Interlude XV: The Scorpion’s Whip
If the crowds of witches entering the Tri-Tournament at dawn had been impressive, then the veritable swarm of witches that filled the seat rows below Duke Tyrell’s private viewing box once the sun had reached the top of the arena was practically overwhelming. Once again, Tristan was reminded of the vast difference in population and power between Lafeara and the Witch Nation, where purebloods and coven witches of every elemental affinity gathered beneath the banners of the Scorpion Emperor.
The black flags bearing the golden scorpion of Arius’s coven flew proudly all around the great arena, sectioned off by the four large pillars that held the colored flames of each of the three great covens, orange, green, and purple, as well as the Emperor’s red flame. Each coven gathered beneath their symbolic torch, carrying a flask of Tears of the Sun to refresh themselves throughout the long day of matches. Now and then, the bastard prince saw a burst of fire go off in the crowds, usually where different covens sat a little too close to each other, but for the most part, order and civility were maintained beneath the watchful eyes of the coven elders and the Palace’s Scorpion Guards.
The shadow guard, which the Emperor had assigned to Tristan, had been pulled back during the last week of training when he had barely set foot outside Farrell’s palace. The bastard prince found their absence oddly freeing yet disconcerting as he had become used to always seeing them in the corner of his eye.
So it was with some surprise—and an embarrassing amount of relief—that he noted the two shadows who entered the viewing box silently before kneeling behind his chair.
“Honor and Glory, Altius Ignis,” the first shadow spoke respectfully.
“Should I be worried?” Tristan murmured before tossing the last of the nuts and dried grapes from his plate into his mouth.
“The Emperor is aware of the discord between House Tyrell and Princess Aurelia. We are to remain at your side until the issue has been resolved.”
The bastard prince scoffed. “Better get comfortable then because I don’t see Duke Tyrell or his children letting this go any time soon.”
Isleen glanced over from where she stood, whispering to one of the Burning Hawk guards. Her coal-gray eyes narrowed as she took in the Emperor’s shadows before returning to her conversation.
Tristan sighed as he leaned forward, gesturing towards the table of prepared snacks with various roasted nuts, dried fruits, seasoned jerky, soft buttered bread, and a delicious array of sweetened fried dough. “Help yourselves if you’re hungry.”
The shadows gave no response as they settled into their positions behind the prince’s chair, merging with the shadows of the canopy that obscured the sun slowly rising above the arena.
The first rounds of bloody entertainment soon began, ruining the bastard prince’s appetite as he turned his gaze away from the brutal slaughter of slaves to either wild animals, forced duals, or—the most disturbing display so far—at the hands of pureblood witch children, who cackled with delight as the unfortunate burning mortals danced and rolled around in the arena sand, screaming with agony that only ended with their death.
“Is this normal?” Tristan demanded through clenched teeth as he watched the next group of parents and children enter the arena to take their turn.
Isleen set her glass of caligo wine aside before responding neutrally. “Not always, but—more often than some of us would like.”
“What is the point of this?”
“To establish a core belief of strength and superiority in young witches and remind them why witches and not mortals should rule this world.”
The bastard prince shook his head in disgust. “And you wonder why mortals view you as monsters?”
“We don’t,” Isleen corrected with a faint scoff. “If anything—we prefer it.” She picked up her glass again, tapping the rim with her perfectly manicured nail as she continued. “When a kingdom, any kingdom, sees the first ranks of the Emperor’s Scorpion Army appear at their borders, they tremble in fear because they know they have only two options: surrender or death.
“Fire witches are bred for war. The politics you grew up with in Lafeara mean nothing to us. Rank and family hold no weight if those that carry it lack the strength to grant it the honor and merit it deserves. We revere strength and savagery because that is what has kept us alive. We have led at the front of every battle against the Church and the Pope because that is our responsibility to bear. War is our purpose in this life.
“Thrayna, Lafeara, and Strugna only exist at the Emperor’s mercy—at least for as long as his focus remains on neutralizing the threat of the Holy City and its Pope.” She paused to take a sip of wine before resuming. “Most of the slaves in the arena today are remnants of the descendants of old Zarus. A Holy Nation built on generations who believed in eradicating all witches by any means necessary. They practiced similar displays of public torture and far worse besides—so they’ll get no mercy from me.”
