The false prince, p.33
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       The False Prince, p.33

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 33


  “One knife,” Mott said, walking over to stand directly in front of Tobias. “With a blade about as long as Sage’s wound. Do you know anything about it?”

  Tobias took a step backward, and his eyes darted around as he searched for a response, but I spoke up. “None of us would know where the chef misplaced the knife. And fortunately, I have no intention of going out that particular window again, so there should be no injuries in the future. ”

  Mott scoffed, making it clear he didn’t believe me, but all he said was, “Line up behind your servants, boys. The dinner will be ready soon. ”

  Conner’s dinner that night was served in the great hall, not the dining room where we’d eaten all week. Several guests were already there, but the princess and her parents, who apparently had accompanied her to Farthenwood, had not yet entered.

  I was assigned as a door servant, with no apparent function other than to stand beside the doors of the great hall and observe as other servants came and went. Tobias’s and Roden’s assignment was no better. They stood at the far end of the room, tasked with the job of closing the curtains if the setting sun got in anyone’s eyes.

  Mott announced Princess Amarinda’s arrival, along with the entrance of her parents and some of their courtiers.

  Amarinda was as beautiful as Conner had described her, with chestnut brown hair swept away from her face and falling in thick curls down her back, and piercing brown eyes that absorbed her surroundings. As she recognized Conner, her entire face lit up with a smile that was warm and inviting. Here, in Conner’s home, the guest had made the owner feel welcome.

  Conner stood, along with the others at his table, and bowed to Princess Amarinda and to her parents. Master Graves had told us about them, and how Amarinda came to be the betrothed princess.

  The alliance between Amarinda and the house of King Eckbert was made at her birth. She was three years younger than Darius, and the product of a lengthy search by Eckbert. He wanted a foreign girl whose connections were powerful enough to forge a marriage that would create a bond between her country and Carthya, but not a direct heir to the throne, who would have political ambitions of her own.

  Amarinda was a niece to the king of Bymar. Before she was even old enough to crawl as an infant, her parents had promised her to whoever inherited Eckbert’s throne, most likely Darius. And although she’d never been given a choice in marriage, the older Amarinda became, the more her admiration for Darius grew. Both were said to be eager for the time when she would be of age and they could marry.

  Amarinda stopped when she passed me beside the door. “What are you staring at?”

  Whatever rules Mott had given us blurred in my head. I could speak to her if she was addressing me, but she was only addressing me because I’d looked right at her, which was not allowed.

  “Forgive him, Highness,” Mott said, stepping forward.

  “No forgiveness is requested. I merely wondered what a servant found so interesting. ”

  I looked to Mott to see if I should answer. With a stern warning in his eyes, he nodded permission at me, and I said, “You’ve got dirt on your face. ”

  She arched her eyebrows. “Is that a joke?”

  “No, Your Highness. On your cheek. ”

  Amarinda turned to her attendant, who flushed and wiped the dirt off. “Why didn’t you tell me before I walked in here?” Amarinda asked her.

  “You led the way, Highness. I didn’t see it. ”

  “But he did and he’s only a servant. ” She turned back to me apologetically. “Before leaving my room, I had the window open and paused to look out. I must have gotten some dirt on my face then. ”

  “I never said the dirt detracted from your beauty, Highness,” I told her. “Only that it was there. ”

  With a somewhat embarrassed smile, she nodded at me in return, and then continued on, taking her seat. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Conner looking at me, though his expression was so controlled I couldn’t tell whether he was amused, relieved, or furious.

  Dinner smelled so good as it was served that it took considerable willpower not to reveal that I was in disguise at that moment and to sit down to eat with the others. A large roast had been prepared, with boiled carrots and potatoes, hot bread, and some sort of imported cheese, the name of which I didn’t recognize when Conner offered it to Amarinda.

  Imogen was one of the servants of the meal. I noticed a cut on her forehead and wondered if Conner would dismiss that as yet another clumsy moment. No matter how long I stared at her as she served, she avoided my eye each time she entered or exited the room. Had I offended her somehow? Or was she keeping herself away from the increasing danger that surrounded Conner’s plans?

  Across the room, Tobias was disinterested and lackluster. He stared at the floor and soon faded into the background. Roden looked hungry, and I caught him staring at the princess with a powerful expression of admiration.

  The conversation at the table began with shallow pleasantries. Conner described his life in the country, away from the politics of Drylliad. Amarinda discussed her travels as she toured Carthya in the recent weeks. Her parents understood that as an heir to the throne, she was far more important than they were, and deferred to her in leading the conversation.

  After the main course was served, Conner steered the conversation directly to the topic I was sure he had intended for us to hear: the plans for her eventual wedding and ascension to the throne.

  Amarinda pressed her lips together, then said, “Perhaps there will never be a wedding. ” She glanced over at Conner, who feigned appropriate concern. After a moment, she added, “There is a rumor that came to me only a few days ago regarding the king and queen, and their son. ”

  “Oh?” Conner’s wide eyes actually looked curious. He knew exactly what that rumor was, and I couldn’t help but respect his acting skills.

  “You haven’t heard it?”

  “I was told the king and queen and their son are touring the northern country, which they often do at this time of year. ”

  “And may I ask when you last saw them?”

  “It’s been a few weeks,” Conner said. “Before their trip to Gelyn. ”

  “And they were well?”

  “Certainly. ”

  Amarinda’s father spoke up. “Then the rumor cannot be true. ” He heaved a sigh of relief and took his wife’s hand. She also looked relieved.

  “Rumors have always surrounded the royal family,” Conner said, as if the matter were settled. “It’s the cheapest entertainment for everyday folk. ”

  There was laughter at the table, except for Amarinda, whose solemn voice took control of the room. “I heard they’re dead. Murdered. ” The laughter fell silent, and she continued, “All three of them, poisoned during supper and dead by morning. ”

  Mott glanced at me from his position and shook his head, warning me not to react. I forced a disinterested, blank expression onto my face, despite the churning in my stomach. If I reacted, Conner would change the subject. But I needed them to continue talking about it, because no matter how easily he could avoid giving us more details, he’d have a harder time dodging the princess. However, the one question at the top of my mind was one I knew she’d never ask: Would the person who steps in as the prince become the next victim?