NOTE: Good morning everyone! It’s been a busy couple of weeks settling into my new place and my new job, but the show must go on and I have almost finished Chapter Twenty-Three of the book this week, whilst the blog itself has now amassed over 500 followers, for which I am grateful for every single one of you who is reading this and following this blog!
Thanks once again to my friend Izzie who is constantly giving me very helpful feedback whenever I post these chapters, and I encourage comments and criticisms wherever they come from! Today is also my birthday, and it is strange to think that, at my current rate of writing, this book will be finished by the time I am 30 (next year). That is the aim anyway! It is still a work-in-progress and vastly unedited, so plenty of work to do, and I am going to need a lot of help to work this into something vaguley resembling a publishable piece of writing!
For now though, I hope you are enjoying this story and have been following along. Today, we are back with Leona as she prepares for her wedding to the mysterious Nebu. I really enjoyed writing this chapter, however I am still trying to get into the swing of writing a teenage girl, which is the biggest challenge I face when writing this book. So any comments and helpful notes are encouraged and appreciated. Thank you again for reading, and I hope you enjoy Chapter Nine! The next chapter will be posted on July 18th.
Leona lay in bed for what felt like an age. She let the light seep in through the split between the silk drapes that dressed the oriel of her chamber. Elena snored blissfully as she snuggled against her, and Leona savoured the warmth of her little sister. She wondered if she would ever feel this comfortable again, if she would ever feel as safe in Aljan as she did in Ilturbia. At any moment she knew that Jadya would burst through the door with a gaggle of handmaidens to prepare her for her wedding. For a few more moments, Leona’s mind wandered to the wedding and the feast, thoughts which gave her great joy, but she would not allow herself to think of the bedding.
Luckily, Cesara did not follow the more debauched customs of their neighbours to the north, but once drunk and bold, the men and women of the court could be utterly vulgar in the stripping of the couple. She had first witnessed it when she was eleven, and her aunt Meliya married. She had never seen her grandfather so enraged by such a tradition, and her own father was equally as infuriated. Now, her father vowed that such displays would be toned down and far less aggressive. Unfortunately for Leona though, the tradition was too engrained to be completely eradicated. It was the part of the night that she dreaded the most, and a small piece of her prayed to Jivana that she would spare her this awful practice.
Almost as soon as she finished praying, the door burst open and Jadya flew through it with her arms full of fabric and a trail of handmaidens behind her handling the dangling dress so that it did not drag on the floor. Elena stirred in her arms, but did not wake up, so Leona dragged the furs over her head and buried her face into Elena’s shoulder to postpone the chaos that awaited her. In one swift movement the furs were ripped from Leona and the sisters lay in the bed groaning and complaining.
“It is bad luck to sleep in on your wedding day, my princess,” Jadya argued, looming over the foot of the bed.
“Everything I do is bad luck according to you.” It was not untrue. Jadya had a habit of telling Leona that it was bad luck when she did something against her wishes. It worked on Leona as a young girl, but not anymore. If it is bad luck to sleep in on my wedding day, then so be it, Leona thought.
“Not everything. For example, getting washed, dressed and breaking your fast are all very lucky.”
Leona rose from the bed reluctantly and stretched her arms over her head. After rubbing her eyes, she saw that Elena had already fallen out of the bed too, eager to be doted on by the handmaidens. She was marvelling at the bright fabrics and ornate jewellery that were sprawled across Leona’s dressing table. Seeing this, she decided that if Elena could find the energy to leap from the bed, then so too could she. She stood before Jadya and returned her glowing smile. Leona could not remember the last time she saw her handmaiden frown in her presence. It made her think of her father. How many times must he have frowned and cried for her mother? And yet she could not remember a single downturned smile. Only his eyes ever gave away his sadness, and there was not a man, woman or child in all of the world whose eyes did not betray their real feelings.
“Jadya, I would like to see my father.”
“You will see him soon, right after we get you washed, dressed and made up for the wedding.”
“I mean, I would like to see him before we do all that…please,” Leona whispered.
Jadya’s expression changed. She knew that Leona did not truly need to ask her permission. Her handmaiden knew her better than anyone outside of her family, and Leona showed her as much respect as if she was her family.
“Of course,” she replied, “but be quick.”
