Empire

Good morning all and thank you for stopping by to read the penultimate chapter (Chapter Fifty-Two) of The Cursed King. The book is now FINISHED! The Epilogue is written and will be posted (as usual) in two-week’s time. This will be followed by a post about what is going to come next and what will become of this blog until then. I haven’t yet decided any of this, but I am sure I will have slightly more understanding in the next few week’s. This is where I’ll also thank all of you followers, readers, and supporters since I started posting this two years ago. Thank you for being here, and thank you for reading!

In today’s Chapter, we follow Leona’s final chapter of the book as she deals with the aftermath of what happened in her last chapter (no spoilers – the Chapter is called ‘Child’ if you want to go back and read it!). Thanks for reading and the Epilogue will be posted on March 5th!

Leona XI

Empire

            It was a cold day for summer. The sky was overcast with clouds and a powerful wind blew in from the coast. Despite that, Leona was sat upon the balcony where she used to spend time with her father. She cradled her new-born baby to her chest as he snored gently. Leona had not given the boy a name yet. It was considered bad luck to name a child in its first year as so many babies did not survive it. Instead, in her mind she just referred to him as baby. Though out loud, there was no need to speak of him at all. Leona felt no need to speak of anything since she had given birth. Nebu had tried to force her into speaking, but his threats had not yet reached a point that they bothered her enough to answer him. She just complied with his commands silently, and it did not take long before Nebu abandoned the pleasantries and simply began to dictate. All of Leona’s focus was on her child, but if she was truthful with herself, she knew that was mainly because she could not bear to cast her gaze over her city. Nebu, on the other hand, had not moved for almost an hour as he peered over his newly conquered land.

            “You will have to look out upon it at some point,” Nebu told her. “You think I would order a city destroyed? My goal is to make Cesara a cornerstone of the Empire, it would not benefit me to ruin it.” Leona maintained her silence. If she did not respond to him when he was threatening her, she certainly wasn’t going to respond to a request. Nebu sighed. “You will make me command you to view your own city?” Nebu waited for a few moments for a reply. “Fine. Then so be it. You will see I am no monster whether you like it or not. Come and see it.”

            Leona tucked the baby into her chest and slowly rose to her feet. The labour had been painful, and it caused her a lot of pain to get out of chairs and walk, but she managed it as gently as she could and limped towards the balcony. As Ilturbia formed in her view, Leona was barely able to hide her surprise that Nebu had told the truth. The city was mostly fine. She saw a few buildings with burn marks and there seemed to be a certain amount of dust in the air, but by and large, it was the same. The river still flowed into the sea, the people were still at their work, and the children still played in the street. It almost upset her to see the city so at peace so soon after the invasion.

            “You see?” Nebu said. “Your city lives and breathes as it did the day before. As it always will.” Leona turned back and sat down again upon her chair. Nebu followed her and kneeled by her side. She could not look at him. All she could ever see was her father looking back at her, and if she started thinking about her father, then all she would do was cry. Instead, she cast her mind back to the desert, back to Mavina, to any memory that was not the night of her birth. “You must not dwell on the past, Leona. We have a lot of work to do. You forget that we are still husband and wife. You are still my queen and mother of my son. I will need you by my side to grow our empire. What’s done is done. I cannot take it back, but I promise you, it is for the best. I am taking my army to reclaim Arubel from The Hartlands and I will gift it back to Cesara. Cesara will be whole again under the banner of Amenti. Our lands joined in harmony.”

            Leona still did not say a word. It did not matter what Nebu said to her, the empty platitudes, the false promises, she saw through them all and she saw no reason to give him what he wanted. The worst thing she could do to him with the limited power she had, was restrict his access to her mind. Nebu kept trying to meet her eyeline, she noticed through her peripheral vision, but she did not move her gaze away from her child. “You will not speak to me. You have made your choice. Perhaps then, I will decide on Elena’s husband myself. I was going to ask for your advice, seeing as she is your sister, but I must forge alliances quickly, and your sister must begin to learn how to serve a husband.”

