The Cursed Kingdom

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TWENTY-THREE

~ THE ROYAL FAMILY ~

“So where exactly are we going?" I asked as I stared out the window, watching with a childlike amazement as the trees passed by us.

I'd never ridden a horse before but I'd watched and learned enough that, after having evaluated the rhythmic sound of the clops of the horse's hooves in my head to pass the time, I could tell that we were only going the speed of a working trot. Although to most it probably seemed dull, such as Henrik who looked on the brink of boredom, it was immensely interesting to me to see how quick this way of travel was after spending eighteen years on the same two feet.

All my life, in between the ones about the Cursed Kingdom, I'd heard stories of beautiful princesses who'd ride in carriages wherever they went, which to them was as normal as going to bed hungry had been for me. The very idea astounded me. Oriana and I, around the time we'd begun attending school, would sneak inside her neighbor's barn and plop ourselves on top of his old wagon, imagining that it was a carriage taking us far away to meet our princes as ordered by our father, the noble King Caspolean. The straw that covered its rotting wood to our naive imaginations was the finest velvet cushioning and the clucking chickens were the common people, who'd gawk at us in awe and jealousy.

Despite having pictured it so many times in so many different ways to a point where I felt as if I could smell what it was like to be that carefree, I'd never considered riding in a carriage would be so smooth or comfortable. Every once and a while there'd be a dip in the road that'd make the plethora of food Henrik had filled me with jump in my stomach and make me a bit queasy. But besides that, I could've sworn there were no wheels or a horse at all and that the compartment was floating. That I was floating.

"My female," Henrik chuckled, looking up from his lap which had seemed to catch his utmost attention within the past few minutes, "do you not know the meaning of the word 'surprise'?"

Yes, I wanted to say, turning my head for the sole purpose to narrow my eyes his way.

If there was one thing that this experience had brought to light was that I despised surprises. Tylem used to tell me that this attribute of mine was because of the fact that I was too controlling and, after years of denying it, I began to realize that he had been right all along. Following the loss of my mother, who had shared a similar hatred for the unknown herself, I had begun preferring to have tighter-than-necessary grip on everything, almost as if I subconsciously believed that if I did that then the less likely bad things would happen to me. It obviously hadn't worked and being deemed controlling was not something I enjoyed, but a habit was a habit, nobody can change themselves in a day, and this particular one certainly was no exception.

Henrik had surprisingly kept his word, not that I had been expecting any different, but it was a tad more literal than what I'd had in mind. From the moment we'd both woken up, me wrapped like a present in his arms, his nose in my hair, and the soft and warm huff of breath as he said, "Good morning," we'd spent every second of every minute of every hour together. The only times I could recall us actually being in separate rooms were when one of us had to use the restroom. We'd played five rounds of backgammon, Henrik's favorite game, ate breakfast together as well as lunch, where I learned that Henrik's favorite color was blue and he once had a pet dog named Oliver, and even enjoyed some chocolate beverages paired with macaroons before he escorted us outside.

I could've sworn I felt my jaw slam against the floor when I first saw the carriage parked just outside the front doors, so majestic and beautiful with its golden designs and black walls, the Cursed Kingdom's crest in the center of the door.

When Henrik told me that we'd be taking it to go somewhere, I was sure my heart was about ready to burst out of my chest and land at his feet. Although his palace was large and gave plenty to do, I was excited to leave it and see another part of the Cursedlands, a place I was realizing I knew absolutely nothing about. Fear, of course, was still there right underneath but when I saw Henrik staring at me with an expression I didn't feel that I deserved, I knew nothing bad could happen to me with him near.

I turned back to the outdoor scenery, hearing Henrik give a sigh and the leather beneath him groan as he adjusted his leg to bend over his knee. I'd never seen him so restless before, always appearing to change his posture and sitting position every few minutes instead of that calm exterior I'd grown used to. It was no question as to why, though.

The carriage's small two-person compartment was cramped even for me and I couldn't imagine how uncomfortable it must've been for his seemingly endless limbs. People used to tease me for my short height which was just a few inches above five foot. But while I watched Henrik, who did his best to keep his knees from knocking into mine or slamming against the wall, I counted the many blessings my vertical deficiency provided me with.

With a wave of lethargy abruptly washing over me as my adrenaline finally ran out, my eyes trailed downward and my fingers idly began tracing the golden window frame and eventually to the navy blue carpet wallpaper as well, every swirling design connected in some artistic way. I wondered how many people had seen those same designs, maybe even traced them just like I had. Stopping my fingers, I pulled back my hand to place on the cushions beneath me, which were more firm than I would've imagined and not even close to a velvet texture but just as satisfactory in its own way.

