Note: Hello again everyone, and thank you for stopping by! I hope you are all well and not too glum about the extended isolation period. This is truly a crazy time in history, but hopefully it will all be over soon and we can go back to normal. Usually, being stuck in one place would hinder creativity and make me not want to write, but luckily this blog is keeping me going, and the chapters are coming thick and fast. We have now reached 198 followers on this blog, which I am thrilled about, and have continued to recieve some wonderful feedback, which has been exceptionally helpful. This chapter, and this character, has been by far the most challenging, and most enjoyable to write. It is the character I always have to go back and double-check every piece of dialogue to make sure it’s right so special thanks to my wonderful girlfriend, Sarah, for proof-reading this chapter for my own peace of mind.
To everyone who has been following this blog, thank you for reading, and thank you for your input, it will make the following chapters much stronger. The next chapter will be up on May 9th. As always, feedback is welcomed and encouraged, so please leave a comment if you have anything to share. Without further interrpution, here is Chapter Four:
Cesara was beautiful at night, high above the city of Ilturbia, where the rivers intertwined in numerous twists and intersections, Leona sat by the oriel of her chamber. It was closer to dawn than sundown now, but the beating drum of her heart pounded against her chest and resisted slumber. Though her eyes were sore and her mind weary, she could not discipline herself enough to sleep through the thoughts that clashed and collided in her head like a thousand men-at-arms.
The stars twinkled above the darkened city, whose torches she saw go out one by one until only those left in the seedy alleys, filled with promiscuous women and drunken men, remained. From her window she could see the moonlit waves wash against the shore and the mouths of Ilturbia’s many rivers feed the sea. Directly above her, the Great Galla decorated the earth with its stunning stripe of mercifully bright stars that stretched far over the distant forests that separated Cesara from The Hartlands to the north.
Tomorrow, she would wait anxiously at the opposite side of the palace in her father’s chamber. There she would look out over the city towards the south, where she would await the first rider of Emperor Daut’s litter to rise over the southern hills from the desert and join Cesara from Aljan, capital of the vast and sprawling Amentian Empire. There were still many alive who would shudder in fear at the thought of an Amentian force approaching the city gates, yet for the first time in centuries, the Cesaran people could rest easy in the knowledge that they approached as friends.
A cool breeze drafted through the oriel and Leona grasped a fur and wrapped it around her shoulders, before closing the wooden shutters and sauntering over towards the end of her bed. Suddenly, a knock at her door startled her, and she instantly took a tone of irritation. “The lady is at her rest, who goes there?”
“The Chief Commander of Cesara, my lady,” her father responded sarcastically and creeped open the door. “May I enter?” He asked with one hand covering his eyes.
“Don’t be silly, father. Please come in.”
Her father opened the door wide and closed it almost immediately behind him. “And why, may I ask, is my daughter up so late?”
“I could turn the question to you.”
“I pray you don’t.”
“My mind is galloping like a war horse, and I cannot seem to slow it,” Leona admitted.
“Through excitement or fear?”
Leona thought for a moment, looked down at her fingers and gazed back up at her father. “Both.”
He took a seat next to her by the end of the bed and took her palm in his. He had rough, hard hands covered in callouses. She liked them though. They were warm and weathered, as a warrior’s hands should be. As he held them, she felt comfortable and protected as if his hands could grip the blade of a sword and the skin would not break. Marius Pacis was like all Cesaran leaders – a warrior first, and a ruler second. The first duty of Cesaran men was to protect and command, and none were elected unless they had first served in battle.
“It is okay to be afraid, it is okay to be excited, and it is okay to be both. There is no excitement without fear. Your betrothed will feel the nerves in your touch, in the stuttering of your breath and the hesitation in your kiss, and he will love you for it. When I met your mother, she was terrified, but I was a brute. By the time I met her, I had seen many battles and thought I was made of stone. Then I held her in my arms, this vulnerable, nervous creature and the stone melted away like wax.” Marius smiled and squeezed Leona’s hand. “You will make him melt too.”
Leona looked up inquisitively. “I cannot imagine mother as a vulnerable and nervous creature.”
Marius chuckled at that. “I can assure you she was not. She too was a strong and fearsome woman. Our softness, our tenderness, our love, was reserved only for each other, only in private. It is okay to expose yourself to weakness, Leona, but only to those you trust the most.”
“Thank you, father,” she whispered and leant her head on his shoulder. “I do miss her.”
