Chapter 16: The Shackles of Power
“It’s so reassuring to have you back with us once more, Prince Tristan!” Farrell proclaimed as he gracefully swung himself up into the dun horse’s saddle. “I can only hope your Highness’s extended stay will keep your precocious sister from visiting any time soon.”
Tristan scoffed, shook his head, and mounted the fresh cream-coated stallion an attendant held for him. “I am too tired for talk.”
“Of course you are! You’re wearing half the desert from the looks of it.” Farrell grimaced. “I can only imagine how chaffed your nether regions must be,” he added with a shudder. “Only an insane person would travel the desert in the middle of drought season.”
“Are we in a drought?” Tristan didn’t recall water being an issue on the journey. But then, the shadow guard that traveled with them had always had a fresh waterskin on hand whenever his emptied.
Farrell eyed him strangely for a moment, then sighed. “I forget you have the knowledge of a foreigner. Ventrayna goes through a heavy drought every year. Usually, it only affects the slaves and lower citizens. They have to survive on two glasses of water a day—if they’re lucky—and forget about bathing.” Another grimace followed this comment.
“Oh.” Tristan shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and wondered if his hopes for a bath were little more than another desert illusion.
Ferrell nearly doubled over in his saddle as he burst out laughing. “Would you look at your face? Of course the rationing doesn’t apply to royalty! Even the nobles are permitted to bathe regularly—encouraged too, in fact. Come on then, let’s wash the desert stench off you and get some proper food.” The prince consort guided his horse on ahead and left Tristan to follow, with the ever-persistent shadow guard circling in behind.
Unlike Lafeara, the private palaces of outer royals (a title that applied to every royal minus the Emperor, Empress, and crown prince/princess) and nobles in Ventrayna were spread along the outskirts of the capital city. Each palace had its own standing militia that was expected to protect that section of the capital and its wall in the event of an invasion.
Farrell’s residence, while smaller than the Emperor’s Palace, was still far grander than any of Lafeara’s palaces. It was also the largest palace along the north wall—a suitable size and location for the previously titled Crown Princess’s Consort.
Ten slaves groveled with their faces to the dirt, their arms and hands outstretched in greeting, before the palace gate and scampered forward to kiss Farrell’s boots the moment he dismounted. “Welcome back, most magnanimous Prince,” they murmured in broken unison.
“I’ve brought an honored guest who will be staying with us,” Farrell announced as he walked through their pandering hands and wiped his boot on the backside of a cowering woman slave. “This is Prince Tristan. The Emperor’s recently recovered son. I trust you will each afford him with the same level of service and respect you give your Master.”
“We are unworthy to serve you, Altus Ignis.”
Tristan flinched as men and women groveled towards his dirty boots. “That will not be necessary.”
“You hear that? The prince doesn’t want you smelly dogs licking at him,” Farrell growled playfully as he kicked over one of the larger slaves—with surprisingly little effort. “No worries, Prince Tristan, there are plenty of cleaner servants inside that will attend to you. Only the best for the Emperor’s son. This way.” Farrell gestured with a flash of his vibrant robes and headed through the opening palace gate.
The familiar taste of disgust filled the back of Tristan’s throat as he avoided looking at the frail, half-starved humans that cowed like battered sheep on the ground before him. Their lack of bathing becoming more apparent by the minute.
Tristan shifted his attention to Umbra and the shadow guard, half of whom dismounted and followed behind him. “You should all get some rest too—and a bath. Consider that last part an order.”
Umbra bowed his head. “We shall rest when our replacements have arrived, Draco Dominus.”
Tristan flinched, all too aware of the many eyes and ears within his vicinity. “I told you not to call me that,” Tristan growled as he scanned the slaves, none of which dared drag their faces from the ground. “Have your replacements keep a discreet distance then.” Tristan pushed the matter from his mind as he dragged a hand down his raw, grimy face and headed towards the open gate.
Beneath the torn tunic of an elderly, balding male slave, Tristan noted the brand of a burning hawk, which marked the slave as Duke Tyrrell’s property. But beneath the brand and scared marks of a slave master’s whip, the faded tattoo of a dragon, a symbol of old Zarus, still shimmered like the last embers of a fading dynasty.
Long before the first Pope claimed Zarus as the church’s Holy City, it belonged to the living, breathing goddess of destruction, Kritanta. Even after a century of living beneath the church’s oppression, the number of slaves within Ventrayna who continued to worship her legends surprised Tristan. After renaming old Zarus as Ventrayna, Emperor Arius had rebuilt many of Kritanta’s fallen temples. But even a shared faith in the same goddess couldn’t protect the mortals of Zara from the witch’s hatred and bias.
The palace’s interior grounds contained an abundance of luxuries despite its location in the desert: a pool for swimming, an indoor bathhouse, private barracks and separate bathhouse for soldiers, and the smaller side houses where the slaves and servants resided.
