NOTES: Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Fourteen of The Cursed King. I’ve had a strangely social last couple of weeks – lots of catch-ups and Zoom-based reunions, and I finally got to see my parents again after nine long months because of lockdown. Having been anti-social for so long over lockdown, it is strange to be getting back into the social groove again. I have been keeping myself occupied with working from home, writing (of course), but also the return of the Premier League this weekend is another welcome form of entertainment to help pass these trying times. That being said, I am thankful to be happy and healthy during this pandemic.
Onto the blog and the book. We are sitting around 700 followers, which is amazing. I have been struggling to keep up with my WordPress follows so far this month, though I am always on the lookout to follow new and interesting blogs on here that catch my eye. This chapter follows the events of Chapter Ten as we return to Leona after she witnesses the murder of her father-in-law. Leona is always a tough character to write, but immensely enjoyable and challenging one too. I also enjoyed writing the setting of this Chapter – the Amentian Capital of Aljan – which is inspired by places I have spent time in around the Mediterranean and North Africa. I hope you enjoy it too, but as always, constructive feedback is always welcomed and encouraged. Thanks for reading and the next Chapter will be up on September 26th.
Leona was awakened by a piercing light that shot through a gap of the curtain in her carriage. She went to pull it shut, but it was met with resistance and an irritated grunt. Covering her eyes, she turned her head and saw Zuberi holding the curtain. Zuberi was a young, handsome man with a thin beard that looped around his lips and chin. Though he was handsome, he had small, focused eyes, a still face, and a wry smile, as if he was always thinking of a cruel joke.
“Out,” Zuberi said dispassionately.
She did not feel compelled to follow any orders that fell from the mouth of an Amentian, but she feared her legs would turn to mush if she did not walk around for at least a few moments. Leona complied and exited the carriage with as much grace as she could muster. As she stepped out, she saw mountains layered one by one with a slim valley cutting between them, they were all the same grey-brown colour, like rain had not touched anything around them in months. Surrounding the valley, she could see buildings and towns, none of them looked big enough to be a city.
“Water.” Zuberi held out a flask and shook it impatiently in front of her face until she took it from him. She stopped herself taking a sip and gave it back to Zuberi.
Zuberi laughed, drank from the flask and grunted again for Leona to drink. Leona complied, and realised she had little to fear. The water was clean, and fresh. She looked around and realised it must have been from the streams in the mountains. The purest, freshest water she’d ever tasted was from the North Western Mountains of Cesara, and it was a welcome respite from the heat. They need me alive, she realised happily, but her happiness immediately turned sour. She had a lot of time to think about what they were going to do to her, but she felt guilty for not thinking of her father, or poor Elena. She looked out over the valley and prayed to Jivana that they were safe.
“My love,” a voice came from behind her. The same soft voice that had pierced her heart now sent a flood of boiling rage through her veins. The butterflies had turned to bees and she felt her throat fill with their sting, desperate to spit the venom at whoever walked in her path/.
“Where are they?” She demanded, but Nebu only smiled, which angered her even more. She reached out and put her hand around his throat and squeezed as tight as she could. “Where are they?” All of a sudden, she was on the floor with the tip of Zuberi’s sword pointed at her throat and a stream of Amentian words flying at her from his mouth. Then, Nebu barked the loudest, and his words seemed even more threatening than Zuberi’s, and the guard hastily pulled his sword away and slinked off back towards the litter. Nebu watched him as he walked away, a genuine anger flushed across his face. He rushed to her side and helped her to her feet. As soon as she was up, she shrugged him off. “Do not dare to touch me.”
Nebu pulled his hands away and held them up innocently. “I must explain, I know, but first, please know that your father and your sister are safe. They are in Cesara. Your maidservants have travelled with us, they are not far behind us and will join us for dinner. Please do not be afraid. What you saw was not meant for your eyes. I intended to keep you safe from this, but I failed.”
Leona tried to bat away the soothing words like they were flies trying to smother her. I will not allow him to fool me, she told herself. “You killed your father. You slit his throat without mercy. How can I trust a word you say? How do I know my father and sister are safe?” All she wanted to do was cry, but the intense heat and her insatiable anger gave her the strength to hold back her tears.