As I pressed down, I realized that no matter how many people had sat on this seat, whether it'd been one or a thousand, none could compete with the pure, unfathomable exhilaration I felt being able to sit there. No matter how many nightmares it'd taken me, at least one of my dreams came true. My only wish was that Oriana could've experienced it too but in my heart, I like to believe she was there in spirit. It made me feel less guilty and was a lot easier to swallow than the truth, that she was somewhere just beyond those very trees I was staring at as just fragments of the bright soul she used to be.

I looked back over at the male seated across from me and noticed him staring out the other window, his right hand playing idly with the blue ring on his pinky finger while he was in deep thought, twisting it around and around. His eyes were glowing brighter than normal—or perhaps that was just the white light shining in through the window—and I questioned what he could've possibly been thinking about. For such a complex person, the possibilities seemed endless.

I couldn't help but wonder if his fiddling, which was a very un-Henrik-like thing to do, was a sign that he was nervous since I was very familiar with doing the same thing when I felt that way. I didn't have a clue of where we were going, but it didn't take much to understand he was taking me to see whatever it was he deemed to be extremely important to him. It was completely comprehensible if he was anxious, seeing that he was a very guarded person (both literally and figuratively) and showing any kind of emotion was no easy task for him. If anything, it made him seem more approachable.

The carriage began to noticeably slow and the sharp sounds of the horse's hooves did as well, causing me to shoot my head towards the window, curious to see what had been causing so much suspense for the past twenty-four hours. But I was only met with the same image I'd seen all along: trees, whose bare limbs held a few patches of snow trapped in some of the shaded areas where the branches met the trunk. Practically pressing my face against the glass, I tried to look around on either side but all I saw was an endless amount of trees and more trees and a handful thistle bushes.

"Whoooaaa—steady!" As soon as the muffled command of the driver sounded out, the carriage came to a complete stop and there was a silence that took me by surprise. There was no wind that day either, not even the twitters of birds I'd become so used to. Everything was so quiet and still I could've sworn I could feel every vein in my body pulsing.

I furrowed my eyebrows and turned to Henrik but all he did was anxiously run a hand through his hair, tug back his jacket sleeve, and check his watch, taking what was around twenty seconds to supposedly read the time. I felt annoyance boil in the pit of my abdomen at his blatant and quite childish avoidance of meeting my eyes, having once told me that he could tell if a person was looking at him by the sound of their breathing.

The door opened the same time my mouth did, making me jump and give a strained, startled sound, my hand flying up to my chest. Completely undisturbed and the most tranquil he'd appeared all day, Henrik stood, his upper body practically parallel with the floor because of how far he had to bend over to not hit his head on the ceiling, and swiftly stepped down and out of the carriage, which bounced and rocked with each of his steps. As soon as his body left the open doorway, a shiver ran down my spine from the chilly air abruptly meeting my skin and I was glad I chose to wear one of my heavier dresses with its matching shawl.

Slowly, I got to my feet, barely having to bend my head, and grabbed onto Henrik's outstretched hand without hesitation. Although there were only three steps, they were the smallest and steepest I'd ever seen and the image of me slipping and falling was too vivid in my head for comfort.

Henrik's hand, which felt as secure and firm as the stone handrails in his palace, assisted me all the way down onto steady ground, where I let out a breath of relief. I let go of his hand and used both of mine to smooth out the skirt of my dress, silently admiring its thick and lovely satin texture in the process.

"Thank you," I told the smiling driver whose body was partly hidden by the door. In response, he bowed, exhibiting the top of his shiny bald head which I could slightly see the outline of myself in, and quickly closed the door. The sword strapped to his hip attracted my gaze, swinging and bumping lightly against his outer thigh as he walked, and it seemed impossible to even picture such a kind-looking and reserved male wielding it.

Henrik placed his hand on the small of my back, making my body stiffen for only a moment out of surprise, and began leading me silently with a gentle pressure into the woods.

I looked over my shoulder and to the driver to see him put back on his strange triangular hat, perch himself on his driver's seat, and pull a sandwich out from his inner coat pocket, which was wrapped in cloth. The horse, a beautiful Percheron with a light mane and patches of white scattered throughout its coat, stomped its front hoof impatiently on the ground. In that moment, I related more to it than the two males nearby.

"Henrik, what are we doing here?" I asked, a hint of uncertainty and nervousness in my tone.

