The false prince, p.29
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       The False Prince, p.29

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 29

 

  “Is that who gives Imogen her bruises?” I asked.

  Mott clenched his jaw. “It’s clear that if you work from the kitchen tonight, one of you will end up killing the other. I’ll assign you different duties. ” Then with a parting glare, he walked ahead of us.

  Tobias and Roden caught up to me as we followed Mott.

  “He hurt your back,” Roden said. “I can tell by the way you’re walking. ”

  “My back is fine. ” It wasn’t true, but I felt braver for saying it.

  “It’s your own fault if he did hurt it,” Tobias said. “Why do you do it?”

  I shrugged. “What?”

  “Aggravate people the way you do. You seem bent on making enemies here. ”

  “And you insist on making false friends. They’re no different. Don’t you ever get tired of pretending to be something you’re not?”

  “Like the prince?” Tobias arched his head. “No, I could pretend to be him for the rest of my life. Don’t judge me just because you’re not able to do the same. ”

  His words hit me too close, and I fell behind him and Roden as we walked back to our rooms. We both knew he’d won that round.

  We were secluded in our room when the betrothed princess arrived later that night. Roden suggested I sneak out and bring back a report of what she was like, which I was perfectly willing to do, but Tobias said he’d tell Mott if I left.

  “You can’t have the advantage of seeing the princess before we do,” Tobias said. “Knowing you, you’ll convince her tonight that you are the prince, and she’ll have you crowned at the castle before Roden and I are awake tomorrow. ”

  I snorted, and then said, “Now that you’re onto me, I’ll have to figure out an even cleverer plan. ” Mocking Tobias was risky, and probably unfair. But it was usually too hard to resist. I grabbed one of the books off his desk and brought it back to my bed, letting it fall open somewhere in the middle.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Mistress Havala said I’d have to study on my own to catch up. That’s what I’m doing. ”

  “You can’t read. ”

  “I said I can’t read well. But I paid very close attention to Master Graves this morning, and I hope to read well enough to understand this book. ”

  Tobias folded his arms. “Do you even know what it’s about?”

  I shook my head and flipped to another page. “It would help if there were more pictures in it. ”

  “It’s on early Carthyan history. If you are going to study, you might choose a topic more relevant for convincing anyone you’re a prince. ”

  “Great. Give me one of those kinds of books. ”

  “They’re in the library and we’re not allowed to leave this room. ”

  I turned several more pages of the book. “Then I’ll have to content myself with reading this one. ”

  Roden chuckled and grabbed another book off Tobias’s table. “Me too. ”

  “Now you’re a reader also?” Rising anger tinged Tobias’s voice.

  “It’ll be good practice. ” Roden settled onto his bed with a book.

  Tobias’s face reddened. “You think this will convince Conner of anything? I’m twice as smart as either of you. ”

  “And half as strong as me or Roden, even if we’re asleep,” I said. “You have to do better, Tobias. ”

  “Is that a challenge?” he asked.

  “I’d never challenge an inferior. Now go to sleep. You’ll need rest before whatever humiliation comes your way tomorrow. ”

  “You sleep,” Tobias said. “You’ll need some strength for sneaking out later tonight. ”

  I laughed and tossed the book on the floor before lying down. But I didn’t go to sleep. That was a luxury I couldn’t afford. It was much later in the night before I finally decided to sneak out, this time through the secret passages. Climbing across the exterior walls of Farthenwood was a bad idea since I still felt so weak, but as long as nobody else was in the passages, it would be a fine way to explore.

  I was gradually learning the exit points of the passages. They ran throughout Farthenwood, or at least to areas where Farthenwood’s architect felt a person might want to secretly travel. One of my favorite exits took me into the hallway around the corner from my room. It helped to see what was happening on the outside when everyone thought we were safely inside. I left the passages and entered the hallway, using that door.

  As always at this time of night, there were only a few servants wandering the halls, so as long as I was careful to find the shadows in Conner’s home, I had access to most of the places I wanted to go. This time, I even got a glance down the hallway at who was guarding our room each night. I practically choked with laughter when I saw him. He might have been younger than the three of us, and he’d fallen asleep. He wore a sword, but the smallest buckle of the belt still hung loose around his waist. Clearly, Conner no longer considered any of us as at risk for running.

  The one well-guarded room wasn’t far from Conner’s. The vigils in front of the door were unfamiliar to me and they stood very alert. It had to be the guest bedroom for the betrothed princess Amarinda.

  It was impossible to continue any farther through the hallway without risking the attention of her vigils, so I slipped back into the passages. Somewhere in there was a door leading directly into Amarinda’s room, but using it for any reason was a terrible idea. It did occur to me that there might at least be some way to peek into the room without entering it. The curiosity of what Amarinda looked like was very strong.

  While feeling around for any place to view into the room, I felt a hand on my arm and the point of a knife at my back. It had been only a matter of time before the others discovered the passages too.

  “Is this how I have to prove my strength?” Tobias’s voice was thick and he sniffed loudly. I wondered if he was crying.

  “Where’d you get the knife?” I asked calmly. Calm was important here.

  “I stole it from the kitchen. ” He pressed the long end of the blade into my back and I stiffened as I felt it cut. It was a razorsharp knife. “If the whipping before wasn’t enough, maybe I can stop you. ”

  “From what?” I said, gasping. Blood trickled down my back, though I couldn’t tell if he’d opened the old wound or created a new one.

  “Stop you from being considered. I saw Conner’s admiration for you while we practiced our dancing. But how can he? You’re the least worthy of the title, the lowest of us three. ”

  “And you’re the biggest coward,” I hissed, then caught my breath in my throat as his blade cut deeper.

  “Don’t call me a coward,” Tobias said. “I’m not!”

  “Have you come here to kill me?” I asked. “Because I’ll scream when you do and it’ll wake up the princess and probably a whole lot of other people, and you’ll get into trouble. ”

  “You’ll be dead. ”

  “Yes, but you’ll be in trouble. ”

  Tobias lightened the pressure on the blade. “This is just a warning for you to back down. I will be king. ”

  “If you don’t want to kill me, then lower the knife. ”