Good afternoon all, thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Nineteen of The Cursed King. Whilst we are all currently still in lockdown here in the UK, nothing has changed in my writing. I am still powering through, writing as much as I can in between work and everything else. Whilst I do hope to increase the amount that I am writing again soon, I am not quite there yet.
I have found that maintaining discipline and consistency in writing is the best way for me to work, but sometimes to maintain that consistency, you have to reduce the workload. I’ve gone from writing a minimum of five-hundred words a day to writing five-hundred words every other day. The upside to that, is that I now have days where I lose myself in the chapters to discover that I’ve written over fifteen-hundred words in a session, which rarely happened before.
No matter what you do, it is important not to burnout, and to try and maintain as much balance as humanly possible. For anyone else who is writing right now, do not feel guilty for not writing. I have been writing this for five years, and it is still nowhere close to finished, but I have taken immense enjoyment from it, which is all that matters.
Anyway, before I start getting all preachy, I’ll give you the synopsis of the chapter with as little spoilers as possible. After Leona’s discovery in her last chapter, her fear and her feelings of being trapped in Aljan are reaching boiling point. Not knowing whom she can trust, Leona falls into herself, trying to protect herself from those around her. At a celebration that Nebu organises for her, she discovers who wants to help her and who wants to use her. Whilst Leona discovers her husband’s true power, she also finds her own.
Thanks to everyone – new readers and old – who have been giving this their attention, and I hope you enjoy. Chapter Twenty will be posted on December 5th.
Nebu’s hand felt clammy and suffocating in her palm, and her fingers only barely gripped his to maintain the hold. It was as rebellious as she felt able to be as her husband’s spawn grew within her belly. Each step they took through the gardens was wearying, and his words, which usually filled her with rage, melted away like sleet upon the warm ground. Nebu had been away for weeks, visiting the Camaphs and Sultans of Nihei and Dourle, and the other key states of the Empire whose support he required to rule Amenti. It was a tour he had clearly planned before he even arrived in Cesara, and the fact that the murder of Emperor Daut was premeditated, made her feel even worse for how she accepted this man so willingly into her heart when they first met.
She began to think that she would prefer him to be cruel to her, to bully her and shame her. At least, in that way, it would be an honest reflection of who he really was. Yet in her company he was sweet and kind, asking after her, and gushing like a maid when he found out that he was to be a father. Though he had not been unkind to her directly, she could not follow Jadya’s reasoning for accepting this man as her husband. She had seen enough of him. There was a darkness behind his soft words, and an ability to cause her pain beyond measure, and it felt to her as if she were just waiting for his anger and his cruelty, which was just as bad as the cruelty in itself.
Eventually as they walked, Nebu stopped Leona beneath a young dragon-blood tree, its thick trunk and tuft of spiky green leaves looked almost silly besides its fully-grown ancestors. There was shade here, and whilst Leona’s skin enjoyed the respite of the sun, she did not want to have to fully engage in conversation with her husband. Nebu, as usual, looked beautiful. It seemed that whenever he saw her, he had been carefully prepared as if his appearance was a celebration, something for her to enjoy. His hair was as silky and wavy as her own, whilst his skin, always flawless, had been coated in powders to highlight his cheekbones and jawline. His robes today were cut short at the arm and were made of silk instead of velvet. They had clearly been made for her enjoyment, they were coloured Cesaran olive-green and beige mingled with interwoven lines of gold and black – his own signature colours. She knew what it all meant, and what it was meant to do to her mind, but she saw through them, and saw through Nebu as he took her hand in his sweaty palms.
“I know that things have not been easy for you here, my love. I know that you do not trust me fully, and of course, I do understand why. One day, I hope that you will find it in your heart to love me, and share the joy that I have that we are to have a child.”
“I would find more joy in it if I knew that my child would be born into peace.”
“These are the questions my Sultans have been putting to me. They too, wish to avoid war. I have no desire to destroy the lands that my child will one day rule. It is the one thing that my father agreed upon. I too, want peace, but there must be terms to that, and there were many who believed this peace came at too high a cost to our way of life.”
Leona scoffed. “The Old Way,” she groaned. “You mean old men who wish to make those who can only whisper totally mute, so that they can continue to shout?”
Nebu smiled. “My sister would like you. You are smart. Has Mavina introduced herself to you yet?”
