The Cursed Kingdom

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THIRTY-ONE

**Warning: brief mature content ahead**

~ BEARING GIFTS ~

"Henrik!" I cried so loudly that I was sure all of the Cursed Kingdom could hear me, gripping the said male's hair tighter before I fell apart, my legs tightening around his head and eliciting a groan, whose vibrations made an extra and quite violent jolt to rack through my body.

That was how I'd woken up that morning: sheets thrown off of me, my naked body splayed out like a starfish, and a strange warmth between my thighs awakening me with a gasp. That warmth happened to be my new and quite insatiable husband and mate, whose unkempt hair tickled my skin at the same time his skillful tongue dipped into my womanhood for what I presumed to be around the dozenth time since we mated.

After kissing the insides of my quivering thighs, Henrik crawled up and through them, a playful smirk pulling at his swollen lips as he stared at me while I proceeded to try to catch my breath.

Once he situated his elbows on either side of my face, he leaned down to kiss me and I groaned, forcing him closer down to me by his shoulders and savoring the feeling of his tight muscles underneath scarred skin. As our kisses deepened and our tongues battled, I lifted my hips, desperately trying to grind my bare and pulsing pelvis against his frustratingly covered one by the same elastic pants he'd worn at Feuerfest.

Henrik pushed me down gently, almost hesitantly, and groaned. "You're too sore," he grunted, sucking on my bruised mark and only making the truth in his words that much harder to accept. I dug my nails into his back, biting my bruised lower lip as I held in a whimperโ€”or perhaps it was a pleaโ€”a plea for him to put aside the consideration for my pained lower half and take me as the prominent bulge in his trousers revealed he wanted to.

Between Henrik's infinite passion and my abrupt anxiety attack, I perhaps only got three hours of sleep but as he hovered over me in that moment, I'd never felt more awake. My whole body was buzzing with a new energy, like it in itself was an electric wire, and I never wanted to let him go. If my human body had the stamina and resilience that my desires did, I would've been showing him exactly how much I needed him again and again and again until he was the one who couldn't walk.

Henrik slid off the bed and I groaned in protest, missing his warmth already, but used the moment to rub the sleep from the corners of my eyes. I stopped, eyes shooting open in horror, when I remembered I'd been wearing makeup the night before and I imagined all the horrible things I must've looked like.

Before I could think anymore on the subject, Henrik slipped his thick arms under my knees and shoulders, and quickly hoisted me up into the air, my side pressed into his bare chest. I squealed, clutching my legs together when suddenly that ache he'd mentioned became all too prominent.

"What are you doing?" I asked as he moved to the bathroom door, maneuvering his hand under my knees to push it open.

Immediately a soft wall of steam hit my face and I blinked, cringing when I saw a hint of what I looked like in the slightly fogged up bathroom mirror. What was once a beautiful masterpiece of black eyeliner and brown eyeshadow now appeared to be reduced to smudges that made my eye sockets look as sunken as a skeleton's.

"I ran you a bath," Henrik told me and my eyes lit up at the sight of the half filled bathtub covered in a layer of bubbles and rose petals. Beside it, draped over a chair from his sitting area, was a soft appearing white dress and fresh undergarments. "The water was too hot before," he said and kissed my neck, making me shudder and lean into him, "but now it should be perfect." He walked over and lowered me down with the same care I'd imagine he'd give a babe.

I could practically hear my aching muscles cheer and sigh in relief as the warm water welcomed my body. He was right. It was absolutely perfect.

"Thank you," I hummed and cupped some water in my hands before bringing it to my face, making sure to focus on my eyes.

The day old makeup came off a lot easier than I'd imagined and I wouldn't have been surprised if the bubbles were enchanted, having heard of such things being used regularly by noble human women who liked to keep their skin as pure as possible to avoid blemishes and aging.

If this is the kind of treatment I get every time we have sex, I'll never go a day without it, I thought as if I needed any other encouragement other than Henrik himself to jump into his bed again.

