The Cursed Kingdom

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TWENTY

~ TWO BIRDS ~

It was a dark day, so drearily dark that it could've been mistaken for nighttime hadn't it been for the clock sitting on the mantle above a dying fire. A beautiful piece carved from dark wood, its painted face read that it was a quarter past eleven in the afternoon, a time that was usually bustling with energy but now felt as still and unentertaining as the middle of the night.

I sighed and looked at it impatiently again, eyeing the silhouette of the feathered creature depicted in its center. Just to make sure.

"I heard that Albertβ€”you know Rupert's son from Erdas?β€”found his mate the other day," Ingrid's voice said, her tone and airy with thought. Although Callie's eyes lit up with recognition at the names, I'd never heard of an Albert or a Rupert before then. But, seeing I was outnumbered, I let her continue and mindlessly turned my face away and towards the window. While she spoke, her hands worked on her quilt with the same pace as her voice, which had morphed into the most wonderful masterpiece over the past few weeks, each colorful geometrical shape placed exactly where it needed to be. "That poor lad. I can't imagine finding out your mate, the one you're supposed to be with, is a Rogue." There was a sharp, familiar 'snap!' of a string.

Outside, a black bird flew in indecisive circles against the grey sky before landing abruptly yet elegantly on a swinging tree branch, letting the unstable limb rock it like a mother to her babe. Back and forth it swung again and again and I wondered why it hadn't chosen a studier structure such as the castle, which was truly not that far away, especially by flight. But still the bird stayed and swayed alongside the wind and nature, seeming completely unbothered by the horrible weather as it began cleaning its wings with his beak.

My eyes flickered back up towards the ominous clouds, dense and still, which looked ready to release an entire ocean down onto the earth. They took up the entirety of the sky, not letting a single ray of sunlight through. My mother used to tell me storms were the gods' way of cleansing some evil from the earth so there was enough room for good to grow, that thunder were the gods' voices and lightening the good striking down from the heavens. But as I stared at the one looming above, I couldn't perceive how anything positive could come out of it.

"That's been happening more and more," Callie said and my ears registered the sound of her teacup lightly scraping against her plate as she picked it up. "Henrik," at the sound of his name, the hairs on my neck stood straight, "and I are trying to set up a law or a protocol of some type. We can't lose our best people because they decide to turn wild for their mate. But we also can't have hormonal Rogues coming into our Packs and humping their mate's doorstep every night. We're the Cursed Kingdom. Not the Coitus Kingdom."

Over the time I'd spent with Callie, it was becoming more and more clear that she was as blunt and crude with her words as her cousin. And, after spending so much time with both, I barely cared anymore. Sometimes I even found myself laughing at what they said and would follow it with an internal apology to my mother and everything else divine.

There was a light gasp. "Callie!" Ingrid exclaimed, a girlish giggle in her tone. "Stop! That's disgusting!"

In the gardens below, guards stood huddled together with their arms crossed and swords strapped to their belts, conversing solemnly amongst themselves while yardmen worked around them. By now, all of their faces looked familiar having passed each of them at least a handful of times in the palace. But no names came to mind as I stared at any of them. Well, except for maybe two or three.

My eyes naturally trailed upwards to the woods and soured. With the rising wind and miserable darkness, they looked like black phantoms waving at me, mocking me.

And still that damned bird didn’t move.

Callie began to laugh, a deep sound that started in her stomach, left her parted mouth in short bursts, and then continued to echo throughout the room. "It's true!" she retorted and China glass clinked together as she set back down her cup a bit harder than necessary.

Not even that sharp sound could tear my eyes away from the outdoor scene before meβ€”especially the woods that meant too much. It was there my friends had died, had soaked its trees' roots with their blood, and where they remained rotting, alone and surrounded by the very creatures that had killed them, while I sat dressed in the finest attire amongst their replacements.

Replacements. I'd never viewed Callie or Ingrid as such but I knew it wasn't entirely untrue.

