Interlude VIII: Tears of the Sun
The desert was never more deceptively peaceful than in the early twilight hours when the scorching sun lingered just beyond an illusively distant horizon. Tristan’s lungs were burning. Then again, the fire witch’s entire body felt flooded with heat and pain as each stride forward sank his boots inches below into the treacherous sand that engulfed each foot, sometimes up to his ankles.
The protective scarf Tristan wore around his head, mouth, and nose grated against his dry lips and cheeks with each panting breath. Ahead of him, he could just make out Farrell’s gracefully running figure. The prince consort’s strides gave off tiny bursts of flame that outlined his path across the dim, shadowy landscape of endless dunes.
‘How does he do that?’ Tristan growled inwardly as he pushed his tired legs and arms to their breaking point. The pure blood ignored his screaming muscles, which threatened to collapse with each quivering breath. He knew better than to stop, even for a moment’s rest. The burning sphere bleeding its way across the blue horizon like a ribbon of silk offered far worse torment for all who dared make its formidable domaine their native home.
The dark ridge of Skreigh, the desert capital, came into view, and Tristan felt a surge of relief ripple through his protesting joints as he picked up the pace out of sheer desperation to collapse somewhere with shade. He attempted to channel the magic at his core into his exhausted muscles. This new meditation trick that Farrell had taught him over the last few weeks offered some relief, but Tristan’s focus and control were as shoddy as his footing running through sand.
A glance over his shoulder showed cracked footprints of melted glass reflected across the scarlet sand. Not wanting another lecture on the wasteful use of magic during an event meant to challenge him physically, Tristan slowed the flow of magic from his core down to a steady trickle, just enough to keep his numb legs moving.
Despite the dry heat, the rope of twisted cloth wrapped around the bastard prince’s forehead had long since become drenched in sweat. His throat burned for water or wine; Tristan had long since adapted to using the two interchangeably.
Ventrayna Fire Witches drank water laced with a unique herb called Tears of the Sun to fortify their muscles and organs. As Tristan had already learned, fire magic was destructive by nature. Coven Fire Witches did not often live past the age of forty due to the physical ramifications wielding fire magic inflicted on their bodies.
Tears of the Sun was a plant native to the Ventrayna Desert that could only be found near active and sometimes even dormant volcanoes. The blooms were carefully guarded and harvested by the covens and used in large supplies as a daily nourishing drink for the coven witches who made up the majority of the Ventrayna army.
For pure-bloods like Farrell, Ventrayna’s famous Caligo wine was preferred over Tears of the Sun. The exotic wine was rumored to be brewed from desert grapes fermented with fire scorpion eggs. Because pure-bloods were already physically evolved to withstand the vigorous strain of using fire magic, they did not require the same nutritious herbal intake as their weaker brethren.
But Caligo wine, reserved for pure-bloods and the members of the royal family, had its own benefits. It could be burned as fuel during meditation to replenish the flames of a Fire Witch’s magic and could even temporarily increase the potency of that witch’s power.
Tristan’s breathing came out in ragged bursts as he began his descent down the sloping dune towards the volcanic walls of Skreigh. Two shadow guards appeared beside the bastard prince as he stumbled and slid the last four feet. They assisted the pure blood to his feet and kept him steady until Tristan reached the brittle surface of the border wall he happily collapsed against.
“You made it,” Farrell called out as he jogged over and tossed a flask of the special herbal water to one of the shadow guards. “Here, this will get you back on your feet.”
Tristan accepted the opened flask and greedily swallowed down the spicy-sweet nectar of Tears of the Sun. When the flask was empty, he focused on another meditation technique that Farrell had taught him, controlling the flow of magic throughout his body and using it to channel the rejuvenating herbs to his exhausted limbs and tired lungs.
“Not bad for two weeks of training,” Farrell said by way of a compliment as he assessed Tristan’s recovery speed. “That’s good enough,” the prince consort announced as he stepped forward to grab Tristan’s arm. “Up you go. Time to head back.”
The shadow guards offered the princes robes to cover their sweat-layered garments. Tristan found the extra layer suffocating but didn’t complain when one of the shadow guards offered him another flash of nourishing water to quench his still burning throat and lungs.
In the prince consort’s palace, breakfast consisted of a feast of various fruits, eggs, and raw meat. Most of the ingredients were hunted and harvested from the desert wildlife, while others were imported by way of the Emperor’s tax on the Strugna, Lafeara, and even Tharyn.
Tristan knew that the Emperor sent his Ambassador to each nation once every three years to collect these taxes. The terms for peace between Ventrayna and its vassal kingdoms often included substituting gold for other resources lacking within the witch nation. Resources that were delivered annually, quarterly, and even monthly through the desert’s highly controlled merchant roads.
These tax-reducing gifts consisted of crops, metal ores, silks, and other unique goods not found or cultivated within the desert’s harsh climate.