The largest part of myself, the one with common sense, knew without a doubt that Henrik would never let harm come to me. He'd proven that time and time again, always treating me more like a frail child than a grown woman. But the other one, that small little voice that I thought had long ago died and rotted away, feared and warned me that he had finally tired of me, that I would die in the woods just as my friends had.

The king sent me a mischievous look, leaned down slightly, and shushed me, his forefinger hovering in front of his lips and drawing my eyes to them. A couple steps later, his hand without warning reached down slowly and gently prodded my limp fingers apart so he could intertwine them with his own, his warmth feeling comforting against my cold skin. My eyes flashed downwards to the sight, my mind not trusting my sense of touch alone to believe what was happening. Despite us sharing a bed and plenty of kisses, it felt strange to hold hands with him—shocking even. The gesture seemed so sweet and normal, something completely different than what I'd perceived our relationship to be so far.

But despite my apprehension towards the new intimate gesture, when he gave a short squeeze, I found myself immediately doing the same right back, both of us meeting each other's eyes and smiling in sync. I felt my heart jump and I realized that sweet and normal was a good thing, no matter how much my mind cursed at me for it. It was good.

We walked in comfortable silence for what had to have been at least thirty minutes, with me trying not to trip over raised roots and him gracefully gliding through without faltering once, when Henrik suddenly stopped, his hand tugging me back so I had no choice but to do the same. Staring at him with a hesitant confusion, I watched him lift his aquiline nose in the air and give one elongated inhale, his eyebrows furrowing. Without a sound or another moment of waiting, he began walking again, but slower and more off to the side, pulling us in a slightly new direction.

"Henrik—"

He shushed me again, this time more sharply, and then led us over to a large rock that stuck out from the ground. He kneeled down and gestured for me to do the same with his free hand while his other lightly tugged me downward, his eyes stuck a silent pleading.

I sent him a questioning look, my heartbeat erratic. But I lifted my dress skirt anyway and did as he asked, the pine and sticks that covered the ground poking uncomfortably at the bony parts of my knees. I didn't mind, though. After falling, playing, and sliding on all kinds of dirt as a child, the sensation felt oddly nostalgic.

"Look," he whispered, gesturing with his head in the direction directly in front of the boulder before he himself looked there, his eyes calculating and somber.

I turned and instantly widened my eyes, gasping. There, barely a hundred feet away and tearing into a dead elk with their sharp teeth and claws, were five shifted Lycans. They completely surrounded the dead creature who was lying in a pool of its own blood, its dark and hollow eyes looking up at the sky, the last image the poor animal must've seen. The two distinctively smaller Lycans gnawed on the feet and legs while the larger three, the adults, went for the parts with more meat.

My eyes stayed focused on them, wincing when the largest of the group tore a large amount of skin on the elk's thigh clean off in one yank. I could hear the snapping of bones and the moist smacking of their mouths as they ripped apart every tendon and muscle in its body.

An angry growl sounded out but I couldn't tell which one it came from.

"That—" Henrik pointed to the pitch black Lycan I'd been staring at the most, his voice causing me to jump slightly since I hadn't been expecting him to say anything. I could've sworn I saw the said beast's ears twitch and I lowered myself further behind the rock. "—is my father." My neck hurt from how fast I turned my head to look at Henrik. When I met his eyes, all I saw was sincerity and when my gaze slowly made its way back over to the bloody scene, I realized how much he and Henrik's wolf forms looked alike, both pure black and massive. "And that beauty beside him is my mother."

I felt my eyes soften when I looked over at the Lycan with the beautiful grey fur, black paws and ears, with a white snout which was stained red from her meal. Henrik's voice had noticeably gone quieter with longing and adoration when talking about her and, having lost my own mother and experiencing the same sensation, I felt my heart clench understandingly.

Staring at the side of my face, Henrik explained, "Heartbroken with what I'd done, my mother became Rogue only five years after the Moon Goddess cursed us." Although he didn't say it, I could see it written on his face and hear in his unsteady voice the immense guilt Henrik possessed. I'd always known he'd resented what had happened to his kingdom because of his actions with the Moon Goddess, but now that I knew that his family was also affected in this way by the curse, suddenly I couldn't begin to imagine the level of complete devastation he must've undergone everyday. If I took part in the cause of my loved ones turning into rabid animals for the rest of their lives, I no doubt would've driven myself to insanity with self hatred. "My father couldn't handle the thought of her being out here alone and fending for herself. So he quickly decided to join her and a couple months later, he lost his humanity to the curse as well and I was crowned the king. A year later my name was feared by all of Trellomar."