I'd never bathed for pleasure before. Had never considered it an option.

In Amaryllus, the poverty levels made it so I could only bathe once a week in a four foot long metal bucket located in a secluded section of Oriana's neighbor's barn, a kind old gentleman whose wife and kids had all died of the same illness years before I was born. I was positive it was used out in the pastures to hold water for the animals but it did its job for me alright, which I knew was the most important thing.

It was the long process that truly made it more stressful for me that pleasing. I would have to get up early in the morning, drag the water up from a nearby stream, and boil it over a fire to purify it before I could ever dump it in. I would do this about three times before I could finally submerge myself and by the time I did that, the water was too cold to be enjoyable and my legs would uncomfortably cramp up against the sides. Sometimes I would give up and settle for one bucket full of water, using a rag to wash my body with and the remaining freezing water to dump over my head so I could clean my hair.

Henrik kneeled down beside the tub, sticking a hand in the water and swirling it around once to check its temperature, and said, "You do understand that we don't have to mate for me to run a bath for you, correct?" He chuckled and my eyes snapped open, my body stiffening while my heart began moving way too fast. He leaned closer, hot breath tickling my mark. "Perhaps next time I could join you."

I barely heard his last sentence at all.

He can hear my thoughts? My stomach dropped in shock and a hint of fear.

Yes, he can, Henrik's voice sounded from deep within me, from the same place that his mental wall had been just moments ago. I nearly leapt straight out of the water, so completely astounded by how his being seemed to caress and surround me like an invisible embrace. And you can hear mine.

I leaned away from him so I could face him easier, feeling my whole body fill with anxiety. "Is that permanent?" I asked. In truth, I was fearful just how far this new bond between us went. Could he watch my memories too? The idea of him being able to see my plans and past desires to escape terrified me to the core of my existence. There were other things that an average person would've deemed meager or stupid that I didn't wish for him to see either, sentimental moments I'd spent with my friends and mom. Those, to me, were especially private and I didn't want anyone to see through my eyes or experience what I felt, whether good or bad. Not even Henrik. "What if I'm doing something private? What ifโ€”"

"Mate," Henrik said and I forced my lips together. "You can block me out if that is what you wish; however, I only ask you to do that as minimally as possible for safety purposes. If it wasn't for the slight bond between us already at the time, I wouldn't have been able to sense your fear when you began your menstrual cycle and you probably would've been in a lot of pain for a long while. I know it seems daunting at first but I will only look at what you allow me to."

"Wait. So you could hear my thoughts before?" I questioned, my body going cold. I thought I was going to faint from all this new information and the weight of him swirling around in my brain.

Earlier, I possessed a paranoia after I originally heard of his strange ability from the servant, having gone as far as to try to not think at all around him until I realized that was impossible for anyone with a brain to accomplish. But hearing him confirm that he could, in fact, sense my thoughts and feelings the whole time and I wasn't aware of it was worse than I could've imagined. It felt like I'd been slapped.

There were too many things I didn't wish for him to see. Too many vulnerabilities that I wasn't ready to admit even to myself. And it was horrible to think I would only know how much Henrik saw from what he was willing to tell me.

"Not truly. Only snippets of emotions and thoughts that would slip through the small crack opened by my mark here and there." Henrik shrugged and I relaxed slightly. He had no idea how relieved I was to hear that and to see him so calm, meaning he thankfully hadn't seen anything that would've made him angry or upset. Henrik was an outspoken person and I knew as soon as he would have seen anything about me leaving, he would've taken every drastic measure to ensure that thought never entered my brain again. "I especially enjoyed when you imagined yourself punching me that one time or when you saidโ€”"

"Ok, you've made your point. Now how do I block you out?" I flushed sheepishly, having forgotten all about that, and turned away from him, my face feeling like it was ready to burst into flames.

He only laughed at me, a light yet deep sound.

