The Cursed Kingdom

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TWENTY-SEVEN

~ UNTIL DEATH ~

My ears could detect the music playing from outside, so soft and gentle it felt like it was omitting from a far away dream. The deeper notes had my heart feeling as if it was lodged further into my throat with each sharp clamor, blocking my windpipe and making it hard to breathe, and the higher pitched thrums of the chords that followed were in sync with my body’s nervous shaking.

It was an unusual melody, one I personally wouldn’t have chosen for a wedding, but after Callie told me that its music sheet was found with Henrik’s mother’s belongings, I couldn’t find it in my heart to turn it down. It’s not that it wasn’t beautiful—because it was in every aspect and more—or that I didn’t like it. It just sounded more fitting for a waltz than a wedding march, the tune so very wistful-sounding.

As I listened to the song, I thought about the rogue with the white snout tearing at the elk’s corpse and how this music flowing through my ears would be the closest thing I’d ever get to truly meeting who Henrik’s mother was as a person. I wondered if she had ever danced to it, smiled to it, or cried to it. For my future husband’s sake and my own, I wanted to picture her as the queen she was and not what a curse had forced her to be, seeing how Henrik always talked so fondly about her. No matter what the music had or hadn’t meant to her, I was honored to have a piece of her at her son and I’s wedding, wishing I could say the same about my own mother who only left me with memories that grew fainter by the day.

My eyes trailed up from the stone flooring to the emasculate white doors which now seemed more like giants about to trample me than a welcoming entryway. Above the threshold were two tiny marble sprites at each corner, their hands clasped together in silent prayer as they looked down on whoever entered. Sprites were known as messengers for the gods, tiny beings that no physical eye could see that roamed the earth and reported back what they saw to the gods. A part of me wondered if there was any watching me now or if they had been smarter and hadn’t dared to come near the Cursed Kingdom’s border let alone enter it.

I smiled bitterly at the thought.

My hands tightened around the bouquet of flowers, the smooth stems tied together and covered by a lace cloth, between my sweaty palms, which were a result of the unfortunate combination of my nerves and the strangely warm and sunny weather that day. The bouquet was such a lovely arrangement of white flowers with leafy vines that would’ve cascaded all the way down to the floor if I lowered my hands more than two inches below my breasts. Destry and the other royal gardeners had been in charge of these, the flowers being native to the mountains I’d grown up in and had loved my whole life through every sunset and sunrise. The thin leaves covered in tiny hair-like bristles brushed against my fingers, causing the skin there to itch slightly. But I didn’t dare move an inch, as if I was one of the temple’s statues myself, worried that just one tiny twitch could cause a chain reaction of unfortunate events.

I spared a glance down at my dress that was much simpler than what Mary, the royal dressmaker, originally planned out for me but was still more extravagant than anything I could have ever imagined. The original drawings she’d brought with her to our first consolation with puff sleeves and gemstones covering the bodice had made me unintentionally cringe and Callie and Ingrid had laughed at my dramatic facial expression. Although I’d laughed at the time, later I went into my room and cried, not because my feelings were hurt, but because they reminded me for a moment of Tylem and Taylium.

At our next meeting that we spent snacking on small sandwiches and a spiced tea Mary claimed came from the Mage Kingdom, Mary almost seemed disappointed when I settled for lace along my collarbone that trailed down my arms until ending in points that lopped around my middle finger and also laid on top of the solid white material that made up my skirt and bodice. After seeing her face, I caved and allowed her to make two small silver hair clips that connected my veil and my train together that sat right above my ears, almost looking like a crown itself.

I looked behind my shoulder at the two young girls keeping my train from falling to the floor and the one on the left gave me a soft smile while the other, who looked a year or two younger, was too shy to look up from the bright white material. Their names were Elodie and Ophelia and they were daughters of two lords from the north who had travelled down for the occasion. They were absolutely adorable but I hadn’t had much time to interact with them other than saying hello and thanking them for helping me make such an important date so much more special, things I thought two young children would like to hear.

My head turned back to the doors, my eyes trailing the rose patterns of my sheer lace veil that covered my face and ended right above my bouquet, the same pattern that matched the rest of my dress. It was probably my favorite part out of my attire. It was simple and yet so very beautiful, just the way I liked things the most.

Movement caught my eye as the guard tending the right door suddenly gave a nod to the one on the left, who mimicked his actions with furrowed, serious eyebrows.

