Interlude XIV: A Nest of Scorpions
Tristan shivered beneath the cold desert morning breeze as he tightened the black scarf around his face and neck. The bastard prince’s hybrid lamellar armor, composed of witch steel scales laced together into a tunic-like shirt that covered him from neck to knee, offered little warmth in the early morning hours just before dawn. Beneath the scaled armor, he wore a simple black arming doublet designed to reduce the impact of any blow on the lighter armor, along with witch steel vambraces, spaulders, greaves, cusses, and knee guards, which were much lighter than full plate or ordinary steel.
‘It might be more flexible than a knight’s plated armor, but the real advantage is how comfortable and cool the armor remains during the day.’
Isleen moved ahead of him, dressed similarly, though the double-edged halberd the lithe, powerful pureblood carried differed from Tristan’s specialized twin swords. The pair made their way through the early morning market, already swarming with merchants, traders, and other contestants traveling toward the grand arena built at the eastern end of Skreigh, Ventrayna’s capital city.
The past week of rigorous magic combat training spent beneath Farrell and then Isleen had given the bastard prince a boost in confidence, along with a few humbling bruises to remind him to stay cautious. The mix of dread, eagerness, and uncertainty that had clouded his thoughts when Tristan went to sleep last night had transformed into excitement and anticipation by dawn.
Despite having lived nearly a year in Ventrayna, there was still so much of the city and its customs to discover, not all of which the bastard prince approved of. Even on a day like today, when the three great fire covens of the Hawk, Serpent, and Lizard focused their attention on Skreigh’s arena, the slave markets never closed. And today of all days, the slave masters were focused on securing a deal by bartering their scraps of old, feeble, or crippled wares to this year’s arena master, Duke Zenaku, to be used as sacrifices for the entertainment of the crowd before the Trial Testing Tournament, or Tri-Tournament began.
‘Still not sure if they call it the Tri-Tournament because of the absurd name or because the three covens compete against each other during it.’
The looks of hopelessness in the slave mortal’s deadened eyes, many of whom had yet to reach their late thirties, never failed to unsettle Tristan. The disparity between witches and mortals in Ventryna was such a stark contrast to the population and culture of Lafeara. And yet, despite his disgust, resentment, and self-loathing, he could only turn away. No free mortal would survive on the streets of Skreigh, especially on a day like today when the scent of blood lust, witch fire, and the inner turmoil of the competing covens hung heavy in the air.
Rippling banners, gleaming jewelry, cloaks, and broaches of the witches around them all represented one of the three great covens with which every witch of suitable ability or family connections was affiliated. Even now, Tristan wore the broach of the Burning Hawk, a mark of Isleen and Farrell’s father, Duke Liam Tyrell, as did the six pureblood witches that trailed behind them for protection at the Duke’s insistence.
Ever since Farrell had returned from Princess Aurelia’s palace, half out of his mind as the pellis worms gnawed at his tormented brain, Duke Liam had heightened security around his eldest child and heir, Isleen Tyrell.
Tristan hadn’t seen his friend, the Prince Consort since the night he helped Kritanta’s priestess bathe and pray over the half-dead pureblood. All he knew was what few reports Isleen gave him during training hours. Farrell was alive. They were reasonably confident the last of the pellis worms had been burned from his body, but the extent of the damage and Farrell’s recovery were things Isleen refused to discuss, though her unfocused fury and anger during their jousts told the bastard prince all he needed to know.
“There, up ahead,” Isleen called out as she pointed to a pair of black pillars built in the side of the great arena they had been slowly approaching for the last hour. “We’ll need to register there if we want to compete.”
Tristan met her coal-grey eyes and offered a single nod in response. The number of witches increased around them as both teacher and student pressed their way through the growing crowd. As more than one elbow, back, and foot jostled against him, the bastard prince briefly wondered at the odds of an assassin slipping through the chaos to knife him in the back. Even their pureblood guards seemed to sense the danger as they shoved their way through the crowd, creating a narrow but brief path for Isleen and Tristan to pass through before the sea of angry grumbling witches closed behind them.