Nebu removed his robes and all that remained on his body were the silken hose that cut off at the knee and the sword belt that wrapped around the waist. He pulled his sword from the scabbard and held it out in his palms before Leona. “Go ahead, take it.” Leona did not care if it was a trick. She took the sword by the handle and carefully took the flat of the blade in her palm. It was heavier than she expected it to be, though she had more than enough strength to wield it. She remembered her father teaching her how to dance with a sword. It did not matter in Cesara if you were a man, woman or child. Everyone was taught swordplay. There were more women in the Cesaran army than anywhere else in the New World.
“I know how to use it.”
“I am aware,” Nebu got to his knees and bent his head. A commotion came from the guards by the litter, and three men including Zuberi rushed over. Nebu shouted fiercely at them in Amentian and the men stopped in their tracks. “Now, ask me what you will. I will not lie.” Leona felt her power surge. I could end it now, but I would die too, she thought. She realised that she would get no answers here. Nebu was smart. He knew that the sword she held in her hands was a false sense of power and security. If she were to harm him, she would be killed instantly. And how would that help? Leona wrestled with her thoughts before dropping the sword in the dirt. Nebu rose to his feet slowly and took her hands in his own. “I promise you that your family are safe. I ordered my guards not to harm them, but your father is a smart man. He will not attempt to retrieve you. We are too powerful an army. We will visit them again, as friends to your country, and he will accept me as the new Emperor. You said it yourself, I am ready.”
Leona’s heart sunk. Each time she called him his Queen, each time he asked her if he was ready. He was asking for her permission, her consent to take the Empire by force. It made her feel sick. What if her father knew? What if he blamed her for the death of his friend?
“I did not think … I did not know you would-”
“But you saw what my father was. He was a brutish oath, desperate for war. He was losing support here in Amenti with his reforms and his desire to abandon our culture to adopt your father’s. It made a lot of people unhappy. There are many in Amenti who would see the return of the Old Way. I will give them a compromise. We will give them peace.”
In all of the madness, the blur of her betrothal and her wedding faded into a distant memory. All of the happiness and excitement she felt, even the naïve fear, had vanished, and now she missed it all. She looked into Nebu’s eyes, trying to find something of the man she thought he was, yet all she saw reflected back at her were the crazed eyes that swiped a blade across Emperor Daut’s throat. She felt the spray of blood as it hit her face, and a chill went down her spine. Now she was his hostage, his bargaining tool for Cesara’s compliance in a regime her father wanted no part in.
Leona had read about the Old Way. Arkgodson Franco gave her the histories of Val of Keane and Ebra Daln. The Old Way were the backwards ways of the Ancient Antinnan’s, a vast land deep within The Old World where it is said the Amentian people first originated thousands of years ago. Filosi also claimed Antinnan heritage, whilst those of The Twin Kingdoms originally migrated from Natonia. It was all a jumble in Leona’s head. People always liked to believe different things about where they were from, but Cesarans had always been in The New World, just like the Skaermen and the Warlords of Ismann. They had held strong for thousands of years against invasions, and the thought gave her strength. If my father can resist the invasion of Antinna itself, I can resist the charms of the pretender, she vowed.
“How far is Aljan?”
Nebu smiled affectionately. “Half a day’s ride from here. These are the Mountains of Nihei. They separate Cesara from the rest of the Empire. I do not wish to deny the strength of your people, but in truth, it is these mountains that have kept invaders away for thousands of years.”
Leona knew much of these mountains. She recalled a poem that she used to hear the bards recite, and could not hold back the words that fell out of her mouth like a waterfall:
“For if they seek for us to ring our bells
they must first walk to the Gods themselves
On their descent, they’ll find no slaves
We’ll guide them into their own graves”
Entering the city of Aljan was unlike anything Leona had ever experienced. There were people in every crevice of the city, and most of them were the least bit interested in their carriages, except for those who were brave enough to put a hand through the curtain to try and flog their wares. Leona could not help but to peek out from the curtain. The narrow streets were lined with stalls and narrow alleyways. All of the buildings were the same red brick as the looming squared pyramids that surrounded the city. Leona had never heard so much noise in all her life. As they travelled through the main square, there was a cacophony of sounds all from different instruments, beggars hassled people for money and performers made monkeys and snakes dance for the entertainment of children.
