Interlude IX: A Glimmer of Opportunity
“Farrell will be alright,” Isleen repeated reassuringly as she moved to the center of the practice ring with her spear. “Just—give him space for the next few days until the whole thing passes over.”
“Give him space?” Tristan queried as he trailed behind her.
Isleen grimaced as she twirled her spear from palm to palm, igniting her fire magic that quickly spiraled around the staff to form wings at the head of the spear.
‘Wings like a hawk—or phoenix,’ Tristan observed as he drew his long sword from its sheath and dropped the scabbard on a stone step at the edge of the ring.
“Farrell can get a bit—testy—around this time of the month,” Isleen explained as he moved to join her in the arena.
“Can you blame him?” Tristan replied with an incredulous look. The bastard prince balanced the blade in his right hand against the witch steel vambrace tied securely to his left forearm and waited for her to make the first move. “Or do all pure-bloods allow their parents to trap them in a torturous marriage?”
Isleen kicked the base of her spear and caught the shaft firmly in her right hand as her midnight blue eyes narrowed at him. “Your prior engagement to Eleanora was arranged similarly.”
“Eleanora and I never hated each other,” Tristan pointed out as he deflected the first thrust of Isleen’s spear. The witch steel sword rippled as Tristan bathed it in crimson flames and paced cautiously around Isleen in a half-circle.
“But you certainly didn’t love each other,” Isleen countered casually.
Tristan hesitated beneath her words, then stepped back as Isleen arched her spear and jabbed at his left. He moved to deflect the attack only to watch the spear blur away as the pretty pure blood spun her weapon around her shoulders with deceptive grace before landing a powerful attack against his hastily raised block.
“We got engaged as kids,” Tristan grunted as he shook off the sting of her blow. “I didn’t exactly have a say in the matter of our engagement or its annullement.”
“Well,” Isleen returned with an arched brow. “Given King Henri had you pronounced dead—it was hardly a promise the Emperor needed to fulfill.”
“Do I look like a dead person to you?” Tristan growled as he backed away from the reach of her spear, then lunged forward beneath her offensive swing, aiming for the protective breastplate she wore.
Isleen merely smiled as she spun, with the same agile movements of her brother, dancing past his blade as she wrapped both arms around her spear and brought the flat head of the shaft down hard on Tristan’s exposed back. The blow and forward momentum knocked the bastard price off-balance, but Tristan turned his fall into a roll and quickly regained his footing. He turned just in time to deflect the spearhead that came remarkably close to shaving his throat.
“Not dead yet, at least,” Isleen replied with a dangerous smile and then drew back to give him a moment to recover.
“And here I thought you and your brother had both stopped holding back,” Tristan muttered, taking advantage of the pause to catch his breath. “Or have I not improved enough?”
“You were always a natural with a sword,” Isleen replied with a shrug. “But as Farrell has surely taught you—”
“Any pure-blood worth their flame has trained their body into a lethal weapon,” Tristan recited with a dismissive gesture. “Then why craft something like witch steel?”
Isleen smiled. “Because unlike certain individuals blessed by Kritanta with nearly unlimited reserves of magic—coven witches and even pure-bloods have to ration our power, which makes pairing them with weapons useful for any long-drawn-out battles.”
“Then why is Farrell so against them?”
“Farrell is—arrogant. He views weapons as a limitation rather than a tool to extend one’s ability,” Isleen answered with a shrug. “But then Farrell has always been regarded as a prodigy since he was a child. His ability to manipulate the power of his flame to enhance his physical body while not overextending his magic reserves, combined with tactics to take down his opponent quickly, have made him a formidable opponent in the arena.”
“But in a battle against a thousand soldiers?” Tristan pressed curiously.
“Ah, that is what our coven witch soldiers are for,” Isleen replied as she hefted her spear and shifted into a stance. “But if your Highness lost your weapon in the heat of battle, what then?”
“You pick up another one,” Tristan replied as he quickened his pace, eyes peeled for an opening.
“And how many usable weapons did you leave behind when you scorched Wolfthorn Forest?”
Tristan’s step faltered, and Isleen was quick to take advantage of his hesitation. The pure blood’s spear halted as Tristan caught it in his fist. Black flames channeled from his hand down the weapon, engulfing Isleen’s orange flames as she attempted to yank her spear free. One look at the black and red flames spiraling towards her was all it took for Isleen to let go.
“Looks to me like you just lost your weapon,” Tristan observed tensely.
“I warned you not to do that,” Isleen hissed as she took a cautious step back. “Manipulating another witch’s fire can do permanent damage to them. Perhaps we should return to Meditation for the rest of the day.”
Tristan stared at the spear, another weapon forged of witch steel, and felt the shaft weaken and bend beneath his grasp. He dropped the still burning weapon onto the sand-covered floor and focused on reining in the dragon that raged within, eager for a fight.
