The Cursed Kingdom

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THIRTEEN

~ NEEDLEWORK ~

“So, how was dinner with His Majesty?"

I rolled my eyes at her smirking face and leisurely swirled my spoon in my tea, watching the two cubes of brown sugar start to disintegrate at the bottom of the cup. "If you must know, it was quite the disaster." I knew I was over exaggerating, but my stubborn pride didn’t allow me to care.

Ingrid's deft fingers stopped their movements on the quilt she was working on to look back up at me. She quirked a brow, a hint of disappointed surprise filling her eyes. "Oh, really? And the flowers?" She nodded towards the large, multicolored bouquet on the small pedestal beside my bed.

As soon as she was done speaking, Ingrid went back to her needlework, which I found to be quite fascinating and hypnotic to watch. The way her fingers moved so precise and gentle, a skill that revealed her many years of practice, painfully reminded me of my mother. If I focused hard enough, I could smell the distinct sweetness of burning cedar too.

"I love them," I replied, taking a delicate sip of my tea. It was still quite hot so I flinched when the brown liquid met the roof of my mouth. To mask the sting, I quickly grabbed a small pastry out of the basket Ingrid had brought for us both to enjoy. The fresh raspberry flavor summoned a hum of content. "Henrik says there'll be fresh flowers rotated in my room every week," I added with a little bit of pastry still in my mouth.

Ingrid cooed, staring at them. "I can assure you you've already got the king wrapped around your finger. Furkan told me His Majesty has nearly doubled the amount of guards around the palace for your protection."

For my protection or to keep me trapped in? I wanted to ask but stopped myself with a long sip from my cup. This time, the sting of the hot liquid was tolerable. There was a pause of silence as both of us nibbled on pastries while Ingrid sewed and I drank almost half of the tea in the kettle.

"Your mark looks better," Ingrid noted out of nowhere, eyeing the said part with observant, pleased eyes.

It did, indeed. When I'd looked in the mirror when getting ready for her arrival, I'd been stunned to see the redness nearly gone and there was barely any swelling left. The puncture wounds had nicely scabbed over as well so there was no more oozing and the pain was reduced to only a sting, the sensation equivalent to being pinched multiple times in the same area at once. But that only occurred in small bursts every few hours and everyday the pain reduced a little, which allowed me to finally get adequate rest every night.

As I sat there with Ingrid, I didn't feel any discomfort at all. I would have forgotten about my mark entirely if she hadn’t mentioned it.

"I'll tell His Majesty that you need more of the salve," Ingrid said, causing me to nearly choke on my tea.

"No, no, that's not necessary," I rushed to say, gripping my cup harder out of nervousness. "It's already so much better. I doubt I'll even notice my mark by the end of the week."

Ingrid shook her head with a smile, giving me a look I couldn’t use words to describe. It was the kind of look a parent would use on their child when trying to scold them for doing something unacceptable but held a tiny asset of humor. "Yes, it is better—because you're using it. Tell me, Raena: If you get cold and put on a jacket, do you take the jacket off once you're warm just to get cold again? Or do you leave it on to remain warm?"

I sighed in defeat and slightly slouched in my chair once it registered that she was right. "Alright." I nodded, my face becoming hot at just the idea of Henrik having to spare more of his saliva for the sole purpose of me to rub onto my skin. Also, Ingrid sending for more would infer I'd been using it...

I groaned softly under my breath and shifted in my seat, trying to block out the thought. He peed on you, I told myself repeatedly as my attempt to mitigate the heavy feeling in my stomach. If anyone should be embarrassed it is him.

"So, I was thinking we could do something tomorrow," Ingrid suggested, her eyes squinting down at her work, appearing displeased by something in the lining. She quickly licked the tip of the string before looping it through the open end of the needle. "I don't know if Henrik has warned you at all, but tomorrow is the Winter Solstice."

"Winter Solstice?" I echoed, tilting my head to the side. The action made me think of Henrik so I quickly undid it and tried to act casual as I poured myself another cup of tea.