The bastard prince breathed a faint sigh of relief as they stepped onto the volcanic rock steps, which led toward two open black marble doors engraved with the image of two fire witches hurtling towards each other with a flaming heavy sword and giant battle axe.
“Form an orderly line in front of one of the four available registers,” boomed a tall pureblood with silver-tinted onyx braids and ghostly scars across his face and biceps at the top of the stairs. The large golden bracers on his thick arms bore the sigil of the Burning Viper, identifying him as one of Duke Zenaku’s coven. “Ahh, if it isn’t the lovely Lady Isleen Tyrell herself.”
“General Odyn!” Isleen returned with a respectful nod. “It is good to see you again.”
“It’s been some time since you visited Duke Zenaku’s estate,” Odyn responded as he folded his arms with an almost disapproving look. “I’ve also been hearing rumors that your engagement to Makhi has been canceled. Is this true?” Tristan blinked as a hostile pair of steel-gray eyes directed their attention on him. “Is this the thief who stole you from us?”
“It was a decision made by my father and the Emperor,” Isleen replied politically while placing her hand on the bastard prince’s arm. “And this is my pupil, Tristan.”
“Pupil?” Odyn arched a brow as he ran a cynical gaze over the silent prince before drawing in a breath as he shrugged. “I suppose he’s—adequate.” The general gestured over his right shoulder to a fifth door that connected to a separate room, where Tristan noticed a much smaller line of several dangerous-looking purebloods. “You’re father’s rank grants you access to the VIP registrar, but—not him.”
Tristan tugged down his desert scarf while meeting the general’s hostile gaze with an amused smile. “Why not me?”
“Tristan,” Isleen murmured in a cautioning tone.
Odyn’s dissatisfied glare turned into a savage smile as he took a step toward the bastard prince. “Because I don’t know you—which means that despite your age, you’re little more than trash compared to the purebloods I’ve trained and fought beside.”
“Are you saying you know every pureblood in Ventrayna?”
“Anyone worth knowing, I know,” Odyn countered with a confident smirk. His gaze darted toward Isleen’s concerned expression and back before adding, “Though if you have Duke Tyrell’s heir training you—I suppose you’re not complete trash—which is the only reason I haven’t kicked you back into the street where you belong.”
“Tristan, it’s fine,” Isleen hissed as she tugged the bastard prince over to one of the four regular lines. “Good seeing you, General Odyn. Please tell Imelda hello for me!”
“You’ll see her inside,” Odyn responded, still watching them with a narrow-hardened gaze. “She’s been looking forward to this year’s rematch. Just keep your pupil away from her, you hear? That brat’s always been a sucker for weaklings with a pretty face.”
“I’m not a weakling,” Tristan called back, even as their line moved forward. “And you’ll remember my name after today, General!”
“I’ve already forgotten it, Trash.”
The bastard prince chuckled as he turned to face Isleen’s glaring face and quickly cleared his throat.
“What are you doing?”
“Just—trying to be friendly.”
The pureblood raised her hands with an expression that suggested she half wanted to strangle him, then exhaled slowly. “I thought the plan was to get you registered and inside the arena without drawing any unnecessary attention!”
“What? He seemed nice enough.”
“Please just—don’t speak unless I tell you to.”
Tristan raised his brows and offered his instructor a hurt expression she promptly ignored. The line moved forward quickly enough, and despite the occasional curious gaze of the contestants around him, they made their way to the waiting registrar without further incident.
“Full name, Coven name, and Sponsor’s name, please…,” the silver-haired fire witch intoned with evident boredom as she tapped the metal quill in her hand against the open inkwell to the left of the small desk behind a curious round mound of metal or rock in the shape of a large egg. To the woman’s right was a locked metal box that sat beside a stack of blank registrations, one of which she promptly placed in front of her.
“Lady Isleen Tyrell, Burning Hawk, and—I suppose Duke Tyrell would be my sponsor,” Isleen recited with mild embarrassment.