One such delivery was being inspected and accounted for outside Skreigh’s main gate. Tristan stumbled as he recognized the burned emblem of Lafeara’s three devouring wolves on the merchant’s caravan wagons.
“Looks like another delivery of wheat,” Farrell commented as he observed Tristan’s distracted stare. “That’s a good sign. If trades are still open, that means your half-brother and Lord Haemish were able to reach a successful negotiation.”
“Honor and Glory, Altius Ingis.” The captain in charge of the gate greeted them somberly while his subordinates hastily shoved the traveling merchants aside to make way for Farrell and Tristan to enter.
Tristan was grateful for the bothersome mantel that obscured his face as he walked past the huddled group of merchants. The last thing he wanted was to be recognized. He could only imagine what the Dowager or Nicholas would do if they learned he was alive and in Ventrayna.
‘Or Eleanora, for that matter.’
Tristan had become familiar with most of the gate guards on morning patrol thanks to the grueling daily routine enforced by Farrell and his sister, Lady Isleen. One of the guards waited for them beside the gate stables with the prince’s horses. Tristan nodded his thanks and mounted the bay mare tiredly before he turned to follow Farrell through the streets back towards the prince consort’s palace.
Upon their return, the palace servants quickly rinsed the princes off with sponged water and perfumed oil. Afterward, the princes ate a silent breakfast together before proceeding towards the palace’s outer grounds, where a training area, built of volcanic rock, had been fashioned to resist fire magic training.
Tristan removed his fresh tunic and shirt and stretched his arms as he wandered towards the center of the arena. There the bastard prince assumed his usual post in the painted gold circle that resembled a burning sun outlined by a scorpion.
“Go ahead and start. Let’s see how far you can get on your own,” Farrell encouraged as he lingered by the edge of the arena to read a message brought over by one of his servants.
Tristan grunted and sat down upon the warm surface. He crossed his legs and interlaced his fingers across his abdomen. His physically fatigued state made shutting out the incessant hunger and impatience of the dragon within him challenging but learning to control this monster born from Kritanta’s magic was the point of all this training.
By exhausting him physically first, Farrell could better teach Tristan how to focus his mind and core on subduing Kritanta’s chaotic magic during stressful situations. At the same time, Farrell was also teaching Tristan to identify and control the different types of fire magic he had inherited from both his parents, along with the power the Goddess of Death had granted him.
When Kritanta purified the aconitum from his body, the magic Tristan inherited from Catalina and Arius had steadily emerged. But learning to imbue his natural-born affinity with Kritanta’s overwhelming power was challenging, even for one as gifted as Tristan.
Far too often, the dragon seemed to swallow up Tristan’s magic—and when that happened, the dragon took control.
Tristan had seen enough of its chaotic destruction to understand why Arius had insisted on this relentless training to strengthen his control. Still, he didn’t appreciate being threatened or placed under strict house arrest aside from his morning physical training with Farrell.
He drew in a steady breath and focused on the three flames that burned at his core. One flame was that of white gold, pure, stable, yet resistant to his touch. The second flame was a twisted black pillar of fire that reminded Tristan of the dark aura that surrounded the Goddess of Death. Kritanta’s magic was potent, overwhelming, and far too addicting.
‘And yet somehow I must merge it with my own magic to gain control.’
Tristan focused on the golden flame as he tried to dispel his fear of failure. So far, the only method that allowed him to connect to the power he had inherited from his mother was drawing upon his memories of Catalina.
It took time and patience for his mind to uncover the painful memories of his childhood. While some pictures were less troubling than others, like the memory of Catalina smiling down at him as she carried Tristan through the palace gardens or scenes of Catalina practicing her swordsmanship in the knight’s compound with General Durante. But each recollection of his mother’s happy face inevitably pulled Tristan back to the one memory of Catalina he could never forget—no matter how hard he tried.
The bastard prince flinched as the vision of the sunken, dry flesh of a woman’s corpse surfaced behind his eyes. A child’s scream echoed through his ears, and he sighed in frustration as the white-gold flame slid away from his consciousness.
“You’re trying too hard,” Farrell cautioned as he sat behind Tristan and placed the palms of his hands against the bastard prince’s shoulder blades. “Your connection to the Phoenix’s flame is too weak to grasp it now. Focus on your father’s flame.”
Tristan’s mouth twisted, but he relented to his instructor’s suggestion and focused on the red flame that danced closest to Kritanta’s pillar of malice.
“Good,” Farrell encouraged. “Different magic reacts to different emotions. You have a lot of pent-up anger in you, which makes Arius’s magic the easiest to connect with and control.”
Tristan snorted. “You haven’t seen me angry.”
“Not exactly volunteering for that experience,” Farrell quipped back calmly. “Now, let’s focus on meditating. Use Arius’s flame to burn and refuel your body.”