"Yes. It's the longest night of the year, which ancient Lycans apparently took as a sign to have a party," Ingrid explained, smiling with a giggle in her tone. "It's basically a huge bonfire with lots of drinking and food. But as a human sensitive to freezing temperatures, it's never much fun for me. So I was hoping we could do something together instead."

The image of growling Lycans savagely dancing around a bonfire did intrigue me to where part of me was curious and tempted to go and at least take a peek. But Ingrid was right. It was no event for humans like us and if Henrik wasn’t making me go, then I wouldn't even dare to mention it.

I nodded and smiled, excitement stirring in my abdomen, while I brought my cup to my lips, watching Ingrid squeal in delight at my acceptance and almost stab her thumb in the process.

"Whoops." She tittered, jerking the needle away, and I laughed.

Soon she joined me and we were cackling together uncontrollably over meager topics that we found to entertain ourselves with.

* * *

"And don't forget to wear white," Ingrid instructed me as we walked down the staircase, with Ingrid carrying the balled up mountain of a quilt she'd apparently been working on already for weeks. By the looks of the green and blue fabric, it would take much more time until it was complete. "It's bad luck if you don't wear white on the Winter Solstice."

"I don't think I have anything white," I admitted as we reached the bottom of the stairs and headed down a hallway. Ingrid seemed to know where she was going so I was following her blindly after insisting on walking her out to her carriage.

Ingrid made eye contact with me and then quickened her steps. I followed suit, despite me not understanding why she was rushing all of a sudden.

"Excuse me?" Ingrid called out to a servant who was passing across the hallway to enter another room.

The young girl dipped into a curtsy. "Mrs. Ingrid. Madam Raena. What may I assist you with?" As we came closer and the young girl shifted her head back up to face us, I was astonished and began admiring the patches of light skin around her eyes and mouth amongst her otherwise dark complexion.

"Hello, there. Could you please make sure Madam Raena has a white dress for the Winter Solstice tomorrow?" Ingrid asked politely, causing the servant to nod shyly.

"Of course, Mrs," she replied without hesitation. "I'll go to Miss Heidi at once and confirm a fitting to be arranged tonight."

"Thank you so much, dear," Ingrid said and we watched together as the girl bowed again and walked off, no doubt to do just as she'd said. "Now that that's taken care of..." Ingrid began walking again and turned the corner, introducing me to a stone hallway with windows on one side that revealed the outdoors and the large snowflakes falling from a grey sky. "I can't believe Henrik didn't get you a white dress."

I didn't reply to that, not understanding the significance of me not having an outfit in that color, and followed her to a door at the end of the hallway that was quickly opened by the guard standing there when he saw us approaching. I shivered, flinching slightly, and cradled my elbows when the harshness of the winter air slapped the unprotected skin on my face, arms, and neck. Staring past the door, I could see Ingrid's small one horse carriage waiting for her only a few yards away, the vehicle just the right size for the Healer and the driver to fit.

"See you tomorrow!" she exclaimed and without warning, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, leaving me to enclose my own around her dainty waist. Her quilt pressed against my face but I wasn't about to complain. Surprised by how soft and thick it was, I couldn’t imagine how wonderful it would feel to wrap oneself in it after it was complete.

"Thank you for everything!" I told her as she walked away, her green dress dragging against the snow and specks of white getting trapped in her long, auburn curls.

A smile over her shoulder was the only sign she gave that she'd heard me. I watched, quivering, as the driver took her quilt and placed it inside before lending a hand for her to climb into the carriage. After that, it only took the faint crack of the driver's crop against the horse's behind and then she was off.

I waved at the retreating vehicle, watching it with childlike awe since I’d only seen a couple carriages before in my entire life and most belonged to Julius’s family. As I stood there for a few more seconds, I imagined that she was waving back but I couldn't tell for sure since because of the sun reflecting off the window glass and slightly hurting my eyes.

