The false prince, p.39
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       The False Prince, p.39
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 39

 

  With that, Conner led Veldergrath and a few men inside, while the rest dismounted as Conner’s servants assisted them in caring for their horses.

  “Why does Conner help them?” Roden asked. “I’d send them on their way. ”

  “I’d give them soup,” Tobias said, then grinned. “I’d use the rottenest meat in my stores and hope they all got sick on it. ”

  “It’s diplomacy,” I said, irritated they couldn’t see that. “It’s all Conner can do right now, and for all of our sakes, let’s hope it works. C’mon. ”

  They followed me up another bend in the tunnels to the main floor. We were near a secret door behind a tapestry in Conner’s office, where they were certain to have their private meeting. Although their voices would be muffled, we could hear them from where we stood.

  Tobias whispered, “If they eat first, it’ll be a while. ”

  So we waited. It was impossible to determine the passing of time from here, although with the sting in my back and ache in my legs, it probably felt longer than it really was. Tobias and Roden wanted to sit, but I reminded them that any position they took now, they would have to maintain after Conner and Veldergrath entered, or risk making a noise that would give us away. So we all stood in silence.

  After a very long time, we heard Conner’s voice as he entered the office. “I always feel bad news is better handled on a full stomach. Don’t you agree?”

  “It’s only bad news if you’re up to something you shouldn’t be. ” My fists clenched at Veldergrath’s arrogance. Even if he was correct in his suspicions, Veldergrath wasn’t king yet and had no right to question Conner.

  We heard the squeak of Conner’s chair as he sat, and his invitation for Veldergrath to sit as well. Then Conner said, “You should explain yourself. Am I accused of doing something wrong?”

  “The betrothed princess was here for dinner last night, correct?”

  “Yes. She is a lovely young woman. ”

  “A bit distressed, though, at having heard news about the deaths of the king, queen, and Prince Darius. ”

  “She heard it only as a rumor. ”

  Veldergrath huffed. “A rumor you and I both know to be fact. Obviously, you could not confirm or deny that to her, but she told me something else you said. Something that I find remarkable. You told her that Prince Jaron may be alive. ”

  “I believe he is. ”

  “We’ve sent three regents to Isel to determine this. Have you heard any news from them?”

  “No. ”

  “Then how have you come to this stunning conclusion?”

  Conner hesitated a moment, then said, “Old friend, you seem distressed at the possibility. Don’t you see what a great advantage it would be to the kingdom if Prince Jaron were alive? Eckbert’s line would continue and Carthya would be saved from certain war. Surely, there could be no better news, yet you don’t appear to welcome it. ”

  “Er, of course. ” Veldergrath seemed to be taken by surprise, but he recovered quickly. “Of course I hope the prince is alive, but you and I both know how impossible that is. My question is not whether we should hope for that news, but how you have come to be so certain of it?”

  “Obviously, an accusation follows this question, so why don’t we move straight to it. ”

  “As you wish,” Veldergrath said. “Master Conner, I’m told you had a sword made, a replica of the one Prince Jaron used to carry. ”

  “It was an imitation, not a replica. Sadly, I’ve recently lost it, or I could show it to you. I had it made, intending it as a gift for the queen’s next birthday, in honor of her lost son. ”

  “There’s more. I’m told in the previous week, you scoured the orphanages of Carthya and even collected a few boys. Why is that?”

  “Indentured field laborers. My crops are planted and I needed them. ”

  “Where are they?”

  “Ran away the first time my back was turned. If you know of their whereabouts, please tell me and I will have them punished. ” Lies fell from his lips as gracefully as raindrops from a cloud.

  “There’s one last thing. You sat with the king’s family at supper the night they died. ”

  “Many regents did. ”

  “But you were given the honor of pouring their drinks. ”

  Conner’s voice remained calm, despite Veldergrath’s clear insinuation that Conner was the one who had poisoned them. “And you dished up their pudding, sir. Is there a point to these questions?”

  “Perhaps not. Are you aware that there is something missing from the residential quarters of the castle, a box covered with emeralds?”

  My fingers rubbed over those emeralds. Conner must have stolen this box from the king and queen, either shortly before or shortly after their death. I didn’t know what was in it, but whatever this box contained, it was probably going to be used as proof that one of us was Prince Jaron.

  “You ask that as if you think I have it,” Conner said.

  “I’m certain that you’d never steal from the king, even a dead one,” Veldergrath said. “But we have friends who are less certain of your character. So to appease the other nobles, who are suspicious of you, I ask your permission to search Farthenwood. ”

  Conner laughed. “An estate of this size and you hope to find an emerald-covered box?”

  “A box, or a prince. Do I have your permission?”

  “Several of your men are rough-looking. They will frighten my staff. ”

  “No harm will befall any innocents here. ” Veldergrath’s insertion of the word innocents was calculated. “That is my promise. ”

  Conner’s voice was grim as he spoke. “Do what you will, Veldergrath. Waste your time in my dusty corners and crowded cellars if you must. You’ll find nothing. ”

  We didn’t dare move until after Veldergrath had left the room. Then Tobias turned to me and hissed, “You know these tunnels. Are they safe?”

  All I could do was shrug. I didn’t know.

  Veldergrath’s men decided to begin in the dungeons and work their way up. So we made our way to the upper floor, keeping ourselves as far from the men as possible.

  “This is a terrible idea,” Tobias whispered as we walked. “If they do get into the tunnels, we’ll be trapped. ”

  “Then we go onto the roof and make our escape there,” I said.

  Roden’s eyes widened, but he nodded his agreement. Tobias seemed even more anxious. “The roof? And fall to our deaths?”

  “I’ve been there,” I said. “We won’t fall. ”

  “Then let’s go now,” Roden whispered.

  “There’s too much chance of us being spotted if he’s sent men to search the grounds or guard the doors. Veldergrath is no fool, so we must expect that he’s done that. Going onto the roof is our last option. ”

  We reached the upper floor using a tunnel that put us near the nursemaid’s bedroom. I wondered if any children who once lived here had used the tunnels to play tricks on their caregivers. It’s what I would’ve done.

  Temporarily safe from Veldergrath’s men, Roden nodded at the emerald box in my hands. “Is that the box Veldergrath was talking about?”