The Cursed Kingdom

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TWENTY-TWO

~ FLIPPING OUT ~

Spring was making an abrupt appearance, taking everyone in the palace by surprise.

The first month of the year had barely ended and already the weather was warming and becoming more humid, the sun shining longer and brighter each passing day. However, there was a chill to the air that refused to leave, one that I swore I could smell even with my frail mortal senses, and made it so that something light over my shoulders when on my daily walks was a requirement. Occasionally, there'd be a wind that sent goosebumps scattering across my arms and shivers slivering up my spine, causing me to pull my cardigan closer and scrunch up my shoulders until it passed. With envious eyes, I'd watch the unaffected Lycans pass by in their thin short sleeves and wish I could have their impressive body heat.

The gardeners had gone to work faster and more vigorously in the past week, trying desperately to prepare the soil efficiently and in time. Destry informed me, when I ran into him on one of my ambles through the gardens, that Henrik had ordered for more than double the usual amount of vegetation to be planted that year. There was more species as well and Destry suggested with a toothy grin that my arrival had something to do with it. I did not entirely disagree but laughed it off anyway with a wave of my hand.

The temperature wasn't the only factor that had begun changing. More birds were arriving in their triangular-shaped flocks day by day from the South, nestling in trees where they'd wait, prepare, and rest for their next migration. Every morning, they serenaded me awake with their twitters, shrieks, and caws, reaffirming and reminding me that just like them, spring was returning quickly.

And I was grateful for it.

I was grateful that spring had come early on a particularly beautiful, sunny midweek morning as my feet were swung out from under me for what felt like the hundredth time.

Spring meant that the snow had begun melting. All that was left of the brutal winter were a few patches of white scattered about randomly in shaded places mostly near the side of the palace or under tall trees.

But what I was truly grateful for, as my face headed straight towards the ground, was that this miracle of less snow meant that the ground wasn't nearly as unforgiving or stiff as it would've been two weeks ago. Although my hands were the first to slap against the ground, my shaky arms were too tired and weak to support my body weight. So I quickly collapsed, as I expected I would, and my nose was made acquaintances with the dirt. It was actually a lot softer than what I could've hoped for and I thanked the gods that nothing of mine was broken except for my pride which, unlike the ground, could never be thawed.

Laughter rang above me, deep and unnerving, and I gave a muffled growl, doing a push-up-like motion before I spat out the small clump of dirt that had slipped past my lips. At the taste and sight of it, I felt the eggs and pork I'd eaten that morning churn and threaten to join it on the ground.

Shuddering and holding back a heave, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and stood up on shaky legs, who still ached from a similar torment a few days earlier.

"And this is why we don't ever trust our opponents," Evander sang, sounding proud of himself, and clapped his hands. I, personally, was proud of myself for not reaching over and strangling him. "You thought the fighting was over and let your guard down. That's a big no-no in any sort of combat."

I stood and turned to him with a glare, throwing a quick jab with stiffened fingers at his bare and unprotected abdomen when I saw him grin at my face, which I could feel was covered in a layer of dirt. It pissed me off that he was unaffected by it when I could remember how my friends had always keeled over when I did it to them.

"You told me it was over," I reminded him with frustration and annoyance clear in my tone, my words clipped short. I stomped over to my shirt I'd thrown on a grassy area and wiped it across the bottom half of my face, the part that'd made the most contact with the earth. "Asshole," I hissed when I noticed how much grime came off on it and began scrubbing at my face until it hurt. I didn't care about the shirt. It was plain, polka dot patterned, and actually quite ugly, something that I'd kept stowed away in my drawers for ages until I finally found a reason to use it.

With Henrik away in the East, Evander, his only Duke and second in command, had naturally temporarily taken over the palace the past couple of weeks, making sure things still ran smoothly and that paperwork got done. But it hadn't been until the day after Ingrid and I had dyed my hair that I finally ran into him, flustered and quite embarrassed about my appearance.

Ingrid and I had done exactly as I'd requested and didn't sleep a wink the whole night, playing board games, telling stories, dying my hair, and even sneaking into the kitchen where we stole a bottle of wine. I didn't regret pulling an all nighter at all. But my lack of sleep resulted in massive dark bags to sprout under my eyes and a grogginess that kept me from brushing my hair or changing out of my nightgown. I figured it was just my luck that Evander stumbled upon me in what I thought to be one of my lowest moments, especially considering he'd met me for the first time in a similar condition.

He must think I'm a slob, I realised as I stared at his finely kept appearance and shoulder length hair that looked smoother and softer than I could ever dream of mine being.

Our conversation had been quite brief and light and ended with Evander raising the question if I'd be interested in learning some self defense. How we'd transitioned from discussing how I was to that was beyond my comprehension. Evander had an outstanding knowledge of words and people that he used expertly in conversations to change subjects to what he wanted, which in this case was training me to be able to defend myself. He explained to me that it'd been something in the air between him and Henrik for quite some time but he'd never had the chance to ask me myself before then.

