~ THE CORENTANZ ~
"I must warn you," Henrik said while we stood in the center of the hallway, our hands adjoined. A smile played along his lips, which appeared fuller than they had before now that his face was freshly shaven and there were no dark hairs to shadow them. Although I typically disliked facial hair, finding it unappealing when food got stuck around a man's mouth or how it could make them look more unkempt, Henrik wore his well and always kept it nicely trimmed, never a single hair on his neck and the edges were always sharp. I found myself slightly missing it, but facial hair or not, he was still the most beautiful male I'd ever seen—scars, tattoos, crown, and all. "I constructed a small wedding-slash-coronation present for you."
"What?" I began to protest with a shake of my head. "Henrik, no. I didn't get you anything."
He had already gotten me so much within the past few weeks and somehow in my daze of things, I hadn't once thought of getting him anything. I felt awful and selfish. Instantly, now possessing the time to think of such things, I knew exactly what I would have bought him. I could picture each item perfectly as if I already had. Although they would've have been nearly as grand or expensive as what he'd given me, I knew he would've appreciated the gesture at least and I mentally promised myself to give him something within the next week.
"Raena, I can assure you that you've given me everything I could have ever asked for." He lifted my hands to his lips, kissing both my knuckles while he stared deep into my eyes, and then was quick to kiss my cheeks as well, which felt like they had hot embers placed on top of them.
His kisses had been untamable since we left the temple. My mark still tingled with a slight ache from the heated display of affection he'd given me in the carriage, every nip and trail of his lips along my neck a promise of what was to come later that very night. I shuddered at the thought. I was turned into nothing with just his kisses. I couldn't fathom anything better. It didn't seem possible.
Just as I was about to speak, the door swung open and our heads rotated in sync to look at the guard that cautiously peeked his head in, as if he was expecting to see something quite unpleasant. But he relaxed once he saw us just standing there, a hint of surprise in his eyes.
"Your Majesties, they're ready for you," he spoke in a whisper, his eyes noticeably running over my dress but not in a strange or perverted way. Pure admiration of Mary's work showed on his face, his eyebrows raised and the corners of his eyes crinkling with a smile.
Now that my train and veil were gone, the pattern of the lace was more visible as well as my hair that Ingrid, the only person who I trusted with my hair anymore, had twisted into a beautiful loose bun with strands placed in all the right places. I typically preferred my hair down but the way she had styled it was perfect and allowed for my crown to remain comfortably on my head while still framing my face nicely, which I had no doubt she'd done on purpose. She was always so good at thinking ahead, the mother in her showing through in the smallest of actions.
"Are you ready, my love?" Henrik asked, the coolness of his wedding band suddenly biting against my palm and reminding me yet again of what we had just done but already felt like a lifetime ago.
No longer was I holding hands with just the Cursed King but my husband, my mate, my Henrik—my king. No matter what was to come, whether it be good or bad, we would forever be bonded to each other, whether it was in mortal or immortal eyes, and the thought of that did not scare or frustrate me like I'd expected it to. Like it should've. But I was so sick of my emotions being controlled by the things I'd been taught, like a dog living in a cage its whole life and being too comfortable with its walls to explore what the world offered when the door finally opened.
For once, I wanted to feel something out of the simplicity that I desired to feel it. I wanted to be free.
"I don't know," I said with a smile. However, my true anxiousness came out in the shakiness of my voice and I cursed at it, wishing that it would go away as I'd been begging it to for the past few months. "Are you?" It was a pathetic way of me trying to stall but I coudn't help myself from wanting to spend more time with him and this peace we'd found together, standing right outside the ballroom in a secluded and dimly lit hallway covered with ugly yellow wallpaper, even if it was just a few more seconds.
"So long as I have you by my side," Henrik replied, his serious tone and eyes taking me by surprise.
My eyebrows lifted, my heart aching with guilt as I recalled all the times I'd thought of leaving, the last time having been just that morning when the servants had first knocked on my door to announce my breakfast was ready. But that was my fear talking, not truly me. I couldn't deny the thought was still there though, like a stubborn parasite feasting at my mind.
