Tilla, bastard of House Kent, has it made. Safe from her murderous father in the dazzling capital of Lightspire, she lives a life of luxury under the protection of the Volaris King, alongside her boyfriend, Zell, and best friend, Princess Lyriana. So why isn't she happy? Maybe it's the whispers and stares that follow her wherever she goes, as the daughter of the traitor waging war against Lightspire. Or maybe it's the memories of her beloved brother, Jax, who lies cold in his grave even as she tries to settle into a life in the city's prestigious University. Then Tilla stumbles upon the body of a classmate a friend. The authorities are quick to rule it a suicide and sweep it under the rug, but when Tilla herself is attacked by a mysterious man with terrifying powers, she's convinced of a conspiracy. Her friends beg her to stay silent; what she's suggesting is impossible...and treasonous.
The deeper she digs, the more questions she uncovers. Nothing is as it seems in the glorious capital, and Tilla's presence might just be the spark that sets the Kingdom aflame.
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I'd like to say I got used to Lightspire pretty quick.
It took me only a week to get used to the food. Sure, some of it was so spicy it made my mouth burn and sent me gagging for a glass of milk. But so long as you knew what to order, it could be so incredibly good. I quickly discovered I liked any food whose name ended with rellia, which as far as I could tell meant baked in a perfect flaky crust. There was chen rellia, which was a chicken pastry, and marr rellia, which was a beef pastry, and porro rellia, which I couldn't really explain, but it involved cherries and yogurt and just a tiny hint of cinnamon, and it tasted like heaven and sunshine.
It took a little longer, maybe a month, before I got used to the clothes. Oh, they were gorgeous, sure; that I knew before I even wore them. Even as a little girl, I'd dreamed of wearing Lightspire dresses, with their glossy swishing trails and their intricate floral patterns and their slim elegant sleeves that tied together with a ribbon between your fingers. But it was one thing to dream of wearing their clothes and another to actually wear them, not just to some fancy masquerade but out on the street. Lyriana had a crack team of seamstresses fit me up, personally commissioning a full wardrobe of gowns, and while I smiled and nodded and gaped, for the longest time I felt like an impostor wearing them, like a little girl who'd snuck into her stepmother's closet.
Getting used to the noise was harder. Back at Castle Waverly, unless there was a feast or a fight in the courtyard, the nights were still and quiet. If you leaned your head out your window, you'd hear the chirping of crickets, the whistling of the wind, maybe the mournful cry of an owl. But Lightspire was loud, deafeningly loud. My first two nights there, I couldn't sleep because the sounds outside my window were too overpowering: the shouts of hagglers in the night-bazaars, the neighing of horses, the grinding of carriages, the whistle of the Whispers and the caws of the Sentinels, the distant rushing of the Adelphus River, and above it all that constant hum of magic that was part noise in your ears and part rumble in your bones.
You know what I never got used to, even after being in Lightspire for six months?
Stupid, terrible, demon-spawn alarm clocks.
I awoke with a grunt to that awful buzzing, flailing my arm ineffectually at the noise. But of course, the Artificed monstrosity that was my alarm clock wouldn't be deterred by simple swatting. It was an expensive little gadget, handcrafted by the Gazala Guild, a big glass jar attached to a tiny mechanical clock. When the hands on the clock struck seven in the morning, a little lump of charmed stone at the bottom of the jar let out a spark of magical energy, a translucent blue orb that hovered around the inside of the jar, bouncing off the glass surface over and over again with an infuriating buzz. Lyriana bought it for me after I slept through our morning classes for the fourth day in a row.
With a grumble, I rolled out of bed and padded my bare feet across the cold stone floor of my dormitory room toward my dresser. Barely bothering to brush the tangled auburn hair out of my eyes, I reached out and jammed my hand onto the glass jar, feeling that burning tingle as the blue orb stuck to the underside of the glass, flickering and dissipating. "Shut up," I groaned. "Just. Shut. Up."
"Tillandra, my dear, you truly are such a delight in the mornings," a husky accented voice said.
I turned around to see my roommate, Markiska San Der Vlain IV, sitting in front of her vanity, a makeup brush in one hand and a stem of grapes in the other. I looked like, well, like a person who'd just staggered out of bed, messy and unwashed and disoriented. Markiska's lustrous blond hair circled her forehead in a neat crown-like plait and hung down her back in three elegant braids, each one ending in a silver ring that hung just above her waist. She was wearing a traditional Sparran outfit today, which meant a tight knee-length skirt, a loose silk shirt, and a half-dozen necklaces. Her skin was pale, paler even than mine, but adorned with dozens of purple and pink tattoos: dancing fish on her wrists, bands of ivy around her calves, a sparkling horned eel along her collarbone. One night she'd drunkenly told me she had another, a blossoming sea-rose, but only her lovers got to see that.
"How in the frozen hell do you manage to look so good at seven in the morning?" I grumbled.
"By waking up at five." She smiled, her white teeth framed by painted purple lips.
"Lies." I poured myself a glass of water from a crystalline carafe and spilled a good third of it. "There is no five in the morning. That's just something the priests made up to scare children."