Leona walked barefoot down the halls as two guards followed her. She often felt it silly that she was being protected at all times, especially as her father and Emperor Daut were such good friends, but precaution always prevailed. She knocked on her father’s door, and it opened almost immediately. Emperor Daut loomed over her and smiled.
“Ah, the beauty is awake! I shall not keep you from your father, my darling. I will see you soon,” Daut laughed and walked past her. When she entered her father’s chamber, he was sat on the end of his bed with a fake smile. She knew his real smile, and it was all in his eyes. This time, he was only smiling with his mouth.
“My iliona,” he opened his arms and Leona rushed into them and buried her head in his neck.
“I’m afraid. I don’t want to leave,” Leona whispered, desperately holding back her tears.
Marius squeezed his daughter tight and then pushed her away, keeping hold of her shoulders in his hands. “If I am truthful, my darling. I do not want you to leave either.”
“Of course not. You are my eldest daughter, and I am a Commander during a time of peace. It will be desperately quiet without you around. But this is what it means to be leaders, Leona. We do not do things because they are what we want, we do things because it is what is good for our people,” he held her hand in his. “I will never make you do anything that you do not want to do, Leona.”
At first, Leona thought that her father was offering her a way out of this marriage, but then she saw beyond his eyes and into his soul. He did not want her to leave, but he needed her to. She was the key to a generation of peace with Cesara’s greatest threat – and potentially -greatest ally. It was not something that either of them wanted, but the only way they could secure their nation’s survival.
“I will marry him, father,” she smiled the same smile as her father, this too was all in her mouth.
Leona was not given a moment to speak whilst she was bathed, as her eager handmaidens scrubbed and scraped at her skin until it was raw and clean. She had fingers and thumbs pinching and scratching at her, whole hands pulling at her skin and her clothes whilst they frantically prepared her for her wedding to Nebu. She wondered if he too was being given such treatment. She could not imagine her husband being primped and pampered, nor could she imagine him tolerating such a fuss. Although she liked Nebu, she could not help but feel concerned for her future. She was to enter a foreign land, one that had, until recently, been hostile to her own. It was of some comfort that Jadya and some of her handmaidens would join her, but she couldn’t help but feel cautious.
By the time they had finished, Leona felt as if she was more powder and paste than person. Jadya had allowed her a few moments on the balcony of her father’s palace to watch out over the city one last time. It was a truly lovely spot. Leona watched the many rivers that flowed through the city and into The Settler’s Sea. Colourful homes and businesses sprouted among trees and greenery with the tide lapping at the sandy beaches. She closed her eyes and inhaled the salty air as the sound of the water and the squawking seagulls sang to her whilst her skin absorbed the sun.
“It is a beautiful day for a wedding,” a soft voice came from behind her.
The voice was so gentle that she did not feel startled at all, and did not feel the need to rush her moment of peace. She let out a deep breath and turned around to see her betrothed standing before her, draped head to toe in the most wonderful garments she had ever seen. It was a beautiful navy silken robe that overlapped at the front and was hemmed with golden thread that showed only where intended. On his right breast were golden badges of all shapes and sizes declaring his military rank, whilst upon his head was a golden cap with a curved front. It appeared too that Nebu had been thoroughly washed as his skin shone bright with oils that brought out the green in his eyes.
Leona smiled at him and the sound of her city gave her the confidence to speak. “I cannot help but agree, my prince.”
Nebu strolled over to the edge of the balcony and leant across the stone. He looked over his shoulder to Leona. She followed him and placed her hands on the cold granite.
“Are you nervous?” He asked her as he stared out across the city.
Leona hesitated a moment before replying. “Yes. Are you?”
Nebu laughed briefly, “I must confess that I am. After today, a lot will change. I am not sure if I am ready for it.”
The revelation took Leona by surprise. Nebu always seemed so assured and so confident, but it made her feel better knowing that he was as concerned as her. Now it felt like they could navigate it together at the same pace instead of her being dragged along by a husband who knew the way. Perhaps it would not be so hard for her to keep up after all. She wondered what her mother would have said to her father in this situation. She wanted to support him, to assure him that she would be beside him as his princess, and eventually his queen.
“I believe you are ready,” Leona turned to him and took his hand in hers.
