~ ARISTEA ~
"We must leave at exactly one and no later if we are to have enough time to properly prepare for the full moon," Henrik told us once more as he stared at his watch, his knee bouncing. I watched it with a frown, not needing the mate bond to be able to sense his anxiousness.
"Yes, of course, cousin. Unless you've forgotten, we've done this for centuries," Evander commented with a forced smile and Henrik's grip on my hand tightened as he growled loudly and snapped his jaw, clearly not caring for his relative's remark. Evander lifted a thick brow in mock questioning, knowing full well Henrik's threat was an empty one.
Another few seconds of tense silence filled the cramped carriage, causing me to awkwardly look around, adjust my crown, and tuck a strand of hair out of my face with a sigh—anything I could to not stare at the silent battle happening right in front of me. Internally, I pleaded with both males to let go of their stubbornness. Henrik was already short-tempered because of the full moon being that night and if Evander wasn't his family, there was no doubt within me that he would've been punished for his sarcastic comments long ago.
"Take good care of her and don't let her out of your sight," Henrik finally gritted out to Furkan but only after he sent another low growl in Evander's direction.
If it wasn't for me being there, I wasn't sure what Henrik would've done or if he'd done anything differently at all. Unpredictable was a good word to describe my other half. Sundown was hours away and, with the recent increase of stress from his work, I could tell it was already becoming harder for him to control the little things such as his canines that had been out all morning. It pained me to see him like that, like he was slowly losing himself. Which, in a way, he was. But I didn't say anything about it and neither did he. We would both ignore the hurt of reality as long as we were able to be by each other's side.
Furkan, who Henrik had trusted as my personal guard for the small trip after hearing how well we'd gotten along at dinner, bowed his head submissively.
"I'll protect her with my blood," Furkan replied, his lips thinned solemnly into a straight line. He turned his gaze to me and nodded at me stiffly, the complete contrast to the carefree male I'd seen weeks ago back at his and Ingrid's house. I simply smiled in return, knowing as soon as we were out of the two moody royals' sights, his solemn mask would crumble and reveal my newest friend once more.
"Alright. You ready?" Evander asked me excitedly and out of nowhere, rubbing his palms together and leaning forward like he was scheming something mischievous.
He shifted his legs restlessly but was careful to keep them from knocking into mine, which was nearly impossible since he'd chosen the seat across from me and his legs were about the same length as Henrik's. How Furkan and Henrik were comfortably able to sit vertically to each other baffled me but I supposed my dress, whose skirt was as wide as a doorway, was also taking up a large part of space.
I furrowed my brows. "Ready for what?" I asked, confused, just as the carriage door was swung open by the bald driver and bright light of the newly risen sun flooded into the vehicle. Along with it, shouts and cries met my ears and I leaned over to peek around Henrik's body, my eyes widening and my heartbeat quickening.
About a couple hundred meters away (not that I was any good at guessing measurements), a large crowd of cheering Lycan had gathered in front of the main entrance of Aristea, a wide stone archway with an inscription of an odd looking language, full of swirls and dots, in its center. Aristean guards, who wore their respected leather and metal uniforms that were almost identical to the ones palace guards wore, were standing in front of them with their backs to us, acting as a wall that kept them from coming any closer to the carriage—not that anyone dared to try.
Furkan slipped out of the carriage first, followed by a practically bouncing Evander, Henrik, and then finally myself, who nearly stumbled on the last step onto the cobblestone street when I realized just how many people there were.
Hundreds. There were at least hundreds.
"Queen Raena!" a group of teenage girls were shouting repeatedly and waving feverishly in my direction and I returned the gesture very sheepishly, my eyes scanning over each strange face.
"Long live the queen!"
"We love you!"
"Long live the king!"
"Gods blessings upon you!"
"Come," Henrik told me and wove my arm through his elbow, leading us towards the crowd while Furkan and Evander trailed behind us. I mentally thanked him for it, fully believing that if he hadn't taken charge that I'd be standing next to the carriage like a gaping fool for the rest of my life.
