~ A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR ~
The instructor grunted in annoyance as my heel crunched down onto his toes that were barely protected by the thin layer of his leather shoes for the twelfth time that evening.
As if my hands were made out of living flames, he dropped his hold on me so fast that they were mere blurs of ivory in the air until they came to rest on his face, where they rubbed his forehead with stiff fingertips as if trying to erase its prominent lines.
"Sorry!" I exclaimed in horror, shooting my head downward as if expecting blood to be where I'd misstepped. But no. All I saw were his shiny shoes and my toes sticking out beneath my dress's skirt, which were a bright, painful red from my blood flowing directly towards them because of the nude heels I was wearing that I was going to wear with my wedding dress.
They were the tallest pair of heels I'd ever seen, my feet practically vertical when in them, and Callie, who'd been there with me when the royal shoemaker visited the palace, let it slip that this was intentionally done to make up for Henrik's and I's height difference. She made me walk in them for hours until I stopped tripping over myself and by the end of it, I needed bandages for both of my blistered heels.
"Stop!" the instructor practically screamed, his voice echoing off the walls in the empty room, and the classical music that had been playing came to a sudden halt. His name was Jon, short for something I didn't care to remember, and he was perhaps the loudest person I'd ever met. Even his mouth was wide, nearly taking up most of his face, as if it'd been forged for the sole purpose to execute loud noises. But his hair was probably his most bothersome feature, so full of gel it glistened in the harsh lighting of the room that it nearly blinded me. I didn't dare go near it, already unnerved by his exceptionally dry and flaky hands, but I knew if I had, it would've been as stiff as a rock. "Tell me, Raena," he began, slightly rolling the 'r' in my name. By his accent, I could tell he was from Eastern Cursed Kingdom, where Furkan was from. "Do you know your left from your right?"
The guilt I'd felt before vanished and suddenly I found myself imagining me stomping his foot over and over again until blood was actually produced.
"Yes," I said through gritted teeth.
Jon was also one of the rudest people I'd ever met, his nose so high in the air I could've counted each hair in his nostrils if I wanted to. I was fine with a person having confidence, always wishing I possessed more of it myself, but only if they did it with a humble approach. He, however, acted cocky and obnoxious to everyone around him, as if he always knew something that they didn't when I was sure it was the opposite way around.
"Then why—Mother of Gods, tell me—do you step with the wrong foot every single time?" he barked, throwing his hands up in exasperation and then placed them on his hips when he was done, drawing my eyes to his oversized tuxedo that made him look as if he was a little kid trying on his father's clothing.
Glowering at the man, I wanted to mimic his actions myself and scream at the top of my lungs that I gave up—that Callie should run and tell Henrik the wedding was off and that I would be buried in the dirt where I was sure Jon believed me to belong if they needed me again. It wasn't necessarily the dance instructor himself that was causing me to feel this way. He wasn't worth it, really. He just happened to be the tip of the very large iceberg that had been growing for weeks, threatening to wreck me and the small amount of happiness I'd built from scraps. I was so sick of dealing with the stress without any respite, people in my face twenty-four-seven telling me what I was doing wrong or what I needed to do right. The blood that'd been rushing to my toes suddenly was in my head, the pressure giving me such an awful ache I was ready to pull out my hair or punch Jon in his horse-like teeth just to relieve some of it.
The dance Jon was trying to teach me was supposedly thousands of years old and by the complicated movements, full of dips, twirls, and awkward footsteps where I practically had to dislocate my hips to complete them, I could believe it. It was what Henrik's parents danced to at his mother's crowning like every past king and queen had done before them.
I wanted to get it right so bad that I think me stepping on Jon's ridiculously expensive shoes hurt me more than him. It'd been a few days since I began to learn the correct posture and steps separately, but my hands shook too much for me to focus and put everything I learned together and my armpits were searing, causing me to be very self conscious to even lift my elbows which the dance required.