“So the oppressors become the oppressed, and an endless cycle of cruelty and bloodshed continues?”
“Oh, spare me your pretentious indignity, Scorpion Prince,” Isleen retorted with a snort as she turned to face him. “Tell me, if the people responsible for the Phoenix’s death were brought before you in the arena today, what would you do to them?”
Tristan’s jaw clenched as his ember eyes met her cool gaze before looking away. “I would ensure they died a slow, agonizing death.”
“As you should,” she replied with a note of approval. “Only a selfish ruler would deny their people a taste of revenge which they themselves crave.” The pureblood turned and gestured to the legions of witches around them. “The wine, the entertainment, and even this competition were designed to allow all of us to put aside our past grievances and focus on our common enemy, Pope Jericho and his clergy of sociopaths. All of this is paid for and provided by the Royal Family and the three Dukes, and the witches of Ventrayna love the Emperor for it—even if the war against the Holy City has dragged on for nearly a decade.”
A loud knock on the private room door interrupted their conversation. Isleen frowned as she put down her glass and then uncrossed her legs before leaving his side to answer it.
Tristan’s attention returned to the arena, where the latest group of child executioners appeared to be wrapping up. Thankfully, that seemed to be the end of the slave sacrifices, as members of the arena staff, dressed in black robes with rat-like masks, shoveled black sand from their carts to smother the still-burning corpses before loading the crisp carcasses into an ox-pulled wagon.
The bastard prince blinked as Isleen returned to snatch up her drink, downing the caligo wine in one focused attempt before slamming the cup against the ground. “Is—something wrong?”
“Your sister,” Isleen hissed tensely, grimacing as she straightened and brushed a hand over her midnight-black braids. “Princess Aurelia has summoned us.”
Four of Duke Tyrell’s guards and the two shadow guards followed behind the five Scorpion Guards sent to escort them. The unusual mix of the royal sigil and the Duke’s Burning Hawk drew more than a few curious gazes and whispers in their direction as teacher and student descended the steps and circled through the narrow corridors that ran beneath the arena seats. The bastard prince blinked as his eyes adjusted to the darkened venue where street vendors sold trinkets and various fresh food, desserts, and beverages, along with popular wine and ale that stood across the way from an open clinic and repair blacksmith shop available to all contestants.
‘Here’s hoping I won’t have to visit those,’ Tristan thought ruefully as he watched the physicians kneel and pray before one of Kritanta’s priestesses.
“A lot of good they’ll do,” Isleen muttered, taking note of the direction of his focus. “They can’t remove burns, and any severed limbs or cuts will already be cauterized on impact.”
“You didn’t see the coffins stacked in the back? That is where most of their patients end up. They reattach any severed limbs and stitch the dead up as best they can before the funeral pyres.”
‘So I definitely don’t want to end up in there,’ the bastard prince mused darkly.
“How frequently do contestants die during these tournaments?”
“In the first and second round? Not often unless you’re careless or unlucky. But the third round before the victor can challenge the royal family—that’s where many of the coven’s grudges are settled with the Emperor’s permission.”
“I see,” Tristan murmured, lowering his voice as one of the Scorpion Guards glanced back at them. “And are you—planning on settling a grudge?”
“If I make it that far,” Isleen replied quietly. “Normally, I bow out after the second round.”
“Why?” He shook his head, confused by the idea of the proud Isleen walking away from any competition for glory. ‘Was she afraid of dying?’
“As the Duke’s heir, I have a target on my back,” Isleen answered honestly. “But more than that, if I went on to the third round, I’d have to fight against Farrell.”
“But not this year,” Tristan mused aloud in realization.
“No,” she murmured grimly as the hand on her halberd tightened. “This year, I fight for him instead.”
The bastard prince fell silent as they turned to climb yet another set of stairs. He had a feeling they were on their way to meet the very person Isleen wished to kill.
Princess Aurelia lay reclined on a black leather sofa wearing a slip of scarlet silk that barely covered her adequately while two male slaves, who smelled like half-witches, fed her fresh grapes and cut squares of pineapple and cheese. Tristan quickly averted his gaze, focusing instead on the male pureblood witch dressed in armor that bore the green sigil of the Burning Viper, who stood by the balcony watching the crowd below.
