Morning all, and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Forty Four of The Cursed King. It has been a busy old week as I went to a work conference in London for the first few days of the week, and also went to see Dune in IMAX on Thursday. Now, I am not a massive fan of Sci-Fi – I like it, just not mad for it – but this film was stunning. I was absolutely blown away by the worldbuilding and it’s made me want to read the book. I might even take it on after I have finished writing this. On that note, I have scarecely written at all this week because of how busy it’s been, but with that being said, I am two and a half chapters away from finishing, which I am super excited about. It’s been so rewarding posting chapters on here for almost two years (in February), and it has encouraged me immensely to finally get this finished so thank you to anyone who has been reading for a while or to anyone who has picked it up at any stage.
In today’s chapter, Leona finds herself under the watch of her father back in Ilturbia. Heavily pregnant and exhausted from her perillous journey, Leona must also find the energy to keep her mind sharp for political posturing and the impending threat of her unborn child’s father who’s army looms ever closer to her home. Thanks for reading, and Chapter Forty Five will be posted on November 20th.
Leona awoke in her bed with Elena wrapped as tightly in her arms as her bulging belly would allow. The Amentian Queen’s sister had not left her side since she had returned from Aljan, and though she rolled her eyes and smiled at her father as her younger sibling lathered her in affection, she too felt what her sister felt. The agony of being away from her sister and her family for so long wrenched her heart more than she had ever realised. She had been so focused on escaping, on getting back home, that it required her to actually be home again for it all to sink in.
As she lay awake, she looked at the Great Galla outside her window. It had only begun to fade as the moon became translucent under the threat of first light. No matter how grateful she felt for being home, she had cried herself to sleep, her mind totally occupied with the thought of Mavina. It was as though the further away Mavina travelled from her, the greater her pain and the more the tears flowed down her face. There was little she could do to stop it. The Princess had told her not to worry, that she would be okay, but not a single word of her mollifications had any effect on her.
Carefully peeling Elena’s arms from around her waist, Leona turned her sister over. Elena continued to snore peacefully, completely exhausted from the excitement of seeing her sister again. Leona tiptoed from her chambers as carefully as she could. Hezekiah was standing guard, his partner asleep in the chair beside him. She was glad that it was Hezekiah’s turn to keep watch.
“My Queen, is everything okay?” Hezekiah whispered.
“Fine,” she whispered back. “I would like to go up to the balcony.”
“I will wake up Alexander and come with you.”
“No no…please. I would like to be alone,” she told him.
Reluctantly, Hezekiah nodded. “Don’t be too long, your father will not be happy if he knows that you are out of bed.”
Leona furrowed her brow. “I have just been chased across the desert and captured by pirates, Hezekiah. I think I will be safe enough in the palace.”
Leona walked off, annoyed that her father had tried to enact such controls on her movements after what she had just escaped. Though as she walked further through the palace, she felt guilty for taking that out on Hezekiah who had spent months protecting her and putting himself in danger. When Leona reached the balcony, where she had hoped to be alone, she saw her father sat there, looking out over the ocean. She observed him for a moment, but before she could turn back so that he did not see her, Marius Pascis had already turned around.
“You should be in bed,” he called over to her.
“Should I?” Leona asked sardonically.
“I am not sure if you are up far too late or far too early…either way, you are up now, so why don’t you come and join your father?”
“Not too early nor too late. I am just up.”
“Is everything okay, Leona?” Marius asked, picking up on her tone.
Leona walked over to her father who was sat at a table with a cup of steaming liquid. She leaned over the balcony and enjoyed the cool stone on her skin. “Why is Hezekiah offering to guard me around the palace? I have had freedom of the grounds since I could walk.”
“I am sure he is just being protective, Leona. He went through a lot to bring you here.”
“We went through a lot together. I do not need to be cossetted.”
“Then tell him!” Marius said defensively. “You think I can spare guards to watch you day and night? I have a republic to defend, you know?”
“Do not do that…do not lie to me. I have not seen you for almost a year, but I have not changed. You will respect me.”
Marius smiled, but not in a derisive or sarcastic way, in a way that reassured her as she stared into her father’s eyes. It was almost a look of relief. “I am sorry, iliona. I wanted you to feel safe. I cannot imagine what your year has been like. I have thought of nothing else but getting you home for months. When I saw you step off that boat, all I could think of was that maybe now I would get some sleep! But now you see me, wide awake, I cannot sleep, Leona. In my dreams, you are back in Aljan and I cannot reach you, and so I must always be awake, because it is only when I am awake that I know you are safe.”