My stomach churned and I suddenly found it hard to breathe, tears blurring my vision and causing the phantoms to morph together to form one mass of gloom.

"Raena, are you alright?" Ingrid's asked, causing me to tear my gaze away from the window and into her concerned eyes. I must've been staring out the window for longer than I'd thought because the crick in my neck from looking over my shoulder was nearly unbearable.

"Oh-uh, yeah. Sorry," I replied and instantly reached for my full cup of tea, trying to hide or at least brush off the fact I'd been blatantly ignoring their conversation.

I felt awful that I was being so distant and rude and not even giving them a hint of an explanation as to why. It wasn't their fault that they didn't understand the significance of that day. But I knew. The sky knew. However, I couldn't bring myself to tell them, not because I didn't trust them, but because the words were too painful, too heavy. And I wanted to hold onto them a little while longer. Out of instinct, I blew on the top of my drink but there was no reason to.

The liquid had long since turned cold and I felt sickening disappointment invade my veins as it touched my lips, my eyes filling with tears again. It wasn't like I was that upset about the tea to cry over it, but certainly the cool liquid was my tipping point after keeping my already sorrowful emotions hidden all day.

β€œActually, I am feeling quite ill. I'm still on my period so perhaps that could be the culprit." Not being able to meet their gazes, I forced out a sound that was a pitiful attempt at a laugh.

"You do look quite pale," Callie commented, eyebrows low with concern and ruby red lips pursed in a pout. Her yellow dress and gold jewelry around her neck and fingers were the only bright things I'd seen all day.

"Are the pills I gave you helping?" Ingrid questioned, her hand on top of the table twitching subtly as if ready to reach for her bag any second.

"Yes, it just must be a bad day," I said, forcing out the words with a synthetic sweetness and trying to ease their worries. In reality, my menstrual cycle had become much more bearable, the pain and blood both decreasing day after day. Now on my sixth day, it was more of an annoyance than actual torture, but remained just as inconvenient and aggravating as the day it'd began. "But perhaps it'd be best if I go to my room and lie down? I'm so sorry. I hate to cut our time short," I partly lied, my guilt very real but my desire to stay the opposite.

"Your health is more important than Thirstday," Callie told me, using the humorous nickname she'd bestowed upon our weekly get together, as I stood and placed my napkin beside my empty dessert plate. As I stared at the baskets full of treats, not even the macaroons looked appealing even though I'd also skipped breakfast that morning, Henrik too busy with royal duties to pester me about it. "Do you want us to walk you to your room?"

I gave a thin-lipped smile when in reality all I wanted to do was shout and cry at her to stop being so kind to meβ€”to tell her I didn't deserve it. It made my behavior and decisions much harder to justify. For a brief second, I considered sitting back down and apologizing for being so over dramatic and rude. But the low sting in my eyes shouting at me to run away was louder than my conscious.

"No, it's fine. Just finish off the tea for me and I'll be happy," I teased and they smiled in that forced way that I knew was only out of pity and nothing more. It made that familiar gut wrenching feeling return full force in a swift blow and I quickly turned towards the door, afraid I'd be too dense with guilt to move at all if I stayed a second longer. "Goodbye," I gave a small wave over my shoulder as I hurriedly left the room, not having to fake feeling ill anymore with all the negative emotions beginning to boil in my chest.

"Bye!"

"Feel better!"

Their lighthearted calls had my shoulders slumping from the weight. Reverberating against my skull, they reminded me again and again that no matter who I befriended, I always failed them in some sort of way.

I let out a small sigh of relief once I was out of their sight and in the quietness of the empty hallways, whose framed paintings I took my time to admire, despite me already practically having every brushstroke memorized. Only a few hallways, typically the smaller ones in the center of the castle with no windows, had these pieces of unsigned art. They were all of different and quite random things, the gardens, a lamppost, a cat, and there was one in particular of a bowl of fruit that I found particularly pleasing, its warm colors reminding me of Autumn. But the part of it that always had me pausing a bit longer than I did with the others was the unfinished apple in the dead center. I always wondered if it had perhaps been the piece the artist had been working on before he or she diedβ€”their final attempt at creating something colorful in a world of gray.

