Good morning everyone and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Twenty-Nine of The Cursed King. I can just about smell summer around the corner and here in the UK and the pubs are just about to be re-opened which fills me with an indescribable primal joy. I am still writing too, and whilst some days are slower than others, I am still following the immortal words of my university lecturer – “if you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a novel within a year.” I have been keeping up that tally (more or less) since I started that blog and I am nearing the finish line. I have almost completed Chapter 40 or a planned 52 Chapters, so not long now until the final sprint.
In today’s chapter, we are back in the desert with Leona and her entourage. After a troubling sight, Leona begins to question the very fabric of the life around her, and is on her guard as much as she has ever been as her child grows in her belly. In Maladh, Leona meets the Sultan Untonay – a man with an incredible sway, but with questionable intentions. Thanks for reading and join me on April 24th for Chapter Thirty!
Leona and Hezekiah had scarcely spoken a word to each other since the night that Terah killed Gaunan. They rode silently side by side towards Maladh, led by The Guide and Terah. They had not told a soul about what they saw. Leona would not know what to say nor how to describe what she had witnessed. Even if she had not been terrified by it all, there was no way she could articulate what happened. It felt like a dream.
Leona caught Terah’s eye as The Guardian turned to check on the group of riders, and Leona smiled coyly. It was met with an emotionless expression. It was a look of surveillance, not of friendship, and devoid of any tenderness. Leona had no intention of revealing what she had seen, but she could not let Terah know that without bringing the subject up with her, which she also had no intention of doing. Despite the strangeness of it all, she was grateful. The village almost burned to the ground because she was there, but they saved her when they could have easily given her up. When they left, she had promised to repay them for their kindness in gold and livestock, but the Zigha were prideful people, and they refused. All they asked of her was to stay safe from Nebu and the Amenti.
It was a savagely hot day in the desert as they rode closer to the city of Maladh. They took a break by a small oasis to rest in the shade of the date palm trees. Leona watched a tarantula tussle frantically with a scorpion. Hezekiah tried to usher her away from the poisonous creatures, but she resisted and stayed, watching as the spider gripped the scorpion in its teeth and shook it violently. The scorpion tried to use its sting to halt the spider, but it was of no use and it fell limp into the sand. When the spider scurried away, Leona watched as the scorpion twitched until the life left its body and it died.
After a few moments, Leona scooped it up in her hand and stared at it. When Hezekiah saw this, he grabbed her wrist and flung the creature from her palm. “What are you doing, my Queen?” Leona felt like she’d been snapped out of a dream, but she did not say anything in reply. “You must be careful,” Hezekiah said apologetically, as if he worried that she was angry with him. “These creatures can still poison you after they are dead.”
“What happens to these creatures, Hezekiah? After they die?” Leona asked.
“What do you mean, Leona? After they die? Nothing. They just…die.”
“But are they not living? Does Natos not take their souls into another animal? Do they not go to Paradise?”
“I am no Godson, my Queen. Perhaps I am not the person to ask about such things, but I would say no. Paradise is a place for people, not for scorpions.”
“Even men like Gaunan get another chance, and this poor creature doesn’t. It hardly seems fair, does it?”
“It is not for us to know, Leona. Some things are not for us to know,” Hezekiah looked over towards Terah who was filling her flask with water from the small oasis.
They did not rest in the shade for long. Hezekiah was careful to ride ahead of Leona, but far enough behind the Guide and Terah not to engage with them either. Leona had never seen such a look in Hezekiah’s eyes before. It was fear. She could see it in his cold, distant stare. A stare that had little behind it but a wall of blackness, but that protective wall hid all of the terror that haunted her Guard after that night. Leona did not feel such fear. She felt the coldness in her heart despite the blistering sun burning her skin, but no fear. She rode side by side with Mavina who rode a horse that belonged to one of Nebu’s riders. Mavins told her that it was not as comfortable as the camels in the heat, and it needed more rest and water, but it seemed to travel well regardless. These were horses born and raised in the desert.
