~ THE BEGINNING ~
“When I first met Furkan, I didn't know he was a Lycan," Ingrid explained, pushing the plate of flapjacks and fruit away after only a couple bites. "He was in his human form and, not realizing how far off I'd wandered off, I thought he was a merchant." She looked down at her hands and smiled as she remembered something pleasant. “He was so handsome and gentle with me and when we touched hands, I instantly felt the sparks of matehood and it was hard to walk away. After that, I snuck out and visited him every night in the same spot along our border for a week until finally he persuaded me to go with him—not that it was a difficult decision to make.” She muttered the last part.
"Sparks?" I asked, my eyebrows furrowing at her choice of wording while I propped my chin on my palm, watching her curiously.
Her eyes glowed as she talked about her partner, Furkan, with a type of mirth that left me envious, the young girl inside me, the one that used to play dress up with Oriana and pretend she was a princess, yearning to find someone who could fill me with the same amount of joy.
"Yes," Ingrid said with a confirming nod, biting her lip bashfully. Her eyes remained on her hands that sat comfortably on the table, running her fingers across her palms mindlessly. "It comes with being mates."
"Mates?" I'd heard the word before. It rang in the back of my head like a distant memory but I could not pinpoint who'd uttered it or where.
"Oh, dear," she sighed, a look of astonishment crossing over her face. Looking towards the almost empty plate on the table, she shook her head and took in a deep breath. "He really hasn't told you anything has he?" When a look of bewilderment was my only response, she continued, "Well, it's no wonder then why you're so..." she trailed off, looking at my face and assessing every feature. "Stressed."
I snorted at her word choice and noticed the corners of her lips twitch upward. It was faint and gone in a blink but there nonetheless.
"Mates is a shortened term for soulmates. For many Mage cultures, it's seen as a gift. For Lycans, it's sacred." Her voice adopting a tone that could’ve been described as indifferent, it sounded as if she was merely repeating a passage she’d once read in a book. "Mates can instantly identify each other with either smell or sight, the tells varying with different species. But one factor remains the same for all: when true mates touch, there's this sense of warmth and sparks that not one other living thing can create. It's pure serenity."
"Then why would Henrik want to marry me?" I asked. Ingrid’s words were supposed to make things clearer yet I felt more trapped in a fog of frustration and befuddlement than ever. My hands fingered the lace sewn along the bottom of my nightgown, tugging and twisting it around my digits. "Why would he want to give that up having serenity with someone who might actually want him?" I threw my hands up in exasperation at the same time that I scoffed, slumping back in my seat with an emotion close to defeat.
Appearing conflicted and almost terrified, Ingrid opened her mouth and then closed it before opening it again once more. "Because you are his mate, Raena," she stated quietly, like she was telling me a terrible, terrible secret that should’ve never left her mouth let alone entered my ears.
My heart felt like it stopped, stopped so suddenly that it was hard to breathe, and yet it was beating the hardest it ever had before, seemingly just as unsure of what to do as my brain. "What?"
"You are His Majesty's mate, Raena," Ingrid reiterated, her hand reaching over to take mine in what I guessed was her attempt at being comforting. And perhaps it had worked on some. But when her skin made contact with my clammy palm, all I pictured doing was slapping it away the way I wished I could to her words, regret filling my abdomen that I’d ever opened the door. "You and him have been destined for each other since the beginning of time itself."
I ripped my hand away from hers, a feeling of disgust brewing below my regret. "No," I said, my voice shaking with overwhelming emotions, and Ingrid stared at me wearily, like she realized she accidentally released an untamed creature and wished to shove it back in its cage. My eyes burned and I cursed myself internally. I hated crying. It felt like the only thing I ever did anymore. The only thing I could do. "No. I do not feel anything for him. I refuse. I'll reject him."
"You can't reject the bond. It isn't a choice. It's fate," Ingrid protested, trying to reason with me and make me understand.
I gave her a look. "Fate can kiss my ass," I sneered, watching her flinch like I'd physically hurt her. She looked down and bit her lip, seeming to almost shrink in her chair. Noting the impact of my negative choice of wording, I closed my eyes and took a deep, calming breath. "Sorry," I told her as sincere-sounding as I could muster. I did regret making her feel uncomfortable, but not so much for what I'd said.
I was angry. I didn't want to be associated with Henrik and I hated the idea of becoming his queen so much so that I would’ve rather died than belittle myself to that title. The notion of me being spiritually bound to such a person forever, one that made people of all ages and species tremble with fear and disgust, made an emotion deeper than hate course through me. It made me understand how murderers could kill.
"No," Ingrid told me, her sudden change in tone taking me aback. A different expression stretched across her face to match it, her eyebrows lowered over determined eyes and lips pressed into a displeased frown. "You have every right to be upset. Pissed off even. It's healthy to let it out. You lost your friends and you are frightened and not being told things you have every right to know. You haven't even had time to properly mourn them have you?"