The question was unexpected, and Leona’s eyes flashed to the floor and back up to Nebu almost immediately. She nonchalantly fiddled with a twig hanging off of the bush beside her. “No,” she said. “Though perhaps you can arrange for us to have dinner and she can see how smart I am.”
“Unfortunately, Mavina is too busy managing my affairs whilst I am gone to have social dinners. It is a task that one day I shall entrust to you, and perhaps then you can learn from each other.”
“I imagine it is every girl’s dream to be your clerk.”
“Katibv,” Nebu corrected. “You must start to learn our language soon. I have arranged for lessons with the Camaph, my mother was supposed to be organising it. I should speak with her. And yes, there are many girls who dream of holding an office as high as yours. Perhaps you should remember that your star can always fall.”
Leona placed a hand over her stomach, confident now that she was at least physically safe from Nebu whilst she carried his child. “There is only one who holds your heir in their belly.”
The muscles in Nebu’s face switched, and all of a sudden, his eyes took on an iciness that she had not seen since he had sliced Daut’s throat before her eyes. Nebu leaned in closely, and placed his hand upon her stomach. Leona’s skin shuddered. His touch sent a wave of fear through her and she felt the blood rush from her face. “You should hope it is carried to term. You should hope that you have many more children by me, and that they all live long and happy lives. I promised my people that we will have peace with Cesara. And if you do not provide me with an heir, then I will turn back to Cesara, and the other girl in your palace who dreams of being a Queen. Do not threaten me, Leona.”
“Those who are truly powerful do not threaten those without power. Those without power simply obey. I do not,” Leona hid her terror and refused to avert her eyes from her husband’s. Marius had always taught her to never break eye contact first, and to never show fear to someone who means you harm.
“You will. You need to should you wish Cesara to remain as it is. I have told you. I have no interest in wasting time and resources taking Cesara by force, I would much rather keep our alliance as it is. I do not seek to change the way of your people either. There are some men that would. I am your protection against those men.”
“If I needed protection, it would be from you.”
“How little you know, Leona. Truly, how little you really know.”
Leona was silent as Umma and Mavina argued in raised whispers. She had remained speechless for so long that they no longer took care to speak in the Common Tongue, but slipped into Amentian whilst they battled. Mavina’s chambers were the safest place to talk. Mavina had her own guards, loyal to her and not to Nebu, and Umma also had her own retinue of paid protectors that would alert to any potential danger of interruption. Though there was little to fear, Nebu’s only contact with the women of his palace was to arrange social affairs, and he had already been and gone, insistent on a celebration that was to be held for Leona’s pregnancy. The women warned him that this was bad luck, and that all celebrations of the birth of a child should wait until the child has reached at least a year. Death in childbirth was too common, and even carrying a child to term was a cause for relief, and the heartache was far too powerful to celebrate too soon.
But Nebu insisted. “My heir is strong,” he’d said.
Leona dreaded the thought of forcing herself to appear happy and amiable, when all that she wanted was to run for the mountains and find her way back home. Perhaps there she had the power to protect her family and her people. Now though, she was gazing deeply into a painting upon the wall. It depicted a great wave washing over the land with little dots standing in the shadow of this wave at the point it is about to wash over them.
Mavina broke her gaze, waving a hand in front of her eyes. “I am sorry. Sometimes we forget that we need to speak in the Common Tongue. It is not usual for us.” Leona was always so dazzled by Mavina’s beauty, that she could say almost anything and Leona would instinctively feel whatever she wanted her to feel. And so, Leona forgave the rudeness with glazed eyes and a grateful smile, but continued to stare at the painting. “Is everything okay, my Queen?”
Leona thought about telling them about her conversation with Nebu in the gardens, but whatever Mavina inspired in love, Nebu inspired the same feelings in fear. They were as different as day and night or water and fire. Though she knew she did not trust Nebu, she was still not completely sure she could trust his family either, despite how they speak of him. They did not want Nebu harmed or dead, they wanted him to change, and to hear their voices. Leona was not sure that she could say the same. In a strange way, she still loved the man she thought she knew, and she saw Nebu as the man that killed him, that smothered that flame without a care.
“Everything is fine,” Leona finally said. “I am just tired.”
“We were just saying that perhaps this celebration is a good thing. It will give us all a chance to speak with the men closest to Nebu, to dance with them, to whisper beneath the music of the players and without fear of being heard. Mother thinks that it is too risky, that we should use the time to corner Nebu himself and make him see that the Old Way will hurt us all.”