To Tristan’s great relief, Farrell spared little time directing him to the bathhouse. As promised, the servants were markedly cleaner, though doused in perfumed oil to cover their lack of frequent bathing. Male servants helped the sand-covered prince strip, poured scented oil down his skin, and wiped off most of the grime with a damp cloth. Once Tristan was sufficiently cleaned, they guided him towards a doorway that billowed with steam.
Beyond the beaded curtain, three scantily clad female servants greeted Tristan and guided him to the first of two large pools, surrounded by thin cloud-like curtains. Over the patterned drain of a burning sun, the women doused Tristan with buckets of cold water and, at his request, retreated to allow him privacy to removed the loincloth and wash himself clean.
Unlike the slaves outside, these palace servants were better dressed, fed, and groomed. Their hair and bodies were kept fresh with fragrant oil that followed their every gesture and made their skin gleam.
The slaves of Ventrayna were divided between three ranks: the native-born half-witches, who were addressed as servants or attendants; the mortal slaves of old Zarus, who were treated little better than beasts; and convict slaves, who generally came from the nobility of old Zarus and were believed to carry the hated bloodline of Saints.
Mortal slaves were not permitted inside the palace but worked outside in the gardens, stables, or wherever their Master saw fit to use them for labor. Convict slaves were used for sport and entertainment that ranged from fighting against wild animals in pit matches to being hung upside down and consumed by a nest of fire ants.
Tristan had seen this form of entertainment only once at a banquet held by the Empress. She had forced a child convict slave to open his mouth and poured a beaker of spider-like scorpions down his throat. The child died instantly. His sobbing mother lived longer—though she suffered even more.
“I hope you don’t mind if I join you,” Farrell called as he appeared through the curtains in a bathrobe. “You should let the servants do that. It’s what they’re here for.” The prince consort snapped his fingers, and the slave women returned to retrieve their sponges from the side of the pool.
“I can manage,” Tristan muttered but obediently stood still as the women worked their way across his neck, arms, chest, and back. He stopped them before they went below his torso. “That’s more than enough help.”
“Still so shy?” Farrell chuckled. “Come on then. You’re clean enough for the salt baths.”
Tristan left the drain and accepted a towel from the servant as he followed Farrell towards the heated salt pool.
“I still don’t understand why people who live in the desert prefer such hot baths,” Tristan muttered as he slowly descended the steps into the pale green water that prickled against his freshly scrubbed skin and burned against his ears and neck by the time his feet touched the bottom. The heat and herbs made him sweat, even as the aromatic steam opened his eyes and airways.
“It’s easy enough to tune down the heat if you use your magic,” Farrell replied with a smirk as he tossed his damp towel to the side of the pool. “The benefits are, without a doubt, worth the effort. As much as the average person sweats during the day, I’ve never had to worry about dry or oily skin or imperfections thanks to these medicinal salt baths.” Farrell ducked below the murky water, then emerged and shook out his shoulder-length jet-black hair. “In any case, there’s nothing better after a long journey across the desert. You’ll sleep like an infant after this, trust me.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
Ferrell smiled knowingly. “Ah, yes, the Empress did give you a rather gruesome gift last time.”
“Gift?” Tristan raised a brow as he waded over to one of the wooden seats built along the pool’s interior edge. He settled down stiffly against its leather cushioned surface with a small sigh. The water rose just above his biceps as he leaned back and allowed his tired muscles to relax beneath the tantalizing warmth.
“Well, compared to the sons of Arius’s other consorts, I’d say you got off quite easily,” Farrell replied with a note of grim levity as he took a seat beside Tristan. “Servant, some wine! And perhaps a bit of light food for his Highness. Some honeydews. Make sure they’re sweet, not sour!”
“What do you mean?” Tristan asked as he rolled his neck towards Farrell, who was examining his cuticles critically.
The prince consort scoffed and shook his head with a mocking smile. “There’s a reason Arius has five concubines, and yet, among their many pregnancies, only you and Aurelia ever lived to reach adulthood.”
Tristan nodded. He had suspected as much after the Empress attempted to kill him. ‘But why would the Emperor turn a blind eye to the Empress murdering his other children.’
A servant placed a tray of wine beside Farrell, who waved her away before he poured the dark liquid into the two-silver trimmed chalice. Observing Tristan’s curious gaze on the cups, Farrell explained, “My mother specially made them as a wedding present.”
“You’re expecting the Empress to poison you?”
Farrell shrugged and offered a benign smile. “I’m more concerned about your sister presently, but I would never rule out either of them.”
Tristan shook his head and accepted the glass. He tipped it back and downed the fiery alcohol without a second thought.
Farrell chuckled and sipped from his own glass gradually. “I would have expected you to hesitate, Prince Tristan.”
The buzz of the wine dimmed all too quickly as the fire in his veins purified the effects. ‘One of Kritanta’s many blessings and curses. I can’t be poisoned, but I also can’t get drunk either.’