Leona watched women make oval bread on hot stones as men wiped the sweat from their brow whilst they turned spits surrounded in thick slabs of meat. Others sat on the ground with a mortar and pestle grinding leaves and roots into spices, others used a stone hand mill to make oils and butters that were collected by a flat slate and then scraped into vials, tinctures or into the soups that were made in a large cauldron. Elderly men held wooden bowls in one hand and a copper coin in the other as they waited to be served the yellowy liquid. The smells that filled her nostrils reminded her of being in the garden. It was fragrant and hot with the different aromas dancing through her head, but these smells also made her mouth water.
It was only when they had travelled through the city and out of the main square and these smells had vanished, that Leona realised how hungry she was. It had been a long journey, and she had eaten as little as possible in protest of her kidnapping. In the entire journey, she had not seen Jadya or her maidservants, and she was beginning to worry that Nebu’s soft words about their safety were just more deceits. Leona poked her head out of the curtain to see the largest pyramid of all rising up over the hill. From far away, the red brick looked primitive and desolate, yet the closer the carriage pulled her, the more she could see the fine lines and the symmetry of the buildings and how they were erected.
Each layer of the pyramid was indented with balconies and stained-glass windows with one enormous stairway at the centre, which could take a person all the way to the very top. The Aljani River swept around this particular pyramid as if it was built to accommodate the grand structure, and not the other way around. Gardens had been planted around the entire area, as vibrant green flora bounced off the pastel red stone. None of this could be seen from a distance, only now that Leona was up close could she see the immense beauty of the Amentian Empire’s capital city.
Leona was still gazing at her surroundings when the carriage was pulled to an abrupt halt. Then began a sequence of commands and shouts that drew her attention to the surrounding guards. Despite the heat, these men were dressed more like what she was used to in Cesara. They wore plate and helmets and boots with linen hose instead of silk longshorts. These men seemed older and more experienced than Nebu’s guardsmen, but were clearly inferior in rank with how they greeted the men. They bowed as they exited the carriages and awaited instruction from them.
Once the guardsmen had surveyed the area, the older men stood in formation in front of the carriage and knelt. Zuberi stood before them and made an announcement in Amentian. Leona tried to follow it, but had never had an ear for languages, and Amentian was a mix of thousands of tongues from a thousand different cultures and countries that made up the Empire. Eventually Zuberi’s announcement ended and Nebu emerged from the carriage in his gold robes, and quickly allowed the older men to rise to their feet. Then, each man began to whip open the curtains of each carriage, and it wasn’t long before one of the men was standing by her own.
“My Queen,” the man said as he stood aside and bowed, awaiting Leona’s exit.
Leona was walking towards Nebu’s Pyramid alone before she felt a squeeze on her arm. Immediately all Leona could smell was a strong perfume made of fruits and berries. She recognised Mavina, she was Nebu’s sister and sat beside Emperor Daut at her wedding. Leona had recalled how beautiful she was, but now that she saw her closer, she could see that she was even more attractive than Nebu. Mavina’s eyes were ink dark and almond-shaped, her cheeks were full and dimples formed on her cheeks when she smiled. Her hair fell in heavy brown waves around her slight shoulders, and the words that fell from her lips were softer than all the furs she had ever felt.
“You are not alone here,” Mavina told her whilst they walked arm in arm.
Leona did not know what to say in return. At once she was both struck by Mavina’s beauty and suspicious of her intentions.
“I am not. I have my husband and my maidservants.”
Mavina chuckled. “You are very smart. Very smart indeed. We will be fast friends, Leona Pascis.”
Nebu appeared to be gathering his people together throughout his residence, clearly eager to dispel any rumours that had made their way to them before they caused him a problem. Despite everything that had happened, Leona’s husband never seemed nervous or unsure. There was a calmness to his stride, a certainty in his tone, and a confidence to everything he did. As if there was no doubt in his mind over anything he had ever done, nor anything he ever would do. Leona felt the same way when Nebu declared for her. His assuredness made her feel totally relaxed in that moment, and his confidence transferred over to her own and mingled with her very soul.
Mavina had a similar way about her. Though this was a kinder, more subtle kind of charm. In everything she said, whether intentional or not, Mavina seduced the attentions of those around her. Lulling them in gently, rather than through brazen displays and gestures. Leona did not want to be suckered in by either of them. It had been a long journey, and although she had finally eaten, her stomach still growled impatiently. Her father used to tell her that when her stomach rumbled when she was not hungry, it was because she was worried or wanted something. This time it was both. She had not seen Jadya or any of her maidservants since she arrived, and it was all she could think about.
