The Cursed Kingdom

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EIGHTEEN

~ MELTING ~

The week following the full moon passed by in a head-spinning blur with me constantly in motion and never once stopping. Despite its chaotic demeanor, it was precious in the sense that it gave me the opportunity to truly begin cherishing the company of both Ingrid and Callie, who somehow gifted me a sense of normalcy every time I was around them.

They were my anchors in a storming sea. Without them, I truly didn’t know how I would’ve kept my sanity.

Ingrid taught me new sewing patterns, including a better technique to secure a button on a coat so it would’ve rip off, and how to stitch a wound as well as properly clean one without alcohol.

Callie was skilled in the art of making anyone laugh and it amazed me how she knew all the hundreds of servants’ and guards’ names. Every hour we spent together, she revealed how much she truly cared for her people and would do anything to help them, going as far as to make sure everyone was happy with their salaries and had plenty of time to visit their families that lived outside of the palace. Sometimes she’d even send small gifts to the servants’ quarters to make sure they knew they were appreciated. And for that, I respected her greatly.

However, at the end of the day, they both had mates, duties to fulfill, and families they had to get home to and so, when they or Jerium weren’t around to keep me company, I’d have to come up with something to entertain myself with. Whether it was admiring my new bouquet, researching through books to discover and learn all I could about the different species of flora in the arrangement, or restlessly drumming my fingers along the edge of a table, I just had to be doing something—anything—that could keep my mind busy. During one of my most desperate moments, I dug up an old, dusty encyclopedia on clocks and flipped to the chapter about how to stop a pendulum from swinging and did just as it said only a few minutes later to the one in my room since it had begun to annoy me.

It was truly a week of insanity.

At night, when crickets and insects alike were playing their symphony under the stars, I read almost every book I could get ahold of, flipping through their virgin papers while I listened to servants passing by my door. Their footsteps weren’t loud in the slightest, sounding more like the pitter pattering of mice than grown people, but every single footfall made my eyes flash up to the door and hold my breath all the same. Then, when I was assured they were just passing by, I’d relax, exhale, and return to my reading.

Sometimes, I gained the courage to steal a peek towards my bay window, the hairs on my neck standing on edge as if I was expecting there to be the face of some monster on the other side of the glass. But there never was. Only darkness and stars. Still, although I knew my paranoia was born out of the nightmare with my mother in it, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone or something was watching me. Waiting.

“Damnit,” I said as I shoved the book on ancient mythology aside, one I’d already read and had no desire to do so again. I turned around to the shelf behind me, squinting in the dim light to try to read the titles on the spines.

Although the first floor library becoming my asylum had encouraged the servants to clean it daily, the necessity for new light bulbs had yet to be acknowledged.

Pressing my fingers against my temples while closing my eyes, I tried to calm my clashing emotions and calm the ache brewing beneath my skull for what felt like the hundredth time that day. I’d also been getting migraines recently, which I blamed on my anxiety and stress that disabled me from getting proper rest and stomaching more than one meal’s worth a day. Although I felt absolutely exhausted, my head subtly nodding uncontrollably, I knew that even if I tried to sleep, there was no way I could’ve. My mind wouldn’t have let me, always reminding me of my mother’s voice and the warning it delivered.

“Are you alright, Madam?”

I slowly opened my eyes to regard the servant boy. He was around my age and swayed anxiously from foot to foot as he stared at me, looking afraid that he had disturbed me into anger. “Yes. Thank you...” I trailed off, cursing my headache and awful memory. Trying my hardest to remember, I stared at his distinct round, freckled face. “Destry?” I sounded out the word letter by letter, giving him enough time to stop me if I was wrong. When he didn’t, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

The boy’s face lit up at the fact that I had remembered his name since the time Callie and I ran into him a few days prior in the gardens. Callie had said it so briefly and quickly that I’d almost missed it along with the friendly wave she sent his way. Kneeled and hunched over the frosty ground, Destry had been pulling out weeds and dead plants to make room for the new ones the palace’s staff would plant in the spring.

By the smell of fresh soil in the air, the smear of dirt as thick as my thumb on his right cheek, and the dirty gloves tucked into his belt, I could tell he must’ve just come in from doing more yard work. It surprised me that he was even still on palace grounds, considering I’d heard the clock strike midnight quite some time ago.

“How are the gardens coming along?” I asked, genuinely wanting to start a conversation. Talking to him seemed much more appealing than digging around shelf after shelf for a book I’d never enjoy.

