Royal Bastards

By: Andrew Shvarts

For Alex

PRINCESS LYRIANA CAME TO CASTLE WAVERLY two months after I turned sixteen. That meant fall was setting in: the trees were red, the roads were muddy, and when Jax and I sat in the abandoned sentry tower on the eastern wall, passing a skin of wine back and forth, we could just barely see our breath in the air as we talked.

“Well, Tilla? Any sign of them?” Jax asked. He was slumped on the ancient stone of the tower’s floor, his back resting against the waist-high wall, while I sat just above him on the edge of the parapet, my bare feet dangling over a hundred-foot drop. It was midafternoon, but the sun was hidden behind a gray blanket of clouds.

I squinted out at the gap in the sea of treetops where the road emerged from the redwood forest. The feast began in just a few hours, and we’d already seen most of the guests arrive: the Lords of all the minor Houses, riding proud amid their hoisted sigils, and the Chieftains of the Zitochi clans, clad in cavebear furs, looking massive on their shaggy, horned horses. There was still no sign of the guests of honor, though, the Princess and her uncle. That seemed right. When you’re that important, you make everyone else wait for you. “Just a few more minutes. I promise it’ll be worth it.”

“Uh-huh,” Jax said. “Pass the wine.”

I leaned over and dropped the skin into his broad, callused hand. We shared the same mother, a castle servant named Melgara. Neither of us had known her, since she’d died birthing me when Jax was two, but she’d given us the same wavy auburn hair and pale, freckled complexion. But while Jax’s father had been a traveling soldier who’d given him a square jaw and a strong, dimpled chin, mine was Lord Elric Kent, head of House Kent, High Lord of the Western Province, Very Important Man. I had his face: lean, pointed, all high cheekbones and sharp angles. And I had his eyes: narrow, bright, sparkling green. A visiting Lady had once called them “aristocratic,” and I’d coasted on the happiness of that compliment for weeks. Mostly because I’d thought it meant “pretty.”

“So, this Princess.” Jax took a swig of wine and passed it back to me. “Think she’s good-looking?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s gorgeous.” I grinned. “And I’m sure she’s just dying to have a roll in the hay with a mop-haired, sweat-smelling stable hand.”

Jax turned up his head in mock offense. “I happen to think I’m ruggedly charming.”

“And I happen to think you’ve got horse shit on your boots.”

“What? No! That’s just…That’s just mud!” Jax craned his head down and sniffed. “Oh. Nope. You’re right. Horse shit.” He rubbed the sole of his boot on the stone wall’s edge. “Speaking of which, you gonna come by the stables anytime soon? Lady Dirtmane misses you.”

“Her name is Enchantress,” I said with a smile, but avoided his real question. Truth is, I hated riding in the fall. It reminded me too much of being a little girl, back when I’d been my father’s only child. Fall was when he was home the most, so we’d go riding together all the time, and he’d shown me the fog-shrouded forest and the beautiful black-sand coves and the ruined shrines of the Old Kings, the ones we were supposed to keep secret from the Lightspire priests. Those rides were my best memories of childhood. Possibly my whole life.

Then that beady-eyed wife of his, the one who called me a parasite, had popped out a daughter for him. A real daughter, not a bastard like me. We went on rides less and less. And one day we stopped going on rides at all.

Just in time to pull me out of that terrible memory, the trees at the edge of the forest shook with the thunder of dozens of clopping horseshoes. “Hey!” I shouted to Jax. “They’re here!”

Jax instantly popped up alongside me, and his spyglass was already in his hand. The big liar was totally still interested.

The first men to step through the trees were royal footmen. They were even more impressive than I’d imagined: tall and fit, their faces hidden behind shining mirrored masks, their armor covered in intricate silver serpents. They marched in lockstep and held high banners with the sigil of the Volaris Dynasty: a luminescent tower glowing with inner light, with a blackened sword on one side and a blossoming elderbloom on the other. Four ivory white horses trotted after them, their manes billowing softly like fresh snow. They pulled behind them the fanciest carriage I had ever seen, with a rounded canopy and gold inlays on the frame, jostling along the road on polished, gleaming wheels.