Suddenly, Leona flushed with anger. How could they not see that Nebu would not change regardless of anything that they did? “Nebu killed your father, and your husband. Do you think if you’d known his plan then you could have talked him around?” Leona felt sorrowful as soon as the words left her mouth, and she felt her hands tremble with rage. She had seen the results of Nebu’s determined mind, and had to protect those around her from it, even if they were blinded by love or loyalty.
Instead of anger, which would have been vastly preferable, Umma and Mavina glanced at Leona with pity, as if she was some naïve child unaware of what was really going on around her. Umma creaked the chamber door open and peeked around. There was no one there but for Umma’s guards at either end of the corridor, ensuring their privacy remain undisturbed. Umma closed the door again, and sat beside Leona, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“You must understand, Leona, that in our culture, death is not much a grievous thing. It is sad, yes, and of course we miss those we love when they are gone, but we do not see what Nebu did as an act of murder. It was his right by the laws of the Amentian people to take the Empire for himself. This is ancient, written within every spare corner of our faith, death is necessary for new life to emerge, and this is the only way mankind can survive and prosper. We do not hate Nebu for causing death, we want to help guide Nebu so that he can see that his reforms will hurt our lives. Given time, he will see our way, and if you give him time, you may find that you do indeed love him.”
Leona was speechless once again. Suddenly, the comforting arm around her shoulder felt like a snake sliding around her neck. Even the women she had found here accepted Emperor Daut’s death as if it were normal, as if a child slaughtering a parent was an act no different than marriage or leaving for a foreign land. What about her own child? Would he one day grow to murder his father and take the Empire for himself? Where would the cycle end? Leona felt sick, and she wasn’t sure if it was the baby in her belly or the other discomforts that flooded her body. Mavina sat across from Leona and reached out to grab her hand. Somehow, just this delicate touch from Mavina caused her nausea to vanish, and felt as though her skin was coated in some protective layer of light. Looking into her eyes, her fears became shrouded and hidden if only for a moment.
“I do understand you, and how you feel, Leona. And I disagree with Mother that this is some normal thing. Nebu is the first in centuries to act upon his right, and he did not do it without a heavy heart. He feared for the dynasty. He feared that if it were not him to remove my father, then another man would. My father, unfortunately, was not supported by many Sultans here, his reforms were too new, too different from what they had known. Your ways are different from ours, and we wish to change them too, but right now, there are too many powerful people who oppose my father’s ideas. All we can do is try to convince Nebu that some of those ideas can be accepted, and can help his reign.”
These words did little to improve Leona’s thoughts on the subject. Perhaps Mavina’s explanation was less frightening, but it had a bleakness that instead of leaving Leona afraid, left her numb and cold. It professed a defeat that she had not expected from the words of a woman that exuded so much light and energy. “And if we fail to convince him? What will we do then?” Leona asked, eager to hear some sign of life, some minuscule scrap of hope that she could cling onto.
No answer came. The silence was suffocating. It hurt her that these women who she wanted so desperately to trust had no answers, had no real strategy for stopping Nebu from implementing the Old Way. All Leona wanted was to be back in Cesara with her family and her people, safe from the shadow of Amentian rule. It was then that Umma sat down as the pine table and spread a role of papyrus, weighted on either side by sparkling amethyst geodes. The old woman pulled a quill from the bun atop her head, and as she did, several grey hairs were pulled out of place. Mavina took an inkwell from the shelf behind them and Umma dipped the pen in, and began carefully crafting each letter, as they found their form in beautifully curvaceous shapes. It took some time, but as soon as she was finished, she turned the papyrus around and pushed it towards Leona. She stared at the symbols blankly. She could not even comprehend the letters, let alone read this in her language. Her eyes focused upon it, and studied it, as if some part of her might know what it meant, but eventually she gave up and looked up at Umma.
“I do not understand. You must know I cannot read this.”
“It is not for you to read, Leona. It is for your soul.”
Jadya fussed over Leona’s dress, meticulously trying to cover the slight bump that now protruded from her belly. Usually, Jadya had little care or gentility when fixing Leona’s look for an event, but now that there was something growing inside her, Jadya could not have been more delicate with every thread. Constantly asking if the bodice was too tight and checking that she was comfortable above all else.
