Interlude Part I: The Disgraced Prince
Lafeara. Poesy Palace. Two years before the Selection.
The Lafearian knights snapped to attention with startled expressions as Crown Prince Tristan stormed past them, a dripping goblet in one hand, down the marble halls of Peony Palace. Captain Garrett followed at the prince’s heels, his Red Wolf uniform splattered and streaked with remnants of vomit and blood.
The closed double doors of the throne room loomed before them as a knight stepped forward to intercept the angry prince. “Your Highness, his Majesty, and the Dowager are in a private meeting.”
“The Dowager is here too? Good!” Tristan shouldered past the knight lieutenant. Garrett subtly shifted a hand to his knight’s sword as the other knight moved to protest. His gesture did not go unnoticed, and the knights hesitated long enough for the crown prince to shove one of the doors open and enter—without permission.
‘Saint’s Mercy—we are so fucked!’
Tristan stepped through and hesitated for a moment at the threshold. Garrett removed his hand from the blade before he followed. A swift glance past the crown prince’s shoulder took in the matriarch of the royal family and several members of the House of Lords around King Henri’s throne.
To Henri’s right stood Dowager Octavia and Marquess Borghese, who turned towards Tristan with looks of disapproval, and something else that made Garrett’s skin crawl. To the King’s left: Prime Minister Attwood, Lord General Commander Stryker, and Garrett’s father, Colonel Durante, held mixed expressions of doubt, anger, and disbelief.
Garrett shifted his focus to King Henri. Lafeara’s current monarch now approached his fiftieth birthday, though the gray that filled out his light-auburn hair, the sallow complexion of his skin, and the shadows that clung to his eyes made him appear even older. One look at the seething fury in the King’s cobalt-blue eyes as he glared back at his eldest son told Garrett all he needed to know.
‘This isn’t going to end well.’
But before the knight captain could contemplate grabbing Tristan and wrestling him to safety, the crown prince strode forward and flung the goblet at the steps before the Dowager.
“Care to explain yourself, grandmother?” Tristan asked coldly.
“I don’t quite know what you mean, Tristan. Though by your tone and apparent disregard for courtesy to the King, I’m sure that you’ll have no problem filling me in,” Octavia replied, her tone patient but marked with cold cynicism.
Tristan scoffed, then turned and knelt, belatedly, before the King. “Forgive the intrusion, your Majesty, but I thought it best to warn you someone attempted to poison me this morning.” Tristan raised his head and turned his enraged ember eyes back to Octavia. “But for a strange mishap, I might be dead this very moment, instead of my bodyguard, Sir Aaron, who drank the wine meant for me.”
“Is this true!” Colonel Durante demanded as he turned to Garrett, who knelt behind Tristan but dared not raise his head. “Speak up, Captain!”
“It is, my Lord. Captain Aaron died after drinking from the Crown Prince’s cup this morning.”
“Fortunately, we were able to catch the servant who delivered the poison,” Tristan continued, his gaze still glued to Octavia. “Who confessed to being under the Dowager’s orders.”
“Fascinating,” Marquess Borghese interjected with a condescending sneer. “So they confessed—just like that, did they? And where is this treasonous poisoner?”
“In the prison cells under Commander Quentin’s protection,” Tristan replied. “Quentin was also present and can testify to the servant’s confession. I have it written here with the Knight Commander’s seal.” He pulled the document from within his jacket and presented it towards the King.
After a tense, awkward moment of silence, Colonel Durante stepped forward to accept and open the document. He scanned its contents with a hardened expression then presented it to the Prime Minister. “What’s written here matches the Crown Prince’s testimony.”
The Marquess snorted and glanced towards King Henri. “It would appear his Highness is accusing your esteemed mother of trying to murder him.”
Something in the way the Marquess said Tristan’s title set off a warning in Garrett’s gut. He glanced towards his father, but Colonel Durante was discussing something quietly with Lord General Stryker.
King Henri looked agitated as he stared down at an ornamental jewel box that rested on his lap between his clenched fingers.
“Regrettably, my accusations do not stop there,” Tristan continued as he rose to his feet, again without permission. “The manner in which Sir Aaron died was also highly suspicious. He vomited black blood while his lips, fingers, and eyes turned black and blue.”
“What?” Prime Minister Attwood whispered as the courtroom fell silent.