A high pitched horn sounded from outside the door, making my body jolt in surprise so high I feared my bones would hop out of my skin and Henrik chuckled. I sent him a glare, knowing it probably looked as pitiful to him as a chicken trying to pick a fight with a fox.
"So jumpy," he muttered with a smile, lacing my arm through his own. His words took my back to when we were first properly introduced, making nostalgia enter my blood system and take over my whole body as the memory rammed itself into me like an angry bull. It was only a couple months ago yet it felt like a lifetime, as if I'd been looking through the eyes of a completely different person. She had been a commoner from Amaryllus, who only knew a cage and the dreams it locked inside, and I was now Queen of Galycia, the wife and mate of the very monster I'd feared as a child, who got a taste of what the rest of the world had to offer.
"Their Majesties, King Henrik and Queen Raena of Galycia!" the voice of the guard that had spoken to us earlier announced, which was only slightly muffled by the door separating us from the other room. Hearing that sentence had my heart leaping into my throat and I instinctively leaned into Henrik closer, who only sent a smile down at me.
When the doors opened away from us, the crowd I saw standing there amazed me, despite me having seen them all back at the temple. In the couple hours Henrik and I had sat to relax a bit before the after party, the lords and ladies had changed into gold and silver themed attire, having all been given their own rooms in the palace on the second floor. The ladies' dresses were wider and longer, their hairs styled in more extravagant do's, and the lords had noticeably changed into thinner jackets and different shoes, all being attire more fit for the dancing and celebrating they'd be doing the rest of the night.
Immediately, I noticed the lack of children below the age of sixteen, who I knew were watched by a team of guards and nannies that had travelled with the lords and ladies to look after the younger ones when they couldn't.
Heads bowed as we walked past, whispering "Your Majesties" in a large, single wave from all around me the deeper we walked into the room.
My eyes drifted upwards over the ballroom, gasping at the dome-shaped ceiling where two large diamond chandeliers as big as a carriages hung. Paintings of blushing faeries, nymphs, and what appeared to be harpies lounging on pink clouds in a light blue sky covered every inch of the ceiling, reminding me of the images portrayed in Henrik's room. My eyes trailed over and stuck onto a green-skinned female lounging on her elbows, small breasts on full display, and smiling as she was serenaded by two Fae males, who appeared to be trying to feed her purple berries. But it wasn't just the artwork that astounded me. It were the accents of real, solid gold in the creases where the walls met the ceiling that'd been heated and then cooled into swirling patterns, the light from the chandelier reflecting off of them and making them appear as if they were living flames.
The navy blue wallpaper was just as grand, the patterns so small that you had to be up close to truly admire its complicated designs, and the white marble floors completed the room, so clean that I could see the ceiling's painting in it as clear as if I was standing directly on it. Floor length windows on the three walls of the rectangle-shaped room, showed the mountains in the distance and the setting sun beyond them. The image matched with the emotions I were feelings was such an astounding sensation that I took a moment to just simply look and take it in, never wanting to forget the utter euphoria I felt in that moment.
As the crowd continued to part, moving respectfully off to the sides, large spots of yellow caught my attention and my head snapped forward and my steps faltered. I looked at Henrik, watched him nod, confirming what I was seeing was true, and then turned back to my gift, swallowing down a sob. Beside a throne entirely made up of gold stood another just as large and grand as it but with flowers etched around its edges instead of swirling symbols similar to the ones on the relics used in my coronation and Henrik's tattoos. On either side of the thrones, tapestries decorated with traditional Lycan symbols hung with the golden letters 'HR' embroidered in their centers in a swirling font.
My lip began wobbling for a reason I didn't fully understand myself. Happiness, sadness, guilt, frustration, and fear came together to create one nasty sensation in my stomach that had me wanting to disappear and never show my face again. The people who now looked up to me as their queen began clapping and murmuring their compliments, welcoming me no matter our difference in species—no matter my weaknesses.