I'd been like that ever since we left the human temple, my heartbeat never settling once, and I feared I'd have a heart attack before I ever got the chance to walk down the aisle. It was clear the reality of everything was slowly but surely starting to cave in and smother me. I believed I'd thought everything through before I said yes to Henrik's proposal and I was very wrong—not that I regretted my decision. I just wished things had played out differently. That we had more time.
"Jon, stop," Callie spoke up, her heels clicking against the shiny wooden floors as she walked over to us from where she'd been standing in the corner with the record player. Keeping her promise to Dario, who I hadn't seen since our first encounter, Callie took over making sure everything I needed to say, know, or do was so deeply engraved in my brain I could recite them perfectly centuries after I died. "Give the poor girl some grace. This is her first time ever dancing." She gave me a smile which I guessed was her attempt in being encouraging.
"Yes, I can see that perfectly fine. Thank you, Lady Calandrea," Jon responded curtly through gritted teeth and turned his body back to me, lifting his arms to get in position again.
I did not move a centimeter, slightly taken aback by his blatant rudeness towards Callie. Everyone I'd ever encountered showed great reverence towards the royal family, always bowing and calling them respectfully by their titles, and it was odd to see a Lycan acting almost hateful towards Callie. I hadn't thought it to be possible for any of Henrik's people to hold dislike towards someone apart of his bloodline. Apparently, Jon had known something that I didn't after all.
"Well, then you," she took a step closer, "can lose that attitude before I mindlink the king and tell him you've been talking shit to his mate and your future queen. I'm sure he'll forget all about his horrible temper for you just as he did to Dario," Callie drawled and suddenly my mind wandered back to the guard and Jerium and the injuries Henrik had inflicted on them when they upset him, making me wince at what he could've possibly done to the elderly Baron, who I doubted he ever liked at all.
Jon suddenly went very quiet, his lips thinning and arms resting at his sides. He looked like a boy who'd just been cornered after being caught stealing something out of his mother's pantry.
"You know what? Just go." Noticing the protest in his eyes, she made a shoo-ing motion with her hand. "I'll teach her," Callie said, her face lighting up with such a bright smile I could practically see the lightbulb flickering to life in her head. I myself felt a bit lighter, finding that idea much more appealing than the torment I was subjected to before.
Jon scoffed in disbelief, crossed his arms over his chest, and looked her up and down as if there was something wrong with her whole existence. "You can't teach her. It's very important she has a male partner to practice with for the ceremony tomorrow!" He said the last word as if she'd forgotten when it was—like that was even possible with all the white flowers around the castle and the plethora of gifts Henrik left for me daily, ranging from perfumes, jewelry, a new sterling silver hairbrush set, and a reed hat to keep the ever brightening sun out of my eyes.
My husband-to-be moved out of his room a few days prior, letting me reside in it alone so I could prepare for what I personally needed to do for the ceremony while he did the same in the room down the hallway with Jerium and Evander. At first, I didn't understand why he made that decision but after a few days of dealing with the chaos that came with planning a wedding and a coronation at the same time, I was glad for it.
Most nights, Callie had passed out on the couch in his sitting area because we'd been up all night teaching me how to walk in high heels or reciting what I needed to say or do for both ceremonies. I couldn't imagine either of us completing what we needed to on time had we been trying to do it side-by-side. It just simply wouldn't have been possible.
"Jon," Callie began, so cool and collected that the thoughts of what she could possibly do next were endless, "never tell a female what she can't do." Her face was one made of steel, but her eyes visibly glowed brighter and I could see the tips of sharpened canines when she talked, revealing the true storm underneath. Callie rarely got upset enough to begin shifting, at least a lot less than Henrik. But when she did, she looked murderous and I found myself instinctually leaning away from her. "Goodbye now."
I don't think I'd ever respected Callie so much before, my lungs nearly exploding from how far they inflated with pride for my friend.
Knowing he couldn't deny her order, Jon gave us each a quick bow, his stiff shoulders and scowling face revealing the extent of his displeasure towards the both of us, and I almost gave his retreating back the finger, happy to see his shiny shoes and hair leave. But the action seemed so juvenile compared to what Callie had just done, so I kept my hands clasped in front of my dress's skirt and simply smiled once he was out the door and he closed it a bit too harshly to be considered kind.