After suffering for so long with the feeling of helplessness and hearing so much praise over Evander's amazing fighting techniques, I instantly said yes. No matter if protecting myself was a necessity or not, I figured it could never hurt to know how.

This was only my third time training with him, my first being almost a week prior, and already it was beginning to be nearly impossible. It hadn't even been a full hour yet and I'd already had to discard myself of my shirt after I'd begun to feel quite smothered in its sweat-soaked material.

My bra, which I'd only used for a little over a month since Mary, the tailor, suggested I get a new one, felt and looked as if I'd had it for years at least, covered in smudges of dirt, grass stains, and my own sweat. I felt as disgusting as it looked and grimaced when I picked off a blade of grass that was glued to the sweaty skin of my upper cleavage.

"I know," he said with a chuckle, coming up to stand beside me. He jabbed me in the side, just as I had done to him earlier, and I hissed, slapping his hand away with my free one. It made him laugh even harder and I regretted ever introducing that move to him. "See, little Madam, that's the funny part: you trusted me."

"Yes, hilarious." I rolled my eyes and looked up at his face, lingering on the swirls of his tattoos that ended near his ears. I resisted the urge to look down further, towards his bare chest, where more tattoos resided. They were the same style as Henrik yet so different. There was a particular patch of tattoos surrounding three wide symmetrical scars, which looked as if they were from claws, on his side that always ignited curiosity within me. They were slightly different, so slight that a normal person probably wouldn't have noticed it. But after sneaking quick glances at them for the past three training sessions, I'd perceived that they were not as swirling as the rest were but more angular and thick. They almost looked like thorns and I wondered if there was a specific reason behind itβ€”no, I knew there was. But I was too much of a coward to ask. "Can we just get back to punching each other now?" I asked with a sigh.

"Hold on," he said and yanked the shirt from my gasp before I could even get a sound out and brought it up to my face, making me flinch back from how quick his movements were. Despite us naturally getting to know each other very well during our few times together, I felt slightly awkward as he came to stand so close to me that I could feel his breath fanning my nose. It felt strangely intimate and I looked upwards at the sky, trying to ease some of my discomfort. Deep in concentration, his eyes narrowed and lips slightly stuck out more than usual, he lightly wiped the side of my lips three times with it and then smiled in satisfaction. "There. Now you're all clean, Madam." Realizing I must've missed a spot, I thanked him when he handed me my shirt and quickly discarded it back to where it'd been, as if he'd set it on fire. "Shall we continue with flipping? I love flipping people." He was too giddy for it to be considered sane.

"Yes, I know," I drawled, took a few steps back, and got in position, my fists hovering above my face to just where I could see around them to watch Evander do the same. Of course, he looked much more intimidating than I ever could and I momentarily took a peek at his bulging biceps and felt myself gulp.

Although I knew this male in front of me would never hurt me intentionally, the size of him was enough to make anybody, especially the person sparring himβ€”also known as myselfβ€”want to run for the nearest cave and never come back out.

"Wipe that weird look off your face," Evander told me with that typical boyish smirk of his that reminded me of Tylem and Taylium.

Sometimes the certain things he would say or do reminded me so much of them that it physically hurt to look at him. And the way he was smirking at me in that moment suddenly transported me back to the twins' backyard, the place where we played games and told stories around fires for over half our lives. It was the exact same look Tylem had given me right before I fell out of the tree next to their house and broke my tibia. Having felt fully responsible and horrified by the experience, Tylem had drastically changed overnight, adopting the role of the more mature brother and never using that smile ever again.

I was so deep in thought that I nearly dodged Evander's punch at my face, giving a strange startled sound when I felt the air of it brush my cheek. "Hey!" I cried when yet again he swept his feet under my legs and flipped me over his knee, causing me to plummet onto my back.

The wind was knocked out of my lungs, the muscles in my sides and back aching, and I gasped as he pounced on top of me with Lycan speed, putting pressure on my neck with his one arm, holding my hands above my head with the other, and tangling his legs in my own so I was completely immobilized. I stared up at him wide-eyed and lips in a silent gasp while he just continued smirking as if he and I were having tea together. I felt like an insect caught in a spider's web and the more I struggled against his grip, the more I realized how utterly trapped I was.

He leaned back and did that hair flip all males seemed to do, some long strands still stuck against his damp forehead, before he looked back down at me and purred, "Well, little Madam, it seems like that's our cue that this training session is over." He smiled wickedly, his white teeth looking particularly more perfect for some reason that day.

I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion. "What doβ€”"

A growl rang through the air, so loud and ferocious that birds in nearby trees flew out of their hiding spots, squawking and shrieking exactly what they thought about this disturbance.

