The false prince, p.58
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       The False Prince, p.58

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 58


  “Even after I begged for it, you failed to tell me the truth. Only the devils know the difference between that and a lie. You have hurt and insulted me. ”

  I had no answer to that and only said, “You will never find me dishonest with you again, Princess. ”

  “I hope not. Neither to spare your feelings nor mine. How shall I address you now? You’re no longer Sage. ”

  The dance step called for me to lean to my right. If she noticed me wince from the ache in my ribs, she didn’t acknowledge it. When I stood straight, I could speak again. “Call me Jaron. ”

  “You dance like a royal, Jaron. Better than your brother did. ”

  “Don’t compare me to him. ”

  She stiffened. “It was my attempt at a compliment. ”

  “Darius and I are very different people. If you think of him when you think of me, I’ll always be a failure to you. ”

  Her eyes fluttered, blinking back tears, and we fell into silence. We both knew there was more to be said, much more, and yet we completed the rest of the dance without another word.

  As the music ended, Amarinda pulled away from me. “What happens now, for me?”

  “Whatever you want,” I said.

  “All I want is to be happy,” she said softly. “But I fear that is too much to ask. ”

  My smile at her was weak and apologetic. I hadn’t caused my brother’s death, but I was a consequence of it. “We’ll talk later. In private. ”

  She agreed, though the look of disgust had returned to her face. “May I have your permission to leave now? I’m upset and wish to be alone. ”

  I nodded at her, and as Amarinda disappeared into the crowd, I was again alone in a sea of strangers.

  Still at the head of the room, Kerwyn said, “Your Highness, there must be a ceremony to make your new title official. I regret that your old crown is long lost. ”

  “I have it!” Tobias pushed forward through the crowd, holding something wrapped in a kitchen towel in his arms. He was wet and smelled horrible. I wondered how he’d made it this far into the castle. He stopped when he saw me and bowed. “So you were the prince all along. Why couldn’t I see it?” Then his face paled. “Oh, the crimes I’ve committed against you. ”

  “You committed them against an orphan named Sage. You’ve done nothing to Jaron. ”

  Tobias nodded and unwrapped the towel. “Your crown, my prince. ”

  Conner was suddenly there beside him. He grabbed the crown and said, “I am his prime regent. It is my duty to crown him in the ceremony. ”

  As we walked forward together, Conner whispered, “If you forgive me here, I will serve you forever. On your terms … Jaron. ”

  I said nothing. Although it did not go the way he had intended, Conner’s plan was complete. Mine was not.

  The ceremony to crown me king went by very quickly. Kerwyn produced the Book of Faith, which Conner read from to administer the Blessing of the King. When it was finished, Kerwyn gave him a ring, which Conner placed on my finger. “This belonged to King Eckbert,” Conner said. “It was your father’s. ”

  “The king’s ring. ” It was heavier than I’d expected, made of gold and imprinted with my family crest. It was too large and looked funny on my hand, like something I’d stolen rather than inherited through birthright.

  Then he lifted from a ruby red pillow my crown, still wet from having been washed. “This is a prince’s crown. A new one will be commissioned for you immediately, but it will do for now. ” He placed it on my head, this time with much humbler and gentler hands than had crowned me at the inn.

  Conner went to his knees again and said, “Hail, King Jaron. ”

  “Hail, King Jaron!” the audience echoed.

  “Be a better king than your father was,” Conner said softly. “You come to the throne at a time of great upheaval. ”

  “There is always upheaval,” I said. “Only the reasons for the troubles change. ”

  “You have the betrothed princess. She will support you. ”

  “She hates me. ”

  “So do I. And I just crowned you king. ”

  Conner smiled as he said it, but it probably wasn’t a joke.

  “I kept my promise to you,” I said, still keeping my voice quiet enough so that only he could hear us. “You have the position you wanted. ”

  “You are the true king,” Conner said. “You may place me anywhere you desire. ”

  “So I shall. ” Then more loudly, I added, “I want the prime regent, Lord Bevin Conner, arrested for the attempted murder of Prince Jaron four years ago. Arrest him for the murder of an orphan boy named Latamer. And also for the murders of King Eckbert, Queen Erin, and Crown Prince Darius. ”

  Whispers and hisses flew through the room. Conner turned to me with panic-stricken eyes. “No, I didn’t —”

  From a pocket of my jacket, I pulled out a small vial.

  “This is oil pressed from the dervanis flower,” I said. “It took me a long time to figure out what sort of poison might have killed my family. Entire nights searching through the books in your library. I’m not a great reader, that’s true, but if the subject matter interests me, I can comb through books quite quickly. Oddly enough, I found the answer in a book in your bedroom. Dervanis oil is tasteless and requires only a single drop to produce a lethal dose. But it doesn’t kill immediately. A person will go to sleep feeling fine and never wake up again. Dervanis oil is hard to come by, yet this was in a strongbox in your office. ”

  Conner shook his head, then his eyes darted left, and he thrust his hand inside his jacket. “As I always said, Sage, if I go down, so do you!” But he failed to find what he was looking for. He drew back and searched his jacket.

  I released the cuff of my sleeve, and a knife he had hidden in his jacket fell into my hands. “If this is what you wanted, then I shall have to increase the charges against you. ”

  Two guards appeared on either side of Conner and each took his arm. “I can’t imagine the pleasure you must be taking in this moment,” he said nastily.

  My temper flared. “Pleasure? I’m staring at the man who killed my family. Whatever I feel now, trust that pleasure is the furthest from those feelings. ”

  “You said you were my prince. Is this what that means to you?”

  “I am your prince. But I am Carthya’s king. You’ll understand why, in the hierarchy of my titles, you must lose. ”

  “Why didn’t you tell me from the beginning? If you had told me who you were —”

  “Then I couldn’t have unmasked you. I’d have doomed my own rule, just as my family was doomed. ”

  Behind me, Kerwyn sighed. Addressing Conner, he said, “What if Jaron had been only an orphan? Surely, you couldn’t have expected him to fool the court for long. ”

  “He didn’t need much time,” I said, keeping my eyes on Conner. “He needed a prince only long enough to get himself named prime regent. No matter what happened afterward, he would become the controlling power in Carthya. ”

  “Well done,” Conner said. “Jaron was always described as a clever boy, but I underestimated you. ” I started to wave my hand to dismiss him, but Conner quickly added, “You are guilty of crimes too, Your Majesty. ”