The false prince, p.54
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       The False Prince, p.54
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 54

 

  “But if he can help —”

  “He doesn’t come. ”

  “Very well. ” Conner thought for a moment. “How do you know all this?”

  “I ate from that kitchen a lot when I was younger. ”

  Conner misinterpreted my answer and said, “For the first time, Sage, I’m glad to have chosen a thief and an orphan as my prince. ”

  As my note had instructed, Mott, Tobias, Roden, and Imogen were already waiting at the river entrance into the castle when we arrived. Conner looked surprised to find them there but must have explained it away in his mind. He called to Cregan, “Take this carriage back to the inn and wait for us there. I don’t want it here to arouse anyone’s suspicions. ”

  “Have Tobias take it,” Cregan said. “He’s not useful for anything. ”

  “Then he’s not useful for managing a carriage. Get going. We must hurry too because I fear we’ll be late. ”

  I led the way up the river. Imogen was behind me, then Conner, then Tobias, Roden, and Mott at the last. Almost immediately, a roof of dirt and rock rose over our heads as we entered a tunnel leading beneath castle grounds. The castle walls were not much farther ahead.

  I had found this entrance myself at age eight. The kitchen staff all knew how often I used it to sneak in and out of the castle grounds, but they liked me and never told anyone. I was finally found out when I fell into the river once and returned to the castle smelling of rotten fruit and moldy meat.

  “It smells horrible in here,” Tobias said.

  “Nobody promised it’d be pleasant,” I called back to him.

  As it grew darker, Imogen walked closer behind me. I noticed she kept one hand ready to grab my arm if she started to fall in.

  We reached the gate, which was in desperate need of a cleaning. The gate was clogged with large, rotting chunks of food and debris. It dammed up the water to a higher level of reeking muck than usual.

  “I’m going to be sick,” Conner said, covering his nose with a handkerchief. “The smell!”

  I hid my smile, but do admit I enjoyed the fact that he was having a difficult time. I used the pin to pick the lock within seconds. It was an old lock with soft tumblers. Once I was king, I’d have to order a better security system placed there.

  We went through the gate, and after another few minutes of walking, I informed the group that we had passed beneath the castle walls. Now that we had come this far, we were provided a little light by occasional oil lamps. When servants came down there, they often had their hands full and needed a lit path. It wasn’t much light, but we were grateful for it.

  “How much farther?” Conner asked.

  “Not far. ” Here, the path widened and we were able to walk several persons across. Conner caught up to Imogen and me, Tobias and Mott were behind us, and Roden lagged behind.

  “Keep up, Roden,” Conner scolded. “We are pushing against time. ”

  Roden answered with a shout of surprise. We turned to see what the trouble was. Cregan held him by the neck with his knife.

  “Cregan!” Conner yelled. “What are you doing?”

  Our group widened into a circle. Mott had his hand on his sword, but he wouldn’t draw it. Not unless Conner ordered it. And he’d wounded himself only two nights ago after I’d killed Veldergrath’s man. He’d be a weakened opponent if he did have to fight.

  “Change of plans,” Cregan said, his mouth curved into a nasty sneer. “Your orphan boy won’t be king after all. ”

  I took a step forward and nodded at Roden. “But why threaten your own choice for king, Cregan?”

  Cregan grinned evilly, then released Roden and handed him his sword. Roden didn’t even have the courtesy to act surprised. He’d known all along that Cregan was following us.

  “You are traitors!” Conner said. “Traitors to this plan, to Carthya, to me. Why, Cregan?”

  “I’m making my fortune. Once Roden’s on the throne, he will make me a noble, then I’ll take your place as regent. Won’t be long before I take everything you have. ”

  Conner turned his glare to Roden. “After all I’ve done for you, this is your repayment?”

  “You’d have left me at Farthenwood to die,” Roden said stiffly. “I owe you nothing. ”

  “Then I’ll have no guilt in ordering your deaths,” Conner said. “Mott, finish them. ”

  Before Mott was able to withdraw his sword, Cregan advanced with his knife and said, “Mott can’t kill both Roden and me before one of us gets to either you or your phony king. Roden is better with a sword than you might imagine. I trained him myself. ”

  Roden arched his head. “And for that brief time I was your prince, you told me everything I’d need to know to convince the regents. ”

  “Not everything,” Conner said. “You won’t succeed. ”

  “Yes, I will,” Roden said. “Only Cregan and I go on from here. Hand me the crown, Sage. If you cooperate, everyone leaves in peace. ”

  Maybe Roden believed that, but I could tell from the expression on Cregan’s face that he had no plans for any of us to leave here alive.

  “Sir?” Mott asked. Other than Cregan and Roden, he was the only one carrying a weapon.

  “I don’t know. ” For the first time since we met, Conner sounded weak. “I didn’t expect —”

  “We’re at a standoff,” I said calmly. “Maybe you and Roden will get one of us. But even with your small brain, Cregan, you must know that Mott will get one of you, too. Whether it’s you or Roden who falls, neither of you can win this way. ”

  Cregan’s face fell. He had not expected us to call his bluff.

  “The stronger of us should be crowned,” I continued. “Can we all agree on that?” Roden nodded. Hesitantly, Cregan and Conner did as well. “Then Roden and I fight. The winner goes on to the castle. Do you accept the challenge, Roden?”

  “Your back is still injured,” Mott warned.

  “Good point. If Roden wants to make it a fair fight, then how about if I’m the only one with a sword?” I grinned, but nobody else liked the joke.

  Cregan licked his lips, savoring the idea of seeing me fall. “It was never going to be a fair fight, boy. Roden’s too strong. ”

  Roden looked back at Cregan, then to me. “Okay, the winner advances to the throne. Please give me the crown instead, Sage. I don’t want to kill you. ”

  “Lucky coincidence. I don’t want to be killed. ”

  That infuriated him. “Stop making a joke of this, as if I’m no threat! I’m better at the sword than you might expect, and I’ve seen you fight. ”

  I removed the crown from my head and handed it to Mott. “Don’t let it get dirty. Let me have your sword. ”

  “It’s heavier than the prince’s was,” Mott said.

  I locked eyes with him. “Mott. Your sword. ” With an obedient nod, he handed it to me.

  Roden attacked immediately, while I was still facing Mott. One of the advantages of being a left-handed person who had been forced to train with his right, I blocked his advance with my left hand, then rotated toward him and struck him hard at his weaker side.

  Roden stumbled back with an expression of surprise at my abilities, but he quickly advanced again and swung harder at me. He’d improved significantly since I last fought him, and those were only in practices. This time, his blows were intended to kill, and he watched for me to make even the tiniest mistake.