Callie wasted no time in coming to take Jon's place, standing in front of me and taking my hands, placing one on her shoulder blade while stretching our combined ones away from our bodies. Her hands were much nicer than Jon's, softer and smaller yet gave me more support than his whole body ever could, and I didn't cringe away when she rested her one on my waist like I had originally done with him. Callie made me feel safe and comfortable and all insecurities I'd once had vanished when I looked at her familiar face, a face I had once hated for a reason I still chastised myself for.
She rolled her lucent eyes, which I was perfectly leveled with because of my heels. "Males. They act like we females can't do something as simple as a dance without them. I've danced the Corentanz and watched it for centuries. I can do both the female and male parts in my sleep," she told me matter-of-factly. No doubt feeling my tense muscles under the hand on my waist, she looked at me and said with soft, dimming eyes, "Just breathe, Raena." And so I did, feeling the cool air move through my nostrils and into my body, letting it fill and relax me until it left out my mouth. She made me do it again and then a couple more times until finally my shoulders didn't feel nearly as stiff as they were before and Callie gave me a nod. "Let's begin, alright? And... One, two, three—and one, two, three..."
She took it much slower than Jon had, almost as if she was teaching it to me for the very first time, letting my muscles learn where, how, and when to move.
The hardest part for me was that the dance required stepping on different parts of my feet, which I thought to be quite weird, because my muscles on their own would choose to step down flat like I would when walking. So that was the first thing we perfected before we focused on the other parts of the dance.
Whenever my posture was off, Callie didn't scream at me but gave a squeeze on my hand or a look that just told me something was wrong. She worked it up until I got more comfortable with it and her corrections became farther and farther apart, letting me go at my own pace, until finally we were again dancing to the music.
And when the record player went silent without me stepping on any toes, the sun long since disappearing behind the mountains, I squealed like a schoolgirl and gave Callie a hug.
* * *
"I wish Lycans had weddings," Callie sighed wistfully with a pout, her lips stained a wine color that matched her dress, whose bell sleeves I adored. "Don't get me wrong. Mating is great. But damn I'd look so good in a wedding dress."
Ingrid and I laughed, both of us shaking our head at Callie's blunt sense of humor. Ever since we'd made it back to my room and ate a quick dinner with Ingrid, who'd arrived to help get me ready for the ceremony, Callie had been talking nonstop about weddings and how amazing they were. It was quite cute, honestly, how excited she was. But I supposed, in a way, a wedding to her was like what a carriage ride used to be for me—a fairytale.
"What? Did you see me in my Feuerfest dress? I look amazing in white!" By the end of her sentence, Callie was cackling at herself, which made us all laugh even harder, each of us feeding off the others' wild chortles while the wine we'd drunk with dinner flowed through our systems and no doubt assisted in our antics.
It wasn't what Callie said that made her hilarious, it was the unique way she delivered her words that always had me in chuckling fits whenever she was around. I can't even describe how she did it except that it was the epitome of who Callie was as a person.
It took a few minutes for us to calm down so that I could stay still and they could finish what they were doing. Ingrid, of course, chose to be in charge of my hair, adding roller after roller with such deft fingers that it hurt to watch her, while Callie kneeled beside my chair and did my fingernails, having finished painting my toes earlier that evening.
Her cat-like eyes concentrated on the small brush with every stroke, making sure none of the nude polish, which matched my heels except for its slightly more pink tint, went on my skin. Since I'd never had my nails painted before, the pungent smell took me by surprise and had my eyes watering and I was surprised Callie was so up close to it, seeing that it most likely would've affected her Lycan senses more than my human ones.
Ingrid had also brought along with her a cream that she considered to be one of her wedding gifts that she had gotten from a sorcerer that lived in a pack nearby. Its both magical and natural properties combined were supposed to purify skin within hours and it reeked like tea tree oil and lavender. I was more than happy to accept it since my increase of stress caused quite a few pimples to sprout along my temples and hairline and I slathered the whole bottle on within seconds, pleasantly surprised by the cooling sensation it created.