Once her carriage turned a corner and disappeared around the castle, I headed back inside and thanked the guard when he closed the door behind me. I quickly stomped my boots on the ground. Just those few seconds of standing outside had left a whole layer of frozen snow on the bottom of my shoes.

I quickly walked back the way we came, picturing in my head every turn we’d made since leaving the main stairwell, where I knew by heart how to get back to my room. It wasn’t that difficult and I sighed in relief as I made it out of the stone hallway and into the one lined with marble floors and elaborate wallpaper. But my relief was short-lived because as soon as I turned the corner, I ran into a servant—well, more like we both slammed into each other since we weren’t looking where we were going—and my nose thudding quite painfully against his hard chest.

I flinched and staggered a couple steps back, bringing my hand to my face to cradle it where it hurt.

"S-sorry," the young male stuttered, his voice raspy and breathy.

When he lifted his head so I wasn't limited to just staring at his thick head of unkempt curls, my eyes widened in instant recognition and shock, my pain quickly forgotten. He had been the young guard tending at the dining room door from the other night, the one who'd stared at my chest, except he wasn’t wearing his uniform anymore, just slacks and a plain white shirt.

And his face looked horrible.

I couldn't even tell his true skin tone under the blues and purples of the bruises around his swollen face, covered in patches of dried blood around his nose, lips, and hairline. His eyes were so inflated that they were left to just mere slits and the tall, muscular male coward away from me, averting his eyes to the floor and gulping audibly.

"What happened to you?" I asked, not being able to hide my horror. I reached a hand out to him to try to help and he stumbled back, tripping on the carpet and falling backwards.

"I-I'm s-s-sorry," was all he stuttered through cracked lips before running—literally running—away and down the hall, nearly knocking a maid with a broom over, who continued to screech at him until the slam of a door was heard. As he ran, I'd also noticed a faint limp, meaning his injuries did not just end at his face, and my stomach twisted at the thought.

I stared at the space he'd been standing in in shock, reimagining his beaten face in my mind and becoming sick to my stomach every time I did so.

I may not have known exactly what had happened to him.

But I had a good inkling of who.

* * *

"I've never had a fitting done before," I told the dressmaker who currently was measuring the width of my neck.

"Yes, yes, the king gave us your originals." She brushed it off like it was nothing while my eyebrows furrowed. The dressmaker wrapped the measuring tape around my shoulders and made a low noise in the back of her throat.

"How did he—?" I stopped short, remembering how Henrik had shared that he'd been the one to dress me when I'd first arrived. He must've taken my measurements then. Either that or in my sleep.

I cringed and chose to stop thinking about the subject. It was too disturbing of an image.

"Up," she said and I lifted my arms, shifting on my feet anxiously as she evaluated my breasts which were barely being covered by my bra. She looked at her tape, back at me, and then back at the tape with raised eyebrows. "Your breasts have grown two inches," the dressmaker shared, sounding impressed and wrote it down in the small book she'd been carrying with her. "I've only seen that big of a change in pregnant or maturing females."

"Is that bad?" I questioned slowly, looking down at them in a different light. Since my bra, with two individual cups for each of my breast and thin straps that went over my shoulders, was a lot different than the strophium I used to wear, which was merely a single strip of cloth that wrapped around my chest, I had thought the way my breasts brimmed over the sides and top was normal.

"No. It's probably because your body is finally getting enough nutrients for them to develop into their largest potential." By the sound of her voice, I understood perfectly well that she was trying to tease me or at least be lighthearted about it. But I just felt awkward as I stared at my half naked frame in the mirror.

I'd noticed the rest of my attire feeling a little tighter in the past few days. But as I gazed upon my form in the full length mirror, I then noticed how my thighs and hips were wider and my stomach looked fuller, with it sticking out just a little at the base of my abdomen. I caught a quick sight of her notes next to others which must've been my old measurement. All of the numbers had increased, giving me the opposite effect of what it should've and made me feel significantly smaller.

In Amaryllus, I'd never needed to worry about my diet and ate whatever I could when I had it since food was so scarce. Now, I knew I needed to change my habits, especially with Henrik's generous portions, unless I wished to not be able to fit through a doorway one day.