Mavina’s chambers were gloriously decorated. A mix of vibrant pinks and purples, lush, fluffy carpets and stunning works of Amentian art upon the walls. Although the artwork was simply called Amentian, there were thousands of styles that represented the many cultures of the Empire. The one that caught Leona’s eye was an abstract painting on a square canvas of the main square. She knew by the shape of the pyramids in the background, and the colourful foreground. In the centre were the outlines of people dressed in a range of yellow, blue and red robes, whilst to the sides were the market stalls with sharp, straight lines to represent the wooden frames, and soft curves that represented the textiles and clothes on sale that hung from the walls. A pastel maroon had been used to illustrate the dirt roads beneath their feet. It was a stunning piece and sent Leona’s stare into the distance.
“My father painted this one,” Mavina said, breaking her stare. Leona could not hide the shock from her face. Emperor Daut was such a loud and cumbersome man, she never thought he would be capable of capturing such beauty. “It is surprising, I know. He was such a large man, in body and character. Yet he was capable of subtlety, and could be exceptionally gentle. He never shared his paintings with anyone, but I told him as a girl that I must have this one, and he never was able to deny me what I wanted.”
“I am sorry.”
“No, you are sweet. I have known Nebu all my life. I am his elder sister by one year. I have always known the man he would become. There was no stopping him.”
“You knew he would-” Leona stopped herself halfway through the question.
“I did not know he would, in truth, but I always knew he could. My father has always tried to explain to us the virtues of your people, and of your customs. He was fascinated by them, and thought we should all try and adopt more of your ways. He was an ideologist in that regard, but we are a large Empire, with a lot of people to please who have their own way of life. Nebu always liked his ideas too, but he was always a pragmatist, always a realist. He saw our father as a threat to the dynasty, and eventually grew to resent him, no matter how much love he received in return.”
“But why kill him? Why at our wedding?”
“Now that is something you will need to ask your husband.”
Leona dipped her head in disappointment, but found it hard to look away from Mavina for more than a few moments. She was unsure if she could trust this kindly beauty, but she was certain that she did not want to stop talking to her. All she wanted was answers, and there was nobody she could trust to provide her with the truth.
“Don’t look so sad, my Queen,” a sweet voice came from across the room.
The voice startled her, and a joy rose in her heart so intense that she had forgotten every social normality that she had spent her entire life learning in a moment of utter relief. Before she could even think, she ran to the door on the other side of the room and wrapped her arms around Jadya’s neck and she thought they would tumble over with the momentum. She pulled herself away and grabbed her cheeks, analysing her face to make sure it was really her.
“Jadya…my sweet Jadya, it is really you!”
“It really is,” Jadya pulled Leona back in for a hug.
“Elena…my father…are they okay?” Leona whispered in her ear.
“We have not been told a thing. We were taken from our beds in the dead of night and rushed from the palace.” Leona pulled away. “And now we are here.”
Leona’s joy faded with that answer. The only person she could trust in all of Aljan was as blind and deaf as she was to what had happened. Nebu had told her the truth about one thing. Jadya was here, safe and sound, and it looked as though they had not harmed a hair on her head.
“The girls – Katherin, Natalia, Lucinda?”
“They have already been sent to prepare your chamber for you.”
“Muhduw,” Mavina said, linking her arms with Jadya and Leona. “It is the Amentian word for chamber.
“Princess, I am sorry, I did not know-”
“I am not my brother, Jadya. I do not require as many pleasantries and courtesies. Please, I am a friend here.”
Leona could not help but be cautious of Mavina’s friendly demeanour. Perhaps she was part of Nebu’s plan to gain her trust. She was his older sister, his protector and his kin. If Nebu cared enough about the dynasty to murder his own father, then what would he do with me? The thought terrified her, but she could not think on that. She needed to be patient, and above all careful. All she had in her new world was Jadya, and all of the sweet words Mavina could muster would not change that fact.