Isleen glanced toward the pureblood with a frown before placing a fist over her father’s sigil and bowing her head toward the princess. “Honor and Glory, Altus Ignis.”
Aurelia sighed as she flicked away a grape offered by the servant, then sat up slowly. A golden waist chain slid along her visible, narrow hips as she turned to face them directly, her golden-cooper eyes barely registering the bastard prince as they focused on his teacher.
“Isleen, we were just talking about you, weren’t we, Makhi?”
Tristan glanced again at the pureblood by the balcony with renewed interest and some trepidation. Isleen’s ex-fiancé stood a shoulder taller and broader than the bastard prince and was already glaring in his direction with venomous green eyes rimmed with amber.
“I was wondering why you’ve been avoiding me,” Aurelia continued, smiling like a cat preparing to play with a long-neglected toy. “I suppose you’ve been busy training up the Lafearian mongrel Farrell took in.” The princess smiled as Isleen visibly flinched at the mention of her brother’s name. “And how is my Consort doing these days? He’s been rather neglectful towards his wife.”
“The Prince Consort is resting at home,” Isleen replied coldly as she focused her attention on the painted wall behind the princess. “Farrell thought it was time he gave someone else the opportunity to win the Tri-Tournament.”
“Oh? What a pity,” Aurelia murmured as she nudged one of the servants away with her foot. “I did enjoy our annual battles.”
“Why? Because Farrell always let you win?”
Tristan blinked at Isleen’s cutting tone and watched as the princess’s amber eyes flashed dangerously with a hint of purple flame. Aurelia chuckled dryly as she rose from the sofa and strode to the corner of the room where her armor, black and red with two golden scorpion pauldrons and a painted scorpion across the scaled chest tunic, hung from a wooden dummy. On the table beside it lay two weapons, a nine-tailed whip and battle-axe with two piked edges, which the princess focused on with a sinister smile before lifting the whip free.
“I’d like a moment alone with the mongrel if you don’t mind,” Aurelia murmured as she slid her fingers through the oiled lashes, with sharpened bits of volcanic glass and witch steel knotted at their ends.
“Altus Ignis,” Isleen murmured in clear protest—flinching as the princess’s cracked her whip against the floor.
“I was only asking to be polite,” Aurelia pointed out with an arched brow that implied she was quickly losing patience. “Besides, you and Malki should take this opportunity to clear the air before you meet each other in the pit.”
Isleen looked even less thrilled by this suggestion and glanced over at Tristan, who could only shrug before offering his instructor an encouraging nod. “Alright. I’ll be right outside, Tristan.”
Malki followed his ex-fiancée to the door, pausing to bow toward the princess before he exited, leaving the bastard prince and his half-sister alone with their respective shadows.
“How have you been—little brother?” Aurelia offered him a sweet smile as she set down her whip and moved to pour caligo wine into two waiting glasses. “You must be exhausted after training under those two siblings.”
“They’re good teachers,” Tristan replied, eying the golden cup of red wine she offered him warily. “They just want to improve their student’s odds of survival.”
The princess snorted before she returned to her seat and raised her legs as one of the half-witch servants quickly crawled beneath to offer support. “Are you sure they’re not just filling your head with empty praises? The Tri-Tournament is no place for amateurs. You may be a pureblood—but you’re severely lacking when it comes to magic combat experience.”
“If I feel like I’m out of my depths, I’ll withdraw before the third round,” he replied with a modest shrug.
“It would be better for the family if you participated as a spectator and used this time to observe your betters before jumping into the scorpion pit—only to smear the Emperor’s name.”
“As much as I appreciate your sudden concern for me,” Tristan murmured with only a hint of sarcasm. “I didn’t register under our father’s name.”
Aurelia raised her brow, then scowled. “I see. So, you’re going to continue this little act of rebellion in yet another attempt to grab the Emperor’s attention.”
“No, I simply thought it more prudent to choose a more suitable name until the Emperor sees fit to acknowledge me publicly. I assumed that you and the Empress would appreciate my discretion during such a public event.”
The princess looked bewildered for a moment before she drank from her glass. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re being serious or just playing the fool to make me lower my guard.”
“I have no wish for us to be enemies, Aurelia.”