“I dare say there is not a soul in Cesara who doesn’t,” Marius gently rose to his feet. “There is not a soul in Cesara who will miss tomorrow either, my love. Now get some rest.” Leona released his hands and nodded. As he approached the door, Leona’s mouth opened and she could not stop the words that escaped.
“What if he doesn’t love me, father? What if I don’t make him melt?” She asked and then felt silly for doing so.
Marius gave her a long, sympathetic stare, but in it his eyes narrowed slightly. “Then he is a fool, and I will not allow you to marry a fool. Do not think on that. You will be a princess soon, my iliona.”
The dust clouds signalled the arrival of a far greater procession than Leona had expected. In years past, such a sight was a warning for those who lived outside the city to take refuge inside its walls. Now, it brought every man woman and child who could afford a moment away from their labour to witness the arrival of the Amentians. Leona stood with her fingers entwined behind her back to the left of her father, and to his right her younger sister, Elena held onto his leg with her face buried into his thigh, unsure what to make of the commotion around them. She had just turned five and was the image of her mother with her blonde curls and hazel eyes. She was too young to know the joy it brought her father to look upon her. Leona had always taken after Marius with her chestnut brown hair and dark eyes, tall frame and a naturally sullen-looking face that brought unfaltering comfort when the rarity of joy touched it.
Today their faces brought relief.
It was in the nature of Cesarans to be stern and unyielding. For thousands of years they maintained independence free from Kingdoms and Empires despite their small size. Their culture too deep and too ingrained to be watered down or bred out, their pride too significant and their people too fierce and unbreakable to live under the rule of anyone who was not Cesaran. Leona felt her father’s arm twitch with excitement beside her, it was a subtle movement, but she had spent all of her sixteen years beside him, and noticed every change in his demeanour, no matter how little.
Two horsemen approached over the hill and galloped hastily towards their waiting party. With Leona, Marius and Elena were their personal guard, made up of twenty men-at-arms garbed in steel body-plates, feathered helms and heavy boots the same olive-green as their capes, representing the Cesaran colours of green and beige. The eldest member of the guard shot Leona a proud smile. Hezekiah had served Marius since the commander-in-chief was just a belligerent teenager, having been captured from an invading army from Natonia, a nation in the Old World. He was never ransomed and remained in Cesara, eventually serving in its own army. He always looked magnificent to Leona, like a statue. His broad shoulders and chiselled body had never changed despite his age, his skin was the colour of pitch with scarcely a wrinkle in sight, yet his grey wiry hair betrayed his advancing years.
Hezekiah was the first man to step forward when the horsemen approached. The first brought his horse to an immediate and abrupt stop before launching himself into the sand in one movement, landing elegantly on his toes. Like most Amentian men, he had bronze skin and his moustache was turned down and dangled even lower than his chin. This man had close-set eyes and thick, bushy eyebrows and a completely shaved head. All he wore to cover his nakedness were a pair of silk breeches which covered his waist and his thighs up to the knee, beyond that he was bare but for the sword and dagger in the hilt around his waist.
“On Emperor Daut’s orders, on this, the day of his son’s wedding, the people of Cesara need not kneel through fear. Those who kneel, will do so out of respect,” the man announced.
Leona turned to her father. “What does he mean? What do we do?”
“It means we may choose to kneel or not.”
“But what do we do?”
“You must choose. I will kneel for my friend, and Elena will kneel because I kneel. You must do what feels right to you.”
As the litter approached, Marius kneeled with his left arm hooked over his knee. Elena followed as he predicted and so did the guards. Soon, all of the waiting party knelt out of respect for Emperor Daut. All except Leona. She thought about it, but she did not know this man but for the stories her father told her, she had never met him, nor had she seen any of his actions. Perhaps, if she knew all that, she would be informed enough to kneel before the Emperor, but she did not, and so she didn’t. Leona stood tall and looked around for an off glance from one of her people as if for guidance, yet none came.
Leona watched as the doors of the cart were opened and two thick legs crushed the sand beneath its boots. Emperor Daut was a powerful figure. He was tall and broad, with a barrel-like chest and a bulging gut. A thick beard covered his face up to his cheekbones, and his head too, was bald. He lumbered over towards them as his velvet robes no doubt caused the sweat that dripped from his forehead. The robes were embroidered with floral patterns in a mix of gold, green and black.
He stood before Leona and gave her a beaming smile before grasping the back of her head and kissing her on the lips. Leona was aghast and startled, but returned the smile politely, despite being desperate to wipe her mouth of his spittle. He pulled her close and whispered to her. “What do you say we get these people off their knees?” Emperor Daut whispered. “On your feet! What would your ancestor’s say?” Daut roared and Marius rose and embraced him in a soldier’s hug.
