~ UNWANTED INTRUDERS ~
“I don't understand why you can't just protect me yourself. Why make others do it?"
Finally well rested and hair washed and brushed to my satisfaction, I idly stirred my spoon around in my stew, my chin propped on my left palm while I stared at Henrik expectantly.
The king, who'd apologetically arrived a few minutes late to our lunch because of his meeting with the lords, looked up slowly from his mountain of meat on a plate that was accompanied by a laughable-sized bowl of collard greens.
He cleared his throat, deliberately trying to delay his answer. "Because I don't know if I can control myself," he replied, taking me by surprise and causing my eyebrows to lift. Having expected something along the lines of him brushing me off, as he did with a lot of topics, I had never considered Henrik as the kind of male to be honest about his concerns or vulnerabilities. Sometimes he seemed so prideful and confident that I questioned if he had any at all or if his personality was as callous as his hands. Yet there he was, sitting just a couple feet away from me at the head of the table, furrowed eyebrows, concerned eyes, and all—the most emotion I'd ever seen on his scarred face. Suddenly, I longed for his cocky behavior to return, realizing his somber one only fed my anxiety. "As much as I'd like to stay true to my word and respect your conditions regarding our mating, I doubt that would be possible if the moon takes control and I'm near you. It's why I must travel north, you see, and put as much distance between us." He took a sip of wine. "Also, regarding my males, they recognize your scent, appearance, and voice now as belonging to their king's mate, so if they detect any hint of distress from you..." He trailed off, eyes intense with his unspoken words.
I nodded, silently digesting his reasoning while wishing I hadn't asked at all, and brought my spoon to my lips, blew off the layer of steam above the brown liquid, and placed the food in my mouth. It was my way of trying to act calm, trying to prove to Henrik that there was at least enough strength within me that I could stomach some broth and vegetables. But the truth was I was so nervous that the moment I went to swallow I immediately felt the urge to gag and had to gulp down a couple sips of my water to force it the rest of the way down.
Thankfully, Henrik hadn't noticed my slip up—or was at least gentlemanly enough to not point it out.
For almost half an hour, I nibbled slowly on my meal, subtly gazing up at Henrik through my eyelashes and admiring him as he ate. He was always so delicate when he did, holding his fork between the tips of his finger like it was made of glass. It was such a contrast to how I would've imagined the Cursed King's table manners to be before I met him, probably something along the lines of animal bones at his feet and food all over his face as he stuffed his mouth to capacity with bare, clawed hands.
My eyes focused on a small line of black ink that peeked out from under his jacket sleeve, noticing how it was slightly cut off by a thick scar on his wrist.
"What would happen if I did die?" I asked, averting my gaze down to my bowl so I wouldn't have to meet his eyes, and lifted my spoon to take another steaming bite.
As the last word left my mouth, a furious growl sounded from Henrik's chest and he dropped his fork stabbed with a pile of meat onto his plate to glower at me. He looked almost the exact same way my mother had when she first overheard me utter a curse word: outraged and appalled. "Don't say such a thing," he snarled and shot out his hand to grab my left one that I'd rested on the table with my fingers sprawled out. I did not flinch. I didn't react at all. Instead, I stared blankly at his rough and scarred hand as if I couldn't believe he was actually touching me or even there at all. "You have nothing to fear, Raena. Nothing."
I let out a soft sigh and chose my next words carefully, not wanting to upset him any further by saying something incorrectly. "That's not what I meant. Not fully, anyway. I mean, what will happen when I die?" I said, putting emphasis on each word so he understood me to the fullest extent. His eyes glowed and the grip on my hand tightened, but not enough to hurt. I could feel his claws gently poking against my palm. "I'm human, Henrik. I'd be considered lucky if I make it to eighty years, but you are already almost three hundred and potentially have an eternity ahead of you."
"We'll figure it out when we get there," he gritted out, clearly wanting to put an end to this conversation.
"But why?" I asked desperately, turning my whole body to face him and grasped his hand harder, like somehow that would make him see things from my perspective. "Why have to figure it out when you could just mate someone of magic blood? Why settle for a human?" My raised voice echoed off the walls of the large dining room and easily travelled through the closed doors to where I was positive servants and guards alike could hear me.
"I'm not settling." He growled again, a dark sound that started as a rumble from a place deep within his chest and carried out into his voice. "You're my mate and I do care about you, no matter how much you want to convince yourself otherwise." Glowing like molten gold, his eyes seemed to burrow themselves into my soul, seeing every thought or intention I'd ever possessed. My throat clicked as I tried to swallow with a dry mouth. "If you must know, mate, a group of powerful Mages created a concoction millennia ago that weakens a creature's magic enough to allow them to age. I would just have to insert that potion once a year into my bloodstream until you ..." he trailed off and for a second I didn't think he'd finish his sentence at all "...pass. Then I would take a poison instead to join you."