“It is fine,” Leona told her, with a smile that she hoped would show Jadya how much she appreciated her presence, and how much her care meant to her. She could not say it, because she would surely cry, and Jadya had already finished applying the pastes and pastels to her eyelids, cheeks and lips. Jadya held up a mirror, and saw that her maidservant had shaded her eyes with the pale green of Cesara. It was subtle enough for it to be ignored as a political statement, but Jadya and Leona knew, which was enough for them. Perhaps this will give me the strength I need.
The celebration, which was called a buzur, was a gathering of the most influential and powerful people in Aljan. Though the party had been called to celebrate Leona’s pregnancy, she knew that it was only a timely reason for such an event. There had been similar celebrations in Cesara, and whilst her father was a respected leader and largely unchallenged by her people, it was still responsible to maintain an accurate understanding of social affairs. If one were to miss a disagreement or rising tension, then it could easily lead to disaster. It spread as quickly as fire should it not be stamped out immediately. Leona knew this was Nebu’s way of stamping out any potential fires. She had been disappointed in Umma and Mavina. She had hoped that these women would be strong and bold in their actions against Nebu, but now she felt alone again, as if there was not a single soul in Aljan that wanted to help her.
In truth though, she did not truly know what she could do. All she really wanted was to go home, but then, what if she ruined everything? What if her father wanted her to stay and to maintain the peace? She had been in Aljan almost two months now, and she had heard nothing from Cesara, and though she had wholly convinced herself that Nebu would intercept any letters written for her, she also had not abandoned the fear that nobody had sent her any letters at all. Perhaps this was all in her head. Perhaps killing a man is not the horror that she thinks it is. Everybody else around her seemed not to mind so much, was she the strange one for caring?
Immediately upon entering the buzur, Leona’s heart betrayed her and leapt in her chest as she heard the wonderful music. She watched as finely dressed Amentian men, dressed in colourful kaftans that reached the ankles, danced with some of the most beautiful women that she had ever seen in her life, wearing long, waist-hugging tunics and dresses that covered them from shoulder to ankle that accentuated their necks. Some of them even had golden rings around their necks, and several rings adorning their fingers, complementing the only skin they bared. The music was upbeat and buoyant. Played by a group of five men, one holding a drum, one with a loot, one had a ney, and one with a fiddle, whilst there was a separate man, kneeling on a cushion with his eyes closed, giving vocalisation to the cacophony of instruments and brought the sounds together into one sound. His singing was at once cheerful and deeply spiritual, emitting from his mouth as if it were a prayer.
Leona had barely stepped through the doors before Nebu was by her side, forcing her arm to lock with his own as they walked slowly through the party. Though Leona hated his forcefulness, she was glad that this act seemed to stop people from coming up and speaking to Leona, which she had wanted to avoid as much as possible. It made her uncomfortable that this entire celebration was for her, and though she had not quite thought through what this child meant to her, she had wanted to keep it to herself for as long as possible. Now that everyone in the palace knew, she had nowhere to hide.
Nebu ushered Leona over towards Mavina and Umma in silence, his eyes focused straight ahead, as if she were a hunter’s kill being dragged across the ground behind him. Her husband introduced them. If Nebu had known about Mavina and Leona’s meetings, then he was making an extremely concerted attempt not to show it. Nebu kissed his mother on the cheek, and though Nebu may not have noticed it, Umma winced slightly as he leant close to her. There was an aura around her husband when he interacted with people. There was an unnerving sense of terror whenever he approached, something incredibly dark and yet ultimately irresistible. Leona had felt both, but never simultaneously. She had crossed that plain now, and was committed to hating him and would fight his every attempt to sway her. Leaving them to talk, Nebu vanished into a crowd of doting senior officials and social climbers, he did this as easily as one might fall into a large feather bed.
Before Leona could say a word to either woman, Mavina stood up before her and took her hand. Standing face to face, Leona was always completely taken in by the beauty of the princess. Her eyes seemed to completely consume her, and the touch of her hand was like slipping into a warm bath. As if to snap her out of her trance, Mavina pulled her towards the band where the music was playing and into the dancers. All of a sudden, Leona felt a panic. I cannot dance like this, she thought. There was so much movement, a freedom of expression that one rarely found in the parties further north. It was as if it was all disconnected and uncoordinated, and yet perfectly planned to be exactly that way.