Not knowing what to say, I turned back to the gruesome view before me and I could finally tell the large difference between a Lycan and a Rogue. When I'd seen and passed by the palace's guards in their wolf forms, their eyes were bright, aware, and would thin and widen with emotions and as they walked, there was a sort of poise about them that you just knew they weren't regular wolves. They had dignity and honor.

But these creatures in front of me were nothing but animals, whose eyes were as inhumane and empty as a serpent's. There was nothing human or even Lycan about the way they were mutilating the body of the poor elk and I watched solemnly when Henrik's mother snapped her jaws at one of the small wolves who tried to steal a piece of meat she'd torn off. The warm, motherly tenderness Henrik's voice sought for was hard to picture in the Rogue before me.

I cleared my throat, not realizing until then how full it felt with all my unsaid words. "And who are they?" I pointed to the other three, who were still unidentified.

One of the small ones tugged at an elk leg like it was a mere toy, giving a high-pitched growl and shaking its head back and forth. It made me think of my dog Aleah, who I had no doubt was being well taken care of by Oriana's mom even though I wasn't there anymore. But Aleah had even cried when she'd accidentally killed a squirrel as a pup, whining and pawing at it as she stared at me with those large brown eyes of hers.

Henrik gave a sad smile and looked at them with a similar look he'd given his mother. "My siblings." I felt the muscles in my face slacken with shock, my eyesight completely focused on the five Rogues. "They were conceived after my parents turned," he explained. "The lanky one is Alarik and the two little girls are Mercedes and Meredith, who were born this past autumn. They're the first twins to be born in my family in nearly a millennium." There was a bitterness in his tone now, not for what had happened but for what could've been.

I realized that the longing I'd heard in his tone earlier wasn't reserved for just his mother, but for the idea of having a family as a whole, to have people there to support and love him and he do the same back. These Rogues were the most painful physical reminders of that. To me, it almost seemed worse than if they had been dead.

Death was final. But they were alive and yet they weren't living. So close and yet so very out of reach.

"I'm sorry," I told him, not knowing what else there was that I could say.

Nothing could bring them back, so every word that came to mind seemed entirely inadequate, having felt the same after my friends were killed. This was such a personal and delicate part of his life and I was grateful and honestly taken aback that he felt he could show me this side of him, the vulnerable and the caring one. It was overwhelming.

"Sometimes I wonder what they would've been like had they been given some humanity," Henrik said, flipping over my hand and began tracing the creases in my palm, his eyebrows lowered in concentration. "Meri and Merci are such tricksters just as wolves. They probably would have driven me close to insane had they had opposable thumbs and vocal chords. But Alarik is so reserved and patient and cares for the little ones so much." There was a floating quirk to his lips despite the sadness in his eyes. "Sometimes I think he would've made the better ruler."

In just those few seconds, as my eyes raked over the family with a new light, I thought about what they would've looked like as humans as well and I couldn't imagine how many times Henrik must've done the same thing. Mercedes and Meredith I could picture as identical little girls with crooked teeth and round faces while Alarik, whose wolf also took after the late king's, would've resembled Henrik but with a thinner face and a less wild look about him.

"I wanted to show you this," Henrik said, his voice going quiet and nearly breaking, "because I want you to know that I too know what it's like to lose your family."

It felt as if my heart had completely caved in on itself and I understood, not just why he took me out there, but him. I understood him—at least, a part that had always seemed so hazy to me. In showing his family's lack of humanity, he'd proven the existence of his own and that his tough exterior truly was just a mask of a grieving male. It revealed that in some twisted way, we were both brought together through the loss of our loved ones and the lives we'd always wanted to share with them.

He was a king. I was a commoner. He was immortal. I was mortal. He grew up in luxury. I grew up in poverty. Yet we were the same in all ways that counted.

Words were stolen from me—taken away by shock—and my mind felt as if someone was twisting it on their hands, molding and remodeling it to fit the newfound information.

I turned back, let Henrik continue his fascination with my hand, and just stared at Henrik's mother, watching every muscle move under her fur. The said Rogue shot her head in my direction and looked straight at me, her ears perked and wet nose rising into the air.

I felt my heart stop.

"Henrik, I think they can see us," I whispered, my voice becoming shaky.