Shit, I cursed internally when I felt the familiar sting in my eyes, the truth of her words coercing them out like a magnetic pull. "No," I croaked.
"I know what it's like to court a Lycan; however, I cannot sit here and claim I've been equipped with the knowledge of courting a king," Ingrid said slowly, the strong facade she’d mustered slowly falling when she took in my disheartened appearance. Her eyes looked guilty as she spoke and she winced with almost every word that left her mouth. "However, I must say that the more you comply and build a closer relationship with the king, the more trustworthy you'll appear."
My head snapped up from the table and I stared at her directly in the eyes, my body so tense from wondering frantically if I’d misheard her that it hurt. "What?"
"You want to escape, don't you?" She tilted her head innocently and my veins turned into ice while my heart began its typical racing, blue eyes staring straight at my head as if she could see every monster hiding behind the bone of my skull. My eyes narrowed as a silent question, the space between my eyebrows crinkling as everything inside me screamed that there was an ulterior motive to her words. There just had to be. “Don't look at me like that." I didn’t listen and she sighed. “You don't think His Majesty is watching us right now?" Her eyes darted quickly, almost anxiously, to the window behind me before focusing back on my face.
I whipped around and gasped aloud when I saw a large raven perched on the window sill, peering into the room and straight at us with unblinking eyes. The creature was massive, resembling the size of a falcon more than a raven, with a thick neck adorned with tousled, long feathers that were so black that they almost looked blue. When it noticed my unwavering gaze, I could've sworn its eyes widened in a human-like manner before it stretched out its impressive, black wings and flew out of sight with a single flap.
I didn't know whether the raven was a shapeshifter or being possessed by a Mage and couldn’t know unless I caught it and had a good look at its eyes. But what I did understand all too clearly was that it had been watching us—no, me—for Henrik. All this time when I thought I'd been left alone in my room and could be at ease, I'd always had someone or something watching me.
The thought was terrifying and disgusting and I wondered how many times it’d watched me cry like its own personal entertainment. Perhaps the person even described to Henrik how big my tears were or debated with him which shade of red my face had gotten the closest to. My stomach churned at the thought.
"You want to escape," Ingrid said a matter-of-fact while I tried to ignore the headache blossoming in the back of my head. Hearing someone say it aloud made a shudder rack down my spine for some reason, like it’d finally dawned upon me what exactly I was trying to do. “But you can only do so if the king trusts you."
Her words struck a chord in me and my eyes widened when I registered what she was telling me as the truth. Henrik sending someone to spy on me was proof of his distrust and there was no way I could prepare to escape let alone finish the job if I had such close eyes on me every second of the hour.
I turned back to her slowly, true, undeniable understanding fueling my blood. "So to escape, I have to marry him?"
Ingrid's eyebrows dipped in a grimace and she sent me an apologetic look. "Lycans don't marry, Raena. They just... consummate the bond."
I sucked in a sharp breath. Staring at the table, my eyes widened in horror and I felt my stomach churn with nausea when I realized what that meant for me. I closed my eyes, trying to get my thoughts together so I could at least think properly as my fingernails dug into the sensitive skin of my palms.
"I'd rather give my virtue to a mutt on the street than him," I bit out, my teeth aching as I gnashed them together. "I'd rather die." And I meant it. I really, truly did. At that moment, I was ready to do anything so Henrik couldn't have me.
"Raena, you don't mean that." Ingrid's tone was pleading and she looked ready to burst into tears at the harsh truthfulness in my words. "His Majesty isn't really that bad as your people have made him out to believe—"
"Our," I corrected, narrowing my eyes. For some reason, her wording frustrated me beyond comprehension. "Our people."
I could see the muscles in her neck move as she swallowed. "Right. Our."
"I know what I have to do," I told her after a moment of silence without giving her the chance to say anything else, the tension so thick I could've sliced it with a blade. My thoughts blurred together as I pieced together what was my horrible attempt at the beginning of a plan.
"You do?" Ingrid asked, her blue eyes still lined with tears widened with a childlike hopefulness.
I nodded, gnawing on the interior of my cheek until I tasted metallic blood on my tongue. "Yes. And I need you to not tell anyone of our conversation. Not even your mate."
I hated that word. Mate. It sounded so belittling to call a person that, no matter what its underlying meaning truly was. Mates was the term you called rabid animals who only joined together for the purpose to reproduce, not something you referred to two people in a loving committed relationship as
Ingrid reached over and placed her hand over my right fist that was resting on the table, the small calluses on the upper pad of her palm rubbing lightly against my skin. "Of course, Raena. I want you to be happy."
Her words were heartwarming to hear. But I could not trust them.
* * *
Unlike before, I didn't hesitate or take my time making my way towards Henrik's office, my steps not particularly rushed but fast nonetheless. Each fall of my boots' heels against the ground acted as small reminders of my plan, which was neither perfect nor remotely sane or really even a plan at all. But it gave me hope of seeing my home again. And hope was all I desired and all I needed to put a purpose back into my life and life back into my spirit.