"Ouch. Trying to get rid of me so soon?" I knew he was teasing me but I didn't laugh. I couldn't even crack a smile because of the reasons why I wantedโ€”no, neededโ€”to keep him from seeing my thoughts. "Just will it," Henrik said, making the action sound as simple as lifting a finger. "Think about putting a wall between you and I and overtime the action will become as easy as breathing."

I did so, shoving his phantom embrace out of my mind, which I could've sworn I felt it swat at me teasingly, before thinking of a stone wall, the same kind of material the outside of his palace was made of, and I felt something actually click into place in the base of my brain, like I'd just shut a door of some kind. Suddenly my mind felt very empty, as if my brain was a hollow space, and I registered a sort of weight in the back of my head, like something was trapped thereโ€”no, not somethingโ€”Henrik.

I looked deeply into his eyes, watching the gold and tiny flecks of green his irises swirl around in a dance-like fashion.

Your ass smells like fish, I thought the insult I'd overheard Taylium once tell Tylem when we were younger and sent it straight down the bond only for it reverberate back, like an echo, as if it'd hit an actual surface of some kind. When not a single muscle in Henrik's face twitched, I knew I'd successfully completed the task, understanding him well enough that if he'd heard what I thought he would've erupted into fits of laughter.

"Well, that wasn't too bad," I said with a sigh and smiled when Henrik moved a strand of hair from out of my face. "Can I ask a question?" He looked hypnotized by my hair like he was seeing it for the first time, twirling it around his finger before finally tucking it behind my ear. "I know Ingrid told me we'd feel each others' emotions and such but she never said anything about... voices. Is that a part of the mate bond or a result of your own abilities?"

"Both," Henrik said, catching my attention. "My ability to speak to people through my mind was passed down from my paternal grandmother. It will only work correctly if I have a personal connection to the receiver, a relationship of loyalty, trust, and especially one where I have their consent to enter the first layer of their mind, whether they are aware of it or not. But it only goes one way and they can never start a conversation with me unless I keep the bridge open between us. I'll admit, I did it sometimes when you were with Jerium, Ingrid, or Callie because I wanted to make sure I would know immediately if something went awry. The mate bond, however, enhances it so it can go both ways and perhaps even beyond what I've experienced myself so far."

"I see," I said quietly and unsurely, taking in the new information and repeating the parts that reaffirmed I didn't have to worry about him ever hearing or seeing something in my brain that I didn't want him to.

Feeling my muscles loosen, I scooted forward in the tub and leaned back, checking to make sure the wall in my mind was still up, and I dipped my hair into the water. When I lifted my head, the water in my hair made it feel as if there was a brick attached to the ends and I grabbed the shampoo bar and rubbed it over my scalp, massaging it in afterwards with my fingertips before dipping my head back in and rinsing away the soapsuds.

Henrik watched the whole time, resting his elbow on the side of the tub and placing his chin in his palm, but I didn't mind in the slightest, his gaze on my skin feeling as natural as my eyelashes.

I grabbed the sponge and pink bar of soap from the dish carved into the tub's marble side, dipped the sponge in the water, and rubbed them together a couple times until the sponge was lathered in foam before placing my soap back where it belonged next to the green one that reeked of pine. With the bright yellow sponge, which was quite rough, I scrubbed my arms until they turned a burning shade of red.

Henrik finally stood and averted his gaze when I lifted my legs to clean them and I was glad he couldn't sense my disappointment, the mate bond already making every inch between us feel like a mile.

He walked to the sink and twisted the knobs on either side of the faucet until he got the temperature he wanted.

Seeing that he wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary, I turned my attention back to scrubbing my skin until I was certain my body was free from the scent of sweat and sex, a smell I hadn't expected to be so pungent or hard to get rid of.

After I squeezed the soap out of the sponge, I looked over as Henrik finished washing his face and he was patting it dry with a towel.

