The false prince, p.52
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       The False Prince, p.52

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 52


  “Trust me, there’s damage. Couldn’t you have stopped him?”

  “Only you could have. ” He began sliding my shirt down my arms. I let him do all the work. “What were you thinking by spitting at him at the end? Begging for more?”

  I answered with an “ow” as Mott pushed my left arm back too far. He apologized and moved more carefully.

  “You are the biggest fool of a boy I’ve ever known,” Mott said. Then his tone softened. “But you will serve Carthya well. ”

  “I wish I felt ready to do this,” I said. “The closer we come to the moment, the more I see every defect in my character that caused my parents to send me away in the first place. ”

  “From all I’m told, the prince they sent away was selfish, mischievous, and destructive. The king who returns is courageous, noble, and strong. ”

  “And a fool,” I added.

  Mott chuckled. “You are that too. ”

  Getting dressed in the outfit Conner had planned for me took quite a while. It was fancier than the usual clothes we had at Farthenwood, and immediately reminded me of the one thing I’d never missed of castle life. The tunic was long and black with gold satin ribbon running from my chest to the bottom hem. Beneath it I wore a white, full-sleeved shirt that gathered at my wrists and was too tight on my neck. A dark purple cape hung from my shoulders, clasped with a gold chain that was heavier than it looked.

  “Real gold?” I asked. Mott nodded and offered me a pair of new leather boots and a ridiculous hat that had a long white feather in it. I took the boots and ignored the hat.

  I sat in front of a mirror as Mott combed my hair smooth and tied it back with a ribbon. “Your cheek is still red from where he slapped you,” he said. “But it should fade before we reach the castle. ”

  “I hope it stays. Let it remind Conner of how important he thinks he is to me. ” I caught Mott’s eyes in the mirror. “Do I have your loyalty?”

  Mott nodded. “You have my life, Prince Jaron. ” He finished by tucking down the collar of my jacket, then said, “What do you think of yourself now?”

  “It’s as good as I might expect to look. ”

  There was a knock at our door. Mott opened it and Imogen walked in with a tray of food. Her eyes were red but dry. I wanted to ask Mott to leave so that I could speak with her, but I knew he had to obey Conner’s order to stay. Besides, there was really nothing more I could say to Imogen than had already been said. She would be the greatest casualty in this plan, which was entirely my fault. If it was possible to apologize to her, I didn’t know how.

  She set the tray on the small table in the center of the room. Mott started to tell her to bring the tray over to me directly, but I held up my hand and said I’d come get the food. She must have noticed something different in the pained way I walked, because she furrowed her eyebrows and looked questioningly at me. I smiled in return, but I don’t think she believed it.

  “Do you want her to leave while you eat?” Mott asked.

  Ignoring Mott, I asked her, “Have you eaten yet today?” She cast a sideways glance at Mott, but I said, “Imogen, it was my question, not his. ”

  She slowly shook her head. I uncovered the lid to my tray and found a deep-dish meat pie and a thick slice of bread. “There’s more than enough for both of us. ” She mouthed the word no to me, but I pretended not to see it and with my spoon dished her out a sizable portion, which I set on the plate where the bread had been. I handed it to her with the spoon and said I’d eat my half after she finished using the utensil.

  “Have you eaten, Mott?” I asked.

  “I’d better have, because that meal won’t split a third time,” Mott said.

  Once Imogen began eating, she devoured the food as if it were the first she’d eaten in days. She finished her meat pie and then found the napkin and carefully wiped the spoon clean before handing it back to me.

  “Do you want more?” I asked. “I’m not hungry. ”

  She shook her head and stood, backing away from the table with a bowed head.

  “She comes to the castle with us tonight,” I told Mott.

  “It’s not Conner’s plan —” Mott began.

  “It’s my plan, though. What have Tobias and Roden been doing all day?”

  “Conner heard a rumor last night. He sent them into town to see if they can learn anything. ”

  “What’s the rumor?”

  “That there are other princes, Your — other princes, Sage. It appears that Conner is not the only one with this plan. ”

  “Yes, but Conner has an advantage the others don’t, correct?” Mott returned my smile. Imogen noticed the exchange between us but of course said nothing.

  Conner returned to the room just as I was finishing the meal. He ordered Imogen to return the tray, and Mott to wait outside, then he shut the door behind us. He carried two bundles in his arms.

  “You look good,” he said.

  “Better than I feel,” I responded coolly.

  Conner looked at me without sympathy. “I trust your bruises will keep my words in your memory for a long time. ”

  It was safe to say that I would never forget them. Bile rose in my throat every time I thought of his cursed words. I tilted my head at the bundles. “What’s in them?”

  He began unwrapping the first, smaller bundle. “You’ve seen this before,” he said, revealing the emerald-encrusted box. “It belonged to Queen Erin. There is something about her that few people knew. Indeed, I did not know it myself until I took this box after her death and saw the contents. ” He slid a thin bronze key into the lock and opened the box. All I could see were a few folded papers.

  “What are they?”

  He handed them to me. “You will put these in your pocket. I think we have more than enough to earn your identity, but it’s always wise to have a backup. ”

  I unfolded the papers and an inadvertent gasp escaped me. I had known my mother was artistic but did not appreciate her abilities while I was a child. It was a simple sketch of me at about the age I would have been when she and my father first sent me away.

  I became fixed on the way she drew my eyes. Not with the arrogance or defiance the castle artists inevitably gave me, but with the subtle details only a mother would notice, as if she saw things about her son that everyone else missed. Looking at the pictures, I saw myself the way she must have seen me, and as I gently brushed my thumb over the drawing, I felt her love for me.

  Then I noticed Conner studying me as I looked at the drawing. I quickly folded it and shoved it in a pocket of my tunic.

  Conner continued to watch me. “Prince Jaron?”

  I scratched my face. “Guess I’ll have to get used to people calling me that. Do you think I can eventually pick up Sage as a nickname?”

  “No, you cannot. ” Conner smiled and his expression relaxed. “But I suppose I should begin calling you Jaron, to get you used to it. ” He hesitated. “For a moment there, I thought —”

  “What’s in the other package?” I asked.

  It was a sufficient distraction. “Ah!” Conner set the box down and began unwrapping the other bundle. “This is the proof that will seal your identity. When the prince boarded the ship that day four years ago, he was wearing his crown. It has been lost all this time, assumed to be at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, even if a diver had found it with the intention of putting forward a false prince, the metals and jewels of the crown would have been damaged by the salty waters. But see it for yourself. ” He finished unwrapping the bundle and pulled out the crown I had last worn on that ship.