“You should not fear my brother. There are very few men he would trust with something like this. He would wait weeks for their return before sending new riders. By the time he finds out his men are dead, you will be safe in your palace,” Mavina told her.
“I will be in my palace, perhaps. But no matter what happens now, I will not be safe. Not whilst I carry his child.”
“That is what makes you the safest woman in The New World right now. He cannot touch you whilst his one true heir grows in your belly. He is powerless.”
“No, he is not. He is angry, he is scorned and his ego is damaged. He will now come at Cesara with the full force of his army and tear down my city to get to me. Nothing is safe. I am not safe in Cesara and Cesara is not safe from me. I cannot return home, Mavina. This was all a big mistake. I should go back.”
Leona pulled her camel to a stop. Mavina also stopped sharply beside her. “He is in your head. Stay still and breathe deeply,” the Princess told her.
“Mavina, this is not the time-”
“I said breathe. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and listen to my voice. You will not go back to Aljan. You will ride forward and you will ride to where you need to go. Do not say it. Do not say aloud where we are going, just think it. Your thoughts are safe. Think of home, think of how you will get home. Focus on that and breathe deeply.”
Leona, as always, was hypnotised by Mavina’s voice. It danced in her skull and evaporated all of her thoughts and fears around Nebu. Even the image of Gaunan’s body erupting into light left her for a few moments and she was alone with the camel between her legs and the sun beating down upon her face. A flock of wren passed by overhead, flying so low that Leona felt the wind from their wings cool the heat on her skin. Leona opened her eyes and she found herself breathing naturally, as calm as she had been since she arrived at the Zigha village.
“Thank you,” Leona said.
Mavina smiled and continued to ride on. Leona waited for a few moments as she watched her horse and the camels of the rest of their band trot away past her. It was Terah who trotted towards her.
“Ride with me,” The Guardian said and waited until Leona instructed her camel to move. They rode alongside each other in silence for a few moments. It seemed to Leona that Terah was awaiting her questions. Leona had thousands, but she could not think of a single one that would provide her with a satisfactory answer or would not cause more questions from her. She did not have the energy to absorb all of this information.
“Did you see me coming? Before we arrived here?” Leona finally asked.
Terah shook her head immediately. “I did not know of your existence until you were brought to us. But it did not take me long to know you. You are all that was spoken about by your companions, and I saw trouble in your eyes. I saw that you had pampered skin, silky hair, clothes that were made with the utmost care. I saw the way you rode your camel, with your back straight and your face neutral. I also heard your voice. Cracked and tired, but hopeful and strong. I knew you were someone that needed to be protected, but I would have done my duty anyway. It would not have mattered if you were a Queen or a pauper. My job is to protect those from the people who would do my village harm.”
“Then why leave your village to take me to Maladh?”
“I do not mean to offend you, my Queen, but your presence is troublesome for my village. We lost belongings to the fire, and we have the bodies of three riders in our village that we must dispose of. They were not there for us, but for you. I want to keep you safe, but I also have to protect my village, and the best way to protect them is to get you as far away from us as possible.”
Leona nodded. She could not help but take a small amount of offence. She did not want to be a burden to Terah or her people, but it did not feel good to be so roundly rejected. “Gaunan…” Leona said, her voice shaking. She could not finish her question.
“You must know that we are all connected in this world. All of us linked by a single thread. A light that travels through our souls. These bodies that we wear are no more than clothes for our souls. Our true selves are buried beneath layers of skin, bone and sinew. Our true selves communicate through light and sound. It is only those who know how to wield this power of communication who can use it. Think of it as a language that you know deep down, but have forgotten. Our people have not forgotten this language. When a soul leaves a body, then a line of communication is opened, and for those few moments, you can talk to whomever else knows the language.”
“I heard a woman’s voice…who were you talking to?”
“I do not know. It was a woman far away from here, but she was not there. It was an echo that she sent out through the light, so that anyone who was capable would hear it. This communication was exceptionally strong and clear. Usually, the words are muddled or hazy. This was a woman who knew what she wanted to say. It was a clear instruction. Find her son and bring him to her.”
