The Cursed Kingdom

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TWENTY-ONE

~ DYING ~

"It could be stress," Ingrid suggested while she took her time to assess my hair, shock evident on her face, although I knew she was doing her best to suppress it for my sake.

When she'd opened the door and first laid eyes on my appearance, she looked closer to fainting than when she had seen me covered in blood on Henrik's bathroom floor. If it hadn't been for my current situation, I probably would've laughed at how comically big her eyes had gotten.

Pulling me out my thoughts, Ingrid reached forward and gently grabbed a white strand between her fingertips, pursed her lips, and hummed a single low syllable, deep in thought. "Or genetics," she added after I looked at her with doubt clear in my features. "Either way, I wouldn't worry about it. I don't sense anything wrong."

Already full of frustration and confusion, her answer ignited something within me that felt close to irritation.

The way she said it made it sound as if my hair turning a completely different shade of color was nothing out of the ordinary. She didn't understand the sheer panic I felt when I first noticed the three unusually bright and almost white hairs along my hairline just a few days after Henrik had left, toothbrush in my mouth and eyes becoming so wide that it hurt.

Quickly, I had stopped what I was doing to observe, pulling and tugging on the finger-long strands to make sure they were really my hair and attached to my scalp. After I realized they were, I was quick to yank them all out and afterwards, I searched through my hairline for a couple minutes to confirm there weren't anymore. When I found none, I thought that was the end of it and quickly went to bed.

But by the next morning, there were dozens more and the day after that, there were hundredsβ€”too many for me to even consider pulling them out with tweezers. Now as I stood in the center of a guest bedroom in front of Ingrid five days after the original discovery, nearly a third of my hair was as white as cotton, the unusual strands seeming to spread as fast as weeds.

Perhaps that's why I was so annoyed. Yes, it was relieving to hear it wasn't a sign of something fatal or dangerous. But I still wanted her to acknowledge what was happening to me was out of the ordinaryβ€”that a girl's hair turning white at the age of eighteen should not be something overlooked or belittled.

However, I kept my mouth shut and nodded slowly, telling myself that if Ingrid, a Healer, was unconcerned then perhaps I should not care as much either. "My mother did have light hair..." I trailed off, thinking back to the said woman and the bright blonde hair she was famous in our village for.

I could remember the feeling of it, soft, thick, and wavy, from the times she'd let me braid it while she sewed, humming a merry tune under her breath. Although it was beautiful, I'd never once desired to possess it, always preferring my golden locks that resembled hers only in texture.

She was the only one that could pull such a distinct feature, her beauty almost as unearthly as her hair. But I, an average-looking teenage girl who still struggled with spots of acne, certainly couldn't.

It wasn't until that moment that I realized how dire hair is for a person's confidence. It made me understand why people put synthetic colors on their graying hair or why people cry when they get a bad haircut, things I had originally thought to be ridiculous and quite selfish to fuss over. But as the realization set in that there was a chance of me losing the hair I'd loved forever, the vain part of myself, a part I didn't realize I possessed until five days ago, wanted to scream in frustration, feeling cornered like a caged animal and helpless like an infant.

Giving my hair one last look over, she pulled her hand away and reached to her side and into her famous brown leather bag, which Callie always teased to be endless. Sometimes, though, I could've sworn she was right. Ingrid's bag, for how small it was, did seem unusually innumerable and charms weren't unheard of either. But Ingrid would always wave Callie's remarks off with a laugh, so I never questioned it, figuring if she wanted to share that she had an enchanted bag she would tell us herself.

Pulling her hand out, in between her fingertips was a small teardrop-shaped vial filled to the brim with a light brown powder that reminded me of ground cacao. She sighed down at it, her thin eyebrows furrowed, contemplating. "Are you positive you want to do this?" she asked, looking me in the eyes warily. She adjusted the vial in her grip anxiously. "Once we put it on, we can't take it off and this stuff can last for months at a time."

