The false prince, p.3
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       The False Prince, p.3
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 3

 

  “You might have given me that nice speech instead of having me hit over the head,” I told Conner. “What’s the reward?”

  Conner didn’t turn around to answer. “Cooperate first, then we’ll talk reward. ”

  Roden tossed his apple core from the cart. He didn’t even have the decency to eat all of it.

  “You can untie me now,” I said. It probably wasn’t going to be that easy, but there was no harm in asking.

  Conner answered. “Mrs. Turbeldy warned me that you have a history of running away. Where do you go?”

  “To church, of course. To confess my sins. ”

  Roden snorted a laugh, but Conner didn’t seem to find the same humor. “I can starve that blasphemy out of you, boy. ”

  I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, hoping to end any conversation involving me. For the most part, it worked. Roden said something about his devotion to the church, but I let it go. None of it mattered. I didn’t plan on being here much longer.

  About an hour later, the wagon stopped in a small town I’d been to once before. It was named Gelvins, although as small as it was, I’m not sure it deserved any name. Gelvins was more like an outpost than a town, with only a few shops on the street and a dozen pathetic excuses for homes. Carthyan homes were normally well built and sturdy, but Gelvins was poor and its farms dry. A sturdy home was a luxury few here could dream of, much less afford to build. Most of these thin wooden structures looked like they would be finished in a stiff windstorm. Our wagon had stopped in front of a shack with a small sign over the doorway identifying it as the Gelvins Charity Orphanage. I knew this place. I’d stayed here several months ago after Mrs. Turbeldy temporarily kicked me out.

  Conner took Mott with him and left Cregan to guard us. As soon as Conner left, Cregan jumped out of the wagon and said he was going to get a quick drink in the tavern and that he’d personally kill any boy who tried to escape.

  “Another orphan?” Roden asked. “Conner’s probably been to every orphanage in the country. What could he possibly want with all of us?”

  “You don’t know?” I asked.

  Latamer shrugged, but Roden said, “He’s looking for one particular boy, but I don’t know why. ”

  “He won’t want me. ” Latamer’s voice was so quiet, the snorting of our horses nearly drowned him out. “I’m sick. ”

  “Maybe he will,” I said. “We don’t know what he wants. ”

  “I plan on being whatever he wants,” Roden said. “I’m not going back to any orphanage, and I’ve got no future on the streets. ”

  “Who is Bevin Conner?” I asked. “Do either of you know anything about him?”

  “I overheard him speaking to Master Grippings, who runs the orphanage where Roden and I lived,” Latamer mumbled. “He said he was a friend of the king’s court. ”

  “King Eckbert?” I shook my head. “Conner’s lying, then. Everyone knows the king has no friends. ”

  Latamer shrugged. “Friend or enemy, he convinced Master Grippings that he was here as a service to the king. ”

  “But what does that have to do with us?” I asked. “A handful of orphaned boys?”

  “He just wants one boy,” Roden reminded us. “The rest of us will be cast away as soon as we become useless to Conner. He said as much to Master Grippings. ”

  “Let me make it easier on you,” I said to Roden. “Untie me and I’ll be on my way. That’s one less boy to contend with. ”

  “I’ll do no such thing,” Roden said. “Do you think I want to be punished for your escape?”

  “Fine. But the knots are really tight. Could you just loosen them?”

  Roden shook his head. “If they’re tight, it’s because you irritated Conner’s vigils, and you probably deserve it. ”

  “Conner wouldn’t want him to be hurt. ” Latamer crept toward me and said, “Turn around. ”

  “I can’t maneuver with my arms behind me. Just reach back there. ”

  Latamer stretched an arm across my back, which I caught with my hand and twisted behind him. Roden jumped up to one knee, startled, but with my other hand I slipped a noose over Latamer’s neck and pulled it so that it was nearly tightened. Roden froze, waiting to see what I’d do next.

  Getting the rope off my wrists had been an easy matter. Knotting it into a noose was a bit trickier, although now was not the time to admire my handiwork. Roden didn’t look impressed with my behind-the-back knot tying. Clearly, he’d never attempted something like that before, or he would have been. Or maybe he just didn’t want me to strangle Latamer in front of him.

  “Not an inch closer to me,” I warned Roden. “Or else I’ll dump him over the side of the cart and you can describe to Conner the sound of his snapping neck. ”

  “Please don’t do that,” Latamer breathed.

  Roden sat back down. “I don’t care if you kill him and I don’t care if you run away. Leave if you want, and pray Conner’s vigils don’t find you. ”

  I stood, apologized to Latamer for threatening to kill him, then gave a ceremonial bow to Roden. The bow might’ve been a mistake. Midway through standing up straight, Cregan whacked me in the back with the flat end of his sword. I fell forward, all air knocked from my lungs.

  “You know what’d happen to me if I let you get away, boy?” Cregan snarled.

  I knew, and I wasn’t entirely opposed to it.

  “You said you’d kill anyone who tried to escape,” Roden reminded him.

  “And so I will,” Cregan said, baring his teeth when I turned to look at him. He’d replaced his sword with a knife and leapt into the wagon in two steps. I rolled over to make a run for it, but he grabbed my shirt, shoved me back down, and pressed the knife to my throat. “Master Conner doesn’t need all of you. And I think he needs you least of all. ”

  Suddenly, I had a motivation to be needed by Master Conner. “Okay,” I grumbled. “You win. I’ll cooperate. ”

  “You’re lying,” Cregan said.

  “I often lie. But not about this. I’ll cooperate. ”

  Cregan smiled, pleased to have humiliated me. He replaced his knife in the sheath at his waist, then yanked me up by my collar and tossed me into the corner of the wagon. “We’ll see. ”

  A minute later, Conner returned to the wagon with Mott and a boy walking beside him. I squinted, certain I recognized him. He was tall and unusually thin. His hair was darker than both mine and Roden’s, but his was stringy and straight and more in need of a trim than mine, if that was possible.

  The boy climbed dutifully into the back of the wagon. Conner glanced at my untied hands and then at the thin vein of blood trickling down my neck. He eyed Cregan. “Any trouble?”

  “None, sir,” Cregan responded. “Only I believe you’ll find Sage to be more cooperative now. ”

  Conner smiled as if that was all he needed to know of the matter. “I’m glad to hear it. Boys, meet Tobias. He’ll be joining us in our quest. ”

  “What quest?” I asked.

  Conner shook his head. “Patience, Sage. Patience is the mark of a ruler. ”