The Cursed Kingdom

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THIRTY-THREE

~ PICTURE IMPERFECT ~

I focused my attention on staying as still as possible, staring at the center of the light wood easel until my eyes burned, and cursed when I felt my finger twitch painfully since it hadn't moved in so long.

Ever since the second day following our marriage and mating, Henrik and I had come down to a small room on the first floor to have our portrait painted, the artist having advised Henrik its natural lighting and quietness was superb to get the task done as perfectly as possible. What the space was used for before its abandonment was something I couldn't quite place. But I guessed it perhaps was once a drawing room of some sort since it was located so oddly close to the dining room.

The long chair placed in its center that we sat in was swallowed up by various animals hides while surrounded by large arrangements of blue and yellow flowers that were even taller than me, whose water had been enchanted to keep them alive much longer. Henrik and I were positioned in a simple, traditional pose with us seated at angles towards each other and our fingers woven together in the thin groove where our knees touched. In my lap, my right hand rested on top of a thick leather book with no title and Henrik's left grasped the handle of a long sword sheathed in a black holster attached to his belt.

The first time I'd seen it on him, I'd been shocked that Henrik owned a weapon at all. I don't know why. Perhaps it was because I always viewed Henrik as invulnerable with his own bodily abilities that him ever relying on a blade to protect himself seemed ridiculous.

The weapon and my lack of a veil were the only differences than what we'd worn at our wedding, the skirt of my white dress covering both our feet so I didn't have to wear those horrible heels, which I was pretty sure had been thrown out already since I hadn't seen them since I took them off.

Although I'd found the whole arrangement quite comfortable on the first day except for the grueling hours it took to prepare my hair and makeup, it became practically unbearable after the first week, my rear and back aching from being in the same position for three hours each day. It only became more difficult afterwards.

Now on the fourteenth and last day, the painter only needed to add a few, smaller details before our portrait was to be hung up later that evening for the grand reveal. It'd been only an hour since we'd begun, the room reeking of two weeks of paint, and already a familiar crick in my lower spine was sprouting from me rolling my shoulders so far back to reflect people's version of perfect posture. It took everything inside me to not twist my upper body around to crack it or reach up and scratch the itch in the space between the bottom of my crown and my hairline.

I must leave for a brief period of time tomorrow to tend to an urgent matter in Aristea. Henrik's voice rang in my head after a few moments of silence filled with the occasional mutters from the painter, his voice noticeably clearer than how it sounded the first day after we mated.

With each passing sunrise, the mate bond between us grew stronger and much harder to ignore, making it so that we spent almost every moment together, whether it be us reading silently next to each other on the couch or having a boisterous conversation. Henrik communicating with me through my mind didn't bother me at all anymore, especially since we used that tactic a lot to pass time while we had our portrait painted. Now, I could even discern emotions in his tone, whereas before I had to rely on if he laughed or growled and where he placed his pauses.

After doing my own internal explorations in my times of boredom, I discovered that my mind resembled a house of a sort with multiple doorways, some leading to memories of different categories while others led to fears, pleasures, and even dreams. So I placed smaller barriers between the things I didn't wish for Henrik to see while keeping the main bridge between us open, allowing him to still hear my thoughts and sense the few emotions that I let him. Henrik had his own walls up as well, thick and sturdy as what I presumed steel to feel like in a subconscious, which I respected just as much as he did to mine, never daring to go near those passageways that led to things we weren't quite ready to share with each other yet.

As soon as Henrik's words registered in my brain, disappointment made my abdomen its home, its unbearable weight making me feel nauseous, and I forced it from reaching the bridge, what I had nicknamed the space that joined our minds together.

Okay, was all I replied with, doing my best to keep my voice neutral. It would've been selfish of me to voice my negative emotions towards his travels and as childish as a toddler whining about his or her parents going to work instead of keeping it company. He was a king who needed to fulfill his duties to his people and I would not allow my growing attachment to him hinder his ability to do so. I respected him and what he was trying to do too much. But still my tone was stiff and awkward and I knew Henrik could sense itβ€”I could feel the shift within him.

I want you to come with me.

I whipped my head around, my whole body jumping in shock. "Wait. Really?" I squealed, my eyes widening with glee at the side of Henrik's face. My cheeks ached from how far my grin was stretching and the glare on his crown slightly burned my eyes.

The corner of his lips twitched upward but he had better self control than I did and not another muscle moved in his body. Not a single one. I couldn't help but admire how handsome he was, his hair nicely gelled back under his crown and his beard at that perfect length that I loved so much.

The palace, the temple, and the woods had been the only locations I'd been to since I crossed Cursedland's border and the thought of going to a villageβ€”a real village full of peopleβ€”made my heart bounce with excitement. Not even when I lived in Amaryllus had I travelled to another village, our economy so poor that it was simply impossible for anyone to leave unless it was for good. I knew my beloved childhood home was nothing compared to whatever beauties awaited at Aristea, beauties I'd had a mere glimpse of from high above on a cliff top.

It wasn't just that I would be traveling to a different place that had me so happy but also the fact that Henrik considered bringing me along at all made me ecstatic.

It proved he trusted me.

"Please try to sit still, Your Majesty!" the painter exclaimed, peeking his head around the wide canvas to reveal the large bags under his eyes. Smears of paint stood out against his dark skin, especially the thick globs of bright blue and red on his forehead. "Please," he added a bit more quietly and like a squeak, darting his eyes momentarily towards Henrik, as if he was scared that if he didn't his head would fall off his shoulders. From what I'd seen Henrik do to those he deemed disrespectful towards me, I didn't blame him and felt a tiny pang of embarrassment for my husband's brash behavior.

I turned back around sheepishly, settling back into my designated position while smoothing out my dress.