Nebu looked her up and down. “Do you really think so? Do you think I will make a good Emperor?”
Leona smiled. “Of course, you will, Amenti and Cesara would be safe in your hands.”
Nebu beamed, and Leona knew she had done her job as his betrothed. She felt empowered by him. “My princess, you do not know what it means to me to hear you say these words.” Nebu leaned in to kiss her, but stopped when he heard a loud ahem from the steps in the tower. They both turned around to see Jadya standing there with her arms folded. “Some things cannot wait, but perhaps this can,” Nebu whispered.
“My prince, my princess, please forgive me,” Jadya curtsied.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Nebu responded and turned his lips towards Leona’s ear. “My princess, I look forward to making you my queen.”
The journey to her wedding was made in a chariot along the Great Road between the Commander’s Palace and the High Church. It was tradition in Cesara to arrive by chariot, and in Amenti it was traditional for the bride and groom to arrive to the church on horseback, and in an act of compromise Nebu arrived with his guard galloping ahead of the chariot on his steed. It wasn a remarkable sight, and the people of Cesara had taken to Nebu like no other Amentian. He was charming, but gentle, and completely unlike his brash father. Although Emperor Daut meant well, he did not have Nebu’s youthful charisma.
Elena sat beside Leona in the chariot. Her sister looked lovely with her shiny hair and beautiful blue dress. She sat silently holding a bouquet of flowers that she would hand to Nebu to gift Leona when she arrived at the altar. All of the nerves that Leona felt on the balcony standing beside Nebu, all of the butterflies that fluttered in her belly when he proposed to her when they first met had vanished. It was as if she had tossed them off the balcony and they scattered across the sea to seek the other nervous boys and girls. She now felt calm, but it seemed that the butterflies had found Elena who stared out of the window of the chariot, avoiding her gaze. Without saying a word, Leona grabbed her sister’s fingers and locked hers over them. Elena turned to her and gave her a brave smile, which Leona returned.
Suddenly, the chariot began to roll down the hill as the noble children of Cesara waved them enthusiastically through the gates of the palace. The Great Road was lined with soldiers of both her father and the Emperor as frantic crowds climbed over each other to catch a glimpse of the princess. It was truly sweltering heat, so many wore scarves over their heads to protect them from the sun. As the horses picked up the pace into a canter, the faces of her people began to blur into one. She could no longer pick out individual features of their faces, and so she looked over their heads towards the buildings. Some of them she had never noticed, some of them she had been in, most of them she hadn’t, but they all merged together to create the landscape that only now she realised how much they meant to her.
When they approached the palace, the horses began to slow as the nobles greeted them cordially within the gates of the church. The noise of the crowd outside the gates would soon be blocked out by the stone walls, but for now the songs, trumpets and drums of the people played happily through the summer air. For them, this was a day of total joy. It signalled a brighter future that would solidify the independence of the nation for a generation. The Hartlands could never hope to challenge an Amentian state without the full force of the Empire crushing them in battle. The Hartlands would stay north, and Cesara would be safe and protected. Although part of Leona would miss her country, she also felt immense pride that she was able to gift Cesara with this peace.
The door to the chariot was opened by the stablemaster who took Leona’s hand and helped her out of the carriage. Once she was out, she did the same for Elena who gratefully accepted the help. The girls were ushered towards the doors of the church and when they got there they were told to wait by a pretty lady of age with her father. They waited for a few moments, the doors opened and Elena was pulled forward gently by the lady who told her to look and walk straight ahead, and hand her flowers to Nebu. Leona tried to catch a glimpse of her betrothed, but he was hidden behind a pillar. As Elena entered the church, the doors shut to make sure nobody could catch a glimpse of the princess before she entered.
“Are you nervous?” The lady pulled up beside Leona and whispered.
“Extremely,” Leona replied, her hands shaking. She saw no reason to lie to this lady, and it felt nice to be able to tell someone her true feelings.
“This is the most scared you will be. After this, it all becomes much easier,” she took her hand and smiled.