I tore my eyes at it, the white spot of unpainted canvas bringing emotions I didn't want nor need on top of my others.

As soon as I turned the corner at the end of the hallway, I nearly tripped over a servant who was kneeled down scrubbing aggressively at the floors, my boot clad toes only a couple inches away from her knee. The servant girl's hair was in its natural state, frizzy and yet still tightly curled all around her head. It reminded me so much of Oriana, who used to complain about her "impossible-to-tame" hair all the time, that I couldn't help but let out a startled, choked gasp at the sight of it, thinking for a moment I'd seen a ghost.

"I'm so sorry, Madam," the girl sputtered and scrambled to her feet, keeping her face angled towards the floor. She curtsied.

Once I caught my wits and saw her familiar face, a beautiful structure of dark skin with patches of white around her mouth and eyes, I replied calmly, "Don't be. I was the one who didn't see you."

She looked up at me shyly, not frightened but curious, her light yellow irises shining brightly through her thick lashes. In her hands, she fumbled with the damp brush she'd been scrubbing the floors with, attracting the attention of my eyes to her dirty dress skirt with a dirty rag tucked into her waistband. Slowly, she bent down and timidly picked up the bucket full of soapy water by her feet.

"May I go do the rest of my work, Madam?" she asked quietly and my eyebrows raised in surprise at the realization she thought she needed my permission. "Mistress Schwartz says we must have all the floors scrubbed by sunset." Again, I was taken aback. The sun had only risen a couple of hours ago and this girl looked absolutely distressed, as if the idea of completing her given task was absolutely impossible. And when I thought about the vastness of the palace, I could understand her worries and suddenly I could feel her anxiety rubbing off onto me.

"Yes, of course," I stepped aside and watched her back retreat further down the hallway until she came to an abrupt stop, set her bucket down, dipped her brush in the water, and got on her hands and knees to get back to what she'd been doing before I ran into her. I eyed her for a couple moments longer and stole one final look at her hair before I turned to walk towards the main staircase.

I acknowledged the sentries at the front entrance, who then bowed and greeted me with their typical solemn yet respectful expressions. Unlike other guards, they were always in full battle armor, whose stiff leather and metal pieces looked too heavy to be considered comfortable.

But I suppose saving one's life in any regard comes before comfort. At least, it should.

Now partially alone with my thoughts, with only a few servants here and there passing by, I made it up the stairs, each step feeling heavier and longer than the one before it. It was times like those when I cursed whoever built the palace. Although it was a grand structure with all its curved archways and marble and gold designs everywhere, the stairs were unnecessarily long. Too long for me to ever even consider going up to the fifth or sixth floors, which had been used by the rest of the royal family when all one hundred members or so lived here. I never asked what happened to them. All I knew was that Henrik and Callie were the only ones left and that was enough.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye a servant, who was dusting a light fixture on the wall, send me a look when I got off on the third floor, something I hadn't done in a little over a week. Ignoring his obvious stare, I walked towards a familiar hallway and kept doing so until I made it to the third door on the right.

The door handle felt the same in my palm, cool and smooth, as I twisted it open, revealing a room that I didn't recognize as mine anymore. The bed was an image of perfection, the clock fixed, and the pillows on the window seat were nicely arranged. Gone were my accessories from the top of the dresser. Gone was the pedestal and the bouquet that had called it its home, both now in Henrik's room in the corner on my side of the bed so they were the first things I saw when I woke up.

Never had I imagined I could grow an attachment to a mere living space, but I found myself becoming disheartened the longer I stared at it. It wasn't my room anymore. Now it was just a room, an empty and unfeeling chamber that I'd happened to sleep in for a little over a month.