Perhaps if there were more with information on Lycans than the few Henrik permitted because he didn’t want me “assuming things,” I would’ve found the time I spent reading at least productive. The only two that remained unread were solely about mates, something I knew Henrik had chosen purposefully. One focused on the mating process itself and the other talked about the history and myths about where mates originated from, both of which I had no desire to look into.

“Quite well, Madam,” Destry replied, his eyes glowing from us discussing a topic he was clearly passionate about. Callie had mentioned something about one of his grandparents being a nymph whose ability to speak to plants ran true in his bloodline. I was unsure about how fluent he was in plant-language, but nonetheless his heritage gave sense to his adoration for nature and the subtle points of his ears. “His Majesty has ordered for more species of flowers to be planted this year than ever before and some are already beginning to sprout in the greenhouses—even our camellias!”

At the mention of Henrik, I felt my insides churn in a way that was neither positive nor negative. “Have you seen His Majesty recently?” I asked, trying to keep my voice lighthearted for Destry’s and my own sake. My mark ignited in goosebumps at the unworldly sensation of its creator’s name leaving my lips.

Henrik’s carriage had arrived back at the palace almost exactly twenty-four hours after the full moon had disappeared into a bright blue sky. Through a window on the second floor in a forgotten parlor room, I’d watched the black vehicle adorned with gold roll up to the front entrance. I admired two large horses, one brown with white spots and the other pure black, trotting their long legs gracefully against the stone road and coming to a complete stop instantly on command. Hiding my body further behind the curtain, I watched as four males stepped out, three I recognized as Furkan, Evander, and Henrik. The king was the last to step out and he whispered something to the fourth person before they made their way inside.

Immediately, I’d hurried down to the dining room to eat an early lunch instead of having it brought to my room, expecting him to at least make an appearance. It was only a few minutes after I’d received my entree that I received the letter, Henrik’s kingdom’s crest etched into the red wax seal. After thanking the guard that delivered it, who I recognized as the fourth person from the carriage, I nearly gave myself a paper cut in my haste to open it. It started with a friendly greeting that was normal for Henrik, with him wishing me well and saying how much he thought of me in his short time away from me. Some things I blushed at and others made me roll my eyes. But every word had my complete, utter attention. Every single one.

Unfortunately, I’ve been made aware that there are quite a few issues in regards to some packs in the North that I can not put off any longer, he wrote with his impressive penmanship that I envied, not one elegant curve out of place. He then went on to explain in a lengthy paragraph of how regretful he was that he wouldn’t be able to visit me as much as he had been, although he would try.

But, with the next day marking the eighth day since his arrival, I had yet to see him at all. And no more letters had come since. If it hadn’t been for my own eyes watching him return, I would’ve thought he was still in the North.

His absence made me more anxious than I wanted to admit. With him being the king and living in the same building as myself, I knew if he had truly wanted to see me, he would’ve. What had changed? The question kept ringing in my head over and over and the thought of him finding out about my intent to escape crossed my thoughts more times than I was comfortable with.

“Yes, he came by this morning, as he does often, to see how well the germination process is going,” Destry responded, looking thoughtful as he looked back on the recent memory. Appearing to remember something delightful, the dimple underneath the smudge of dirt became more prominent as his lips curved upwards. “He seemed pleased. Would you like to stop by sometime tomorrow to view them yourself, Madam?”

I replied, “Yes, of course.” But my thoughts were worlds away and I knew there had been too big of a pause between his question and my response to make it seem casual. There was a moment of silence and I took the opportunity to make an overdramatic noise, something between a wistful sigh and a painful groan, that I assumed was one people made when they were tired. “Well, it is quite late, isn’t it? I better be off to bed,” I said, earning a quick nod of agreement.

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry for keeping you up, Madam,” Destry told me, stepping aside to give me enough space to walk out of the aisle. I sent him a smile as I walked past, my hands clasped in front of the skirt of my dress.

“Nonsense.” I waved his remark off. “I enjoy your company. When should I be ready to head to the greenhouse?” I asked, stopping in the library’s doorway as I awaited his reply.

“Whenever it’s most convenient for you, Madam.” He looked bashful and I noticed how his head had lowered to where he was looking at me through his long eyelashes. The innocent gesture made him look years younger and I felt my chest fill with endearment for the boy, knowing remembering his name would never be a problem again.

“How about ten o’clock, then? Give us both enough time to eat breakfast,” I said.

“Ten o’clock it is! I look forward to it, Madam,” he said, flashing me a wide grin that revealed the empty space as wide as a coin between his two front teeth.

“As do I,” I responded and then bid him a goodnight.

He did the same with a bow of his head and that was all it took for me to begin heading straight for the stairs, my legs practically dragging against the floor the entire time. The servants must’ve sensed my exhaustion and noticed how I deliberately tried not to meet their eyes because not one tried to approach me with their usual chirpy greetings.