After a few days settling into her new surroundings, Leona had begun to forget that she was married to the most powerful man in Amenti. She had not seen Nebu since they arrived in Aljan, and, to her relief, he had not asked her to share his bed. Leona’s muhduw had been carefully decorated. Whilst there were traditional Amentian paintings that complemented the bright colours of the furnishings, there were also portraits and landscape paintings, including one of Ilturbia with the palace at the centre of the piece. Leona was soothed by having a picture of her home so close to her, and on her first night, she imagined herself looking out of her oriel again and watching the rivers flow into the sea. It helped her fall asleep, and when she woke up again, there was no sea beyond her window, but she did have a balcony that looked over the sprawling gardens. Nebu was right. There was not as much vibrant colour within these gardens, but the variety of shapes that its flora took were interesting if not beautiful. She had never seen so many types of cacti, rising from the ground as large as a person, with needles as long and thick as fingers.
It was within these gardens that Leona spent her day wandering with Jadya. Leona could not bare to let her maidservant leave her side, and Jadya would stay with her until she fell asleep before going to the matan muhduw, where all of the maids slept. In Aljan, servants were only permitted to sleep when those they served slept, and even then, they must ensure that they are awake first to ensure the morning chores are completed before their master wakes up. Leona had always seen her maidservants as her friends rather than her workers, but Jadya had no trouble adapting to the new rules. Leona had never seen her sleep anyway, and was always working her hardest to make Leona comfortable.
It was the 4th of Autumn, but the heat was still unbearably hot and dry, without the hint of a breeze to cool her. Being outside in the heat was still preferable to being in Nebu’s Pyramid. It was so sprawling and vast, yet the only areas she had been allowed to enter were her muhduw and those of the other women. Almost every other area was under guard, and her attempts to explore were shut down by Nebu’s surly guardsmen. Leona wondered whether the Queen actually had any power at all here, or if it was simply a title given to a woman so that the heirs she produced would be legitimised. It angered her. She felt that she had been lied to and duped into marrying him.
“These are lovely gardens,” Jadya said, holding a stem between her thumb and forefinger and smelling the magenta flower.
“Thankfully so. If they were not, I would have no place in this city where I would find peace.”
“It has only been a few days, my sweet. Given enough time, anywhere can begin to feel like home.”
“I once felt the same about your palace, you know? My family and I lived in the Northern Forest, in the small village of Tsula. It was a small cottage, but I loved chasing the rabbits, and swimming in the lakes as a child, they were some of my favourite memories. We were poor though, and so my mother and father taught me how to serve, and then gave me to the palace. Then, I was given to you. My family are provided for, but I do not see them, and will not see my pretty little home for a long, long time, if ever at all, again. I used to miss my home, but now I miss the home I made at the palace, and one day I hope to miss this home too should I ever leave it.”
Leona felt a prang of guilt knowing that she was the reason Jadya could not return to her cottage in Tsula, but was feeling defiant and stubborn about Aljan. “It is not the same … you were always treated with kindness in Ilturbia.”
“Please forgive me, but has anyone here so far been unkind to you?”
Leona thought for a moment. Nebu had been unkind to her. He had kidnapped her and taken her from her family, but then, had a similar thing not happened to Jadya as a child? Leona did not think of herself or her family as unkind, nor did she think that Jadya was being treated badly, but now that she had been torn away from her home and forced to stay in Aljan, she felt awful. She wrapped her arms around Jadya and squeezed her close to her.
“I am sorry.”
Jadya squeezed back, but then pushed her away gently. “You have no need to apologise. Tsula is a woodland village. It can be a dangerous place. With you, my family know I am safe, and they are taken care of. I could not have been luckier in who I served. You must do the same now. You must serve.”
“I will not serve Nebu.”
“No, you will not. You will serve Amenti, and you will serve its people. Then, when the time is right…” Jadya lowered her voice to a whisper. “…you will serve Cesara.”
As the sun rose on the 7th Autumn, Leona was not at her balcony to greet it. She lay in bed, with Jadya on one side, holding a wet flannel to her forehead in one hand, and a with her other hand supporting the bucket on her bed. Jadya had stayed with Leona all night after her Queen complained of terrible dreams. Leona dreamt of fire raining from the sky and blue flames upon the water, swallowing everything that it encountered, the sands of the deserts took human form, and dunes became armies that smothered the cities, even the trees came alive to cause destruction. And Leona was all alone in these dreams. Helpless and frightened. Unable to stop it. Her guards allowed Jadya to stay with her, and the presence of her maidservant banished the dreams from her head. Yet now, all she felt was sickness, and no matter what Jadya tried to give her – bread, water, fruit – her stomach rejected it all and it ended up in a messy brown puddle at the bottom of the bucket.
