Royal Bastards(8)

By: Andrew Shvarts

“Missing mages?”

“You haven’t heard?” Miles seemed incredulous. “Six mages have gone missing from the West in the last three months. And not just some lowly Artificers, either. One of them was a captain in the Knights of Lazan.”

“Who took them?”

Miles shrugged. “No idea. My mother doesn’t know, either.”

If Miles’s mom didn’t know, no one else had a chance, because she was, more or less, the smartest person in the Kingdom. Lady Robin Hampstedt sat at the table just next to my father’s, an older woman with a severe look and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. She was my father’s closest friend and one of the very few women to be the head of a House, inheriting it after her brothers died of frostkiss fever. She’d insisted on remaining the head even after her oh-so-scandalous romance with Miles’s father, a lowborn blacksmith, and she’d refused to get married since, despite the dozens of highborn suitors who came calling after her brilliant inventions made House Hampstedt the wealthiest in the West. The Sunstones currently bedazzling the room? All her.

“So.” Miles awkwardly cleared his throat. “Are you, um, doing anything after the feast?”

I thanked the Old Kings I had a legitimate excuse. “Actually, yeah. Jax and I have this tradition where we head down to Whitesand Beach to see the Coastal Lights and—”

Before I could finish, the Hall doors flew open with a crash. The conversations in the room stopped at once, and even the singers went quiet. Incredibly heavy footsteps plodded in.

“Oh boy,” Miles whispered. “Here come the Zitochi.”

I craned around. Three men entered the room silently, wearing bulky black cloaks lined with gray fur. Most of the Zitochi visiting were still camped out in the courtyard, but my father had made an exception for their highest leader, the Chief of Clans. That was the man in the middle, Grezza Gaul, and he was, bar none, the biggest person I’d ever seen. He stood nearly seven foot tall and was built like an anvil. His skin was a light brown, and his face looked like it had been hacked from a block of cold stone. Four deep rifts, obviously from a very big claw, were scarred into his left cheek. Two huge nightglass axes formed an X across his back.

Flanking him were his two sons. I didn’t know their names. The one on his right, the older one, was the spitting image of his father, but the one on the left looked different. He was my age, and he was skinnier than the other, his frame fit but wiry. A long, thin sword in a plain black sheath hung across his back, its unadorned pommel peeking out over his shoulder. While his father and brother had their black hair up in the traditional Zitochi topknots, his hung low and messy around his shoulders.

“Who’s that on the left?” I asked Miles.

“Grezza’s younger son,” he whispered back. “Zin? Zayne? Zobbo?”

“You’re just making sounds.”

The three Zitochi walked into the hall and stopped just short of my father’s table. All around the room, I could see Lords tensing up, their backs stiffening, their fists clenching. The Zitochi lived in the frozen tundra north of our lands and they’d been our enemies for centuries. Some of the Lords still clung to old barbarian stereotypes, and used slurs like “glassie” and “snowsucker.” My father rejected that; he’d spent time out in the Zitochi lands, and come back arguing that they were a proud and complex culture, worthy of our respect. He’d brokered a truce that had lasted ten almost-peaceful years. But it was one thing to buy nightglass from traveling Zitochi merchants and keep our settlers away from their territories. It was another to invite them into our Hall.

My father nodded toward a nearby table with three empty seats. Grezza and his sons strode toward it, but then Grezza shook his head and said something in Zitochi. The older son laughed, and the younger son started walking toward us instead.

“What’s happening?” I whispered. “Is he…a bastard?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t think so. Could be?” I could practically see the gears in Miles’s head whirring. “Do the Zitochi have a practice of bastardom? Do they even understand what this table is? I mean, I never thought to ask, but I suppose I assumed that—”

“Just stay cool,” I said. I was feeling a little excited. I’d never talked to a Zitochi before, not really. And yes, I’ll admit it. He was hot. Not in that sweaty, broad-shouldered way like the blacksmith’s apprentice, but more of a cold, quiet smolder, like the kind of guy who would sit quietly next to you all night and then suddenly grab you up in a heart-pounding kiss.

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