In celebration of the soon-to-be released debut novel by Andrew Shvarts, we are offering an exclusive preview of Royal Bastards.
Have a peek, don’t be shy, and revel in the medieval fantasy world of Tillandra, bastard and daughter of Lord Kent of the Western Province.
Find out more in my blog post here!
Princess Lyriana came to Castle Waverly two months after I turned sixteen. That meant fall was setting in: the trees were red, the roads were muddy, and when Jax and I sat in the abandoned sentry tower on the eastern wall, passing a skin of wine back and forth, we could just barely see our breath in the air as we talked.
“Well, Tilla? Any sign of them?” Jax asked. He was slumped on the ancient stone of the tower’s floor, his back resting against the waist-high wall, while I sat just above him on the edge of the parapet, my bare feet dangling over a hundred-foot drop. It was midafternoon, but the sun was hid- den behind a gray blanket of clouds.
I squinted out at the gap in the sea of treetops where the road emerged from the redwood forest. The feast began in just a few hours, and we’d already seen most of the guests arrive: the Lords of all the minor Houses, riding proud amid their hoisted sigils, and the chieftains of the Zitochi clans, clad in cavebear furs, looking massive on their shaggy, horned horses. There was still no sign of the guests of honor, though, the Princess and her uncle. That seemed right. When you’re that important, you make everyone else wait for you. “Just a few more minutes. I promise it’ll be worth it.”
“Uh-huh,” Jax said. “Pass the wine.”
I leaned over and dropped the skin into his broad, cal- lused hand. We shared the same mother, a castle servant named Melgara. Neither of us had known her, since she’d died birthing me when Jax was two, but she’d given us the same wavy auburn hair and pale, freckled complexion. But while Jax’s father had been a traveling soldier who’d given him a square jaw and a strong, dimpled chin, mine was Lord Elric Kent, head of House Kent, High Lord of the Western Prov- ince, Very Important Man. I had his face: lean, pointed, all high cheekbones and sharp angles. And I had his eyes: nar- row, bright, sparkling green. A visiting Lady had once called them “aristocratic,” and I’d coasted on the happiness of that compliment for weeks. Mostly because I’d thought it meant “pretty.”
“So, this Princess.” Jax took a swig of wine and passed it back to me. “Think she’s good-looking?”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s gorgeous.” I grinned. “And I’m sure she’s just dying to have a roll in the hay with a mop-haired, sweat-smelling stable hand.”
Jax turned up his head in mock offense. “I happen to think I’m ruggedly charming.”
“And I happen to think you’ve got horse shit on your boots.”
“What? No! That’s just . . . That’s just mud!” Jax craned his head down and sniffed. “Oh. Nope. You’re right. Horse shit.” He rubbed the sole of his boot on the stone wall’s edge. “Speaking of which, you gonna come by the stables anytime soon? Lady Dirtmane misses you.”
“Her name is Enchantress,” I said with a smile, but avoided his real question. Truth is, I hated riding in the fall. It reminded me too much of being a little girl, back when I’d been my father’s only child. Fall was when he was home the most, so we’d go riding together all the time, and he’d shown me the fog-shrouded forest and the beautiful black- sand coves and the ruined shrines of the Old Kings, the ones we were supposed to keep secret from the Lightspire priests. Those rides were my best memories of childhood. Possibly my whole life.
Then that beady-eyed wife of his, the one who called me a parasite, had popped out a daughter for him. A real daughter, not a bastard like me. We went on rides less and less. And one day we stopped going on rides at all.
Just in time to pull me out of that terrible memory, the trees at the edge of the forest shook with the thunder of dozens of clopping horseshoes. “Hey!” I shouted to Jax. “They’re here!”
Jax instantly popped up alongside me, and his spyglass was already in his hand. The big liar was totally still interested. The first men to step through the trees were royal foot- men. They were even more impressive than I’d imagined: tall and fit, their faces hidden behind shining mirrored masks, their armor covered in intricate silver serpents. They marched in lockstep and held high banners with the sigil of the Volaris Dynasty: a luminescent tower glowing with inner light, with a blackened sword on one side and a blossoming elderbloom on the other. Four ivory white horses trotted after them, their manes billowing softly like fresh snow. They pulled behind them the fanciest carriage I had ever seen, with a rounded canopy and gold inlays on the frame, jostling along the road on polished, gleaming wheels.
“Oh, come on,” Jax muttered. “Is the Princess in a car- riage? Am I not even going to see her?”
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 noth- ing 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 mem- ory 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, look- ing 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?”
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 pas- sages 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 Light- spire. 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. 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 stan- dards. 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.
If you enjoyed this small taster then look out for the publication birth of Royal Bastards, out June 6th. (We can hardly contain our excitement!)
And don’t forget to look out for an upcoming Q&A with Andrew Shvarts!
(£16.99, h/b, 352pp, 9781484767658)
Post by Sarah