The old fire witch blinked up at the pureblood for a moment before her face lit up with a smile. “Ahh! Lady Isleen! Kritanta’s flame, how you’ve grown! What are you doing in this line?”
“Hello, Aella. I’m showing my pupil the ropes this year,” Isleen explained, once more gesturing to Tristan.
“Well, bless the Maker. I didn’t think the Duke would let you take in any more pupils after your engagement to that hot-headed boy of Zenaku’s.” Aella quickly raised a hand to shield her lips as she leaned towards them while focusing her attention on Tristan, “Best be careful, boy, that viper is as mean as they come and violently jealous, not that he has no reason to be.” In the blink of an eye, the old woman’s wrinkled face transformed into a smile as she grasped Isleen’s left hand and patted the onyx bead bracelet on it. “You’re as beautiful as your mother was when she was your age.”
The pureblood behind Tristan impatiently cleared his throat as Isleen forced a smile and pulled her hand free.
“What?! You got a problem with me greeting the daughter of an old, dead friend?” Aella snapped loudly enough to silence the room around them. “Now then. Let’s get you registered, dear.”
Isleen blushed faintly as she pulled her midnight-black braids around to curtain her face.
“Done!” Aella declared jubilantly as she set aside the quill, then folded the slip of paper and dropped it through the slot of the locked box. The registrar promptly reached under the table and pulled out a thin bracelet of witch steel with the number 47 engraved on it. “Now then, normally, I’d forgo the formality, but since you want to show your pupil how it’s done, go ahead and use the volcanic egg to confirm your level of strength.”
Tristan raised a brow and watched curiously as Isleen turned to the unusual object and placed her hand against the egg’s rough shell. Orange flames flickered above the pureblood’s hand as Isleen narrowed her gaze and spread her magic to cover the entire egg.
“Talented, just like your mother,” Aella declared, sounding oddly pleased.
Isleen removed her hand and turned to meet her pupil’s inquisitive gaze with a smile. “The egg measures the strength of your core. It drains magic from a witch’s body faster than most coven witches can produce it.”
“No flame, no entry,” Aella tacked on helpfully. “It’s how we verify both purity and bloodline while preventing a bunch of stupid nobodies from getting themselves creamed.”
“So only purebloods can enter?” Tristan asked curiously.
“Only a pureblood could coat the entire egg in flames,” Aella corrected as she handed over Isleen’s bracelet. “Come on then, boy, your turn. Full name, Coven name, and—well, I suppose Lady Isleen is your sponsor.” She scribbled down the information on a new slip without waiting for confirmation.
“Ahem,” Tristan cleared his throat as he inched closer to the counter. “It’s Tristan—” he hesitated momentarily as the Emperor’s family name tickled at the tip of his tongue, “—Karan.”
‘I guess it makes more sense to use Catalina’s maiden name than the Emperor’s if I want to avoid attention.’
The registrar’s pen paused halfway through the K before she sighed and raised her gaze to Isleen with an expression of bored exasperation. “Tell your pupil here that if he wants to use an alias, he should pick a more original name.”
“W-well,” Isleen retorted, looking caught off guard as she glanced between Tristan and Aella. “It was his mother’s maiden name, so he has every right to use it.”
“His mother?” Aella snorted loudly as she stabbed her quill into the ink well. “The Phoenix?” The old woman rolled her eyes dramatically before focusing on the bastard prince with a dry chuckle. “Go on, tell another one then. Next, you’ll be saying his father is the Emperor. Karan? What nonsense. Who in their right mind would claim to be from a dead coven?”
Tristan clenched his jaw silently. ‘I always wondered, but—I guess it never occurred to me that my mother’s coven no longer existed.’
“Maybe we should use your father’s name instead,” Isleen whispered gently as she moved to stand beside him. “You have Arius’s token—now is as good a time as any to use it.”
By token, she meant the signet ring with the scorpion seal that the bastard prince wore on a chain around his neck, out of sight.