“Do you know where to find him? Or her?”
“I am not that strong. I am not so versed in the language. It would require someone with more of an ear than I have, more experience to know exactly what she means. Though I have been having dreams lately of the same woman. She grips my wrist and tells me to find him, but I am not able to see her face. It melts away into nothing before I can study it. This art, is complex, and takes years of training to fully control it. This woman is clearly trying to paint a picture for me, but it is abstract, and I do not know enough to find the answer behind it. Think of this as a letter. A letter that is sent to everyone who has ever tried to understand the language. Most will discard it, unable to comprehend it. Some may attempt to decipher it, but simply not know enough to make sense of it. But perhaps a few, a very select few, will know enough to begin to unravel it, and have the desire to find out what it all means and pursue it. That is, I believe, the hope of this woman.”
“Where would one learn this art? I have never heard of it.”
“You would not have. Forgive me, but this is not the pursuit of the Princess or the Queen. It is not the pursuit many choose. I learned from my father. Many people learn from their parents. There may be some who teach it, but I would not know where these people would be.”
“It seems to me that this language would be mightily useful for a Queen or a Princess. To communicate over long distances, to reach people in their very dreams.”
“But think of the death you would need to witness to achieve that. Only those who experience death can wield this art. For a Queen to use this to their benefit, their soul would need to be as cold as the black sky above our desert.”
Leona said no more of it. She did not want to seem callous to Terah. She thought for a while longer about this strange art, and about how she could find out more about it. Perhaps her father knew about this, and she could find out all about it when she arrived home. Home she thought. She hated herself for allowing herself to hope that she would soon be home again. Terah soon caught up with Hezekiah and The Guide whilst Leona found Mavina and her maidservants. She rode alongside Mavina and the Princess reached out and ran her fingers across Leona’s forearm as a gesture of comfort.
“Princess,” Leona began as she gazed ahead of her, “what do you know about the light that travels through us?”
It was a few days later that they arrived outside the gates of Maladh. They all had their heads covered by scarves. Not only to protect their identities from curious onlookers, but to cover their skin from the aggressive rays of the sun. The city sat on the Eastern Coast of the Amentian Empire, a busy port city with hundreds of thousands of citizens. The Sultan Untonay ruled over his city and his region. The region of Maladh was larger than Cesara, larger than many of the Earldoms in The Twin Kingdoms, and far richer. The Sultans were not taxed like they were in The Twin Kingdoms and kept much of the wealth of their lands. It was the citizens who bore the brunt of tariffs and the small selection of Sultans who hauled the wealth and wielded their power.
The city itself was nothing like Aljan at all. It did not contain sprawling pyramids or stunning gardens, but its walls were tall, straight and carefully constructed. The fifty-foot walls spread for miles in each direction with towers every fifty yards or so. Once through the gates, Leona realised that these walls were almost fifteen feet thick and clearly able to withstand an onslaught from a vast army. For such an important position in the Empire, Leona realised that no expense had been spared on the city’s defences. Guards seemed to man a few feet of the wall each, and Leona gazed over the walls as far as she could see until these men became the size of ants.
Their group were ushered through the city without fanfare or pomp. There were many people riding through the city on camels and mules, and so they did not look out of place. The further they were ushered through the city, the denser it became. People were pushed shoulder to shoulder as they squeezed past in what seemed like utter chaos. Yet the more they waded through the crowds, Leona realised that there was an unspoken order and rhythm to it that was almost hypnotic. From the seat upon her camel, it was like watching waves gently crash onto the sand as the people at the ends of the tight alleyways diffused out from the bottleneck and into a large square.
