Good morning all and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-Nine of The Cursed King. I am nearing the end of writing Chapter Forty-Seven, and so once this is done, I’ll have about five chapters left to write, which is crazy. I have been writing this for so long now, that I have mixed feelings being this close to finish it. One of those feelings is relief, to be totally honest, to finally have a finished draft of this story that’s been rocking around in my head since about 2015. It’s been a labour of love, but a project that has brought me a lot of joy, and one that I hope is bringing you joy too.
In today’s Chapter, Leona continues to travel with the pirates of The Free Islands and becomes privy to a shocking discovery about their Captain. Thank you for reading, and Chapter Forty will be posted on September 11th!
The baby kicked at Leona’s stomach as though it was ready to come out. She often wondered what her actions had done to her child over the past few months. The guilt overwhelmed her sometimes, and she wondered if she should have stayed in Aljan, where at least the baby, if not her, would be safe. There were many times that she thought it would be easier to go back, but as she saw the coastline of Ilturbia, she felt relief wash over her body. She lay back and felt the warm air on her face as The New World moved into Spring, and wanted nothing more than to lay beneath the cool water of the sea. Even the sweaty stink of the ship and the gruesome men who inhabited it could not dampen her hope as they approached the city.
Leona watched over the side of the boat for almost an hour, but the boat drifted farther and farther away from the city until she could only see the forest. Frantically, Leona shook Mavina awake from her sleep. “Mavina…Mavina, we have gone past Ilturbia…they are taking the ship north.”
Mavina snapped out of her slumber, her great brown eyes brought to life in a moment. “Where is Hezekiah?”
Hezekiah had not been a step away from Mavina and Leona since Beirus’ carcass had been unceremoniously tossed from the ship, but now, he was nowhere to be seen. Before they could begin panicking, however, Hezekiah appeared from Olon’s cabin and stormed down the steps towards Mavina and Leona.
“My Princess, My Queen…I am sorry to startle you, I wanted to have this resolved before you both woke up.”
“What’s going on?” Leona asked. “Why have we gone past Ilturbia?”
“Olon and his men need supplies…and there is only one way the Freemen get them. I have spent the past few hours telling horror stories of what happens to pirates in Ilturbia, and he has finally relented. In truth, I think he was bluffing, the city is far too strong to succumb to such a small force.”
“Then why are we going north?” Mavina asked.
“There is a town between Ilturbia and just south of Arubel beside the Northern Forest. It is technically in The Hartlands, and so Olon is taking us there instead.”
“Those people are Cesarans!” Leona protested.
“Look around us, Leona. I do not like it, but these men will do what they will. There is nothing we can do but wait until they are done. I am sorry that it will take longer to get you home.”
“I do not care about that! What about the people of this town? We must protect them from these beasts.”
“Hezekiah is right, Leona. There is little we can do.”
“We will see,” Leona stormed across the boat and up the stairs, and banged her fist on the door of Olon’s cabin. “Open the door!”
Olon’s smile was as broad as she had ever seen it when the door swung open, which only made her angrier. “Why, Leona, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You take me home right now! I will not be part of your savagery.”
“Not even for a little while?” The pirate smirked.
“These people are Cesarans. They are my people and you will not harm them.”
“Your people? You know these men and women? You have spoken to them? Heard their stories and their grief? They are your people because they just so happen to occupy the same republic as you. You nobles and royals are of the same breed. It is all about ownership, property. You are not mad because my men want to fuel our bellies and satisfy our lusts, you are mad because you feel as though we are damaging your belongings. How far north of Arubel do we need to go, Leona? How far north before the people’s lives no longer matter to you?”
“That is not what I meant. You are twisting my words.”
“And you are wearing my patience thin, princess. You do not have any power here, and I will not hesitate to toss you overboard should you cause me enough problems.”
“You would not dare.”
Olon’s tone changed. He pulled Leona into his cabin and gripped her by the wrist and leaned in close to her face. “Do not test me. I can still ransom you back to Nebu if I wanted to. Remember that. Now get out of my cabin,” the pirate growled and Leona was shoved from the cabin and the door slammed in her face. She turned around and Hezekiah was already half way up the stairs. “Leona…” he spoke softly. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Leona said, staring at the door as though she was trying to kick it down with her mind.