My eyes naturally drifted down to the countertop, which caused me to cringe and bite my tongue to keep what I wanted to say from escaping my throat.

Right after I moved into his room permanently, Henrik installed a larger mirror and a double sink, which was literally a complete replica of his old one, gold faucet, black marble, and all, but just multiplied by two. Around the left sink, Henrik's items were thrown around carelessly while around the right sink my hairbrush set was placed on one side, my slowly growing perfume collection on the opposite, and my other toiletry items sat right beside that. My possessions were organized in a way where I knew exactly where to find everything even if I was blind; however, for Henrik, it was like he had to solve a puzzle every morning and night as he searched and searched for what he needed.

After a couple seconds of me painfully watching his eyes circle his sink, Henrik reached for his razor blade, his other hand going for his container of shaving cream, a small wooden jar with a matching brush that had thick bristles to slather on the foamy substance with. Despite the fact he'd shaved the day before, already a five o'clock shadow was sprouting along his jawline and I felt myself almost whine when he began unscrewing the lid of his shaving cream.

"Wait," I said and he stopped, only moving to face me and quirk a scarred brow. For some reason, I felt nervous. "Can you... grow out your beard again? Like it was before?" I asked shyly, subtly sinking further into the bubbles and rose petals while I gripped the edges of the bathtub. I didn't want to force him to do something he didn't want to do, but I knew many women who gave their husbands comments on their appearance and I didn't see why I couldn't do the same. "I quite liked it."

Henrik smirked once he fully absorbed my request and nodded, putting the objects down without hesitation. "Yes, of course, my female." He said this with a subtle nod of his head. "I despise shaving anyway so you have spared me of my torture."

I grinnedโ€”a real, ear-to-ear, truly content grinโ€”at his jest, appreciating the way his face looked from the side when he smiled. When I saw his hand go in for the hair gel, I sighed, closed my eyes, leaned back against the back of the tub, and simply enjoyed my bath and our first morning together as a married and mated couple. Between the sounds of water running, I heard the unmistakable soft sprays of his cologne bottle, which made me picture him rubbing the said liquid over his wrists and chest as he did every morning, and the distinct sound of toothbrush bristles running quickly across teeth.

I was close to falling asleep, my aching body finally feeling the after effects of our first joining now that my adrenaline was gone, that I hadn't realised he'd finished getting ready, hadn't even heard him leave the room when he went to put on a black sleeveless undershirt.

So when he spoke, my heart nearly broke through my ribcage, not just because of it being unexpected but also because of what he said.

"I cannot wait until you are pregnant."

He had said the sentence so bluntly and casually, his voice a wistful sigh, that I was sure I couldn't have heard him right. There was just no way he could've said that. Not on such a calm and peaceful morning.

"What?" I sputtered, looking at him like he'd grown another head when I finally came to the conclusion that my ears unfortunately worked completely fine.

I was only eighteen. The thought of having children had never crossed my mind before because in human terms, I was still practically a child myself and I felt as helpless and weak as one on most days too.

I was fully aware we hadn't used protection the night before but I also knew that the chances of me getting pregnant so quickly were slim, which was why I hadn't questioned or fought it.

My mother had conceived me late in life because she experienced the same complications her mother had with her. She had told me right before she died, her breathing shallow and wheezy, how it'd taken her years and many miscarriages until she got blessed with me in her mid-thirties and even then doctors weren't sure I would survive. If my mother, who I thought to be one of the healthiest women in our village before she got pneumonia, had issues conceiving me, I couldn't imagine how strenuous it would be on my body, which had been malnourished most of my life, to carry a child of magical blood. It seemed absolutely impossible that it would happen immediately. If at all.

Of course, I understood that as a queen I was expected to produce as many children as possible but I hadn't thought Henrik meant for us to start trying so soon. We had never discussed it except for a couple insignificant comments he made when speaking about the future, a future I'd perceived to be very, very far away. At least, that's how it sounded.