I closed the door swiftly behind me and creeped my way towards the bed, smiling to myself when the loose floorboard in the center of the room gave an obstructive creak. At least some things never change, I thought to myself as I rounded the bed to plop myself on its edge. Even the mattress felt different under my bum, my body sinking lower than I recalled.

My ears focused on the ticking of the clock that I'd once been so keen on silencing. It almost sounded as if it was laughing at me, reminding me that neither it nor time can ever truly be defeated.

I looked out the bay window that gave me a perfect view of the woods, which I'd once enjoyed and admired. But now as I looked at it, all I saw was a tombstone that separated me from my home and marked the death of my friends, my family, and my happiness all in one.

My bottom lip began to quiver and as soon as I realized it, it was already too late to stop my tears from falling. Fat and burning, they fell from my eyes in such large quantities that my skin became completely drenched within minutes. Whatever my skin didn't absorb, rolled off my chin and onto my trousers. With my elbows resting on my knees, my hands came up to my face in a futile attempt to muffle my sobs, my heart burning as if it was being twisted and pulled apart in between somebody's fingers.

Thunder rang out from above.

The clock kept on ticking and ticking and ticking and before I knew it an hour had passed and there was raining tapping softly against the window, which I knew was just the beginning of something treacherous.

My throat raw and aching and nose too stuffed up to breathe through, I lied awkwardly down on top of the comforter and my head sunk instantly into the pillows. I threw my arms around one as if I was hugging a person instead of an inanimate object that did not care about my sorrows. It absorbed the rest of my sobs and tears I had left to offer, but my heart was that one that took the most brutal of beatings. I wondered if it was possible for a heart to bruise from despair because it sure felt like mine had.

I closed my eyes and gave a shuddering breath out of my mouth, pulling the pillow closer and gripping it tighter until my knuckles turned white. It wasn't longer after that my heart slowed and pumped with the same rhythm as the clock's ticking.

* * *

My body jolted awake at the feeling of hands around my shoulders.

Giving a startled cry, my fists pushed back against the chest of the person whose arms were now wrapped tight around me and pulling me up into a sitting position. All my actions ceased once the intoxicating smell of pine wafted into my nostrils, instantly making my body go limp in his hold without me even realizing it. Relaxing, I tried to get my breathing and my heartbeat to slow down to no avail. My body was completely aware of every part of the male that touched me, his thigh that grazed my own, his hands on my back, and his chest only half a foot away from mine.

"Raena, what are you doing here?" Henrik cooed and caressed my face with his one hand, wiping my cheekbones softly with the rough pad of his thumb. His eyebrows furrowed, noticing the dried tears along the skin there. "Have you been crying, mate?"

My first instinct was to make a sarcastic and rather rude remark about how of course I'd been crying. But I bit my ruthless tongue until it bled, reminding it and myself repeatedly he was just trying to help.

When he kept staring expectantly at my face, I pulled it away from his grasp, trying to hide my expression in my shadow and far away from his prying eyes. I could only imagine how embarrassingly horrible I looked, my hair looking like a nest with a red, puffy face to match. I cursed myself for falling asleep, for allowing him to see me this wayβ€”weak.

I was weak.

"Raena, what's wrong?" After I didn't respond, he gripped my chin between his thumb and forefinger, not enough to hurt but with enough pressure that it was useless to fight against it, and forced my head to face him once more. When I tried to move away, to pull back, he only gripped harder and I winced, more tears suddenly ready to fall. "Did someone say something to you?" His voice was dangerously low and held a hidden promise, his eyes telling me the story of a male ready to kill. But beyond that I could see some sort of desperation. Desperation for what? I could not tell.

"Henrik, stop," I pleaded hoarsely, clutching his wrist with both of my hands in a futile attempt to pull it away. When his grip only tightened and his eyes grew brighter, I said louder and more desperately, "Please stop." My voice cracked, my gaze boring into his eyes as my chin began to ache. If such pain could be inflicted by just his two fingers, I shuddered at the thought of what he could do with the strength of the rest of his body. "You're hurting me."