“You will dance like me. Do not worry,” Mavina assured her, as if Leona had said her thoughts aloud.
There was no time for Leona to object. Mavina took her hands and guided her limbs in the directions she wanted them to go. When Mavina stepped towards her, she tried to mirror the movement and step back, when Mavina stepped back, Leona stepped forward. That was simple enough, but whilst this was happening, Mavina was also throwing her arms into the air, spinning away, and clapping in time with the music. Leona must have looked like a hound chasing its own tail, and yet she was having fun. She enjoyed the frivolity and when she looked around, people were smiling at her, cheering her on and then, to Leona’s relief, continuing to dance themselves. As Leona began to slow down, Mavina encouraged her to continue.
“I am getting tired,” Leona said.
“You must keep going. We are trying to attract attention.”
“The attention of who?”
As Nebu did just before, Mavina fell into a crowd of dancers and Leona was suddenly alone. Instinctively, she tried to chase her through the dancers, but was immediately blocked by a figure standing over her. At first, she felt a wave of concern, this man was huge and the bottom half of his face was covered by a layer of golden fabric, which although this was not an unusual garment for Amentian men, she could tell that this was clearly a disguise. Then she recognised the man’s dark skin and the grey sprouts from his otherwise jet-black hair. Suddenly, Leona felt a surge of joy rise through her body, and had to use all of her self-control to reject the impulses of leaping up and hugging him. Clearly sensing this, Hezekiah took Leona by the hand and began dancing with her, as nonchalantly as he could.
“I do not believe it. My father sent you? Are they okay?” Leona whispered, but could not contain her relief.
“They are all fine. You must not talk. Just dance and listen. Leona, it is not safe for you here. You must leave. Tonight.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
They kept dancing, but now Leona felt the eyes of the entire party upon them.
“I cannot stay long. I will be in city square, the centre of the night markets, I will wait all night if need be, but I cannot wait any longer. By dawn, it will be too late. Please, iliona, find a way out of this palace.”
As the song ended, Hezekiah bowed politely as if he were just another official stealing a dance with the Queen. For such a tall man, he was exceptionally good at blending in, and as soon as he had immersed himself into the crowd of dancers, he was gone. As suddenly as Hezekiah disappeared, Mavina reappeared. Leona was tired from the dancing, but the loud music and constant movement around them meant that it was the only place they could speak freely. Mavina took her hand and they continued to dance.
“Did he find you?” Mavina asked.
“You must leave with him, you and your maidservants, tonight. If you stay, you will become Nebu’s hostage. He needs you alive, but that does not mean that he cannot break you. You are safest whilst that child is in your belly.”
Leona felt a shudder of terror crawl over her skin. “What about influencing him? What about the things you said before?”
“My mother, she thinks too well of Nebu, I had to make her believe we are on her side. Truly, she is loyal to Nebu and the dynasty. But we have no time for this Leona. I can get you and the girls to the city. From there, you must go with Hezekiah. Will you trust me?”
Every impulse in Leona’s body was suspicious of this situation. Every part of her thought that this must be some elaborate trap set by her husband to catch her. And yet, despite all that, she knew that Hezekiah would never be privy to such a scheme, and there was a reason that he was sent by her father, he knew that she would trust him with her life. The song ended again, but this time, a new tune was not playing, and instead, Nebu stood where the band played and addressed the room. Mavina and Leona were still snugly tucked within a crowd of dancers, but Leona could feel Nebu’s eyes upon her. It was as if he always knew where she was. As he spoke, he spoke directly at them.
“Thank you all for being here to celebrate the conception of my first child, and for the benefit of my foreign wife, I will address you in her tongue this evening. It has been a difficult time for you all, I know. It has been for me as well. I have made some tough decisions, but these are decisions that I know will be for the benefit of our great Empire. There are great challenges that lay before us, but we are at a crossroads in our history. We have a choice. To follow the path that our ancestors have laid down for us, or follow the path that my misguided father would have had us walk. I ask you, friends, why would we turn our backs on thousands of years of work? What insult would it be to turn our back on what has made our Empire the largest in the New World? What people prosper like our own? What culture is as rich and vibrant as ours? What other souls could have built such beauty from such arid lands? There was no precedent for this change. There was no reason for it. And no longer shall it continue.”
