~ THE DUKE ~
I closed my bedroom door with an annoyed huff, turning to face Jerium begrudgingly all the while crossing my arms over my chest after rubbing the crust from my eyes. "What does His Majesty want now?" I asked, sarcasm dripping from my tongue.
After arriving back at the palace past two in the morning and crawling into bed half an hour later, I had been hopeful to get at least eight hours of much needed sleep. Instead, I was woken up after only six by loud knocks at my door and a sheepish Jerium on the other side. Upon seeing my scowl and disheveled appearance, he slowly explained to me that Henrik urgently requested my presence yet again in his office as soon as I could get myself together.
I'd then closed the door in his face and pulled on whatever trousers and shirt my hand landed on first without bothering to put effort into anything else except brushing my teeth. My hair remained exactly how it was when I'd awoken: a frizzy, crooked, unappealing, loose bun seated on the top of my head. I was too sleep deprived and still irked by Henrik's unnecessary screaming at Feuerfest for me to care about something as trivial as my appearance. The least he could've done was allow for me to get a good night's rest after his horrible attitude. But the fact that simple courtesy was not a priority of his unless it was convenient for him was becoming more apparent each passing day
"Come. I'll explain on the way," Jerium told me, forcing a smile on his face in a futile attempt to cheer me up as he offered me his arm.
He looked particularly well groomed that day, his hair nicely combed back out of his face, and he was wearing his best jacket, the one with fancy, swirling blue embroideries around the cuffs and lapels. He looked handsome and it for some reason spurred the question inside me whether or not he had a mate as well. But, not wanting to pry, I swallowed down my curiosity, and took his outstretched arm, knowing I didn't have much of a choice anyway.
As we began a slow stroll down the familiar route, I leaned some of my weight onto him, my eyes feeling as heavy as stones and my legs practically dragging against the floor. If he minded, Jerium made no comment or action to correct me and he continued walking without faltering once.
"His Majesty will be introducing you to his duke and some of the lords from surrounding packs." By his tone, I could tell he was hiding something but continued listening on to his rambling silently, too emotionally and physically exhausted to interrupt or fully digest the meaning of his words. As we reached the first floor, I placed my head on his shoulder, feeling the vibrations of his low voice against my ear. It was surprisingly soothing and made me feel even more tired than I thought possible. "They're all very nice, I assure you. Duke Evander is Lady Calandrea's older brother and King Henrik's cousin—Sorry, second cousin. Anyway, the lords are alright. However, there's this one that—well, I can't say that unless I want to be beheaded. But you get my point."
I yawned and nodded absentmindedly, trusting Jerium's guiding skills enough to close my eyes. My legs like custard and, my head feeling as if it was full of water, I could've easily fallen asleep in that position, even while in motion.
I didn't open my eyelids until we came to a complete halt, a silent signal we'd made it to our destination. Internally, I groaned. A part of me had been hopeful that somehow we'd never make it to his office or that I'd have more time. Instead, between my ins and outs of consciousness, it felt like the shortest and most dissatisfying walk I'd ever experienced in my life and I was almost tempted to ask Jerium to walk me back up to my room so we could start over.
"This shouldn't take long," Jerium assured me quietly in my ear, his warm breath causing goosebumps to naturally form on the back of my stiff neck and a shudder to race down my spine.
My eyes fluttered open and I yawned towards the ceiling, squinting at the unforgiving lights.
"I'll hold you accountable to that," I responded jokingly, my words slurred with sleep. Without meaning to, they held a bitter undertone that wasn't directed at him in the slightest. But it was so meager that there was a large chance Jerium hadn't heard it, so I acted as if it never happened and continued on.
I slowly lifted my temple from his shoulder, my head feeling like it'd gained fifty pounds, and straightened my posture before making my way forward to walk the other half of the hallway by myself. As always, the doors were opened for me by a uniformed guard but this time he had a friend who stood against the other side of the doorframe, both bowing and greeting me with their polite 'Good morning, Madam'''s in such perfect sync that it sounded rehearsed.
I paused briefly when I caught sight of all the males inside, all at once feeling very, very awake.
I turned back around to catch Jerium's friendly, familiar face for some reassurance for whatever was about to unfold. But he had already fled and I found myself to be disappointed and highly frustrated, cursing silently at the spot the hybrid had been standing in a few seconds ago.
I rolled my eyes at the sound of his voice, feeling annoyance slither around in my stomach until it found my heart and wrapped its body around the vital organ and claimed it as its home. I wished I had enough courage to walk away right then and there, or to stride up to Henrik, look him in the eyes, and tell him all the hurtful thoughts that were brewing in the dark corners of my mind. But I reminded myself that being compliant to his wishes was in the end going to be most beneficial to myself. I just wished the benefits would hurry so I could escape.