As I made it to the third floor landing, my grip on the railing tightened. My eyes trailed up the wall and to the ceiling, an inkling in my gut telling me that Henrik was up there, only one floor away. The thought of us being so close this entire time but never running into each other made a lump form in the back of my throat.

Feeling conflicted, I looked back towards the hallway that led to my bedroom and a feeling of dread surfaced within me, realising I would have no book or excuses to distract my thoughts. Instinctively, my free hand reached up and clutched my shoulder where I could still feel the indents of my mother’s nails and then it trailed up to my mark, grazing each individual scab.

I shuddered, the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight, and I felt the unmistakable sense that I was being watched. But when I looked around, I was completely alone.

“Fuck it,” I muttered to myself and began ascending the next set of stairs to the fourth floor, despite my heavy limbs begging me to stay put and go to bed. My heart skipped a beat out of fear as I made it onto the landing yet I knew I’d much rather do this than be trapped in paranoid solitude. So I kept going and going until I reached the last door at the end of the hallway on that level, Henrik’s room.

Hesitantly, my shaky fist raised and knocked itself against the thick wood a couple times.

I waited, my hairline breaking out into a nervous cold sweat.

Silence.

I knocked again, pressing my ear against the door in an attempt to detect movement. “Henrik?” I called through the door, knowing there was no way he couldn’t have heard my voice when he could easily hear my heartbeat. When there was no answer after the third time I knocked, sensing he was ignoring me, I harrumphed and grabbed the cold doorknob before giving it a violent twist until the door swung open and the smell of pine engulfed my body. The sight that greeted me was an empty room, no man or Lycan in sight. “Henrik?” My voice was quieter this time as I searched the dark, familiar space.

After a few seconds of me scanning every corner and shadow, it was confirmed that it was, in fact, completely vacant. The only sign of life was the large unkempt bed draped in animal furs against the wall, the covers unkempt and thrown back on the right side.

As I stepped inside, closing the door behind me, I shivered and crossed my arms when I felt a breeze, cool and soft against my skin. The floor was freezing like ice and I winced as I walked further into the room, it seeming to grow colder with each step I took. Looking over, I noticed that one of the floor length windows was cracked open at the bottom, its curtains swaying with each gust of wind.

Without thinking, I walked over to investigate and got even closer when I spotted something right outside below the window ledge. My fingers latched onto the bottom and watched in amazement as the entire glass panel smoothly lifted upwards until the space was as high as a doorway and wide enough for two people to walk through side-by-side. Leaning over, I peered over the edge and widened my eyes in astonishment when my brain registered the three steep stairs that led to a thin platform that wrapped around the side of the palace in both directions.

I had seen this structure before while on my walks in the garden, first noticing it when I saw a very familiar raven fly by and perch itself on one of the stone railings. I’d brushed it off as mere decoration after having admired its short, round balusters that resembled the ones on all of the staircases inside the palace. Never would I have guessed that it was a path of some sort, let alone connected to Henrik’s room.

Ignoring the reasonable side of myself that told me this was my chance to walk away, I stepped my bare foot down slowly onto the first step while making sure to watch carefully for patches of ice. The bottoms of my feet instantly protested when they met the snow-covered ground but my curiosity forced them to keep going, remembering something else from one of my many walks that I had disregarded.

I let out a sigh of relief when I made it down on the flat platform, the bottom of my feet screaming in agony from the painful yet numbing cold. All common sense flew out of my head as I went right down the path, my shoulders hunched over and trying their best to keep me as warm as possible.

Although it was only a couple more steps later, it felt like an eternity had passed when I found exactly what I’d suspected would be just around the corner: a large, round balcony. I’d noticed this on another walk of mine, Callie and Ingrid on either side of me. I’d questioned its purpose aloud since, without any doors leading directly out to it, the balcony looked impossible to get to and therefore completely meaningless. Both of them seemed just as confused as I was and Callie suggested it was the outcome of an unfinished room whose windows were paved over. But now I knew that wasn’t the answer at all. It was a balcony for a king. And there, standing hunched over the railing as tense as the stone around him, was the Cursed King himself clothed in only his underwear.

The sight of him made my stomach lurch into my throat as my eyes trailed his ragged scars and swirling tattoos, all magnificently his. Although it had been my very intent to confront him, now that I’d found him, I didn’t know what to say. So I stared at the thief of words and sensibility a little while longer, watching the wind blow through and tousle his hair which was in desperate need of a trim.

“Did I do something to offend you, Your Majesty?” My voice broke through the silence, tearing through each individual snowflake as they fell.