"Does it please you, Raena?" Henrik questioned, staring at my face, searching for my genuine reaction like it was buried treasure. "You would be given a throne no matter what, of course, but I thought the flowers would suit you better so I had this one crafted instead."
"It's..." I trailed off, staring at the throne. My throne. I tightened my arm around his, feeling the need to have some sort of grounding all of a sudden, like a ship seeking an anchor in a merciless storm. "It's exquisite, Henrik. Thank you."
Without wasting another second, he brought my hand up and kissed both my wedding band and engagement ring and then pulled me in close. For a moment, I thought he was going to hug me but instead he held onto my forearms and leaned in close, nose skimming my cheekbone. "So how about we get this little dance over with," he murmured against the shell of my ear, "so that I may have the pleasure to escort you where you truly belong?" He leaned his head back and smiled into my eyes that I knew were full of tears because of my blurry vision and the familiar sting. I wished I could stop crying. But whether I was sad or happy, it seemed I simply could not and I only hoped that my makeup was as waterproof as the artist had claimed it to be.
Henrik nodded behind me and towards the full orchestra that had been blinded from my sight by the crowd that now stood against the walls. Every instrument I could ever imagine was there: piano, French horn, flute, violin, guitar, and others I'd never seen or heard of. He's going to make me faint, I thought, referencing to all the excitements and surprises I'd faced in the past twenty-four hours.
The composer, whose dark mustache was gelled to have dramatic curls at its ends, gave us both a bow and turned to the orchestra as Henrik brought me close and got me in the position I'd practiced with Callie for hours, hand on his shoulder blade and other hand outstretched and entwined with his. I remembered the night before clearly, reminding myself to roll my shoulders backwards, keep my head high, and to keep my outstretched arm stiff while adding pressure to his hand. But it all felt so foreign now that I was doing it with him as my partner, his hands being so much larger and his whole body covered in layers of muscle, the one in his shoulder that my hand rested feeling particularly like a stone.
It felt like I was more of a doll than a dance partner, which I wasn't at all upset with. In fact, if anything, it made me feel more confident that if I did mess up, Henrik could keep going and make everything look as if it was still perfect.
The first slow strum of a violin sounded out like the first spot of light in the morning over the horizon, beginning at a deep and somber tune and slowly getting higher and higher until the other instruments joined in, creating a familiar song that had my heart racing as my mind began counting its slow rhythm. The music was so different than what it sounded like from the record player. It was more crisp and real, causing my fingers on Henrik's shoulder blade to twitch restlessly. When I counted to eight for the second time, I took my first step with my right foot as Henrik stepped back, beginning a dance that I can only describe of being full of so many twists, turns, dips, and spins that my head felt dizzy after the first few seconds.
During the whole time, our eyes focused on each other's, only leaving in the few seconds Henrik spun me and during a small part where he had to kneel on the ground and I walked around him, our hands never leaving until finally I stood facing him again and we began the dance all over again. That was perhaps the hardest part about the Corentanz: we always had to keep physical contact, whether it was just the brushing of our fingertips or his whole arm practically being wrapped around my waist when he dipped me. It was supposed to represent our newfound togetherness as queen and king and was seen as bad luck for the whole kingdom if there was even a split second where we were not touching. The pressure definitely made it a lot harder than what it was.
The dance finally came to an end with a high pitched vibrato from the violin, the sound like a droplet of rain in the desert to my ears, and I released my hold on his shoulder while he so to my waist, both of us stepping back so we stood side-by-side with our hands still adjoined. Henrik bowed while I curtsied, our grip on each other's fingers on the verge of being considered painful.
Our people instantly began clapping at our successful Corentanz, hopeful it was the sign of us having long and prosperous reign. Two or three of them gave a few sharp whistles with their fingers in their mouths assisting them, the sharp sounds impressing me. Their applause was still unusual to me, having the feeling I didn't deserve it, and I supposed I needed to try to get used to the sound. It felt like I could sneeze and they would still find something in the horrendous noise to praise me for.