As I sat in the silence and on the chair we'd pulled from the sitting area, staring at myself in the mirror with green ointment all over my face, I tried to think more about what exactly would be taking place in less than twenty-four hours. But my brain was drawing a blank except for the ring around my finger, whose diamonds were reflecting the bathroom lights straight back into my eyes so I couldn't avoid looking at it. None of it felt real, not even my ring no matter how many times I mindlessly fidgeted with it or how long I stared at it. It felt as if the past two weeks were a dream and that any moment my mother or somebody I knew who'd died would peek their head around the corner to wake me up to another terrible nightmare.
"So Lycans don't say any vows at all?" I asked, trying to steer my mind away from my anxious thoughts when I realized me thinking about the wedding did more damage than good.
When I tried to make eye contact with Callie, Ingrid made a noise of displeasure when I accidentally moved my head, so I kept staring ahead at the sink, not wanting to look at myself anymore.
There was a moment of silence and she even stopped painting my nails, pondering hard on what she wanted to say next. "Well, for humans, you aren't married in the eyes of the gods until you are both body and soul, which you have the vows, rings, and sex for. Mating for Lycans is like a package deal, I suppose. It's a vow, a physical representation of your relationship, and sex all in one," Callie explained light heartedly, peeking her head over and around my hands to make sure she hadn't missed a single spot on any of my nails. When she seemed satisfied by her work, she leaned back on her heels to look at me. "But I undoubtedly need to talk to Henrik about making weddings more common," she added, obviously trying to break more of the silence that settled over the room. "They are so much fun!"
I wanted to laugh at that and tell her how much agony my head felt like it was in. But I kept my mouth shut, realizing my negativity would only cause more negativity, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted and needed.
"Why don't the males get marked?" I asked, looking at my own mark in the mirror which had settled to being a quite beautiful scarlet red. Where Henrik's canines has pierced me, the color was the darkest and almost appeared black sometimes, while the outermost teeth punctures were the slightest shade lighter.
"It's just how it's always been. Males proving their dominance and shit. The deeper the mark, the stronger the colour is, the stronger the male. But there's a movement beginning where both are marked, although only one has to be to complete the mating process." Callie shrugged as if it was no big deal and as simple as explaining the alphabet. "But in a bi-species relationship, the Lycan, no matter what gender, has to mark." She blew on my fingers, the hot air feeling uncomfortable but I didn't say anything, listening earnestly to what she was saying. "In a same-sex relationship, the decision is solely up to them."
I looked up in the mirror and my eyes bounced between the three of us, noticing that my mark in fact was the darkest out of all of theirs, which shocked me because it now seemed so clear when before I thought ours were all the same except for slight differences in size, shape, location.
Callie's was obviously the lightest and smallest and I found myself suddenly curious about who she'd been mated to, the question so close to leaving my mouth that it weighed down on my tongue. She'd mentioned her mate on several occasions, always smiling and upbeat when she did, but never went into too much detail to give a clear picture of who they were as a person. From what I had gathered, her mate was more reserved and preferred to live away from the noise of the palace, which I thought to be odd since that's where Callie thrived. I couldn't see her doing anything else but working and living in the palace.
"Furkan offered for me to, well, mark him." I saw Ingrid grimace through the mirror, her hands momentarily pausing as of the whole thought had her body going taut. "I just couldn't do it... couldn't get past the thought of the blood."
"But you're a healer," Callie pointed out, the beginning of laughter in her tone. "You deal with blood all the time."
"There's a difference between seeing blood and having it in your mouth and—ech." She stuck out her tongue and pinched her eyelids together, shaking her head as if trying to shake the thought out of one of her ears. The sight was absolutely hilarious and another burst of giggles escaped my mouth before I could process what was happening. "Let's switch the topic. I'll be sick if you don't." She tugged on a piece of hair near my face before wrapping it around a roller that was bigger than any of the others.