None of them mentioned the fact that these symptoms eerily mimicked those of the strange illness that had killed Queen Rosalinda. Then again, any mention of the late King’s wives was all but forbidden—let alone the topic of their deaths.
“Have you finished?” King Henri growled as he raised his cobalt-blue eyes. “You barge your way into my throne room to accuse the Dowager of attempting to poison you, and then you accuse her of poisoning Queen Rosalinda?”
Tristan focused on the King, mystified by the fierce anger that dripped from his father’s every word. ‘What has happened?’ He glanced towards Octavia and did not miss the tall tale smirk upon her lips or the smug confidence behind her ice-blue eyes. ‘Somehow, it feels like she’s one step ahead—again! But I can’t back down now. Someone has to stop this madness.’
Tristan turned to face the full wrath of King Henri’s gaze and answered firmly. “I stand by my claims and the evidence here presented before you. I would be more than happy to turn the matter over to Knight Commander Quentin for further investigation.”
The King sighed as Borghese snorted and shook his head.
“It’s a shame she did not succeed then,” Henri muttered as he tapped a jeweled finger against the box.
The blood drained from Tristan’s head as his father’s words fell like a gavel upon his chest. The anger and grief that had brought him here flickered out, and something unfamiliar and terrifying took its place. “Father?” King Henri smiled, and Tristan flinched beneath its cold malicious embrace.
“A gift arrived for you,” Henri said, his tone casual but devoid of any warmth. He raised the box in his lap and then flung it across the floor. The polished black wood engraved with two golden scorpions embedded with rubies collided with the crown prince’s boot.
Tristan stared down at the box in confusion.
“Open it, Prince Tristan,” Henri urged.
A sticky feeling of uncertainty coated the back of Tristan’s neck and hands as he knelt and picked up the box. He glanced towards the officials around the King, their expressions suddenly cold and unfamiliar, as if Tristan were some unknown outsider. Except for Durante, Tristan’s mentor and trusted confidant, who glared at the floor with tightened fists.
Tristan took a breath and straightened. Then he unhooked the latch, shaped like a scorpion’s tail, and opened the box.
A jeweled dagger lay inside. Its hilt shaped like a black flame wrapped in black leather, while the steel sheath was embedded with black diamonds and rubies that formed a decorative scorpion. It was a beautiful blade, clearly forged and crafted by one of Ventrayna’s Master Blacksmiths.
“Is this from Eleanora?” Tristan asked as he lifted the dagger. It was lighter than expected, so he wasn’t surprised when he pulled the blade free to find it made of witch-steel.
“Perhaps we should read him the letter that came with the gift?” Octavia suggested as she laid a hand gently on Henri’s shoulder.
Tristan narrowed his eyes, then sheathed and returned the dagger to the box and closed it. “What letter? And what does this have to do with the Dowager’s attempt on my life?”
“Read it, Stryker,” Henri commanded as he turned to the Lord General.
“Yes, your Majesty.” Stryker opened the parchment in his hand and read its contents aloud.
“Crown Prince Tristan,
Please accept this dagger and know that it is your birthright. You are the son of an Emperor, not the son of a King. Would that I had known the truth of your birth sooner. Would that I had treated your mother better and kept her at my side. I cannot undo the past, but I would not see you robbed of that which is rightfully yours.
I have no desire to impose my will upon you at this time. You are still young—but know that there will always be a place for you at my side.
May Kritanta’s flame bless and keep you safe.
Your true Father,
Emperor Arius Constantine.”
The Lord General folded up the letter and passed it to Prime Minister Attwood as all eyes returned to Tristan.
“General Stryker intercepted this gift from one of the Emperor’s shadow assassins,” King Henri hissed coldly. “I wonder—what other purposes those assassins had to enter Lafeara?”
Tristan’s jaw clenched as the box trembled visibly in his hands. ‘The timing is too perfect for this to not be a trap. To think a fancy dagger and forged letter could so easily persuade Father?’
“Have you anything to say, Prince Tristan?” King Henri demanded.
“It’s not true,” Tristan bellowed as he flung the box and dagger aside. “Where is this assassin? Are they still alive? Do they even exist?” He turned his gaze from Henri to Stryker. “Or is a pretty dagger and a letter all you have to accuse me? If I was truly the Emperor’s son, why would he wait until I’m almost a man to claim me? What has changed in the past decade that would suddenly convince him of this?”
Stryker blinked, and for a moment, his troubled gaze turned towards the Dowager.