            All of Leona’s anger boiled up inside her, and in a flash, trying desperately to keep her voice down to protect her sleeping child, she hissed at Nebu, “you leave my sister out of this you demon!” Without knowing what else to do, she dragged her nails across his face, leaving three scratches across his cheek. Almost immediately, she pulled her hand back and re-supported her child and rocked him gently. When she looked up again, she was even more furious to see Nebu smiling, dabbing the cuts across his face with his finger.

            “There is my iliona,” Nebu smirked.

            “Enough! Don’t you dare call me that. Don’t you dare threaten my family. I am here because I have to be. You kidnapped me. You chased me across a desert. You killed my father.  I hate you. And I know that you do not care. I know that what I want is immaterial to you, but I need you to know that I will always hate you and I will bring my child up to hate you. Whatever you try to do to my sister, I promise you I will kill you in your sleep before you ever get the chance.”

            Nebu smiled again and waited a moment before he finally spoke. “I do not intend to marry off your sister.” Then Nebu rose to his feet. “It is stupid of you to show people your weaknesses so easily. I could not kill your father and then send your sister away. I would have little leverage then. You must begin to learn politics. Your father never taught you these things, but I will. You will need to play them to protect your country. You will need to play them to lead Cesara.”

            Leona scoffed at Nebu’s stupidity. “Cesara is a democracy. My father was elected. We are not some dynasty. I will not be chosen to replace him.”

            “I choose you. That is all that matters.”

            “It should be Hezekiah. He knows the people. The Cesarans respect and admire him. He is a skilled military leader.”

            Nebu laughed. “Ah but he hates me.”

            “I hate you.”

            Nebu shook his head. “You think I would put a wanted man in charge of Cesara? Hezekiah betrayed the Empire. Once he is found, he will stand trial and will be executed for his crimes.”

            “Hezekiah is missing?”

            Nebu nodded. “Your hero is more of a coward than you think. Where is he now? Nowhere. He fled the city during the fight. No one has seen him since.”

            “It is not true. He wouldn’t.”

            “It is the truth of it, Leona. And if I, were you, I would begin learning how to say yes to a good offer. I am giving you the chance to rule your city, rule your country. I will even leave you here in peace whilst you do it. I will leave some of my most loyal here to ensure it is run correctly and that the transition to being part of my Empire is smooth, but besides that…the country is yours. What do you say?”

**

            Elena cried in Leona’s arms. She had not stopped crying since Leona had told her about her father. When Leona’s mother died, Elena was too young to remember it, though she cried then too, Leona was not certain that she knew what she was quite upset about. Now though, Elena could fully comprehend what death meant, and her childish lack of inhibition in her grief was almost too raw for Leona to take. She wailed and cried until she tired herself out and fell asleep. It was the only way that either of them was able to sleep, and they had not slept apart from each other since it happened. Once Elena had fallen asleep, Leona then allowed her tears to flow until she too drifted into her dreams.

            When Leona slept, she dreamed of what she always dreamed of. She was back in the desert with the Zigha and the Guide and the Guardian. Leona was being lifted into the sky by the beam of light and she spoke to the stars. Each one of them spoke by flashing in a rhythm, but she understood everything they were trying to say to her. It did not seem strange to Leona at all that she was flying, it felt as natural to her as the sand did between her toes on the ground. There was a cacophony of stars all singing, but only one was talking directly to her.

            “You must find him. You must find him and take him there.”

            “Who?” Leona asked. “Who do I have to find? Where do I take them?”

            “You will know,” the star said to her. “You will know because your heart will burst when you see him. You will know because you will do anything to protect him. He needs you to guide him.”

            “Where will I guide him?”

            “You will take him to her. You will take him to the land of fire.”

            “Where is that? I do not understand.”

            “You will,” the star said.

            Leona dropped from the sky and fell through the air. She woke up before she hit the ground and found herself in her bed, with Elena still fast asleep. It was morning and she awoke to a guard bursting through the door. The guard was a young man, of age with herself and Amentian. He had a spotty face and did not seem to know what to do with himself. Leona, still shrouded in her own fury, did not allow his naïve demeanour to quench her fire.

            “You dare not knock on the Queen’s door? You burst into my chambers with impunity? What is your name?” The guard stood still, unsure of how to approach someone both Queen and prisoner. “Speak!”

            “I am here to inform you of the funeral, my Queen.”

