The false prince, p.40
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       The False Prince, p.40

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 40

 

  “Probably. ”

  “What’s in it?”

  “It’s locked. ”

  “You don’t seem curious,” Tobias said.

  “I’d have to break the box to get into it here, and I won’t do that. Whatever its contents, we’ll find out soon enough. ”

  There was a moment of silence, and then Roden asked, “Sage, did you know you looked so much like the prince?”

  “I always felt I looked more like myself than anyone else. ” I grinned, then shrugged. “I’m too scarred for a prince. Too many calluses and rough edges. A similar face may not be enough. Besides, what we saw is only a painting, an artist’s interpretation of what Jaron looked like. Have either of you ever seen the royal family in person?”

  Neither of them had. Roden observed, quite accurately, that royalty rarely visited orphanages, or invited poor orphans to state dinners.

  “The king came through Carchar about a year ago,” I said. “So I stood on the street to see him. He looked right at me as he passed — I could’ve sworn he did. Everyone was supposed to bow to him, but I didn’t. ”

  “Why not?” Tobias asked. “Honestly, Sage, have you no respect?”

  “An Avenian bow to a Carthyan king? Wouldn’t that dishonor the king of Avenia?”

  Tobias’s groan was muffled by Roden, who asked, “So what happened?”

  “A soldier clubbed me across my calves. That sent me to my knees, and I was in no hurry to get up again. For a moment I thought King Eckbert would stop the entire procession, but he didn’t. He only shook his head and continued on. ”

  Roden chuckled softly. “It’s a wonder you’ve lived so long. If Conner doesn’t choose you, it will only be because you’re too reckless to trust on the throne. ”

  “I can’t deny that. My point is that people don’t always look the same in real life as they do in their paintings. My resemblance to a five-year-old painting doesn’t matter. Facing the regents is the real test. ”

  We immediately fell silent when footsteps clambered up the stairs near us.

  “How many?” Tobias mouthed.

  I shook my head. Maybe four or five men, but it was impossible to tell for sure. We heard several other men still on the floor below us.

  They spread out, each of them taking one area of the upper floor to search. One of Conner’s servants was with them to open any locked door or cupboard.

  “There’s a lot of storage up here,” one man said.

  “All the better for a hiding place,” another said. “Check every trunk, beneath every bed. ”

  “He wouldn’t hide a prince in a dusty room like this. ”

  “We search everywhere,” the first man ordered.

  My spirits lifted a little. There was no mention of secret passageways, which there would have been if any entrances had been found downstairs. It didn’t appear they even suspected these tunnels were in the house.

  Suddenly, Tobias grabbed my arm. He leaned very close to me and whispered, “I hid papers in our room. If they find them, they’ll know we’re here. ”

  I threw out my hands in a gesture to ask him where the papers were.

  He leaned in again. “I cut a small hole in the side of my mattress. If they move it, feathers will fall out and they’ll see the hole. ”

  He drew back with an apologetic look on his face, but I could only shake my head. Judging by the thoroughness of the search on this floor, it was too much a risk that they might find those papers.

  I motioned for them to stay where they were. My feet would move quietly enough that I could pass through the tunnel undetected. Tobias and Roden might not.

  I crept down the narrow stairs of the tunnel. One of the steps was loose, and I was concerned that when I pulled off the wood plank it would make too much noise, like it had before. There were a few small squeaks, but I moved so slowly they didn’t seem to draw any attention.

  The imitation of Prince Jaron’s sword was lodged inside. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it, but I wasn’t about to go out there without a weapon of some sort. With the sword in my hand, I inched open the door to our bedroom. A few men still remained on our floor, but they seemed to be nearer to Conner’s room. I didn’t think they’d come my way yet.

  Our bedroom had been scrubbed of any evidence of our having been here. Now it looked like a little-used guest room. The wardrobes were empty, our books were gone, and the beds were pushed into a line of three near the wall.

  Tobias’s bed was the farthest from my hiding place.

  I crept along the floor, hardly suitable for a gentleman or whatever Conner had turned me into, but very familiar from my life as an orphan. Once in a conversation with Mrs. Turbeldy, I compared myself to a caterpillar that went wherever I wanted with barely any notice. She compared me to a cockroach instead, who ran about freely in the darkness and scattered in the light. It was meant as an insult, but I thought it was a fair comparison, even a compliment judging by how hard they are to catch.

  I crawled beneath what had been my old bed and then Roden’s. Finally, to Tobias’s, the last in the line. I was about to reach my arm up to feel around his mattress, and then froze. Footsteps were coming down the stairs.

  “We’re going to search this floor now,” the man in charge of the others said.

  “Julston! We need your men in here now,” someone called from the hallway near Conner’s room. “There’s a lot of heavy furniture in here. ”

  “So we get the sore backs and he gets the glory in whatever we find,” someone outside my bedroom complained. But they went anyway.

  I only had a few minutes. It was simple to find the hole in Tobias’s mattress. He’d cut it well, so that it would always remain covered and so that no feathers would fall from it unless the mattress were overturned. The papers were right inside, tightly folded. I tucked them into my pocket and then crawled back to the doors. I was about to dart safely into the tunnels when a voice said, “Did anyone hear that? Like footsteps inside the walls. ”

  I rolled my eyes. Was it Roden’s or Tobias’s carelessness that would reveal us?

  It sounded as if the man began to call out someone’s name, then he cried out in pain. I pressed myself against the wall, and only a second later, Imogen ran into my room, looking for a place to hide. In her hands was a fireplace poker. She must have hit the man with it.

  My heart pounded. Imogen had successfully distracted him from the tunnels, but she was about to pay dearly for having saved us.

  Where are you?” the man growled. Imogen back-stepped as he entered the room, holding the poker like it was a sword.

  He was a big man, with a belt that had been stretched to its limits to fit around him. Even to protect us, Imogen never should have attacked him. She had no chance against this man.

  He advanced and she swung at him, but this time he grabbed the poker. With one twist, he pulled it from her hands and yanked her toward him. “Who are you hiding here?” he asked. “Veldergrath will want to talk to you. ”

  Imogen tried to resist his grip, but it was pointless. Finally, she wrenched up her face, then stomped on his foot with all her strength. He released her only for a second and she tried to run, but he grabbed her again and shook her by the shoulders.