Markiska laughed loudly, though to be fair, she did everything loudly. "Some of us still have boys to impress. We don't all have a gorgeous Zitochi warrior to ravage us every night."
"It's not ... he's not ... I mean, not every night...." I blushed and stared at my feet. I don't know why talking about sleeping with Zell still made me so self-conscious. It's not like it was a secret to anyone, and certainly not to Markiska, who'd taught me to tie a purple ribbon around the door handle when I needed a night to myself. Zell and I were together, and everyone knew it. And still here I was, blushing.
Markiska turned back to her mirror, applying a sparkling gold liner underneath her eyes. She was from Sparra, one of the Eastern Baronies, and the first day we'd met, she taught me two important things. One: the Eastern Baronies were not a single homogenous region but seven distinct city-states, each with its own rich culture, history, and traditions, and to bunch them all together as if they were a single region was to marginalize all of their individual identities, which was hurtful, offensive, and rude. And two: Sparra was totally the best one.
I liked her immediately.
"Speaking of impressing boys," she said, finishing her left eye and moving on to her right. "Are you coming with me to Darryn Vale's party tonight?"
"Oh, is that tonight?" I asked, even though I totally knew it was tonight. "I don't think so. I have plans."
I considered keeping it up, and thought better of it. Markiska could read me like an open book. "Fine. You know I just feel awkward at those things. Everyone knows each other, and they're all fancy and hoity-toity ..."
"Tillandra. How many times do I have to explain this to you? You are a student at the most prestigious University in the Kingdom. You're living with the daughter of the Baron of Sparra. And you're best friends with, oh, that's right, the Princess." She clapped her hands together. "Get it through your head! You are hoity-toity now!"
I shook my messy hair around. "Sure don't feel it."
"Nothing a good bath can't fix." She cracked open her wooden jewelry box and took out her favorite bracelet, a thin string lined with glowing purple pearls. Apparently, they were only found in Sparra's bay, in the mouths of something called bloodclams. "Please come? This is the last big party before Ascendance Day, and I have so much more fun at these things when you're there," she said. "You can even bring your beautiful, brooding warrior boy."
"Zell can come?" Now she had my interest. I mean, a fancy party at the estate of Lightspire's richest family probably wouldn't be his first pick for what to do tonight. But it would also be a nice change of pace from our usual nights, drinking at the Mewling Serpent or walking along the high wall that enclosed the Golden Circle. Both of those activities usually led to hooking up, but hey, so could a party, right? Wasn't that the whole point of parties to begin with?
"Oh, please." Markiska beamed. "I want to see the faces of all those skinny, weak-legged Lightspire boys when they see a real man walk in."
I cocked an eyebrow. "For someone who claims to be obsessed with boys, you spend a lot of time shit-talking them."
"What can I say?" Markiska grinned, that wry shark's grin that first told me she was way more cunning than she let on. "I'm a girl of boundless mystery."
A dip in the baths and a rummage through my stupidly big closet later, I was strolling through the wide grassy sprawl that lay at the heart of the University. It was still morning, the looming spire of the Godsblade a shimmering emerald in the sunlight, but already, the Quad was packed. Some students hurried along the paths beside me, while others lounged under the dense canopies of the forever-flowering cherry blossoms, reading books or just taking a nap. Vendors lined the cobblestone paths, hawking steaming pastries and cold glasses of beer. A group of students lounged in a circle on the grass, clapping in rhythm as a tall, pretty girl with her hair in tight ropes played a four-pronged flute. Nearby, a bespectacled professor was holding class with a trio of Gazala Guild novices, twirling his hands in delicate circles as dancing pink orbs fluttered around his fingers.
This was the University in a nutshell, amazing and overwhelming, familiar but totally alien. You knew it was a big deal because it didn't even have a real name; everyone just called it the University. As I learned in my extensive orientation, it was almost as old as Lightspire itself, the greatest center of scholarship in all of Noveris, the big juicy brain that informed the Kingdom. For centuries, it had been exclusively for mages, a walled sanctuary for new generations of Beastmasters and Mesmers and Knights to hone their skills. But with the fall of the West and the end of the Great War, it had opened up to everyone. Well, everyone who could afford to go there. Which was actually not that many people at all. These days, in addition to anyone who'd shown the gift of magic, the University was home to the children of Lightspire's noble families, visiting diplomats, and most powerful merchants.
And me, of course. The bastard daughter of Lord Elric Kent, the man who'd committed the gravest act of treason in recent history and was currently waging a war against the crown. Whose men were, even as we speak, fighting and killing the brothers and sisters of many of the very students hanging out around me.
Yeah. I fit right in.
After I'd arrived in Lightspire, the King and his council had debated what to do with me for days. A few of the nobles had wanted to see me put on trial for treason, an example to all who'd consider it. But King Leopold had stood up for me, refusing to punish the girl who'd saved his daughter's life, and so this was the compromise they'd reached. I would stay in Lightspire as a ward of the Volaris, a prisoner in the most technical sense. But I would also be allowed to attend the University, to get the same opportunity to learn and grow and party as any other rich-ass Lightspire kid. And when I graduated, and when my father's rebellion was put down, I'd be given the opportunity to swear my vows to the King and be free, a true citizen of Lightspire.