Hezekiah, Leona and Mavina all stayed on the boat as the Freemen vaulted onto the docks from their ship. She had once seen a mischief of rats swarm around the carcass of a dead animal. The creature had been torn to bits, so much so that all that remained were bones and sinew. It was so shredded that Leona could not tell what it was when it had lived. These men reminded her of those rats. Their long, unwashed hair reminded her of their straggly tales and their matted beards of their grey, mould-coloured fur. Their gargled roars reminded her of their high-pitched squeals and their blades of the buck teeth. She turned away to face the ocean, helpless to do anything to stop the violence. Hezekiah turned her shoulders back.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“We must face them, and they must know we are watching.”
“Why?” Leona protested.
“To show that we can. To show that we do not approve. Even if there is nothing, we can do to stop it, we must at least honour the dead so that at least someone has witnessed their pain. That way, maybe one day there can be justice for them.”
They watched the men scurry into the town. In truth, there was not much that they could see from the boat, but it was the screams and the horrified yelps and cries of those that the freemen slaughtered that made her skin crawl and her body shudder. Soon after, Olon descended from his cabin. She thought that he would be in the town, slaughtering the townsfolk with his men. Instead, he sat beside them and let out a deep sigh. Leona did not say a word, and Hezekiah hovered beside them cautiously.
“I am not a bad man, Leona Pascis,” Olon said. Leona did not respond, even though she felt her fingers itch to strangle the arrogant bastard. “The Freemen have been raiding towns since before even I was born. It is just the way they are. Living outside of the law, living without taxation or lords, it does not make a man rich.”
“They chose this life. You are all criminals.”
“Did they? Most of these men are second and third generation Freemen. They were born on The Free Islands. Piracy is all they know. Those who first made the choice to leave their lands and holdings are now either buried below the earth or about to be. I wonder, what would Leona Pascis have chosen had she not been born the daughter of Cesara’s great commander. What would milkmaid Leona have done if she was born on the Free Islands to a pirate? She may have married one. She may have prayed for a good raid so that she could feed her children. How different our lives could have been if the Gods had played their hands differently.”
“Everyone has a choice, Olon the Vile. We do not choose who we are or where we are born, but we choose what we do. These men have chosen slaughter and violence today and for that, I blame their leader.”
Olon nodded. The screams had stopped. They could no longer hear the clashing of swords or the gurgled chokes of death. Instead, they heard murmurs and mutters. Olon stood. “It appears the violence has ended. Leona, come with me to the town.”
“I will not join this.”
“It was a command, Leona. Lest you wish to truly know how I got my moniker; I would suggest you be heedful of it.”
The group walked behind Olon as he surveyed the wreckage of his crew. There were very few bodies in plain sight. This town was surrounded by forests and trees were abundant. As Spring began earlier in the south, there were already blooming canopies that offered shade from the piercing sun. This also meant that those who had been killed were camouflaged behind bark and leaves. It was not until they entered through the wooden gates of the town that Leona saw a circle of Freemen by the church. Kneeling before them with knives to their throats were Godsons and Goddaughters facing forward defiantly, not whimpering or cowering, but staring silently into the distance.
Standing at the steps of the church was the Abbott. He was a young man with a full beard and long hair, dark skin and a stunning green robe that had been blemished with a splatter of blood on his sleeve. He held that same spot with his opposing hand, as he too stared straight at them defiantly. “Freemen of The Free Islands, oarsmen of The Warrior’s Son. Tell me of the supplies you have found,” Olon addressed the town.
A man stepped forward. This man had a scar where his left eye had assumedly once been, and greying hair. His clothes were fine, but ragged, as though a King had been pulled into the mouth of a lion and this is what it spat out. “Enough to keep us until mid-Spring.”
Olon’s face changed. “Then why do we hold these people with knives against their throats?”
The ragged man stared at him incredulously. “The church will have gold! We have not seen a church as fine in months. It could sustain us deep into Autumn.”
Olon suddenly looked deeply uncomfortable. “What say you, Abbot? If I walk in there and tear this church down stone by stone, will I find any gold?”
Leona grabbed Hezekiah’s fingers and squeezed them tight. Her guard locked his fingers with hers and squeezed back. The Abbot stepped forward. He was a diminutive man, but despite his height, he carried a defiance and a presence that made him seem taller and more powerful than any of the knife-wielding pirates that surrounded him. “You will find nothing.”
Olon stepped forwards to face him. The pirate towered over the Abbott, his broad shoulders almost blocking him from Leona’s view. “Then prove it to me.”