Leona sat in the empty chair beside her father and scooted it towards him. She clasped his hands in hers and then placed his palms against her cheeks. “You can feel me. I am here. I am safe. I do not need to be protected in this palace. I needed to be protected out there, and I was, and not just by Hezekiah. I have seen strength in so many people across the distance that I have travelled, and I include my own in that. You do not have to protect me anymore.”
Marius nodded. “I can see that,” he smiled.
The following morning, Leona found only one guard at her door. She was dressed by her maidservants and she had never felt cleaner and more at home. When she made her way to the dining hall, Lord Black and Marius Pascis were already in the midst of conversation, so deep was their engagement that Leona took a seat almost without them noticing until Marius caught her attention. Apologetically, Marius came over to her and hugged her, asking if he could do anything for her. Leona had reached the point in her pregnancy where her every whim was catered for, and she was tired enough to be glad to accept it all. Lord Black on the other hand had not changed his demeanour to her one bit. She had not expected it though, she had not seen a hint of mercy in the man’s eyes since she met him. It was part of what made her trust him. He did not have pretence. He had goals and as long as she knew those, she could easily decipher his motives.
“Perhaps we could continue this conversation later,” Marius said to Lord Black.
Lord Black immediately turned his attention to Leona. “I do not think that will be necessary. I do not confess to know your daughter as well as you, Marius, but Leona is not one to shy away from frank talk.”
The Lord-turned-Pirate smiled, but Leona could not work out the wryness of it. “Speak as freely as you would like, though if this is to do with my husband then I shall be irritated if I was not consulted.”
“Your husband?” Marius seemed shocked that Leona would still refer to Nebu that way.
“That is what Nebu is, father. Regardless of whether I am happy about the fact he is my husband and the father of my child. I have also spent more time with him and his family than anyone in this country, and so I would have thought you would seek my council.”
Marius looked embarrassed, but Lord Black only smiled more. “I was telling your father that he should join forces with the Angarian army. Our King has always had a fondness for Cesara. A republic so small and yet so brave, so repellent to the Kingdoms and the Empires that would try to conquer it. King Angar does not mean to conquer Cesara, though indeed he could, he means to befriend it. Cesara may keep its name, its Commander, its ways and religion, all it will owe to the Angarians is its fealty and its taxes. In return, Cesara will receive the full might of the Angarian army.”
“The Amentian Empire has an army that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. If Nebu wants to take this country no army the Angarians and Cesarans could field would repel it,” Marius told him.
“Not in an open field, but the Cesaran mountains have kept your republic safe for centuries. The Cesaran army numbers how many? Four? Five thousand? Enough to repel them from the mountain passes once perhaps, but Nebu is relentless, and the situation in the south Hartlands and Blacklands have never been more strenuous. Nebu could bypass the mountains altogether if he likes and take his men through the wetlands. The Blacklands and The Hartlands are occupied, they would not have the men to engage with them. No…they would come directly for Cesara from the west. Of course, if there were an army that were already at Hartlake and able to divert them into the wetlands, it might just make Nebu think twice about his invasion and whether it would be worth the men it would cost.”
“You have thought a lot about this.”
“I have been thinking about this for years, Marius. Angar rule is inevitable. The New World has been decimated by the wars of The Hartlands, The Blacklands and Amenti for centuries. We are here to end their bloodshed. Now is our time to rule, and you are included in that.”
Marius turned up his chin. “You have abandoned your ancestral home. I have wondered, and keep wondering why you would do this, you know? Why would you align with the Angarians? I understand of course, why you would want to destroy House Byrne. They dethroned your family, they reduced you to minor Lords when once you were proud Kings. Moreover, the two great Kings that The Blacklands hold up are King Credence and King Aedvard…no one talks of the Kings of your name anymore, only perhaps Luther Black, and only because he founded the Kingdom. Everyone remembers the warriors, but not the Kings. And yet despite all of that, they showed mercy. When they took control, when King Credence held his blade to your great grandfather’s throat, he gave him a choice, so the story goes. Secede peacefully and live, or go out with a fight and have the family wiped out. For over a hundred years, the Blacks have kept to their word. Not a single rebellion, not a single attempt at a coup. Now, their Lord Black…the last of the noble family…a myriad of bastards from different women, but only one true legitimate heir. A young girl, no? Why now? Why do you now seek to destroy the Kingdom that bears your name? Why does Albert Black assume the identity of the most feared pirate on earth? What does Lord Black get from this? Answer me this question truthfully, and I will consider your profile in good faith. If you lie to me, Lord Black. You will leave my country by noon.”
