The false prince, p.57
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       The False Prince, p.57

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 57


  “Perhaps so, but it was I you spoke to that day. ” Without taking my eyes off his, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small golden rock. It was the last gift my father had ever given me, inside the satchel at the church. Since I stole it back from Conner, it had never been hidden especially well. Anyone who wished to venture high onto the ledges of Farthenwood would have found it. Later, I moved the rock to the bank of the stream on the outskirts of Conner’s estate, where it hid in its careful place amongst a thousand other ordinary rocks. “This is for you. ” I pressed the stone into Kerwyn’s hand.

  Kerwyn turned it over in his hands, unimpressed. “Imitator’s gold? It’s worthless. ”

  “No, it’s real gold. I am real, Lord Kerwyn. ”

  Tears filled Kerwyn’s eyes. He pulled a creased and worn paper from his pocket and unfolded it. His hands shook increasingly as he read it. Then he turned to the audience and said, “This note was given to me by King Eckbert about a month after Prince Jaron’s ship was attacked four years ago. I was instructed to keep it with me at all times and to read it only if someone ever came forward claiming to be the prince. This is what it says. ” He read aloud, “‘Many may one day claim to be the lost prince of Carthya. They will be well rehearsed and some may even look the part. You will know Prince Jaron by one sign alone. He will give you the humblest of rocks and tell you it is gold. ’” Kerwyn folded the paper again, and then said to the audience, “Lords and ladies of Carthya, I present to you the son of King Eckbert and Queen Erin. He is the lost royal of Carthya, who lives and stands before you. Hail, Prince Jaron. ”

  Then he turned to me and fell to his knees. He took my hand in his and pressed the note into my palm, then kissed the back of my hand.

  In turn, everyone in the room sank to their knees and said, “Hail, Prince Jaron. ”

  Kerwyn looked up at me, and a single tear fell onto his cheek. “Your pants are filthy, as if you rolled in the dirt before coming here. I would expect nothing less from the boy I remember. ”

  I smiled. “I’ve come home. Do you know me now?”

  “In a crowd of a thousand boys claiming to be the prince, there would be only one with the same look of trouble in his eye. I promise never to forget you again. ”

  Suddenly, as well as I thought I had everything planned out, I was at a loss. Should I tell them to rise, or issue a command? They were all watching me, waiting for what I’d do next.

  There was only one person in the room who had failed to kneel. Bevin Conner stood at the back of the room, frozen. I walked into the crowd, which stood and magically parted before me.

  Conner found his words and spoke them slowly. “It cannot be. You — I suspected it once or twice, but … was I blind?”

  “You saw who you wanted to see, Conner, nothing more. ”

  “He sees nothing but a fraud, and so do I,” Veldergrath said from behind me. “This is clearly an impostor. ”

  I turned and smiled at him. “You are relieved of your duties as prime regent, Lord Veldergrath. ” Then to Conner I said, “See how I keep my promises? For now, you are my new prime regent. ”

  Conner didn’t return the smile. He was still more frozen than not.

  “You cannot do this!” Veldergrath sneered. “Who are you, really? I heard Conner combed through the orphanages of Carthya. No doubt he found you there amongst the other fleas and vermin. ”

  “He did. I lived in several orphanages at various times, and went by the name of Sage. Trace my records back as far as you can. You’ll find the first entry about four years ago, shortly after Jaron disappeared. ”

  Veldergrath laughed at that. “So you admit to being one of them? Now you expect me to bow before you?”

  I grinned. “You’re right. That is funny. ” Then I laughed with him, laughed so hard that I put a hand on his shoulder to better share the joke. He didn’t appreciate that and slid my hand away, like brushing an earwig off his clothes.

  With my other hand, I lifted a coin from his vest, and then rolled it away on my fingertips. His laughter ceased, and another chorus of whispers echoed through the room.

  “You know me, don’t you, Lord Veldergrath?” He rubbed his silver ring as the signs of anxiety washed over his face. I nodded at his ring. “I stole that from you once, right off your finger. You remember that, I’m sure. It was hours before you noticed. You told my mother I was incorrigible. ”

  “Apparently, little has changed,” Veldergrath muttered.

  More loudly, I asked, “Do I have guards in here? Escort Lord Veldergrath out of this castle. ” I flipped his coin back at him. “Come up with any questions you may have to verify my identity. We’ll meet again soon, and I promise that I will satisfy you. ”

  Two guards appeared on either side of Veldergrath. One took his arm and began to pull him away, but he shrugged them off and said, “No, Your Highness. Now that I see you up close … there will be no questions. ” Then, like a scolded dog, he walked out ahead of the guards.

  “I have questions,” a voice said, again behind me. This voice I had also heard before. It was the one person I least wanted to see, though it was the most inevitable.

  The betrothed princess Amarinda stood in the center of the aisle I had created by walking there. Her hair was much fancier than the last time we met, piled high on her head and full of curls and ribbon. She wore a square-necked, cream-colored dress intricately patterned in gold tones and trimmed to match the ribbon in her hair. She would have already heard the bells tolling for the deaths of the royal family. I could only imagine the pain she must have endured this evening, wondering who had been chosen as the new ruler of Carthya, and what he would do about her. No matter what her anticipations might have been for tonight, one thing was certain: She did not expect me.

  I walked over to her and gave a polite bow. “Princess, it is good to see you again. ”

  The hard expression on her face made it clear that she did not feel the same way.

  Aware of the many eyes on us, I moved closer to her and whispered, “Can we talk?”

  Her tone was icy. “Talk with whom? A brazen servant, a ragged orphan, or a prince?”

  “With me. ”

  “Here in public?” I hesitated and she added, “We’ll make a scene if we’re only talking. Dance with me. ”

  I started to protest, but she was right. A dance might be the best shield for the conversation we had to have. So I nodded at the musicians in the corner to begin a song. With little attempt at concealing her disgust, she took my hand and moved with me to begin the steps.

  “The cut on your cheek is still there, though much improved from what it was before,” she finally said.

  “It was never intended that you notice me that night,” I explained.

  “Then you should not have spoken to me the way you did. ”

  “I sometimes lack the talent of knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet. ”

  “That’s not true,” she snapped. Then she took a deep breath and fell back into rhythm with the dance. “You had every opportunity to be honest with me about the one thing that mattered most! It was no lack of talent. You designed it that way. ”

  “I never lied to you that night, not once. ”