            Leona’s heart lurched, but she did not allow that to halt her stride. She brought her voice to a low growl and said, “Then inform me.”

            “It will be held tomorrow, before the Vitamara. His eminence asks that you prepare a speech. It will be a celebration of Marius Pascis’ life.”

            Leona could not believe the gall of her husband. It took all she had not to break down thinking about her father in private, and now Nebu will force her to speak about him to her city at his burial. She wondered if the young man was brought to tell her this news as some sort of initiation. He looked terrified and unsure, and Leona wanted nothing more than to make him fear her even more, to roar in his face and send him running from her chamber. And what would that do? She thought. Give Nebu and his unctuous followers a good laugh?

            “I did not get your name,” she said softly instead.

            “My name is Denan,” he croacked.

            “Thank you, Denan. Is that everything you wish to tell me?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then you are free to go.”

            Denan hurried from the room. Leona fell back onto her bed and turned to face Elena. Eventually, Elena awoke and put her hand in Leona’s face to push her away and they both giggled. In those brief moments when Elena woke up, her sister did not think about her father, and those were the moments that Leona was desperate to cling onto. Those few seconds where her happiness was uninhibited by thoughts of worry, fear and sadness, and she cursed Nebu for stealing the purity of that happiness.

            Leona decided that she would not cry today, that she would be strong for her sister, but Elena’s smile stayed longer than it had before, and whilst Leona was relieved, she was curious, but she did not want to pry in case it caused her sister anguish. “It is nice to see you smile,” she said, but I have to tell you that there will be a funeral for father tomorrow. I am sorry to break your smile, but I must be honest with you also so that you are prepared.”

            Elena did lose her smile, but only momentarily, before it was brought back. “I had a dream last night,” she whispered. “I was with you and father. We were all together. It was lovely. Then something wonderful happened.”

            “What happened?”

            “I killed him. I killed Nebu.”

            “You did what?”

            Elena’s eyes lit up with awesome fury. “I put a knife through his heart and he died in front of us all. We held each other’s hands and we watched the light as it left his body.”

            “It was only a dream, Elena.”

            “It wasn’t!” Elena argued. “It was all so real. It was as though I have already lived it – like a memory. I’m not lying, Leona, I promise. It might not have happened yet, but I promise you it will.”

**

            Marius’ funeral procession required Elena and Leona to ride atop the carriage that carried their father’s coffin behind it. The procession began at the docks and then through the streets of Ilturbia to the palace where the body would be buried in the crypts alongside Leona’s mother. It would also be there where Leona would be required to speak about her father. Nebu was insistent that the proper respect be paid to Marius, which made her even more furious than if he’d just dumped his body in the sea. It was a slight, Leona knew. She knew that this was not about respect, it was about gloating, it was about asserting his power.

            Elena was no longer crying as the carriage took them through the mourning streets. Flowers were thrown to them, and prayers were said for them by their people, but it was Leona who carried the duties for them both as she touched the hands of those who reached out to her. Elena did not react to anything else around her, she stared directly ahead with a steely determination as though she was thinking of nothing but enacting the dream that she’d had the night before. They were both shrouded from head to toe in black, which also angered Leona. Marius had always told them that he wanted a celebration of his life when he died, with bright colours and people dancing, not a bland and morose solemnity with boring speeches.

            Nebu had done the worst thing possible to Leona. He had robbed her of her chance to grieve for her father properly. She rode on the carriage and performed her duties filled with anger, with anxiety for having to speak to her people, and with sadness and guilt for allowing all of this to happen. It dawned on her how intelligent Nebu was a long time ago, but now she realised just how utterly ruthlessly her husband would utilise this attribute to harm those around him. The worst thing of all, was that she knew that he did not feel evil. In his heart, he believed that he was good, and that his Empire was good. That is what scared her most of all.

            When they arrived at the palace, Leona and Elena were escorted from their carriage by two Amentian guards. One of them was the young man who Leona scalded earlier that day. She did not care about how terrified he looked as he helped her from her carriage. To her, she was part of the evil that had caused her all this pain. Leona shrugged off his hand and pulled Elena close to her and walked ahead. Nebu was waiting for them at the doors of the palace and a crowd of noble Cesarans and Amentians were gathered around. At the steps of the palace was a podium, and the closer Leona got to it, the less she worried about what she was going to say. If she could not speak ill of Nebu, fearing for her sister and her son, then she would do the only appropriate thing, and speak of her love for her father.