“It’s time, Madam,” he said, his rough voice evened out with a soft smile. My breath hitched, my fingers tightening further around my bouquet as if it was a shield that could protect me from all harm. “Are you ready?”

I nodded, not truly meaning it. My head felt ten times heavier than normal, as if it was weighed down by my lie. I would never be ready. I couldn’t. Even if I had a thousand years to dwell on it, nothing could prepare me for this moment.

Ever since I agreed to Henrik’s proposal, I knew this day was inevitable and I’d been aware of the date for weeks. But my mind had deceived me into believing it was as far away as the stars, so far that the thought of trying to process everything never occurred to me until then as I stood in front of the temple doors. Now, as I realized I couldn’t ignore my reality anymore, I felt a sense of shock ram itself into my stomach.

This was not a dream.

It was real.

I was marrying the Cursed King, binding myself to him and his kingdom for all eternity and there was no escaping from that, not even in death. What had I been thinking? I asked myself and the voice I’d been ignoring suddenly chanted very clearly to me that I hadn’t, taunting me that I should’ve listened to its truths when I still had the chance.

My weighty head nearly toppled off my weakened neck when the guards proceeded to grab the handles and tug them open, revealing the large crowd inside and the music suddenly wasn’t so gentle anymore. It blasted into my ears, making my eyes go wide as the one hundred eighty-four guests’ gazes turned to me and I wondered if it was too late for me to run back to the carriage and demand the driver to take me to Amaryllus and back to normalcy.

With a shaky breath, my legs began moving robotically because they did so with the purpose that they had to not because they wanted to. I walked inside the temple, eyeing the statues of the gods and goddesses like it was the first time and jumped, gritting my teeth, when the click of the doors closing sounded from behind me, trapping me inside and sealing my fate. There was no going back.

Between each statue, guards in their uniforms of leather and metal stood facing forward while their hands were clasped respectfully behind their backs. Half of them I recognized from the palace but others I did not. I’d heard that some of the lords had brought their own security with them but I hadn’t realized they’d be attending the ceremony as well.

Upwards, a male in a black suit played the organ on the small platform, his short black hair and arms, which were flying about as he played it with such spirit it seemed like they’d fall if he wasn’t careful, the only things visible. It made me smile, glad to see a person was already enjoying his time there.

My gaze bounced from one side of pews to the other, all fifty-two lords, their mates, and children standing on both sides, standing and turning to look at me while their noses sniffed the air. I realized my wedding must’ve been like Feuerfest for me, completely uncharted territory where they didn’t know what to fully expect. It made me feel closer to them, for some reason, understanding we were all new to each other. It made me feel not as ostracized.

Finally, I looked down the aisle and to the altar, where Callie and Ingrid stood on the left and Jerium and Evander to the right. I couldn’t help but notice the looks Callie and Evander shared, small glares that could only be described as silent sibling banter. Ingrid and Jerium both grinned at me, Ingrid dabbing fallen tears with the handkerchief that I’d seen her stuff into her sleeve while she was helping me get prepared back at the palace.

In the very center stood who I guessed to be the human priestess that had arrived from her secluded home deep in the mountains the night before. She wore loose formal black robes, a large headpiece with beads that rested on her forehead, and a long silver necklace that had a small, flattened pendant of Zuerstelle at the end. Even from far away, I could tell by her sagging cheeks and hunched over figure that she had to have been almost a hundred years old, if not already, looking like the closest thing to death I’d ever seen. How she survived by herself in the mountains, I did not know, but it did make me curious to learn.

In front of her was Henrik, who outstood every statue in the room, even Zuerstelle’s. Directly behind him was where Jerium and Evander stood, who had grown more serious the closer I got to the altar, their backs straightening and hands clasping in front of their bodies as the feeling of reality of what was taking place hit them just as hard as it had done to me a few minutes prior.

Henrik was dressed the exact same way as the day I’d first met him, his black jacket with golden embroideries and crown sat on top of his hair. The only thing different about him was that his hands for once were bare, no fancy rings adorning his fingers.

Once I met his eyes I couldn’t look away and suddenly I wasn’t walking to the music but rather the rhythm of my own heart beat, which had begun speeding up but not the slightest in a bad way. I didn’t realize I’d done so until I felt a slight tug on my train, Elodie and Ophelia obviously not expecting my sudden change in tempo. So I slowed down again, mentally apologizing and hoping no one else had noticed, and the rest of my walk was completely agonizing. The aisle was maybe sixty feet but it felt like a lifetime before I finally made it to the altar, my body shaking like a leaf in the autumn wind.