The Abbott took Olon into the church and after some time, they re-appeared. They had taken so long, that the hostages had now been left tied up, their cheeks pressed against the ground whilst the oarsmen waited, occasionally staring across to Leona and Mavina who waited eagerly. Hezekiah stood in front of both of them, not for a moment taking his hand from his hilt. Olon did not even look at the hostages as he walked with purpose back towards the docks. “We are done here, carry what you can back to the ship.”
The oarsmen looked confused and started muttering between them. The ragged man stepped forward, scratching his cheek with the end of his knife. “What about the gold?”
“There is none,” Olon replied, not breaking stride.
“Then we kill them!” The man roared.
“No,” Olon stopped in his tracks and turned to the ragged man. “We leave now and take what we already have. We have what we need, we will leave them the rest.”
The ragged man was incredulous. “This is not the way!”
“This is my way. You will leave these people in peace and that is a command!”
Suddenly, the entire atmosphere shifted with that one word. The oarsmen now looked guarded and ready for a fight. The ragged man stepped forwards. “Command? You do not command us! We are men of The Free Islands, we have no leaders, we have no laws, we have no demands made of us!”
“If you want the gold that I promised you, you will do precisely as I command, Anders.”
“You mean the gold that’s on your ship? I’ll bet that there’s more gold in that church than whatever you could promise all of us.” Anders turned to the rest of the oarsmen. “I’ll bet that this pious prick has seen it, but he fears for what his Gods might do to him if he takes it. Our ancestors left the mainland for this very reason. To escape the control of Lords, Kings and Gods. Now, this imposter thinks he has bought our loyalty? You will never be one of us, Lord Black!”
“Enough!” Olon roared. “You dare use that name here! You are a fool. You would give up the gold that I have offered you for the gold that does not exist in that church?”
“It is not like that. Not like that at all. I plan to take both.” Anders dropped his hostage to the floor and drew his blade.
Olon surveyed the oarsmen. Most of them looked unsure as to where to look. “Look around you, Anders. You have no support. No man here is foolish enough to take a blade to their captain. None except for you. Drop the knife, Anders, drop the knife or use it wisely.”
Anders stepped forward in trepidation. He looked around at his fellow oarsmen, almost all of them avoided his gaze. “You are afraid of him? We are Freemen! We do not follow orders, we have no Lords, we have no Kings. Captains are chosen, and I no longer choose this imposter! Surely some of you are with me?”
Still no response came. Olon stood in silent triumph as Anders floundered. He stepped back and hanged his head. Olon approached him and placed his hand on his shoulder, the knife still hanging loosely in Anders’ fingers. “Nothing has changed. There is not a single aspect of the lives of the Freemen I wish to change. When you agreed to help the cause of the Angarians, you did so under the promise that your lands would be protected and your way of life preserved. I promised you all of the gold you could ever dream of and I promised you protection from those who would cease your raids. What I will not have is violence for the sake of violence. It must always have a purpose. There would be no purpose in killing this Abbot when we have what we came for. There is no gold here in this church, and even if there was, ask yourselves if your rejection of The New World means that you also reject your Gods? If that is the way you wish to live – Godless and hopeless – then by all means, tear this church down brick by brick and learn the truth.” Olon grabbed Anders hands and pulled the knife to his heart and then pushed himself into the blade slightly. Anders looked Olon in the eyes for a moment, and then pulled away, dropping the knife to the floor. Olon turned his back and walked towards Leona. “Take the spoils back to the boat. We will travel to Ilturbia as soon as it is loaded.”
Olon approached Leona and briefly made eye contact with Hezekiah and Mavina. “I was hoping to have time to explain to you privately who I am, in the presence of your father.”
“Why did that man say that you are Lord Black? Why are you masquerading as a Lord of The Blacklands?” Leona quizzed him.
“I am afraid it is the other way around, Leona Pascis. I am Lord Black, masquerading as a pirate.”
“I do not believe you. Why would a Lord give up his life for this?” Leona gestured to the debris of the town around her. “Why would you want people to think you were a disgraceful pirate who kills, rapes and pillages innocent towns?”
Lord Black laughed. “You make Lords sound almost noble, my Queen. Perhaps we should all discuss this once we are on the boat. I must explain myself.”