            Leona stood before the people. Most of them were Amentian soldiers, but she could still see some noble Cesarans. Cesarans who were loyal to her country and who stood alongside her father. She found as many as she could in the crowd so that her eyes would only greet them, and no others.

 “My father, Marius, was a man of peace. Even in the heat of war, when the blood was thick on his brow, and he watched his friends die around him, Marius Pascis still prioritised peace and kindness. We all know the story. Emperor Daut told it proudly to anyone and everyone he met, because he loved my father. He loved my father because my father showed him kindness, and showed him the meaning of peace. It was that love that allowed Cesara an easy peace with an Empire that had always tried to conquer it. If you would like a better example of the kind of man my father was, then there is not one. Marius Pascis raised two daughters, he raised them with a loving wife, and then without her. Wherever he went, whatever he did, no matter the situation or the pressure, my father made friends. He was known as the man who would go into battle with an army of a thousand, and come back with a thousand and one. There is no better sign of a leader than that. Marius Pascis was a true leader.”

Leona held back her tears as she remembered her father. She did not want to cry, but she had held so much of it back already and had so little chance to grieve, that it was all coming out.

“It is cruel then, that the same kindness my father showed to Emperor Daut that day, led to his death. If he had never enacted that kindness. If he had left the Emperor to die, then perhaps, my father would still be here, and perhaps, we would still be standing in Cesara as a republic, and not as another vassal state of this sprawling empire. It is cruel…it is cruel that his life ended in the way it did, and it is even crueller to force his grieving daughter to come up here and act as if this show of pageantry is not utterly grotesque. Yet, I am glad that I have the chance to say this to my people. To the people of Cesara, I urge you not to avoid kindness. I urge you to be kinder than you have ever been. I pray that you offer peace wherever it can be offered, and that you seek friends wherever they present themselves. We are not these soldiers. We are not this emperor. We are the people. We are the people of all of the states of the Empire who have had this rule thrust upon them. We are all of the soldiers who have died fighting to protect us, and most of all, we are all my father, who died with his heart full of love.”

Leona stopped then. Her eye was taken by a sight over the horizon. A shadow descended over the ocean and Leona focused so intently on it that others began to turn around too. She heard gasps and grunts, followed by pushes and shoves, and then within moments there were Amentians brawling with Cesarans, others panicking and rushing behind Leona and into the palace. Then, Nebu came up behind her.

“What is happening? Nebu asked without his usual self-assurance. Leona did not say a thing. She just continued to stare out across the ocean watching as the shadow grew larger and larger over the blue sea. Nebu stared too, and after a few moments, realised what was happening. “It is a fleet. We are under attack. Leona, we need to organise our people. We need to defend Ilturbia.”

            Leona looked at Nebu incredulously, and if she was not so worried about her sister and her son, she would have laughed in his face. “There must be two-hundred ships in that fleet. If each ship holds two-hundred men…that is forty-thousand. Half of your army has already been sent back. You only kept a holding force here. I think…I think you would lose.”

            “I would lose? Leona, you are not thinking clearly. If they invade, then you will lose too. They are not on your side!”

            Leona could not help but smile at that. “Neither are you. If you want to keep your life, then I would suggest you leave. I will stay in the palace with my sister and my son.”

            For the first time since she had met him, Nebu looked flustered. He held Leona’s gaze and then sharply turned his head back to the ocean. The fleet of ships approached the docks at such a pace that they could not see individual ships clearly from the palace. In that moment, Leona knew that Nebu realised that he had to make a choice between abandoning Cesara and risking his death. Nebu was smart. He gripped Leona by the shoulders and stared into her eyes fiercely. There was not a hint of anger in him. There was not fear. Only steely determination.

            “You must come with me. You cannot stay here. I can protect you. I can protect your sister. I need my son to be with me.”

            “You think I would let you take my child?”

            “Where is he Leona? If you want to stay here then that is your choice, but you will not keep my child.”