When I finally stood directly next to Henrik, who seemed strange now that my heels took away six inches of our height difference, the girls released my train and Ophelia came up to take my bouquet, whose weight I missed once it was gone and I still feel the lace pattern indented in my palms from my harsh grip. It looked huge in comparison to her and I watched as they went to stand in the front pew and next to their parents who smiled and whispered to them, no doubt telling them how well they had done. It made my heart clench, wishing my own mother could be there to give me words of encouragement.

While I knew weddings were supposed to be happy, it seemed the only thing I could do was think of everything I missed.

Henrik slowly brought his hands up, gripped the bottom of my veil, and lifted it up and over my head, his eyes softening when he saw me. I silently wondered if he liked the way the artist had done my makeup, which was a lot darker than I had originally thought but I ended up adoring how the brown eyeshadow softly faded outwards. She’d also painted sharp wings on the outside corners of my eyes, which I thought was a bit too bold for me, despite me admiring the style many times on Callie. Nothing ever looked as good on me as it did on others.

I blushed as the music came to a sudden stop and everything became much too quiet, my hands subtly playing with the sleeves of my gown as a way to try to calm my nerves.

I swallowed and listened to the thuds and creaks as everyone in the pews sat down. Beyond that I heard a child’s voice begin to ask a question quite loudly before being sharply shushed by his mother, making a few people chuckle.

“Hi,” I whispered after another beat of silence, my voice slightly cracking as the word slipped out before I could think properly. I cringed internally at myself, wondering why I felt the need to say anything at all.

Henrik smiled, making me relax slightly, and his eyes shined with what I could’ve sworn were the beginning of tears. “Hello.”

The priestess cleared her throat in the deathly silent room, the weak sound seeming to echo off every surface. “I would like to begin by thanking you all for coming to witness these two mates join in marriage, a ceremony blessed by Zuerstelle herself and all the gods who reign in her image,” the priestess began, her voice frail but loud nonetheless and it reverberated throughout the temple and into every human, lycan, and marble ear alike alike. As I stood next to her and I gained some of my senses, I could make out that she smelled like charcoal and sage and her cheeks were stained an extremely dark pink color. “Although this may be a strange event for most of you, mating and marriage are both the same in that they are both done in love for another person. So let us today not dwell on what customs or beliefs differ between our species but rather see this day as a celebration of two people coming together in love just as all of us wish to love.”

Love. I looked up at Henrik. Do I love him? My heart skipped a beat as I thought on it and my mark gave a tingling like sensation, giving me my answer but I was too stubborn to accept it yet. Too prideful and young.

“Does thou Raena Korgari come here in full consent to marry His Majesty?” My eyes widened at the sound of my name, my neck aching from how fast it whipped around towards the priestess. Her dark brown, almost black eyes stared deep into my own and she furrowed her drawn on eyebrows as she stared at me. I couldn’t tell if it was in thought or judgment. Surely, if she was human and had heard the terrible stories of what Henrik and his people had done, she couldn’t agree with me marrying the him.

The thought of that had a scorching anger boil in my stomach and I cleared my throat. “I have.” My voice was weak and scratchy, everything a queen shouldn’t sound like. My eyes flickered up at Henrik, searching his face to see if there was any hint of the same thought on his face. But all I saw was him staring at me, still smiling with that content look on his face.

“Then let us begin,” she said with a nod, grasping her necklace in her right hand. “If any of you brought here today by the grace of Zuerstelle possesses any reason or doubt as to why these mates should not be joined in blessed matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.” I noticed a few lords and ladies make eye contact with each other, obviously not fully aware if they were supposed to say something or not. Noticing this, the priestess quickly turned her body to face Henrik to put a quick end to the tension, which I was grateful for. “Your Majesty, King Henrik of Galycia, wilt thou take this woman to be thy wife and share thy life with her? Wilt thou pledge thy faith to her, in all love and honor, in all duty and service, to only speak the truth to her, to encourage her fulfillment as an individual, and to tenderly care for her, according to the ordinance of the gods, in the blessed bond of marriage?”

