The false prince, p.48
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       The False Prince, p.48

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 48

 

  Even though I was pretending to sleep, I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of Cregan’s anger when I challenged him to his wildest horse. The horse he’d brought me out from the stables really was beyond my skills to train, and I was barely able to control her enough to steal the fake sword while everyone was distracted elsewhere.

  Other things had been a waste of time. Obviously, I could read much better than I let on, though to have confessed that would have been disastrous for my disguise. I’d have to apologize later to Tobias for that lie. He would have secured his papers more carefully if he had known I read every word on them while he slept at night. Of course, my back still stung from where he’d cut me, and that was a far worse crime. I’d agree to forgive him if he forgave me.

  There were a lot of things I’d have to ask forgiveness for. And I feared I wouldn’t receive half as much of it as I wanted.

  Not from Imogen, who had trusted me with the greatest secret of her life, that she could speak. I had trusted her with nothing.

  Not from Amarinda, who pled with a broken heart for any truth about whether Darius, the prince she was betrothed to and loved, was alive. Or about the existence of his younger brother, whom she would eventually have to marry if Darius really were dead.

  And I’d get no forgiveness, ever, from my mother, who went to her death believing I’d died in an attack by Avenian pirates. Nor from my father.

  For most of the past four years, I’d blamed him for keeping me away from the castle. True, I’d accepted his request without argument, but how could I have known then how difficult these recent years would be? He would have known much of what was ahead of me, and still he chose peace for his country over his own son. Maybe it was the right thing to do; I still didn’t know for sure. But it didn’t diminish my shame that they’d had to send me away in the first place. Nor my anger at my father, who at his first reunion with me in the church, already had a plan to keep me away.

  I returned every month to the church near the orphanage to see my father. But I never let him know I was there. We never spoke again.

  It was only after Conner told me that both my parents and my brother had been killed that I began to understand my father in a new way.

  He had said that his greatest enemies were the regents. Conner had told me that all three members of the family were intended victims, so that a regent would have to be crowned.

  While at Farthenwood, I slowly began to understand that as long as four years ago, my father had foreseen the possibility that all of them could be murdered one day. He didn’t keep me away to protect himself from embarrassment, nor was it to avoid having to declare war on Avenia. My father kept me away to keep me alive. After pirates had tried to kill me, he must have worried that the rest of his family’s lives were in danger. He had told me in the church that day that the royal line must continue, to save Carthya. So that if the worst happened, and they were all killed, I would remain to claim the throne. He’d even given me a way home. I just never expected to need it.

  He had let me think the worst of him for over four years, and I had eagerly done so. For that, I could never have his forgiveness.

  When Conner first brought me to Farthenwood, I had thought he knew that Jaron was alive and he was searching for the prince, hoping to use him for some sort of ransom. So I determined that he must never suspect my true identity. That would have been bad, but Conner’s real plan was far worse.

  He was hoping to fool the entire kingdom with a fraudulent prince. I knew then that the best course of action was to play along with his plan, get him to choose me on my own terms, then return to Drylliad to prove my identity. Conner had his plan and I had mine. Whether either of them would work remained to be seen.

  Conner kicked my feet to get my attention. “We’re nearly there,” he said. “Straighten up and at least try to look like a prince. ”

  “Are we going to the castle this late at night?” I mumbled while glancing out the window into the darkness.

  “Of course not. We’ll stay at an inn. The choosing ceremony is tomorrow evening. ”

  “If we’re going to the inn, then I go as I am. ” I slouched back into my seat. The charade of being Sage was nearly over. I planned to enjoy it as long as I could.

  We stopped at a place known simply as the Traveler’s Inn. It wasn’t far from the castle. Nobles not invited to stay within the castle walls often slept there. I told Conner it was too fancy because they’d only expect people of wealth and influence to stay there. The irony amused me and escaped him.

  “I am a person of wealth and influence,” Conner said, irritated. “My face is known, so I won’t have anyone wonder why I’m staying at a commoner’s tavern. And nobody will look at you, if you keep your head down. ”

  Mott stayed with Roden, Tobias, Imogen, and me, while Conner went inside to reserve three rooms for us. I wondered as I stared at Imogen whether she would run away if she had her own room, but then dismissed those thoughts. She had no money to support herself in a strange town, and besides, she would likely consider it dishonorable to run.

  “Why bring us along?” Roden asked me after Conner had left. “Will you enjoy having us watch in humiliation as you’re declared?”

  “He saved our lives,” Tobias said. “He brought us along to make sure Conner didn’t have us killed back at Farthenwood. ”

  “Tobias is right,” Mott said. “Cregan told me his orders were to kill the two boys left behind. ”

  Roden folded his arms and arched his head. “Cregan wouldn’t have killed me. He wanted me to become the prince. ”

  “That isn’t Cregan’s decision to make,” Tobias said.

  “Besides,” Mott added, “you will understand in time that Conner’s decision was the right one. ”

  I flashed Mott a glare. That was going too far. He lowered his eyes and said nothing more.

  “What’s she here for?” Tobias asked, nodding at Imogen. Then he smiled. “Oh. You’ll use her to convince the princess. Amarinda would never suspect her of lying. ”

  Imogen flushed and stared at me with hatred in her eyes. It was nearly the same accusation she had already made to me.

  “After I’m declared, you’re all free to go,” I said. “All I ask is if there are any secrets between us, that you keep them. ”

  “I don’t believe you,” Roden said bitterly. “We’re too dangerous with all we know. So you’ll excuse me if I wait to see whether we walk free before I celebrate your generosity. ”

  “You’re excused,” I said, and slumped down again and closed my eyes.

  That didn’t last. Conner returned only seconds later. “There are no rooms available in all of Drylliad,” he said. “It cost me more than three rooms combined to take the reservation of a man who should have arrived by now. Bribing the inn-keeper to claim his messenger never arrived to make the reservation was enormously expensive. ”

  “Only one room?” I asked. “What about Imogen?”

  “She’ll sleep out here in the carriage,” Conner said.

  “No, we will,” I protested. “A lady won’t be treated that way. ”

  “She’s no lady,” Conner said. “She’s my kitchen maid, whom you are in the process of stealing away for yourself!”