The false prince, p.28
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       The False Prince, p.28

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 28


  “You’re doing fine,” she said. It was a lie and we both knew it. But I appreciated it nonetheless.

  Neither Tobias nor Roden seemed to be doing much better. Conner remained patient with us, though, and after several tries, we all began to make the steps in a respectable manner.

  At a break between dances, Conner asked if my father was a musician.

  “As I’ve told you on more than one occasion, sir. ”

  “Surely you play an instrument, then. ”

  “I’ve also told you my father was a poor musician. You cannot believe the student could rise higher than his teacher. ”

  Conner walked to the corner of the room, where a small instrument case was propped. He pulled out a fippler and fitted the pieces together. “I’d like to hear you play, Sage. If you were taught by your musician father. ”

  “I’d leave my lovely dance partner alone, sir. ”

  “I’ll dance with her, if you play something we can dance to. ”

  I eyed Conner. “Is this a test?”

  With a tilt of his head, Conner said, “Everything is a test. ”

  So I took the fippler. It needed a bit of tuning, which was awkward for me at first. I’d actually never played a fippler, but it was a basic wind instrument, and with only a little trouble at first, I could guess at the fingering. “What I don’t remember must be improvised,” I warned them. “Forgive me if I fail to do this song justice. ”

  Then I began to play. It wasn’t a song for dancing but was instead a sad melody that had always given me images of loneliness on a forgotten beach in the night. It was a tune that used to make my mother cry, and after a while, my father no longer played it. After a while, he no longer played any songs at all. But I never forgot the tune.

  When I finished, there was a hush in the room. I handed the fippler back to Conner, who solemnly said, “You were right, Sage. The student cannot rise higher than his master. I believe we need to dance again. ”

  I caught Conner’s eye a few times over the next dance, wondering what he had intended by asking me to play. If I’d been lying about my father’s hobby, all I would have had to say was that he never taught me.

  After the dance finished, Conner told us to rest a moment, then folded his arms and chuckled. “None of you will ever be great dancers,” he said. “But at least you won’t humiliate yourselves either. We’ll work a bit longer, then I’ll have each of you boys go and change clothes. You’ll work in the kitchen tonight, learning from the servants there about what is expected in serving guests. You’ll need to learn these roles because I’ll have you serving the betrothed princess Amarinda tomorrow evening. ”

  “When does she arrive, sir?” Tobias asked.

  “I expect to receive her sometime late this evening, though she isn’t planning to dine with us until tomorrow. Sage, have you been working on your accent? If you are called upon to speak to her, I won’t have you replying with an Avenian accent. ”

  “I happened to be alone quite a bit in recent days,” I said in a Carthyan accent. “It gave me a great deal of time to practice. ”

  “Not bad,” Conner said with a smile. “But you’re still too soft on your consonant sounds. Tighten them up, and never let me hear the Avenian accent again. ”

  I acknowledged Conner’s request with a nod. Then Conner said, “I think we’ll practice a waltz now. Take your partners by the hand, please. ”

  Kitchen duty that afternoon was tedious. Our escort in the kitchen happened to be my dance partner, Jean, who I learned was more a supervisor than a servant. Conner had a large kitchen, and Jean took great pride in showing us how smoothly it operated.

  “The master occasionally has unexpected guests, so we always have a plan for last-minute meals,” Jean said. “We’ve enjoyed this week since you boys came. We’re preparing a lot more food than usual, and our serving dishes come back empty. ”

  “Everything tastes so good here,” Roden said. Tobias and I both smiled at that. It wasn’t her decision who was made prince, so neither of us could figure out what he hoped to gain by complimenting her.

  Roden answered that question a moment later when he noticed our grins. “It really does taste good,” he whispered. “You should have seen what they fed us at my orphanage. I don’t even think it was food half the time. ”

  Jean instructed us on the proper way to hold a tray and how to serve or retrieve dishes on the table. She showed us how to pour a drink, and even let us sample a taste of Conner’s best wine. I was interested in a detached sort of way and so was Roden. It was nice to know, but did me little good. However, Tobias leaned over to us at one point and whispered, “If Conner hadn’t pulled us from the orphanages, this would likely have been our futures. ”

  “Not mine,” I said firmly. Nothing in me could accept a life like this. Roden quickly agreed.

  “You know what little you must,” Jean finally said. “Now make yourselves useful in here. There is always too much to do, and if we have you on loan, we’ll use you. ”

  She showed us a pile of dishes that needed to be washed. I pointed out there was really only room for two dishwashers and assigned myself the job of kneading dough at the other side of the room. Roden and Tobias didn’t seem to care, so Jean gave in and waved me away.

  I wandered over to the wood counter in the corner and picked up a lump of dough. After a minute, Imogen entered the kitchen, and Jean directed her to come over and help me. To my surprise, she didn’t seem to object, and only moved a set of kitchen knives out of my way, giving herself room beside me to knead another lump of dough.

  “I’ve done this before,” I said, working my fingers into the warm dough. “It was one of the jobs at the orphanage. But the dough here is much better. We ate from a lot of charity ingredients before, which almost always meant whatever was unfit for the upper classes. ” She glanced at me and I continued. “I don’t see why the upper classes object to food with weevils in it. They’re very nutritious. ”

  That finally earned a real smile, even though it was far from the funniest thing I’d ever said to her. Then I realized the smile wasn’t about me; something in her had changed.

  “You’re different,” I said quietly.

  Without looking up at me, she nodded. She couldn’t tell me what it was, but she didn’t need to. There was less fear in her than before.

  “Imogen!” a tall, square-cut man shouted from the far end of the kitchen. Based on his clothing, he was one of Conner’s chefs. “Lazy girl!”

  Imogen swung around. I started forward, but she grabbed my wrist to hold me back.

  “Isn’t that dough ready yet?” he said. “I’ve got to have it baked by this evening!”

  “How could she have finished?” I scowled. “Every time she walked in here, you sent her out with another job!”

  The chef crossed to me and shoved me against the brick wall. Pain lit across my bruised back and throughout my body. But I somehow held my tongue. “Don’t tell me how to operate in my kitchen!” he snarled.

  “Let him go!” Mott said, entering the kitchen. He grabbed my shirt and yanked me away from the chef’s grasp, then motioned for Tobias and Roden to follow him. “We’re finished here. ” As we walked out, he said to me, “Can’t you go anywhere without causing a problem?”