“It’s good to see you again,” Marius patted his back with both hands.
“And you, old friend.” Daut turned to Leona. “You stood whilst your people knelt…why?”
“I was informed I had a choice.”
“Indeed you did! And you chose to stand. It is interesting,” he smiled. Over Daut’s shoulder, another man exited the cart. Immediately, Leona was drawn to him. Almost as tall as Daut, this man had none of the Emperor’s lumber and bone. He was skinny with a thin face, and as he approached, she saw that his hair fell elegantly against his shoulders in layers of silken golden brown. His face was clean shaven and when he was within a few yards she noticed his flawless porcelain skin and pale green eyes. She had seen him before, and felt as if she’d met him a thousand times, but soon she realised that she had never met this man – though she had prayed to his likeness. The man before her looked just like Natos, and seemed to style himself in such a way as to not hide that fact. Daut threw his huge bicep around his neck and pulled him tight. “This is my son, Nebu.”
Leona felt her heart flutter. In all her dreams, she had never pictured her betrothed to be so beautiful, she had never thought that she would marry a man who embodied everything she knew of the Gods. Nebu pulled away from his father irritably, but recovered his smile almost immediately after meeting Leona’s eyes. “This is who I’m to marry?” Nebu asked his father. Daut nodded. He then turned to Marius and knelt before him. “My father tells me you saved him on the battlefield, now you grant me the honour of marrying your daughter. I will never forget your kindness.”
“What would your ancestors say?” Marius gripped Nebu by his forearm and pulled him to his feet. “Today, the honour is shared. A fine son, for a fine daughter…you will bring peace and unity to our world.”
Suddenly, Nebu pulled the sword from its sheath and raised it to the sky. A shocked gasp came from the spectators, but in one swift movement he dropped to his knees and laid the sword by Leona’s feet. She was taken aback and jolted in fear whilst Elena had hidden completely behind Marius. Leona looked down at Nebu and his forehead was pressed into the sand. “My love, my betrothed, may my people and yours witness my submission to your charm. I hereby declare for you, and swear to protect you, share with you my wealth, my body and my soul for all eternity. I have found you again.”
The people around them clapped. Leona was overwhelmed. To declare for a lady was an ultimate sacrifice for a man, like bearing your throat to a wolf. To do so was to bind your soul to another, to agree to always meet in each life thereafter and continue your love. It was an act of assurance that the one he declared for was his soul’s match, and that he’d once again found its mate. She looked to her father for guidance, and he nodded approvingly. Leona placed her palm on Nebu’s neck and gently lifted his chin. He rose from his feet and delicately took her fingers in his own and kissed her knuckles. She gazed into his eyes, and in them she swore she could see his soul.
Leona had wished that she would be allowed time alone with Nebu to get to know him, but even in the safety of the palace gardens, Nebu’s two guards shadowed him closely. A few paces ahead of them, Marius and Daut laughed and joked as smoothly as the rivers flowed. The gardens were always the fancy of foreign visitors, especially those from the vast and punishing desert which encompassed much of the Amentian Empire. Flowers bloomed for all of the year in Cesara, and each patch of flora was carefully planted and arranged to create a mosaic of colour. Mauve, indigo, magenta, yellow, fuchsia and orange petals entwined together to create portraits that changed depending on the whim of the gardeners. The novelty had long worn off for Leona, and she no longer sat in awe of the fanciful colours, yet she loved to walk through the gardens to think or talk. It was a tranquil place filled with nostalgic thoughts and hopeful dreams. Elena skipped past Nebu and Leona as carefree as a new-born puppy and she could not help but giggle at her frolics. She caught Nebu’s eye, but he had not reacted to her happy sister’s frolicking and instead stared directly ahead, focused on the path.
“I suppose it must be rare for you to walk amongst flowers,” Leona said, trying to illicit conversation.
“We have gardens in Aljan, though none quite as vibrant as these. For many, it is too hot to spend too long outside, we long for the relief of the shade.”
One of his guards said something in Amentian to which the other guard and Nebu laughed briefly. Nebu turned to her and whispered, “Zuberi’s jokes are not for the ears of Princesses, so forgive me if I do not translate.”