“I’d rather not,” Tristan growled as he nudged past her, pulled off his glove, and placed his hand on the dragon egg. It was still warm from Isleen’s magic, but it wasn’t long until the feeling of hunger, similar to Kritanta’s devouring black flames, surged awake within the large egg.
‘Hungry, are you? Well then—let’s see if this will satisfy you?’
The bastard prince had always visualized the passage to Kritanta’s power as a trap door with a small keyhole. Once he removed the key, the black flames slid free of their own accord but in a small, manageable amount. The first time he tried to open the door resulted in the destruction of Wolfthorn Forest. The next time he attempted to harness the devouring flames, the dragon forged by Kritanta’s power had taken over, resulting in a burned chapel and the escape of the half-witch Nero, his mother’s murderer.
Tristan had kept the door firmly shut since then. But even now, as the egg fed greedily off the red flames he had inherited from Arius, the bastard prince’s curiosity compelled him to remove the key and allow the tendrils of the goddess’s black flames to slither free.
The metal quill in Aella’s fingers snapped in half as her amber eyes stared at the red and black flames that rippled across the egg in waves, accompanied by the shimmering flecks of pale gold that represented Catalina’s power.
“Tristan!” Isleen hissed, grabbing his arm, even as the bastard prince pulled his hand free. The red and gold flames quickly vanished while the egg continued to flicker and even appeared to vibrate for a moment, engulfed in the ominous black fire.
The registrar wordlessly reached under her desk for another quill, filled it with ink, and finished the rest of Tristan’s registration form without comment before dropping the folded document into the locked box. The bastard prince offered Aella a gracious smile as the old woman extended a bracelet towards him with the number 63. As he leaned in to take it, she snatched his wrist in a vice-like grip before whispering in a quiet voice tense with emotion, “May the Phoenix rise once more.”
Tristan stumbled back as Aella released him before barking out in her usual tone, “Next!”
Isleen quickly pulled on the bastard prince’s arm and led him toward the office’s back door as the pureblood behind them rattled out, “Haakan Balam. Coven: Desert Lions. Sponsor: Colonel Brand.”
“Right, well—as soon as the egg is hungry again, we’ll get you tested!”
“What was that all about?” Tristan asked as they rejoined the sea of witches, making their way to one of the six arch openings lined with stairs that led to the seating quadrants of the arena.
Isleen pressed her lips together as she tugged on his arm, guiding him toward a staircase guarded by several purebloods with Burning Hawk capes.
The bastard prince shook his head as he eyed the other overly populated staircases packed with witches. “Is this another VIP entrance or—”
“Each Ducal family has a private viewing box we use to watch the competition. We can wait there until the morning festivities are over,” Isleen replied tersely as they entered the enclosed part of the stairwell. She turned suddenly, blocking his way with her halberd. “It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t know this—but your Mother meant far more to the witches of Ventrayna than she ever did to the foolish mortals of Lafeara.”
The bastard prince kept his expression neutral as he stepped back and turned to lean against the stairwell wall.
“Catalina was a legend. As was the Phoenix Coven—they ruled all six of the fire covens before Arius rose to power.”
“But Arius was chosen by Kritanta,” Tristan murmured, shaking his head.
“Only because—” Isleen stepped closer, her head swiveling to both ends of the stairs, “—the Phoenix Witches rejected her.”
Tristan’s ember eyes widened while he stared at her, momentarily speechless.
“My Coven, the Burning Hawks, are only distantly related to one branch of the Phoenix Coven. We possess the orange flame similar to the Phoenix’s golden flame,” Isleen continued, speaking in hushed tones like a child afraid of being overheard by their parent. “My mother was always proud of our heritage. The history of the Phoenixes was used as a bedtime story for Farrell and me, much to my father’s displeasure.
“In those stories, Mother told us that when Kritanta lost her frozen heart, she was severely weakened and could only achieve mortal form by borrowing the husk of a pureblood powerful enough to contain her magic. But each witch she possessed withered and died within a month, some in a matter of days. So Kritanta began to gather consorts, not for herself, but to create pure bloodlines in the hopes of creating an immaculate vessel. This was when the original fire covens were forged, each with its own unique flame.