And that was what I'd always wanted, isn't it? What I'd dreamed about maybe every single day of my childhood? To wear gorgeous Lightspire dresses, to bask in the city of wonder, to live the dazzling life of the noblest of nobles. That was my life now. That's what my life would be.
I squinted up through the sky, pressing a hand over my eyes to block out the light. According to the great golden clock nestled within the twisting scales of the Godsblade, it was 9:45. I had a class at ten, History, and we were covering something interesting like the Conquest of the Southlands. Not enough time to grab a bite to eat, even though my stomach was rumbling, but enough to grab a friend.
I hustled across the Quad and took a left toward a pretty red-brick building. The University had six main dormitories, but Bremmer's Cottage was no doubt the nicest, reserved only for the wealthiest and most privileged. Or, in this case, most royal. I threw a quick cursory nod at the two City Watchmen by the door and hurried inside.
Lyriana's room was on the first floor, a spacious apartment with its own kitchen and bathroom. Its name was, no joke, the Princess Chamber. I rapped my knuckles on the heavy, ornate door. "Lyriana! It's me! You coming to class?"
I knocked again. "Hey! Seriously! You coming?"
More silence. That wasn't like her. Lyriana was usually ready to go before I even got there, with a sheet full of questions to ask during the lecture. Unless ...
The door opened a crack, and I could see a Heartlander boy's face through the slit, his features slender and handsome. His brown eyes met mine with surprise.
"It's cool," I said. "I'm Lyriana's friend. Just here to walk her to class."
"Oh, okay," he said, with the stunned cadence of someone who still couldn't quite believe what was happening to him. Given that he'd probably woken up in bed with the Princess, I didn't blame him. A minute later, the door swung all the way open, and he hurried out. Peeking over his shoulder, I could see into Lyriana's room: a messy bed, scattered clothes, and an empty wine bottle lying on its side on the dresser. I could hear running water from behind the bathroom's closed door; she was getting ready.
The boy stepped out of her room in a hurry, still glancing around like he was sure he was about to get caught. He was cute, really cute, with deep dark eyes and full black hair cropped short around his head. He was still buttoning his shirt up, and he had abs you could forge a sword on. I vaguely recognized him from one of my classes, a younger son from some powerful family or another.
"Relax." I smiled. "You're not in trouble." And you're certainly not the first, I thought but didn't say.
"Heh. Thanks." He smiled back. "I just ... I mean, she's ... you know ... so I thought ..."
And all at once, the friendly smile melted off his face as he realized exactly who I was. His eyes widened, then narrowed into angry slits. His mouth tightened in a cold, hard line. I put on a stoic front, but inside, I sighed.
"I should go," he said.
"You probably should."
He pushed past me, still buttoning his shirt, and actually jostled me aside. And just when I thought that maybe this awkward-as-hell encounter was over, he muttered something under his breath, just barely loud enough for me to hear.
Then he was gone, and I was all alone in the hall, watching him go with my mouth hanging open and no words coming out. I wanted to call him out. I wanted to punch him in the kidneys. But I just stood there, staring. Because on the one hand, who did he think he was, that he could talk to me like that? Did he seriously think he could get away with being a dick to me? I had dinner with the King once a month! I was the Princess's best friend! If I told her, if I told the King, he'd have hell to pay....
Unless I was wrong. And that was the other hand, the kicker, the thought that was always lurking at the back of my mind, the gnawing doubt I'd had since I'd walked through the city gates. Because what if he wasn't being a dick at all? What if he was just saying what everyone was thinking? What if all of them, the students, the professors, the nobles and the commoners, what if they all actually saw me that way? The traitor, the foreigner, the girl who only got to live because the King was a weak, sentimental softie? Was this guy actually an asshole?
Or was he just the only person in this city bold enough to tell me the truth?
A few minutes later, Lyriana and I walked together, side-by-side, toward the round, domed building called the Hall of History. Lyriana looked great, of course, because she always looked great; my memories of our journey through the West were hazy with emotion, but I vaguely recalled her looking gorgeous with seawater-soaked hair and a sand-crusted dress. Now, she looked like the very model of a Princess at University, in a slim blue gown with billowing sleeves and ornate elderblooms embroidered along the neckline. Her raven hair hung in neat beaded braids down her back, and her golden eyes glowed against her smooth black skin.
That wet fart of a boy didn't come close to deserving her.
"Is everything all right, Tillandra?" Lyriana asked. "You seem distracted."
I hated how easy I was to read. "I'm fine. Just a lot on my mind."
She stared at me hard, one eyebrow cocked, then sighed. "You saw him leaving my room, didn't you? Jerrald, I mean."
"If that was the name of the cute, disheveled guy trying to sneak out, yes," I said. I thought about telling her the other part, what he'd whispered to me, but decided against it. If I told her, she'd confront him, and then it would be a whole thing. I didn't need that drama.
Excerpted from "City of Bastards"
Copyright © 2018 Andrew Shvarts.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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