“I King Henrik of Galycia pledge in honesty and sincerity to take Raena Korgari as thy wedded wife and promise to be faithful and to love and honor thou, in illness and in health and love and honor.” There was no hesitation in his voice or posture, looking as strong and regal as the first day I’d seen him. His eyes never left mine as he said every word and I was paralyzed by them, watching as his pupils softly expanded and contracted. It didn’t sound like a speech he had rehearsed. It sounded like he was making a promise to my very soul as my mark began to prickle again, as if it understood the significance of that day. “I will never forsake thou and will respect thou’s integrity and have faith in thou’s abiding love for me, through all our years, and in all that life may bring us until the gods call us to our eternal home.” The fact he’d also used old English, as the weddings in my village did and as my mother said she and my father had, meant so much to me. It made me feel at home.

“Do you, Raena Korgari, take this male to be thy husband and share thy life with him? Wilt thou pledge thy faith to him, in all love and honor, in all duty and service, to only speak the truth to him, to encourage his fulfillment as an individual, and to tenderly care for him, according to the ordinance of the gods, in the blessed bond of marriage?” The sound of her beads clanking against each other sounded out as she turned her head towards me.

“I, Raena Korgari, commit myself to thou, King Henrik of Galycia,” I internally cringed, wishing I could be as courageous and swift with my words as the male in front of me, “as thy faithful wife, to gain knowledge with, to explore and adventure with, to respect thou in everything, in sorrow and in joy, strength and weariness, confidence and doubt, for every risings and settings of the sun from this moment and until eternity. In the presence of the gods I make this vow.”

She nodded. “We will now do the exchanging of the rings,” the priestess announced and turned to her right.

A young boy, who didn’t look to be older than six or seven, walked up on his cue, a silk blue pillow placed his outstretched hands with two gold rings placed on top. He turned to us, his mustard colored eyes only meeting our own for a few seconds, before he bowed his head towards the floor while his back remained as straight as a rod.

I slowly reached down and clutched the large one closest to me with my pointer finger and thumb, which seemed more like a large earring than a ring. It was so light and my skin so slippery with sweat, I feared I’d drop it at any moment.

Henrik gracefully pinched the small one and it was almost comical at how tiny it looked in his palm, looking like a child’s toy rather than his fiancée’s wedding band.

Suddenly from behind me, a sniffle sounded out, making the hair on my neck raise in surprise, and it almost pained me to not quell my curiosity and figure out if its owner was either Callie or Ingrid. Both seemed just as probable, but I mentally bet my money on Callie while I watched the young ring barer walk back to stand beside an older boy, who wore the same formal attire as him.

Henrik held up the ring, the light reflecting off of it from the large window behind Zuerstelle’s statue, which made it look as if the great goddess herself was blessing our joining. “Let this ring be a reminder of my vows made here today of my undying devotion and faith to you and symbolize our everlasting bond,” he proclaimed, his voice sounding like the king who had conquered and lost so much in his life.

Gently, he took my limp left hand and slid the ring on it, right above my engagement ring. It fit perfectly, not that I wasn’t expecting it to, but it was almost too perfect. It made my engagement ring look complete, like they both were always meant to be mine. Before releasing it, Henrik gave my fingers one final, meaningful squeeze and then let go, my skin instantly missing his warmth.

The priestess nodded at me encouragingly while I felt nearly two hundred pairs of eyes burning into the right side of my face.

“I give thee this ring,” the piece of jewelry shook in my hand almost as much as my voice, “as a sign of my ever loving commitment to you, to stand beside you no matter what obstacle we may face.”

Henrik lifted his hand so it was right in front of my stomach and I softly grabbed it, biting my lip in concentration as I placed it on his finger, watching it closely, like a cat watching a fly, until it slid all the way down to his knuckle. I let out a breath, relaxing as I realized I hadn’t dropped it and my other hand reached over for his bare one, the enticing of our fingers symbolizing our unity in the eyes of the gods and human law.

“I now pronounce thee, Raena and King Henrik, whose union is blessed by the very gods that destined them together.” The priestess lifted her hands, practically mirroring the Zuerstelle statue behind her. “Groom, you may kiss thy—”

I let out a small squeaking noise when I was lifted off the ground with his arms around my waist, holding me to his chest, and Henrik’s lips smashed onto mine. My eyes went wide with shock and a slight hint of annoyance, practically crossed-eyed as they stared in disbelief at his closed lids and dark eyelashes flutter ring against his cheekbones. It was such a Henrik-like thing to do and I could hear laughter ring out, the lords and ladies and some of the children amused by their king’s antics. Soon I gave in and my own girlish giggles vibrated against our joined skin until finally he pulled away, allowing me to breathe.