“You’re still too easily provoked,” Isleen observed with a troubled look as she watched him. “Perhaps you’re not ready.”
“Ready for what?” Tristan countered as the black flames along his arms shifted back towards a more scarlet hue.
“The covens are holding a Tri-Tournament in about a week,” Isleen answered as she folded her arms, her expression still displeased. “It’s a rare opportunity for advancement, and only pure-bloods are allowed to compete.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” Tristan replied sarcastically. “But what’s it got to do with me?”
“The Emperor has already put out an announcement that you will enter in this year’s Tri-Tournament.”
Tristan might have laughed if he hadn’t felt a sliver of suspicion at the start of this conversation. “Of course, he did. That doesn’t mean I’ll go.”
“The winner will be appointed as General of the sixth brigade,” Isleen continued, ignoring his rebellious comment as usual. “The position was previously held by a member of Duke Zenaku’s Coven. All the other covens will send their best pure-bloods to compete and win the position for one of their own. The Duke’s second eldest son, Lord Mekhi, will also be entering the competition.”
“Your old fiancé,” Tristan replied pointedly.
“The Emperor wants you to claim that position and demonstrate your power and ability before the three covens.”
Tristan had no response for that other than, “Why?”
“Because the Emperor wants to make you his successor,” Isleen answered with a hint of exasperation.
Tristan shrugged. “Again, why?”
“You’re not stupid, Tristan, so don’t pretend to be,” Isleen countered as she stepped towards him, her fists flickering with flames.
“Are we continuing?” Tristan asked, then got his answer as Isleen sent a bolt of fire hurtling towards him. Tristan dodged the magic but felt a bit of its heat as it cracked against the volcanic floor, where it blazed angrily for some time before slowly flickering out. The bastard prince scoffed but moved to the edge of the arena to set aside his sword, preferring to fight her on equal terms.
“Duke Zenaku still hasn’t thrown his support behind Princess Aurelia, but he also hasn’t shown any inclination to support you. Duke Tyrell and the Emperor have both publicly shifted their support behind your name,” Isleen explained with forced calm as he returned to face her. “As I’m sure Farrell has already explained to you, Duke Zenon is expected to support Aurelia as the Empress’s nephew. Winning all three dukes would be ideal, but first, you have to earn Zenaku’s support and respect.”
“And winning this Tri-tournament will do that?” Tristan responded doubtfully. He dodged another bolt of fire only to drop and roll beneath another wave of flame that rushed towards him. “Even though I’d be taking the position of general from his son?”
‘And after the Emperor canceled your engagement to Mekhi so he could pair us together?’
“What makes you think Zenaku would prefer me over Aurelia?” Tristan pressed incredulously. “If anything, the Zenaku family has cause to resent me.”
“It’s not the first time Mekhi has suffered a humiliating defeat,” Isleen returned with a shrug as flames danced around her outstretched hand. “And Duke Zenaku is a devoted follower of Kritanta. Convince him you have her blessing. That you will lead the covens to greater glory and power, and he will follow you as he did your father.”
“You mean, follow in Arius’s footsteps to defeat the church and dominate all the other kingdoms—including Lafeara?”
Isleen sighed impatiently. “Your Highness should refocus on your future here in Ventrayna rather than your past in Lafeara. Now, attack!”
“Speaking of the past,” Tristan murmured as he tested her defenses with a few quick jabs. “You don’t seem to hold a lot of sympathy for your ex-fiancé.” He sidestepped and blocked a swing from her spear, then lunged and ducked as she reversed her swing towards his head. “One might—think you took advantage of my return—to cancel the engagement.”
Isleen knocked his attack aside and offered him a condescending stare. “Unlike certain individuals, I prefer not to live in the past. If the Emperor and my father decide to cancel one engagement in order to arrange a more favorable match, who am I to complain?”
“Perhaps the possibility of being a Crown Princess and even Empress someday helped you agree to a new engagement so quickly,” Tristan observed sourly.
“My father raised me to be ambitious,” she responded with a shrug, then caught his attack, pivoted beneath Tristan’s arm, and flipped him over her shoulder. “Perhaps—I have enough ambition for us both.”
“I have no interest in fighting for a title or throne,” Tristan growled as he rolled away and got back to his feet.
“Hmm. Well, I suppose the title of Kritanta’s Consort is more than enough power for a person as humble as yourself,” Isleen responded with an edge of sarcasm.
Tristan’s body tensed as the oath he had shared with Kritanta flashed before his eyes. Through the red that filled his vision, he saw the whip of flame sprout from Isleen’s hand and shoot towards him. The burning molten tail wrapped around his arm and yanked Tristan towards his instructor.
