The Cursed Kingdom

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THIRTY

~ ANOTHER ATTACK ~

I clutched my hair, feeling the strands that were in need of a good brushing entangle themselves around each finger. My nails dug into my scalp, the small hurt grounding me and distracting me from the nausea that threatened to spew up the plethora of macaroons I regretted eating and my cold, clammy palms felt slightly soothing against my burning forehead. But it wasn't enough.

The air around me felt so thin and my chest felt like it was caving in, pressing right against my racing heart that threatened to burst from under the pressure at any given time.

I'm a queen now, I thought to myself as if I'd just found out the factβ€”as if fifty-two lords' bloods weren't still slithering through my system and digging me deeper into the mess I created by saying one word a few weeks prior.

It'd been hours since we mated and after a couple more rounds of lovemaking, I'd woken up in a sweat, my mother's voice and my friends' sobs echoing in my ears. My head was so dizzy that I was surprised I'd managed to walk at all, practically stumbling into the dark bathroom, groping around for the sink counter, where I slid down to the floor and leaned my back against its cabinets.

Images of blood kept flashing throughout my brain, splattering on trees, dropping into a chalice, staining the snow, and gushing out from Taylium's neck.

Now that I was acquainted with its taste, my thoughts forced me to imagine how my friends' blood must've tasted and felt on the Rogues' tongues, when their teeth were lodged through their flesh and crunching their bones. The image made me physically ill and I bit my tongue to keep in all the sobs bubbling in my lungs, forcing my nails deeper into my skin and wishing for just a moment that the whole world could disappear.

An image of a severed arm in the snow had me shuddering, on the verge of heaving, and I wrapped my arms around my knees, the bathroom floor feeling hard and unforgiving underneath my sweating and very naked body.

I forced myself to try to think of something elseβ€”anythingβ€”even if it was just the alphabet or a song I'd heard long ago. But my mind seemed to be its own independent force and would not allow me to do anything else but relive my nightmares over and over again.

My mother's sobs and warnings.

The twins' mangled bodies.

Oriana's scream.

The sound of lungs gurgling.

Everything came back in one blow and the only thing I could do was watch and listen as the phantoms of my past screeched their terrible songs directly into my heart, scratching and tearing down whatever confidence I thought I possessed.

I felt stupid and weak, like a little girl trying hide from her reality. The thoughts of me ever escaping felt so ridiculous, especially now that I was connected to this land and its people just as much as a blade of grass was to the soil. How had I ever considered saving myself when I couldn't even save my friends? How could I escape an entire kingdom full of wolf-shifting beings when I couldn't even escape the monsters in my own head?

Oriana would've found a way out within the first week, perhaps even in an hour of waking. She'd always been so much smarter than me and kinder and everything else that a person who deserved to survive should be.

You should've been the first to die. That thought wrapped itself around my mind and squeezed until it was agonizing, causing my thoughts to drift back to the window latch and to the winter snow. Everything would've been so much easier if I would've died with my friends. So much more peaceful. No guilt. No confusion. No hate. You should've been the first.

"I know, I know, I know," I chanted in such a quiet whisper that I'd barely been able to hear it myself. My throat stung, like I'd swallowed a handful of sand. "Please forgive me." I said the last sentence to my friends, my mother, and whatever gods were upset with me and my decisions, especially the ones that dealt with a certain cursed being in the other room who'd gone through war and still slept better than I could've dreamed of.

My mother's appearances in my dreams had unnerved me, so much so that I never went a day without thinking about her warning and pondering just how true it was, but my heart was not terrified or threatened by Henrik in the slightest. If anything, he was what gave it a reason so beat most days. But with that, came the horrible situation of having to choose between both reason and want, what I'd been told and my growing feelings not just for a Henrik but for Galycia as a whole and its unique music, food, and traditions.

I didn't want to believe my mother or the stories from my people. My wish was to believe for as long as I could that the male I'd eaten meals with, laughed with, cried with, and played backgammon with almost daily was all that there was to King Henrik, despite every scar and nasty name people bestowed onto him. I wanted what we hadβ€”whatever it was, love or mere infatuationβ€”to be real with no exceptions or doubts.

But there was an overwhelming sense of doom between the cracks of hope that kept stirring in my stomach and I didn't know whether that was the paranoia from my nightmares or something more. Either way, no matter how ridiculous it sounded, there was something inside me that wouldn't allow me to settle, like an extra sense telling me something in the atmosphere wasn't right.

And it was absolutely terrifying.