“And yet—by birth—that is precisely what we are,” she retorted with a vicious snarl. The princess’s dark brows narrowed as they focused on his untouched glass, then she snorted and laughed before finishing her own. “Look at you, spouting political lies of friendship and trust while refusing to share a simple glass of wine with your sister.” Aurelia stood up gracefully, tossing her empty cup to a servant as she advanced toward Tristan and snatched the cup from his hand. “Or perhaps you simply lack an appreciation for such a refined vintage.” She took a sip from her brother’s glass, her gaze never leaving him for a second, swallowed, and then returned the rest of his drink to him. “See? Not poisoned.”
“Poison can’t hurt a fire witch,” Tristan replied quietly, still holding her gaze. “Pellis worms, however—”
“Ah-haha!” Aurelia stepped back, folding an arm around her waist as she covered her laugh. “Do you honestly think I would risk exposing myself to such a gruesome fate just to trap you?”
The bastard prince tapped his cup thoughtfully, then extended his arm and poured the remaining red wine onto the stone floor. “You’re right. We aren’t family or friends,” Tristan murmured as the princess stepped back with a look of surprise that quickly shifted into anger. “Regardless of the birthright we both share, I could never share drinks with someone who would use such cowardly methods to harm a dear friend of mine.”
Aurelia’s anger quickly faded into a look of sheer delight as she stepped towards him, ignoring the wine splattered on the floor beneath her sandals. She then took the empty cup from the bastard prince’s hand, which she tossed over her shoulder with a faint giggle of amusement. “Finally, we are on the same page.” The princess’s gold-painted fingernails returned to scratch lightly down his scaled armor, which she examined critically with an amused smirk. “Be careful in the arena, little brother. If I happen to meet you in the third round, I won’t bother asking the Emperor for permission to execute you. I’ll settle this dispute myself and remind all of Ventrayna that there is only one true heir to the Scorpion’s crown.”
Tristan smiled as he looked down at his older sister of one year. “It’s a wonderful dream, Aurelia, but we both know the only witch capable of ruling the covens of Ventrayna is the one blessed with Kritanta’s power.”
Aurelia’s gaze narrowed before she turned away with a laugh. “It’s been a long time since our father held the power of a goddess.”
“Perhaps—” Tristan murmured as he turned to leave, meeting the gaze of the shadow guards who watched him from behind the princess, “—that is because Kritanta has already found another Consort.”
The proud princess clenched her jaw, unable to voice the question he had so deliberately dangled before her, and watched in silence as the bastard prince opened the private viewing room door and left.
When Tristan didn’t find Isleen waiting for him outside, he quickly went looking for her. Halfway down the stairs, he found Duke Tyrell’s pureblood guards battered and burned from an apparent struggle. The bastard prince didn’t bother to ask what happened as he sprinted to the bottom of the staircase, pausing only on the last flight to signal the shadow guards.
“Find them. Wherever Malki has taken her, you find Isleen and keep her safe.”
The two shadow guards glanced at each other silently before responding. “It is not our place to interfere in the conflicts between the three covens.”
“But it is your place to listen to the orders of the Royal Family, is it not?” Tristan turned to face them squarely, though they avoided his gaze by looking at the ground. “I don’t have time to waste arguing over the politics of covens that I barely understand. So, we’ll keep this simple. You know the Emperor means for Isleen to become my bride, so you can either serve his will or that of the Empress.”
The shadow guard continued to stare at the ground for a long moment before finally responding. “We cannot interfere—”
“Damn you!” The bastard prince roared loudly enough to pull the gaze of the crowd passing below.
“—but we can tell you where they are,” the assassin continued calmly.
“Then take me there, now, and hurry!”
Tristan wasn’t exactly surprised at the sight of his teacher standing with her foot on the back of Makhi’s neck inside the cramped, scorched cellar that smelled of old wine beneath the arena stadium. Still, he was relieved to find her mostly unharmed aside from a faintly swollen lip and red cheek. The Burning Viper purebloods that his shadow guards had disabled outside the cellar bristled as they stood and retreated to a cautious distance.
“Isleen,” Tristan called out before a loud horn blasted through the walls above them. The bastard prince cleared his throat and steadied the broken cellar door against the wall before adding, “I think that means the matches are about to start.”
