Royal Bastards(2)

By: Andrew Shvarts


I elbowed him in the ribs and kept staring. What was it like in there? Was she wearing a dress made of glistening silk? Did she get to sit on fluffy pillows and eat bellberries and sip fancy sherry? Did a handsome, shirtless servant fan her with a giant leaf, oil dripping down his chiseled abs?

The carriage kept rolling, its mysteries unanswered. A dozen more footmen marched behind it. And then, once they’d all walked on, a lone horse rode out from the trees, with a single rider on its back.

“Whoa,” Jax whispered. “Is that…”

“Rolan Volaris,” I whispered back. Archmagus of the Royal Mages. The King’s brother.

Unlike everything else in the procession, there was nothing ornate about him. His horse was a plain black mare, he rode in a leather saddle, and he wore only a simple gray robe. But I still couldn’t take my eyes off him. Rolan’s skin was a pure, rich black, darker than anyone I’d ever seen. His gray hair was shaved close to his scalp, and a neat silver beard framed his mouth. Even in the hazy light, I could make out at least a half-dozen Titan Rings on each of his hands, gold bands with ancient gems set in them, glistening like a rainbow.

More amazing than anything else, though, were his eyes. They burned turquoise, impossibly bright, like they weren’t just reflecting light but making it, two smoldering stars set into his face. He looked like something ancient and powerful, hiding in a person’s skin.

“Bow to the King or die by the Ring,” Jax muttered.

I scowled back at him. Since when did Jax quote the rebels? “You shouldn’t talk like that,” I said. “Not when he’s here.”

“It’s not like he can hear me,” Jax said. “Wait. Can he hear me? Is that a mage thing?”

“If it is, I’ll make sure to speak at your funeral. ‘Here lies Jax the stable hand. The only surprise is that it took seventeen years for his big mouth to get him killed.’” I stretched out my arms, and the muscles in my lower back flared with pain. That was probably my fault: I’d spent the last three nights sleeping on the hard wooden floor of Jax’s room. Not a great idea, I know, but it’s such a hassle to sneak back into my room after a night partying with Jax’s friends.

“Hey,” Jax said, glancing up at the sky. “It’s the first night of fall. Sky should be clear tonight. When you’re all done fancy-pantsing it up at the feast, you wanna head down to Whitesand Beach and do our thing?”

“Sure.” I smiled. According to Jax, he only had one memory of our mother: sitting by her side on a white beach, gazing up at the sparkling Coastal Lights in the night sky. One year when I was five or six and feeling exceptionally sad, Jax snuck me down to the beach, and we hung out there all night, looking up at the Lights together. We’d lain there, side by side in that soft, shimmering sand, and he’d sung me the lullaby she’d always sung him, “The Mother Bear’s Kiss,” and promised me that as long as those pretty green ribbons twisted in the stars, everything would be okay. Ever since then, going to the beach when the Lights came out had been our little tradition, our way to remember our mother. It was silly and sentimental, especially since I’d never even met her, but hey, it was what we had.

The tower bells clanged five times in the distance, and my smile curdled. “Ugh. I gotta get going. I’ve only got a few hours to get ready for the feast.”

“I’ll walk with you. We’ve got a few good sips of wine left.” Jax glanced down at the stairway leading to the tower’s base. “Tunnels?”

“Tunnels.”

The tunnels were our not-so-secret secret. Everyone at Castle Waverly knew that during the Golden Age, when the West had been its own Kingdom and not just an occupied Province, the Old Kings had built a network of hidden passages underneath the castle, connecting the various quarters; my ancestors used them to hide from Zitochi raiders, and later, during the Great War, to ambush invaders from Lightspire. Most people thought the tunnels had long collapsed or been filled in. When Jax and I were little kids playing hide-and-seek, we’d stumbled upon a cracked hexagonal tile in a larder in the Servants’ Quarters, and discovered that a handful of the tunnels were still around. Well, still around in the loosest sense. They were dark and dusty and filled with rubble, and most of them led to dead ends. But there were still a few that went to hidden exits, like the heavy hexagonal stone that slid aside at the base of the eastern watchtower. The tunnels were perfect for sneaking out to see Jax and his friends in the middle of the night, or for getting lost whenever Headmaiden Morga decided I was overdue for an etiquette lesson.

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