So naturally I trusted becoming a father wasn't on his mind just like becoming a mother wasn't on mine. That Henrik wanted to wait to have kids just as I did. But it had been stupid of me to assume that the wants of a three-century-and-something year old king matched with my own just as it was for him to do the same.

And it was especially stupid that we hadn't talked about this before we had sex.

It was like I hadn't even spoken and Henrik kept rambling, leaning against the sink counter, in the same spot I'd been crying hours before, and crossed his arms casually over his chest. "I never thought I would be a father. Never thought I possessed a chance with my curse. But you have given me hope again, Raena." He had the widest smile on his face as he stared down at the floor, his eyes dark with something almost devilish, and was completely unaware of the overwhelming churning in my stomach. "A part of my Lycan abilities is that I can tell by the taste of your arousal how fertile you are and, from what I perceived, my hope is we have our first child by early next year."

I stayed silent, stunned and slightly disgusted by what he said. None of the books I read had ever mentioned that. Suddenly his eagerness about licking me down there made much more sense. It was his way of assessing me, trying to see when the prime time would be to impregnate me. The thought made me shudder and I instinctively squeezed my legs together under the water, not caring how my sensitive skin protested.

"I wouldn't care about our child's gender," Henrik said abruptly, obviously mistaking why I was so quiet for something else. "The law was only a male can inherit the throne but I plan to change that, which Evander is aware of, especially now that there is a chance of you getting pregnant any day." The thought made me feel sick as if I already was. The memory of me crying over Taylium accidentally ripping the head off my favorite doll felt too close for me to consider myself mature enough to properly raise another living being. "My mother discovered she was pregnant with me after my parents' third week of joining. The males in my family are known to be very fruitful." He said that like it was a good thing, something to be proud of and celebrate over.

I felt sickened with guilt, more nauseous than when I'd thrown up in the gardens. He sounded so happy and instead of me being able to be happy with him, all I felt was discomfort while hoping my mother's infertility issues had ensured I was, in fact, not pregnant. Although we were married and our bond was bringing us closer by the second, the thought of forcing an innocent life into this still ever developing relationship of ours so quickly felt utterly wrong. We needed to figure out each other as people, monarchs, mates, and spouses before we ever committed ourselves to becoming parents.

"Henrik, Iโ€”"

There was a loud rap of knocks from the bedroom door and I frustratingly sunk into my layer of bubbles and petals until my chin was submerged, wishing to just disappear so I wouldn't have to think for a day. Whatever peace I thought I possessed earlier had flown out the bathroom window a long time ago.

Henrik came over and pecked the top of my head, the weight of his lips making me flinch. "Take your time, Rae. I must attend to this."

I nodded but he was already walking away and I let out a shuddering breath when he shut the doors behind himself, closing my eyes and placing my head in my hands. The pressure of a new headache began like a rubber band around my skull as I pictured everything wrong that could happen if I were to become a mother in the next year. I'd never taken care of a child before, had barely even come in contact with an infant in my lifetime because of how small Amaryllus was. I didn't even know how to change a diaper.

Me? A mother? The idea was worth laughing at.

I heard a loud thud from outside, causing my head to fly upwards and towards the latched doors, and I held my breath as I listened. My eyebrows furrowed when more commotion followed, along with what I heard were quick footsteps and clinks of silverware.

After a couple minutes of this continuing, I quickly jumped out of the bath and drained the water, shivering when the cold air met my naked skin. Not bothering to dry myself, I threw my clothes on and cursed as my pruney fingers fumbled with the dress's three small buttons in the front. I officially hated buttons.

By the time I'd finished brushing my teeth and styled my damp hair into a low bun, the sounds from Henrik's room had ceased completely, which I was slightly frustrated with since I'd been curious to see what was happening.

I gave one last sigh into the mirror, eyeing the purple bruises all over my neck and collarbones, before I grabbed the right door handle and walked out, my steps immediately faltering.

