The false prince, p.45
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       The False Prince, p.45

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 45


  I turned to him. “Like Eckbert, you mean?”

  “Of course. ” With a cough, Mott added, “Get used to it. If you are Jaron, then Eckbert is your father. ”

  I let that pass. “If I’m the prince, then you have a higher loyalty to me than to Conner, correct?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Then tell me this, did Conner kill my family?”

  “I can’t answer that, Sage. ”

  “Can’t, or won’t?”

  “You haven’t been declared the prince yet. ”

  I held out my arms to Mott. “Who do you see now, Sage or Jaron?”

  Mott studied me for a long time before answering. “The bigger question may be, who do you see?”

  “I don’t know. It’s not easy to be one type of person when you’ve worked so hard to be a very different type of person. ”

  Mott’s reply came so fast I wondered if he’d been waiting for just that type of opening. “And tell me, Sage, which person have you worked so hard to be? The orphan or the prince?”

  He walked to his horse and untied a bundle on its back, unwrapping it as he carried it to me. Then he set the imitation of Prince Jaron’s sword in my hands. My thumb rubbed over the rubies in the pommel.

  “Thinking of how much you could get for them at market?” Mott asked.

  “No. ” I held the sword out to him. “I don’t understand. ”

  “I thought you must want it. You stole it before, didn’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. We both knew the truth. “Which means you must have controlled that foul mare Cregan gave you long enough to get to and from the sword arena without being seen. ”

  “I wouldn’t say I ever controlled her,” I admitted with a grin. “I was so worn out at the end, she really did dump me into the river. ”

  Mott smiled and tapped the sword. “I figured you must want it back now, before we leave for Drylliad. ”

  “Are you giving it to me? Is it mine now?”

  Mott nodded. Without giving it a second glance, I hurled it into the deepest bend of the river.

  Mott started forward, as if to rescue it, then turned back to me. “What did you do that for?”

  I arched my head to look at him. “The prince of Carthya will never wear a cheap copy of a sword at his side. That sword is an insult to him. ”

  “Is that why you stole it?” He didn’t wait for an answer, which was good because I couldn’t admit that aloud. “It would have helped you look more authentic. ”

  “Do you really think I needed that, Mott, to help me?”

  Mott nodded, very slowly. Not in response to my question but as if he had finally settled something in his mind. “No, you will not need that sword, Your Highness. ”

  “Then you think I can convince them that I’m the prince?”

  After a deep breath, Mott lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head. “What I think, if you forgive me of my blindness before, is that I never was looking at Sage the orphan. I kneel before the living prince of Carthya. You are Prince Jaron. ”

  Jaron Artolius Eckbert III of Carthya was the second son of Eckbert and Erin, King and Queen of Carthya. All of the regents agreed it would have been better if this child had been a daughter rather than a son. A daughter could have married into the kingdom of Gelyn, as a measure of preserving peace.

  Nor was the young prince particularly impressive as a royal. He was smaller in stature than his brother had been, had a talent for causing trouble, and appeared to favor his left hand, a quality frowned upon for Carthyan royalty.

  Privately, Erin cherished her second son. The older child, Darius, was already being trained as a future king. He had belonged to the state from the moment of his birth, and fit the role well. He was decisive, controlled, and detached, at least to his mother. But less was expected of Jaron, and he could always be a little bit more hers.

  Erin never had felt comfortable as queen of Carthya. It required her to hide much of her true spirit and zest for adventure. Indeed, engaging in a secret romance with young Eckbert had been the greatest adventure in her youth. She hadn’t paused to consider the consequences until it was too late and she was in love.

  Erin had served drinks in a small tavern at Pyrth for a year, working off the debts her father had acquired after becoming seriously ill while at sea. It was humiliating work. Until then, their family had enjoyed a fair social status and she had enough education to know how far they had sunk. But Erin endured it, and eventually the tavern began to prosper under her guidance.

  Eckbert spotted her one night when he and his attendants traveled through Pyrth. He returned the second night in disguise, enchanted by her beauty, charm, and loyalty to her family. By the third night, Erin had figured out who Eckbert really was. He begged her to keep his secret, only so that he could continue to see her again.

  At the end of a week, Eckbert paid off her father’s debts, with extra to the tavern owner on a royal command that he must never reveal Erin’s humble origins. He brought Erin back with him to Drylliad and made her his queen.

  In marriage, Eckbert and Erin were happy, but as king and queen they disagreed on how to rule Carthya. Erin saw enemies in the faces of those Eckbert sought to appease with favorable trade laws and by ignoring clear violations of treaties. Their older son, Darius, would one day have to bear the consequences of Eckbert’s fear of conflict. Jaron would be given more freedom to pursue his own desires. And Erin loved him for that.

  Jaron was still very young when it became clear that he was his mother’s child more than his father’s. The fire he set in the throne room was not malicious. He had taken a bet from a friend, a castle page, that tapestries could burn. He intended to prove it by burning only a hidden corner of the tapestry. Over three hundred years of threaded history went up in flames before servants were able to put the fire out.

  Commoners also loved the story of Jaron, at age ten, challenging the king of Mendenwal to a duel. None of them knew that Jaron had overheard the king accuse Queen Erin of not being a true royal. They only laughed at the image of a ten-year-old boy facing off with a king four times his age. The Mendenwal king humorously obliged Jaron and undoubtedly restrained himself during the duel. Although the king easily won the match, Jaron satisfied himself that he did give the king a nasty cut on the thigh. And he practiced his sword fighting twice as hard from then on.

  As Jaron grew, Eckbert became increasingly angry and embarrassed by his son’s antics. Instead of compressing himself into a model royal, as his father wished, Jaron rebelled further. He snuck out of his bedroom window at night, as often as the weather permitted and on too many occasions when the bad weather should have discouraged him. Heights never bothered Jaron, not even after the time he fell more than ten feet from a tower and had his life saved by an acroterion at the edge of the gable. He learned to scale the exterior rock walls with his bare hands and feet. Few people ever knew of that, because the only person to ever catch Jaron was his older brother. Jaron never understood why Darius kept his many offenses quiet. Perhaps because Darius knew he’d one day be king and hoped Jaron wouldn’t embarrass him as well. Or because Darius wanted to spare his father the rumors that would swell throughout Carthya and abroad over how a king who couldn’t control his own son could possibly control a kingdom. It never occurred to Jaron that Darius loved him. Protected him so that he could have the life Darius never could.