“I should have known it was you,” Hezekiah said as he sat on the edge of Lord Black’s desk in the cabin. “We met once at Oldport. You have met him too, Leona. You were very young. I doubt you would remember.”
“I do not recall ever travelling to Oldport,” Leona said.
“You did not,” Lord Black began. “I met Hezekiah at the tourney in honour of my thirtieth birthday. We fought in a melee and got drunk together into the evening. I remember my father was furious. He had prepared an enormous feast and killed the boar himself, and instead of enjoying meat and wine, I spent my night getting drunk with the other fighters,” Lord Black smiled. “You, Leona, I met you when you were just a babe in Ilturbia. I met your mother and father too. A fine couple they were.”
“What were you doing in Cesara?”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Lord Byrne paraded us like teenage girls at a court ball to our would-be allies. House Black, reduced to honorary ambassadors for the Kingdom that bears its name. I did not truly understand the humiliation of it all until my father died. He was far too eager to accept his lot as Lord. I am not so easily won.”
“This is why you abandoned Oldport? But why live with the Freemen?” Mavina asked.
“Necessity…for what is to come. There is a storm coming across this sea. A new order waiting to rebuild the debris of war. Since Hartlanders and Blacklanders stepped into The New World, they have been at war with each other. My family were at the heart of that for over four hundred of those years, whilst the Byrne’s have had just over eighty years of blood on their hands. There must come a point where it ends, and that day is soon. The Angarians of Antinna have assembled an army in the hundreds of thousands to sweep across these shores. I, and many men like me, noblemen who are tired of war, who are sick to the teeth of imposters, boy kings and pomp, who want to see peace have joined them. But only revolution can bring peace. The army cannot cross The Settler’s Sea without alliances. We have paid the Freemen off and have provided them weapons and towns to raid in order to protect the fleet from distractions and delays.”
“If this is true…then why are you telling us all of this?” Hezekiah questioned.
“The news will already have reached Cesara by the time we get there. The fleet would have already landed in Jivanos.”
“Jivanos? Why not take Silver City?”
“Oh, they will, but first…the King of the Angarians must greet the city whence he was born.”
“The King of the Angarians is from The Hartlands?”
“He was, but the King is a Hartlander by birth only. His heart belongs to the Gods, and he will bring the Gods and Angels back to earth to bring peace and restore the balance between life and death. For too long, death has ruled these lands, the Angarians believe The God of Life and Jivana herself will begin a new era where life rules this world.”
“There was gold in that church, wasn’t there?” Mavina questioned.
Lord Black looked regretful. “It is not the Angarians way to attack the Gods. Those who follow the Angarian King vow to protect our shrines to those who hold our fate in their hands. It is bad enough that we must cause death in the short-term to preserve life in the long-term, but we will have our way…and we want Cesara and Amenti to help bring us that way. Mavina, Princess of Amenti and Leona, Queen of Amenti and the Lady of Cesara, your beauty and your radiance is known across the world. The King himself knows of your value to his cause. It is not the friendship or the alliance of Emperor Nebu or Commander Marius Pascis that we desire, it is the power you both wield over your people, the love that you garner, that we wish for you to use to help us rule these lands in peace.”
Leona and Mavina looked at each other startled. “Sultan Untonnay…” Leona started.
“Is one of us…as many noblemen across The New World have become. They too are sick of war, and believe in a better world.”
“How many do you have?” Hezekiah asked.
“Enough,” Lord Black smiled. “We have noble men and women across The New World putting their pieces in place, waiting for their moment to strike and tear down this old regime. There was only one place in all of the New World where we could not find a single person who would turn their back on their ruler…only one republic whose leader is held in such reverence, that only his consent would be enough to submit to the Angarian King. Your father truly is a remarkable man, Leona.”
Travelling back to Ilturbia was solemn. Leona spent the entire journey holding onto Mavina’s hand, knowing that she may very well never see her again. An ache stabbed through her chest as she held back her tears. It was as if she was being pulled away from the sun and would be thrust back into darkness without her. They watched as the waves licked at the rocks of the coast, the boat sticking close to land to avoid the Angarian fleet that Lord Black promised would storm The New World.
“Everything will be okay, Leona. You are worried that we will not meet again, but we will.”
“You cannot know that.”
“There are forces in this world beyond our control. Our souls will meet again, whether or not they are in these vessels matters not. Remember this.”