Lord Black sipped from his goblet. “This is now about my family, Marius. That is the truth. I will not deny to you that I hold a deep hatred for Aedvard and his clan, but my motivations are to rid this continent of the scourge. The Twin Kingdoms and Amenti have caused the bloodshed. Cesara, the Filosi, Ismann, even the Molten Isles, Skaer and the Free Islands. They have lived largely peacefully on their lands, and have had to adapt to even survive the brutality. How many wars have there been over this territory? Since the days of Ivar Hart and Luther Black…beyond even them. We will unite this continent. We have the armies, we have the vision to create a peaceful, unified land under King Angar. He will bring a new age of peace and prosperity, and I want to be part of something good. Something pure and beautiful. I want to do what my family failed to do. I want to bring hope.”
Leona could not believe that the man speaking right now was the same man who slit Beirus’ throat on that ship, who promised that same man his picking of herself and Mavina, who was going to let Beirus beat Hezekiah to death. She did not forget all of that. No matter what he said, she did not believe a word of his lies. Leona was about to open her mouth when Marius pushed his chair back violently and called out. “Guards!” In a moment, Nicholas and Andre, two of Marius’ guards stepped away from their post at the door and stood to attention. “See Lord Black to his ship.” Marius commanded.
Leona insisted on being the one to escort Lord Black back to the docks. Hezekiah accompanied her, on his insistence, but her father had refused to give Lord Black his own company. Although Leona knew the coldness of Lord Black’s eyes, she, unlike her father, did believe what he said. She did not believe that Cesara would truly be protected long-term, but she knew that the biggest threat to the Angarians were the Amenti. The Twin Kingdoms were in the depths of a war, their armies expended. Even the Ismann were embroiled in the war. Yet the Amentian Empire was vast, intact and now led by a ruthless, bloodthirsty ruler who would stop at nothing to expand his borders. Lord Black’s offer provided protection from that, at least temporarily, and she could not help but wonder why on earth her father refused him. Of course, she knew that Marius did not trust him, but no one trusts their allies, if they did, they would call them friends.
Lord Black was greeted eagerly by his men at the dock, but before he boarded his ship, he turned back to Leona. “You know I am right, don’t you?”
Leona turned her head away and looked across the ocean. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“If that were true, you would not have seen me back to my ship. You know I am right, and you know your father is wrong to refuse my offer. We have spies everywhere, Leona. There is nothing that I do not know. I know about how much you hate Nebu, I know how he chased you through the desert, I know that right now, Nebu has an army marching through Nihei, planning to attack Cesara from the west. He will reach Cesara…he will reach Ilturbia. And if he somehow finds the mercy to spare your child, he will cut it out of your belly himself and leave you to the birds. I can protect you from that Leona…I can protect you and your child. You just have to trust me.”
Leona turned to him and glared. “I do not need your protection, and I do not trust you.”
“But you trust my motivation. I do not mean to protect Cesara for nothing in return. I have told your father what I want. I want a peaceful land, and I share your enemies. This could be a prosperous relationship if only your father would allow it.” Lord Black stepped forward and took Leona’s hands in his. “Perhaps one day you will rule Cesara…perhaps one day you will seek out my protection.”
Leona snatched her hands away from Lord Black. “Your ship awaits you,” she said as she turned away. Hezekiah waited a moment to allow his glare to pierce through Lord Black before following Leona back to the palace.
“What did he say to you?” Hezekiah asked.
Leona strode on ahead, annoyed at the question and at the fact that Hezekiah refused to let her go anywhere alone, as if he was being sent to spy on her and not to protect her. “None of your business,” she spat, immediately realising how petulant she sounded, but did not dare turn back to apologise. She continued walking as fast as she could, but Hezekiah’s long legs allowed him to keep pace with her until he walked alongside her, the two almost jogging.
“What is wrong, Leona?” Hezekiah said with a mixture of genuine concern and annoyance that she had spoken to him so rudely.