Henrik whipped around with a speed that was not human, his nostrils flaring and eyes glowing. Gone was the peace. He looked completely startled, an emotion that I would’ve never guessed to ever see on his face. It was as if he’d been so deep in thought that the outside world hadn’t existed enough for him to notice my presence, Lycan senses and all.

“What are you doing?” he snarled, canines bared as he assessed my form. He gave another loud, angry growl that made me wince from its ferocity. “Get back inside!” He pointed in the direction I’d come from. “You’ll freeze.”

“Come back in with me and talk to me like a grown up and I’ll think about it,” I responded, too prideful and stubborn to admit that he was right. Walking out into the snow with only a thin, satin dress on with no shoes was a terrible mistake and a huge risk to my fragile human body. But that was not my main concern and it wouldn’t be until after we were done speaking.

“Raena...” he trailed off, his eyebrows furrowed in frustration. His frown deepened when I gave a particularly large shudder and closed my eyes against the brutal cold. Still, gritting my teeth, I stayed put. “My female, please. I only am trying to look out for your wellbeing.”

When I opened my eyes I startled when I saw him so close to me, staring intensely at my face. I stared right back, watching each twitch of muscle just beneath his skin. “When was the last time you slept?” he asked and in the next second his hand was on my face, cupping my cheek and caressing the top of my cheekbone with his thumb. It surprised me how warm and welcoming his calloused hand felt, making my heat-deprived body want to get as close as possible to such splendor.

I closed my eyes. Indeed, I was exhausted—physically and emotionally.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” I said, my voice sounding slurred as he added his other hand to my other cheek.

I hadn’t begun to understand the mate bond until then. There were times if I questioned if it was just an exaggerated fairytale to keep two people trapped together forever. But now I could feel it, a sort of crack in my subconscious that allowed for everything Ingrid and Callie had blabbered about to finally seep through to let me have a taste. Comfort and peace, two things I hadn’t felt in days, were restored by the mere touch of this male’s palms and slowly wrapping themselves around my entire body in a blanket of pure splendor.

I could’ve slept like that, barefoot, cold, and shivering. Just as long as he held me and never let go.

“My little mate...” I heard Henrik whisper, his breath hot against my forehead. I hummed, my body beginning to sway side to side as it no longer contained the energy to stand upright. “Let’s talk in the morning, yes? You look absolutely knackered. I know I am.” His hands left me and I nearly crumpled over from the amount of force the cold assaulted me with.

Too tired and cold to fight back, I let Henrik lead me with his hand on my lower back to his bedroom window. His body was purposefully angled in a way that he shielded me completely from the wind, which I appreciated greatly and could only hope he could see that in my eyes.

Once we made it back to the window, a sheepish wince was my response to the displeased glare he sent my way for leaving it completely open and letting the snow in. He stood next to the stairs and helped me up, one hand resting on my back while the other grasped my own in a vice grip, watching my quivering legs carefully as if he didn’t trust them. After he made sure I was inside and stable on my feet, he gracefully glided in before shutting and locking the window.

Suddenly, the room was very quiet. Too quiet.

Just that one second of silence made me realize how far my level of recklessness and stupidity had reached and my heart began racing. I’d not only interrupted Henrik’s time to himself but also entered his chambers without his permission.

I gave an audible swallow as I looked back up at him, seeing his eyes intensely glowing in the dark right back at me. I shrunk beneath them.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you. I... I don’t know what I was thinking,” I admitted, watching him closely. The only replies he gave were the subtle cock of his head and narrowing of his eyes. I wished it wasn’t so dark so I could see the rest of his face, see if he was scowling or smirking or neither. Instead, I was left standing there and blabbering like a blinded fool. “I should go.” I turned for the door, fully prepared to wallow in my embarrassment the rest of the night.

A warm grip on my wrist stopped me and I gasped, instinctively trying to pull away but paused when I registered it was just Henrik.

“Stay,” he said, so soft and kind that it had my whole chest lurching. It wasn’t a command. He was giving me a choice and yet I felt like I didn’t have one when I met his pleading eyes.

“What?” I breathed out, becoming apprehensive when he came to stand right in front of me. “What? No, I—” I swallowed again, shaking my head. He somehow got even closer and I could feel his chest lightly brushing against my breasts, making my breath hitch. “I can’t. It’s inappropriate.” My words came out sounding breathy and weak, what I wanted and what I’d been told fighting against each other in a gruesome brawl.