I looked down and grasped with my thumb and forefinger a particular thick strand of white, which appeared to almost glow because of the light shining down from the small fixture above us. As I stared at the strands that tainted my golden hair, I felt my stomach drop to my toes, especially when I remembered Henrik was supposed to be returning the next week. For some reason, the thought of him seeing me with that color hair made me sick to my stomach and I glowered down at the strand with a feeling close to hatred, my fingers letting it go at the same time my mind released its hesitation.

"Yes. I'm sure."

* * *

The concoction smelled awfully like vinegar and its texture once mixed with water was like mud, a few clumps of whatever plant it was made from trapped under my yellow-stained fingernails after I wrongfully mixed it together barehanded.

It was so pungent that I was positive its scent would stain the walls and floors enough that everyone in the palace would have something to remember me by long after I passed away. I even caught Ingrid's eyes watering slightly, who always confidentially claimed that her years of being around sickly patients made it so no smell could affect her.

Seated in a chair we'd pulled from the sitting area, I grimaced in disgust as I watched Ingrid, who was intelligently using gloves, through the bathroom mirror place a big clump of it on my hair, its cold temperature causing a shudder to race down my spine when it met my scalp. The sleeves of her simple white nightgown were rolled up to her elbows and her eyebrows were drawn together in concentration as she made sure to evenly cover every strand. By the palmful, she slowly applied all of the horrible smelling and looking hair dye until the glass bowl we'd mixed it in only had a few smears left of it around its brim from where some had escaped between her fingers.

"This will look like how my hair was before, right?" I asked, panicking a little when I noticed how dark and very unlike my original hair color the dye looked. The reason why I'd even asked her to purchase it for me was because I didn't want my hair to be lighter but I certainly didn't want it to be a brunette either.

This might've been a mistake, I thought, thinning my lips in an attempt to hide the true intensity of my ever increasing regret.

"Not exact. But it should be close," Ingrid stated, meeting my eyes through the glass. She looked at my hair, obviously starting to contemplate the same thing. "It always looks a bit darker than how it comes out." She wiped my ear with her index finger. Ingrid looked down with disgust at the smudge of clumpy brown that came off and wiped it on the towel we'd placed in the sink. Its once pristine white appearance was now ruined from my earlier, futile, and quite vigorous attempts at trying to scrub the dye out of my skin and fingernails. The towel looked as if it'd been dragged through dirt for a very long and very rainy journey and I doubted that it'd ever look clean again. "But if this does turn out bad just remember that you asked for this and I'm a Healer, not a miracle worker, and certainly not a hairdresser."

I smiled and laughed once through my nose, adjusting the towel over my shoulder when it began to rub uncomfortable against my mark. "Of course."

With my eyes now drawn onto it, they traced every detail of my completely healed mark, its vibrant red color and smooth surface making it look like a tattoo rather than a wound or scar. Remembering Ingrid's explanation of mark's healing process, I suddenly felt as if I was staring at another person in the mirror, someone who would've loathed the girl that'd arrived at this palace over two months ago, who feared everything, trusted nothing, and certainly could never feel anything for the Cursed King other than anger.

Ingrid ran her hands one more time through my hair, making sure not a single strand was left untouched. Once she was satisfied with her work, she gave back of my head a single, approving nod. "Alright. Now we leave it on for forty minutes," she told me and ripped off her brown-covered latex gloves, sighing in relief. "Gods, I hate these things," she muttered and tossed them carelessly into the sink on top of the towel before drying her sweaty hands on her nightgown.

"Better than having your hands stained yellow," I said, showing her mine as I stood to face her, which I could only hope would return to looking normal soon after a few washes.

She smiled and gave a small laugh. "Yes, quite."

Without speaking, we both moved into the bedroom and, knowing better than to let me sit on the bed, we padded over to the small table in the corner, the only piece of furniture other than the bed and dresser in the room. I actually preferred sitting there since it was near the fireplace and I was all for avoiding any chance of ruining another person's bedsheets.

An evening chill had settled throughout the room, causing goosebumps to form over my skin since the only things I was wearing were the towel and my blue nightgown. So I sat myself in the seat closest to the fire, where I could feel its bursts of heat with every flicker and crackle of the wood against the back of my head and naked calves.

