The false prince, p.43
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       The False Prince, p.43

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 43

 

  “I notice you do that with your left hand,” Conner said. “Just as you prefer to use a fork or write your letters. Can you do it with your right?”

  I tossed the coin to my right hand and demonstrated the knuckle roll with equal agility.

  “And can you write and eat with the right hand as well?”

  “When I was young, my father insisted I learn to use my right hand for everything. He didn’t want me to appear different in that way. I was out of practice before but have remembered that habit since coming here. ”

  Conner walked toward his office. “Sage, I will speak with you in private. ”

  It was an order, not a request, and I followed him into his office, where he shut the door behind me.

  “You don’t have to lie for the rest of your life. ” There was a desperation in Conner’s eyes I’d never seen before. “There is another way. ”

  “Oh?”

  “Claim the throne now as Prince Jaron. Be him for a year or two, any respectable length of time. Then assign the throne to anyone you want. You may leave and return to a private life, albeit one of wealth and luxury. ”

  “What are you asking, sir?” I knew, but I wanted to make him say it.

  “Be the prince, Sage. I’m convinced now that it can only be you. ”

  “What about Roden?”

  “Prince Jaron was famous for his ability to roll a coin over his knuckles. As I’ve rehearsed this plan in my mind, I anticipated everything the regents might ask in accepting or rejecting you. I considered qualities of his personality and what might remain in his character as he grew and changed. Jaron was trained throughout his childhood in the royal tradition, so my choice would have to display some semblance of that training as well. But until I saw you there, I forgot that this coin roll was an occasional habit of his, a parlor trick, but one few others could do as well. Sooner or later, the regents would expect to see the prince do that. ”

  I sat down in one of the chairs and crossed one leg over the other. “Roden can be taught to do it. ”

  “Not in time, and not as well as that. He’d look like he’d just been taught. Sage, you must be the prince. ”

  I didn’t answer right away, admittedly partially because I knew how desperate Conner was for my response. Finally, I looked back at him. “No. ”

  Conner exploded. “What? Has this all been a game to you? Just a test to see if you could get this far and then reject me?”

  “No, sir. But I got to thinking last night while we were in the tunnels. Veldergrath’s men would have killed me if they’d found me, right? Somebody did kill the king and queen and Prince Darius. They’ll kill me too, eventually. I don’t want power or wealth, Conner. I want to stay alive. ”

  “Veldergrath won’t dare harm you once you’re seated on the throne. If the high chamberlain, Lord Kerwyn, accepts you as Prince Jaron, then Veldergrath will too. As for the royal family, you don’t have to worry about the same threat. ”

  “Why not?”

  “They were killed for political reasons. If you use different politics, there will be no motive. ”

  My eyes narrowed. “How do you know that, Conner? Do you know who killed them?”

  “Is that an accusation?” he boomed, then lowered his voice, struggling to keep his temper. “Regardless of who killed them, I know who their enemies were and they’re no threat to you. I can guarantee your safety on the throne, Sage. And I’ll guarantee your death here if you refuse me. ”

  “You won’t kill me,” I said. “I’m the only hope for your plan to succeed. Let’s not pretend otherwise. ”

  Conner sat in the other chair facing his desk, his eyes pleading with me to accept his offer. “Sage, no harm will come to you upon that throne, and you can reign only for as long as you want to. ”

  “Then I can hand the throne over to you. ”

  Conner’s face reddened and he stood, yelling again. “Hand the throne to anyone you choose, just make it to someone you trust. I am not a villain in this story, no matter how many times you’ve attempted to frame me that way!”

  “Are you a hero, then?”

  “I’m just a man trying to do what I think is best for my country. If I’ve made mistakes along the way, they were made out of a desire to do the right thing. ”

  “I have terms,” I said.

  “You’re insufferable,” Conner said. “Have you waited for this moment since we met? To force me into a situation where I must give in to your whims or else see everything I’ve worked for all this time go to waste?”

  “Tobias and Roden must accompany us to the castle. ”

  “Why?”

  “I promised that if you chose me, I wouldn’t allow you to kill them. It’s the only way I’ll be able to keep that promise. ”

  “It’s a foolish idea. They’re a threat to you now. ”

  “If you had left with Roden just now, Tobias and I were going to be killed, correct?”

  Conner waved a hand in the air. “I can’t deny that, nor will I apologize for it. The two boys not chosen know everything. They can use that knowledge to blackmail you, harass you, and intimidate you for the rest of your life. Information is a dangerous thing in the wrong hands, Sage. As of this moment, they are the greatest threat to you. ”

  “But I will decide how to manage that threat. There’s more. Imogen will come to Drylliad as well. ”

  “Fool boy! May I remind you of the betrothed princess Amarinda? Imogen has no future connected with you. ”

  “Once I’m made prince, I’ll pay off her debt to you, then set her free. Either all of them come with us, or I don’t. ”

  Conner cursed, then grabbed a small marble statue off his desk and threw it at me. It whisked past my shoulder, hit the far wall of his office, and cracked the wood paneling. He probably intended to miss, but maybe not. “You are not the king yet!” he growled. “I’ll bring them with us, only to get your stubborn head into the carriage with me. But until you are crowned, I am the master, and if I see a need to dispose of them, I will. ”

  “Fair enough,” I said, then a mischievous grin snuck onto my face. “So do you want to bow to me now or wait until we reach Drylliad?”

  Conner brushed past me and into the entrance hall. He shouted orders for a carriage to be prepared for seven travelers. Cregan would now be our driver.

  “Hail His Majesty, the scourge of my life,” Conner said to Roden and Tobias as he stomped up the stairs. “I fear the devils no longer, because I have the worst of them right here in my home!”

  Since Conner’s traveling group had now swelled from only himself, Mott, and Roden to a group of seven, we were informed that there would be a delay before we could be ready to leave. Tobias looked pleased and relieved, but Roden’s expression was almost murderous as he stomped away. I wasn’t sure where he was going, but knew he’d return when it was time to leave. He couldn’t risk being left behind.

  After changing into riding clothes upstairs, I told Mott that I wanted to go for a ride. “This may be my last chance to be truly alone, perhaps ever,” I explained. “Let me have that time with my thoughts. ”