“The poison you accuse me of administering to you,” Octavia interrupted smoothly. “Is not actually poison.”
“What?” Tristan snapped, both elated by her confession and baffled in the same breath.
“It is an herb called Aconitum, and you have been drinking it since you were five years old,” the Dowager continued. “As I’m sure you’ve read in your studies, Aconitum is a special herb raised by the royal family which has the power to suppress a witch’s power and even neutralize it if taken for a long period of time.”
Tristan gaped at her silently as horror, disbelief, and the invasive chill of fear spread throughout his body.
‘Why is she insisting on this nonsense? Of course, they can call me a witch since they all know my mother was one.’
“That proves nothing, Sir Aaron—”
“It is lethal to those who are not witches,” Octavia explained patiently. “But your mother clearly was one, so we could administer it to you safely. Unfortunately, there have been a few accidents along the way. Incidents like Sir Aaron, where people who did not know drank from a cup meant only for you.”
The weight of her words shattered the fog upon Tristan’s mind as realization sank in with suffocating guilt. “Queen Rosalind—”
“Drank from your glass when you were still a child.”
“But—she was ill for several days before she died—”
“As you grew older, your magic, instead of being suppressed, burned away the effects of the Aconitum, so we had to increase the dose and administer it more frequently.”
Tristan sucked in a breath as he clenched his fists. “Why—why didn’t you tell me—what if Nicholas had—”
“After Rosalind’s death, we realized more precautions needed to be taken. Sir Beaumont is aware of your identity and has always carefully monitored Prince Nicholas whenever he was around you. As I’m sure you know, part of Beaumont’s education as a knight and the prince’s bodyguard is detecting poisons, something he is especially good at.” Octavia moved gracefully down the steps towards Tristan. “As it stands, your built up resistance to Aconitum serves as proof that you are not the King’s son.”
“Aconitum will suppress the magic of all but the most powerful of witches,” Octavia explained. “Pure-blood witches. And the only way one can be born a pure-blood witch—” she leaned in with a sympathetic smile as she brushed a drop of wine from his cheek “—is if both parents are strong coven witches.”
Tristan had no recollection of when the Dowager returned to King Henri’s side nor how he came to be kneeling on the floor. He felt only the weight of Garrett’s hand upon his shoulder as the world spun around him, accompanied by the words of the man he had once called father.
“Prince Tristan, you are hereby rightfully stripped of your title and the position of Crown Prince. You shall no longer be recognized as a prince of Lafeara. You and your mother are a disgrace to this royal family, and were Catalina still alive; I would burn her at the stake for keeping this treasonous secret from me.”
Garrett’s grip tightened, but Tristan lacked the will to move.
“I ought to burn you for killing Queen Rosalinda, but I have no wish for war with Ventrayna. So I will spare you for Nicholas’s sake.” There was a moment’s pause, during which the Dowager leaned down and whispered in King Henri’s ear. “Instead, as my last decree to the Commander of the Red Wolf Army, I order you to lead your forces to Wolfthorn Forest. Subjugate the pagans who have invaded our borders. Redeem your crimes against Lafeara with a victory.
“After the battle, you will pass command of the Red Wolf Army to Colonel Durante and continue your way to Ventrayna. Your father will no doubt welcome you with open arms. Do this—and I will not banish you from Lafeara for good—nor stop you from visiting Nicholas should he wish to see you in the future.”
Silence filled the throne room and accented the ringing in Tristan’s ears.
“Refuse, and I will have General Stryker arrest you and send you to Ventrayna as a eunuch,” King Henri spat.
Tristan stared numbly at the black veins in the marble floor before him. His nails scraped across the cold surface as his fingers curled into fists. Footsteps approached, and Garrett’s hand relinquished its hold as Colonel Durante appeared beside him.
“Get up, Prince Tristan,” Durante ordered. The familiar words from Tristan’s early years of sword training shook him from his daze. He looked up into the dark-hazel eyes of his mentor but found little reassurance within them. “Don’t you quit on me now, son,” the Colonel whispered as he took Tristan’s arm and helped the disgraced prince to his feet.
Tristan turned to face King Henri’s wrathful gaze, the unsettled looks of Stryker and Attwood, and the equally satisfied and triumphant smiles of Borghese and Octavia.
‘This isn’t over.’
Tristan bowed to the King of Lafeara one last time, even as the first wave of tears burned against the back of his eyes. “I hear and obey, your Majesty,” he recited through clenched teeth.