His chest clenched painfully as the memory of the last time Tristan had gotten uncharacteristically drunk returned to him with the visage of Eleanora’s flushed, smiling face pressed against her crossed arms that rested upon his chest.
Tristan set his empty glass aside as he leaned back and stared into the swirling steam. As always, his mind circled back to Nero and the Witch Star. He remembered nothing of the fight once the dragon took over, only that the beast’s control had been shaken by a sudden burst of cold magic that seemed to have come from the Witch Star.
‘Is it possible that my mother’s North Star is the frozen heart Kritanta has been searching for all this time?’
His hands clenched into fists beside his tired legs as Tristan contemplated how to pick up Nero’s scent once more. The Emperor would no doubt be a valuable asset, but Tristan suspected that Arius would withhold that information until his training was complete.
‘Still, how long could it take to master magic granted by a goddess anyway?’
“So—what are your thoughts on my sister?” Farrell asked playfully as he collected both chalices and refilled them.
Tristan lifted his neck off the ledge of the pool and regarded Farrell curiously. “What about her?”
“Rumor has it you two will be engaged soon enough.”
‘So, I wasn’t wrong.’ Tristan sighed and splashed water across the raw skin of his cheeks before responding. “As far as I know, Lady Isleen meant to be my instructor.”
“Of course, a good opportunity for you to get to know each other,” Farrell smirked as he offered a full chalice of wine to the scowling prince. “As her brother, I can vouch for her if you like. Isleen is certainly nowhere near Aurelia’s level of crazy.”
Tristan accepted the chalice and took a quick drink. “Speaking of Aurelia, shouldn’t you be against my political marriage with your sister?”
“Oh? Why is that?” Ferrall sounded amused as he relaxed into his chair.
“Because I’m a bastard? Because the Emperor marrying me to House Tyrrell, means you likely won’t become the next Emperor?”
Farrell snorted loudly and choked as wine spilled down his chest into the pool. “Me—Emperor? Aurelia would kill me before she allowed me or any other man a title that placed them above herself—that includes you too, mind.”
“Still,” Tristan said hesitantly.
Farrell waved away his unspoken question. “I would be much more content with you as Arius’s heir rather than my bloodthirsty wife. I’m more likely to survive under your reign in any case.”
“Things are that bad between you?”
“They were never good to begin with, Tristan. Not after the Empress killed Aurelia’s lover to ensure our offspring’s purity remained unquestioned.”
“Ah, yes, you never had a chance to meet him since he was already dead by the time you blew in from the desert. One of Aurelia’s bodyguards. A low born coven witch who should have known better. They tried to keep it a secret, of course, but after the Emperor approved our engagement, my ambitious father revealed their relationship to the Empress. Fraternization is forbidden between pure-bloods and lower coven witches, let alone when royalty is involved. That guard was put to death in the most horrific way to set an example for all over coven witches.”
“How—” Tristan cut himself off. “Never mind.”
“Probably best if you didn’t mention—what was his name? Emery? In any case, it’s a touchy subject around your half-sister.”
“That’s—understandable, but why does Aurelia blame you? She and Isleen still appear to be close friends.”
“It was my father who revealed the whole thing, so of course, I had something to do with it.” Farrell shrugged as if this was old history he had long come to terms with. “Aurelia always favored Isleen, but if you ask me—never mind.”
Farrell finished his glass and swapped the chalice for the bottle. “Aurelia got her revenge two months after you left. I was careless and exposed one of my old lovers—poor thing was made a eunuch before she strung him up in the street and burnt him to a crisp. Aurelia and I hate each other mutually at this point—which makes for a strong marriage—or so I hear. At least now we have something in common other than our overbearing parents.”
“I’m sorry,” Tristan murmured.
Farrell offered a half-smile and held up the wine bottle. “More?”
Tristan held out his chalice and waited for the prince consort to fill it.
“So then, I have a favor to ask of you,” Farrell said with a calculating smile as he set the bottle aside and focused on Tristan. “Since we are about to be as close as two brothers from different parents can be.”
Tristan frowned at the inference. “Yes?”
“Don’t marry Isleen unless you intend to make her your Empress.”
Tristan’s jaw twitched, and he took a long drink. He welcomed the temporary buzz as he thought over the few, brief interactions he had had with Isleen on their journey to Ventrayna. “I have no intentions of getting married to your sister.”
“Never say never, my friend,” Farrell replied with a weary smile. “Isleen inherited my share of Father’s ambition. That’s why she agreed to cancel her engagement with Lord Mekhi so quickly.”
Tristan choked on a mouthful of wine. “She—What?”
“The moment she agreed to become your teacher, it was a bygone conclusion. Poor Mekhi.” Farrell smiled savagely in a way that implied no remorse for the jilted fiancé.
“Then, I will advise her to correct that mistake tomorrow.”
Farrell laughed and lifted the bottle in a mocking salute. “You can certainly try.”