Henrik caressed my face as the brightest smile that belittled the sun overtook on his own, his pupils darting from my hair, to my lips, and back to my eyes. “Just a few more simple words,” he whispered to me, his lips like feathers against my temple, “and then this’ll all be over and you’ll be mine.” He placed a short kiss on my forehead before removing his hands from my grasp and stepping away at the same time as the priestess walked in the other direction to go sit in her seat off to the side.

It’d been explained to me long before that my coronation was a union between solely me and Galycia, which meant Henrik had to stand off to the side the whole time. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointed as I watched him walk away from me, realizing how much strength he’d given me when I had none. I wished at least he could stand beside me, however, I understood and respected that it would be breaking Lycan tradition so I didn’t ask or frown. Instead I simply stood there, alone at the altar, twisting my wedding band around my finger.

Suddenly the fear I felt before was back as I watched Dario walk—well, more like limp—up the aisle and to the altar. As he walked past me, I could hear his uneven breath and the silent grunt of discomfort he gave as he stood in front of Zuerstelle’s figure and rotated his body to face me, strained dignity in his eyes. He had to have been sitting in one of the furthest back pews back because I had not noticed him until then and I knew I would have been able to spot his grey face instantly. The fact that he was there at all shocked me, having thought Henrik had replaced him long before. I eyed his leg that seemed to be giving him trouble and turned to Henrik, my eyebrows narrowing in a silent question. But all he did was give me a nod and a smile, although I knew he understood perfectly well what I was curious about.

“Brothers and sisters, welcome,” Dario began, his formal suit hanging even more unusually on his form than his previous attire. It didn’t even look like it belonged to him, the back of his pants touching the ground while the front bunched at the front of his shoes. “Today we are here to unite this female to our blood so that we may be one and in doing so become stronger. Do you, the congregation and descendants of the first Lycan, Lycus himself, accept this female as your queen, mother of your children, and leader to all of Galycia?”

“We do.” I jumped at their unified voices and Dario’s cool glare slowly turned to me. I met his eyes, a chilling sensation running down my back, and we held each other’s stares for a couple heartbeats until he broke the contest and turned back to the congregation as if the exchange never happened. No matter what had occurred within the past few weeks, his dislike for me remained as firm as ever.

“Are you willing to take the oath that you will shed your blood for Raena Korgari in the face of any threat or adversary?”

“We are willing.”

As soon as they were done speaking, the older boy I’d seen off to the side earlier, who was perhaps around the age of thirteen, walked up to the Master of Ceremonies and handed him a curved, black knife by the hilt first. It made me anxious to see something so sharp so close to a person of his age.

Dario lifted the knife into the air and I gulped, watching its unusual black blade and the ruby as large as an egg attached to the end glimmer in the sun. Strange symbols were carved into its leather handle, patterns similar to the ones that covered Henrik’s skin.

“Gods of the realms, let this blade symbolize our people’s undying loyalty.” He handed the boy back the knife just as the younger boy, the one that had helped us with the rings, walked up but this time with a chalice in his small, chubby fingers. Dario grabbed that as well and lifted the golden piece in a similar fashion and I noticed there were symbols around its brim also. It made me wonder what Henrik’s tattoos meant, having never considered the swirling designs could’ve been anything other than exactly what they appeared to be. “And let this chalice represent our people’s unwavering unity.” The boy bowed his head as the chalice was handed back to him, taking a step back to stand directly beside the boy holding the knife, his wide eyes and pale face giving away his uneasiness.

The lords in the front pews stood, their mates and children remaining seated and only moving to let them pass. I watched them with curious gazes as they came near me, their heads held high and posture as immaculate as always. I began to think it was impossible for Lycans to ever slouch. Even in his sleep, Henrik held himself with dignity while I always woke up with drool around my lips and sand-like substances in the corners of my eyes.