Tristan closed his eyes and focused on channeling the red flame from his core towards his stomach. The feast he had just gorged down moments ago rapidly vanished along with the beneficial properties of the Tears of the Sun. This purified fuel now channeled throughout his body until each tired, aching joint and stiff muscle from his morning workout faded away along with any lingering exhaustion.
“Well done,” Farrell praised as he withdrew his hands from Tristan’s back. “Now for round two.”
Tristan scoffed as he rose and stretched. Round two consisted of hand-to-hand combat with magic. Tristan had never been particularly fond of fighting without a weapon, but as Farrell was quick to remind him, “Weapons are just tools to control, limit, and focus a witch’s magic. Any pure-blood worth their flame can fight without a physical weapon because they’ve trained their body to become a lethal tool of destruction.”
Tristan took his position and ignited the magic pooled within his fists. Red flames burned over his clenched knuckles and spread up his forearm as he shifted into a sparing stance from his training days with General Durante.
Farrell eyed his posture with an expression that suggested he found it lacking. Still, the prince consort remained silent as he brushed his braided hair over his shoulder and ignited his fists and feet in flames with the movements of a graceful dancer.
Tristan’s eyes narrowed in recognition as Farrell burst towards him with blinding speed. Rather than allow himself to be pushed back, the bastard prince sidestepped his opponent’s attack and blocked Farrell’s burning fist with his left forearm. Tristan quickly swung his right fist towards his opponent’s exposed abdomen.
The prince consort’s right knee blocked Tristan’s blow. Then Farrell’s left foot landed firmly against Tristan’s chest, shoving the bastard prince backward as the prince consort backflipped and landed gracefully a few feet away.
They continued this dance of fire, occasionally landing blows, though Farrell’s successful strikes outnumbered Tristan’s easily. The desert sun lulled overhead, casting shadows from the volcanic archways across the black practice ring where the smell of sulfur, fire, and sweat mingled together with the fragrance of the Tears of the Sun that bloomed around the ring.
It was an unassuming flower, despite its name, and easily mistaken for a common weed except for the unmistakable reaction it had to a Fire Witch’s touch. If kept in the dark, the white blooms would remain closed, but once taken into the light or touched by a fire witch’s hand, the flowers would bloom with a radiant golden color that gave the plant its name and reminded Tristan of his mother’s flame.
‘Only no matter how much I bask in the desert sun or burn with witch magic—I cannot get it to bloom.’
The soft ring of a bell stopped Farrell’s burning fist as it descended towards Tristan’s unprotected face. The prince consort had knocked the bastard prince onto his back with a treacherous kick the moment Tristan’s mind wandered from his opponent.
“You got distracted again—but you’re improving,” Farrell observed with a grin as he rocked back off Tristan’s hips to stand and offer his defeated brother-in-law a hand up.
“Then why does it feel like you’re the one getting better at knocking me on my ass?” Tristan grumbled as he clasped Farrell’s still burning hand and allowed himself to be hoisted upright.
“As you get better, I have to get tougher on you,” Farrell replied with a playful pat to Tristan’s damp curls. “Consider it a compliment that I have to work harder to knock you on your ass.”
“Ah—Thanks. Didn’t you just take advantage of me being distracted earlier?”
“Yes, but only because you left me such an obvious opening.”
Tristan offered his guardian a doubtful stare as he brushed himself off. “Did we finish early?”
Farrell shook his head as he glanced up the stone steps to where a servant stood by the bell that had interrupted their sparring match.
“Not really, but if you want another round before Isleen gets here—”
“I’m good!” Tristan raised his hands and extinguished his flames.
Farrell snorted and jogged up the steps ahead of the bastard prince to take another message brought by the servant. Tristan watched the prince consort’s usually jovial face darken in an instant before his fist ignited and the note burned to ash.
“Is something wrong?” Tristan asked as he paused on the step below his guardian.
“Ah-ha!” Farrell laughed dryly as he turned to offer Tristan a cynical grin. “No, no, I just forgot how quickly time flies.” He brushed the ash from the note onto his trousers and motioned for the servant to bring over towels for them to dry off. “Your sister has summoned me over tonight for dinner.”
Tristan raised a brow at that. “Aurelia?”
“And for the next three nights as well,” Farrell continued before rubbing his face savagely. “Isleen will have to take over your morning training as I will likely not be in any shape to give you a proper workout.”
“Why?” Tristan pressed quizzically. “You’re my guardian, not Isleen.”
“As touching as it is to hear you say that—” Farrell muttered with a rueful smile before he tossed the towel over his shoulder, “—this regards my royal duty as prince consort to produce an heir.”
Tristan fell silent as he watched Farrell turn to continue up the steps towards the prince consort’s palace.
“And all that that implies,” Farrell added with a dismissive hand gesture that did not mask the heavy note of bitter resentment which coated his words.