The false prince, p.55
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       The False Prince, p.55

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 55


  “You were faking before,” he said, parrying my thrust. “You’ve been trained to fight. ”

  “If you knew my father, you’d know that I was trained for show. He never intended for me to actually fight. ”

  Roden smiled and cut toward me, aiming low. “I’m still better than you. ”

  “Perhaps, but I’m handsomer, don’t you think?”

  That took Roden off guard, and I was able to swing around and kick him in the side. He fell to the ground, but kept his sword ready. I started toward him with my blade. All it would take was a quick slash and this match would be over. But I hesitated. Could I strike after promising to save his life if he wasn’t chosen as prince? Did I still owe him that? I backed up to higher ground. This match would not end with his death.

  “You could’ve killed me there,” Roden said, leaping to his feet and advancing. “Why didn’t you? Oh. ” Roden came to his own answer. He grinned as he engaged my sword again. “I should’ve known from when you stabbed Veldergrath’s man. You don’t have the stomach for killing. Unfortunately for you, I do. ” Then he brought his sword down from over his head. The force of his blade crashing against mine set me off balance and I stumbled down the bank.

  In the limited space we had between the wall and the water, Roden continued edging me toward the river. I didn’t like the idea of falling in. I’d lose the sword fight and possibly my life. Also, I’d end up smelling really bad.

  Our blades moved faster and harder, but Roden’s confidence was unshakable. If Cregan had chosen him for his natural ability, then he had chosen well. I wished Roden could be on my side after this, because he’d make an excellent captain of the guard.

  Finally, my boot hit on a rock, throwing me off balance, and Mott’s sword fell from my hand. I dove for it, but it slid into the river. Behind us, Cregan laughed, sensing victory. Roden lowered his sword and walked up to me, his blade near my throat. I arched my head and backed into a squatting position, but the blade followed me.

  “Do you offer mercy?” I asked.

  “If you accept that I win this challenge. If you concede that I win and give me that crown, then you and the others may go in peace. That is the mercy I offer. I am Prince Jaron. ”

  “If you were Jaron, then you’d never fall for a simple trick like this. ” I flung my leg to the side and swept it beneath Roden’s feet. He landed on his back with a hoarse groan. I grabbed the rounded edge of the blade and wrenched it from his grasp, then stood and aimed it at his throat.

  Roden closed his eyes. “It’s what you said you would do on your very first day,” he mumbled. “Beg mercy and trick your opponent. I’d forgotten. ”

  “No!” Cregan yelled. “Not him!” He ran at me with his knife outstretched. Mott stepped between us and grabbed his hand, twisting it behind his back. To regain his balance, Cregan clutched at the crown in Mott’s other hand. Mott stabbed him in the back with the knife, and Cregan fell into the water, pulling the crown in with him as well. Blood seeped through the water as both the crown and Cregan’s body were carried away downstream.

  “I surrender,” Roden said, lowering his head. “Do what you must. ”

  I placed a hand on his shoulder and pulled my sword away. “I’d have brought you with me into the court, Roden. We could have been friends. ”

  Roden shook his head. “I don’t need friends. All I wanted was the throne. Please just kill me here. ”

  My words had been sincere, and it was difficult to remove my hand. “Go away, then. Run and never find me again. ”

  Roden looked up at me in an attempt to determine whether it was another trick. But I motioned with my head for him to leave and lowered the sword. Wordlessly, Roden scrambled to his feet and ran out of the tunnel. His footsteps echoed in the tunnel until he’d gotten too far for us to hear him anymore.

  “The crown!” Conner said, standing near the edge of the dark water.

  “There’s a chance it’ll get carried on Cregan’s body back to the gate,” Tobias said.

  “It’s probably sunk already,” Conner said.

  “Let me try to find it. ” Tobias turned to me. “Sage, when you are king, let me be one of your servants. ”

  “Be my friend instead,” I said. “Go find the crown. ” Tobias bowed and ran back down the river.

  Above us, we could hear the faint tolling of bells. “The meeting’s begun!” Conner shouted. “We have to hurry. There’s only minutes to spare!”

  I started forward, then gasped and stumbled to my knees. “You’re hurt?” Mott cried, then called to Conner. “Wait!”

  “I can help him. ” Imogen didn’t flinch in the moment of Conner’s and Mott’s shock at hearing her speak, but continued, “You two secure the kitchen and stall the meeting. I can get Sage there. ”

  Conner’s strained voice revealed the panic he felt. “Sage?”

  “Just get to that meeting. ” I looked directly at Mott. “Go now. ”

  Mott nodded and took Conner’s arm. “Sir, Prince Jaron will be there. Let’s go. ”

  “I will get there in time,” I told Conner. “Have Mott secure the kitchen for us. ”

  They ran ahead and Imogen knelt beside me, asking, “You knew about Roden and Cregan. How?”

  “It was their last chance to make Roden the prince. ”

  She reached for the hem of her skirt, intending to tear off strips for a bandage. “Where are you hurt?”

  “Nowhere. Everything’s fine. Really. ” I smiled and held out my arms to prove it to her. “I just needed a reason to get separated from Conner. Do you think Mott has secured the kitchen yet?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t understand — you faked that injury?”

  “I’ve got to go now. There’s not much time left. ”

  I stood to leave, but she grabbed my arm. “Your crown. ”

  “I won’t need it. ”

  “Sage —”

  “Will you make me one promise, Imogen?”

  She pressed her lips together, then said, “What is it?”

  This was harder to ask than I’d expected, but I forced the words out. “Next time we meet, things will be different. Will you try to forgive me?”

  “Forgive you for what, becoming the prince? Because I understand now why you’re doing it. ”

  “No, you don’t. But you will. If there is any reason to forgive me, will you try to do it?”

  She nodded. There was so much trust in her eyes, so much innocence. She had no idea what she was agreeing to.

  I kissed her cheek, then said, “Wait here until Tobias returns with the crown. With that, he’ll be able to get you both through to the throne room. I wish I could take you with me, but this last part I have to do alone. ”

  “Go, then, and may the devils give you clearance. ”

  The devils wouldn’t be a problem. It was the regents I needed on my side.

  A meeting of the regents was in full progress when Conner breathlessly entered the throne room. He was the only one who had come in late, and his arrival caused an unwelcome disruption.

  “If there were any occasion for you to arrive on time, Lord Conner, this would have been it. ” The man who spoke was Joth Kerwyn, high chamberlain to King Eckbert. He was almost as much a part of the castle as the bricks and mortar, having served the king for his entire life. He wasn’t a large or powerfully built man. Quite the opposite, in fact, and yet he could command a room of a thousand with just the wave of his hand. There was no one who had been more loyal to King Eckbert and few who had ever loved Carthya so much. The lines on his aging face told the story of years of worry and the weight of counseling royalty on their most difficult decisions. Now he was facing the greatest task of his career: peaceably finding a new king for Carthya. Because if civil war broke out amongst the different factions vying for the throne, Carthya’s enemies would use the opportunity to advance on the country and destroy it.