            “My child is with Jadya. You will not find them. You do not know where they are. You have run out of time.”

            Nebu looked around him again, his determination turned to frustration, but it was still not anger. He turned to Leona again. “You will go into the palace with Elena. You will stay safe. I will send some guards to you…Cesarans if you so wish it. Please, will you at least do this?”

            Leona did not trust Nebu, and she had no idea why he had a sudden urge to keep her safe, but Elena was stood by her side, shaking, and she realised that Nebu would gain nothing from her death. He still needed her alive, and so she allowed him this agreement. “I will go to the palace.”

            “Thank you,” Nebu said. “And Leona…if I do not ever get a chance to explain…please know that everything I have done…it is for a reason. One day, you will understand.”

            By the time that the first ships arrived at the dock, the Amentian force that held Cesara had escaped the city to head back towards Nihei. Though some remained, most of these were those who had been injured during the battle of Cesara and were too weak to join their comrades. Leona watched from the balcony as Elena gripped onto her tunic and Jadya watched out worriedly over the city. Leona’s arms were both occupied with her son, but if they had been free, they would have been wrapped tightly around Elena. She will need to get used to this, Leona thought. Elena had become used to Leona’s affection, but now that Leona had a child of her own, she would need to somehow split her time between the two of them. Leona had spent so long grieving for her father that she did not stop to realise that they were now orphans, and Leona realised that Elena would be her responsibility. It was too much to absorb, and instead of thinking about that, Leona almost felt thankful for the distracting line of ships that were lining up at Cesara’s dock.

            “Lady Leona,” a voice came from behind her. Standing there dressed in his finery was Arkgodson Franco. She had not seen the Arkgodson for months, but she had also been extremely busy. Leona did expect him to be present at her birth, but the Arkgodson acted as a medic during the battle.

            “Your worship, to what do I owe the pleasure at such a time? Have you come here to hide with the rest of us?” She smiled.

            “There is no use hiding I am afraid. It appears whoever was looking for us has already found us. I am here to tell you that Lord Black has arrived at the palace. He is asking for you.”

            “Lord Black?” Leona asked, shocked, but then realised what he had said to her before. Lord Black had told him that the Angarians would be her allies if she had wanted, and Leona had told him no. But now that her father was dead, and that she was the de-facto leader of Cesara, all of her instincts told her to accept the offer.

            “What is the situation in the city? It seems calm.”

            Arkgodson Franco shrugged. “There is no conflict to be had. The Amentian force has retreated. Lord Black means no harm to Cesara, he says.”

            “Send him up,” Leona told him.

            Arkgodson Franco came back a few moments later with Lord Black by his side. Lord Black had cut his famously long hair short, along with his moustache. The changes had taken years off his face, though there were still the harsh lines around his lips, eyes and across his forehead that betrayed his age. Lord Black smiled at Leona and approached her cautiously. “Hello, Leona Pascis.”

            “Lord Black,” Leona replied curtly. “Are we being invaded or is this a friendly visit from your hundreds of ships?”

            “I told you that you needed only to seek me out for my protection.”

            “I do not recall seeking you out.”

            Leona’s baby began to cry and Leona rocked and shushed him. Lord Black smiled. “It is a wonderful thing to have a child. I have many myself. What is its name?”

            “He does not have one yet.”

            Lord Black nodded, understanding the custom. “Well, he is beautiful. I remember the births of each of my children. All of them were beautiful.”

            “Why are you here?” Leona asked, cutting through the pleasantries.

            “I heard about the invasion, and then I heard about your father. I know that you did not seek me out, but I wanted to send a show of force. In truth I knew that Nebu would not engage us, though I had not expected him to flee either. I certainly did not expect him to leave you here with his son.”

            “My son,” Leona corrected him.

            “Alas, I suspect Nebu does not see it that way. You hold his heir in your arms. The fact that he did not even think to engage us makes me think that he has more pressing issues than Cesara. Though what it is I am not sure.”

            “You came all this way to scare off my husband?”

            “Still your husband?”

            “He is what he is. Whether I like it or not. We were married under the eyes of the Gods.”