My shoulders slumped forward and suddenly I felt more than uncomfortable with the dressmaker seeing me so underdressed.

"Raena."

I looked up and shrieked when I made eye contact with Henrik in the mirror, scrambling to use my hands to cover up as much precious skin as I could. "Henrik!" I shouted, my anger, surprise, annoyance, and humiliation all coming out in a shrill tone when I turned to face him.

"Your Majesty." The dressmaker dropped down into a full curtsy, her wine-colored skirt pressed against the floor and her head bowed until her neck faced the ceiling.

Henrik didn't acknowledge her, barely blinked an eyelash in her direction, and instead kept his stare on me, his eyes never lowering past my chin. "You're getting fitted for a white dress. So I assume that means Ingrid discussed tomorrow with you."

I stayed silent, my wide eyes fuming and my nostrils flaring. The pulsing in my cheeks was evident and I knew my face was turning a bright shade of red.

"Mary, please." Henrik gestured towards the door with a flick of his wrist. The dressmaker didn't have to be told twice and quickly got to her feet, never fully lifting her eyes from the floor. She was out the door within seconds. "You're not considering going to the bonfire, are you?"

I glared at him, tightening my arms around my slouched over form.

Henrik noticed this and rolled his eyes, which I thought was very un-kingly-like, and slowly turned around until his back was facing me. It wasn't until then that I noticed just how broad his shoulders really were, muscles straining against the dark fabric of his double breasted vest and the thin white shirt underneath.

With him now facing away, I scrambled to my wardrobe to throw on my robe with shaking fingers, cursing to myself when I messed up tying the knot. When I was finally decent and turned back around, he was facing my bed. From what I could tell from the side of his face, a furrowed brow and pursed lips, he was pondering something.

"Why didn't you tell me about the Winter Solstice?" I asked, hoping to switch the topic of the conversation onto him. The corner of his lips quirked upwards as if he could tell what I was doing. I had no doubt he did.

"I thought you knew." He shrugged. He still did not face me and I wondered if that was a deliberate choice or if he didn't know I was now concealed. "Besides, I knew you'd refuse to go to Feuerfest even if I did ask." I guessed he was referring to the bonfire.

"I might've gone," I partly lied, and played with my fingers, a habit I'd begun to adopt more frequently. I supposed I'd gotten it from my mother, who always fiddled with her hands like they didn't know what to do but keep moving after a day's worth of sewing.

"So you're not going, then?"

"No. Of course not."

He laughed once through his nose, not seeming the least bit surprised.

There was a pause of silence filled with the patterned sound of the grandfather clock in the corner ticking.

"Your heartbeat is fast," Henrik practically mumbled. I had to strain my ears to hear his words and they startled me when my lethargic brain finally registered them, making me much more aware of the erratically beating organ in my chest.

I knew that Lycans had good hearing but the fact that he could hear something so silent as a heartbeat from all the way across the room scared me.

"Sorry," I replied curtly, not meaning it and not knowing what else to say. I looked out the window across the room and stared out at the night's scenery, sighing heavily.

"Is something bothering you?" He finally looked at me, his eyes glowing against the dim lighting of the room. Again, the beginning of facial hair was along his jawline, dark and thick. I wondered if he did it because he knew it made his sharp features more pronounced.

I felt like a bug under a bright light, my mind trying desperately to scramble away. Instead, my idiotic mouth had to reply, "I saw the guard." Immediately I regretted ever bringing him up and I held my breath, praying silently that somehow Henrik didn't know who I was talking about.

He knew exactly who I was talking about and his eyes glowed brighter, seeming to almost pulse. I couldn't look away from them. "Oh?" He quirked a scarred brow. "And?" I could've told him that dirt was brown and his reaction would've been no different.

