~ SECRETS AND CONTROL ~
My fist knocked twice on the door while my eyes evaluated the sage wreath that hung from a rusty nail in the center of the dark wood. I wasn't unfamiliar with the plant's supposed magical properties, some claiming if you placed it near your door that it would ward off evil spirits and demons. Same for pumpkins. But I never took Ingrid for the superstitious type, which was why I found the item so strange to be hanging on her front door.
After a few minutes of me awkwardly bouncing on my toes, the door swung open quickly to reveal a beaming Ingrid, dressed in a loose, casual dress with her hair done in a side fishtail braid. "I'm so happy you could come!" she squealed and pulled me into a tight embrace with me quickly returning the gesture, breathing in the citrus smell that stained her hair.
A few days prior I'd sent her a letter, asking Jerium to deliver it after I found him doing paperwork in a small study on the second floor beside a tired-looking Master Barnwell, the overseer of all the cooks in the palace. He was a young looking male, despite the streaks of grey near his ears, who only seemed to leave his office in the servants' quarters, a small building attached to the side of the palace, unless he was specifically called for something urgent. That was why I was so shocked to see him conversing with Jerium and he looked just as taken aback by my presence as I was his, instantly becoming a rambling mess and making a lame excuse to leave.
Of course, Jerium was full of suspicions when I told him what I wanted him to do for me. So I delivered a lie and stressed to the hybrid that the letter contained some very private things that could only be discussed with another female, things I was too embarrassed to even mention to Henrik. Flustered yet understanding, Jerium didn't ask anymore questions and grabbed it with a bow, saying he would deliver it within the hour after he was done with his work.
It'd been three hours later when he'd returned with Ingrid's reply.
A small argument and a large amount of kisses were all it took to persuade Henrik to agree to let me go by myself to Ingrid's house, only giving me the requirement that I kept the bond between us open completely as I walked. I did so happily and felt him pressed up against my mind like a child on the glass of a fish tank, watching through my eyes and seeing what I was seeing, and a part of me wished he could be there in person.
It was a lovely day, not too cold and not too warm, and the trees were covered in sprouting leaves, the ground covered in pollen and tiny white flowers that blew off the branches in the early spring wind. The weather allowed me the ability to dress in my new cloth capris and a thin, tight fitting blouse that had almost made me late after Henrik saw me in it.
Once and a while, I would even catch flashes of brown and grey dart between the trees and I let Henrik know I saw them, rambling to him internally about how lousy of a job his guards were doing.
Henrik had chuckled at that, his deep voice making my heart swell.
Have fun, he told me at the same time my arms fell from around Ingrid's shoulders, caressing my mind like an embrace of farewell before slowly putting up that familiar barrier between us. Ignoring how scarily much I already missed his presence, I put up my own as well. Just in case.
I walked in as Ingrid closed the door and my eyes bounced from every detail of the interior of her house. Placed about half a mile away from the palace in the middle of the woods, Ingrid's stone cottage appeared small on the outside but was spacious with bright wallpaper and arching doorways on the inside. There were small sketches of an infant, who I guessed to be her son not long after his birth, all over the walls of the entryway. Up a tiny step to the right was a dining room connected to a spacious kitchen, to the left was a hallway whose doorways led to three bedrooms, and straight ahead was a cozy looking living area with a radio, full-sized sofa, and a table covered in magazines and a single newspaper.
"Sorry, I didn't have a lot of time to tidy up between the boys and baking. I managed to make your favorite. I hope they turned out ok," Ingrid said and led me into the small dining room, pointing at the bowl of pale green macaroons with chunks of pistachios sprinkled on top. Next to it was a plate with a yellow cake drowning in a layer of powdered sugar and behind that was a large glass pitcher full of a liquid whose color was in between an orange and a red. The rectangular dining table was covered in white cloth and a wonderful bouquet of fresh wildflowers native to the mountains sat in its center, a piece I was positive Ingrid put together just for my arrival. "I found this new cake recipe in this old book of mine that looked scrumptious. It's honey and lemon flavored. Anyway, I'm rambling. How is everything?"