My eyes suddenly went wide with recognition. Evander lifted a brow, as if to say he couldn't believe I hadn't guessed it sooner. I felt my stomach drop and I began pushing against Evander's hold more fervently, anxious to stand up, and this time he finally let go.

Evander stood full height smoothly with a sigh and turned to his king with an unreadable expression on his face. I rotated my head in the same direction and as soon as I saw an extremely pissed off Henrik marching our way, I sat up and tried brushing the dirt and wet grass off my back and sides. I was sure it was also all over my hair, which I'd originally pulled up into a neat and sturdy ponytail, but I didn't even bother trying to fix that.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three gardeners that'd been trimming bushes nearby stop and stare at the scene. But as soon as they registered that their king was angry, they were quick to find other work elsewhere and I wished I could flee along with them.

Evander held out his hand for me to take, which I immediately did, but the entire time he helped me onto my feet, my eyes never once left Henrik, feeling like I was seeing him for the first time again.

His hair had been cut while he was gone, now shorter on the sides and longer in the middle, and I noticed he was dressed in his formal black and gold-embroidered coat that reached his mid-thigh. I didn't understand why he was so well dressed when he was supposedly just returning home that day but I wasn't complaining in the slightest. If it wasn't for that awful scowl on his face, perhaps I would've dared to admire him some more.

"What's the meaning of this?" Henrik spat when he was only a few feet away, his eyes bouncing from Evander's shirtless body to my own, snarling at the sight of my bra. Another flutter of bird wings sounded from behind me. "Raena, put on a godsdamn shirt, for fΓΌck's sake." My eyes widened at the way he spoke to me and even Evander tensed.

I opened my mouth to argue, to tell him that he needed to watch his tongue, but snapped my jaw shut when he sent me a look that probably had started hundreds of wars. His eyes were glowing brighter than I thought imaginable and the veins in his neck and temples were bulging. My eyes trailed down and, as I expected, claws were there.

I realized as I stared at his pissed off form that the only outcome that could come from me talking back was more arguing and more cursing and claws. So I rolled my eyes and gave a dramatic huff, my ways of physically showing him I was the opposite of delighted with his behaviour, and begrudgingly stomped over to my shirt. I snatched it from the ground and my anger was evident in the sloppy and quite violent way I unfolded it from its balled up state.

"Your Majesty," Evander said, my back now facing the pair as I slipped on my shirt, which smelled repulsively of sweat and soil. His voice was too calm for my liking, but I reminded myself that Evander had dealt with Henrik's temper a lot longer than anybody else hadβ€”centuries even. "Raena agreed to start training with me. Today I decided it'd be fun to switch things up from just self defense to actually learn how to slam some bodies down." He gave a weak chuckle. But when I turned around to face them again, now fully clothed, I observed that Henrik was less than amused. If anything, his comment had only upset him more and I internally begged Evander to be quiet. "She actually was doing quite well. Would you like her to demonstrate?" I sent him a sharp look, my eyes wide and eyebrows scrunched together, silently asking him if he'd truly lost all sense and reason.

"No, I would not," Henrik gritted out, his voice between a snarl. His whole body was tense and I noticed as he stood in front of his cousin, the small height difference between them with Henrik being about two inches taller. "You may leave, Evander." He glared at his duke, who, by the look on his face, finally seemed to register he would not succeed in calming Henrik down.

There was a pause of thick silence and then a quiet yet firm, "Yes, Your Majesty." Evander was blatantly not content with how things were ending, a frown making its home on his face, but knew full well he could not argue with his king's order. He passed me to grab his shirt and turned to leave but not before whispering a "Good job" to me with a forced smile. The only thanks I dared to give him with the fuming male staring right at us was a nod and a tight-lipped grin. I made a mental note to thank him formally later and apologise for my mate's horrible attitude.

I watched his tattooed back sway along with each movement of his hips as he retreated. He threw his shirt over his shoulder, whistling a seemingly upbeat tune I'd never heard before. If it hadn't been for his downtrodden face, I would've thought him to be completely indifferent to what'd happened.

"You do know he's infatuated with you, right?" Henrik told me casually once Evander was inside the palace and there'd been a few heartbeats of total silence. My head whipped around towards him. But he wasn't looking at me. Instead, he was facing the woods, his hands now stuffed in his pockets so I couldn't check if there were claws there or not. "If it wasn't for my mark's," he turned his body to point at the said feature, "existence he would've placed one there himself." His voice was bitter, the very thought sickening him.

"Don't be a dolt, Henrik," I told him with a roll of my eye, not caring if he saw it or not. I knew he had. "Evander and I are just friends." He scoffed and went to speak but I, for once, was faster. "No, you listen to me. You need to stop having these temper tantrums and being so damn jealous all the time." My voice sounded strong and unyielding and for once, I was actually confident with how I'd delivered my words.