‘And I will remember.’
Without waiting for permission, he turned and marched past Durante and Garrett towards the only place that made sense. The battlefield, where his foes were clearly marked, and death and glory were decided by the strength and skill of a blade—not the poison of words.
The cold winter air stung against his burning eyes as he blinked beneath the morning sun. Tristan stumbled down the first step, and Durante, who had shadowed him silently, caught his arm and steadied him quickly.
“Breathe, son,” the Colonel reminded him firmly.
Tristan nodded mutely as he sucked in a strained breath of air. His chest felt as if a giant’s hammer had battered holes through it, his hands were visibly shaking, and the ringing in his ears would not stop.
“We should head to the armory. The other captains and General Liam will be waiting for us there,” Durante said as Garrett caught up to them, holding the box with the Emperor’s gift under his arm.
“Morning, brother, did father call for you as well!”
Tristan slowly turned his gaze from the box to Nicholas, shadowed as always by the imposing giant, Captain Beaumont. The second prince skipped up the steps two at a time, as energetic as ever. Though judging from his garments and the horses that had been left by the palace gate—
“You went outside the palace again, didn’t you,” Tristan observed.
Nicholas blushed like a schoolboy and grinned as he scratched the back of his head. “Don’t you start. It’s already bad enough that Grandmother knows and wants to meet her.” Nicholas stopped just below Tristan on the steps. His bashful smile faded as his gaze focused on his older brother’s face. “You don’t look so good. Are you ill—” his gaze shifted towards the blood and vomit on Garrett’s uniform and then snapped back to Tristan “—what happened?!”
“It’s nothing,” Tristan replied quickly. “Captain Garrett, if you would take that on ahead to the armory.”
Garrett nodded and quickly circled past Nicholas and Beaumont.
“Armory?” Nicholas repeated.
“His Majesty has ordered the Red Wolf Army to Wolfthorn Forest to deal with an invasion of pagan barbarians,” Colonel Durante explained with a polite bow. “And the matter is urgent, so we should be on our way.”
“Oh, I see.” Nicholas laughed as if reassured. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with them, brother.” He slapped Tristan’s shoulder affectionately. “Just try not to get a scar on that pretty face. You’re getting married in a few months—”
Tristan pulled Nicholas into a sudden tight hug and all but crushed the air from his brother’s lungs as he held on for dear life.
“Oye—” Nicholas tapped Tristan’s shoulder frantically “—can’t—breathe.”
Captain Beaumont stepped closer but stopped as Tristan relaxed his grip.
“Okay,” Nicholas cringed as he rolled his shoulders. “For someone who doesn’t like hugs, that was a bit intense.” He tapped Tristan’s shoulder again. “Can you let me go now? This is getting awkward, even if you are my brother.”
“Your Highness,” Durante whispered urgently.
Stryker’s knights circled towards them on the palace steps with hands on the hilts of their swords.
‘They’re here to protect Nicholas from me,’ Tristan realized and chuckled darkly as he leaned his head against his confused brother’s shoulder.
“Hey,” Nicholas said grumpily. “Are you sure everything’s alright?”
Tristan nodded as he ruffled Nicholas’s light-auburn hair—so similar to King Henri’s—so unlike his own dark midnight-blue curls. “Yeah,” he whispered tiredly. “Everything’s fine.”
“Good, good,” Nicholas murmured, noticing the knights around them as Tristan stepped back. “Are you and the Dowager fighting again?”
Tristan studied his younger brother silently, then turned to the giant behind him. “Look after him for me, would you?”
Captain Beaumont’s violet eyes narrowed, but he gave a single nod in response.
‘As good an answer as any.’ Tristan nodded back.
“Your Highness!” General Stryker called out from behind them. Tristan and Nicholas both turned towards him, and Stryker snorted. “Prince Nicholas, his Majesty is waiting for you.”
“You’re all being so bloody mysterious,” Nicholas muttered as he turned back to Tristan. “Go kill some pagans and get back home so we can plan your bachelor party. And I don’t care what Eleanora says; there will be plenty of scantily clad tits and lots of ale.”
‘My wedding? Eleanora?’ Tristan swallowed back a cold knot of fear as Nicholas shook his head.
“Where’s my confident older brother gone, eh? You look like you’re running late to your own funeral,” Nicholas joked.
Tristan laughed as he pulled his brother in for one final embrace, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “Long Live the King.”