The first lord to approach the altar was very familiar, me remembering his gentle smile as he walked out of Henrik’s office with the others, and I watched his kind, round face closely as he grabbed the knife without hesitation and ran its blade over the center of his right palm. The gesture was so smooth and quick, as if his hand was merely butter and his face hadn’t changed at all as if it was as easy as such. I winced, watching the skin split open and continued doing so when he lifted it over the chalice and muttered quite quickly, “I shed this blood in loyalty for my queen, for now and eternity.” Three large drops of crimson blood fell into the chalice before he pulled out a piece of cloth from his chest pocket and sauntered away while applying pressure to his wound, acting as if nothing had happened at all. When he sat back down next to his mate and son, he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss, his distinctive smile stretching out on his face.

Row by row, all fifty-two males did the same like it was clockwork and slowly, one sliced open palm at a time, the chalice began to fill with blood. The sight was sickening and I couldn’t help but think back to my friends, their spilled blood being the last memory I had of them.

My heart ached and my eyes burned as I thought of them, wishing with my whole being that they could be there beside me. A part of me knew they would’ve warmed up to Galycia with time just as I had. The twins would’ve adored Evander and Jerium like gods and Oriana would’ve begged Ingrid to teach her every sewing pattern she knew while listening giddily to Callie’s gossip like it was music. If they would’ve been saved, I knew we could’ve had a life together as a large family and it pained me to know that we never were even given the chance when they deserved it more than me.

As the final lord sat back his seat, dabbing his palm with his strip of cloth, Dario took the bloodied knife, making me gulping as the red liquid glistened in the sun, and cleaned it with a handkerchief he had in his own pocket before passing it back to the boy. Afterwards, he grasped the chalice from the other’s grip and gave the duo a dismissive nod. With that, the boys gave one last deep bow towards me before walking off the platform to stand on the side near Henrik, Evander, and Jerium, who looked dreadfully somber while they stared at me, knowing that the worst part of the ceremony was about to take place.

Dario turned to me and it was then I noticed the dark circles under the already large bags under his eyes, faint and practically invisible, but there nonetheless. It reminded me of what Jerium had looked like that day in the library and it was then I knew with a sinking feeling in my stomach that Henrik had done something yet again. I shouldn’t have been surprised and I wasn’t. But, lords, was I disappointed in my husband.

“Are you, Raena Korgari, willing to shed your blood for those who are willing to shed theirs for you?” Dario asked.

My eyes snapped over to Henrik, back to Dario, and finally flickered down to the chalice cupped in his palms. I swallowed down the lump in my throat and replied, “I am willing. Always and forever until the gods call me home.”

“Will you solemnly promise to govern and look after Galycia’s people and all fifty-two of this kingdom’s packs by their respected laws and customs?”

“I solemnly promise.” My replies were quick but not rushed, so ingrained in my skull from my time with Callie that it felt as if my tongue was saying everything for me without my brain needing to do anything at all.

“Will you swear that with your power you will promote justice and peace and judge with mercy where the gods deem it merciful?”

“With the divine assistance from the gods, I swear to do this.”

“Then let this chalice of unity filled with Galycia’s blood shed by loyalty’s blade be consumed by you so that you may become one with our people.”

The image of me dropping the chalice and spilling blood all over the marble floors haunted my thoughts. There was no doubt in my mind that at least half the Lycans in the room could detect my nervousness from smelling the salt of my sweat or hearing the racing beating of my heart. I could barely control my fingers as they gripped the golden chalice, the piece feeling so awfully slippery in my grasp, and I slowly turned towards the lords and ladies, who all were staring at me, their eyes blank and unreadable. My own eyes momentarily flickering to a female holding a baby, who seemed just as entranced by my form as the rest of the adults.

Even the statues of the gods felt like they were looking at me, watching me, waiting for me to mess up and do something so humiliating that it would cause my ancestors to shriek in their graves. I knew it was just certain light and shadows. It had to be. But it sure felt like it and it made me more scared than I could’ve ever imagined myself to be.

“With the blessing of the gods most high,” I said, staring straight back at the doors where I could see sunlight seeping in through their cracks, “I swear to keep and perform the things which I have promised on this day.”

As soon as the last word left my mouth, every head in the pews bowed towards the ground, symbolizing that all the lords and ladies, who represented all the packs and therefore all the people in Galycia, were giving me their silent permission and acceptance to be their queen. Some of the younger children noticed their parents doing this and slowly began to mirror them, staring out of the corner of their eyes to make sure they were inclining their head right. Something about seeing these people, who could easily tear me into pieces with just a snap of their jaws, willingly bow to me made my heart swell. For the first time since I’d woken up in Henrik’s bed, I felt like I belonged there.

