The false prince, p.47
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       The False Prince, p.47

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 47


  “You cannot come back” came his father’s solemn answer.

  Jaron set his jaw forward, the way he often did when he fought against his anger. “This is my punishment for running away? To be disowned?”

  “You’re not disowned and it’s not a punishment. It’s what your country demands of you now. ”

  Jaron rolled his eyes. His father couldn’t shove the blame away from himself so easily. “I’m to become a commoner, then? Shall I call you King Eckbert, or forget your name entirely?”

  That hurt his father. But Jaron hurt too, so he felt justified in his words.

  “You are always my son,” Eckbert answered. “But the situation with the pirates has changed everything. Everyone believes you are dead, and I cannot allow that belief to change. ”

  They were silent for several seconds. Finally, Jaron spoke. “If I came home, would you declare war on Avenia for sinking that ship?”

  Eckbert sighed heavily. “I would have to, because you could provide the proof that it was Avenian pirates who attacked a ship with a royal onboard. If I start a war with Avenia, Gelyn will almost certainly align with them, and we shall be nearly surrounded by enemies. Carthya could not survive that war. ”

  “And if I remain missing, would you have to declare war?”

  “If you remain missing, I can tell my people that I will not declare war until there is proof of your death. ”

  “Then we both know what has to happen. ” Jaron had said it matter-of-factly. He had considered this possibility, but hoped against it. “What about Darius and Mother?”

  “Darius … misses you. But he knows there are sacrifices we make for the good of Carthya. Your mother doesn’t know you’ve been found. Obviously, she would want you to come home to her, but she doesn’t see the enemies that surround us, not like I do. ”

  “We’ve always had enemies at our borders. ”

  “But not all at the same time. Since you’ve been missing, they have backed off our borders. Royal courtesy in our time of mourning for you. But the news is worse. I have enemies within Carthya, within my own castle. There are regents who look at my throne with greedy eyes. If I declare war in vengeance for you, they may not support me. They are the ones I fear. ”

  “Do you think they’re a danger to you?”

  Eckbert forced a smile onto his face. “Regents are always the greatest threat to a king. But I have Darius. If they get to me, the royal line must continue, or else Carthya will destroy itself in civil war. That’s Darius’s duty, Jaron. Do you understand yours?”

  He understood it far too well for a boy of only ten years. “Mine is to remain missing. To not come back. ”

  “Do you understand that you cannot reveal your true identity out here? You must change everything about yourself that you can. Lighten your hair with some dyes, and grow it out to alter the look of your face. I’m told you speak with an Avenian accent. Keep that. ”

  “I can use my left hand,” Jaron offered. “I always preferred it anyway. ”

  “And rid yourself of anything you might have learned in the castle. Of learning, of culture, of skills. There is an orphanage in Carchar, not far from here but back within Carthya’s borders. It’s run by a woman whose reputation is good, Mrs. Turbeldy. Now you must understand that I cannot have payment made to her for your care. You go there as an orphan, without any advantage over the others. It will be a hard few years until you’re of age and can live on your own. ”

  Tears stung Jaron’s eyes, but he pushed them away. He wouldn’t give his father the satisfaction of seeing his pain.

  If Eckbert noticed his son’s breaking heart, he didn’t acknowledge it. He gave Jaron a handful of silver coins. “Come up with a story to get yourself into the orphanage. Say you stole these or whatever excuse you’d like, but they will buy your way through the front doors. ”

  “I can fake an illness when the coins run out,” Jaron said. “Let her think she’s got the truth from me. ”

  Eckbert smiled. “You used that trick often enough on your tutors. What an irony that it may keep you alive now. There is always the possibility of Mrs. Turbeldy trying to sell you into servitude, but I don’t think she’d find any buyers. ”

  “No,” Jaron agreed. “I’m too difficult for anyone to want me. ”

  “Exactly,” his father said. The full meaning of Jaron’s words probably didn’t occur to him, which almost made it hurt worse.

  Eckbert untied a small satchel at his waist, which he pressed into Jaron’s hand. “I have a gift in there for you, the best of anything I could offer. There is a letter instructing you on how to use it. ”

  Jaron looked in the satchel, then closed it up again. It meant nothing to him.

  When Eckbert stood to leave, Jaron placed a hand over his father’s arm and whispered, “Stay a little longer. ”

  “If I do, the priest will grow suspicious,” Eckbert said.

  “This is real, then?” Jaron’s heart pounded, though he couldn’t tell whether it was from sadness or fear for his future. “When you leave, I’m no longer Prince Jaron. I’ll be nothing but a commoner. An orphan. ”

  “You will always be a royal in your heart,” Eckbert said tenderly. “There may come a time when you must be Prince Jaron again for your country. You will know if it does come. ”

  “Am I alone?”

  Eckbert shook his head. “I will come in disguise on the last day of every month to the church nearest Mrs. Turbeldy’s orphanage. If you ever need to see me, I’ll be there. ”

  Then he left.

  And from that moment on, I became Sage of Avenia. Orphaned son of a failed musician and a barmaid. Who knew little of the king and queen of Carthya, and cared even less.

  Completely alone.

  My head snapped up as our carriage bumped over a rock in the road. Conner, sitting in the seat directly opposite me, watched me with obvious disgust. I knew he hated having to choose me as his prince. But Tobias, who was asleep on my right, was a complete failure, and Roden, sitting up straight on my left, could not convince the regents.

  Imogen was on Conner’s left. She stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge that she saw anything at all. Mott sat on Conner’s right and nodded slightly at me when I looked at him.

  There had been no point in lying any further to Mott. Back at the river, he hadn’t asked whether I was the prince. He knew it. And he knew by my reaction that he was correct. Undoubtedly, he had a hundred questions to ask, and there were so many things I wanted to tell him, just to have somebody to speak openly to. But Conner was anxious for us to leave, and there was no time. All I had asked of Mott was that he keep our secret to himself. Judging by Conner’s sour expression, he had obeyed.

  I leaned back and closed my eyes again, not to sleep but to be alone with my thoughts. After four years of pretending, of immersing myself so completely in Sage’s identity, could I emerge convincingly as Jaron?

  Conner’s regimen of lessons in the past week actually had been helpful. I had forgotten the names of several court officials and even a few of my ancestors that a prince would be expected to know. As a boy, I had been well trained in both sword fighting and horseback riding, both which were as instinctive to me now as breathing. Although I had practiced whenever possible in the orphanage, those skills had softened over the past four years, and it was good to build them up again.