When the violin finally faded into complete silence, I let out a heavy breath, my whole body shaking with fading adrenaline and my tired legs feeling like custard in my ridiculously tall heels. But still I stood back up straight and smiled, not allowing myself to show these people that my human body was winded by just a three minute long choreography.
Without wasting another moment, Henrik pulled me to him by my hand until I was so close I could've counted his eyelashes if I chose to. "You did so well," Henrik told me and I thanked him internally for giving me the reassurance without me having to ask, going through my head and feeling another wave of relief flow through me that I hadn't tripped and my crown hadn't fallen off, despite it feeling like it would at one point while I was spinning. Henrik looked behind me, his face hardening as he noticed something unpleasant. "Excuse me, my female," he said, his words slow as he chose them very carefully. Too carefully. "I'm afraid must discuss some plans for constructions of a new schools. Please don’t go sit in your throne until I'm back. I want to be by your side when you do it for the first time." It was like he could hardly wait to walk away from me. Henrik disappeared into the crowd that was beginning to take over the dance floor before I could answer, the lingering of his hand on my shoulder burning me.
When music for another dance started to play, I made a quick escape and stood awkwardly off to the side only a few feet away from the thrones. A few lords and ladies came up to me every once and awhile and congratulated me, holding drinks and napkins full of treats from one of two the long tables pressed against the walls. On both, there were ice sculptures of wolves placed in their center but that was the only thing that had interested me about them. Despite me being the one who picked out every single dessert and sandwich served that night, which of course were all my favorites, my stomach was still feeling unsettled from all my nerves After everything that had happened, eating was the last thing on my mind.
"Little Madam," I turned at the sound of the familiar voice to my right and smiled up at Evander, who was dressed in a suit that was almost an exact replica of Henrik's but with slight differences in the design. His was a bit less elaborate but the tattoos on his neck and the way he held himself made him stand out in the crowd just as much as his cousin. His long hair was slicked back into a neat bun, which looked quite unnatural on him, after having always seen him wear his hair slightly tousled. "The wedding was much lovelier than I originally anticipated. Thank you for bringing such a marvelous piece of your tradition to our soil," he said cheerfully, although I couldn't help but feel a subtle sense of awkwardness when he said it. His words didn't have the usual Evander-charm to them, the one that made me laugh constantly and feel at ease no matter what the situation. Instead, the upbeat tone to it sounded almost forced, like he'd rehearsed and memorized every syllable before he ever attempted to approach me.
Without truly thinking, I looked in the direction Henrik had disappeared in nearly forty-five minutes prior (I could tell from the clock that hung on the wall opposite to the thrones) and noticed my husband having a deep conversation with Callie against a corner, a guard standing beside her and head bent downward as the cousins appeared to be in a very heated argument. Callie looked pissed, angrier than I thought was possible for such a beautiful face, and her eyes glowed so bright that they looked like tiny lightbulbs from where I was standing.
And then suddenly they met mine, no doubt her Lycan senses immediately taking notice of my gaze, and stopped speaking, her wide eyes looking like she'd just been discovered in the act of doing something dreadful. I could see Henrik's head begin to turn my way when I snapped my eyes back to Evander, my heart heavy from knowing I'd been blatantly caught staring.
"Thank you, Evander," I told him softly, watching over his shoulder as the laughing lord and ladies danced, their dresses's wide skirts practically flying to the heavens whenever they twirled.
On the right side of the room, I could make out Jerium near the glasses of wine and champagne discussing something with a lord that I easily recognized as the male I'd seen with a mark back in Henrik's office. But as my eyes looked and looked, Ingrid's blue dress and long French braid were nowhere to be seen. It didn't surprise me. She'd warned me prior to the ceremony that she might have to leave early because Furkan was on call for border patrol, the security all over the kingdom being increased that night, and her son was still too young to be left home alone. While I understood entirely, I couldn't help the disappointment that settled in my abdomen, having hoped I could've at least said goodbye.