Leona smiled politely, though she was no delicate petal and had spent much of her life listening to the bawdy jokes of soldiers. Though she had no desire to involve herself in the laughter, she knew it was important for men to share such jokes amongst themselves, and humoured the ones who felt the need to shelter her from it. A large guffaw bellowed from Daut’s broad chest a few yards in front of them, which at first startled Leona, but soon found herself amused by his exaggerated expression. “Your father has a lot of personality.”
“My father’s idea of subtlety is a stampede at prayer,” Nebu exhaled sharply and rolled his eyes. “If he feels people haven’t noticed him in a while then he will remind them of where he is like a horn announces a cavalry.”
“Do you not like your father?”
“It matters not if I like him, nor if he likes me. I am his heir – it is a bond beyond simple love and hate,” Nebu replied, pensively, but not unkindly.
They approached the Fountain of Chastine. A grand marble statue that curved into branches of twists and swirls with intricate etchings in old Antinnan that few people in the modern world could read, though it had long ago been translated into the Common Tongue. The focal point atop the stone was moulded into the image of a cherub, it was a dedication to the lost son sacrificed by his father Samuel to resurrect his deceased wife, only to become crazed into an abuse of power and raised an army of the dead. It was one of the oldest and best-known stories in the Book of Life & Death, but the Amentians lived by their own religions and didn’t share the faith of their northern neighbours. Marius and Daut had stopped by the fountain and were waiting for them to catch up.
“Ah the love birds have finally caught us,” Marius nudged Nebu happily.
“I would spend as much time with your daughter as possible, Commander.”
Daut laughed sardonically. “If my son honed his arm as he honed his tongue, perhaps I might one day be able to show him a battlefield.”
Nebu flicked a look to Zuberi who shared Nebu’s indifferent stare. Leona glanced at her father who she could tell shared the tension.
“Thank the Gods there are none to train him on,” Marius said lightly. “May the peace last through our children’s lifetimes.”
“Not for long in the north. It is only a matter of time before The Hartlands and The Blacklands are at war once again.”
Even Leona knew that was no throwaway comment. She could see the hunger in the Emperor’s eyes, and a northern war would mean opportunity. Every man, woman and child in the New World knew about the Mad Queen cutting her son’s throat in his sleep, and her inevitable execution would no doubt bring about the fury of her father, Aedvard, King of the Blacklands. Leona’s father had a look of uneasiness on his face. She knew that the last thing Marius wanted was war, even if it meant Cesara may claim back lost territory from The Hartlands. They knew that the people of Arubel were still Cesaran in their hearts, but lived under the emblems of their rulers waiting for their moment to strike. This worried Marius. He had no desire for war or battle, she knew.
“It should not come to that,” Marius interjected.
“Perhaps not, but we can hope, friend. And when they are weak, I will gather my armies with yours and we will take back your lost land! It is my duty, and my honour to repay the debt I owe you. Without you, old friend, I would not be on this Earth.”
That much was true. Leona had heard the stories a thousand times, though not once had it escaped her father’s lips. She remembered anxiously waiting by her window at just eight years old as the successful Cesaran army returned home, exhausted and filthy, but triumphant after the final battle of The Allied War – the first and only war that Cesara fought alongside the Amentians against the invaders from Antinna. The Battle of Maladh was a bloody, cruel and tragic story of bloodshed and terror. Thousands were slaughtered on both sides, yet every surviving man had heard the story of Marius and Daut. Each story was decorated with embellishments dependant on who told it, but the bones were always the same. Daut, having been wounded by a mace on his shoulder fell on the battlefield and was ripe for the picking. Marius, abandoning the charge of his unit to his Captain, Thedorus, dragged Daut a quarter mile through the sand so he could receive medical attention, fighting off enemies as he did. It was his act of bravery that inspired the men to victory, and solidified the bickering ranks of Cesara and Amenti into an unstoppable force that surged forward and won the battle. It was a nice story, and Leona had heard a hundred versions of it from a hundred people.
“We won that battle,” Marius brushed off the compliment not out of modesty, but necessity. Talk of war excited Daut far more than it did Marius, and Cesara’s commander knew better than to ignite the embers that burned in Daut’s belly. Most of the south was already under Daut’s power, and now that Cesara would be joined to his empire by marriage and alliance, Leona knew that his ambitions would continue north.
“We did, and what a battle it was. I remember everything about that day. I didn’t feel the blow of the mace until the next day because I was filled with so much battle joy!”
“All I remember is the smell,” Marius grimaced.
“The smell of death, butchered flesh and shit-filled breeches…the smell of war is something that never leaves you,” Daut inhaled deeply, “and now, the smell of pretty flowers, perfumes and peace,” he continued and made eye contact with Leona. “Perhaps, this is preferable.”
