The false prince, p.36
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       The False Prince, p.36
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 36

 

  “At court, Jaron will confess that he has been hiding all these years in an orphanage, right under their noses. He went by the name of Sage or Roden or Tobias, but he has come back now to claim the throne. ”

  “What if another orphan steps forward to say he knew us before Jaron was killed?”

  “We would say they are mistaken, and perhaps one night that orphan would disappear. Thrones have been claimed over thinner evidence than we have, Sage. Besides, my prince will have evidence of his identity. ”

  “What?”

  Conner shook his head slightly. “I’ll save that answer until my prince is chosen, but rest assured, it is something that will identify my choice as the prince without doubt. Now to my questions. What did Princess Amarinda talk with you about after you two left?”

  “She’s worried that the king’s family is dead, despite your assurances that she shouldn’t worry. She doesn’t seem to believe there’s any hope of Jaron being alive, and I don’t think she’d want him even if he were. She’s afraid, sir. ”

  Conner smiled. “We can use that to our advantage. Use her fear to make her more apt to accept the prince when I present him. So that even if she has doubts, she’ll accept him because she needs it to be true. ”

  I couldn’t hide my disdain as I glared at him. It was disgusting that he’d think so quickly of how he might benefit from her pain.

  “Don’t make that face at me!” Conner cried. “How convenient it must be for you to play the pious victim when it benefits you, or to be the prince, or the servant, or the orphan! Yet I must at all times be the keeper of this unholy plan. I do not celebrate my role in Carthya’s future, but I’ve accepted it. Have you?”

  Any expression vanished from my face. “Yes, sir, I have. I am your prince. ”

  “You think too highly of yourself. Tobias can no longer be trusted, but Roden presents some fine advantages. I believe he has been underestimated this week. He has learned more than any of you in such a short time. ”

  There was nothing I could say to that. He had.

  Conner continued, “What I wonder is if you want to be the prince. I sense you battling that decision internally, perhaps because you’re afraid of the consequences of being caught, perhaps because you cannot picture yourself sitting on the throne. And yet here you are, telling me to my face that you are my prince. ”

  I threw out a hand, then immediately regretted the gesture when the movement pinched in my back. “Would you choose Roden, who rushes toward the throne with no thought of the consequences? He has no idea what he’s accepting. I have thought about it, Conner. And I am your prince. ”

  Conner clasped his hands together and a glint of triumph flickered in his eyes. “I believe that what I suspected all along was true. All you ever needed was the proper discipline and the right motivation. I can see that you are finally bending to my will, and that pleases me. ”

  It did not please me. Tired as I was, I still had plenty of energy to be angry with his smugness. However, I simply asked, “Can I go now?”

  He hesitated a moment, then nodded, and I left without looking at him. As Mott escorted me back to my room, he tried to make conversation, but I ignored him. Conner’s words still rang in my ears. With every step closer to the throne I took, I felt myself bending too. I only hoped I could get to the end before Conner broke me completely.

  Amarinda left with her entourage early the next morning and our tutoring schedule resumed. Roden’s reading wasn’t fluent, but he was amazing, considering how recently he’d begun learning. I thought he would be good enough to get by if Conner chose him as prince.

  Mott pulled me out of Mistress Havala’s class to work on sword fighting with him, even though I insisted I couldn’t fight with my back in bandages.

  “If we wait for a full healing, it’ll be too late,” he said. “We’ll both use wooden swords today. ” He took one for himself and tossed me the other. I jumped away from it and it landed in the dirt.

  “Afraid of a wooden sword?” Mott teased.

  “Just demonstrating my skills in evading an attack,” I said, a grin tugging at the edge of my mouth. “Impressed?”

  “No. Pick it up. ”

  When I complied, Mott stepped me through the basic defensive moves. “If you can’t attack like Jaron, at least I can teach you to defend yourself. ”

  He thrust his sword at me. I moved mine in an attempt to block it, but his went right past mine and jabbed my ribs.

  “You’re worse than when I last saw you,” Mott said.

  “You shouldn’t have whipped me so hard. ”

  “You shouldn’t have let yourself get stabbed. ”

  I smiled and swung my sword low to the left, getting in a swat on his thigh.

  “Not bad,” Mott said, “but you lack the discipline that would be expected of a prince. ”

  “I could always say that I’m out of practice. ”

  “Nonsense. Prince Jaron was an amazing swordsman for his age before he disappeared. You cannot be as pathetic as you are now and hope to pass for him. Why do you think his sword was made?”

  I blocked his attempt to graze my shoulder. “Maybe to encourage him to take his studies more seriously. ”

  “Jaron always took sword fighting seriously. He is known to have once declared in front of the entire court that he intended to lead the Carthyan armies in war one day. ”

  “Then he sounds like a fool,” I said, thrusting forward. Mott dodged me and easily blocked my move. “Mistress Havala said that Eckbert was a peaceable ruler, at all costs. Carthya has avoided war for generations. ”

  “Carthya has enemies, Sage. Darius understood that. Perhaps Jaron did as well. Their father never did. ”

  “Are you saying Eckbert was a bad king?”

  “He wasn’t evil. Just naïve. Each year, his enemies have grown stronger, forged alliances, stockpiled their weapons. Eckbert failed to see their hungry eyes as they looked toward Carthya. ” Mott shrugged. “He failed to see the enemies within his own castle. ”

  I used the opportunity to jab at his side, then followed it with a slice that threw his sword off balance. Mott backed up two steps and readjusted his grip. “Good move, Sage. Very unexpected. ”

  “I fought better with Jaron’s sword,” I said.

  “You fought better because it was a superior sword, even as an imitation. It’s too bad that it’s been taken. Conner now believes it wasn’t any of you three boys. He thinks one of the servants took it to sell, knowing you boys would get the blame for it. ”

  “Cregan probably took it to help train Roden. ”

  “Unlikely. You dislike Cregan, Sage, but he serves Conner well. He’d do anything Conner asked. ”

  “So would you. ”

  Mott stopped and lowered his sword. “I wouldn’t kill for him. That’s my limit. ”

  I couldn’t let that go unanswered. “Then your limits are meaningless. Cregan killed Latamer on Conner’s orders, and you helped it happen. That’s the same thing. ”

  Something flickered in Mott’s eyes. He pressed his lips together and said, “Our lesson is over. Hang up your sword and I’ll walk you back to the house. ”