His head snapped to me, his nostrils flared. "I am not jealous," he said a bit too quickly and practically hissed out the last word as if it was poison on his tongue. Henrik and I both knew it was a lie. I could see it in the way he was looking at me.

"Alright," I said with a single, disbelieving bob of my head. "Then what are you exactly? Because whatever it is, I don't like it and I might have to ask you to please leave again."

I didn't mean it. In fact, the thought of him leaving again made my mark and heart ache, as if they were both the same. But I was pissed off and annoyed. I wanted him to think that I hadn't longed for his arms around me at night or his crude remarks when I sat in the silence of his bedroom. I wanted him to think I hadn't missed him at all.

His anger was gone in an instant and replaced by an emotion I could only describe as hurt. As I stared at his furrowed eyebrows and downturned lips, there was a second where I thought about discarding my stubbornness and taking it all backβ€”maybe even apologising. But then his eyes drifted above my eyes and narrowed and I found myself becoming self conscious under his stare instead.

"Mate, what happened to your hair?" Head tilting to the side, his voice was curious and I couldn't tell if it was a positive or negative emotion he was exhibiting along with it.

I cursed in my head, having forgotten momentarily in the midst of everything that I dyed it.

"Don't change the subject," I said and instinctively tucked a stray hair behind my ear as if that could somehow hide the rest of my head from his eyesight.

The dye had made my hair a bit darker than its original color, but it was such a meager difference that not even Callie had made a comment. But of course Henrik noticed. I should've expected it. He always noticed everything I didn't want him to.

Henrik sighed and looked out the woods again, as if its trees held all the answers he'd ever sought for. His gold eyes looked beautiful in the sunlight.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, closing his eyes for a few beats longer than normal, reigning in his emotions and thoughts. "It's just so hard, Raena. Perhaps to you my outburst seems overdramatic. But you must understand that I am not a mortal nor am I a man. Typically, Lycans mate within the first two weeks of their meeting." I knew this fact already from my nights of obsessive reading but didn't make the effort to tell him. "Being so far away from you, still unmated and for such a long time, was near torture, and to come back and see you with another male on top of you..." He trailed off with a shake of his head. I could've sworn I heard his voice break, but I couldn't tell for certain. "It was like, for a few seconds, all of my fears had come true."

Feeling defeated, I walked over slowly and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I understand," I told him softly, my heart feeling for him. Although I truly did know where he was coming from, it still didn't excuse his behaviour. But I decided to let it slide. He was tired from a long journey and I was tired from training, so I figured we both deserved a break for once. "It's just hard to understand each other sometimes, I thinkβ€”for many reasons."

He was immortal; I was mortal. He was a king; I was a commoner. Every detail of our beings were so different and sometimes I wondered if whatever god had destined us for each other made a mistake or decided to create the biggest joke of the century.

Henrik nodded, deep in thought. I wondered if he was perhaps thinking the same thing as I was. The thought made my stomach not feel right.

He shook his head. "Enough somber talk." He took my hand in his and brought them to his lips, making my heart flutter and my ears began to burn when they met my red and cracked knuckles. "I missed you," he told me softly, now holding both my hands in his and looking through my eyes and deep into my soul. Me too, I wanted to say but bit my tongue and cast my eyes towards my shoes before the words could slip out. "I want to spend all of tomorrow with you, if that's alright? I wish to show you something quite special to me. Maybe it can help us understand each other a bit better." I smiled as he gave a deep chuckle.

"That sounds wonderful," I told him, surprised by how truly excited I was to learn more about him and see something he cared about. When he held it out to me, I took his arm and allowed him to lead us leisurely towards the palace. I silently hoped that somehow his sense of smell had turned off when I remembered that I was still drenched in sweat and dirt. However, if my scent repulsed him, he gave no sign.

"But, seriously though," Henrik began, staring quizzically at the side of my head, "what did you do to your hair?"

I internally sighed, realizing I was cornered and there'd be no escaping his question. "I dyed it," I said with a shrug that wasn't genuine. "I wanted to do something different," I lied, hoping my voice sounded as smooth and casual as I'd intended. There was a pause and I unintentionally slowed, causing Henrik to turn to me with a questioning glance. My eyes flashed to his and then shyly back towards the ground. "Do you not like it?"

"Of course I like it," he said, the area between his eyebrow creased with an unspoken question. Looking uncertain of what to say next, he opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. "I'm just confused as to why you'd ever want to meddle with your hair when it was so beautiful as it was. That's all, my female." He gave me a smile and leaned over to place a quick peck on my temple.

Was.

Feeling a lump appear in my throat, I wished I could tell him that it'd never be beautiful again. But, as I stared at his chiseled features, I decided I wanted to keep that unfortunate truth to myself a little while longer or wait until the dye wore off and revealed it for me.



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