The false prince, p.59
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       The False Prince, p.59

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 59


  Facing him full on, I arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

  “Even when you said you didn’t want the throne, you were all that time plotting to get it. You lied to me. ”

  Anger surged through me, and I didn’t disguise it well. I leaned close to him and hissed, “I did tell you lies, Master Conner, but none of consequence. I was telling the exact truth when I said I had no desire to be king! If there were anyone — anyone — I felt could take my place without the entire kingdom’s collapse, I would gladly step aside. If I could return to be that boy you snatched from the orphanage, I’d leave now and never look back. If you knew what it meant to be king —” I sighed and shook my head. “Of all Carthyans, I am the least free. ”

  “And what of my freedom?” Conner asked. “Shall I beg for mercy?”

  “Beg mercy from the devils. ” I spoke more calmly now. “You said you would sell your soul to them for this plan. Your plan worked, and the devils may have you. ”

  “If the devils have me, then you are their king,” Conner spat at me. “I will forever curse the day we met!”

  “Take him to the prison,” I told my guards. “He will be there for some time. Conner, it appears you will be unavailable to fulfill your duties as prime regent. Therefore, you are relieved of that position and stripped of your title as a noble. ”

  Once Conner was dragged out of the room, I directed the musicians to play. Then, exhausted, I fell into my father’s throne. No, my throne. I was king now. The reality of that was incomprehensible.

  One by one, the various members of the audience came forward to greet me personally. I didn’t know most of them, though I recognized several of their family names. They had been of little interest to me when I was ten, and weren’t much more interesting now.

  “You have come home to a country that mourned your loss these past four years,” Kerwyn said, standing beside me. “See your people celebrate you. Will you join them?”

  It wasn’t that simple. “I still feel like the boy in the orphanage,” I murmured. “I’m lost here. ”

  “But this is your home. ”

  I traced my finger along a carving in the armrest of the throne. “It was my home because my family was here. I’m alone now, and I don’t know where to begin. ”

  “You are still young, Jaron. Perhaps a steward would be appropriate —”

  “I’m king now. No one else. ”

  Kerwyn dipped his head in acknowledgment of that and stared with me across the audience. Quietly, he said, “Not everyone will welcome your return. The enemies at our borders will feel tricked. There will be anger. ”

  “I know. ”

  “War is coming, Jaron. ”

  A fact I understood down to my very bones. Despite that, I looked up at him and cocked an eyebrow. “But surely their spies cannot travel so fast as to ruin this night. There is still a little time to laugh. ” He started to object, but I stood and said, “They must see me laugh, Kerwyn. At least for tonight. ”

  With that I walked into the audience. Again, they parted for me. This time, I saw the person I’d been looking for all evening.

  Imogen stood at the back of the room, looking very small and frightened. When I approached her, she lowered herself into a bow and remained that way.

  “Please rise,” I said. “It’s still me. ”

  She obeyed but shook her head. “No, I don’t think it is. ”

  “How much did you see?”

  “All of it, Your Highness. ”

  “Must you call me that?”

  Her voice faltered. “I must. ”

  “Do you forgive me? Can you?”

  She lowered her eyes. “If you command it, then I will. ”

  “What if I don’t command it?”

  “Please don’t ask me that. ”

  Kerwyn came up beside me. “And who is this, King Jaron?”

  I took her hand and led her to the center of the group. “She is a lady in disguise, just as I was disguised as an orphan for four years. She is Imogen, and her family has debts to Master Conner. She has fully repaid those debts to me these past two weeks, in expert nursing care and compassion. Her father is dead, but using my power as king, I posthumously declare him a nobleman of Carthya. She is a nobleman’s daughter and will be treated as such. ”

  Imogen shook her head. “No, don’t. I can’t repay this. ”

  I turned to her and lowered my voice. “Imogen, you owe me nothing. You are free, and I wish you well in life. ” I gave her hand to Kerwyn. “Will you see that she is given a comfortable room and dressed to fit her title? She may stay as long as she wishes, and at whatever point she asks it, see that she is provided a way home. ”

  She smiled through her tears and bowed to me. “Thank you … King Jaron. ”

  I smiled back at her. “Thank you, Imogen. I wouldn’t have survived these past two weeks except for you. ”

  Kerwyn led her away, but when he looked back at me, I could almost see a new weight fall upon his shoulders. Difficult times were ahead, for Carthya and for me. But even pending war should never ruin a good party. With a smile on my face, I turned to the group and said, “Carthyans, tonight I am home again. Let it be a celebration. Tonight we dance!”

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