A round of applause came from the dancers, but an even louder roar of approval came from the areas around the dancers. Leona looked around and saw the men cheering, some remained silent and did not vocalise either their support nor their displeasure, whilst the women were almost totally silent. Leona felt Mavina’s hand, and whilst the touch of the princess’ hand would usually have shrouded her in warmth, all she could now feel was cold. It was the deceptive freeze of the desert night, a shiver that caused panic and the need for retreat, and yet all you can see around you is emptiness. No relief. No oasis. Just an arid land.
“Speaking with my Sultans, it is clear that there is overwhelming support to reinstate the Old Way in Amenti. No longer will the whims of lesser men be tolerated, no longer will we exhaust our diplomacy before we act in our best interests, no longer will we allow the world beyond our borders keep us contained to this desert. We will seek out those who oppose our rule, and we will re-educate them, and if they will not be re-educated, then they will be destroyed. No longer will we take influence of the ways of foreign lands who are not able to maintain peace amongst themselves. Our Empire spreads from the East to the West of the New World, it has touched cultures and tribes as different as we are to The Twin Kingdoms, and yet, we are at peace, and they are at war. I say we show them what peace is. I say we find new pride in what it means to be Amentian. I will make this proud Empire greater than it ever was.”
Almost immediately, the crowd reacted passionately, some were even crying tears of joy. Nebu had touched on the hope that the people within his palace naturally had. It was easy to have hope when you had most of everything else. They wanted to be part of something, to be seen as somehow special by sharply going back to how things had always been. Soon enough, Nebu was surrounded by those wishing to hug him and cry on him, ready to thank him for giving them that hope. Leona stood in awe of his sway over these people, and they revered him as though he were more than just a man, more than just an arrogant murderer.
Leona had no time to feel sick. In amongst the commotion, Mavina pulled her through the crowd. “Come on, we must go,” she whispered. As soon as they were clear of the celebration, Leona and Mavina hurried as fast as their attire would allow them through the palace. Leona headed for her chamber, but Mavina stopped her. “There is no time, my Queen. There is a chariot outside the palace. It will go to North Aljan. It is what they will follow. Whilst they go there, you will go to the city square.”
Leona looked concerned. “How can we trust it?”
“Do you think I would have survived this long in this palace if I did not have men in my employ? You can trust it, because you can trust me.”
“If I can trust you. If I can really trust you. Then you will come with me.”
Mavina hesitated. Leona could not truly know who Mavina truly served, but she waited for a shift in her body, a twitch in her eye that suggested this was not part of her plan. Leona searched Mavina’s face for any clue of an impending betrayal. Leona had enough of this family, and as much as she wanted to go home, she was safer as a wife than as a prisoner. When she searched for this hint though, she saw none. It was as if Mavina had the ability to freeze every muscle in her face at once, and yet her eyes swam. The earthy brown pools of her eyes seemed to always be moving, and Leona always found herself staring for a moment before she snapped back. The crowd began to disperse from the palace, and Mavina dragged her to the other side of a pillar so that Leona could not be seen. Mavina looked back anxiously and smiled the same half-smile as a mother looking at her child who had just scraped their knee, but did not cry. It was pride.
“I will come with you until you are home safe, but then I must return to Aljan.”
Leona immediately thought that the idea was insane. She was terrified of what Nebu would do to Mavina when she returned having help her escape, but there was no time. The crowd was inching ever closer towards them, and Nebu would soon be in search of his wife and his sister. The journey home would be a long one, perhaps, Leona thought, she could convince Mavina not to go back along the way.
“Okay,” Leona took a deep breathe. “Where do we go from here?”
Goddaughters were not extremely common in the cities of The Twin Kingdoms and Cesara. They were hermetic groups usually found in the hills and rural areas, committed to study of The Book of Life and Death and assisting the Godsons. Sometimes, there were women who attained such a command of the study of God, that they were invited to join discussions and councils with Arkgodsons, but these were exceptional cases. The equivalent religious rank in Amenti were known as salat a’mar, which translated as woman of prayer in the Common Tongue. These women in Amenti were much more common, and walked the streets of cities across the Empire. It was Mavina’s idea to wear the taghits, which was the compulsory attire of the salat a’mar, a silken garment that covered the entire body, which included a veil which completely covered their faces, except for their eyes.