The square was the centre of Maladh, and was the home to the place of worship that was the largest building in all of the region. Mavina told her that the building was called a Basal, but was known to the people as Ljilla-tan, meaning Ear of the Gods. The Amentian people interpreted the scriptures in a different way to those in The Twin Kingdoms, Filos and Cesara. It was an interpretation that was routed in the ways of Old Antinna, whilst a more modern understanding was preferred by those from Natonia. Leona knew that the Cesaran people only knew the sun and the moon as their Gods until the arrival of the Natonians who formed the Kingdoms of The Hartlands and The Blacklands. It was not until the arrival of the Antinnans that the vast desert had become inhabited, and the states that would make up the Amentian Empire gradually formed.
The Basal was the main building, four times the size of her father’s palace in Ilturbia and surrounded by pointed towers. The front wall was a triangle of colourful stained glass depicting the most famous events of the scriptures. Most notably, Natos and Jivana’s battle against the dead and the evil Necromancer, Samuel, who raised the bodies of the deceased and forced them to live again to fight in his army under his complete control. Somehow the scene was made beautiful with carefully crafted etchings of the Angels of Life and Death and Samuel’s face depicted with grotesque features. It was then that Leona noticed in the desert landscape that the scene was depicted in, the artist had included a white beam of light that seemed to be shining through the army of the dead. Before long, she was forced to stop her gazing and was nudged along by an irritable man who was using the space to flog his wares to those coming out of the alleyway.
They moved along and were forced into a few more tight bottlenecks beyond the central square that eventually lead to the Sultan’s palace. The palace was nowhere near as grand as her father’s palace or Nebu’s in Aljan. In fact, it looked no larger than the estate of a landed knight or a rich merchant. Despite the fact it was not large, it was an incredibly beautiful space and was decorated with fuchsias and lavender. It was not the least bit what she expected of the home of a Sultan – a rank that not only reflected the rule of a region, but the defence of it. It was the second-highest military rank in the Empire behind the Emperor himself. The stablemaster took their camels and horses, and even when they were safely inside and gathered in the inner courtyard, Hezekiah told them to keep their hoods up to cover their faces.
“Nebu has spies everywhere. We cannot assume you are safe here,” he told them.
“If we are not safe, then how can we trust the Sultan?” Leona whispered.
“If the Sultan could not be trusted, we would have been stopped at the gate and had our heads stuck on pikes. He has as much to lose, and as much to gain, from this as we do.”
They waited for what seemed like an eternity in that courtyard. It was a small space, but the building was tall – at least five levels – and all of them surrounded a tree that shot up through the middle, with a small pool of water on the ground floor surrounding it. The tree was full of birds and had a net at the very top with holes in so that the birds and the tree could get light, but so the birds could also not escape. There were parrots and budgies fluttering their wings as well as others that Leona did not know. The leaves were twice the width of a warrior’s shield and as long as swords.
As soon as Leona had begun to really admire the beauty of her surroundings, she was interrupted by an elderly man with a pointy chin and two thick grey eyebrows above his sunken eyes. The man was finely dressed in a light-grey surcoat, the same colour as his eyebrows and a navy cravat covered his silky white tunic. He coughed indignantly and walked ahead. The entire brood followed and weaved their way around the different levels until they arrived on the roof. When they reached the last few steps at the top of the stairs that took them to the highest part of the roof, they were met with a man drinking a smoking golden beverage from a glass cup as the sun’s rays hit his face and his bare chest.
This was a far younger man that Leona had expected. Perhaps nearing thirty, with rippling muscles and droplets of sweat bouncing off his brownish skin. His three-quarter silk shorts were similar in style to those that Nebu wore when she first met him, however these were a bright shade of red. As he rose from his seat, Leona was immediately self-conscious of both her belly and her face. She had not seen herself in weeks, and she feared she must be a ghastly sight, having trekked through the desert without so much as a wash. She would have thought that she would have been given a chance to clean up before being brought to the Sultan.