"Sorry," I muttered hoarsely, straightening my back and facing forward, my hand adjusting itself on the book until it felt like they were in the same dreadful position as before.

When the painter looked me over with a sigh, nodded, and began going back to work, I knew I'd successfully gotten at least close to where he needed me to finish his job.

Henrik chuckled under his breath and squeezed my hand discreetly, sending only positive and encouraging emotions down the bridge. "I will take that as a yes," he said through hardly moving, stiff lips and I tried my best not to smile, already figuring I'd given the poor painter enough heart attacks that day.

* * *

I stared up at the portrait as the two servant boys slowly descended their ladders, keeping their eyes glued on Henrik and I while they searched for our approval.

"Are you sure you want to put this here?" I asked, staring at the painting with a grimace.

The servants shared a glance, faltering slightly in the middle of their steps, prepared to be told to move it somewhere else.

When the canvas had been placed on an easel on the floor, it didn't look nearly as massive as it did in a dark wooden frame with golden designs along its edges and corners, hanging on the wall between the two main staircases located across from the main entrance of the palace.

Of course, Henrik appeared as regal in a painting as he did in real life, his scar and eyes making him look hauntingly beautiful, and I looked like a mere helpless child next to him playing dress up. Styled into the same bun that I'd worn for my wedding, my hair was the only thing I couldn't find any critiques on since Ingrid had done it. But my face itself looked awful. I hadn't realized before how square my jaw was or how broad my forehead was or how my upper lip was bigger than my lower.

I knew I was pale, but next to Henrik's warm features my blue eyes and pale skin made me look like the living dead.

"Of course! The cool tones compliment the yellow of the gold on the railings and along the ceiling," Callie said confidently from beside me before her second cousin could reply, his thick arm secured around my waist and hand on my hip. She looked as stunning as always in a long maroon dress, her mane of thick, dark hair in endless waves down her back.

The servants, now finally stood on solid ground, bowed briskly before folding the ladders and quickly carrying them out a side door adjacent to the main entrance, guards opening them to be of some assistance.

Evander snorted and stepped forward to face Callie, lifting a brow at the same time his arms crossed over his chest. "You say that as if you know what you're talking about, sister."

"I do know what I'm talking about, smelly ass."

The insult was blatantly directed towards the fact Evander had yet to change clothes after training vigorously for hours with new palace guards, who were required to pass his inspection before they were allowed the position. His black sleeveless shirt that revealed his tattoo-covered arms was covered in dirt and his hair hung in disheveled ringlets against his face. Even I could detect the thick stench of sweat that emitted from him and I couldn't imagine what Callie and Henrik must've smelled.

Henrik, dressed in a nice high-collared jacket, button down shirt, and slacks, hadn't been exactly pleased with his cousin's appearance, after requesting all of us to dress nicely. I didn't fully understand why Henrik was so obsessed with our portrait other than I knew it was common for royals to have their likenesses painted many times in their lives. But I didn't argue with or question him and had changed into a nice navy blue dress in respect of Galycia's colors before dinner. Although he did his best to hide it, his annoyance seeped through the bond towards his duke before he quickly retracted it and masked it with indifference.

Another snort. "When?"

I smiled and averted my eyes towards the ground before Callie could see it, laughter bubbling from the bottom of my lungs.

Her mouth opened to make a retort.

"Would you two quiet yourselves?" Henrik barked in annoyance, glaring at the bickering siblings. They went silent, no mate bond being needed to sense his anger and seriousness. "This is supposed to be a peaceful and intimate event between royal family members." The king gave them one last look over, daring them to defy him, and sighed, his head leaning in towards me. "To answer your question, Raena, yes, it is traditional for the current mated king and queen to have their portraits placed at the front of the main entrance. It's so that it's that first thing a person sees when they enter our palace."

"It's just really big..." I trailed off, embarrassed, and instantly heard Callie and Evander giggle like children. The skin of my cheeks became as hot as embers when I immediately registered why my sentence had amused them so greatly.

Henrik rolled his eyes but his lips twitched upward as well with whatever it was he wanted to say but didn't. Leaning some of his body weight on me, he pulled me impossibly closer.

"It's a magnificent image, my love. Elijah did an amazing job as always. I'm having him conduct a smaller one so it can be placed on my desk, where I can admire your beauty all day long," Henrik told me, smiling at our portrait with pride. He kissed my head and leaned his forehead against it, his nose pressed against my cheekbone that felt like it was on fire from his compliment.

I could've sworn I heard someone imitating a gagging sound beside me.

Their Majesties, King Henrik and Queen Raena, it read in neat cursive that was almost identical to Henrik's at the bottom of the painting on the rectangular golden tag. All of it felt like a dream. Every single moment since a diamond ring had been slipped onto my finger. There had been a couple times, mostly in the middle of a restless night or sitting at the table at dinner, where I literally pinched myself to make sure I was real. That Henrik was real. That what I called my life was real.

As I stared longer, admiring how Elijah had even managed to capture the layered lace patterns on my dress, the freckle underneath Henrik's right eye, and every strand of our hair, my eyes narrowed when I noticed something out of place.

My jaw slackened.

No.

There undoubtedly in the middle of my hairline, amongst my otherwise dark golden curls, was a single, white strand. It was short as a needle and probably blamed on, by whoever saw it, as a result of the bright lighting glaring in from the windows on either side of us but I was not dull.

Ingrid had warned me the hair dye would only last a couple months. It'd been almost two already.

As I stood there, tilting towards my mate more than usual, I could only hope for my sake and the male's beside me that it would last just a little bit longerβ€”that this new found peace in our lives could be dragged out until I would never remember anything else.

If not, I feared I would need more dye.


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