I hesitantly brought the chalice to my lips, but not before taking a large breath so I wouldn’t have to endure its continent’s smell or taste. With one last churn of my stomach, I threw my head back and took it all in one large mouthful, trying to imagine I was back at Oriana’s house giggling as we sipped on her parents’ not-so-secret liquor stash they hid under a loose floorboard. But the feeling of blood in my mouth was unlike anything that is supposed to be consumed. It was thick and still warm and, although I didn’t dare breathe, which took my ability to taste it away, I could still feel the metallic bitterness on the back of my tongue.

My stomach gave another churn and for a moment I thought I would heave it up, which would not only be embarrassing but would soil my ability to be queen. Callie explained to me how their belief is that only a true royal can drink the mixed blood of the lords. If they are unfit to rule or the gods do not bless them, then they will either be unable to swallow, throw it up right afterwards, or be paralyzed, making them unable to drink it all together. There was apparently an account of a prince from thousands of years before Henrik’s reign that burst into flames when the combined bloods touched his lips. How true that was—I didn’t know. But the fact I’d mustered the strength (or insanity) to drink it and I was still alive meant I had made it further than some.

Everyone’s breaths seemed to hitch as I held the blood in my mouth for quite some time. There was so much of it that it hurt my cheeks from them having to stretch outwards wide to accommodate its volume.

Finally, with all the strength and control over my muscles I could muster, I forced it all down in one swallow, my eyes watering as I felt the pressure of it passing down and into my stomach too slowly for my liking. I let out a shaky breath and cringed at the horrible taste of blood that stained my tongue, swallowing quickly to try to rinse it out somehow.

There was a pause of silence as everyone waited to see if the blood of Galycia rejected me, their yellow eyes widening and bodies tensing. My own body went still, unsure of what my stomach’s response would be.

A minute passed.

And then another.

Finally, when I realized I would not be expelling any blood out of my mouth that day, I stood straight and presented them the empty chalice, turning it over on its side so they could see that there was not even one drop left. Applause was what followed, starting our slow and then gaining both speed and volume as they realized what had happened. I looked to my left and saw Henrik joining them, pride gleaming in his eyes which was nothing compared to how I felt.

When Callie first told me that I needed to drink blood in order to complete the coronation ceremony, my first thought was instantly negative and I told her over and over how I could never ingest something so revolting. At that time, I could barely stomach the idea. Now that it was over, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment and I welcomed their praise, knowing that no matter how gross it was, I’d successfully done something meaningful to an entire species.

I looked back down at the chalice that was so clean it looked like nothing had been in it, realizing I didn’t feel the nausea that I thought was awaiting me all. I wondered if perhaps there was some sort of magic involved after all or if it was just the overwhelming happiness I felt in my chest that discounted it. Either way, I couldn’t help but smile as Dario took it, inspecting it one last time before he himself showed everyone that it was in fact empty.

“Your blood has spoken,” Dario announced and the applause grew louder, not noticing the surprised and almost disturbed look on his face. The male had clearly been expecting my human genes to cause me to be unable to drink the blood and now that I had, the concoction settling in my stomach, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

I saw movement to my left and turned, watching as the older boy returned but this time with a golden crown placed atop the pillow. My eyes widened when I saw it. It was like Henrik’s but smaller and the edges weren’t nearly as sharp.

Dario and the boy exchanged the crown and the chalice, Dario taking the crown delicately between his finger tips while the boy took the chalice by its neck and walked away, simply nodding in my direction instead of bowing.

I instantly tilted my head towards Dario, drowning out the rest of the world as he began speaking again but this time only to me, his queen.

“Let this crown never fail you.” Slowly I could feel the added pressure that ended right above the jewelry of my veil and the gold was cool against my scalp, causing an unwelcome shiver to run down my spine. It was much lighter than what I had expected from such a thick and sturdy looking piece, yet it was still the heaviest thing I’d ever worn. When I looked up, Dario’s Lycan eyes glowed as they met mine. “And be a sign of a true, long, and prosperous reign, if the gods mote it be.”

I turned to the crowd once more, clasping my sweaty hands in front of me and subtly fiddled with my fingers, as Dario exclaimed behind me, “All hail your queen, ordained by the gods and accepted by the blood of you, your ancestors, and all that shall come after. All hail Her Majesty, Queen Raena of Galycia!”

