Authors: Rachel Neumeier
To my twin brother and first reader, Craig—
I knew I’d learned how
when you said it was good.
he City is beautiful at sunset, almost as beautiful as the Lake itself. The waters of the Lake run with crimson and flame-orange and deep lavender as the sun sinks beyond its farther shore, colors pouring across the water all the way to Tiger Bridge. At that moment the exotic lilies carved into the Bridge, crumbling with age, look whole and alive in the moving light and cerulean shadows.
But after darkness falls, it will be the tigers of the Bridge that look real and alive. They shake themselves out of stone and come down from their pedestals, the lambent fires of sunset in their eyes, to stalk on great velvet paws through the night—so it is said.
At the moment between sunset and dark, the wind off the Lake sometimes dies and the air becomes utterly still. If that pause lasts long enough, it is said, the water becomes a mirror in which a man may see his true face reflected, as well as the reflection of the eternal City. Few would linger at Tiger Bridge to look into the still Lake at that moment, both because truth can be a dangerous thing and because of the tigers that wake out of stone in the night. But that is the story that people in the City tell.
That, at least, is a true story. The Bastard, who did not fear velvet-footed hunters, came to Tiger Bridge sometimes to watch the sun set and look into the glass-still Lake. The face he saw in the water was indeed not the face the simple mirror in his Palace apartments reflected. The Bastard could not have explained even to himself where, precisely, the difference lay. But it was to try to find out that he came to Tiger Bridge.
The Bastard had a name: Neill. He had a place in the court as elder brother to Prince Cassiel and son of Drustan, who was King. But he was not the son of Ellis, the Queen. The Bastard’s mother had been a woman who had wandered into the City and the King’s bed from some far country beyond the shores of the Lake, beyond the farthest borders of the Kingdom. She had given her son her fine ivory skin, her ash-pale hair, and her dark secretive eyes. And she had given him a heritage that ran outside the bounds of the Kingdom, a mixed blessing at best.
The woman had lived in the City for a season, for a year—long enough to carry and bear the King’s son. Then she had walked out of the City.
Though I go, this child will keep my presence always near you,
she had said to the King, laying the baby in his hands—so the tale went.
May he flourish in this Kingdom.
Possibly the King did not appreciate reminders of his dalliance, especially once he married his Queen. It was well known he did not favor his illegitimate first-born son. Still, if he did not love Neill, he acknowledged him and kept him close to power. Kings have no need to be ashamed of the evidence of their indiscretions as other men may, and more than one royal bastard has grown up to rule when all the children born on the right side of the blanket have been sickly, or girls. From childhood, then, the court had called the boy
to his face with careful deference, and, behind his back, sometimes with no less respect,
When the Bastard was twelve years old, the true Prince was born, merry and bold even as a baby and beloved by all the City. By that time, folk in both the Palace and the City had learned well the habit of respect toward his elder half brother. The Bastard, even as a child, had a way of keeping his own secrets while finding out the secrets of others, and although he spoke softly, he never forgot a slight. So people said in the court. And that story, too, was true.
The Bastard watched the sun sink below the Lake, sending fire across the water, and waited for the wind to die. But the quiet on this night did not last long enough for the waves to grow still, and so the Lake did not turn into a mirror. The Bastard was, however, philosophical about small disappointments.
He turned away from the Bridge, pausing for a brief moment to study the stone tigers before walking away. They were still stone under his gaze. After he turned his head . . . who knew what they might become? The Bastard walked back across the City to the Palace. Once he might have heard the soft pad of a great cat, but though he stopped in the street to look patiently into the dark for one shadow softer-footed and more dangerous than others to separate itself from the night, he saw nothing.
The Palace was the heart of the City. Its walls were of creamcolored stone and its wide gates of silver, with brass-bound hinges. Silver tigers lay along the gates, gazing into the City out of emerald eyes. Beyond the gates were the stables and mews, with the graceful lawns and gardens beyond those, where the ladies of the court could stroll in pleasant weather. Early spring flowers dotted the lawns, invisible in the dark but casting their fragrance prodigiously into the night. A couple passed the Bastard. Their heads were bent together, and they did not see him. He knew them slightly and watched them pass, amused. They were young and thought that the love that had woken for them in this spring was the first love the Kingdom had ever seen.
The Palace had been built of the same creamy stone as its walls. Windows of the purest glass poured warm golden light out into the dark. Carved roses climbed along with living ones up its parapets and towers. A spiral stair wove its way up the nearest tower, which existed, so far as the Bastard knew, solely to draw lovers to its heights to admire the stars. The couple he had seen had probably been heading in that direction.
The main doors of the Palace were made of a creamy wood, carved with intricate shapes that teased the eye with the suggestion of forms that could not quite be made out. The doors were standing open. This was ordinary. But the shouting that came from within was not.
The Bastard hesitated, and then approached. A small crowd had gathered there already: guardsmen and servants, a multitude of young men of the court, and a scattering of ladies, all rather pale and alarmed. And the King, voice raised in a roar. That was not, in itself, unusual. But there was a note to it this time that the Bastard might almost have called fear. That was very unusual. The Bastard put himself quietly at the edge of the gathering and listened.