“You ask me what is wrong?” Leona scoffed and then stopped dead in her tracks. “You are asking me what is wrong? After I have been chased through the desert with my pursuer’s baby in my belly? After I have watched men bargain for my life, offer me up to rapists and try and use my name for their political gain? You ask what is wrong as the one and only person I felt understood my pain is ripped away from me to marry a man who wants to raise my unborn child as the next emperor of the lands that have never stopped trying to destroy our republic? You ask what is wrong when I finally have a night of rest and peace with my family without wondering if I’ll wake up when the sun rises, and my father tries to hide me away from the world like a delicate flower and does not let me go ten feet out of his sight without a chaperone? I am hot, I am uncomfortable, I want to be sick all of the time and all I want to do is wait at the mountains with a sword and cut Nebu’s throat myself!”
“You are no killer, Leona.”
“No? Well, I am, Hezekiah. I am a killer. I have killed and I would do it again. The night you came to get me in Aljan, the night you found us, one of Nebu’s guards got to us and I stabbed him with his own sword. I watched the lights leave his eyes, and you know what? I’m glad I did, and I would do it again to protect Mavina. To protect you. To protect this child. I would kill every single man in the New World.”
“It is okay to be afraid…it is okay to be angry after all that has happened, but your father…and me…we both just want to protect you. We both just want you to be safe.”
“None of us are safe. My father has turned away an army that might have protected us. What have we got? Some mountains that might slow them down, but Nebu is not his father. He is not a brash brute who values honour and friendship. Nebu only values power, he only understands strength and dominance. He will not stop until he has my son in his hands. He will not quit until Cesara is either part of his empire or a pile of ashes.” All of a sudden, Leona felt a trickle down her leg. She looked down to see that the stone beneath her feet was wet and a huge pain ripped through her stomach, so intense that she keeled over. Hezekiah quickly moved to hold her up.
“My word…Leona…the baby is coming. This is it. Your baby is being born.”
Hezekiah carried Leona all the way back to the palace from the docks. All the way there, she insisted that she could walk until Hezekiah finally succumbed to her demands and placed her back on her feet. After a few steps, Leona requested politely to be carried again. On the way, she apologised for her outburst and told Hezekiah that she loved him. Her loyal guard returned the apology and told her to focus on her breathing, which she did. Her powerful guardian sat beside her holding her hand until her father was brought to them. Marius knelt by her side as Jadya looked up her dress and cut her free of all of her loose clothing whilst delicately placing a sheet over the top of her legs. The rest of her maidservants gathered around her with wet flannels for her forehead and hands to hold for her to squeeze. Leona was in too much pain to care about Jadya’s cold fingers as her maidservant prodded her, and after a few moments, her friend stood up and frowned sympathetically.
“This baby is still some way away, Leona. I am sorry to say you might be in discomfort for some time. We will keep checking, but it is not time yet,” Jadya said.
“How long will it take?” Leona asked as she winced at the cramping in her stomach.
“I am not sure entirely; it could be another day at least.”
“Are you sure?” Marius asked. “When Leona and Elena were born…”
“It is different for different people, Commander. I have delivered several children, including two of my siblings, and it was different each time. For now, all we can do is make Leona as comfortable as we possibly can. I am going to fetch you some tea and something to calm your nerves, I will be back soon.”
As Jadya left, one of the Cesaran council members, Lazlo Bora entered the room. Lazlo was in his thirties with long blonde hair as sleek and manicured as Leona’s had been on her wedding day. Lazlo had steely metallic eyes complemented by long eye lashes. Despite his beauty and his stature, however, Lazlo never seemed happy and his mouth always carried a scowl. Now though, it was Marius who pierced his stare through Lazlo as the councilman stood dumbfounded at the scene before him.
“This is not a good time,” Marius warned.
“Forgive me, commander. I would not have come if it was not urgent.”
“Then on with it, man!”
“It is Nebu and the Amentians my lord. They have arrived at Nihei. Our army is there ready to cut them off through the mountains, but…”
“What is it?”
“The army, my lord…the scouts have never seen anything like it. It spread like a snake over the horizon. There must be hundreds of thousands of them.”
Marius’ face dropped in that moment. “How on earth has Nebu gathered an army that size? It is a farcical number. We have less than five thousand warriors, less than twenty-thousand fighting men if we counted young boys and veterans. Why expend such an almighty number for this?”
Leona felt her stomach lurch. All of the time she had spent escaping Nebu, all of the times he tried to sway her, tried to prove that he was more than a murderer. She felt no joy in being right about him. She felt no confidence in her judgement of his character. She felt only fear. Only terror. As her baby eked out of her belly, she could only think of the horror it was being born into. After a moment, Leona sat up and spoke. “He does it to prove a point. He does not mean to take Cesara,” she said with a face as cold as stone. “He means to destroy it.”