“Schuckar Mustaha,” Sultan Untonay bowed to the elderly man who slinked off. Almost immediately, the Sultan turned to Mavina. “My Princess, how good it is to see you again,” He said in the common tongue, clearly for the benefit of the guests who did not speak Amentian. He turned to Leona. “Welcome to my home. Welcome to Maladh.” He held out his hand and Leona shook it, pleasantly surprised that he did not try to kiss her as most leaders did. Perhaps I should travel through the desert every time I am due to meet a man, she thought.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Sultan. I will be forever grateful, no matter what is to happen.”
“You are pessimistic for a woman who has just survived a journey through the desert. Perhaps you will be more hopeful after a bath and a rest. Relax while you can, you will be on a ship back home come dawn. I will not have you in this city any longer than necessary. I promised your father that you would arrive in his palace whole and safe. I intend to keep that promise.”
It was the first time Leona had breathed a sigh of relief since she had entered Amenti. She lay naked in scalding hot water as the Sultan’s servants scrubbed away the dust from her skin whilst her head rested in the lap of another lady who ran soap through her hair. The rough sponges scraped away the dirt and dead skin and made her feel cleaner and more refreshed than she had in weeks. Once she was out of the hot pool, they brought her into the steam room where there were hot coals under boiling water that made the air cling to her skin. She sat there stewing in her own sweat for what felt like hours before they pulled her out and doused her with icy cold water before wrapping her in a big warm towel and sending her away to her room.
The room was not large, as she had expected, but just like the rest of the property, it was gorgeously decorated. There were pink roses filling a glass vase on her dresser and her mirror was gleaming. She looked at herself and was unrecognisable. Her cheeks were fuller and her stomach was rounder. The baby inside her was growing, and she was growing comfortably with it. She stared at herself for a moment, her skin darker from her walk through the desert, but still slightly red from burning. Even her hair had darkened and had turned a light brown from its previous golden colour. Leona wondered how she would have looked at herself now if she had never left Aljan. If she had stayed out of duty and suffering under her husband’s faux kindness, wondering when would be the day that she would suffer the same fate as Daut. As she stared, she realised just how much she liked herself. She realised that the reflection staring back at her was a woman who made the right choice. No matter what happens, she thought. This is the right thing.
Leona arrived in the courtyard with the other guests. The Guide, The Guardian, Hezekiah, Mavina, Jadya and the maidservants were all dressed in beautiful Amentian dress from head to toe. Jadya immediately approached her as she arrived and fiddled with the golden necklace that had been draped around her neck. “There we are…much better. You will never find a better maidservant than me, Leona, remember that,” she said light-heartedly. Leona smiled and thanked her.
Before long Sultan Untonay greeted them and escorted them to the balcony that had a large dining table laid out on the roof. Leona had become used to dining under the stars, as was the custom in Amenti. They were allowed to be seated where they wanted around the table, and Leona was glad that her companions were being treated as equals and allowed to dine with her. She decided to sit beside Sultan Untonay at the head of the table, whilst Jadya pulled up a seat to her right. Mavina sat at the opposite end of the table beside Hezekiah. There was no grand feast, but delicate plates of food were brought to their table by finely dressed servants who spoke to them kindly as they brought their food and drink to them.
Crisp salads were served with wine and fresh water, the plates were small, but numerous, and by the time Leona had finished, realised that she was fuller than she had been since her wedding. She hoped that the baby that grew in her belly was happy, as she imagined that it would have been starving the last few weeks. Once the dinner had finished, Leona’s entourage left for bed, but she remained behind to speak to the Sultan.
“Are you going to betray us?” Leona asked flatly.
She expected the Sultan to take offence, but this was a young man, full of confidence, whose pride was not so easily injured by such an accusation. “Your husband is an excellent man. A fantastic leader and politician. He will have a good life, and will be supported until the day he dies. You see, and I imagine people have already told you this, Nebu is smart. He knows what his Sultans want. The only time an Emperor is threatened in Amenti, is when he does not have his Sultans on his side. The Emperor is not the true power. He is the figurehead. The point at the end of the blade. The Sultans are the hands around the handle. You should ask yourself why Amenti, with all of its might and power, could not take the rest of the continent as its own. The answer is that there are many hands around the blade, all pulling it in different directions. Nebu has made the right allyships with the right men. He has spent his youth building close relationships with men with vast armies, and promising to protect his weaker regions. Nebu has created an Empire of single-thought. He is the blade who has managed to control those who wield it.”