“The purple flame of the Burning Lizard, or Little Dragon, comes from the Dragon Coven of old, who produced many consorts for Kritanta in the past. The Scorpion Coven, who holds the red flame, is one of the few remaining original Covens that persist to this day. The Burning Viper is another, and they control the green flame, which is toxic to the touch. I’ve also heard of a desert tribe of purebloods who possess a blue flame that originates from the old Chimera Coven, but they are nomad witches and offer no allegiance to the Emperor.
“And then there is my family,” Isleen added with a sigh, holding out her left hand where a ball of orange flame appeared. “Although we are a secondary Coven, unlike the Scorpion and Viper, our connection to the Phoenix’s flame remains strong.”
Tristan stayed silent for a moment before demanding, “But if the Phoenix Clan was so incredibly powerful, why are they all dead? And why was my mother’s magic crippled before she was sent off as a bride tribute to King Henri?”
He watched as Isleen silently extinguished her flame while chewing on her lip hesitantly.
“Your mother’s fate after the victory over old Zarus—is not a topic even my father would dare to speak of. Her political marriage nearly sparked a civil war. It’s why only three fire covens remain to defend the Emperor and Skreigh.”
“Okay, but that still doesn’t answer why?”
Isleen sighed as she moved her halberd aside. “In truth, I do not know. If you want to find out why your mother went to Lafeara, that is something you should be able to dig into once you become the Crown Prince. All records related to the rise and fall of old Zarus as well as the formation of Ventryna as a Witch Nation, are contained within the royal archives. There’s no reason the negotiation for your mother’s marriage to King Henri wouldn’t be there as well.”
‘Assuming the Emperor or Empress hasn’t yet destroyed it.’
Tristan closed his eyes with a resigned sigh as he bounced his head off the stone wall behind him before straightening. “All right, but—what about the rest of the Phoenix Coven.”
“Do you know why we were able to conqueror old Zarus—but remain unable to invade the Holy City?”
“Because the Holy City is protected, it stands on holy ground.”
“So did the old Zarus.”
Tristan blinked in surprise. “Then—how?”
“The Phoenix Coven consists of one ruling family at a time: Catalina, her brother, and their parents. Four pillars of lightning protected the borders of old Zarus. Four Phoenixes died, bringing those pillars down so that Arius and the other five covens could invade. That is why the Karan name is remembered, even now, and revered among the covens.” Isleen turned her head from side to side before adding, “Some claim the Emperor assigned the Phoenixes this task to remove the greatest threat to his reign.”
“Wait—” the bastard prince held up a hand, “—you said they all died.”
“The Curse of the Phoenix—or a blessing depending on how you look at it. Only one per generation is gifted the ability to return from the brink of death. Your mother, in this instance.” Isleen shook her head wryly. “Dying made her a legend and a martyr to our people, along with the rest of her family—but coming back to life—transformed her into a goddess in the eyes of the very witch nation Arius was attempting to rule.”
Tristan clenched his hands silently as a cold familiar feeling of dread crept up his spine. “So—she was a threat to him.”
“Worse than that,” Isleen replied with a hint of scorn. “At least, according to my mother. Arius was beyond infatuated with Catalina, some say Kritanta was obsessed with her as well, but she rejected him at every turn.”
“Not that I blame her, but—why?”
“Because of Kritanta. The Phoenixes have always rejected the Goddess of War and Destruction.” Isleen drew in a slow breath before whispering, “If the stories my mother told me are to be believed, then the Phoenixes belonged to a different god, one who had no name.” She shrugged her shoulders and then turned to continue up the stairs. “I would tell you to be careful who you tell your mother’s name to—but after today, I have a feeling everyone will know that a living member of the Phoenix Coven still breathes; one who has come back from the doors of death already. I just pray you don’t embarrass them—or me.”
“Ahh,” Tristan shook his head with a wry grin as he trailed behind her. “Another almost compliment.”