The false prince, p.56
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       The False Prince, p.56

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
 
Page 56

 

  Conner gave a polite bow to Kerwyn. “My lord High Chamberlain, I had trouble getting here. Forgive me, please. ”

  There were nineteen other regents in the room, seated according to their rank at a long rectangular table. Conner’s place was near the end, but he hoped that by the close of the evening, he would replace Veldergrath at the head of the table. This was a vain and largely useless group, few who had ever worked a real day in their lives. Even if they knew of the risk and expense Conner had undergone to bring a prince to the throne, they would never appreciate the valiancy of his efforts. Conner had accepted that it was his role to save Carthya. But this collection of stiff-necked, silk-wrapped snobs would never understand that.

  “You may take your seat,” Kerwyn said. “I have already made the announcement formally declaring King Eckbert and his queen and son to be dead. In only moments, the death bell will toll, one round for each royal. ”

  Almost immediately, the bells sounded throughout the castle. Their ring would carry beyond the outskirts of the capital city and would signal to the commoners that a royal had died. Three patterns of the bells would confirm the rumors were true. The entire royal family was gone.

  When the bells fell silent, Kerwyn continued, “Lords Mead, Beckett, and Hentower, who traveled to Isel this past week, have confirmed for us that Prince Jaron must have died in the pirate attack four years ago. Therefore, we are left with no alternative, but to —”

  “There is something more to that story. ” Conner’s words were smug and tilted toward the self-righteous. This was a speech he had practiced so often in his head that he could repeat it in his sleep. “May I speak, Lord Kerwyn?”

  Kerwyn nodded permission at him, and Conner stood. “With deference to my fellow regents who searched for proof of Jaron’s death this past week, they are wrong. Prince Jaron survived the pirate attack four years ago. He still lives. He is the rightful heir to the throne and should be crowned this night the king of Carthya. ”

  Veldergrath stood, pointing a long finger at Conner. “Then I was right! You did have him hidden at your home. ”

  “Only for his protection, Lord Veldergrath, until now. Surely, you can see how his being alive may threaten anyone else who hoped to become king tonight. ”

  “Is that an accusation?” Veldergrath began hurling obscenities at Conner. The two regents on either side of him held him back, and other regents around the table murmured loudly to one another.

  Finally, Kerwyn stepped forward. “So where is this prince of yours, Lord Conner?”

  “He’s coming. As I said before, we had trouble getting here. ”

  “Naturally, you did. I’m told there were several Prince Jarons who had trouble getting here. ”

  Conner spoke above the chuckles of his peers. “They didn’t let anyone through at the gate. No doubt the prince will punish the guards there for failing to recognize him. ”

  “If he were the prince, he would have known how to get through. The royals always know how to get through. ”

  “He must have forgotten. ” Conner’s face paled, and he held on to the table for support. “But Prince Jaron will be here. Then you’ll see. ”

  Hearing footsteps in the hallway, he turned to the doors of the throne room expectantly. Almost as if on cue, someone did enter. But it was not who he hoped to see.

  “Mott?” Conner said.

  “Only regents are allowed in this meeting,” Veldergrath said. “You may wait with the other guests and nobles in the great hall. That’s where the new king will greet his people. ”

  But Mott seemed to see only Conner in the room. “He isn’t here? He came through the kitchen a long time ago. ”

  “Perhaps your false prince is lost in the castle,” another regent said, to laughter in the room.

  “He grew up here. Of course he’s not lost. ” It was an attempt at confidence, but desperation cut too clearly through Conner’s words.

  “I propose we continue this meeting. ” Veldergrath waited until all eyes were on him and then added, “We must not keep the people waiting. And I’m sure whoever is chosen as king will want to speak to Lord Conner on the subject of treason. ”

  Then something must have happened in the adjoining room, the great hall where hundreds of citizens had gathered to wait for the announcement of the new king. What had been a steady hum of conversation suddenly fell completely silent.

  Behind Mott, a castle servant burst through the doors. “Forgive me, regents,” he said, forgetting the customary bow of his head. “But you should all come into the great hall. As quickly as possible. ”

  Although they were twenty men and women of great status and power, well trained in decorum and manners, no one would have known it by the way they hurried from the throne room. The only one who did not push his way out was Kerwyn, who slid through a secret door between the throne room and the great hall. He was the first to see what had caused the entire crowd in the great hall to fall silent.

  For Prince Jaron was standing at the head of the room.

  I was in no hurry. All that mattered was the order in which I completed this plan. I stood on the dais at the head of the room, the platform reserved for royalty or the courtiers required near them in this formal setting. Behind me were the thrones of the king, queen, and Darius. Jaron’s throne was no longer here. I wondered how long I’d been gone before it was carried away.

  The room was filled with a few hundred people, none of whom I recognized. But they clearly recognized me. I had come through a door connecting directly from the private rooms of the royal family. There was no announcement of my arrival, but apparently it hadn’t been necessary. Their wide eyes and total silence while staring at me confirmed that.

  I saw Kerwyn come through the door from the throne room, where he and the other regents had been meeting. Him I recognized. He’d hardly changed over the past four years, still a powerful presence, and someone I’d always respected. From his expression, it was obvious he knew who I was supposed to be. But he seemed to be fighting his own eyes.

  “Who are you?” Kerwyn asked, cautious as always.

  The first order of business was to withdraw my sword — the real sword belonging to Prince Jaron. Before leaving the castle four years ago, I had hidden it beneath a loose floorboard in my old room, accessible only by crawling under the bed. My room had remained exactly as it was the night I left. My sword was still there as well, and other than a thin blanket of dust, it looked exactly as it had before.

  I balanced the sword horizontally on both hands and knelt before Kerwyn as he approached me.

  “You know me, Lord Kerwyn. I am that boy who burned the throne room, the boy who challenged the king of Mendenwal to a duel. I am the younger prince of Carthya. I am Jaron. ” A whisper passed through the room. Kerwyn seemed unimpressed, but he was still listening.

  I stood, but pointed to a nick in the blade of the sword. “After I lost the duel to that king, I threw this sword in anger, and it hit a sharp corner of the castle wall. You later returned it to me privately and said that if I don’t respect my sword, no one will respect me. Then you apologized because you had also heard what the king said about my mother, but you hadn’t dared to challenge him. ”

  Kerwyn faltered a moment, then recovered. “Someone could have overheard that. ”