The false prince, p.9
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       The False Prince, p.9

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 9


  “Must have fallen asleep,” I called back to him, splashing some water with my hand. “What do you need?”

  “Your water must be cold by now,” he said. “May I come refill it?”

  The water was cold. But it was also perfectly clean, and I was filthier than when he’d left me.

  “The water is fine,” I said, undressing as quickly and quietly as I could. “I won’t be too much longer. ”

  “The other boys left their baths long ago. ”

  “Yes, but they were probably cleaning themselves while I was sleeping. Give me a few moments. ”

  I dove into the water and scrubbed everything that would show outside my clothes. A thick stack of new clothes from Errol waited for me beside the tub. They were a gentleman’s clothes and probably cost Conner a fair amount of silver to purchase for all three of us. Mine had a linen shirt that laced up the front somehow, a soft leather half-sleeved vest with carved bone buttons, long linen pants, and a pair of calf-high boots. I didn’t think much of my skin would show.

  That was only my first bath, because after I emerged from the room, Errol inspected my arms above the sleeves and observed that I still smelled like an orphanage. He insisted on scrubbing me the second time.

  “The water is freezing,” he said. “You like your bath this way?”

  “It’s colder now,” I said grumpily. “And I never said I preferred it, only that it was fine. ”

  Errol’s gentle manners were not reflected in his bathing assistance. It surprised me how much dirt came off the second time. While he busied himself with a brush on the bottom of my feet, I looked at my fingernails. “I don’t remember them ever being this color,” I said, then yanked my foot away. “That tickles. Are you finished yet? I don’t like having a man help me with my bath. ”

  Errol grinned. “Shall I have a woman sent in?”

  I laughed and told Errol I wouldn’t need anyone’s help for my future baths. “Obviously, Master Conner has a different standard of clean than the orphanage did. Now that I know you want the entire body washed, I’ll make the necessary adjustments. ”

  After we finished, I sent Errol out while I re-dressed. I had to admit that he’d done a good job. It was possible I’d never been so clean.

  “Where are my old clothes?” I asked Errol after I’d finished dressing.

  “Off to be burnt, I’d guess. They’re not fit for much else. ”

  “Get them,” I said firmly, and then added, “Just as they were before, Errol. Exactly as they were. ”

  Errol considered that for a moment, then said, “I can get them back, I suppose. ”

  “If you do, I’ll see that you get a silver coin for the service. ”

  Errol tilted his head. “Where would you get it?”

  “That’s a small detail and my concern, not yours. But it would buy months off your debt to Conner. ” I widened my arms. “These clothes aren’t mine and they’re not me. I suspect I’ll want those other clothes back in two weeks. ”

  Errol shrugged. “I’ll see what I can do. Now come. The master is expecting you at supper. ”

  Conner had bathed and shaved as well. He cleaned up nicely, now looking more like a noble and less like a road-weary traveler. Roden and Tobias were already seated when I walked in. This small dining room appeared to be reserved for everyday meals and more intimate affairs. It was clearly designed to impress whoever ate here with an idea of Conner’s wealth. I couldn’t help but do the math on how much a clever thief might earn from stealing a polished silver fork or a gold-rimmed goblet, or a single crystal hanging in beads from the sconces on the wall.

  “Sit, please,” Conner said, motioning to the plate at his left. Tobias was at his right, and Roden was beside Tobias. Roden was clearly distressed that I had been seated closer to Conner than him.

  As soon as I sat, servants began bringing in the food. They started with cheese as soft as butter and fruit in the prime of ripeness. At the orphanage, we got the leftovers from the kitchens of the wealthy after they were too wilted or brown to be served at their tables, usually within minutes of the scraps turning to mold. Conner was served first, but he waited for the rest of us to be served before he began. Although I was served second, I assumed I had to follow the same guideline. It was a horrible temptation to ignore Conner’s example and begin eating.

  My senses were overwhelmed by glorious smells on my plate and others coming from the kitchen. “Do you eat like this all the time?” I asked enthusiastically.

  “All the time,” Conner said. “Would you like a life of this luxury?”

  “This exceeds any expectation I might have had for my life,” I answered.

  “It’s a humble meal compared to a king’s feast,” Conner said.

  “But who’d need a king’s feast if they had all this?” Roden asked as his plate was served. Then he looked at Conner, knowing he’d made a mistake but not sure exactly what it was. He searched for the words to correct himself, and failed.

  Tobias took his opening. “I’d need a king’s feast. ”

  A girl reached over my shoulder and set a bowl of burnt orange–colored soup in front of me. She had dark brown hair pulled into a single braid down her back. She wasn’t necessarily beautiful, but something about her was definitely interesting. Her eyes fascinated me the most, warm and brown, but haunted, maybe afraid. She frowned when she caught me looking at her, and returned to serving the others.

  “Thank you,” I said, getting her attention again. “What kind of soup is it?”

  I waited for her answer to my question, but none came. Maybe in Conner’s home, the servants were not permitted to speak at his table. I turned away quickly, hoping I hadn’t gotten her into trouble.

  Conner prattled on, telling us what we could expect to eat for dinner that evening: crisp bread still steaming from the oven, glazed roasted duck with meat so tender it could be cut with a spoon, fruit pudding chilled from an underground cooler. I heard him, but continued to watch the girl as she refilled drinks for each of us. When she leaned to refill Tobias’s cup, another servant bumped her with his shoulder, and a little water splashed onto Tobias’s lap. Conner glared at her, irritated. I opened my mouth to defend her, but she handed him another napkin and hurried from the room before anything could be said.

  When we were all dished up, Conner picked up the spoon at the top of his plate and said, “This is your soup spoon. It is for the soup and only for the soup. ”

  Following his direction, I grabbed my spoon, trying to hold it the same way he did. It was an awkward, uncomfortable position. Maybe gentlemen had to feed themselves this way. Poverty-stricken orphans didn’t. I was used to holding my spoon the same way I might grip an ax.

  “You eat with your left hand?” Conner asked me. “That’s unacceptable. Can you do it with your right?”

  “Can you do it with your left?” I countered.

  Conner sounded offended. “No. ”

  “Yet you ask me to switch to my right. ”

  “Just do it. ”

  I switched hands, but made no attempt to imitate Conner’s delicate grip with this hand. Instead, with my ax grip, I went straight for the soup.