My one and only encounter with Rogues had been when my friends were brutally murdered before my eyes and I didn't like how she kept staring at me with her snout still dripping elk blood, which reminded me too much of them, too much of the pain I'd felt and would probably feel as long as I lived. I could feel my heart rate begin to increase and Henrik wrapped his arm around my shoulder, his warmth calming me slightly and my mark pulsed with a similar kind of comfort.

"C'mon, my dear. Let's go. I have something else to show you," Henrik said, his eyes strained on his mother who was still staring our way, her hollow eyes not even seeming to recognize her own son.

He took my hand in a firm hold and helped me stand up, also brushing off some dirt that I hadn't realized had clung onto my skirt. He wove my arm through his, took one last, yearning look towards his family-that-could've-been, and silently began leading us in the opposite direction we'd come from and deeper into the woods.

I, however, didn't look back once and stayed closed to his side.

A few minutes of thick silence passed, each of us pondering over what'd just occurred, when Henrik suddenly said, "When we're in our wolf forms, we can typically smell almost a mile away if the wind is being kind."

My eyebrows lifted in surprise at the new information he'd just shared and then my steps faltered, realizing he was confirming my statement from earlier. "So, you mean to tell me your family knew we were there the whole time?" I asked, my voice accidentally rising in volume as a new concoction of burning emotions erupted within me.

"Yes." He didn't even try to lie or hide it. "I thought you'd feel more comfortable if we stood behind something."

I saw red, not caring how correct Henrik had been. Had I not have had the rock's false sense of protection, I probably would've been too afraid to stand there for a few seconds let alone give him enough time to explain all the important things he had. But, in that moment, annoyed with a hint of embarrassment, all I could think of was how much I wanted to show him the new punching method Evander had taught me.

Henrik chuckled, seeing my pout, and his eyes brightened, amused by my dramatic facial expressions just as my friends had once been. "Don't fret, my female. You're covered with my scent and bare my mark. They recognize you as being my mate and would never harm you. I wouldn't have brought you all the way out here had I thought your life was even the slightest bit in danger. You know that."

I huffed and immediately felt my anger fading, not being able to deny that he was right.

That's good information to know for when you escape, a familiar voice whispered from inside of me out of nowhere, making me frown. I found myself agreeing without even needing to think about it, staring down at my feet that disappeared and reappeared out from under my skirt with every step I took. If Henrik's scent really did protect me that well from Rogues, then I wouldn't have to worry about them trying to harm me if I was out in the woods alone, which meant getting out of the palace and past the guards were the only things left in my way.

My eyes lifted as the trees cleared, causing more light to shine on my face, and we came upon a cliff that ended in a sudden drop. My mouth went agape upon seeing the mountains in the distance, whose tips were hidden behind layers of pink and purple clouds and the descending sun slightly peaking from between them. As we walked closer towards the edge, the true treasure revealed itself below and I nearly toppled over in shock. Looking as small as ants because of the large distance between us, thousands upon thousands of buildings of all shapes, colors, and sizes were scattered across the land as far as my eyes could see.

Soft as a whisper, I could hear the distinct sound of instrumental music playing as well, which sounded uncannily similar to the kind I heard from Feuerfest. It gave the already astounding image such a majestic feel that it was almost eerie and I felt goosebumps arise on my arms. I tried to suppress them by wrapping my shawl closer to my body but it was no use. I was absolutely entranced—paralyzed, even—by its magnificence.

"Wow," was the only word my mouth mustered enough sense to breathe out, my eyes glued on the village under us—or, in Lycan terms, pack.

"That's my—our—kingdom's capital, Aristea," Henrik told me, his chest noticeably puffing out with pride as he stared down at it. He had every right to feel that way. I would've thought him to be insane had he not have been proud of being able to call such wonder his own. His grip on my hand tightened. "It was originally built by my grandfather, who named it after his mate."

Feeling a new sense of confidence, I released Henrik's hold, silently surprised he'd let me, and walked even closer to get a better look, now only about six feet away from the edge. But I knew Henrik would never let me fall so I didn't feel any fear when I looked down at what I knew would be a fatal drop even for him.

Miles separated us from the town and I couldn't begin to ponder how absolutely stunning and lively it must've been up close. Straining my eyes, I could see small dots of what I guessed were children running around in an open field and people walking along the streets.

"It's so beautiful," I said aloud, wondering how a thing could even exist in such a tainted world.

When Jerium had originally told me Henrik's kingdom had villages I never could've imagined something so grand. Although it would always be my home and it would remain in the soft spot of my heart, Amaryllus was a speck of lint compared to what I was seeing.