I pressed further against Henrik's side as we sauntered through the mass of people, feeling my face become a deep shade of red. They parted for us without hesitation, only daring to come within a yard of us as if they believed our existences would burn them; however, their excitement never ceased and it only took a few seconds for me to become overwhelmed by the endless shouting voices and the varying bright colors of their clothes. Some people were pounding on small drums made from animal skins and others whistled, either with their fingers or small, round wooden instruments. White flower petals were thrown over us and I smiled and laughed when one hit me in the face, hearing Furkan's and Henrik's deep chuckles paired with Evander's unashamed barks of laughter.
A light tug on my dress had me suddenly halting, my heart leaping in my chest with surprised anxiousness, and I turned, causing Henrik to pause and harden his grip, as if scared that if he didn't, the crowd would pull me away like a riptide and I'd never be seen again. I looked down to assess the culprit, a little girl about the same height as my bellybutton with the bottom of my dress's skirt clutched in her one hand. With curious upturned eyes residing behind thick glasses that sat on a flat nose, she was perhaps one of the most adorable creatures I'd ever seen and all I could think of was how much I wished to squeeze her large, rosy cheeks.
"I'm so sorry, Your Majesty!" her mother shrieked, sounding mortified as she pried the little girl's fingers off my dress, which then caused her to squeal in displeasure. "She has a genetic disorder and doesn't understand—"
I kneeled down, Henrik hesitantly letting his grasp of me go, and didn't care in the slightest if my new navy blue dress with golden embroideries, which were supposed to resemble the ones on Henrik's coat, got a speck of dirt on it. The corner of her eyes lined with unshed tears, I smiled when the little girl's gaze followed me and she went silent, nervousness settling on her round face.
Her mother slowly released the grip on her upper arm, looking completely terrified, and her eyes glowed such a bright yellow that they alone voiced her strong emotions.
"Hello there. What's your name?"
"O...Ophelia," she said shyly, looking over my face curiously while lifting her nose to sniff me. Her yellow eyes flickered up from my eyes to my crown, instantly frowning.
"What's the matter, beautiful?" I cooed. Although I knew it was a sign that she was upset, I couldn't help but find the way her bottom lip stuck out endearing.
"I made crown for you," she said sheepishly and held up between short fingers from behind her back a ring of tiny wild flowers woven together by their green stems. It was more colorful than a rainbow, all the purple, yellow, and pink flowers possessing yellow centers that were almost as bright as her eyes and green leaves that were as big as my palms. "But yours better."
I shook my head slowly, my face lighting up with a smile. "Nonsense." I turned to Evander, slipped off my crown, and handed it to him before kneeling back down. People began whispering, the atmosphere having gone quite silent in the past few minutes, and I didn't care to pause to find out what exactly they were discussing, although I knew it had to be about me. All I could hope was that I wasn't doing anything disgraceful. "May I?" I held out my hands, palms facing the sky, and she nodded eagerly, handing me the delicate headpiece. Without any hesitation, I placed it on my head. It was a bit too large and acted more like a band around my forehead than a crown, but I was just as happy to wear it as any piece of gold. "I feel much better. Thank you, Miss Ophelia."
I looked back up and saw her mother staring at us with tears in her eyes, clutching her cheeks with her hands like she was witnessing a miracle of some sort. The others around us had by this point gone completely silent at our interaction, every single one, some tearing up or gushing with pure acceptance and warmth—for me.
Suddenly I felt very small and my heart leapt within my chest, my head twisting around and realizing everyone's eyes were on me. Every single one. I stood, not realizing I'd attracted so much attention in just those short minutes.
I didn't want it. It was too overwhelming.
"Thank you," the mother mouthed, curtsying, and knelt down to hug her daughter, who quickly wrapped her arms around her neck to be held and hide her face in her shoulder.
