FIRST READ: 'The False Prince' by Jennifer Nielsen
“First time the boy came in here, he had a shiny silver coin in his hand. Said he was a runaway, the son of a dead duke from somewhere in Avenia, only he didn’t want to be a duke. So if I took him in and gave him preferential care and a place to hide, he’d pay me a coin a week. Kept it up for two weeks, all the time laughin’ it up on extra servings at dinner and with extra blan- kets on his bed.”
Conner glanced at me, and I rolled my eyes. He’d be less impressed when she finished the story.
“Then one night, he took with a fever. Got all delirious late in the night, hitting at everyone and yelling and such. I was there when he confessed it all. He’s no son of anyone important. The coins belonged to a duke all right, but he’d stolen them to trick me into caring for him. I dumped his body into the cellar to get better or not, I didn’t care. Next time I checked on him, he’d got over the fever on his own and was a good deal more humble.”
Conner looked at me again. “He doesn’t look so humble now.”
“I got over that too,” I said.
“So why’d you let him stay?” Conner asked Mrs. Turbeldy.
Mrs. Turbeldy hesitated. She didn’t want to tell him it was because I picked up goodies for her now and then, ribbon for her hats or chocolates from the cake shop. Because of that, Mrs. Turbeldy didn’t hate me nearly as much as she pretended to. Or maybe she did. I stole from her too.
Conner walked back to me. “A thief and a liar, eh? Can you manage a sword?”
“Sure, if my opponent doesn’t have one.” He grinned. “Do you farm?”
“No.” I took that as an insult.
“Can you read?”
I stared up at him through the parts of my hair. “What are
you wanting me for, Conner?”
“You’ll address me as Sir or Master Conner.”
“What are you wanting me for, Sir Master Conner?” “That’s a conversation for another time. Gather your things.
I’ll wait for you here.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, but when I leave the comfort of Mrs. Turbeldy’s fine establishment, I go on my own.”
“You’re going with him,” Mrs. Turbeldy said. “You’ve been bought and paid for by Master Conner, and I can’t wait to be rid of you.”
“You’ll earn your freedom by doing whatever I ask of you and doing it well,” Conner added. “Or serve me poorly and serve me for life.”
“I wouldn’t serve anyone for an hour until freedom,” I said. Conner took a step toward me, hands out. I threw the roast I’d been holding at him and he flinched to avoid it. Using that moment, I pushed past Mrs. Turbeldy and darted into the street. It would’ve been helpful to know that he’d left a couple of vigils at the door. One grabbed my arms while the other clubbed me over the head from behind. I barely had time to curse their mothers’ graves before I crumpled to the ground.