The false prince, p.51
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       The False Prince, p.51
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 51

 

  “I read the queen’s diaries,” he said. “She wrote about Jaron often. ”

  “Did she?” It was impossible to sound as if I didn’t care what my mother had really thought of me, and the curiosity burned my heart. I knew she loved me, because all mothers love their children. But she had stood with my father when they first sent me away, and I’d never quite gotten over that.

  “Jaron had the reputation for being a difficult child,” I said. “Did she ever forgive him for that?”

  Conner smiled. “Interesting choice of words, Sage, to assume she thought there was anything about Jaron that needed forgiveness. She believed he was just like her. He may have been difficult, but she loved him all the more for it. ”

  We had to move on quickly from that conversation. It was too close to me, too hard to think about.

  Conner also provided me with a convenient story of how I escaped the pirates. According to him, I had seen their ship approaching and escaped in a rescue boat moored to the ship. I had hidden in Avenian orphanages in fear all this time, coming forward only when I heard rumors of the deaths of Eckbert and Erin.

  I urged him to change the story a little. “Have me hiding at Mrs. Turbeldy’s orphanage. That way, if any of them claim to know me, we can acknowledge it was me, but in disguise the entire time. ”

  Conner’s face brightened. “This is why you’ll convince them tonight! You have a great gift for thinking fast when necessary. ”

  So when Conner announced that I was finally ready, I was not prepared for what happened next. He invited Mott into the room, who was carrying rope in one hand and a length of fabric in the other. Mott’s face was pale and he entered the room barely able to look at me.

  “Are you ill?” Conner asked him.

  “No, sir. I just … we can’t do this. ” Then he glanced at Conner with moist eyes, and I understood. Mott shook his head. “If you knew … this boy —”

  “Do it,” I said, turning to Mott. It took all my strength to force the words out, knowing what was coming. “You’re Conner’s miserable dog, aren’t you?”

  Without warning, Conner grabbed me around the neck, where he held me while Mott tied my hands. I noticed he gave me a little slack on my wrists, but it didn’t matter. Despite the churning inside me, I had to let Conner do what he was going to do. Then Conner released me, and Mott tied a gag in my mouth. He still refused to look at me, but I saw deep creases in the lines of his face. He wasn’t any happier about what was going to happen than I was.

  “Remember, Mott, don’t leave any marks,” Conner said.

  Mott put a hand on my shoulder and for the first time looked into my eyes. He squeezed my shoulder gently, his attempt at an apology, then speared his fist into my gut.

  I stumbled backward and fell onto the floor. It was difficult to draw in a breath, especially with the gag between my teeth, and I barely had time to recover before Mott yanked me to my feet again. He unfastened the top three buttons of my shirt, then walked behind me and hooked his arms through my elbows, pulling my bound hands tightly against me. I grunted from the pain in my shoulders and down my back, but he gave me no room for movement here.

  Conner withdrew a knife from a sheath and walked up close to me. He put the tip of the blade against my chest and held it there. “I know it was Tobias who tried to kill you before,” he said. “But he couldn’t do it because he’s weak. A leader needs to be strong, Sage. Do you believe that?”

  I didn’t move. All I could focus on was the point of the blade.

  “Of course you do. You killed Veldergrath’s man when he tried to attack Imogen. So you can be strong, and I admire that. But you must know when to be strong, and when to give up control. In a very short time, you will become the leader of Carthya. Before that happens, I need to make it very clear what the arrangement will be between you and me. ”

  “No marks, Master Conner,” Mott said.

  Conner glared at Mott, clearly annoyed. But he lightened the pressure of his knife and said to me, “You will be king in any decision a king may make. However, from time to time, I will have suggestions for you. You will obey them without question or hesitation. If you do not, I will expose you as a traitor to the crown, and believe me when I say I can do it with no danger to myself. If you do not obey me when I give the command, then you will be publicly tortured and hanged in the town square for treason. Princess Amarinda, if she is your wife by then, will be expelled from Carthya, to forever live in humiliation, and if you have children, they will die of starvation and shame. Do you believe I can make this happen?”

  I still did not move. Conner’s face twisted in rage. He reared back and, with his free hand, punched me again in the gut. Mott still braced me from behind, so there was nothing I could do but bite down on the gag and groan in muted pain. He hit me two more times, once in the chest and once on my shoulder. Then he ripped me away from Mott and threw me on the floor. He knelt beside me and hissed into my ear, “You are nothing other than what I have made you into. I have followed through on my threats to other royals. Attempt to betray me and meet their fate. Do you understand?”

  I nodded and he lifted me back into a sitting position. He said, “In your first act as king, you will remove Veldergrath as a regent. Tell the court you suspect Veldergrath may have something to do with your family’s deaths and you refuse to have him as a sitting regent in the court. Your second act as king will be to install me as your prime regent. I don’t care who you replace Veldergrath with, though as your prime regent, I am happy to recommend names if you are unfamiliar with them. Do you agree to this?”

  I nodded again. With his knife, Conner cut the ropes binding my wrists, then sliced through the gag on my mouth. As soon as he did, I spat at him. He wiped the spit off his face, then slapped me hard across my cheek.

  “This would be easier if you accepted that what I want is a better situation for us both,” he said. “You are the lowest form of life Carthya has to offer, yet I am making you a king. Stop fighting me, Sage, and let us be friends. ” He seemed disappointed that I gave him no response, then he stood and said to Mott, “Clean him up and get him dressed. I’ll have Imogen bring something to eat very soon. Do not leave him alone until I return. ” Then he wiped his hands, straightened his jacket, and left the room.

  As soon as Conner left, Mott was by my side, helping me up off the floor and onto the bed. I rolled onto my back and groaned, holding my side.

  “I think he cracked a rib,” I said. “He punches a lot harder than you do. ”

  “To be fair, Your Highness, I was holding back,” Mott said.

  I wanted to laugh, but over the past two weeks, I’d learned how much that could hurt. So I just closed my eyes while Mott unbuttoned the rest of my shirt and felt around for any injuries he might detect.

  “Why didn’t you let me tell him the truth?” Mott asked. “He’s going to find out soon enough anyway, and you could have saved yourself all this pain. ”

  “He’d never have believed it,” I said. “He should know who I am better than anyone, but all he can see is the boy from the orphanage. That’s all he’ll ever see of me. ”

  “Perhaps so,” Mott said. “Other than a tiny cut on your chest, I can’t see any damage. ”