On the table next to the window, two new platters took the place of the ones from the night before and were piled with different breakfast foods, ranging from fruits, pastries, and meats, whose smell blessed the air. The floor was clear of all our clothes and a dark wooden chest sat at the end of the now pristine bed, whose sheets had been exchanged for new ones and pillows had been fluffed to perfection. Even his fur comforter was gone, which I knew was quite a mess from our long night together and I was positive it was just taken to be washed. After all, Henrik would never get rid of that thing.

"Woah," I muttered to myself, looking at the immaculate room while feeling a mix of surprise and amazement that servants could've done all that in just a few minutes. I eyed the chest, taking in the swirling carvings on the lid and the yellow brass latch that glistened like a star in the beams of sunlight shining through the windows. My eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What is that?"

"Your coronation gifts from everyone that attended the wedding," Henrik informed me, sauntering over from his place by his bedroom door, and bent down to quickly unlatch the lock. When he lifted the lid and stood back, my eyes widened. Inside was a mountain of gold coins, gems, jewelry, and even some fragments of bones, horns, and antlers, which I guessed to be a sign of respect in Lycan culture. "And this," Henrik walked over to the bed, grabbed something off of the footrest that I had somehow missed in my state of awe, and handed it to me in its neatly folded state, "is what Ingrid made you."

I looked at him in surprise, having thought Ingrid's gift-giving ended with her wonderful skin ointment that had left my skin looking the best it had since I was a toddler. But I should've known that my friend would want to give me something else.

My hands made quick work of infolding it, admiring the complicated stitch work as I did, and gasped when I finished, holding it out as far as I could to get the best look of the masterpiece Ingrid created.

It was a beautiful quilt that was as tall as me and as wide as Henrik and made of different shades of my favorite color, blue. Ingrid had cut the darker fabrics into square and triangular-shaped pieces and woven them to make it look like a mountain range, using the lighter shades and a few pale strips of yellow to create what I guessed to be a winter sunset in the background. It had to have taken her months to make it and I touched it tenderly, giving it as much attention as a sane person would've expected me to give the gold.

"This is too much," I muttered, my head spinning with disbelief. I wasn't just referring to the gifts near me, but everything that I'd been given since I'd arrived in the Cursedlandsโ€”the dresses, my title, the perfumes, my marital statusโ€”everything. "I haven't even done anything."

I walked over to the bed, my discreet way of making it so I didn't have to stare Henrik in the face anymore, and began slowly folding the quilt back to the way it was on top of it. As I did so, I cherished how lovely, soft, and thick the fabric was, which no doubt had cost her fortune as well. When I was done, I placed it at the end of the bed and stared at it, my fingertips grazing it one more time.

I didn't deserve any of this. It was too good for me, too thoughtful, and I felt guilty like I was stealing from these people.

"You are their queen now, Raena," Henrik told me like it was the simplest thing in the world. Of course it was easy for him. He'd been royalty the entirety of his life and I'd only been one for less than a day. "You are their ruler and, as I stated before, our hope." I wished he would stop saying that word. Hope. "Before, there were whispers in court about how I would never find my mate, that the Moon Goddess would never let that happen, and my chances of producing an heir were slim since I refused to mount anyone but the person made for me. When you came, everything changed.

Not only are you my mate but you're a human, which may seem strange and maybe inconvenient in some people's eyes, but it is actually a blessing. Humans tend to get pregnant rather easy because they have their menstrual cycles monthly rather than yearly like most immortals do. You have given us all hope for a better future." Henrik said and approached me from behind to wrap his arms around my waist. He dug his nose into the crook of my shoulder and let out that unique purr-like sound of content of his before kissing my mark.

I felt too guilty to say anything so I nodded with thinned lips, rested my hands on his forearms, and closed my eyelids so tightly together that it hurt, making sure that the wall between our minds never fell because he wouldn't have liked what I was thinking.


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