"I understand your loyalty lies with my sister." My eyes made their way back to Evander who, in my spacing out, I had almost forgotten was there and I felt horrible, hoping I hadn't accidentally ignored something he said. "However, if there is ever anything you need—anything at all—you can always come to me," Evander told me with a soft smile. I forced one onto my own face, trying my hardest to maintain eye contact and not be rude. His eyes flickered down to my empty hands. "Can I get—"
A familiar muscular arm snaked around my middle, Henrik's hand gripping just below my rib, "Good evening, cousin," the king bit out through clenched teeth, his eyes brightening with every word. Silently, I looked up at him and begged him to put his jealousy aside and be kind to Evander who was just simply trying to keep me company and ease my discomforts when he couldn't. "Doesn't my mate look absolutely stunning tonight?"
I shuffled awkwardly on my aching feet, feeling a sense of embarrassment as the conversation's subject was turned to me.
"Yes, as she always does," Evander said, his tight-lipped smile looking so fake that I wondered if it hurt him to make it as much as it did me to watch it.
Our lessons had stopped all together the week before the wedding, my time too consumed by decorating, learning vows, and dancing to have any desire in my already exhausted body to learn how and where to strike people. But as I stood there, I realized how much I'd truly missed my time with Evander, him being one of the kindest people I'd ever met. He never made me feel incompetent for being human, as a lot of immortals seemed to naturally do. Instead, he showed me how I could utilize that to my advantage. He taught we where to find strengths in my weaknesses and for that, I was forever grateful.
“Pardon me, Your Majesties, but I better be getting back to entertaining Lord Basil before he drinks all the good wine." Evander bowed and walked away, my eyes following his retreating back with guilt, feeling like I should've begged him to stay and talk longer.
But, crown or no crown, I was still a damned coward.
Before I could truly see where Evander headed off to, Henrik used his arm on my waist to pivot me towards the back of the room and led us towards the thrones. It suddenly seemed a lot taller than what I had originally perceived, and as I gazed upwards at the full length of it, I felt unworthy to even be standing so close to it let alone comfortable enough to sit in it. Sensing this, Henrik grasped my hand and did not let it go until I was seated in my throne and leaning back somewhat relaxed while resting my elbows on the armrests. Henrik quickly sat beside me, unfastening the buttons at the end of his jacket, and propped his chin on his palm, watching me as the tips of my fingers trailed the patterns engraved in the throne that uncannily matched the flowers and vines that made up my engagement ring.
"So," he began in a teasing tone, "what do you think, Your Majesty?"
I sighed, looking around the room illuminated by setting sunlight and the dimmed chandelier lights, watching as the very beings I'd once feared as crazed animals dancing elegantly around me. "I think you were right," I said with a hint of a smirk, letting his upbeat attitude lift my spirits. I was tired of following the voice in my head and instead allowed the one in my heart a chance at being listened to. Whatever Henrik and Callie had gotten into an argument about I brushed off as strictly royal business, remembering how my assumptions always got me into trouble before. So I pushed the annoying curiosity that begged me to pry until my voice hurt to the back of my mind, putting my trust in that if Henrik deemed it necessary that I know something, he would tell me, especially now that I was his queen and equal in all ways. "A throne of gold is not nearly as comfortable as it looks."
Henrik barked a laugh and reached over, holding my hand and rubbing circles over my knuckles with his thumb. "Indeed, my female," he sighed in content, the sound mimicking exactly what I was feeling inside. "Indeed."
We sat back and watched the laughing crowd together, all dancing so perfectly and in uniform that if I squinted and blurred my vision with my eyelashes, they almost looked like tiny figurines from a music box. Our people, I thought, testing the idea in my mind and repeating it over and over until the term got jumbled in my mind. Now matter how many times I replayed the day over again in my head, it still felt like I was in a dream and that any moment I'd wake up back on a pile of straw.
"One hour," Henrik said suddenly, his voice going gravely as his grip on my hand tightened. "We will stay for one hour out of chivalry," he leaned in closer and lowered his voice into a purr, "and then I will devour you, my little Rae."
And when I looked over at him, his eyes blazing like the gold on the walls shining above him while a devilish smirk pulled at his lips, I had no doubt he would do just that.