The false prince, p.34
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       The False Prince, p.34

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 34

 

  Conner leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “Highness, you are scheduled to be at the castle in Drylliad tomorrow, correct?” When she nodded, he said, “Let the rumor lie until then. Whether it’s true or false, it will be verified once you’re there. ”

  “Waiting is more easily said than done. ” Amarinda’s voice was heavy with sadness. “If there’s no heir, there’s no betrothed princess. I’ll be a widow without having married. ”

  “Even if the rumor is true, there may be another way,” Conner said. “Perhaps all is not lost for you, or for Carthya. ”

  Amarinda arched an eyebrow, curious. Conner waited several seconds to continue, which I knew was to increase her anticipation. It was heartless, even cruel. Finally, he said, “What if Prince Jaron were alive?”

  Amarinda froze. Everyone at the table did, except Conner, who was enjoying this moment far too well. He manipulated those around him as though we were all pawns in his twisted game. I hated that my life had become entwined with his.

  Finally, Amarinda’s mother said, “Everyone knows Prince Jaron was killed by pirates four years ago. Are you telling us this is not so?”

  “I’m only saying that there is always hope. ” Conner then addressed himself to Amarinda. “Highness, perhaps you may soon claim the throne after all. ”

  “Am I that shallow?” Amarinda stood, angry. “Do you think I cared about the throne and not the prince? You talk about Jaron’s return as if it would solve all our problems, but it’s Darius who concerns me. I need to know if he is alive!” She closed her eyes a moment, regaining calm, then said more softly, “You must forgive me, but I’d like to return to my room. I have a headache. ”

  Her father rose to escort her out, but she raised a hand to stop him. “No, Father, you should stay and continue the evening. My ladies will accompany me. ”

  “My man will see you to your room,” Conner said, gesturing at Mott.

  Amarinda eyed me, and I lowered my head, willing her to look anywhere else. “That boy can see me there. ”

  Conner hesitated, then smiled and nodded his permission at her. I wondered if perhaps he wasn’t allowed to refuse her, or maybe he liked her suggestion. I didn’t.

  “I don’t know the way, Highness,” I said. It was a stupid lie and poorly told. Hers was the room where I had bathed on my first day at Farthenwood.

  “I do. All I ask is for an escort. ”

  Conner waved me away, so I bowed to her and we walked out into Conner’s great hallway. I led the way up the master staircase, which seemed endless on this trip. All I wanted was to take her to her room, then get away.

  Behind me, Amarinda said, “You’ve obviously never escorted royalty before. Do you expect me to keep up with you at this speed? I set the pace, boy. ”

  I stopped, but did not turn around. “My apologies,” I mumbled.

  “You do not have my forgiveness yet. Let’s see how you do from here. ”

  When she was close behind me, I continued walking, slower this time. “What is your name?” she asked.

  “Sage. ”

  “That’s it?”

  “I’m a servant, Highness. Do I require more of a name?”

  “I am known to most only as Amarinda. Am I a servant as well?” She supplied her own answer. “Of course I am. I exist only to ensure there is a reputable queen for Carthya when the time comes. Have you heard of Prince Darius?”

  “Of course. ”

  “Have you heard the rumors of his death?”

  “I’ve heard them. ” And they weren’t rumors.

  She touched my arm to get my attention. I stopped, but kept my gaze low. “Is he really dead, Sage? If you know, you must tell me. Perhaps you know someone who works in the castle at Drylliad. Surely, you servants talk with one another. ”

  For the first time, I turned to face her, though I didn’t dare look her in the eyes. “The servants wonder what Amarinda will do if she has to marry Prince Jaron to gain the throne. If he is alive, of course. ”

  Amarinda didn’t answer for a very long time. Finally, she said, “You speak too boldly for a servant. ”

  I continued walking again. Amarinda caught up to me and said, “Is Jaron really alive? Whether the king’s family is living or dead, if Jaron is alive, he must be presented at court. ”

  I stopped in front of Amarinda’s door, still keeping my eyes on the floor. “Here’s your room, m’lady. ”

  “You told me you didn’t know where it was. ”

  And quickly realized what a stupid lie it had been. Rather than respond to her, I asked, “Is there anything else you need?”

  “Do you wonder why I asked you to escort me, Sage?”

  I shook my head and might have sighed a little too loudly. My back hurt from so much standing, I hadn’t eaten yet, and I was tired of pretending. Beyond that, I didn’t want to hear that a girl who’d have to marry me one day, if I was declared Prince Jaron, really loved the prince’s older brother.

  “I asked you here because you spoke honestly to me before. If I’d entered that room with a face smeared in mud and asked another servant how I looked, he’d have bowed and told me I looked as beautiful as ever. When you’re in my position, Sage, you come to realize how few people you can trust. ” She waited, expecting me to respond. When met with silence, she went on, “So I trust your opinion on my dilemma. Should I continue on to Drylliad, hoping Prince Darius will greet me there but knowing in my heart that something is wrong? Or shall I stay away, knowing that if there is no Darius, I am no longer a betrothed princess and have no place in Drylliad?”

  This time I looked directly at her, although her eyes were so perceptive, I immediately looked away again. “You should go to the castle, Highness. You should always choose on the side of hope. ”

  “That’s good advice. I have less of a headache now than before, Sage. Thank you for that. ” She smiled sadly. “Do you envy me, as a royal?”

  I shook my head. The closer I got to the castle in Drylliad myself, the more I dreaded it.

  “Many do. I’m glad you can appreciate your station in life as a servant. I’m a servant too, you know. Perhaps with finer clothes and servants of my own, but few choices about my life belong to me. We’re not so different, you and I. ”

  She was closer to the truth than she realized, but I held my tongue and stared at the ground.

  “Will you not look at me?”

  “No, my lady. If I cannot look at you as an equal, I will not look at all. ”

  She placed a hand on my cheek and softly kissed the other one, then whispered, “Remember this moment, then, Sage, when someone of my status offered a kindness to someone of yours. Because next time we meet, if Darius is dead, I will no longer be anyone of importance. ”

  Then she entered the room with her ladies in tow. Only after her door was shut did I look up again. Darius was dead, and very soon she and I would meet as equals. But I had the feeling it wouldn’t be a day she ended up celebrating.

  Where are you going?” Mott asked as I began walking away. He was never far behind.

  “To my room. My back hurts. ”

  “How will it look to everyone at dinner if the servant who left with Amarinda fails to return?”