            “I am sure the Gods would forgive you in this instance. They are not so callous as the books would have you believe. Regardless, yes that is why we came here. I did not wash up on these shores purely for your sake, though whether you admit it or not I am sure that some part of you is thankful that I did. I came here because, and I do not mean to be insensitive, your father is dead. If I recall, it was your father who refused my allyship…you on the other hand did not seem so against it.”

            “So that’s it? Now that my father is out of the way, you wish to bring Cesara into the Angarian regime?” Leona could not help but scoff. “Why not? The Hartlands, Amenti, the Antinnans, the Angarians. Everyone seems to want the only country left who is not owned by anyone, who does not answer to anyone. It has been almost our entire history, after all. Everyone wants to bring this land into their empire, Lord Black. You are not the first and you certainly will not be the last.”

            For the first time since Leona had met Lord Black, the man seemed genuinely offended. “That is not my intention. In truth, and between you and I, I do not carry the blind faith for the Gods in my heart like the Angarians do, but what I do believe in is their ability to rule, their ability to bring peace and safety to its citizens. Ever since The New World was discovered, it has been at war. The Angarians know war too, I grant you that, but they have also created peace. Their people do not fear invasion, they do not fear scarcity, even the poorest in Antinna do not go without shelter or food. Moreover, they are allowed their own culture, they are allowed their own customs. Angarian rule is not Emperors like Nebu, it is not Kings like King Aron or King Aedvard. It is about achieving paradise on Earth so that all may arrive at paradise after life. I may not share their faith fully, but I share that idea.”

            Leona turned away from Lord Black and peered over the docks at the might of the fleet that were anchored there. “About a year ago, I heard that Olon the Vile raided the impenetrable city of Barajas with a fraction of the ships that are currently anchored at our docks. Was that you, Lord Black? Or was that really Olon?”

            Lord Black stood beside her on the balcony. “That was Olon. My fleet followed them to the Molten Isles where they rested. It was there that we encountered the Freemen. We gave them all a choice – we told them we would slaughter them all or that we would kill only one. I needed to be able to masquerade as Olon to make sure that our fleets were able to be brushed off as pirate ships. There were some who were happy to give up Olon, but others protested. I told them that those who did not join us would die. We could not have news of our power spreading, we needed to remain unnoticed. We did not want to kill anyone, and so we decided to demonstrate our power. We have a weapon…a weapon that no other civilisation has to our knowledge. You witnessed this very power the day we capsized your ship. Yet when some of the men saw this, they grew violent, terrified of how the blue flames danced upon the water. Those who protested fought us. Those who did not, came on board with us. Olon screamed from the beach, screamed about the Freemen, and at those who had turned coat. The Angarians give everyone the opportunity to join them…but if they don’t then they are working against them. Peace can never be achieved unless all pull in the same direction. And so, the fire was turned to those left on the beach. This fire, Leona, it burns like nothing I have ever seen before. I do not know if it is magic or if it is a trick of alchemy, but with it, the Angarians are the true Gods of Life and Death.”

            Leona finally realised what was happening here. This was an offering of peace shrouded in the threat of destruction. Leona saw for herself what that fire could do, and now these ships just sat where they were could destroy all of Ilturbia. There was no other option. All Leona could do was navigate Lord Black as carefully as she navigated Nebu and do all she could to keep her people safe. “What happens now?” She asked.

            “I know that Cesara elects its leaders, but we both need assurances that the person leading the country has its best interests at heart. Only you, Leona, knowing what you know, can lead this country safely. Only you can get close enough to Nebu to kill him. Only you can bring peace to Cesara. Once and for all.

Published by beyondthecryptsandcastles

I am an aspiring author from York, UK, and this blog is a place for me to post the chapters of my book; The Cursed King (working title). The Cursed King is a medieval fantasy novel set in the fictional continents of The New World and The Old World and details the lives of characters, rich and poor, old and young, in their quest to navigate their war-torn homelands. I post a chapter every two weeks and absolutely crave feedback (both positive and negative) from readers and writers alike. If you are reading this, then it is YOUR opinion I want, and will also reciprocate with other aspiring writers no matter their genre or content. I hope you all enjoy these chapters and please feel free to send me a message or comment on a post. I look forward to speaking with all of you. Thanks for stopping by!

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