Royal Bastards(9)

By: Andrew Shvarts

Maybe I was imagining things. Maybe I just really needed to make out with someone.

“I’m cool,” Miles muttered, obviously on a different wavelength. “It’s just…you and I don’t get to see each other that often, so I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk and…”

Miles trailed off because the Zitochi was already at the table. The younger bastards all scattered to the other end, terrified. The Zitochi watched them go, not betraying even a hint of emotion, and then took a seat next to Miles, grabbed a hunk of bread, and began cutting it with his dagger. I got an even better look at his face now. It was as rough-hewn as his father’s, his chin as hard, but his cheekbones were higher and his nose sharper. Up close, his eyes were mesmerizing, a deep, luscious brown.

The three of us sat in awkward silence. I realized I was staring. “Um. Hi,” I stammered out.

He glanced up at me, then without a word, turned back to his bread.

That stung, just a little. The Zitochi had a reputation as being loud, boisterous people. Was this guy the one exception? Or did he really just not want to talk to me? “I said hi.”

This time he didn’t even look up.

“Maybe he doesn’t speak the Common Tongue,” Miles speculated. “I speak a little Zitochi. Um, vartok slavh kon tonki? Vartok slavh kon tonki?”

The corner of the Zitochi’s mouth twitched. “I speak the Common Tongue just fine.” His voice was low and husky, tinged by a soft Zitochi accent. “And you just asked me if I wanted to rub your grandmother.”

Miles’s cheeks flushed a bright pink. “I did? No, I…I thought I got it right….”

I shot my hand across the table. “I’m Tilla of House Kent. And Rubby Grandmas here is Miles of House Hampstedt.”

The Zitochi looked down at my hand as if I’d shoved him a vomiting frog. “I’m Zell,” he said. “Son of Grezza Gaul.” Then he turned right back down to his bread.

I pulled back my hand. I might be a bastard, but he was still a guest in my father’s house, and that meant paying me the bare minimum of respect. “Hey! I’m trying to have a conversation.”

Zell paused, his dagger halfway through the loaf, and let out a long, slow exhale, like he was just so annoyed at having to put up with this. I was getting ready to smack him with his own bread. “What would you like to converse about?”

“Well, um, maybe you could tell us why you’re here,” Miles tried. “At the table, I mean. Tilla and I are here because we’re bastards—that is, children of Lords born outside the vows of their marriage. That’s where you’re sitting, see, at the Bastard’s Table. So I was wondering, well, if you were…”

I was cringing so hard it hurt, but Zell didn’t seem fazed. “If I was a bastard?” he asked. “Yes. I’m a bastard. And a failure. And a disgrace.”

Miles had no response, so he just made a weird humming noise.

“Should I go get us some wine?” I said. “I feel like we could maybe use some wine.”

“I don’t drink wine,” Zell said. He reached into his cloak and took out a curved ram’s horn, nearly the length of my forearm, with a tin plug at the base. He flicked the plug open, pressed the horn to his lips, and took a swig.

“What is that?” I asked.

“We call it stone milk,” Zell said. “You couldn’t handle it.”

“Why? Because I’m a woman?”

Zell blinked, genuinely surprised. “What? No. Our women drink it more than we do. You couldn’t handle it because you’re a soft, smooth-skinned, southern-born castle rat.”

“Oh,” I said, and for some reason, that actually was better.

But still way too insulting. I shot out my hand, grabbed the horn, and took a swig.

Instant regret. Whatever this stuff was, it burned like a gulp of molten iron, and somehow had the alcohol content of a full bottle of wine. I lurched forward, gasping. A dozen heads at nearby tables turned to stare.

“What have you done to her?” Miles rushed over to help me.

“I’m fine,” I coughed out. “Really.” Already, the burning in my throat was passing, replaced by a warmth in my belly. “It’s not half bad.”

Zell cocked an eyebrow. It seemed like, for the first time, he was actually paying attention to me. And maybe, just maybe, he was a little impressed. “I’ll take that back.”

He reached across the table to take the horn. My hand brushed against his as it passed, and I felt something odd, not warm skin, but cold, smooth stone. At the base of each of his fingers, in place of the knuckle, was a small pointed slab of nightglass, glistening darkly in the candlelight. It wasn’t jewelry. The slabs were coming out of his skin, growing like thorns out of the bones of his hand.

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