She pulled out a chair and gestured for me to sit, which I did gratefully since my blistered pinky toes wouldn't allow me to forget the regret I felt towards my horrible decision to wear sandals for my journey.
"Can't complain," I said, smiling slightly in amusement at her disheveled state and as she fumbled with the utensils on the table, giving us both a glass and a dessert fork that was just a tiny bit longer than my finger. I hadn't seen the healer since my wedding ceremony, a beautiful bridesmaid with her eyes full of tears, and I couldn't help but wonder if my new status had anything to do with her strange nervousness. I hoped it wasn't. It would've been as ridiculous as fearing a caterpillar after it became a butterfly. I was still me, a fancier, new uniform with a new alias, but just as harmless. "You?"
"I'm great, actually," Ingrid replied, cutting into the cake and plonking a gigantic piece on a small white plate before placing it in front of me. She did the same for herself and then sat down, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her face as she sighed. "I received a letter from my parents a few days ago." Ingrid grabbed the pitcher and poured us both a glass, looking regretful that she hadn't done it sooner.
"Really?" I asked, my eyebrows furrowing with shock as I thought back to the couple who'd been in complete agony over the supposed slaughter of their daughter.
Every year on Grievsday, an autumn holiday used to celebrate those who'd already submitted to the cycle of life just as nature did every year, Mr. and Mrs. Lattimore only left their house to mourn over her gravestone and would then hide inside the rest of the week, too saddened to face a world with their child not in it.
I stabbed the small piece of porous cake I'd cut off with the side of my fork and slowly took a bite, not having the heart to tell her I wasn't a large fan of lemon-flavored treats. Guilty of possessing a large sweet tooth, they were always too tart for me. But I promised to eat all of it, taking small sips of the juice in between bites, and remembered suddenly how much my mother had adored lemons.
She nodded and dug into her own slice of cake. "Yes. They just said 'hi' of course. I was glad to receive it because it'd been awhile since their last letter and I was just beginning to grow anxious." I remained silent, my brain trying to digest all the information it was hearing. It was like I was finding out Ingrid was alive all over again, the truth I'd been so confident in turning out to be nothing more than a tree without roots. "That whole story of myself being dead, I think, was their idea. I understand them wanting to cover up their only child running away with a being from the Cursed Kingdom, but I would've appreciated it if they would've filled me in on it." She forced a dry laugh that went right past my ears.
Something didn't settle right with my stomach. It was the same sensation I felt when I saw my mother in my dreams. Although Ingrid's parents seemed like intelligent people, putting on such a believable performance as they had for over sixteen years didn't seem plausible for anyone. But I nodded anyway, brushing off the churning of my stomach as paranoia, because I wanted Ingrid to be right and she looked so content that I couldn't bring myself to question what she'd said even if I wanted to.
"That could be," I uttered mindlessly, putting my fork down to grab some macarons. No matter what the reason was for Ingrid's incorrect living status in Amaryllus, that was in the past and there was no way for me to figure out what truly happened all those years ago. A feeling in my gut surely couldn't do it for me. For my sake and hers, I needed to only care about things that could be helped such as why I'd sent her the letter. "So how exactly do you send and receive mail from Amaryllus?" I asked, taking my last bite of the cake. When I swallowed, I was quick to replace the harsh taste of lemon with sweet, buttery pistachio.
Ingrid faltered, completely unprepared for what I'd said. "Uh-there's a tree that stands on the borderline. We stick the letters in a hole in the trunk, so that way our bodies don't have to cross into each other's lands. Usually Furkan finds them and brings them to me if he smells them while running or hunting, since my mother sprays her perfume on the envelope to help him find it. Why?"
"Maybe I could send something to Lord Julius," I said, thinking back to the man who'd truly been the only father figure I'd ever known, the same one that warned all of us to never go near the Cursed Kingdom's border. If only he could see me now, I pondered, imagining how much of a wreck he must've been when we never returned from our supposed visit to the lake. "Or to my friends' families to explain what happened. I think that's the least I could do after everything."
