The false prince, p.49
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       The False Prince, p.49

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 49


  “She won’t belong to me any more than she should belong to you right now! She takes the room. ”

  A wicked glint sparked in Conner’s eyes. He smiled and offered a hand to her. “Very well, my dear. Come with me. ”

  I swatted his hand away and Mott sat forward, saying, “I’ll stay in the carriage with Roden and Tobias, to make sure there’s enough space in the room. You can give Imogen the second bed and hang a sheet for her privacy. Conner and Sage, you two can share the rest of the room. ”

  It was an acceptable compromise. Imogen didn’t seem happy about it, but it was the best of her options. She refused either my hand or Conner’s to help her out of the carriage, and followed Conner and me into the inn.

  As we walked, I asked Conner why the inn was so full.

  “Keep your head down,” he hissed. “The rumor of the deaths of the royal family has spread throughout Carthya. Everyone has come to see who the new king will be tomorrow night. ”

  “Are you still confident in your plan?”

  “Less confident than I was,” Conner whispered. “I didn’t anticipate so much competition. You will have to do a very good job tomorrow in convincing them. ”

  A grin spread across my face. “Don’t worry. I will. ”

  It wasn’t a large room, but it was clean and pleasant and would be enough for the three of us for one night. Two small beds stood along one wall. I helped Conner push Imogen’s bed against the opposite wall, then quickly offered to sleep on the floor.

  “I’m still an orphan and you’re still a noble,” I said to Conner. “You should have the other bed. ”

  “Of course I should. And watch your tongue when saying I’m still a noble. I will always be a noble if you hope to remain a prince. ”

  “My mistake,” I said, putting on whatever expression of humility he would expect to see.

  Imogen and I took a sheet off her bed and hung it from the ceiling. It wasn’t a perfect solution for her privacy, but it was the best any of us could hope for. She removed one of the blankets from her bed for me to sleep with on the floor. I put myself directly between hers and Conner’s beds.

  He noticed. “You think I’d try any mischief with that disgusting girl? I knew her mother, who was worthless too. Imogen’s safe with me, boy. It’s you she should worry about. ”

  I let that comment pass. No doubt she was worried about me, but for entirely different reasons.

  It was very late at night when I heard her roll off her bed onto her feet. Conner’s snoring was ferocious, so it was no surprise that he didn’t hear her and wake up. She stepped from behind the hanging sheet and touched my shoulder. I sat up and she put a finger to her lips, then motioned for me to follow her.

  In the chance that Conner did awaken, I positioned my blanket so that in the darkness, it would appear someone was here. But I’d learned from more than one time in his presence during the night that he never woke up.

  Once on Imogen’s side of the makeshift curtain, she pointed to the window.

  “Are you too warm?” I asked.

  “Can you take me out there?” she whispered. “Is it safe?”

  I inched the window open, examined the wall in the moonlight, and nodded. In typical Carthyan style, a ledge had been built directly below the window. I crawled through the window first, and then helped her through.

  The night was cool and the breeze had picked up somewhat. But she didn’t seem to hate me right now, so it was probably our last chance for any private conversation. We sat on the ledge and leaned against the wall of the inn, letting our legs dangle below.

  “Do you often go out on ledges at night?” I asked.

  “You do. I saw you once crawling around the walls of Farthenwood. ” She shrugged and said, “I don’t think you saw me watching you, though. ”

  I hadn’t seen her. Which was amazing because I’d always watched carefully for anyone below me on the grounds.

  “I couldn’t sleep,” she added. “All I could think about was the carriage ride. Roden is so angry with you. ”

  “Is he? With so much cheerfulness in that ride, I barely noticed. ”

  She ignored that. “Doesn’t he understand why you brought him? What would’ve happened if you’d left him behind?”

  I was silent. It was nothing new to have someone mad at me, but Roden’s anger bothered me and I couldn’t quite figure out why.

  “Back at Farthenwood, I said horrible things to you,” Imogen continued. “I don’t know why I said them. ”

  “Maybe I deserved some of it. ”

  “No, you didn’t. I blamed you for my own worries about coming to Drylliad, leaving the safety of Farthenwood. But now that I’m gone, I can’t imagine returning there. Anything is better than Farthenwood. ” She lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry. I should have trusted you. ”

  I deserved no trust, and yet she asked my forgiveness? Could she see me in the darkness and know how her words bit into my heart? Or did I have no heart, no soul? Conner had said we must prepare to sacrifice our very souls to bring Prince Jaron to the throne. I had done just that, although not in the way Conner thought.

  “Are you nervous about tomorrow, Sage?”

  “Yes. ” Even with the truth on my side, there was so much that could go wrong.

  “Don’t be. You look so very like him in that painting that they’re sure to accept you. I watched you as we rode in the carriage. If I’m not careful, I may begin calling you Jaron myself. ”

  “Would you?” For reasons I couldn’t explain, even to myself, I longed to hear someone call me by my real name. I was tired of Sage. There were so many things I disliked about him lately.

  She hesitated a moment before smiling. “Right now? What am I supposed to call you, Jaron or Prince or Your Majesty or what?”

  I shook my head. “They all sound so wrong for me. But after tomorrow, there will be no more Sage. Only Jaron. ”

  Her smile fell. I could see the curve of her mouth by the light of the midnight sky. “I won’t know Jaron. Don’t make me give up Sage yet. ”

  There was nothing I could say to that. A wisp of her hair blew in the nighttime breeze. I caught the hair and tucked it behind her ear. She smiled, then reached for a pin and fastened it again, always maintaining her neat servant’s braid. I wondered if she could ever learn to see herself as something other than a servant, something greater.

  “We should probably go inside. ” Imogen sat up straight. “I can’t imagine what would happen if Conner found us out here. ”

  “We’re not doing anything wrong,” I said. “And I’m not afraid of him. ”

  “But I am. Will you help me in?”

  I stood, and when my footing was secure I helped her to stand. But instead of turning to reenter the window, she faced me. “Back at Farthenwood, you told me there were more things happening than I understood. What did you mean by that?”

  I pressed my lips together, then said, “I meant that there’s a big difference between acting like a prince and being a prince. If you see me after I’m crowned, will you try to talk to me as Jaron? Can you do that?”

  Without answering, she crouched down to the window. Before she returned to the room, she paused and said, “You’ll become a king tomorrow, the most powerful person in the land. But I’ll still be Imogen, a servant girl. After tomorrow, it will no longer be appropriate for me to talk to you. ”