The false prince, p.31
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       The False Prince, p.31

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 31

  “I’ve got to tell Conner,” Roden said. “This goes too far, Tobias. ”

  “Please don’t,” Tobias begged. “Conner already thinks I have a plan to get rid of him. If he thinks I tried to do anything to Sage — he’ll have my head. ”

  “Conner should punish you,” I said. “Being chosen as the prince is the least of your worries now. ”

  Tobias’s eyes filled with tears. “Help me, then. ”

  “You nearly killed me last night. Should I care what happens to you now?”

  “Please. I’ll do anything. ”

  “You’re asking me to lie for you? Then I’d be the one in trouble. Why would I do that?”

  His voice raised in pitch. “Please, Sage. Anything you want. Help me, and I’ll fight for you. ”

  He looked terrified, probably exactly as I had looked when Conner told Mott to take me to his dungeon. Tobias had played into my hands, but I felt sorry for him nonetheless. “I’ll help you, but at this price. It’s time to fail. You will be less intelligent, less impressive, and certainly less princelike. ”

  “Is what you told me last night true?” Tobias asked. “Does he really know about the notes?” I nodded and watched as tears filled his eyes. “Then he’s going to kill me anyway. ”

  “What if I promise that he won’t?” I said. “Back off and I promise that you will live, or else I’ll die trying to save you. ” Now not only was Tobias out of the competition, but someone at Farthenwood owed me his life.

  Errol returned to our room, accompanied by Imogen and Mott. Luckily, no attention was on Roden, who quickly hid Tobias’s knife back under the mattress.

  Mott strode across our long room in less than a half dozen long steps. He turned me around to examine my back, then cursed loudly. “The master must hear of this. Tell me how this happened or I’ll take you to him for questioning. You know how that will end. ”

  I glanced at Tobias, who nodded his agreement to my terms.

  “It’s embarrassing,” I said. “I tried to sneak out last night through the window. I got caught on the window frame and it impaled my back. ”

  “This is more than a scrape on your skin, Sage. You’ve been cut. ”

  “The window has a jagged edge,” I insisted. “I’m lucky not to be hurt worse. But it’s my own fault because I should never have been out there. ” For an extra touch, I shrugged innocently and added, “I hoped nobody would notice. ”

  “How could you think we wouldn’t notice a wound like that?” Mott cursed under his breath. “Was this your attempt at obeying the master’s rules?”

  “All I wanted was to look outside,” I said. “It would’ve been hard to go anywhere off that ledge. ”

  “It’d be impossible,” Mott said. “But you might have fallen to your death in the attempt. ” He inhaled, then added, “Not a word of this to the master, then, but I must punish you. I hesitate because I know how weak you must be from the last few days, but you’ll miss today’s meals. ”

  I started to protest, then Mott arched his eyebrows and said, “Or shall we leave it to the master to choose a punishment?”

  “I wasn’t hungry anyway,” I said.

  Princess Amarinda had sent word that she would remain in her bedroom all morning. So Mott called Tobias and Roden to accompany him to breakfast with Conner and brought in Imogen to take care of my wound. She immediately went to work on washing away the blood. Her manner was cool and businesslike, but her touch as she cleaned my back was as gentle as ever.

  “He knows you’re lying,” she whispered.

  “Am I such a bad liar?”

  “I’ll have to wait until you tell the truth so I can compare the differences. ” She paused when I drew in a sharp gasp, and when she continued, the cloth was pressed so lightly on my back I could barely feel it. “How did it really happen?”

  “A knife. ”

  “Who held that knife?” I hesitated and she added, “One of the other two boys, obviously. It isn’t a stab wound, though. This was done with the long edge of the blade. ”

  “You know your knife wounds. ”

  “I heard the chef say this morning that one of his knives has gone missing. He keeps them sharp. That’s why you were kneading bread, to get close to the knife block. ”

  “Actually, it was to keep Tobias away from the knives. He’d already stolen one, and that was as much damage as I wanted him able to cause me. ”

  I thought that would at least get a smile or a chuckle, but she continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “I checked first thing this morning. The knife you took is back in its place, and I found a few drops of blood on the floor. ”

  “I thought I had them all cleaned up. ”

  Frustrated, Imogen slapped at my bed. “Sage, please! Someone tried to kill you last night!”

  “Not really. He just wanted me to think he could. ”

  “Why must you play these games?”

  “Because now there are only two people competing to become the prince. ”

  Even without seeing her, I knew Imogen was frowning in disapproval. But she only said, “You know what I have to do now. It’s going to sting. ”

  “I’m getting used to —” I started to say before she pressed the wet towel to my back and made me howl.

  Apparently, I’d reached the end of her sympathies. “Maybe you want Errol back,” she said.

  “Maybe I do,” I moaned. “At least he wouldn’t scold me the whole time. ”

  “Someone should be scolding you,” she said. “If you’re not strong enough to handle all these injuries, you should stop getting them! You’ll never convince anyone you’re a prince this way. ”

  Imogen began to wrap a new bandage around me. This one had to go diagonally over my shoulder and down below the older bandage. After she knotted it, she noticed the change in my mood and said more softly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. You’ll do fine in convincing them. ”

  I remained facing the wall. “What if I don’t? What if after Conner chooses me, they look at me and only see Sage?”

  “Would that be so bad, just to be who you are?”

  This time I looked back at her, grinning. “You mean other than being executed for stealing the crown?”

  She laughed. “Yes, other than that. ”

  Then I grew serious again. “What about you? If you were in the court when I’m presented, would you bow to me?”

  After a moment, she slowly shook her head. “I hope Conner chooses you, and I think if he does that you’ll be able to convince them. You’ll be a fine king one day, but I know too much. And I won’t bow to a fraud. ”

  I turned away as she left the room. Unfortunately, I understood exactly how she felt. Nobody should have to bow to a false prince.

  As the day progressed, it became evident that I would eat better on this period of punishment from Mott than I’d eaten yet since coming to Farthenwood.

  Tobias snuck me back better than half of his breakfast, and Errol left some food in my room while cleaning up, expressing false dismay after I ate that “it was food intended for somebody else. ”