Walking into the room with long strides, I tried to hide my apprehension and fear hidden behind a mask of disinterest. My hands, however, which were clasped together so hard that they were white, gave away my true emotions. I only hoped by some miracle that these males couldn't hear my racing heartbeat or smell the saltiness of the sweat slowly but surely forming on the skin of my palms and underarms.
Almost two dozen pairs of strange yellow eyes turned to look at me—No, to judge me. Every single one of them belonged to males of towering sizes that all Lycans possessed, who were standing in front of Henrik's desk and conveniently blocking it so I couldn't see the king that I knew resided on the other side.
"She's so small," one in the front commented, sniffing the air in my direction and making me self conscious. His long black hair was kept in a messy bun with strands caressing the strong high cheek bones of his rather long face. Tattoos ran up his neck and slightly into the sides of his jaw, ending just below his ears. Most of the males had tattoos, which I was beginning to see were very popular in the Cursed Kingdom. But he was definitely the most covered out of all of them.
Some males nodded at his remark, agreeing. Others were too uncaring to reply at all, looking critically at my figure past their noses.
One male whispered to another, who then laughed at whatever he'd told him. Somehow, I just knew they were talking about me and I regretted not brushing my hair. Had I known it wasn't just Henrik who I'd be confronting, I definitely would've tried harder to look presentable and at least worn a dress.
"She may be small but she has strength," came Henrik's voice. I heard his chair screech against the floor as he pushed it back to stand, suddenly the top of his head coming into view over the wall of Lycans. He walked around and instantly his eyes landed on me. He looked at my hair and smiled lazily in amusement, carving my humiliation in stone. "Raena, these are lords from a couple of the packs nearby." He listed all seventeen of their names and where their packs (or provinces, as they were called in the Human Kingdom) were located. I tried to follow along, but by the time he was finished, I'd forgotten most of their names and their locations were all mixed up in my lethargic brain. And then there was only one left who had yet to be introduced or to bow his heads. "And this is my Duke, Evander, who is in charge of training every single one of my guards that keep these lands safe."
The male with the neck tattoos and long black hair lowered his head, making me quirk a brow. When he stood straight again, I finally registered the similarities he shared with his sister, Callie. Their noses were the exact same, only Evander's was a bit larger and slightly crooked in two spots, no doubt from breaking it a lot in the past. But his eyes with a hint of silver amongst the gold, however, were completely his own. I'd never seen any other Lycan with such a shade. They were stunning in the rising sunlight creeping in through the window behind Henrik's desk.
"It's an honor," he said with a lopsided, boy-ish grin. His teeth were as white as Callie's too and I came to the conclusion that good genetics was the culprit for their pristine appearance. "I've heard so much good about you, Little Madam."
I glared at him, the corners of my lips quirking upwards, holding back a smile at his teasing. I could already tell we would get along if we spent enough time together. His demeanor reminded me uncannily of Taylium. And I hadn't realized how much I'd missed my friend until then.
Henrik growled and I could see his eyes glowing from the corner of my eye. Both mine and Evander's lips went back into straight lines and his eyes went to the floor along with all the other males', who were deeply concerned with upsetting their king further. I looked at Henrik and glowered at him, delivering all of my anger through my eyes in one blow.
"This is your future Queen, the female who will carry your next ruler. You know her scent. Now protect her," Henrik said through gritted teeth, taking the time to eye each male with his teeth bared and display his dominance. "You are all dismissed to the Meeting Room." That was their king's order. There was no room for question.
All the males bowed at him and then shared similar, apprehensive glances before turning and lowering their heads in my direction as well. As they walked by me to get through the now opened doorway, some threw me friendly smiles while others were too preoccupied with whispering to each other to do so. It interested me greatly to see how different all of them were appearance-wise, yet each one holding himself with utmost dignity and grace as if they were gods walking amongst the living.
As one male in particular grinned at me, I couldn't help but notice the mark on his neck, which appeared light pink against his extremely dark skin. I was taken aback. It had never crossed my mind that males could be marked since I'd only ever seen females with them, yet there he was. Noticing my stare, his chest noticeably puffed up with pride, obviously very pleased with whomever his mate was.
I watched his retreating back, which was dressed in a traditional Lycan-styled embroidered vest, with wide eyes until the guards closed the double doors. As soon as I heard them click shut, my emotions soured and I remembered last night's debacle with Henrik screaming in my face.
"Why must you tempt every unmated male that crosses your path?" Henrik asked, sounding irritated.
I looked behind me to catch sight of his large form leaned over his desk, clawed hands gripping the wooden edges. His eyes glowed like liquid gold as they glared daggers at me, aiming straight at my soul. It vexed me to no end that he was the one getting angry at me, when it easily should've been the other way around with him begging for the gift of my forgiveness.