As I neared the door, my footsteps echoing off the wide hallway, it was swung open by the same guard as last time, who kept his head bowed the entire time I stepped past and muttered a quick, "Good day, Madam." I purposefully didn't acknowledge him, which I regretted doing immediately afterwards, and strode straight for the desk Henrik sat behind, determination and maybe even anger fueling my movements.
The door closed behind me a bit too slowly for my liking and I gritted my teeth while I stared at Henrik who hadn't had the decency to at least lift his head from his paperwork.
After about a minute of standing there, listening to him flip through piles of paper and write a sentence or two on the bottom of some, my patience had worn thin.
"I've made a decision," I announced, my voice firm although my strength was wavering as I stared at the top of his black hair. I figured if he wouldn't acknowledge me or say anything, then I would take control of our conversation for once by beginning it.
Henrik acted as if I hadn't spoken at all, stapling a couple papers together and moving them aside slower than naturally, and I knew he was doing it on purpose. I understood perfectly well that he was still upset at me and was giving me the silent treatment in retaliation for running off from him after our intimate moment, not even sparing him an explanation as to why. He knew exactly how much his silence was pissing me off and he was using it to his advantage, loving how much it made me squirm. I just knew he did.
I swallowed down my pride for a split moment when I finally uttered what I'd come to say, "Your words took me by surprise and I apologize for my brash behavior, which I will continue to work on," my heart skipped a beat, "so I may become the queen you deserve."
Henrik snapped his head up at me at that infamous word, acting equivalent to if I'd just proclaimed I'd found the panacea for all illnesses. I smirked internally in victory at finally catching his attention but kept a sullen face, praying he wouldn't notice my true intention.
He slid off his glasses, looking at me dumbfounded and with another emotion I couldn't quite place. It made me feel guilty but only for a moment. "You're accepting me?" he said. His voice sounded more gravelly than usual and his eyes began glowing, something I noticed they did naturally whenever he was feeling a strong emotion.
He must've not shaved since the last I saw him. There was now a good layer of thick, black hair all over his lower face and a bit on his neck too. It made the gold of his eyes stand out even more than I thought feasible and harder to look away from.
My gaze flickered over to the bookshelf behind him before steadily returning back to his eyes. "Yes."
Henrik shot up from his seat instantly, looking ready to walk around his desk and towards me. He was just beginning to fasten the second to lowest button on his jacket when I added, "But I have some conditions."
Henrik immediately stopped and looked away from his hands on his coat to stare at me, his shoulders so stiff that they strained against the fabric of his clothes. That emotion that I couldn't evaluate before was now gone and replaced with what I guessed was the realization that I wasn't giving in that easily. His hands relaxed to his sides.
"Conditions?" he echoed slowly, his eyes dimming while he tilted his head to the side and looked me up and down lazily.
I nodded, pursing my lips. "If I'm going to respect your Lycan traditions then you must respect my Human ones in return," I uttered, putting emphasis in every word so I knew he heard me clearly.
"And what exactly does that entail?" he said through clenched teeth. By his tense jaw, the protruding vein in his neck, and the claws that had begun to replace his nails, I knew he was beyond frustrated.
For just a few seconds, he believed he was getting what he wanted only for me to rip it out of his grasp in seconds like a parent confiscating their child’s favorite toy at bedtime. I wondered if something like that had ever happened to him before or if he had always been pampered with what he wanted when he desired to have it?
"There will be no consummation of our relationship," the word felt foreign on my tongue, "until we are married—priest, rings, vows, and all. And we will not be married until after we have properly courted one another and you propose with a ring on your knees to which I will either say 'yes' or 'no' to depending on whether I feel ready or not."
Henrik's nostrils flared, eyes flickering. "And if I don't agree to those terms?"
"Then I won't mate you," I said simply.
Henrik's eyes darkened at my words and his hands turned to fists at his sides. He stared at me like that for what felt like years, his gaze harsh enough to fool any onlooker that I was the monster, while my pulse thumped against my skull in an untamed pattern.
For a second, I thought he'd refuse.
But then he opened his mouth.
"Alright then," he responded coolly, a complete contrast to what his tense and slightly shaking form was suggesting. As he talked, I could see the sharpened points of his canines. "Fine. I accept these terms of yours, Raena."
A part of me was surprised at how easily I had been able to get him to comply. The other part screamed for me to be grateful and not question this miracle unless I wished to lose my head.
By Henrik accepting my conditions, I would have full control over our interactions and would not be condemned to the title as his queen until I agreed to marry him—which I, of course, knew I'd never actually do.
"Is there anything else you require of me, Rae?" His tone was sarcastic and condescending but I smirked through it, trying to act brave while my thoughts drifted to my friends and their faces.
"Yes," I replied casually, pulling at the ridiculously heavy skirt of the dress I'd hurriedly thrown on a few minutes earlier. "Trousers."