The attire protected them as they walked through the city. It was considered an exceptional taboo to approach these women in the streets, and yet it was an even worse crime to imitate them. The taghit was a garment to encase the vessel, because the vessel was unimportant to the salat a’mar, what mattered was the soul, which could only be seen through the eyes. Leona pushed these uncomfortable feelings down into her stomach and continued walking with Mavina. They were not aware if there had been any kind of commotion when Nebu realised that they were gone. She had hoped that he had not yet realised, and was not already following the decoy chariot. The greater a head-start they could gain, the better.
As soon as they entered the square, Leona felt a wave of panic within the bustling night market of Aljan. The music was as loud, if not louder than it was during the day. There were torches lit wherever they could be perched, which revealed everything in the vicinity of their flames with intense illumination. Despite the fact she was covered from head to toe, she felt something uneasy about the light being upon her, it was as if they were in focus to everyone around them. In truth, however, it seemed that nobody noticed them. There were men and women everywhere, sharing in food and drink and trading their wares. It was even more vibrant and beautiful at night, under the mane of the Great Galla, than it was during the day. It was then that she saw Hezekiah in the distance, standing as discreetly as he could, his face covered.
Leona stepped into the square, but realised quickly that Mavina was no longer beside her. She turned back in a hurry, but there were only pitch-black streets. Leona panicked, but quickly stepped away from the noise of the market. She heard a brief yelp, followed by a struggle and a grunt. Leona darted into a small alley and saw a man with his back to her, grappling with Mavina with his arms around her, trying to pull her away. Leona was frozen in place. She knew that all she needed to do was to run. Run to Hezekiah. She would be gone, away in the desert and on her way home. If she just ran now.
But she didn’t.
A wave of anger washed over her as though she had been soaked in the fire of the torches, it was a heat that made the blood sizzle within her skin. She looked at her hands, and they were crimson red. She felt a strength in her arms and a driving force through her legs as she marched towards the man. There was a sword dangling by his side, and she felt no hesitation in pulling it from its sheath. With a shock, the man threw Mavina to the floor and frantically reached for his sword, and looked up to Leona holding it in both hands. The sword was light in her hands, and felt as if the heat that ran through her skin and into the blade itself. As if human flesh would melt away if it were grazed by her sword.
The man looked at her and walked slowly forward with his hands out. Instinctively, Leona stepped back, and as he walked into the moonlight, Leona saw whose sword she had taken. Zuberi was not frowning. He did not grimace or beg. He smiled. It was a smirk that Leona had seen before. It was a smirk that only those who had only ever known power had. It ran deeper than his stare and his smile. His eyes told her to give him the sword. His eyes thought that she was not a threat, that she was some scared mouse, desperate for his mercy. Zuberi did not know her. Zuberi did not realise that his throat was in her jaws. And that she was a lion.
The next step Zuberi took was his last. Leona thrust the sword through his chest until her nose was touching his. She savoured the look in his eyes as everything he thought he knew evaporated. She savoured this until the years fell away from those eyes. Soon, his eyes were those of a child, a child who was lost, orphaned and scared. His mouth produced little gasps as if he was pleading with her to save him, but eventually those gasps were suffocated by the blood that spurted from his throat. Leona pulled the sword away, and Zuberi flopped to the ground. In a moment, Mavina was over him, on her knees. She did not cry, she did not seem angry or sad, or even relieved. It was if this was her duty. She leaned over him and muttered words in a language that did not sound like Amentian, and it was certainly not the Common Tongue. Somehow, she knew that Mavina was speaking in Ancient Antinnan, and that somehow, she was performing some ritual to guide Zuberi’s soul.
After a few moments, Zuberi was still, and Mavina rose to her feet. Leona had not realised that she still held the bloody sword within her grasp until Mavina placed her hand over hers and took it from her. Placing it on the ground gently. In all of the shock, Leona did not realise she was crying, thinking that the wetness upon her face was Zuberi’s blood. Mavina took her in her arms, not saying a single word, just holding her for the briefest of moments as Leona’s anger and sadness melted away for those few seconds.
“We do not have much time,” Mavina said, taking Leona by the shoulders and pulling away. “Let us go.”
“What about him?” Leona gestured to Zuberi. She had never killed a person She felt that they must do something, that they could not leave his body for the cats and the rats.
“His soul will find another vessel. My duty is to your soul, Leona, and your soul is needed in Cesara.”