Royal Bastards(3)

By: Andrew Shvarts

Besides. Why would I ever walk across the courtyard like a sucker when there was an awesome hidden tunnel I could sneak through?

A few minutes later, Jax and I walked side by side through the narrow corridor, its earthen walls lined with jutting tree roots. Jax, one of the tallest guys in the stables, had to duck low to keep his shaggy head from bumping into the ceiling’s lower jags. I held my Sunstone, a gift from my father, and its soft white light lit our way. My ancestors, the hardened Kents of yore, would’ve made their way through by flickering torchlight, but who was I to turn my nose up at the latest and greatest in Western innovation?

“So. You’re really going to that feast tonight,” Jax said as he tossed me the wine skin. “I bet that’ll be fun. Putting on a fancy dress…having your hair braided…whispering ‘Thank you, m’lord’ when Miles kisses your hand…”

I sighed. Kissing Miles, the bastard of House Hampstedt, had stopped being a fantasy ever since we turned twelve and he tried to woo me with a sonnet, got an asthma attack, and threw up on himself. The fact that I’d just sprouted a good head taller than him didn’t help. “Maybe he’ll stay away from my hand this year….”

“Are you kidding? That guy loves kissing your hand! I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason he comes to these things!” Jax stiffened his neck and put on a prim, nasal voice. “‘Oh, I so can’t wait for the festivities this evening! Perhaps my good Tillandra will let me caress her knuckles with my warm, wet tongue!’”

“Shut up!” I shoved him in the shoulder and he stumbled forward, tripping over a loose slab. Good. “At least I have standards. As opposed to, you know, giving every visiting miller’s daughter your world-famous ‘tour of the haystacks.’”

“Millers’ daughters love haystacks. Who am I to deny them?”

We came to a fork in the tunnels where a small path branched off; it was mostly collapsed, but you could crawl through a narrow gap in the rubble to make it to an exit in the Servants’ Quarters. Jax split off to walk through it, bracing for the usual (and hilarious) ritual of squeezing his brawny frame through the crack, but then he turned back to me, an unusually serious look on his face. “Honest question, sis. Why do you do it?”

“Do what? Go to the feast?”

“The feast, the dress, the whole thing. Why do you keep putting yourself through this?”

I turned away from my half brother. “I’m Lord Elric Kent’s daughter, Jax. I might be a bastard, but I still have my duties.”

“Come on, you know that’s not true,” Jax replied. “You already sleep out in the Servants’ Quarters every night. You don’t even bother heading in for your lessons anymore. And Lord Kent has three real daughters already. It’s not like he’s going to legitimize you. I’m sure if you went to him and said you didn’t want to go to these things anymore, he wouldn’t even care.”

I didn’t say anything, just stared out silently at the dark passage in front of me. Jax had no idea, no idea at all, how much his words cut. He couldn’t. He just saw the side of me that I showed him, the side that didn’t mind sleeping in the rafters of the stables or wearing the same pair of dirt-crusted trousers three days in a row. He didn’t know how much I secretly liked the fancy dresses and the formal dances, how often I still closed my eyes and imagined myself being a noblewoman, how much I envied those three little girls.

He didn’t know how desperately I still wanted my father’s love.

“Tilla?” Jax asked.

I lifted the skin to my lips and swallowed the last of the wine, let its warmth slide down my throat and into my belly. Then I turned and tossed it to Jax, forcing a smile. “Free wine and free food. How could I pass that up?”

He caught the skin, shrugged, and turned to the gap in the wall. “Can’t argue with that. See you after the feast, sis.” And then he was gone.

I walked the rest of the way on my own. A cold draft blew in from somewhere, swaying the cobwebs. I closed my eyes and savored its feeling on my skin, even as it made all my hair stand on end. It felt better than the sting of Jax’s words.