I scoffed and shook my head in disbelief at his ridiculous claim, looking upwards at the chandelier and trying to reign in my true level of rage. When I finally felt like I had more control over my actions, I used my hand to gesture to my unkempt hair and then to the rest of me, eyeing him like he was insane for such a thought ever entering his head. "I can assure you, Your Majesty, that I have never tempted any male or man." The words stung as they left my mouth yet I believed them to be true without any doubt.
I didn't acknowledge my insecurities often. But when I did, the pain in my heart took me by surprise every time, like a predator that had been hiding in the shadows had at last found its opportunity to pounce.
Henrik chuckled and looked down at his desk, his back moving with each harsh outtake of air. He rubbed his face, focusing on his eyes, and barely missed his skin with his elongated claws,
I made a displeased noise in the back of my throat, watching him with a perplexed expression. "What?" I snapped, the tips of my ears burning with embarrassment and annoyance.
Henrik looked back up at me, a cool expression now on his face although the shadow of a smirk was still present. "If you truly believe the bullshit that just left your pretty mouth," there was a slight pause and a wolfish grin, "then you clearly don't know the truth of why I am standing behind this here desk." His eyes momentarily flickered down to his hidden groin.
I opened and closed my mouth, gaping at him like a fish out of water because of what he was suggesting. After being around him for a month, I still wasn't used to his forward and quite crude mouth. Although, yes, Tylem and Taylium had joked about the male reproductive organ many times, as most teenage boys did, they never went as far as to talk about their own in a sexual manner—especially, never directed at Oriana or myself.
My whole face felt like it was set ablaze with Henrik's words and I averted my gaze from his, not being able to stomach the emotion I saw in them.
"As much as I love talking about sex with you," I shot him a look, clearly hinting that his sense of humor was not being well received, "I need to discuss protocol for tomorrow." Henrik looked suddenly very serious, the most solemn I'd seen him since the day I met him, making me go anxious at the drastic change in atmosphere.
"What's happening tomorrow?" I questioned, clearly confused. I played with my fingers and noticed how my callouses were almost completely gone. Not that it mattered, but the revelation did its job in distracting me from my worry for a few seconds.
Henrik looked at me with forlorn eyes, staring at me with such regret and pain that I was left stunned. Bags also adorned them, a feature he'd easily kept hidden by his confident and dominant persona. "It's the full moon tomorrow, Raena."
My face fell. My stomach felt as if it was in my toes. How could I have forgotten something so vital?
Every full moon, the people of the Cursed Kingdom turned into viscous, bloodthirsty beasts, all traces of humanity gone as if it never existed. My friends and I would always turn it into a party and drink all night long, listening to the Lycan's howls and sometimes drunkenly howl back if we felt like it. We would laugh, trying to distract each other from whatever fear we felt, and watch our elders go around blessing and painting door frames with wolfsbane mixed in oil, which was supposed to repel the beasts, just in case they ever crossed into our village. They never did, however, my elders always made sure to describe in great detail what could happen if such a tragedy ever occurred.
But now I was trapped in the beasts' territory. And I knew no amount of herbs or oils could protect me.
By the way Henrik was behaving, I knew that my elders hadn't completely overreacted about just how monstrous they became. Such a downtrodden look from such a cocky and powerful male scared me. "Don't be frightened, Raena. My lords and duke will protect you. I've already ordered the palace's staff to go back to their homes tonight and your meals for tomorrow will be prepared in advance. Ingrid and Jerium will be with you the entire time and an enchantment will be placed on the palace so no shifted Lycan can enter. One will also be placed on just your room as a precaution. I myself will be traveling tonight to my most northern pack since some minimal effects do begin during the day."
Henrik's words were rushed and I had a hard time processing them. It all sounded surreal that he had to go through so much just to make sure I, a single human, was protected. His way of trying to comfort me was actually just making me even more terrified than before. If the curse's effects were that horrific...
"Will you still join me for lunch?" Henrik suddenly asked and I jumped at the sound of his voice.
"Uh, yes. Sure," I responded hesitantly, my breathing slightly shaky. I then noticed my whole body was too. Shaking. And it wouldn't stop because I was afraid that what had happened to my friends was finally going to happen to me.
Henrik came around his desk slowly, approaching me like I was a petrified animal, which I suppose in that moment, I was. "Please don't be afraid, dearest one," he said in a tender way that I didn't think he was capable of producing. It made my heart lurch and every ill thought or word I'd had for him earlier disappear. I looked up at him, my eyes tracing every detail of his jagged scar, trying to distract myself with anything I could. "I will never let anything harm you. I promise." His eyes were so sincere and warm like the sun. I wished I could trust them.
I nodded numbly, rotating my head away. "I'll see you at lunch," I told him in a voice barely above a whisper. I then turned and walked out the door to head back to my bed, my only refuge and the place I regretted abandoning.