For some reason, Leona felt comforted by her words. She knew there would be hard times ahead, but knowing that this would be the most fearful part of her marriage consoled her briefly. A moment later the doors opened again and Leona stood stunned as hundreds of faces turned towards her, the torches that stood proudly on poles on the stone walls flicked light upon their faces. She saw Nebu standing at the altar with the bouquet of flowers in his hands and soft singing from the Godsons echoed through the hall. She had not even noticed that she had started walking down the aisle. It was as if her body was not being controlled by her, but by another being, guiding her towards her betrothed.
Leona couldn’t feel her fingers, she couldn’t feel anything and her heart beat faster than she had ever felt it before. When she finally reached the altar, she looked Nebu in the eyes who handed her the bouquet of flowers. Elena was on hand to retrieve them for her to close the cycle of giving. Leona’s eyes drifted towards the front row of seats where she saw Elena take her seat beside her father, whose face was glowing with joy – a joy that showed even if his eyes. Across the aisle, Daut sat with a pleased grin next to a beautiful girl of a similar age to Nebu, who Leona thought must have been Mavina, the Amentian princess. Arkgodson Franco began speaking, but his words drifted into the air. The only words she waited for were for her cue to consent to the marriage, and that only required two. The only thing that Leona focused on was Nebu’s lips, waiting for them to move so that she knew it was time for her to speak. She waited for what felt like an eternity, the distant mumbling of the Arkgodson’s speech vanished into nothingness, her eyes were locked on her betrothed. Locked on her future. She saw his mouth move, and the words were as clear as she had ever heard them. Barely the last note escaped his lips before she responded. And with that, Leona had married a prince.
Everything from the wedding until the feast blurred into one action. Her kiss with Nebu, the walk down the aisle hand in hand with her husband, and the carriage ride towards the palace. She had never seen anyone so excited. Nebu was beside himself with joy, kissing her constantly, talking about the future and about their lives once he ruled the Empire. He had so much passion for his country, so much energy for rule. She was not surprised that Daut was so proud of him, he was different from his father in many ways, but they clearly shared a love of ruling.
By the time they reached the palace, there was a procession of people lined towards the doors to shower the married couple with gifts. There were so many people, and so many gifts that Nebu and Leona needed a line of their own servants to take the presents once they had received them. Leona gave thanks and smiled to her people. The presents ranged from perfumes, balms and powders to jewels, necklaces and rings. When they reached the Grand Hall, Leona almost did not recognise it at first. It looked transformed. Although it was always a beautiful and ornate place to eat, they had changed the set-up through the use of well-placed drapery and structures that created arches covered in flowers.
Once everyone had settled into their seats, it was time for the speeches. The first speech was given by Arkgodson Franco, who compared Cesara and Amenti to Jivana and Natos, which drew appreciation from the crowd, though there were some Amentians who followed the Old Way who grumbled. He went on to compare Nebu to Natos and Leona to Jivana, which was also well-received. Leona blushed at that, and hoped that the love of the Angels of Life and Death would mirror her own marriage with Nebu.
After the Arkgodson, Emperor Daut gave an impassioned speech focused on his friendship with Marius, his love of his Empire and his joy that their lands had been joined in marriage. It was an almost universally cheered speech, as both Amentians and Cesarans realised the benefits of the union. It gave Leona hope that she really was the key to a peaceful future for her people. Finally, it was Marius who stood before the crowd. He did not have a long speech, in fact, it was only a few words. “To Cesara, to Amenti, and to the Prince and the Princess – may all be happy hereafter.”
By the time the speeches had finished, the guests were relieved that the food was finally brought out. As per tradition, the first dish was brought out to the father of the bride who would approve its taste before the rest of the guests were served. A serving girl placed the plate in front of Marius who teased the crowd by screwing up his face and laboriously swallowing his food, before raising his glass and smiling. The guests cheered and the servants came in one by one to serve the food. It was a truly beautiful spread with colourful vegetables lavished upon silver platters. There were green beans, corn, peppers, carrots and onions that had been roasted, caramelised and drizzled with honey. There were pies and tarts, quiches and pastries filled with cheeses and stewed meats. Different types of fish such as bass and swordfish were brought to the tables whole with bright decorations and flowers dressing the plates. Finally, they rolled in a pig on a spit with a great apple stuffed in its mouth for the main event.