Ingrid pursed her lips, scooting a small crumb of cake over with her fork, which accidentally created a small screeching sound as metal scratched against china glass. "I don't think that would be wise and please don't mention any of this to anyone else. If His Majesty knew I was communicating with people outside of this kingdom, Furkan and I would no doubt face charges for it." Ingrid cast her eyes away, ashamed, and turned her head to face out the window that gave a lovely view of the afternoon sun.
"But I don't understand. You're communicating with your family. That's no crime." Ingrid picked up her glass and took a timid sip of her juice, refusing to meet my questioning eyes. Her silence made me anxious. "Isn't it?"
"The Human Kingdom and the Cursed Kingdom are enemies," Ingrid told me as if that wasn't already basic knowledge. The Cursed Kingdom is enemies with everyone, I wanted to retort but took a bite of my macaroon instead and stole another from the bowl. "Henrik fought an almost fifty year long war against them, taking back every inch of land King Aviuraz took as well as killing almost his entire army in the process. The Human Kingdom had never been in such economic toil as they had after that." I slowed my chewing, growing nauseous at the thought of Henrik slaughtering people with the same hands that pleasured me and wrapping his lips, which had only shown me love and sweet caresses, around people's throats to tear out their esophaguses. "Yes, my mom and dad are family to me. But to this kingdom, they are anything but. The only reason you and I are accepted here is because of these." She traced her mark and suddenly I became too aware of mine. "Without them, we would be just as unwelcome here as King Caspolean himself."
"Oh," I muttered and looked down, my throat going dry. But through it all, my sadness gave me courage, reassuring me that my reasoning for going to Ingrid's house was clearly validated. Before, with Henrik's enchanting laughter echoing in my brain, I'd felt guilty and had even considered not mentioning anything at all. But my decision was final. It was either now or never. "Ingrid, I need you to do something for me." The healer looked up wearily from her second piece of cake and I checked my mental wall one more time before I kept speaking. "Could you give me your strongest birth control?"
She set her fork down, the utensil rattling against her plate as her blue eyes widened to the largest I'd ever seen them. "I beg your pardon?" Her jaw looked ready to smack against the table.
"Birth control." My ears were burning like a child asking her older friend to smuggle her alcohol. "I need it."
"Raena, does His Majesty know you're requesting this?" Ingrid whispered and her eyes swayed from side to side nervously, as if someone would over hear us despite us being the only ones in the house.
"No," I responded, the word clipped short. "And I don't want him to."
"Raena..." Ingrid trailed off, shaking her head like I'd just asked her to do the most treacherous thing in the world. There was a desperation in her eyes, a plea for me to reconsider. "You need to discuss this with him first. As your king and your mate, he will find out eventually."
"I only need it for a year or two," I responded quickly—defensively. I knew she was right. He could read my thoughts most of the time and when I was with him, we were practically connected at the hip. But I didn't want to admit defeat. I was too stubborn to not try something and too scared to sit down and have a civil discussion with my own mate. "Besides, who knows if I'll even still be here in that time!" Pressured by frustration, the last sentence blurted out of my mouth before I even registered that I'd thought it, regret filling my stomach when I saw her face and realized exactly what I'd just insinuated.
Ingrid sat back in her chair with disbelief, shoulders slumping with something close to defeat.
There was a heavy pause of silence.
"After all this time, you're still thinking about leaving?" Her eyes welled with tears and she looked down at the table. "I thought..." she swallowed, her voice going soft. "I thought that perhaps your feelings for him would..."
She didn't need to finish her sentence for me to know exactly what she was trying to say. Ingrid originally expected Henrik and I to fall in love and that would be enough to keep me right where I was, to make me forget the stories from my childhood and the fear that came with them. But she'd been wrong. Yes, I cared for Henrik but that didn't mean I couldn't care for my own well being at the same time. Although my heart was loud and begged me to forget every thought of leaving the male it'd attached to, my mind was screaming at me that something wasn't quite right and it was time I respected it.