Isleen exhaled forcefully as she applied more pressure to her ex-fiancé’s crushed trachea. “Tell them to return my weapon, Makhi.”
The clatter of a halberd on the ground outside the cellar pulled Tristan’s attention away, and he hastily scooped up his teacher’s weapon before returning to the door.
“Good. Now that we’re done with this private chat you wanted, here’s a message for Duke Zenaku,” Isleen growled as she shifted her boot from the purebloods neck to his back. “If your father still needs a reminder as to why his clan will never match up to the might of the Tyrells, he needn’t look any further than his eldest son.”
Makhi’s dark cheeks flushed red as she stepped lightly away. He quickly pushed himself onto his hands and knees, only to grimace when Isleen spun around and directed a savage kick dangerously close to his groin.
“That is for manhandling my guards,” Isleen snarled as she whirled away to grab the halberd from her waiting student as she marched out of the cellar.
Tristan followed her, leaving the shadow guards to sort things out as they saw fit. Judging by her angry stride and the mess Duke Tyrell’s guards had been left in, the peace between the two covens seemed disastrously close to igniting. “Should I be worried about your safety?”
The pureblood halted and turned so sharply that Tristan had to grab onto her as they danced around each other.
“I’m sorry,” Isleen hissed as she quickly backed away. “I know you need Duke Zenaku’s support, but—”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of the Dukes, your father included,” he replied honestly. “I just want you and your brother to be safe.”
Her brows furrowed as she held his gaze. Anxiety and something shockingly close to concern radiated through her coal-grey eyes. “But you still need him, Tristan. You need at least two of the Dukes on your side in order to keep the Empress and her brother, Duke Zenon, in check.”
The bastard prince sighed as he raised his gaze to the rafters above them, dimly outlined by the tunnel’s torches.
“You—are serious about becoming the Emperor—aren’t you?” Isleen pressed hesitantly. “Because Farrell and…we have risked—” she sucked in a sharp breath of air, struggling to compose herself. “My family has bet the future of our Coven on your success.”
“I get it,” Tristan murmured. “I don’t really have a choice anyway. Farrell, you, my father—Kritanta. I could do nothing and still end up with the Emperor’s crown—whether I want it or not.”
“Do nothing, and you could wake up tomorrow with a dagger in your chest!” Isleen hissed, waving her halberd dangerously close to his neck for emphasis.
He chuckled at the morbid suggestion and shrugged again as the shadow guard moved silently around them. “I don’t think I’ll have to worry about sleeping with one eye open for a while.”
“Your right, my mistake. I guess I confused you with someone like my brother, who the Emperor selected as Aurelia’s Prince Consort—whether Farrell wanted the position or not.” Isleen stepped back as she spun her weapon around, slamming the covered blades against the ground with force as her eyes darkened. “And now that the princess doesn’t want him anymore, my father has no choice but to watch his son suffer while struggling to stay alive—at the mercy of your half-sister.”
“Couldn’t your father petition the Emperor to end the marriage?” Tristan replied while keeping his own frustration in check. “If Aurelia wants to end it as well—”
“The only one with the power to end a marriage granted by the Emperor—is the Emperor.”
“Then we can just appeal to my father and—”
“My father already tried. No ruler likes to be proven wrong, least of all when it reflects badly on their children,” Isleen retorted with a resigned grimace. “Don’t worry. As long as I make it through the third round, I’ll have my chance to deal with the princess personally.”
“You’re going to challenge Aurelia? But—I thought you were friends.”
Isleen stared at him blankly for a moment, then laughed. “What did you expect? We were practically forced together, Aurelia, me, and Saaru. Who better than the daughters of Dukes to be the playmates of the Emperor’s only princess?” She glanced toward the shadow guards with a cynical smirk as if reminding herself of their listening ears. “I tolerated them both for the sake of my family. But after what Aurelia did to Farrell—” Her coal-grey eyes gleamed brighter than the torches around them as orange flames coiled up the shaft of her dual-edged halberd. She turned quietly and headed towards the dim light of the staircase.
“What are you going to do, Isleen?” Tristan asked quietly without moving.
“I’m going to do what the next leader of the Burning Hawk Coven should do,” Isleen answered without a backward glance. “I’m going to kill that bitch.”