I wished to do the same.
When I looked back over at my husband, Henrik was beaming down at me, his chest puffed with pride and I relaxed slightly, a natural reaction his presence alone gave me. His attention was the only one that I welcomed and I walked back into his warmth appreciatively, his arms acting as my shield of comfort. "You're too good for this world," he told me and then placed a lingering kiss on my temple, making almost every female around us 'aw!' sync.
People began clapping again but this time louder and as Henrik resumed our walking and I lightly brushed the tips of my fingers on the soft petals of my flower crown, I couldn't help but blush.
* * *
"Have you tried the fried creams yet?" Furkan asked, his hands clasped behind his back as we took our leisurely time walking back to the town square. His sword bounced off his outer thigh with each step and every once and awhile, he'd brush his blonde hair out of his face and grumble about needing a haircut.
Females and males all around us bowed as we passed, muttering my title respectively even if they were in the middle of something, whether it be buying produce from one of the many stands in the marketplace or carrying large boxes of goods. Around every corner and down every street, I could feel people's stares and whispers brush against the back of my neck, but Furkan's presence kept me at ease as well as the plethora of guards that stood against almost every building. Not that I felt threatened. But having thousands of eyes on me wasn't exactly comfortable.
Overall, from what I'd experienced, Aristeans were a polite group of people and the few who'd come up to speak with me, I found great pleasure in conversing with. A few gave me presents, such as a mate of a perfumer who'd heard how I loved the scent of flowers, and a girl around my age gave me a small box of Lycan chocolates that I quickly devoured with her help.
"I couldn't eat more if I tried," I admitted, my stomach feeling like it would burst through the thick fabric of my dress at any moment.
It'd been almost three hours since we'd arrived and the streets were still bustling with music, dancers, and small performances, although quite a few people had returned home to tend to their families and eat lunch. There was a marionette show next to a shoe repair place that I stayed to watch, its colorful poster of two people embracing each other having been what originally attracted me. The thirty minutes performance displayed the tale about a prince and a princess from two warring nations who fell in love and had to choose between each other or their people. It ended quite tragically and afterwards, Furkan led me to a nearby pub where we got fizzing alcohol drinks and ate so many turkey legs and desserts that I felt utterly sick by the time we managed to waddle ourselves out.
Never in a million years had I thought I would be enjoying myself in Cursed Kingdom or conversing with its citizens, but there I was now admiring their culture almost more than my own. Their houses had roofs with peaks rather than being flat like the ones in Amaryllus and there were fountains, boxes of flowers under windows, holy shrines, and areas of grass and trees where kids could play almost everywhere.
What surprised me the most about Aristea was the fact that no one was in their wolf forms, which I'd prepared myself to see a lot of. But, according to what Furkan had told me after I pointed it out, apparently the stone was hot against pawed feet and most preferred to be in their human forms anyway since it was easier to walk around in a busy town setting and communicate with each other.
As we made it back to the most familiar part of the town to me, the town square, my eyes immediately found the large golden statue of Aristea in the middle of the open cobblestone area. The town was named after her so naturally there were images of Aristea all over the place, displaying her in elaborate dresses and jewelry with her hair pulled back to reveal the edges of her sharp features. But what had surprised me the most and had made me do a double take when I first saw the statue towering fifteen feet over me were the dramatic points of her ears. Although I knew Henrik had received the ability to talk to people through his mind from his grandmother, I never guessed her to be of another species entirely let alone Fae, since their kingdom was located on the complete opposite side of Trellomar in the far south, where Faes thrived in its hot climate.
My eyes pried themselves away from Aristea and wandered everywhere, from the doorways of shops and windows of apartments above that had been decorated with banners with Henrik and I's names on them to the chalk-covered cobblestone streets, but I saw no sign of my mate, meaning he and Evander were still in a meeting with Aristea's lord somewhere inside the town hall.