I didn't mind if I was wrong or right. I just wanted the truth and until I knew what exactly that was, I couldn't let my heart decide my actions. It would've been foolish of me.
"You don't understand. I have to still consider it, Ingrid," I said urgently, my heartbeat pounding against my skull like a war drum. "Yes, there are moments where I'm truly happy—maybe even happier than I was in Amaryllus. But there are also moments where I'm scared, confused, sad, and angry." Trying to calm myself, I took a deep breath. "I know this may sound strange but I've had these... dreams. My mother appears in them and she's spoken only horrible things of Henrik and how I shouldn't trust him." Ingrid's eyes widened at my confession and my heart felt heavy, praying that I didn't sound as insane as I feared. "As much as I want to disregard them completely, I can't anymore. I just can't. She... she won't leave my head." I sighed and looked away, feeling my eyes brim with tears but I refused to let them fall. All I felt like I did anymore was cry. For once, I simply wanted to be strong. "I just need more time. As I said, a year or two. I need to make sure that this place is what I want before I ever consider bringing a child into it. Henrik came onto me so suddenly about the topic. It scared me. I couldn't even think let alone get a word in and now he's positive I want to get pregnant as soon as possible."
"I understand," she breathed sadly, her blue eyes still glassy. "But you must be aware that Henrik wasn't trying to disrespect you. In Lycan culture, a person telling his or her mate that they see them as strong and capable to be a parent to their child is a huge compliment."
"But I'm not Lycan!" I exclaimed louder than I'd intended, my eyes seeing red and it felt like my whole body was buzzing with adrenaline. I knew she was just trying to explain Henrik's actions to me. But in my emotional state, all I heard was an excuse. "It's like he thinks now that we're married and mated, my human nature can be shoved aside. He's so far up in the clouds with these images of a perfect life for us that I couldn't reach him even if I tried to reason with him. As you just confirmed, he wouldn't be able to absorb my mindset that I want to wait to have kids. All he'd hear is how incapable I think he is and I don't want to have that argument until I think everything through and I know exactly how to deliver it in a way we can both agree on."
"I understand," Ingrid repeated, looking as devastated as if I'd just told her a beloved family member died. I hated that look. I hated hurting her and putting her in the middle of Henrik and I's problems. But she was the only person I could go to—the only person I trusted enough—and I was desperate. "As long as you promise to talk to him eventually, I will go to the sorceress tomorrow and deliver you the pills personally myself. You might experience some hormonal outbursts at first because they're made to prevent Lycan pregnancies but after the first week, you should be fine."
I nodded grimly, my lips thinned into a line. "Thank y—"
A bang from the entryway had my head spinning and I looked over in time to see a Furkan and little boy only wearing plain black trousers enter the house, their hair drenched like they'd just finished bathing.
"Mommy!" the little boy shouted and ran into the room but stopped immediately when he noticed me, his cheeks adopting a pink hue. He stuck out his lips unsurely, his gold eyes flickering over my form and small nostrils lifting into the air. Everything about him looked just like Furkan except for his auburn curls that ended just below his ears.
"Korstan, this is Queen Raena," Ingrid told the little ten year old boy, her voice taking on that typical motherly sound all women adopted around children. It was obvious to me how she smiled a little too hard and straightened her back unnaturally to try to hide her recent distress from our conversation. At that moment, I felt sorry for ever sending her a letter at all. "Your Majesty, this is my son, Korstan."
"Nice to meet you, young male," I told him and watched his pout morph to a lopsided grin, displaying his large dimples. "Your mommy has told me so much about you."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. It's a pleasure to meet you." He bowed or at least I assumed that was what he was trying to do. The movement was awkward and stiff but he was so cute that he somehow made it look like the most adorable action in the world. "Did Mommy tell you my shift teeth came in?" With wide and excited eyes, Korstan lifted his upper lip and revealed small versions of sharp canines.
