Royal Bastards(5)

By: Andrew Shvarts

“You were out,” my father said drily. “I was waiting for you.”

“I was…um…” I scrambled for a plausible excuse. Bathing? I was too dry. Riding? I was too clean. Studying? No one would ever believe that.

“You were out getting into trouble with that half brother of yours,” my father said, his disdain for Jax barely concealed.

I looked down at my feet, cheeks burning. “What can I help you with?”

He walked toward me slowly, stiffly, his face unreadable. My father was always a calm, serious man, never rising to anger or showing any fear. I’d spent hours trying to analyze a memory of his face, trying to find the real expression behind the stern front, hoping to crack it for just one smile. “I know that you have been removing yourself from courtly life lately. That you have become distant here, preferring the company of the servants.”

“I…I may have skipped a few lessons here and there, but—”

“I’m not chastising you, Tilla,” he said sharply, and I decided it’d be best to shut up and let him talk. “I’m saying I don’t blame you. I know you and I were once much closer. And I know you’re smart enough to understand why that had to end. You know our laws.”

I nodded. I’d heard that in the other Provinces of Noveris, bastards were treated differently, but out in the West, the laws were clear. Each Lord could take exactly one unlawfully born child as the House bastard. This child would be raised in the castle but separate from the other children, alongside the family, but not part of it. At any moment, the Lord could legitimize the bastard as a rightful child, or disown them altogether. The reasons for this were coldly practical: kids died, wombs went barren, and a Lord always needed an heir. Jax liked to call us “noble spares.”

“I married Lady Evelyn Yrenwood because I needed her father’s armies to keep the peace,” my father continued. “I had heard it said she could never have children, but those rumors were wrong. The laws of the Old Kings dictate that her daughters are my rightful heirs. The laws dictate that you must always come after them. The High Lord of the West must uphold the old laws, even when he would choose not to. That’s the cost of power. That’s the burden. We’re all bound by our roles.”

I nodded again, but less certainly. What was he saying? That he only married Lady Evelyn because he had to? That he wanted to legitimize me but couldn’t because of the laws? That he really did love me as a daughter?

No. Couldn’t be.

“Do you know why the royal family is visiting us?” he asked. That was a subject change if I’d ever heard one. I struggled to keep up.

“As part of her education, Princess Lyriana must visit all four Provinces,” I said, happy to know the answer to this one. Like everyone else in the castle, I’d been gossiping about the Princess’s visit for months. “She grew up in the city of Lightspire, so she knows the Heartlands, obviously, and she’s already visited the Eastern Baronies and the Southlands. That just leaves us.”

“That’s why the Princess is here, yes,” my father said. “But why is the Archmagus here with her?”

I stared at him blankly. To protect the Princess? To tour the land? Something about taxes?

“He’s here as a show of force. To remind us of our place. He’s here so we know just how quickly the King could tighten his grip on us, if we so much as threatened to wriggle out.”

“Oh,” I said. I knew plenty of Westerners were unhappy with being part of the Kingdom, of course. Once the old-timers down in the Servants’ Quarters got a few pints of beer in them, they’d start cursing the royal tax collectors and singing ballads about the Golden Age and telling dirty jokes about Lightspire priests. And I heard the stories that came in, about those rebels who called themselves Rattlesnakes, ambushing caravans from the Heartlands and smashing the Titan shrines dotting the roads. But I’d never thought that was a big deal, just some angry people and the grumblings of old fogeys. I’d always thought most people in the West had accepted King Leopold Volaris of Lightspire as our rightful ruler. Was I just sheltered? Were things much worse than I’d thought?