After a few moments of silence, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise when I realized just how strangely quiet it'd gotten. Furrowing my eyebrows, I turned to say something to Henrik but stopped short when I had to lower my eyes for the first time ever to meet his face. My eyes nearly fell out of their sockets then and there and suddenly it felt as if the cliff would finally give out and my stiff body would go crashing down with it. The king shifted uneasily on his knee, obviously not used to bowing, yet still somehow looked undoubtedly regal in this otherwise submissive position.

And there, practically swallowed whole by his large hand, was an opened black box with a golden diamond ring inside. The sight of it had my heart stop and suddenly the majesty of Aristea was waned. Multiple thin pieces of gold had been artistically bent to resemble swirling vines all wrapped and woven together to create an elegant band. In its center was a round and very large diamond the size of my pinky's fingernail which was surrounded by two smaller diamonds in the center of flowers with spiked pieces of gold on either side. The longer I looked at it, the more details I noticed and the more I felt absolutely entranced by it. I'd never worn a lot of jewelry except for a couple of bracelets I'd made myself out of string and strands of fabric my mother didn't need anymore. But this ring in front of me—it was everything and more. A piece meant for a queen.

"Raena, will you marry me?" Henrik's voice sounded muffled and my head was spinning. Or perhaps the whole world was. I couldn't tell and it didn't matter because the Cursed King was asking for my hand in marriage and I had absolutely no idea as to what I should say.

In my mind, when I'd first made the bargain with Henrik, I promised myself that I would escape long before he would ever consider purchasing a ring. But as I stared at him, I realized how stupid that was of me to assume, although I'd never regret coming up with the agreement. Henrik was as strong headed as I was, which was where most of our conflicts and arguments derived from. I should've known he would neither give up nor wait too long to further our relationship, especially since we'd started growing undoubtedly closer in the past month.

"You don't like it." Henrik's voice interrupted my internal attempt at making a decision and my eye snapped to his, alarmed. He looked concerned, his eyebrows furrowed and the hand on the box's lid looking prepared to snap it shut. I then realized I must've been staring there gawking at it for a couple minutes at least with what I knew had to have been a neutral expression, a reaction nobody wanted to see from the person who they were proposing marriage to. "I can have another one made—a thousand more, if you want." His voice was rushed and I could've sworn a shade of pink had begun to spread on his cheeks, something I didn't even think his body could physically do before then.

It made me realize how awkward and uncomfortable this truly must've been for him. Not even Furkan had done this for Ingrid. But there Henrik was, one of the most feared kings in Trellomaran history who could've easily snapped me in half like a twig, bowing at my feet and looking at me like whatever I said next would either end his life or begin it. There was something empowering yet humbling about it, such a unique and rare feeling that could only happen once in a person's lifetime.

"No, no... It's beautiful." My voice sounded absolutely horrendous, scratchy, and strained and everything else that is considered ugly. My fingers gripped my shawl tighter around my shoulders until it hurt, on the cusp of ripping a seam. "I don't know what to say," I admitted helplessly, feeling more trapped than I had when I'd first woken up in his bed.

Say no, the voice I felt like I'd been following my whole life screamed and screamed until it merged into one loud, annoying ringing in my ear. It terrified me how much conflict it elicited inside of me. It was more than just a heart battling between my mind. It felt as if my whole being was split in two. And when I began crying, the tears falling in such large quantities down my face and onto the snow, I couldn't tell if they were happy or sad tears. Perhaps they were both—one eye for each emotion. It truly did feel that way.

"Say yes," he said softly. His voice was much more appealing than the one in my head. "Please," he added, and lifted the ring a bit higher so the setting sun reflected off the diamonds and gold, displaying the true extent of its allure.

Closing my eyes, I sent a brief prayer to my mother, my friends, and every god and goddess that cared enough to listen. I asked them for guidance, protection, and forgiveness, things I desperately needed in this dark world full of shadows and deception.

Whatever I said would be like the judge's gavel meeting its sound block in a court room, determining my innocence, my future, and all the consequences that would follow me forever. If I agreed to marry Henrik, I would be bounding myself to not just him but his kingdom forever in ways my human mind couldn't begin to comprehend except for the mark prickling on my neck, something I used to hate but didn't anymore.

And it was then, as I cried on that cliff trapped between the two most beautiful things I'd ever seen, I realized the most important fact of them all: I did not hate him. My feelings for him were far from it and beyond any sort of minor infatuation.

So I opened my eyes.

"Yes."

And then the gavel fell and the voice in my head went deathly silent.

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