My eyes widened at his bluntness, which he always seemed to unnervingly have on the subject of death, and I sat straighter in my chair.
His words were delivered as calm and smooth as an evening wind in the dead of autumn kissing my cheeks. But paired with their horrific meaning, everything that came out of his mouth sounded absolutely ridiculous and unfathomable to my ears.
It made me physically ill to listen to and my desire to slap reason into him grew to an extent where it was almost maddening.
"You're joking," I told him, watching his expressions closely with raised eyebrows. He continued staring at me blankly, his eyes holding the smallest hint of confusion directed towards my shocked expression. I scoffed, shaking my head in disbelief and frustration as I felt familiar pressure against my temple, the beginning of what I knew was going to be a brutal headache. My craving to hear the truth consumed me. However, the truth I thought was real, the one I had rotated my whole beliefs around, didn't even exist, but I kept speaking, naive words falling off an ignorant tongue, as if I knew everything. "That's the dumbest shit I've ever heard, Henrik. Your people need you. They need a king, a strong leader such as yourself that can protect them. I shouldn't—no, I will not—be the one to take you away from them."
He smiled warmly and rubbed his thumb over my knuckle, reminding me of our adjoined digits. It startled me. "If this is your way of trying to put an end to our courting, then I will warn you to save your precious breath." I stiffened at his not entirely wrong accusation. His grin widened lazily while his head cocked to the side. Although his appearance was one of calmness and amusement, in his eyes, I could tell he was thinking of something that included neither of those things. They looked haunted and I could not stand to look at them any longer. My gaze found my half eaten stew, an action Henrik took as a sign of unhappiness. "Do not fret, my female," he said softly, a secret meant for my ears and mine alone. "My death will be the best thing to ever happen to our people."
I drew in a quivering breath and took my hand out of his to place in my lap, where I knew he couldn't reach it. His hand turned into a fist on the table at the same time he let out a deep, uneven sigh. The sound made my heart clench with regret, knowing I had caused the forlorn look on his face, and I wondered if his fingers somehow felt as cold as mine did without his own pressed against them.
"Don't be a dolt, Henrik. I see the way they admire you. They'd be lost without you," I proclaimed, conveying through my tone how true I believed that to be.
Henrik was responsible for the Cursed Kingdom being so well known and revered throughout Trellomar to begin with. Without him as his kingdom's foundation, I could imagine it crumbling apart so clearly that I swore I could smell its ashes.
I waited for his reply with strained ears, scared I'd miss it. But it never came. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I understood he was never planning on saying anything at all in regards to my statement. Disappointment blossomed in my abdomen and grew so fast that when I finally did register it, it was like a person getting a snake bite while innocently loitering through a field—unexpected, painful, and perturbing all at once.
I looked up at Henrik when I saw movement from the corner of my eye and watched silently, my insides churning with unwanted emotions, when he resumed eating as if he'd never stopped. So I decided to do the same and ate the rest of my lukewarm meal in silence. The tension that filled the atmosphere was so thick that I was tempted to grab my butter knife and slice the air just to see if it made an indent.
I felt the corner of my lips quick upwards when I pictured myself actually standing atop the table, stabbing at nothing, and a very disturbed Henrik thinking to himself of which mental asylum he should ship me off to. Keeping my childish thoughts to myself, I hid my smile behind the rim of my drinking glass as I took a greedy gulp.
"Raena, I—" Henrik's first spoken words in minutes were cut off by the dining rooms double doors slamming open. Within a second, Henrik was on his feet and growling at the intruder who'd interrupted our meal. He slammed his clawed hands on the table, shaking the items sitting on it and making me let out a startled noise in the back of my throat. "What?" he barked and followed it with a snap of his jaw, which had already begun to elongate and make his features look less human.
The guard physically winced at his king's outburst and lowered his head in submission.
I took note of how his hand fell from the long sword attached to his belt.
“I apologize, Your Majesty, Madam." He nodded at me, his version of a quick bow. "But there's a problem in the dungeons that's in need of your attention. Prisoner Seven-One-Nine has—"
Henrik growled so loudly that I jumped and the guard inclined his head, visibly shaking. "Not another word," he said so menacingly that I was reminded of who exactly I'd been sharing a meal with these past few weeks.
His violent behavior frightened me and my survival instincts told me to run as far away from him as I could but the other part of me, the one with some intellect, told me I needed to stay. My fingers gripped onto the edge of the table cloth, the first thing they could get ahold of since I was still dressed in trousers. I clenched the white material until my knuckles turned white, putting all of my anxiety and discomfort into that singular action.