Eyes widening, he retracted his hand so quickly it was as if my words had burned him. When he saw my eyes budding with new tears, he grimaced and shifted on the bed, looking uncertain and afraid that whatever he did next would just cause me more pain. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely, looking completely taken aback that he could've ever caused me discomfort. He looked ashamed. All I could do was stare at him, not wanting to lie and say it was fine but not wanting him to leave either. There was a moment of silence before Henrik cleared his throat. "Why did you come here?" His voice sounded deeper for some reason, more gravely.

Slowly looking towards my hands clasped in my lap, I explained, "I wasn't planning on sleeping here. I thought I could cry in here for a bit and then go back to your room later so you couldn't smell my tears."

There was no point in lying. I was sick of lying. I'd already been caught anyway and didn't possess enough energy in my body to conjure up anything except the truth. Someone once told me less muscles are used to smile than to frown and eventually I started associating telling a truth and a lie that way. A truth, I thought, only requires a working tongue. A lie requires a working tongue, a clear and imaginative mind, and the willpower to go through with it, knowing it's wrong.

"Raena..." he trailed off and slowly scooped me into his arms, giving me enough time and room to protest if I wanted to. I didn't. Not even as he set me down on his lap and tucked my head under his chin did I try fighting against him. Feeling like a rag doll in his muscular arms, I could no longer deny the comfort the bond between us brought me and comfort was the exact thing I needed. "I'm your mate. I'm supposed to take care of you," he said, frustration and sadness mixed together to create one uneven tone. "Why won't you let me do so?"

"You're supposed to leave tomorrow," I reminded him, the words coming out bitterly without me meaning to. I could only hope that since they were muffled against his chest that he hadn't been able to perceive it. "And I didn't want to be a nuisance."

It'd only been twenty-four hours since Henrik informed me of an emergency in a pack somewhere in the east that urgently needed his assistance. We had been playing a game of backgammon over coffee and tea and I hadn't bothered listening to the rest of what he said after the words "I'll be gone for a little over two weeks" left his mouth.

Henrik again gripped my chin, but this time so lightly that I knew he was purposefully trying to be as gentle as he could to not repeat his past mistake. However, nothing about his face or his voice was soft as he stared down at me with such anger that I was reminded why entire kingdoms feared him. "Don't you ever say that about yourself again, understood?" He looked down at me past flared nostrils. A muscle twitched in his jaw. "You're my female, my mate, my destined, my queen." He paused and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. I didn't think he was breathing. "You're my everything," he sighed out, like he realized this himself in the same moment he'd said it.

My eyes widened at his revelation, stared at him for a few more seconds to make sure I'd heard him right. But as he continued looking at me with that terrified expression on his face, I couldn't help but release another tear, this one not of any particular reason. Frustration, anger, confusion, sadness, and perhaps even love came out just in that one single droplet and I nearly collapsed when it was gingerly kissed away.

"It's Oriana's birthday," I croaked and his body went rigid, finally understanding the importance of this day. He was so still and silent that it was only the slow beatings of his heart under my palms that promised me he was still alive. At the feeling of her name leaving my lips for the first time in what felt like forever, I immediately began crying again. "I just miss her so much, Henrik."

Without warning, I wrapped my arms around his neck and wailed without restraint into his shoulder, focusing on every circular motions his hands made on my back and letting them comfort me until I was a mess of hiccups in his arms. He shushed and whispered lovely things in my ear as he rocked me back and forth, just like the tree limb had to the bird.

The sky gave a mighty crack of thunder that felt like it was right on top of us, shaking the ground and everything on it. A wolf howled from outside. And then the clouds released their own tears down onto the Cursed Kingdom while mine were just beginning to end.

But stillβ€”I did not leave my branch.

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