The false prince, p.41
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       The False Prince, p.41
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 41

 

  “Oh no, you’re coming with me,” he snarled.

  By that time, I had crept to within only a few feet from him, my sword out and ready. Imogen didn’t mean to betray me. She glanced my way for only a second, but it was enough. The man pushed her to the floor and with surprising agility swung around with the poker, swiping hard enough to make a swishing noise in the air.

  I ducked to avoid his attack and thrust my blade deep into his gut. He gasped as blood leaked from his wound, then for the first time really looked at me. “Prince Jaron?” he whispered.

  “Perhaps soon,” I said as he toppled over.

  Imogen ran into my arms, holding me so tightly that she nearly knocked me over. Her entire body was shaking, so I put my arm around her to try to calm her. One hand clawed into my wounded back, which I couldn’t have tolerated if it was anybody but her causing me the pain.

  Then she darted back from me, hearing a sound behind us. I swung around, ready with the sword, then lowered it when I saw Mott in the doorway.

  Mott’s eyes went from the man on the floor to the sword to me. “Drop the sword and get out of here,” he whispered. “Now. ”

  I gently set the sword on the floor, then took Imogen’s hand and pulled her into the tunnel. Before I shut the door behind us, I saw Mott use the dead man’s knife to stab himself in the arm. Reeling, he pulled the knife out, then fell on the floor.

  Several of Veldergrath’s men ran into the room. “What happened here?” one of them, a leader of the group, asked.

  Mott rolled over. Whether he was exaggerating his pain or not, I believed his performance. “Your man attacked me,” he mumbled. “I might have startled him when I came in, but it was only to assist him with unlocking these doors. ”

  One of Veldergrath’s men knelt down to examine Mott’s injury. “You’re lucky it wasn’t deeper, or in a more vital area. ”

  “I tried to dodge out of the way. He was aiming for my chest. I had to defend myself. ”

  “You must have provoked him!”

  Mott shook his head. “You saw me walk in here. I had no reason to attack this man. Perhaps I should report to your master and mine exactly how this search is going. ”

  “Get rid of that body,” the leader said. “Veldergrath doesn’t want damage done to Conner’s property. One of you clean up this blood. ”

  A few men went to look for cleaning supplies, and after wrapping him in sheets from Roden’s bed, it took most of the rest of them to haul the body out of the room. Mott assured them he could get himself bandaged and was soon left alone.

  He glanced at the crack of the opened passage door I’d been staring through, then nodded at me.

  I closed the door tightly and sank against the wall with my arms wrapped around my knees. Imogen sat silently beside me. I vaguely felt her presence, but took no notice of it. As it was, all I could do was stare into the darkness and try to keep breathing.

  Conner said he would let the devils have his soul if it meant succeeding with his plan. I had the feeling that when he did, the souls of all the rest of us would go to the devils too.

  Imogen and I remained there until the search ended and Veldergrath’s company of men left. Conner himself came to claim us in the tunnels. He found Tobias and Roden first, and then they walked downstairs through the tunnels to find us.

  Conner offered me a hand from where I still sat on the floor, numb. I’d never killed before, not even accidentally or for defense or for whatever label they would attach to it tonight. My only intention had been to stop him from harming Imogen, and without alerting anyone else in the house to my presence. That at least had been accomplished, but it had come at a heavy price.

  And as hard as I tried to avoid the comparison, in that moment, I had seen myself as Cregan, sending a deadly arrow into Latamer’s chest, all to protect Conner’s unholy plan. Every feeling within me was pain, so I hollowed it out and barely acknowledged Conner’s greeting when he saw me.

  I took his hand, but he did more work in pulling me up than I did with any effort to lift myself. I could tell from there that the imitation of Prince Jaron’s sword was gone. Mott must have taken it with him when he went to get bandaged. Conner led us into the bedroom, where I sat on my bed. Roden sat next to me, Tobias took a stool for himself, and Imogen stood, keeping herself apart from the rest of us. Mott was already in the room when we entered. His arm was bandaged and his face was grim. It was obvious where the floor had been scrubbed of blood.

  Conner addressed Imogen first. “May I assume that you were in the tunnels because you were somehow involved in the death of that man?”

  Imogen nodded, slowly.

  “It was my fault,” I said. “I thought I struck him low enough to avoid any major damage. ”

  “It was for good reason,” Mott said. “We all know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t acted, not only to Imogen but to you boys as well. ”

  I knew, yet even that was not enough to make me feel better.

  “But why were you out of the tunnels in the first place?” Conner asked. “You so easily might have been found. ”

  Imogen drew in a breath and opened her mouth. She would speak to take the blame, but reveal the one secret that had protected her ever since coming to Farthenwood.

  Cutting her off, I withdrew Tobias’s papers. “These were left in this room, and if found, would have been damaging evidence about us. ”

  Mott took the papers and handed them to Conner. He opened them, read a little, then said, “You wrote these, Tobias?”

  “Yes, sir. ” His voice trembled when he spoke, and I wondered what was in them.

  “You are a thorough record keeper. More fit to be a king’s scribe than a king, I think. ”

  Tobias lowered his eyes. “Yes, sir. ”

  Then Conner turned to me, his expression different from before. Was it respect? Gratitude? I’d so rarely been looked at in any favorable way, I couldn’t recognize it. He said, “If these papers had been found, none of us would be here tonight. Veldergrath’s men were exceptionally thorough, but Mott was able to cover up your presence through his own brave act. Veldergrath left here embarrassed and disgusted when his most tedious search turned up no evidence of either you or that emerald box. ”

  “But he was right,” I mumbled. “You are plotting a false ascension to the throne, and you did steal that box from King Eckbert. ”

  “Neither of which I make any apologies for. ” Conner’s expression cooled. “Do you want the throne, Sage? Do you want me to choose you?”

  It wasn’t in me to care how I answered. “I accept the throne if the alternative is for Veldergrath to take it. ” My voice sounded as tired as I felt.

  “That’s not the same thing. Tell me that you will be a good and noble king, that you want to claim the hand of the betrothed princess, and that you are glad I’ve done this for you. Lie if you must, but tell me that you want it. ”

  I stared at him with a blank expression. “Aren’t you tired of lies? I am. ”

  Conner sighed heavily. “I would choose you, Sage, but for that. There is one thing that you must never tire of, not for the rest of your life, and that is the lie. The person I choose must have the lie so settled in his heart that he truly believes he is king, that he ceases to think of his own name and answers only to Jaron’s. He must become so convinced of his lies that, were his own mother to appear at his side and call to him, without shedding a single tear he would tell her he is sorry she’s lost her son, but he is the child of Eckbert and Erin. The person I choose must recall memories of a royal upbringing that never happened. And he must do all these things, every day, for the rest of his life, never once regretting the lie that brought him there. ”