Leona ate little. She did not want to feel bloated or too full, especially with the bedding to occur at the end of the night. She ate small bites and noticed that her husband was doing the same, perhaps more out of modesty than anything else. Nebu had a quiet dignity about him, an awareness that went beyond the brutish nature of some of his men, and yet he still commanded their respect. Not the respect that men would give their prince, the son of the emperor, but a man they truly believed in. Leona felt lucky. Of all the sons that a man like Emperor Daut could have had, it was Nebu that she had committed her life to. No matter what happened, she felt as though she would always find something to admire about her husband.
After the feast, the food and the tables were cleared so that the guests could dance. Daut was roaring drunk and danced with girl after girl, whilst her father danced with Elena standing on his feet. Leona began to feel slightly hazy too. The chalice in front of her had not been empty all evening. Every time she was close to finishing it, a serving girl would pour eagerly with a beaming smile. Now though, she realised that she hadn’t a clue how much she’d had to drink. Whilst hers was empty, she noticed that Nebu’s was full as if he hadn’t touched a drop. As she looked over, Nebu caught her eye. It seemed that everybody else was caught up in the festivities, so she did not feel shy when he smiled at her and stealthily took a seat beside her.
“Your father is full of spirit,” Leona giggled and gestured to Daut who was now spinning a girl around elaborately to cheers from a gathered crowd.
Nebu scoffed. “My father likes the whole world to know he is there.”
Leona, uninhibited from the wine, leaned in close to him. “And you prefer to remain hidden?”
“Let us say, I have lighter footsteps.”
Leona laughed, and then noticed one or too of her father’s court looking at her and whispering. All of her inhibitions suddenly flooded back. “I believe the…ceremony… is about to begin.”
Nebu placed an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “And you do not want this?”
“It is not that I do not want, it is the…how do I put it?”
Nebu smiled. “You want the battle and not the siege,” he joked.
Leona shook her head and smiled. “Yes, I suppose I do. Perhaps if your light footsteps can get us over the walls, then I can get us into the keep?” Even filled with wine, Leona instantly regretted those words and winced to herself.
Nebu turned away and said something in Amentian to his guards who smiled and nodded. Nebu grabbed Leona’s hand and took her from the dais. Voices started chattering as the two rushed from the hall, hand in hand. Her heart was pounding, her face was red and flushed, but she had never felt excitement like it. She heard a rumble of people chasing them up the stairs cheering, shouting and singing, but instead of heading for her chambers, Leona pulled Nebu aside and into a different room. She slammed the door shut and heard the people stampede through the halls past them.
“Where are we?” Nebu asked.
“This is my father’s council chamber. Don’t worry, no one would dare to look in here. If anyone is caught in here without my father’s consent, they won’t leave with their head,” she joked.
“Suddenly, I do not feel so safe,” Nebu laughed.
“I would not worry, my prince. You are a friend of my country, and more importantly, a friend of a princess.”
Nebu took her hands and looked into her eyes. “I have already told you, my love. You are no princess; you are my queen.” He kissed her deeply and she wrapped her arms around his neck. Nebu ran his hands down the front of her dress and placed his palm across her stomach. “Only a Queen can give birth to an Emperor.”
Leona awoke as the stars glittered beyond the window. The raucousness of the party had long died down and a soft silence hung in the air. Leona lay atop the large pine table that sprawled through the centre of the council chamber. She was glad to have avoided the bedding. She could not have dealt with those people witnessing their awkward removal of their clothes and Leona’s occasional yelps of pain. After some manoeuvring and practicing though, they found pleasure in each other and it did not take long before they rolled off of each other, breathless. Nebu even snuck into her chamber in order to find them some furs, as Leona still worried that partygoers would seek the couple out before dawn and did not want to get caught on her journey.
Leona drifted in and out of sleep, but Nebu stayed awake, staring out across the skyline of Ilturbia in deep thought. Eventually, Leona awoke again to find herself alone. She got to her feet and saw that the door had been left ajar. Leona wrapped herself in some furs and snuck towards the door and carefully peeked through the gap. The hall was empty and quiet, and so she carefully slipped away and entered her chamber, expecting to find Nebu. The chamber was empty, and although tired, Leona was eager to find her husband and take him back to her bed.
