The False Prince, Page 38Jennifer A. Nielsen
“No, sir,” Tobias said. I hadn’t even seen him in the room. He must have been beyond our vantage point.
“Ah, Sage,” Conner said, noticing us at the door. “It seems that once again you’re behind the others. I still find myself looking at an orphan, albeit one with the same hair color as the prince. ”
“I am your prince,” I told Conner, then walked on past his office.
Errol caught up to me and whispered, “Perhaps I was wrong to have said that Conner would choose you. You might be too late. ”
With my hair cut and styled an hour later, I gasped when Errol handed me a mirror. Errol’s wide eyes hinted at his equal amazement. “The resemblance is so strong, you could almost be Jaron’s twin,” he said.
I couldn’t stop staring. Was this really me? I was too accustomed to hiding my eyes behind my hair and feeling dirty and grimy. Had Conner known this was possible when he first took me? Had he seen through all that?
“Take me to see Conner,” I said.
“You walk differently,” Errol observed as he followed me down the hallway a moment later. “You are different, Sage. ”
“Let’s hope Conner sees things the same way. ”
Conner’s office door, which was usually open, was closed this time. “I think we should come back,” Errol said.
I rolled my eyes and knocked on the door.
“Enter,” Conner said from his office.
I opened the door. Mott was sitting on the chair in front of Conner at his desk, but turned to see who had come. He stood when I entered, as did Conner.
Conner said nothing for several seconds. His eyes scanned me up and down, and his mouth hung open.
“It can’t be,” he said. “More than I’d hoped for. ”
“I told him he could be the prince’s twin,” Errol said.
Conner’s eyes flashed at Errol. “Get out. ”
Errol nodded and vanished from the doorway. He’d made a mistake by openly acknowledging that he knew about the plan. It didn’t matter that Conner was the one who’d told them about it in the first place.
“Kneel, please,” Conner said. “I wish to study you better. ”
“Come as close to me as you’d like,” I answered. “Study me here, on my feet. ”
“You won’t kneel?”
“Would a prince?”
Conner raised his voice. “You’re not a prince until I say so. ”
“I don’t need you to say so, sir. As you see me standing here, I am the prince of Carthya. ” I turned to walk out of the room, but Cregan flew past me through the doorway.
“Master Conner,” he said in breathless words. “You were right. Veldergrath is coming. ”
“How far away did you see him?” Mott asked.
“Several miles off, but he wasn’t alone. He has an entire company of men with him. ”
“Not in uniform. But they’re armed. ”
Conner nodded. I could almost see plans forming in his mind like storm clouds gathering. “He wants to intimidate us, not fight. So we must welcome him in with all hospitality. Get word to the staff to prepare a meal large enough for him and his company. And remind them not to speak of my plans unless they all want to hang for treason. ” Then he turned to Mott. “Find the three boys. Hide them in my secret tunnels. ”
“I know about them, sir,” I said. “I can take us there. ”
Conner looked surprised only for a moment, then he nodded and said, “Sage, you must find Roden and Tobias and hide in the deepest of my tunnels. I don’t need to tell you what will happen if you are found. Mott, go to their room. Destroy any trace of the boys’ presence here. ”
I began to leave, but Conner said, “Wait!” He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and withdrew a small locked box decorated in emeralds. “Take this with you. Do not open it and do not let it get into Veldergrath’s hands. ”
Cregan, Mott, and I each ran our separate ways. In the library, I found Tobias and Roden, who stood when I entered. “You look so … different,” Tobias said. “I admit I couldn’t see the resemblance to the prince before, but now —”
“Veldergrath is coming,” I said. “You must come with me at once. ”
“What’s the hurry?” Tobias said, putting his book away. “Conner can declare you or Roden as prince and resolve his plan today. ”
As they followed me upstairs, I answered them. “Veldergrath is the last person in this kingdom who wants to see Prince Jaron return. If he finds us, we’re all dead. ”
I led Tobias and Roden to an area of the tunnels I had discovered on my last trip. They went deeper than any others and, in one area, placed us beneath Farthenwood’s main entrance. The rock foundation of the house was showing its age. Using small gaps in the mortar, we had a limited view outside.
Since finding the tunnels, I’d felt Farthenwood was designed for a paranoid man who expected enemies to enter his walls. If Conner’s father had built this house, he had no doubt made his son just as paranoid.
From where we stood, we could see the approach of Veldergrath and his men. They were at least fifty in number, and each carried a sword. But they were still too far away for us to tell which of them was Veldergrath.
“It’s an act of war for Veldergrath to do this,” Tobias said.
“Only if Conner doesn’t invite him in, which he’s going to do,” Roden said.
“Conner thinks the army is only for intimidation,” I said. “We have no means to fight him, so, hopefully, Veldergrath only intends this to be a show of power, maybe to persuade Conner to join him if Carthya does fall to civil war. ”
“If Veldergrath wants the throne this badly, he won’t give it up easily,” Roden said. “Whomever Conner declares as prince will eventually have to face Veldergrath. ”
A moment of silence followed. That idea didn’t appeal to any of us. Finally, Tobias said, “If you hadn’t already forced me out of the plan, Sage, I would’ve withdrawn right now. ”
Ignoring Tobias, Roden angled forward to get a better look. “That’s got to be him,” Roden said. “There in the center. ”
It was obvious by his fine clothes and the men who surrounded him that this was Veldergrath. He had hair the color of midnight, which he wore pulled behind his head so tightly that I wondered how he could blink. His face was constructed of hard angles and long lines. I tried to imagine him as king of Carthya. If a person could be judged solely on appearances, this man was a tyrant.
Conner walked out to Veldergrath, and they greeted each other with courteous bows. “My old friend,” Conner called out, loudly enough that we were able to hear him. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“I’ve heard troubling news about you, old friend. ” The way Veldergrath voiced “old friend,” it was clear he considered Conner anything but that. “May we speak in private?”
“Certainly. In anticipation of your arrival, I’ve had my chef make up some soup for your traveling companions. They must be hungry. ”
“Perhaps we should eat first,” Veldergrath said. “I anticipate you’ll feel less hospitable to me after we talk business. ”