As we sat there was the first few minutes, there was this sort of calm silence as if the air itself had stopped. But when a sharp howl penetrated the atmosphere, I couldn't keep my eyes from drifting upwards and out the window and towards the full moon I'd come to dislike more than the beasts that sung to it.

Ingrid, however, kept her rigid back to the window, her pale face suddenly seeming much paler and I wondered how she could've possibly dealt with that kind of horror for the past sixteen years. There was no doubt in my mind that she wasn't thinking about Furkan every second, wondering if perhaps this would be the full moon where he didn't shift back to a human afterwards. Through her, Jerium, and Callie, I'd heard numerous stories of families that had lost their loved ones because they'd turn into Rogues during a full moon, and I knew Ingrid always feared it would happen to her. It wasn't like she tried to keep it a secret.

A dozen more nearby howls rang through the air and I sighed, knowing all we could do was wait until the sun showed its friendly face again.

"So do you always come here during a full moon?" I asked, trying to get both our minds on something else while looking around the bedroom.

The plain room's main color theme was purple with a few pink and blue accents here and there in the curtains and bed comforter. A few essential items were spread throughout the room along with a framed canvas on the nightstand and a small blue right handprint and footprint stamped onto it with paint.

"Mostly," Ingrid said, nodding as if there were a thousand weights placed on her head. "Furkan and I's place is quite secluded and the closest structure is the palace. Seeing that I'm the Royal Healer, Henrik gave me a room not just for full moons and my protection but for any medical emergencies that require more than twenty-four hour care."

"Ah, I see," I responded and fumbled with the ends of my nightgown, grimacing when I felt a cold chunk of the dye run down my neck.

"I have to admit, I'm a bit clueless when it comes to these sorts of things," Ingrid said, her eyes apologetic. "I don't think I've had a sleepover since I was sixteen, which was..." she paused, casting her eyes down at the tabletop in deep thought. "Well, sixteen years ago." She seemed surprised and shook her head. My own eyebrows rose up at the reminder of our age difference, her innocent appearance and personality usually deceiving my brain into thinking she was much closer to my age. "Is there anything you want to do? We have the whole castle to ourselves. Well, except for Jerium," she said with a slight giggle as she thought of the hybrid who was staying in the room a few doors down.

My eyes instinctively shot back up to the sky and to the full moon that tainted it, feeling that horrible, stomach-dropping sensation again that I was being watched by invisible eyes. I couldn't help but think of the infamous Moon Goddess, Lucine, herself. I didn't know what she looked like or if gods had appearances at all, but I pictured her with a devious smirk and satisfied eyes as she looked down onto the chaos and torture she caused every month. It made me wonder if she was laughing at me too, at the anxiety and sadness that ran through my veins.

I shrugged, trying to act indifferent as I met Ingrid's curious gaze which was completely unaware of the thoughts that ran through my head. "I don't know. All I know is I don't want to fall asleep tonight. I don't think I could if I tried," I added the last part quickly as I attempted tuning out all noises from outside. After a while of hearing them, the Lycans' howls began to sound more like cries of agony than anything else and I physically cringed when a particularly loud and shrill one rang through the air.

She didn't have to use her Healer senses to see through my facade. Smiling sadly with tired eyes, she nodded softly and rested her hand as a silent invitation. "It's ok. I understand." Ingrid looked to her open palm facing the ceiling and back to me, encouraging me further

Slowly, I placed my hand in hers and immediately felt her release streams of her unique energy into my bloodstream, which seemed to circulate throughout my whole body until reaching my racing heart, calming it almost instantly. While she did this, Ingrid barely blinked and for a moment I questioned if it was her doing it at all. When I began feeling the full extent of her powers, every muscle in my body relaxed, my headache gone, and my heartbeat the steadiest it'd been in months, I looked at my friend in awe. I didn't fully understand how her powers worked but I didn't have to for me to be completely amazed by them and a part of me wished that I could do a fraction of something as wonderful.

And so, hands held and hearts poured out, we spent the rest of the night talking and trying to fix my hair while listening solemnly to the Cursed Ones' howls, wondering silently if any belonged to our mates.

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