As the ship approached the dock, there was already a group of guards awaiting their arrival. Hezekiah was beaming, as he had already spotted his great friend, Alastair Barolo leading the guard. Leona smiled at Hezekiah’s reaction. It had been so long since she had seen him smile, and could not be more grateful for his protection. Lord Black approached them and led them off the boat. Mavina stayed back and stared in wonder at the palace of Ilturbia in the distant hill. “It is a beautiful city.”
It had been so long since Leona had been home, that she was just relieved to feel the wooden dock underneath her toes. All of the smells of the city came back to her. She watched the dockers load their crates and the seagulls flock around the fishermen that dangled their legs off the planks, their rods twitching in the cold water. Then beyond the line of guards, she saw the most familiar sight. Leona burst into a sprint and threw herself into her father’s arms before she could even check that it was really him. Marius Pascis squeezed her tight around the shoulders and then immediately pulled her away and marvelled at her swollen belly.
“My iliona…and my illinho,” Marius sighed and could not hold back his laughter. “You came back to me…I thought I had lost you.”
Leona felt the tears in her eyes as she held onto her father’s cloak and would not let go until she was once again safe in her home. “I missed you so much,” she cried into her father’s shoulder and sobbed like a child. “Where is Elena? Is she safe?”
“With the cooks making smallcakes, having a wonderful day,” Marius told her. Leona’s relief washed over her as she turned back to face Mavina, Hezekiah and Lord Black.
Hezekiah walked forward and bowed slightly. “Commander. I bring you Leona Pascis as instructed.”
Marius Pascis bowed deeply. “My word, Hezekiah. That you did. I am forever indebted to you, my most loyal of men. Thank you for what you have done for this family…for this republic. You will be rewarded.”
It was then that Lord Black stepped forward and held out his hand respectfully, awaiting Marius to shake it. Marius looked at him curiously, but took his hand courteously and briefly gripped it in his own. “Lord Black…welcome back to Cesara.”
“It has not changed in the slightest. Still a true wonder of the world.”
“Indeed, and one that I would hope stays free of raiders. I trust your oarsmen know their way back to whence they came from? I want them off my dock by nightfall.”
Lord Black nodded. “They will not be staying long. They are due to take Mavina back to Maladh.”
“Mavina of Aljan?” Marius said, astounded and then turned towards Leona.
“She helped me through the desert, father. She helped me escape Nebu,” Leona explained.
“Then why on earth is she going back to Maladh? It would be suicide.”
Leona leaned in close to her father. “Sultan Untonay intends to marry her.”
Marius nodded and then shook his head. “I see…and this is perhaps why you ended up in the hands of pirates I imagine? That conniving little shit.”
“He spoke highly of you, father…” Leona said.
“I’m sure he did,” Marius rolled his eyes. “Come, let us get back to the palace. We clearly have much to discuss.”
Marius turned away, but Leona stayed for a moment. She looked back towards the boat, and suddenly her feet were rushing towards it as fast as they could take her. As soon as she was back on the deck, she saw Mavina and pulled her by her wrist. “My Queen, what is going-.” Leona heard the words, but she was already halfway down the steps to the hull of the ship. In what seemed like less than a moment, Leona was face to face with Mavina beneath the ship, closing the door behind them. “My Queen, is everything okay? What is wrong?”
Leona’s heart was racing, pounding between her chest, and now, at the worst possible moment she felt her child kicking excitedly in her belly. “I do not know why I did that. I…I just wanted us to be alone. For one moment, away from the eyes of my father, from Lord Black, from those atrocious Freemen. I just wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you how much I will miss you and…” Leona stopped talking and closed her eyes. Before she knew it, her lips were touching Mavina’s. There was a moment of heart-wrenching fear that Mavina was pushing her away, but she instead felt her soft hands around her neck as she kissed her back. Then all of the fear was gone, all of the worry and the pain that she had endured since she had last stepped foot in Cesara had evaporated for the briefest of moments. Leona had never felt such euphoria in her life, as if she had been ushered into paradise itself, as if all of the terrible things had been eradicated from the world.
After a few moments, Mavina pulled away gently and grabbed Leona’s cheeks. “I need you to promise me that you will keep yourself alive. You are safe here, but you will not be so for long. You must not seek me out. You must not try to find me. I will find you again, Leona. Of that, you can be certain. That is not a vague, unknowing promise. This is prophecy. We are destined to find each other, Leona Pascis. Trust me.”