed, not caring what clothes I slept in, as long as I could sleep. But Tobias sat at the desk, turning his chair to stare directly at me.

  Finally, I muttered, “You obviously have something to say, Tobias. So what is it?”

  His eyes narrowed. “I am strong enough to stop you, Sage. You too, Roden. I’m warning you both not to push me any further. ”

  “Conner said the prince never sought out fights,” I reminded him.

  “This isn’t about being like Jaron,” he said. “It’s about stopping you. And I will if I have to. ”

  Grimacing with the sting in my back, I rolled over to face the wall. Before closing my eyes, I said, “Conner will choose me this week and you know it. You wouldn’t dare to stop me. ”

  As tired as I was, I forced myself to stay awake for nearly an hour after that until I was sure both Roden and Tobias were asleep. Because no matter what I said, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Tobias would at some point carry out his threat.

  Mott was waiting for us after lessons the next day to tell us there would be no horseback riding that afternoon, nor sword fighting. “Cregan says you’re all good enough on horseback to pass initial scrutiny, and Conner has other plans for you this afternoon. ”

  Those other plans were dancing lessons in Conner’s great hall. So Conner apparently had other ways to torture us beyond his dungeon walls.

  I grabbed my side and sat in a chair near the door. “I’m not dancing. It’ll hurt. ”

  “Today is the only time we can spare for these lessons,” Conner said, walking in ahead of a small group of women. “Surely, a handsome young prince would never be so tired that he couldn’t enjoy a dance with a lovely young lady. ”

  Reluctantly, I stood, though swallowing a laugh when I saw our three dancing partners. None of them were young, and lovely was a kind exaggeration. They were dressed in clothes similar to his other servants and had the rougher skin of women accustomed to physical labor.

  Roden shared a grin with me. Tobias straightened his spine, but looked a little nervous.

  “Don’t be shy, boys,” Conner said. “You don’t have to romance them. It’s just some dancing, and all of them are fine dancers. ”

  We walked forward and made the decision of who our partner would be based on which lady happened to be standing closest to us. My partner was a woman in her forties who whispered to me that her name was Jean. She had curly hair that was probably once a pretty brown before it had grayed and faded. Her eyes were wide, contrasting with her thin lips and nose. Not a pretty face, but it was an interesting one.

  Conner began instructing us in a basic minuet, demonstrating the steps himself with Roden’s partner, then clapping his hands to a beat as we imitated him. Jean was pleasant and helpful. And forgiving with every mistake I made.