I watched in slow motion as his two glowing suns lowered and then disappeared as he closed his eyes right before his lips made contact with my own. And I did not fight it, no matter how much that voice inside of me shouted for me to. I shoved her back and gripped onto his biceps, feeling them flex underneath my fingertips. Whereas his first kiss had been heated and quite forceful, this one was gentle and passionate, his desperation being poured into every caress from both his hands and tongue until he pulled himself away.

“Stay,” he repeated, this time more firm as he unyieldingly clutched the sides of my face, the tips of his fingers entangled in the roots of my hair.

“Okay,” was my whispered reply.

I didn’t know how I felt. All I knew was that I didn’t regret saying it. I fully expected some sort of doubt or similar emotion to hit me as I changed into the white nightgown he’d found stuffed in the back of a drawer and after I had enough time to process what I’d gotten myself into. But, no, nothing like that in the slightest came to me at all. It shocked me that no matter how hard I tried as I stared at myself in the mirror, I could not find a reason to hate my decision.

As soon as I opened the bathroom door, Henrik didn’t waste another moment to guide me to his bed. I walked in a haze, only able to focus on the hand resting on the curve of my lower back. He eagerly pulled back the covers, letting me slide in first before he did, and lifted them over ourselves before I could properly lie down, like he was scared that I would run away if he didn’t. Henrik let me take whichever and how many pillows I wanted and didn’t lie back himself until he saw I was situated in a comfortable position. But my body was still as stiff as a rock, too focused on the dip in the mattress next to me to even consider sleeping.

I stared up at the familiar painted faerie on his ceiling, my head propped up by a halo of pillows, and wiggled my toes to make sure enough blood was flowing to them. I didn’t stop until the tingling, numbing sensation went away completely and was replaced by warmth.

When we were little and didn’t know that nature could be cruel, Oriana and I had gone out to twirl and chase each other in the snow, dressed in only our dresses and knee-length stockings. It wasn’t long before our parents ran out of Oriana’s small shack to angrily scream at us to go back inside, dragging our whining forms by the arms when we took too long to respond.

I can still remember the feeling of pure dread entrapping my four year old body when my mother yanked off my soaking footwear and my toes were as white as the very snow we’d been playing in. Oriana’s were the same. Following our horrified mothers’ instructions, we stood up and stomped our feet against the ground, scared, confused, and crying. The color returned to all of my toes within only a couple minutes and I earned the spanking of a lifetime.

But two of Oriana’s never did and I remember visiting her the next morning, tearing up when I saw her bandaged feet and weeping face. In a quivering voice, she claimed that no one would ever love her because she now only had four toes on each foot. I rushed to tell her that wasn’t true because I would always love her.

The bittersweet memory elicited a strange feeling with me. Years after the incident, Oriana and I had giggled about it once or twice, making fun of our childish antics. It had been so easy to smile and laugh about it then. But now that she was gone, it felt like a sin to find joy in it. So I was left swaying between emotions, neither happy nor sad and yet both at the same time.

A tender voice brought me out of my thoughts. “Are you warm?” A single nod was my reply to Henrik’s question. I heard him sigh and begin moving around, making the mattress bounce subtly from his shifted weight. I startled when I felt a sudden pressure on my stomach, automatically jerking away and sucking in a breath. Immediately, his arm retracted and I was surprised by how hurt he looked, his brows furrowed together in a regretful grimace. “I apologize. Should I sleep on the couch?” He was referring to the one in his sitting area.

I blinked at him, absorbing what had happened and felt my face begin to burn. “No,” I replied and gestured with my eyes towards his hovering arm between us. I let out a breath. “It’s okay.” I hoped my voice sounded as neutral as I hoped it to be.

“Are you sure?” He looked like he didn’t believe me.

“Yes, quite.”

He relaxed and placed his arm back where he’d had it, his magical touch forcing me to relax. Taking one final glance at the smirking faerie above me, I allowed myself to close my eyes shut. Slowly but surely I could feel every muscle in my body loosen until I was pure dead weight against the mattress, my lips parted in bliss.

“I wasn’t avoiding you, you know,” Henrik whispered to me a few minutes later when I was on the edge between sleep and consciousness.

I hummed back a single syllable, too far gone to think of words, and turned on my side so my back was facing him. His arm shifted with my body but still remained around my waist, squeezing with just the right amount of strength to be considered firm yet still comfortable. It was only a couple heartbeats later that I felt him hesitantly shuffle forward until his front was pressed against my back, his chin resting on the top of my head. His chest vibrated as he let out what was a mix between a sigh and a low growl, obviously content by this position. I was too, although I would never admit it.

With my head engulfed in a cloud and my body wrapped in warmth, I let sleep consume me with no fear of the night.

Thank you all for your support! I hope you’re liking the story so far Xx

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