By the time it was mid-morning, the vomiting had stopped, and Leona was able to drink a few sips of mint tea that she managed to keep down. It was a sweet drink, hot and refreshing. Jadya implored her to eat some of the flat bread, but although it looked delicious, Leona did not want to associate it with the revolting taste of bile at the back of her throat. The doors opened, and Mavina was the first visitor to Leona’s muhduw that morning. Leona was embarrassed to be seen like this by Mavina. Her hair was a mess, and her face must have looked gaunt, plus all she could taste in her mouth was sickness. Mavina came to sit by her side and immediately put a comforting arm around her.
“I heard that my Queen was sick, and came here as soon as I learned. How are you feeling?”
“I am fine now, truly.”
“Was it our food? Have you been afflicted with an illness?”
“Neither, I do not think.”
Mavina looked puzzled. “How strange.” Mavina stood up and walked towards the balcony, and looked out over the gardens. Jadya and Leona looked at each other with a quizzical glance. Mavina returned after a few moments with a broad smile on her face. “My Queen. You must answer me. Have you been having pains behind your eyes? Are you tired? Angry or sullen?”
Jadya laughed. “Definitely the last one.”
Leona could not help but laugh there too. She had been feeling exceptionally tired, but put that down to the journey. She was angry, yes, but who would not be, being torn from her home like that? And Leona did not just have pain behind her eyes, it was all throughout her head.
“How did you know all of this?”
“My Queen. Do you not see? You are not sick. I believe that you are carrying your first child!”
Suddenly, Leona’s world went still. She had been so caught up in worry and trying to keep her head above water in this new city, that she had forgotten about the night she spent with Nebu. She had not been with him since their wedding, but did not ever think that it would be enough for them to conceive. Leona remembered that time, and remembered the feelings she had for Nebu, the delight she felt when he declared for her, and the pure happiness that shrouded her as she walked through the gardens with him and their families. Those images were now soaked and stained by the splatter of Daut’s blood that she still felt on her skin, tainted by her father’s cries for mercy as Nebu held the blade to his own father’s throat. Everything pure that she felt was painted on stained glass and then shattered into fragments and shards that would cut her the more should she try to repair them. Yet now those memories had formed human life, and were growing in her belly. She placed her hand over her navel and gave Jadya a pleading look, a look that begged her to make it all go away. Jadya’s eyes gave away little else but an apologetic stare, a stare that told her that there was nothing that she could do for her. Leona’s eyes started to water, and before long her cheeks were flooded in hot, sticky tears.
“There, there, my Queen…why are you crying?” Mavina rushed to comfort her.
“Tears of joy, I am sure, Princess,” Jadya intervened.
“No,” Leona growled. “Tears of sadness…tears of anger…tears of guilt, that I will be having your brother’s baby…your manipulative, murderer brother.”
“She is tired, princess, she does not know what she is saying.”
“Yes I do! I know you were sent here to occupy me, to do his dirty work whilst he is away from Aljan. Think not, I will not be swayed so easily.”
Mavina only held her closer. “I am not here at Nebu’s request, my Queen. I am here without his knowledge.”
Leona’s tears subsided slightly. “Why would you be here if Nebu had not instructed you to be? He is the Emperor.”
“And I am his older sister. Nebu demanded I stay away, but you needed a friend in Aljan, and I need you.”
“What could you possibly want from me?”
“Strength. Pride. The iliona I had heard so much about by the great Marius Pascis. The return of the Old Way would see many of our rights removed … my own, yours, Jadya’s.”
“And mine,” said a woman standing in the doorway. She was a short woman, but with the same almond-shaped eyes as Mavina, and a thin, straight nose, and dimpled cheeks. Though wrinkles had began to appear around her eyes and mouth, she was still very pretty and her long hair had been neatly placed in a bun that sat atop her head.
“My Queen, this is my mother, Umma.”
“My my,” the woman said and gently held Leona’s chin between her forefinger and her thumb. “My teller said that the woman who would take my crown would be beautiful. They said nothing about her being an angel.”