She quickly threw on a tunic and tied back her hair. Walking down the corridor, it was eerily quiet, and so she hastened her footsteps until she found herself at the staircase to the main hall. Leona rushed down the staircase and ran into the hall to find Marius and Daut sat on their own, laughing and drinking. She smiled and hid behind the door so that they could not see her. All of a sudden, a great roar went up in the hall. It was Emperor Daut, but this was not his usual bellowing of joy, this was anger and pain that could have woken the entire city. Leona stood in the entrance to the hall and watched as Nebu stood by the dais dressed from head to toe in black with the bottom half of his face covered in golden cloth.
“No! No! You traitor! You vile rat!” Daut roared drunkenly.
“I am sorry father, but now is the right time. I am ready,” Nebu replied.
Marius attempted to step in, but Daut put an arm aside before he could even speak. “No, Marius. This is no place for you. Nebu is my first-born son and heir, he has enacted his ancient right to fight for my Empire in single combat.” Daut turned to Nebu. “You would have me kill my son? Your poor wife has only just married you, and now you would leave her a widow? You would endanger our family’s dynasty for your own greed? Shame on you, Nebu. You are not the son I raised.”
Nebu raised his sword. “Then strike me down, father. Strike me down and raise another if you are able. If you are not, then say your final words and allow me to inherit what is rightfully mine.”
Daut pulled his sword from his sheath and immediately swung ferociously at Nebu’s neck, which Nebu swiftly sidestepped and returned with a low swipe towards Daut’s waist. Daut caught the blow with his own sword and the clash of steel echoed throughout the hall. Nebu seemed startled by his father’s speed and wherewithal, though his mouth was covered, his eyes quickly flashed with doubt. Marius had stepped aside, helpless and unable to assist his friend. Daut moved to headbutt Nebu, but his son slid beneath his father’s legs and swung again at his other side. Daut pivoted elegantly as Nebu’s sword smashed through the goblets of wine that spilled onto the floor. With his free hand, Daut threw a fist into Nebu’s face and caught him in the eye, knocking him to the ground. Leona felt her heart leap into her throat as she watched Nebu roll across the floor in an attempt to avoid Daut’s sword from cutting him in two. Eventually, Daut tired and Nebu used a bench to help him to his feet. Having regained his energy, Daut ran towards Nebu with his sword over his head and threw it down with all his might, but Nebu rolled backwards over the bench and watched on as Daut’s sword was embedded into the wood. Daut tried to yank it free, but as he did, Nebu slid across the wine-splattered ground and drove the bench into Daut’s knees, causing the large man to stumble backwards and land prone with his back on the table. Nebu swung his own sword over his head for the killing blow, but Daut turned his sword horizontally to block it. He launched himself from the table and threw Nebu to the floor with one hand. Nebu’s body crashed into the ground, and as he struggled to his feet, the Emperor stood over him with his sword hovering over his neck.
“What were you thinking?” Daut growled. “What made you think you were strong enough to defeat me in single combat?”
Nebu got to one knee, but dared not move any further as his father’s sword dangled over his head. “Only a fool would think they could defeat you in battle, father.” Nebu looked up and caught his father’s eyes. “I am no fool.”
Nebu suddenly pulled a knife from his father’s boot and thrusted it up through Daut’s neck and into his mouth in one fluid motion. Marius cried out, and Daut stood with his mouth open, the blade poked out of his mouth like a second tongue as blood began to ooze from the wound. Daut’s eyes were locked open in shock. Nebu yanked the dagger free as his father tried to raise his sword one last time, but the Emperor stumbled forward and fell to his knees. Daut was now facing Leona, her eyes met his as she held back her screams and her cries, but Nebu pulled his head back and slit his throat with one swift slash.
Marius saw Leona and rushed to her, but Nebu’s guards had already begun to swarm around the hall. In an instant, Leona felt a hand over her mouth and an arm across her stomach. She screamed, but the sound was muffled and she was dragged kicking and flailing from the hall. “Let me go! Let me go!” She yelled into the hand, but it was of no use. She was dragged from the hall and watched Cesaran and Amentian guards rush around Daut’s body and draw their swords. She saw her father draw his own and watched him cut down one of Nebu’s men before a crowd of swordsmen then stormed the hall. Leona lost her father’s face in the melee as she was pulled into darkness.