“So you have betrayed us?” Leona choked.
“Alas I should have. As soon as I heard from your father, I should have lured you here and informed Nebu. That would have been the smart thing to do…but I am not smart, Leona. I am loyal. I am loyal to Emperor Daut. I am loyal to Marius Pascis. And I am loyal to Maladh. I was just a young man, a boy really, when I fought alongside my father in the Battle of Maladh. I watched your father drag the Emperor from the battlefield. My father was slain trying to defend him, and I would have been too if it wasn’t for your father. I was inexperienced and dropped my sword in the mud. A man ran at me with his sword whilst I was unarmed, and your father threw me his shield. I was able to block the blow and finish my retreat. My father died in that battle, but it was the compassion of one Cesaran – your father – that inspired our men to victory that day. If Nebu ever finds out what I have done, I will be executed as a traitor, but I would not have been able to live with myself if I did not repay the bravery of Marius Pascis.”
Leona eyed him suspiciously. “It is a fine story, Sultan. But I have never heard of any man to do anything solely out of sentimentality. No matter what he may tell himself and those around him.”
The Sultan smiled. “I have a son of age with your sister. When the time is right, they will marry. What I get out of this is a chance to repay your father, and an alliance with a close neighbour.”
“Elena? No…no my sister cannot come here. She will not leave Cesara for Amenti like I did.”
“My Queen. I am not your husband. In fact, I am one of the few men in this Empire capable of opposing him.”
“You would go to war with Nebu? You would rebel against the Empire?” Leona said, stunned.
“Not openly. That would be suicide. But yes. I would bide my time, let Nebu wage his wars, which after a while, after the inevitable failure of them, will lose him support. When the cracks begin to show, then I will move into them and pry them open until the Empire splits apart like crumbling rock.”
“What about the dynasty? What about Mavina? What would she say if I told her this? Of your plan to tear down the Empire that was of her father? What about my child? The rightful heir! What do you seek to gain by telling me all this?”
“Your friendship, Leona Pascis. And your assistance,” Untonay said as he peered over her shoulder. Leona stood and turned to see Mavina standing at the stairway, soaked in moonlight.
“Nebu will only become more of a menace, my Queen. I wish for your son to rule the Empire under your watchful eye. There are calls for peace from all sides. As far as the people know, we have already achieved it. We will need time and patience to remove Nebu from the throne. Once he has been removed, then it will be safe for you to return with your son, and teach him how to rule,” Mavina said.
Leona turned to Untonay. “So this is what you get? An in. A crack for you to crawl into. Do you not see this, Mavina? He seeks to marry you and to befriend me. He seeks to win our friendship so that I trust him to guide my child, so that he can rule as some sort of regent. And what then, Untonay? What happens when my child comes of age? When you are father-in-law to my sister, husband of the former-Emperor’s sister? Guardian of the new Emperor? How long before you stake your claim? How long before it is you who we need to fear and not my husband?”
Sultan Untonay did not move from his seat. He sipped at his drink and looked up towards the stars. “We will never know what will happen, Leona. We will never know. Unless Nebu is defeated. Whatever you suspect about my plans or my intentions are just that. Suspicions. But right now, you have no choice but to trust me, because make no mistake. That boy chasing you through the desert has no mind for mercy. He will cut that baby out of your stomach and dash it against a wall if he thought it was a threat to him. And then what of your child? What of the Empire? What of your family? Perhaps he will take your sister as a replacement. Perhaps he will take his own sister. Right now, Nebu has intended to give you only his public image. You were never meant to see him slaughter his father. You were never meant to see that side of him. That was just the beginning, Leona. Things are bad Leona, and I must be honest in that it will become much worse before it gets better. But if you do not accept my help, and the cost that comes with it, then we will all be destroyed.”