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FIRST READ: 'The False Prince' by Jennifer Nielsen

A new YA series from the publisher of "The Hunger Games," "The Scorpio Races" and "Harry Potter."

False Prince Jennifer Nielsen

Chapter one of The False Prince by Jennifer A. Neilsen (Scholastic Trade Publishing, 342 pages, April 1)

If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.

These were my thoughts as I raced away from the market, with a stolen roast tucked under my arm.

I’d never attempted roast thievery before, and I was already regretting it. It happens to be very difficult to hold a chunk of raw meat while running. More slippery than I’d anticipated. If the butcher didn’t catch me with his cleaver first, and literally cut off my future plans, I vowed to remember to get the meat wrapped next time. Then steal it.

He was only a few paces behind now, chasing me at a better speed than I’d have expected for a man of his girth. He yelled very loudly in his native language, one I didn’t recognize. He was originally from one of the far western countries. Undoubtedly a country where killing a meat thief was allowed.

It was this sort of thought that encouraged me to run faster. I rounded a corner just as the cleaver suddenly cut into a wood post behind me. Even though he was aiming for me, I couldn’t help but admire his throwing accuracy. If I hadn’t turned when I did, the cleaver would’ve found its target.

But I was only a block from Mrs. Turbeldy’s Orphanage for Disadvantaged Boys. I knew how to disappear there.

And I might have made it, if not for the bald man sitting outside the tavern, who stretched out his foot in time to trip me. Luckily, I managed to keep hold of the roast, although it did no favors to my right shoulder as I fell onto the hard dirt road.

The butcher leaned over me and laughed. “’Bout time you get what’s comin’ to you, filthy beggar.”

As a point of fact, I hadn’t begged for anything. It was beneath me.

His laughter was quickly followed up with a kick to my back that chased my breath away. I curled into a ball, prepared for a beating I wasn’t sure I’d live to regret. The butcher landed a second kick and had reared back for a third, when another man shouted, “Stop!”

The butcher turned. “You stay out of this. He stole a roast.”

“An entire roast? Really? And what is the cost?”

“Thirty garlins.”

My well-trained ears heard the sound of coins in a bag,

then the man said, “I’ll pay you fifty garlins if you turn that boy over to me now.”

“Fifty? One moment.” The butcher gave me a final kick in the side, then leaned low toward me. “If you ever come into my shop again, I’ll cut you up and sell you as meat at the market. Got it?”

The message was straightforward. I nodded.

The man paid the butcher, who stomped away. I wanted to look up at whoever had saved me further beating, but I was hunched in the only position that didn’t send me gasping in pain, and I was in no hurry to change that.

The pity I felt for myself wasn’t shared by the man with the coins. He grabbed my shirt and yanked me to my feet.

Our eyes locked as he lifted me. His were dark brown and more tightly focused than I’d ever seen before. He smiled slightly as he studied me, his thin mouth barely visible behind a neatly trimmed brown beard. He looked to be somewhere in his forties and dressed in the fine clothes of the upper class, but based on the way he’d lifted me, he was much stronger than I expected of a nobleman.

“I’ll have a word with you, boy,” he said. “You’ll walk with me to the orphanage or I’ll have you carried there.”

The entire right side of my body throbbed, but the left side was okay, so I favored it as I started to walk.

“Stand up straight,” the man ordered.

I ignored him. He was probably some rich country gentle- man who wanted to purchase an indentured servant for his lands. Although I was eager to leave behind the tough streets of Carchar, servitude wasn’t in my future plans, which meant I could walk as crookedly as I wanted. Besides, my right leg really hurt.