"Alright, alright," Callie said, standing while screwing the cap back on the nail polish bottle. "Are you finished with dear Rae-Rae's hair?"
I sent her a glare at the ridiculous nickname she'd given me.
"Yes," Ingrid said, eyeing the curlers in satisfaction through the mirror and gave them a little push with her hands before letting them bounce back.
Staring at myself, I realized how absolutely ridiculous I looked: face green with Ingrid's magical skin ointment, my hair all up in rollers, and dressed in only a robe. I looked like a comedic character out of a newspaper and couldn't tell if I wanted to smile in amusement or scrub off the cream immediately before Ingrid or Callie noticed what I had and never let me live it down.
Callie walked over to the leather bag she'd placed on the bed, her hips moving confidentially back and forth, and she placed the nail polish back in delicately before beginning to rummage through it with determination written on her face. I could hear the ruffling of clothes and things that sounded like glass bottles clinking together, both Ingrid and I watching curiously as she pulled out a jam jar with what I first thought was crystallized honey.
Ingrid's face paled, seeming to instantly recognize the substance. "Callie, don't."
"What is it?" I twisted in my seat to ask, and became even more confused when Callie proceeded to grab a handful of cotton strips from the side pocket and a flat wooden spoon.
Callie turned to face me, holding up everything she'd gotten out for me to see. "Supplies for waxing," Callie said, the corners of her lips pointing towards the ceiling.
By the way Ingrid reacted, I thought for a moment that the substance could've been something dangerous or perhaps even deadly, my legs ready to sprint out of the room to get far away from it if I had to. To hear it was just sugaring wax caused a huge wave of refreshing relief to flood over my body, starting from my shoulders and moving downwards.
"Oh, I don't need it. I'll just shave my legs in the morning with a razor like I normally do," I said with a forced smile, trying to decline her as politely as I could muster. Oriana had waxed her legs instead of shaving, so I wasn't unused to the practice. But I'd never been interested in trying it before, never seeing the need to when a razor did the job alright.
"Oh, sweet darling." Callie smirked wickedly, looking uncannily like Henrik in that moment. "This," she lifted the jar, "isn't for your legs."
I furrowed my brows, thinking where else anyone could possibly want to—
Understanding finally dawning on me, my jaw slackened and I clamped my legs together, a phantom sting already forming.
"Yes way," Callie said, her devilish grin only broadening at my hesitation. "Oh, it's really not that horrible. I promise."
I gulped and I had no doubt in my mind that they had both heard it. Although her words were far from moving and her grin the opposite of comforting, I could feel my resolve wavering, taking me by surprise. If it had been three months ago, I would've been so offended by her suggestion that I might've yelled at or even slapped Callie, having been told at a young age that only promiscuous women removed hair on their crotch.
But now, as I stared at the honey-colored wax in the jar, I realized just how embarrassing it would be if Henrik saw me in my current state, especially since waxing more than just their legs was obviously as common to Lycans as getting tattoos. It's not that I had too much hair there, if that was even a thing, it's just I couldn't help but want to look nice for him. What woman doesn't want to feel beautiful on her wedding night in front of her new spouse?
"Callie," Ingrid scolded. She was like the mother between the three of us. Oriana would've loved her, I realized, noticing their behaviors truly were not that different. "She already said no."
Callie's smile fell in an instant, realizing the truth behind Ingrid's words.
"No—I, well..." I trailed off, scavenging for what I was trying to say. Callie looked back at me, her eyes wide with hope as she slightly shook the jar in her outstretched hand, much like you would when trying to torment a dog with a treat. I rolled my eyes, a groan leaving my parted lips once I realized I made my decision. "Fine." Ingrid turned her whole body to face me, her posture stiff as she reiterated again to me that I didn't have to if I didn't want to. But I realized when I brushed her off and agreed with Callie yet again, that I actually wanted to. It felt exhilarating, like I was breaking a law of some kind. "But I'll do it myself and you can tell me what to do through the door," I said, standing up while crossing my arms over my chest to let her know I was serious.
Callie nodded, her face consumed by a shit-eating grin as she nodded. "Deal."