I swallowed, looking at his face which appeared calm although his eyes suggested otherwise. "Did you hurt him?" I questioned, my voice barely above a disbelieving whisper. A part of me hoped it wasn't true—hoped that my village's stories weren't true and that Henrik hadn't harmed a hair on that boy's head. But the other part, the one where common sense thrived, already knew the answer and had known since I'd first seen the boy's bruised face.

"I did what I had to do," he replied casually and slipped his hands into his front pockets, the sick feeling in my stomach returning. He wasn't remorseful in the slightest. He didn't even try to hide it. Noticing my horrified expression, he continued, "That pup disrespected you. He ogled you, his future queen and my mate, right in front of me!" His calmness was gone and replaced by complete, raw anger and frustration. His attempt at reasoning his actions only fueled my disgust.

"So that gives you a right to abuse him?" I cried. "He's a boy, Henrik. Of course he's going to stare at anything with even the slightest lumps on its chest. That doesn't make what he did right but—"

"He embarrassed you," Henrik stated through gritted, elongated canines. He ran his clawed hands through his hair and closed his eyes, trying to calm himself and his fast breathing. Suddenly, he let out a loud growl towards the floor. It reminded me of a child having a temper tantrum.

"Of course he did," I responded, throwing my hands up. "But that doesn't give you the right to brutally beat him!"

"Like hell it doesn't," he snarled, his tone a mixture of man and beast. It frightened me. In that moment, I could see the monster everyone warned me about. "I have every right—every godsdamn right to put whoever distresses you and I in their place."

"And Jerium?" My voice sounded shaky but I stood firm with what I said. "You hurt him too, didn't you?" I thought back to when I'd seen him in the library and he'd tried so hard to mask his broken nose with whatever magic his parents had spared him.

Henrik looked at me with narrowed eyes, not negating it.

"And he deserved that, did he?" My eyes welled with tears but I refused to let them fall. When I was a child, I used to hide under my covers in fear that one of the Cursed Ones would come in the night and drag me away from my home before slaughtering me. I felt like that same little girl, only this time I had no blanket to be my shield. In fact, I had absolutely nothing.

"Yes," Henrik said. I put my head in my hands, not having the courage to look at him anymore. "He kissed your skin first when it's my birthright to have that experience. He took that precious gift away from me."

"Oh, like you've never kissed anyone," I retorted sarcastically with a snort and wiped my eyes furiously with the back of my hand. I hated myself for crying so much and I hated Henrik for making me.

There was a pause. "I haven't," he responded gruffly yet sincerely all the same, causing me to pause and listen. "I've never even thought about placing my lips on another's skin until I saw you." I looked up and met his eyes through my blurry vision, which were looking straight at me, unwavering. "Never."

Something about the way he said it, so genuine and definite, had my heart lurching into my throat. All this time I'd pictured Henrik as a womanizer who slept with everything that had two legs. To hear that the truth was the exact opposite of what I'd presumed and that he'd never even kissed anyone before me was quite the revelation.

"You're lying," I choked out bitterly. "You have to be." I remembered our shared kiss in his office. He'd been too skilled and confident to not have any sort of practice.

"I'm not," Henrik said back and began taking a few steps towards me so slowly and agonizingly that I had to hold my breath. I stood rooted to the floor with anxiety until his face descended towards mine. I closed my eyes, feeling his breath on my face and then slowly move to my neck, making my mark tingle and thirst for the relief I knew only Henrik could give me. "If it makes you feel any better, mate," he said, whispering into my ear and making me shudder, "you made the wait completely worth it." And in a total Henrik-like fashion, he grasped my earlobe between his teeth and gently pulled, causing me to gasp and arch into him instinctively. Then he let go and suddenly I felt a chill wash over me, making me shudder. "I'll make sure that more ointment is placed in your room by tomorrow evening."

I snapped open my eyes and looked behind me just as a smirking Henrik opened the door to let Mary know she could come back in. I glared at his back when he walked away, not giving me a second glance, and I continued glaring all throughout the evening, feeling a sense of dissatisfaction about everything that happened during our conversation.

Henrik, as always, had gotten what he wanted.

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