After another few minutes of sitting in the pitch blackness, wallowing in my emotions and everything that scared me the most, I knew I had to return to bed before Henrik awakened. The mere thought of him finding me in that state, shaking and on the verge of tears, worried me greatly.

So I wiped my eyes with my palms and stood onto wobbly legs, relying on the counter at first for balance until I seemed to finally find it in myself. As quickly as my body's wavering strength allowed, I closed the door quietly before padding back to the bed where my sedated mate awaited, whose body was softly illuminated by the soft glow of the stars shining through the windows.

Henrik looked so peaceful when he slept, his hair awry, relaxed face giving off a facade of innocence, and his muscular arm covered in tattoos outstretched over my side of the bed, still trusting my presence to be there. The lower half of him was hidden under the covers, the comforter kicked to the very end of the bed, but his scarred back was revealed for the world to see, rising and falling slowly as every content breath left his body. I could just make out my nails' still red and slightly raised additions around his shoulder blades.

When I saw him like that, so peaceful and still, for a moment I could pretend he was just an innocent, simple, common man I'd fallen in love with and not a Lycan king, who haunted children's and some adults’ nightmares. But when my mark prickled and the memories I didn't want rose to the surface of my mind, I was reminded in less than a couple seconds that my life never had the chance of being simple or innocent ever again. That I was no longer Raena, daughter of a seamstress from a small village in the north. That I had somehow become a wife and a queen in only a day when in truth, I barely knew who I was as a person.

How was I expected to rule a nation or be a proper spouse when I still hid in the bathroom whenever I was afraid?

I sighed and continued to walk forward, the floor cold beneath my feet that still ached from those ridiculous heels that were placed carelessly somewhere in the room.

The mental wall Henrik had built between us after our mating remained intact, feeling almost like a block of cement at the top of my spine, and now instead of feeling anger towards it, I was grateful so that he wouldn't have to know all the things that tainted my thoughts. Although we were married, mated, and possessed a relationship that I perceived was as close as we could be at the time, I wasn't quite ready yet to share that part of myself with himβ€”the broken one. For some reason, it felt much more private and sacred than giving up my virtue had been.

As I headed to the bed, my ears perceived the soft snores that escaped his upturned and still swollen lips, making the place between my legs throb when I was reminded where they'd been less than an hour ago. He stirred and I held my breath, realizing that in a deep slumber his heightened senses could no doubt still pick up the sinful shift in my body.

Dirty, that voice, which I'd been trying my best to ignore, hissed in disgust and suddenly I found it hard to breathe again, taking a small step back as if the images of my friends bleeding out and dying in the snow were right in front of me instead of just figments of my messed up subconscious.

I slapped my hands over my eyes and shook my head back and forth, my heartbeat drumming against my skull. It was a horrible sound. Sometimes I wished it would just stop all together so maybe then I could find peace.

Disgusting.

Whore.

Stop! I begged internally, tearing my hands from my eyes so my arms could wrap around my body in a pitiful hug-like manner. I forced my legs one more step forward and I grabbed the cold covers and lifted them, slowly slipping underneath them and lying on the very edge of the mattress, as far away from Henrik as I could. The cool silk sheets felt so good against my overheated and quite shaky body and I buried my nose into the pillow covered in the same fabric, breathing in its scent of pine as if it was as dire as oxygen. Just stopβ€”please. My lips wobbled but I wouldn't let myself cry. I couldn't, not with Henrik so close.

Thankfully, the voice seemed to listen to me and I was greeted by welcomed silence and the occasional hoot of an owl and chirp of a cricket from outside.

The lords and ladies had long ago retreated back to their bedrooms to be with their children, which were located on the complete opposite side of the palace from Henrik's room and on the second level, putting a whole floor between them and usβ€”an arrangement I knew was entirely intentional.

I let out a breath and counted in my head, trying to control my breathing and racing heartbeat while I hugged the pillow like it was my dearest friend.

I'd almost made it to one hundred when Henrik's arm instinctively found me and dragged me back into his body, reminding me of a serpent before it ate its meal, which I supposed he'd already done plenty of. He grunted in his sleep and rested his cheek on my own, his cold wedding band on my stomach causing me to shiver while that rigid male part of him pressed firmly into the back of my thigh.

Mine, I reminded myself, forcing my mother's words and the restless dread out of my head, my eyes focusing on a particularly large yellow lily with long stamens in the arrangement of flowers beside my bed. He is mine as I am his. No harm will come to me.

But still, through it all, I felt unsure of what exactly I was supposed to do.

So I closed my eyes and let Henrik's touch relax me as it always seemed to do no matter how stressful the situation, hoping that the sunrise would bring better news.

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