But Tristan moved faster than Isleen had expected, propelled by a burst of fire through the soles of his feet—a trick he’d picked up from Farrell. With his left vambrace trapped in her whip, Tristan blocked her raised knee with his right before spinning his weight and elbow into Isleen’s abdomen. The pure blood doubled over with a grunt. Tristan moved his grip from Isleen’s whip to her arm and flipped the pure blood over his shoulder.
Before Tristan could celebrate this momentary upset, Isleen grabbed the belt at his back and trapped her knees on both sides of his face. The arena spun, and a moment later, the bastard prince found himself on his back once more, with Isleen’s burning hand wrapped around his throat as she straddled him.
“Better,” Isleen commented dryly as her grip relaxed. “But you should stick to using the sword for the tournament. You have too many openings without it.”
“What?” Tristan protested as the pure blood removed her hand and stood gracefully. “Honestly?”
Isleen sighed and offered Tristan the look of disapproval Farrell so often gave him. “If you weren’t who you were, I’d have knocked you out of this arena ages ago.”
Tristan scoffed as he climbed to his feet. “Are you being serious—or are you just upset because of something I said?”
An aura of amber flame that was only a few shades darker than his mother’s phoenix flame enveloped Isleen from head to toe. Tristan stared, mesmerized, as the same golden hue swirled behind the pure blood’s midnight blue eyes as she stared at him.
“Believe me when I say that I am still holding back,” Isleen replied coldly, then turned on her heel to walk up the steps of the arena.
Tristan held back a frustrated growl as he clenched his fists and turned to stare at the spear left behind in the arena. The indents left by the bastard prince’s fingers along the spear’s shaft stared back at him.
‘You’re not the only one holding back!’
Tristan closed his eyes, sighed, then jogged quickly to the edge of the arena, where he picked up his sword and scabbard, then ran up the stairs after Isleen.
“Wait!” Tristan called as he caught up to his instructor at the back gate. “About the tournament.”
Isleen, no longer glowing in auspicious flames of magic, rolled her shoulders back in an apparent attempt to calm herself before she turned around to face him. “What about the tournament?”
“Who would I be competing with?” Tristan asked as he stopped a few paces away from her.
Isleen crossed her arms and shrugged. “The first round will be open to any pure-blood. At the end of the round, the last ten witches standing will advance to a second round where they will face each other one on one until there are only five.”
“Okay,” Tristan nodded, thinking back to the competitions held by the knights each year as part of the Holy Day celebrations.
“One of the top five spots is reserved for her Highness, Princess Aurelia, who has already declared she will be joining the Tri-tournament to win the army for her mother’s coven.”
“Wait—Aurelia wants to be a general?” Tristan asked, momentarily confused.
Isleen rolled her eyes and furrowed her brows as she stared at him. “No—she’s there to make sure that if you get into the top five, you suffer a crushing defeat at her hand in front of the entire Ventrayna witch nation. Also, as long as Aurelia wins, her coven can choose someone else to act as general.”
“There is some concern—” Isleen hesitated, “—that Aurelia may take advantage of the competition to seriously harm or—”
“Kill me?” Tristan supplied when she trailed off.
Isleen sighed and shook her head. “I don’t believe Aurelia would take such a risk. The blowback from the Emperor—even if she is his only other child.” Isleen shivered for a moment. “The rest of the covens would view it as a cowardly act, to maim you before you’ve even had a chance to show your full potential—only the Empress would be that desperate.”
“So, Aurelia’s more likely to challenge and kill me after I show off my skill in the tournament?” Tristan queried uncertainly.
“No—” Isleen dragged a hand across her mouth and sighed, “—I don’t know. Either way, if you face her—don’t for a second think she’s going to hold back.”
“Right, I understand,” Tristan answered with a rueful smile. “Though I’m also starting to think not participating might be in my best interest.”
Isleen appeared to agree with this sentiment, but then she took a step towards him and focused her gaze on his. “I would agree, but—if you can make it into the top five—the Emperor has agreed to lift your house arrest.”
Tristan’s eyebrows shot up a moment before he laughed at the obvious bait he was being offered.
“And if you happen to win—” Isleen continued, picking up on his cynicism quickly “—you would have an army to escort you back to Lafeara to settle whatever lingering business you have there—should you wish to return.”
Tristan brushed a hand through his damp curls and stared up at the palace structure that loomed over them. “If it means earning my freedom—” he sighed, “—yeah, why the hell not?”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Isleen replied with a wry smile. “Unfortunately, training you to prepare for the tournament now falls to me since Farrell is otherwise engaged.”
“Yeah,” Tristan grunted as he moved past her to open the gate. “Funny how the timing on all this worked out.”
“You sound as paranoid as Farrell,” Isleen observed, but her troubled expression remained as Tristan opened the gate and motioned for her to enter first.