The false prince, p.37
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       The False Prince, p.37

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 37

 

  The rest of the day was taken up with lessons. So much information was being pushed into our heads that it’s a wonder none of them exploded. Tobias was eventually sent back to our room as punishment for sleeping during the lesson, and he was clearly relieved to be going. That gave a burst of energy to Roden, who saw it as his chance to be the star student. After all, I wasn’t much more interested than Tobias had been.

  Tobias stopped me in the hall as we were being escorted to dinner with Conner that evening. “You remember your promise to me, right? You’ll make sure I live through this?”

  “That’s still my promise,” I said.

  Tobias exhaled a sigh of relief. “Then let me help you become the prince. What do you need?”

  “I want nothing from you, Tobias. Just loyalty, if I’m chosen. ”

  Tobias lowered his voice further. “I wasn’t going to kill you the other night. I never had any intention of doing that. The knife was sharper than I thought. What I thought was only a surface wound —”

  “It will heal. ”

  “I think Mott suspects the truth. Maybe Conner too. ”

  “You have my promise, Tobias. You will live. ”

  “I trust you. ” Tobias paused, as if he were weighing his own words. “I do, Sage. I trust you. ”

  “Keep up, you two,” Mott called back to us. “Conner is waiting. ”

  We caught up to Roden and Mott shortly before we arrived at the dining room. Once there, Mott opened the door to allow Roden and Tobias in, but he put a hand on my shoulder to hold me back and shut the door again.

  My heart raced, but I tried to keep my expression calm. Mott looked very serious and I had no trouble thinking of any number of reasons why he might be about to punish me.

  “Whatever you think I’ve done —” I began, but he shook his head to silence me.

  “I didn’t know he was going to kill Latamer,” Mott said in a low voice. “You had it figured out before I did. ”

  The memory of Latamer turning just before he was struck with Cregan’s arrow was burned into my mind. It was relentless in my dreams at night and haunted my steps in the day. If only I’d realized what was happening a few seconds earlier, it might have been enough to save him.

  “Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I guess I just wanted you to know that I remember what you said down in the dungeons. Conner doesn’t own me either. ”

  Conner had news for us that evening. “Do you remember when we spoke of the prime regent, Veldergrath? He is the one who aspires to become king, the one we must prevent from taking the throne because of the damage he will do to Carthya. I received an interesting letter from him tonight, which is both distressing and encouraging. ” To illustrate, Conner held up a few papers, which I assumed was Veldergrath’s letter. “The encouraging news is that he has heard the rumor that Prince Jaron may be alive. I knew he was meeting Princess Amarinda earlier today, to travel with her as far as Eberstein on the outskirts of Drylliad, where he maintains a home. I expect she told him. This bodes well for my prince’s acceptance at court, if it is less of a surprise when I announce him. ”

  “And the bad news?” I asked.

  “The bad news is that word is also spreading of the king’s and queen’s deaths. A decision cannot be made as to who will take the throne until the end of this week, but Veldergrath will use the fear of their deaths to build up more support for himself. He wrote to ask me whether I have any solid information as to Prince Jaron’s whereabouts. My response to him was non-specific, which will test his patience, but it does buy us another day. ”

  “Another day for what?” Tobias asked.

  Conner took a deep breath, and then said, “I will choose my prince in two days’ time, then we will leave immediately for Drylliad. ”

  Tobias, Roden, and I looked at one another. There was surprisingly little enthusiasm from any of us, and Conner noticed.

  “I might have expected some excitement,” he said.

  “What will become of the two boys who aren’t chosen?” I asked.

  Conner paused, then he said, “I haven’t decided that yet. ”

  Everyone in the room knew that was a lie.

  The night passed without incident. If Tobias and Roden knew I’d snuck out during the night, neither of them mentioned it the next morning. After breakfast, Mott entered the room and said Conner had new plans for us that day.

  He carried something in his arms, which he unwrapped and set on an easel in front of us. It was a painting of a boy standing beside a tall hedge in a springtime garden. He had light brown hair with darker streaks underneath, a mischievous smile, and a hint of trouble in his bright green eyes. None of us had his innocence, his naïveté.

  “Is that Jaron?” Roden asked.

  “The last known picture of him,” Mott said. “Painted more than five years ago, when the prince was nine years old. ”

  I couldn’t help but stare, comparing myself to every detail of the painting. Roden and Tobias were studying it as carefully, no doubt doing the same thing. Each of us had features that looked similar to the prince’s, but Roden groaned in disgust. “Sage looks more like him than Tobias and I. Conner led me to believe just the opposite. ”

  “Do you see a resemblance?” Mott asked me.

  I shrugged. “My face is longer, and my hair is the wrong color. If anyone compares me to that picture, the regents won’t believe I’m him. ”

  This brought on even louder complaints from Roden, as well as a few objections from Tobias, that none of us was enough like the picture to be convincing.

  Mott shushed us, then continued, “Conner’s plan this morning is for each of you to undergo whatever transformation you can to look like the prince. Your hair will be cut to match his — Sage, we have a hair dye that may work for you. You will each be measured and clothes will be prepared for the one Conner chooses. By the time one of you is chosen tomorrow morning, he will look like the prince. ”

  While Roden and Tobias got their hair cut, Errol led me outside to work the dye through my hair.

  “It will look like I’ve used hair dye,” I said. “And what about when my hair grows back into its color again?”

  “Master Conner believes you can use less and less dye each time,” Errol said. “Within a year, it will appear as if your hair has naturally changed color. ”

  “He thinks of everything,” I said without any hint of admiration.

  I had no mirror to see myself once the dye was washed out sometime later, but Errol smiled when he looked at me and seemed pleased. “It’s amazing how that one thing has brought your appearance so much closer to the prince’s. I’m certain Conner will choose you. Most of us servants believe that. ”

  Which would have been comforting if we hadn’t passed Conner in his office with Roden as we walked back in. Roden was kneeling before Conner at his desk. His hair was styled just as Jaron’s had been and he looked very nice. If there were inconsistencies between his look and Jaron’s, they could easily be explained by the changes in a face over time.

  “I am exceptionally impressed,” Conner was saying to him. “You have surprised me, Roden, and pleased me. Tobias, any similarities between you and the prince have vanished. Do not consider your chances of being chosen tomorrow to be good. ”