“Well?” roared the King at some of the young men, who looked thoroughly cowed. The King was a big man, with shoulders like a bull and wide, strong hands. His voice, too, could be like the bellow of a bull. He had cowed better men than the crowd of daring young courtiers that were the Prince’s companions. “Well? What are you doing here, then? Why did you come back to this house without finding him?”
One of the young men, Jesse, among the Prince’s close friends—a bony narrow-faced man of twenty or so, who was usually sharp-humored but seemed rather desperate at the moment—started to answer.
The King cut him off, jabbing a thick finger in his direction. “People don’t simply vanish! Princes don’t simply vanish!
doesn’t just vanish! Not in some ordinary little wood along some ordinary little stream! You get your horse and you get your gear and you go out there and you find him, you hear me?”
“But—” said the young man unhappily.
The King spun with unerring accuracy to focus on the Bastard, who came forward imperturbably under his furious stare. “Your Majesty?”
been?” the King demanded hotly.
The Bastard bent his head slightly. “Walking in the City.”
The King dismissed any possible interest he might have had in his older son’s evening. His voice rose again to a shout: “Cassiel has disappeared! Something has happened to Cassiel! Go find him!”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the Bastard quietly, and looked past the King at the young man who had spoken. He caught his eye and jerked his head. “Jesse.”
The young man, with relief, started toward him.
“Thunder and ice!
not done with him!” bellowed the King.
“I beg your pardon,” said the Bastard, with perfect composure. “I shall wait.” He assumed a posture of patience.
“I told you to go find your brother!”
“Of course, Your Majesty. I await my chance to obey your command.”
“Oh—” said the King furiously, “—take him, then!”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” said the Bastard. He took the young man firmly by the arm, extracted him from the crowd, and swept them both down a wide hall lined with bright tapestries and shining lanterns toward his own apartments in the westernmost tower.
Before they had gone a hundred feet, the young man drew breath and started to speak. “Hush,” said the Bastard. He turned a corner into a deserted hall that was sometimes used for receptions, ducked through one of the servants’ passages, and brought them both to the western tower without passing more than a handful of people or needing to pause for any question.
Once in his own sitting room, the Bastard installed the young man in a cream-colored chair with turquoise cushions and carved legs, gave him a cup of hot spiced wine from a pot a servant had left at the edge of his hearth, and took a place of his own on a second chair. He said, “Tell me everything that happened.”
The young man looked now rather as if he did not quite know which he least wanted to face: the furious King or the composed Bastard. He was clad in riding clothing of russet and blue, somewhat the worse for wear; his shoulder-length hair was tangled. His long face looked even longer, drawn with nerves and exhaustion. He picked up his cup of wine, put it down again untasted on a little table at his elbow, and protested in a tone that was a little too loud, “I don’t know what happened!”
The Bastard looked at him for a moment. Then he leaned back, propped a foot on a stool, laced his fingers around his knee, and said mildly, “Then start at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end that brought you into the King’s presence, with him shouting at you. You went riding with the Prince this morning?”
The young man stared at him. Then he closed his eyes, took a breath, and opened them again. He started to pick up his cup, but his hand was shaking and he put it down again quickly, before it could spill. But his voice was calmer when he spoke. “Yes. Yes, we went riding. Just as on any day. We went around the Lake’s shore, to the west, where the country is empty. I tell you, Neill, everything was ordinary!”
“You didn’t go to the great forest,” the Bastard suggested. “You might have made it there and back in one day, perhaps, if the road was in a particularly cooperative mood. Or you didn’t ride out across country and find the forest unexpectedly there before you. I know Cassiel would have been the first to say, ‘Let’s all ride in just a little way.’ . . .”
“No!” said the young man, shocked.
“No! I tell you, we didn’t see the forest!”
“Pity.” The Bastard tapped his fingertips gently against his knee. “It would have been such a simple explanation. All right, then, Jesse, tell me what did happen.”
The young man took a breath. “We rode across the bridge—”
“The Bridge of Glass. We crossed at dawn and rode west, into the hills. Cassiel said he wanted to hunt, but really he just wanted to ride. We had hawks, some of us, but we didn’t even fly them.” Jesse grew calmer as he spoke. He picked up his cup again and this time drank before he put it back down. “We met a stream and turned along it. We rode upstream. We didn’t meet anybody. There was a wood, but it was just a wood, Neill, I swear.”
“Yes. Go on.”
“Cassiel said he wanted to ride uphill and find the source of the stream. So we did. He wanted to ride alone, really, so the rest of us fell back a little, you know. . . .”
“At one place the woods opened up. Somebody started a hare and Ponns let his hawk go after it. Then we had to wait for him to get his hawk back. Cassiel was out of sight, but we didn’t think anything of it! Why should we?”
“It seems there was no reason,” agreed the Bastard quietly. “Then?”
“Well, then we went on. Ponns was complaining that his hawk had a broken feather and Sebes was saying if a hare could tear up his hawk it wasn’t much of a bird, and we were all listening to the two of them. Nobody was worrying about the Prince. We came out of the wood finally and found the head of the stream: there was a cliff, and a spring came out under the cliff and made a pool. Cassiel’s horse was there by the pool, but Cassiel wasn’t with it.” The young man stopped.