Marius looked relieved. “Come, I have a feast waiting for us in the hall. No doubt you are hungry after your journey.”
They continued walking, and to Leona’s surprise she felt Nebu’s hand lock with hers. He leaned over to her and whispered in her ear. “Nothing like stories of butchered flesh to whet the appetite.”
“I would only eat a little, I have a strange feeling in my belly to be truthful.”
Nebu squeezed her hand. “Their talk of war did not upset you, did it?”
Leona smiled. “I have heard tales of war since I was a child; my stomach has grown quite accustomed to that. This feeling though, well this feeling is entirely new.”
“You speak the Common Tongue marvellously,” Leona broke the silence that began minutes earlier when their feast had been served.
Daut and Marius tucked into their venison rumps hungrily as if they hadn’t eaten in days. Nebu, though clearly hungry after his journey, resisted the temptation and showed only the most courteous manners, taking each small mouthful with elegance.
“I have had lessons since I was a boy. I can speak the language of every people in the New World, and some very basic Ancient Antinnan,” Nebu said proudly.
“Ancient Antinnan?” Leona responded incredulously. “That is an impossible language…it is inconsistent and follows none of the structures of modern language.”
“Hence why it is only basic.”
“Who taught you?” Marius asked through half a mouthful of honeyed carrot.
“When I was being fostered in Dourle, the Grand Camaph Kiah taught me many things.”
“The Grand Camaph are like our Arkgodsons are they not?” Leona asked.
“Indeed they would be the equivalent in rank, though our religious leaders are given many more freedoms than yours. They are free to marry and have children, though they may only pass on their lands and wealth if their children commit their life to the faith as well.”
“And rightly so. What God would deny a woman’s warmth to a man who devotes his life to them? Forgive me, Marius, but the customs of your people bemuse me!” Daut said as he tore into another rump, having already devoured the first.
“You are forgiven, it wouldn’t be the first complex idea you struggled to comprehend,” Marius smirked at Leona and Nebu.
“Careful, friend. There is a fine line between peace and war, don’t think I won’t cross it.”
After the feast they were escorted to the palace to mingle with the influential men and women of Ilturbia. The gathering brought politicians, philosophers, scholars and soldiers alike who wanted to wish Nebu and Leona their best wishes before their wedding. It was also filled with Amentian soldiers, who stood out in their elaborate and colourful dress that vastly contrasted the pale pastels of Cesaran attire. Many of the soldiers knew each other and mingled easily, reminiscing about battles past and sharing wine with their former comrades. Leona platted Elena’s hair whilst Marius introduced Nebu to his delegates and Daut pretended to be interested in the musings of a group of philosophers. Leona giggled at the mismatch.
“What’s funny?” Elena asked as Leona twisted and pulled gently on her golden locks.
“Emperor Daut. He is an amusing man, perhaps a bit of an oaf, but he seems kind.”
“Is Nebu like him?”
Leona thought for a moment. “Not at all. Though Nebu was not raised by Daut. I believe he lived away from Aljan.”
“That’s strange. Why didn’t he live with his father?”
Leona didn’t have an answer for that, though as she watched on, she noticed that Nebu had quickly taken to conversation with Marius and his entourage and seemed to slip in comfortably. Daut, however, only appeared comfortable around other soldiers. It was intriguing to her. Soon, Daut became bored and found a group of guards to tell his war stories to.
It wasn’t long until Elena became equally as bored and ran off with one of her maidservants to play in the gardens once again. As Leona watched her run off, a thought filled her stomach with grief. Amidst the nerves of meeting Nebu, her happiness in finding him to be intelligent, conversational and attractive, and the joy of watching her father smile and laugh with an old friend, she had not thought of how much she would miss her family. The simple pleasures of braiding her sister’s golden hair would be stolen from her. The more she thought about it, the more she realised she would miss. The rivers that ran through her city would be replaced with repetitive dunes of sand, her city’s grand white pillars would be a memory whilst she stared out from the window of Aljan’s squared off pyramids made to accommodate rather than inspire. It wasn’t just the views either. The thought of learning a new language, making new friends amongst women who would no doubt distrust her, or worse, fear her and her power. She would be married to a man who had lands and people to manage, who would travel so much that she may see him only a handful of times every year.
Her face must have told of her sudden discomfort as she looked up and noticed another face she’d miss staring at her. Jadya had been her maidservant since she could stand, though she was only ten years older than Leona, she was calm, worldly and unfailingly comforting.