“All hail Queen Raena!” They all stood and their applause was unlike anything I’d ever heard, so wild and joyous that it had me gasping aloud. Suddenly having to endure the feeling of blood against my tongue was forgotten as tears of surprised joy ran down my face. I had to close my eyes and just listen for a moment or else I feared I’d be so overwhelmed that I’d faint. The mere fact that they were so happy that I would be their queen extinguished the doubt that had been consuming me for so long, knowing that if these powerful beings could believe in me, then so could I.

I hand grasped my own and I looked up, my eyes softening when they met Henrik’s beaming face. He instantly leaned down and kissed my lips, reminding me just how much my tongue still reeked of blood. I was the one to pull away, sheepish and my cheeks burning.

“That wasn’t so bad, now was it, wife?” He smirked and I crinkled my nose up at him, my hand coming up to steady my crown in fear it’d fall off. Of course it didn’t because it fit so perfectly around my head, but the paranoia of damaging such a meaningful item denounced any hint of common sense.

I was about to tell him how wrong he was but before I could, a hand around my wrist twirled me around and into its owner’s embrace. A squeak escaped my lips as a joyous laugh left Callie’s and her arms around my shoulder gave one last squeeze before she pulled back, sniffling. Faint mascara lines were very noticeable on her cheekbones and I didn’t miss the faint smudges of black on the sleeves of her blue dress, which I’d chosen for both her and Ingrid to wear as my bridesmaids. It broke and warmed my heart all at once to see it. I felt lucky to have people that would cry for me, no matter if the occasion was sad or happy.

“It was so beautiful!” she hiccuped and pulled me back into her chest again, nearly bonking our heads together. I laughed. She obviously was not used to my increase in height from my heels as much as I was.

“Callie, let the poor girl breathe.” Ingrid shooed her away with a scolding glare. When she saw me, her eyes trailed from my face to my crown, I saw her own resolve crumble and suddenly her arms were around me as well, but this time around my waist. In my heels, I now towered at least three inches above her. “So...” she trailed off with a smile. “Do you feel any different, Your Majesty?”

I looked around the room seeing the lords and ladies conversing amongst themselves like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. The young children were becoming restless and I smiled at a girl tugging on her mother’s brilliant green dress, my heart longing to have that one day. Behind me, Henrik was thanking the priestess for coming and I admired the way he talked to her so kind and respectful, like she was one of his own people. It made me forget everything I’d ever been mad or upset at him for, realizing that despite all his faults, there was truly a good person beneath all the scars and sharp teeth.

“Give the blood some time to settle,” I laughed, trying my best to ignore the undeniable heavy warmth that still remained in my stomach. When an air bubble arose in my throat, I could still taste it too and I nearly wanted to gag but my fear of vomiting in front of all these people kept it in. I opened my mouth to say something else but stopped when I felt a familiar hand gently place itself on the curve of my waist, which was especially defined by the tight-fitting bodice of my dress.

“Raena,” Henrik suddenly muttered in my ear, his warm breath tickling the skin there, “we must go.” I looked over and noticed the lords and ladies turning their heads towards us every once and a while during their conversations. I realized then that they couldn’t leave until we did and suddenly felt horrible for just standing there so thoughtlessly, too focused on talking with my friends to consider everyone else.

It made me want to smack myself on the cheek.

“Right, of course,” I said and turned to my friends quickly, taking Ingrid’s hand in my right one while my left took Callie’s. “See you in a bit, alright?”

They nodded and I could’ve sworn new tears were already brimming in their eyes, causing my own to appear as I let go of their hands to wove my arm through Henrik’s. Although my childhood friends couldn’t be with me anymore, I realized as I turned away from Callie and Ingrid, that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a fulfilling life. Maybe I could even have a happy one.

Henrik and I turned to face the door and right as we did, the organ began playing again but this time a much more merrier tune that was so fast and upbeat that it sounded more for a carnival than a serious ceremony.

Elodie and Ophelia practically ran from their parents to tend my train and I laughed at their behavior, having forgotten how carefree and hilarious children could be. Within seconds, Henrik and I were walking down the aisle, the king beaming proudly while his queen smiled unsurely at the applauding crowd, thanking them and waving giddily at their children.

But when we made it to the last row of pews and I turned my head to my left, my smile immediately dropped when I met the narrowed, unblinking eyes of the priestess, who stood beside the Moon Goddess’s statue.

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