The false prince, p.44
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       The False Prince, p.44

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 44

 

  Mott gave a permissive bow of his head. “Be careful. You’re Conner’s prize now. ”

  “I’m never careful,” I said, grinning. Mott didn’t smile back.

  I walked past the kitchen toward the back door of Farthenwood that would lead me to the stables, and was only barely outside before someone punched me in the arm. Not a hard punch, compared to most hits I’ve taken, but an angry one.

  Imogen had been standing just outside the door. She’d probably seen me in riding clothes and came out to wait for me.

  “What was that for?” I asked, rubbing my arm.

  She glanced around to make sure we were alone, then hissed, “How dare you, Sage? How dare you interfere with my life?”

  Genuinely confused, I took her by the elbow and led her farther away from the door, beside a tall hedge where we would not be easily seen. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “What have I done?”

  “You’re the prince now?”

  “Looks that way. ”

  Tears welled in her eyes, though she was obviously trying hard to push them back. “And you’re bringing me to Drylliad with you?”

  “I can get you away from here, from whoever treats you so badly. ”

  “And then what, Sage? What happens to me in Drylliad?”

  I shrugged, unable to understand why she was so angry. “You go free. Once I’m made prince, I’ll have access to the treasury. I’ll pay off your mother’s debt to Conner and you’re free. ”

  She shook her head stiffly. “I won’t have your charity. Not from an orphan and certainly not from a prince. ”

  “It’s not charity. You’re my friend, and I want to help. ”

  If possible, that made her even angrier. “Do you think this is helpful? I had a place here, Sage. I understood my life. ”

  “You have no life here. I’m giving it back to you. ”

  “No, you’re not. I know what this is. ”

  I folded my arms as I faced her. “Oh?”

  “You’re afraid to go to Drylliad, correct?”

  A little anxious perhaps, but that didn’t explain her anger. “What if I am?” I replied. “You don’t understand what —”

  “I understand perfectly. You played Conner’s game and won, but now that his decision is made, you’re afraid no one will believe the lies. You want help in convincing the court. You think by bringing me to Drylliad, I’ll feel obligated to lie for you. ”

  Strong emotions rose in me. Not exactly anger, though that’s how it sounded when I spoke. “You think that’s my plan, that I’d use you in such a way? I had no idea I was such a horrible person. ”

  Her face softened somewhat. “You’re not horrible, Sage. But look at what Conner’s turning you into. Don’t you see it? I’ve watched you go from this orphan boy who might’ve become my friend to Conner’s prince, who’ll never be anything but his costumed servant. ”

  “I’m nobody’s servant. ”

  “Yes, you are. ” She shook her head sadly. “You gave in to him. You let Conner win. I didn’t think you would. ”

  “Imogen, there is so much more happening than you know. ”

  “And does any of it matter more than your freedom?” After a slight hesitation, she added, “I’m disappointed in you. I’d rather you had run. That would be better than this. ”

  “Run?” Truly angry now, I started to walk away, then turned back to her. “Then you’d condemn Tobias to death, make Roden a puppet king, and doom yourself to a life here. Conner’s held you down for so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to breathe free air. ”

  “And you’ve given your life to his control forever. You’ll never breathe free again. ”

  I started to answer, to say whatever was necessary to make her understand. But in the end, I hesitated too long and finally only managed to suggest she should pack her things before Conner was ready to leave.

  She shook her head, then hurried back into the house. As much as I wanted to follow her, gut instinct told me that would only make things worse. She could believe whatever she wanted about me, but she was still coming to Drylliad.

  There were a few stable boys tending to the horses when I arrived there a few minutes later. No sign of Cregan, who was probably now having to get ready for our journey. The longer I avoided him, the better. Cregan had wanted Roden to be chosen. He’d be furious with me for winning out at the last minute.

  I chose a quarterhorse named Poco for the ride. The stable boy seemed reluctant to let me have it without direct orders from Conner, so I began preparing the saddle myself. Finally, he said he’d do it before I ruined my clothes and got us both in trouble.

  Riding Poco through the open field was refreshing. I’d found spots of time alone over the past two weeks, but nothing of freedom. Poco was an excellent horse, instinctively obedient and eager to be tested. It wasn’t long before Farthenwood was lost behind a wooded hill, and all was silent except for the gentle river nearby with birds chirping overhead. A slight breeze rustled the leaves of the tall trees over my head. I lifted my face to the sky and let the wind and the sun caress my skin. This was freedom.

  As much as I’d ever know again, anyway. If Imogen had been right about anything she accused me of back at the house, this was it.

  I slid off Poco’s back and walked him to the edge of the river. This wasn’t far from where Windstorm had left me several days ago, and the memory forced a smile to my face. I wished for a friend or a father I could tell the story to and make them laugh. Either with me or at me, I didn’t care. Several smooth rocks lay along the bank of the river. I grabbed a fistful and flung them one by one into the water, watching them skip a time or two before disappearing. One rock I kept for myself.

  It was little surprise only a few minutes later when another horse snorted in the background. Mott had come, no doubt. I’d seen him watching me from a distance when I was in the stables. And by the time I reached the arch of the eastern hill, Mott was in the stables. It must have killed him to wait this long before finally approaching me.

  “Do you mind a little company?” he asked.

  “Yes. ”

  It didn’t matter. He dismounted and walked over to me. We stood side by side for a long while, watching the river.

  Eventually, Mott asked, “Did you know he’d pick you, because of that trick you can do with the coin?”

  “I don’t think anyone can predict what Conner will do. It’s what makes him so dangerous. ”

  “But you must have guessed it, or else you would have escaped this morning. Using the passages, it would have been an easy thing to run. ”

  “Look what happened to Latamer when he tried to run. ”

  That brought on an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Mott said, “Conner wants you to know that we’re ready to leave soon. Errol is waiting to help you change into traveling clothes. ”

  “You’d think they’d make traveling clothes more comfortable,” I muttered. “I believe when I’m king, my first order will be to let everyone wear whatever clothes they want. ”

  Mott chuckled. “Fashion. What a mighty beginning that will be for your reign. ” After another pause, he added, “What kind of king will you be, Sage? Tyrannical and fierce, like Veldergrath would be? Complacent and indifferent, like your father?”