“My lady, you look as though you’re trying to find the inside of your eyes,” Jadya smiled and held out her hand. “I have been instructed to escort you to the Grand Gallery.”
“I have not been told about such an event, what’s happening?”.
“It was a surprise to me to. I have been told little except that your presence is required and Marius himself has approved your attendance.”
Leona looked over to her father who smiled and gestured that she should make haste. She reluctantly got to her feet, not in any mood to be herded through the palace like a lost lamb. Nebu and her father were still deep in conversation whilst Daut had resorted to drinking ale with his subordinates. Leona realised that she had no desire to remain amongst the chattering court without Elena there to talk of simple and familiar things. Jadya took her hand and rushed her from the hall and up the stairs.
“What is going on?”
“It is a surprise, my lady, but one you will like I swear it.”
When they reached the balcony, they found the doors to the gallery guarded by two guards – one of them was Nyep, the second of Nebu’s personal guard, whilst the other was much more familiar to Leona, a man named Illet, not much older than her, but who had been serving as Ilturbia’s Lead Watchman for almost two years. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, a big, handsome smile full of large white teeth and genuine happiness.
The door opened for them and she found the Grand Gallery empty. Devoid of all furnishings, wall-hangings and most noticeably, people. The eerie silence was even more acute after spending her afternoon amongst the chattering of nobles and the booming roar of Emperor Daut’s laughter. She turned to Jadya who returned her smile and placed a hand upon her cheek.
“My father approved this?”
“How could he not? I shall leave you alone with her, my lady.” Jadya curtsied and then left quietly, leaving Leona alone.
Silence. Leona felt an overwhelming sense of calm that flooded her body like a warm drink on a winter’s evening. For a while, she thought that she would not have a moment to herself until she was in Aljan. It was traditional for the husband and wife to leave for the husband’s home on the dawn following their wedding. Leona did not know when she would be back in Cesara, and although that thought had nibbled at her neck like a spider, it was only now she walked through its web and tasted her new reality.
Until dawn though, she could savour this moment of peace. A moment she now owed to Jadya, the only constant in her life she was allowed to take with her to the punishing desert city of Aljan. As she walked across the narrow hallway of the gallery, she gazed straight ahead to the bronze statue at the end of the room. Her father had built the gallery officially in the name of Leona’s mother, Claria, but she knew that he had not built it to honour her, but to remember her and look upon her whenever he felt he needed her strength.
Elena did not visit often, being so young she had not known her mother but from the depictions of artists and sculptors, but Leona knew her as well as her father and they mourned together in comfort, both using Elena as a distraction of their grief when they did not wish to think of their loss. Now though, Leona felt guilty for constantly distracting her mind into ignoring the thoughts of her mother. Her mother, who she was certain passed on to paradise and had lived a life fulfilled, who she knew was watching her, guiding her in her ways and not lost in purgatory or living life again in another vessel, would no doubt forgive her, but Leona was thankful that she was here now, before she went away, to say goodbye.
She immediately lit a candle and placed it in her mother’s bronze palm. The likeness was close, but Leona had always felt a slight disappointment that the true brightness in her eyes had not been captured. She looked content and peaceful, but that was not her true character. Her mother had been full of life and energy, beaming and friendly, confident, mildly flirtatious and utterly infectious. Leona was unsure whether it was the memories, the scale of the day or her own nerves that brought the tears to her eyes, but soon they covered her face and dripped to the carpet.
“Papa laughed when the Arkgodson declared you a Saint, mama. He said that you would have said ‘about time,’ if you knew.” Leona smiled and then her tears began again. “I am sorry for what happened to you, and I am sorry that I have not come to see you more.” Leona pushed off her feet and touched the back of her fingers to her mother’s face. “It is funny, how you only seem to crave things when they are taken from you. I know that I have no right to ask anything of you. I know that I have no moral grounds to ask you to watch over me, to protect me and ease me into this strange world, but I do not ask these things of you. I beg you. Not as a child begging its mother, but as a soul praying to a saint. I will honour you, even name my first child after you, I promise you that much if you agree to be my guide. I hope you can hear me, mama. I miss you. I love you.” Leona kissed the lips of the bronze statue. As she did, a tear fell from her face and extinguished the candle. The door at the end of the gallery swung open and the flames danced in the breeze.
“My lady, I am so sorry, but your presence is requested in the palace,” Jadya called. “Are you ready to go?”
Leona took a deep breath in and clenched her fists. “Yes…I am.”