The false prince, p.4
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       The False Prince, p.4
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 4

 

  And that was my first clue about why Conner had taken us. We were all in terrible danger.

  I knew Tobias. He might not have known me because I’d come and gone from Gelvins Charity Orphanage so quickly. But in my short stay, Tobias had stood out amongst the others. He was no ordinary orphan. He’d been educated as a child and continued to read anything he could get his hands on. He was given special privileges at the orphanage because it was felt he was one of the few with any hopes of one day making a success of his life.

  Tobias glanced my way. “You’re bleeding. ”

  I brushed at the cut mark on my neck. “It’s mostly stopped. ”

  That was as much concern as he wished to invest. “Do I know you?”

  “I stayed here about six months ago. ”

  “Yeah, I remember. Locked the headmaster out of the orphanage for an entire night, didn’t you?”

  The grin on my face became my confession. “You have to admit, we ate well that night. For once. ”

  “It’s not funny,” Tobias scolded. “Maybe we don’t eat well most of the time, but it’s because there’s not a lot of food to go around. You gave out a week’s worth of food that night. It was a very long, very hungry week after you left. ”

  My grin faded. I hadn’t known that.

  We rode for over an hour through a lonely plain covered in gorse and nettle. Tobias remarked that he found it beautiful in a desolate sort of way. I saw the desolation, but the beauty escaped me. Eventually, it became dark enough that Mott suggested we find a place to stop for the night. The closest town was still Gelvins behind us rather than anything yet ahead, so I didn’t think it should matter too much where we camped. But Mott still took us a ways farther until the vegetation changed and he found a small clearing surrounded by tall willow trees and thick bushes.

  “They’re hiding us,” I muttered to the other boys.

  Roden shook his head back at me and said, “It’s safer here than out in the open. They’re protecting us. ”

  Mott jumped off the wagon and began shouting orders at each of us for what to unload from the wagon and where to put it, mostly blankets and, I hoped, food. I was assigned to remain in the wagon and hand things to the others on the ground.

  “Afraid I’ll run away?” I asked.

  “Any trust you get here will have to be earned,” Mott said. “And I’d say you have a great deal more to earn than the others. ” He nodded at a sack near my foot. “Hand me that. ”

  Although Conner was the master of our group, Mott was clearly the one keeping our show running. He was no ordinary, useless vigil. At least, I noticed that he didn’t need to ask Conner’s permission for everything, and when Mott issued orders to Cregan, Cregan did as he was told. While we worked, Conner stationed himself on a fallen log to peruse a tattered leather-bound book. Every now and then he’d glance up, studying each of us with more than a casual examination, then return to his book.

  Cregan got a fire going, and afterward, Mott instructed us to gather around so that Conner could talk to us.

  “Talk to us?” I said. “When do we eat?”

  “We eat after the talk,” Conner said, closing his book and standing. “Come, boys, sit. ”

  I jumped out of the wagon and squeezed onto the edge of a log Roden and Tobias had dragged near the fire. They weren’t too pleased to have me there but didn’t complain either. Latamer squatted on the ground. I considered offering him my seat, since he was still coughing, but I guessed he wouldn’t take it anyway.

  Conner coughed too, although his was the kind meant to get our attention. The cough wasn’t necessary. We were already watching him.

  “I haven’t said much as to why I’ve collected you boys,” Conner began. “I’m sure in your heads you’ve created every sort of speculation, from the likely and plausible to the wild and impossible. What I have in mind is closer to the latter of those. ”

  Tobias sat up straighter. I already disliked him as much as Roden, even though there had been far more time for me to learn to dislike Roden.

  “I can’t deny there’s danger with my plan,” Conner said. “If we fail, there will be terrible consequences. But if we succeed, the rewards are beyond your imagination. ”

  I wasn’t sure about that. I could imagine some fairly big rewards.

  “In the end, only one of you can be chosen. I need the boy who proves himself to be the closest fit with my plan. And my plan is very demanding and very specific. ”

  Tobias raised his hand. A sign that he’d been educated. At the orphanage I came from, a person only raised a hand if he was about to hit someone with it. “Sir, what is your plan?”

  “Excellent question, Tobias, but it’s also a very secret plan. So what I’d like to do first is offer any of you the chance to leave now. You may leave with no feelings of regret or cowardice. I’ve been very up-front about both the danger and the rewards. If you don’t feel that this is for you, then this is your opportunity to leave. ”

  Roden looked at me. I arched my eyebrows in response. He wanted me to leave, that was clear. And I would have stood right then, except for a nagging voice in my head that told me something was wrong. So I kept still.

  Latamer raised his hand. Not because he’d been trained to, but because it had worked for Tobias. “Sir, I think I’d like to leave. I’m not fit to compete with these other boys, and frankly, I’m not one to face danger, even for great rewards. ” Apparently, the nagging voice hadn’t visited Latamer’s head.

  “Certainly you may leave. ” Conner politely raised a hand toward the wagon. “Why don’t you get back in there and I’ll have Cregan drive you to the nearest town. ”

  “Tonight?”

  “The rest of us have more to discuss tonight, so yes, go right now. ”

  Latamer gave an apologetic smile to us and thanked Conner for understanding. I nodded a good-bye to him, and wondered, like I’m sure Roden and Tobias did, if it’d be smart to make the same choice. Conner hadn’t said what would happen to the boys he didn’t pick for his plan. Nor just how dangerous things might get.

  Then I realized what my instincts had been trying to tell me. Mott was ahead of us, motioning Latamer toward the wagon. Where was Cregan?

  I stood and yelled, “Latamer, stop!” But my warning only gave Latamer time to turn from climbing into the wagon. His eyes widened as he saw what I had sensed. An arrow whooshed past me and pierced his chest. Latamer yelped like a wounded dog and fell backward on the ground, dead.

  With a furious cry, I leapt toward Cregan, who was still partially hidden in the shadows behind us, and tackled him to the ground. Cregan went for the knife at his waist, but one hand still held the bow he’d used to kill Latamer, so I got the knife first. With my body crossways over Cregan’s, I started to crawl off him, but Mott lunged at me from behind and I collapsed facedown into the dirt. Cregan took a deep breath, then sat up and easily wrested the knife from my hand. That was probably a good thing. I don’t know what I would’ve done with it if Mott hadn’t stopped me.

  “You killed him,” I growled, getting a taste of dirt into my mouth.

  Conner knelt beside me and lowered himself so that I could see his face. His voice was eerily calm. “Latamer was sick, Sage. He wasn’t going to get better, and I think he proved a good lesson for the rest of you. Now you can get up and rejoin the other boys, or you can take a wagon ride with Latamer. It’s your choice. ”