He stuck out his tongue and made an "Eh" sound while he began morphing his teeth back and forth between boy and beast. It was quite interesting to watch, actually, how those small pieces of bone managed to magically shorten and flatten to resemble human teeth and then did the opposite to become fangs once again.
Ingrid giggled and shook her head as Furkan pulled his son's hands from his face and began scolding him quietly about how rude the action was to do in front of a guest.
"Lycans have two sets of baby teeth so we still have a couple more years until his full sized canines come in," she told me, staring at her son and mate like they were the oxygen in her lungs. "Thank the gods for that."
A few weeks ago, Ingrid shared in a quite disheveled state that her little boy shifted for the first time and that she was already dreading the next full moon. Although Korstan went outside like the other Lycans because of his uncontrollable and quite dangerous actions ever since he could walk, there was now a possibility of him turning rogue because he was able to shift and Ingrid was absolutely terrified that he wasn't mature or strong enough to fight off the horrible pull of the curse.
I couldn't blame her fear and in watching Ingrid, that was another thing I had begun to consider for myself: How could I subject an innocent soul to a life controlled by an unbreakable curse?
"Kory, tell mommy what you caught," Furkan said, leaning against the wall, and his impressive biceps covered in thick lines of tattoos flexed when he crossed his arms.
In those few seconds, I noticed how Furkan appeared a few years younger than Ingrid. It made me wonder if he would take the aging potion Henrik had mentioned to me once at dinner or if he and his son would watch Ingrid age while they both remained trapped in their twenties for however long their magic allowed them to.
"Mommy-Mommy, I took down this huuuge elk by myself." Korstan outstretched his arms as wide as they would go and I looked up just as Furkan sent Ingrid a wink with a smile. It made me grin.
"All by yourself?" Ingrid repeated with exaggerated excitement for the young boy's sake, her body leaning forward and her smile growing so large that I swore I could see molars.
Korstan nodded confidently. "Yep." He quickly ran over, hopped on his mother's lap with surprising agility, and leaned in, cupping his mouth to her ear in the wrong direction so I could see his lips. "Don't talk about it though. I think Daddy is jealous."
Furkan held back a roar of laughter behind his beaming eyes, shaking his head so his blond locks fell in front of his face. "Alright, well, I'm gonna go prepare dinner. Would you care to stay, Your Majesty? The elk Korstan," he looked at the said ten year old boy with a pointed stare, causing him to giggle, "caught is more than enough to feed the three of us."
Ingrid looked over at me as she situated Korstan to a better position on her lap and gave a raspberry kiss on his cheek, causing her son to give a loud fit of giggles.
"If that's alright, I would love to," I said, smiling at the boy who blushed under my gaze.
Furkan nodded with a pleased smile and walked back outdoors without another word.
I sent the message that I'd be staying at Ingrid's for dinner down the bond, feeling Henrik instantly lift his wall to receive it. When I didn't hear a protest, I took it as a sign of approval, however, I knew he no doubt would miss my company. This would be the first time he would have to eat dinner alone since we began the habit months ago, but he had no room to argue with me over the matter when I had to do it two days in a row during the full moon. Besides, I figured every couple needed a night apart sometimes, even a king and a queen.
"You're really pretty," Korstan blurted out of nowhere and then sheepishly buried his face into his mother's neck, hiding his reddening cheeks.
Ingrid laughed and rubbed his back, quickly placing a kiss on top of his mess of curls.
"Aw, thank you, Korstan," I cooed, feeling my heart swell and ache. He was so precious and I realized at that very moment how much I wanted a child of my own. I really, really did—so much so that my heart ached just thinking about a little girl with my facial features and Henrik’s eyes and dark curls.
One day, I promised myself, taking another sip of my juice as I watched the happy mother and son interact. But just not any day soon.
I would die for Korstan.
Also, Raenik’s (Henrik+Raena’s) child would be soooo cute.
Thank you for reading!! Xx