My head snapped up in fright and I realized he wasn't talking to me.
That angle, with him standing and me sitting, allowed my eyes to watch every muscle in his neck and jaw twitch as he held back the temper boiling beneath his skin.
"Yes, Your Majesty," the guard practically squeaked and bowed before making his hurried exit, pausing for only a second to whisper something to one of the two guards tending the doors, who replied with a single nod and a stoic expression.
Even after the male's footsteps faded into nothing, Henrik's breathing was still ragged and heavy while he stared at the still open doorway. I listened to it nervously, looking around at anything in the room that wasn't him that could distract me. No matter what I chose to do at that moment, I feared it would be a potential spark that could ignite the conflagration he kept inside himself.
My eyes flickered unintentionally towards him when they spotted movement. I watched silently and quite cautiously as he ran a hand through his hair and then used the same hand to pinch the bridge of his nose while taking a deep breath.
Henrik's eyelids were screwed shut so tightly that it looked painful.
"Perhaps one day we'll actually have a meal together that won't be interrupted," he said as what I perceived as an attempt at a joke but the venom in his tone drowned out the lightheartedness of it. I sighed and looked downward, at a loss for words and the energy required to come up with any. His eyes opened and he deftly fastened the buttons on his tailcoat, his gaze on me. "I must attend to this matter now and I'm afraid I don't know if I'll be able to see you again before I depart. Will you be alright?"
I nodded, forcing a tight-lipped smile on my face and hoping he'd be satisfied with such a vague reply.
Henrik sighed and walked around to my side of the table, leaning down with his Lycan quickness to place a firm kiss on my cheekbone. I'd become so used to this new action of his that I gave no response and stared straight ahead. I could've sworn I felt the outline of his extended canines underneath his lingering lips, which remained on my skin for a few heartbeats, until he tore himself away.
"If you need anything, just call for Jerium," he told me and gave my cheek one final caress with the pads of his fingers before standing to his full height.
"I know, Henrik," I replied, doing my best to give him a reassuring smile although I'm sure he could sense my strain no matter what. He was always good at seeing the things I didn't want him to. "I'll be fine."
"Yes, you will," he said sternly, as if he could use his title and intimidating appearance to order me into staying safe.
At his words, my mark began prickling with a weird sense of warmth that seemed to spread throughout my body, encasing me in a cocoon of comfort. I shuddered subtly, resisting the urge to run my hands over its scabs.
Henrik gave one final strenuous smile before walking around my chair and heading towards the entryway. I gave his broad back a fleeting glance and then quickly averted my gaze back to my empty bowl, sighing heavily when I felt a sudden sense of emptiness in my abdomen.
"Oh, Raena." His unanticipated voice made me jump and place my hand over my racing heart while I let out a string of curses under my breath. As I finally moved my eyesight upwards onto his face, I noticed the familiar gleam of amusement light up his eyes. "Gold or silver?"
"I beg your pardon?" I questioned, furrowing my brows.
Finally turning his whole body to face me instead of just peering over his shoulder, he repeated himself in a much slower and emphasized way, which removed any chance of me mishearing him: "Gold or silver?"
I blinked. Once. Twice.
Still looking at him like he'd sprouted another eye, I was confused by what his intentions were for asking this odd question so suddenly and out of nowhere. "Uh-gold?" My response sounded more like an apprehensive question and I repositioned myself in my seat, suddenly feeling uncomfortable under his stare.
Henrik nodded with a widening smirk. "Perfect. Exactly what I was thinking." I didn't know what I'd done right, but I was glad that he seemed content and that I had avoided being a victim to his unpredictable rage.
Without waiting another second, he strode out of the room with long, powerful strides and his hands clasped regally behind his back. As the doors closed behind him, I sat with a dissatisfied frown, feeling a sense of perplexity with a hint of aggravation. It was a feeling I was starting to get too familiar with any time I encountered Henrik. And I was tired of it. I was tired of feeling like I had wool over my eyes and only being able to see whatever specks of knowledge Henrik permitted.
I internally chastised myself for being so lazy with my readings and research. As much as I enjoyed spending time with Ingrid, I knew I needed to start focusing more on how I was going to get out of there, not which snacks should be included in her next visit.
Sighing in defeat and agitation towards myself, I reached over and ripped off a piece of Henrik's unfinished smoked beef brisket, the tender meat practically falling apart between my fingers.
I sat back in my chair and savored its delicious flavor, looking up at the glass ceiling and the promising sun shining overhead.
Thank you for reading!
Next chapter is the full moon. Any predications about what will happen?