Henrik hadn't shared exactly why he needed to travel to Aristea so suddenly, especially on such an inconvenient day. But I had an inkling it had something to do with the new tax laws he installed to fund medical supplies and new school buildings. Apparently not all were taking well to it, especially farmers and the self employed, who felt they were being punished since they didn't make as much as people in large factories.
As Furkan and I came to stand under Aristea's statue's shadow, I turned my gaze upward, past the roofs and the treetops, until I could see the cliff looming far above us, the same one that Henrik had proposed to me on. Furkan had informed me, while we admired the stables on the outskirts of the town, that the site had been renamed in my honor by popular vote of the people. As I stared at it, the happy memory felt so distant and I mindlessly fiddled with my rings between my thumb and pointer finger, anxiously hoping Henrik's meeting would end soon.
Movement made my eyes flicker back down to the ground and to the approaching female a few feet in front of me, her pointed chin held high in the air with confidence. Jewelry adorned her delicate neck, fingers, and ears and dark makeup on her eyelids stood out against her pale skin, which made her appear quite ghastly despite her overall attractive features.
"Good afternoon, Your Majesty," she greeted with a curtsy, showing the top of her pitch black hair. "Sir Furkan." The female nodded at the male beside me, clasping her long fingers in front of her dress.
"Hello," I said wearily, staring at her green dress with puff sleeves that resembled the color of moss.
"Lady Ursa," Furkan acknowledged respectfully, the familiar name making my eyes widen.
"Oh, I'm sorry I didn't realize—"
"Don't be." The Lady of Aristea waved me off with an emotionless laugh. "I understand how human senses work. My own mother was deaf and blind. I apologize I couldn't be there to greet you alongside by mate this morning when you arrived. But I trust you are enjoying yourself, Your Majesty?" She said it as a question and quite loudly too—almost shouting—and batted her eyelashes that were covered in layers upon layers of mascara.
My eyebrows narrowed and I could feel my chest swell with every question and argument I wanted to deliver to defend myself and my people. Although I knew human senses were far weaker than Lycans' and there had been times where Henrik became frustrated because I couldn't hear what he'd said in a normal voice from across a large space, I was nowhere near being completely sightless or hard of hearing.
"Yes, I am greatly. Thank you," I said instead, making sure my words were cut as short as I hoped this conversation to be.
Ursa seemed like an intelligent and strong female, one I could easily tell was a respectable leader that ruled with an iron fist, but she held this air of arrogance around her, as if she believed she was omniscient and everyone was lucky to be in her presence. And if there was one thing I hated more than pure evil, it was arrogance.
"I don't mean to pry but Lord Jackyn and I were just wondering the other day if you'd be joining us in Heat next week?" she asked with a curious tilt of her head, an action that every Lycan appeared to do but seemed oddly forced on her.
Furkan shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably, causing me to stare at him out of the corner of my eye in question.
"Heat?" I tested the word out on my tongue. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"It's an annual holiday here," she explained, her eyebrows and voice rising in shock that I'd never heard of it before. "It's a day of worship for the goddess of fertility and celebrates the beginning of spring and motherhood." When she saw my blank look, she continued. "It's believed that if a male mounts his female on that day, their chances of producing offspring increase drastically."
My eyes widened and my stomach dropped, churning with the pill I'd just taken a few hours ago. I swallowed, my saliva feeling as thick as the guilt I'd almost forgotten about. "Oh."
"I myself fell pregnant last Heat," she beamed with pride, hand grazing her stomach as she relived a fond memory, and her eyes adjusted to focus on something behind me. "And seeing how both you and His Majesty interact well with children, I don't think you two would have a problem at all receiving Fertil's blessing."
I looked in the direction she'd been staring in and saw Henrik kneeling down and talking to a group of kids with a smile on his face that was almost as big as the one he'd worn on our wedding day. The lighthearted moment made me feel even more sick to my stomach.
One little girl came up and cupped his face, tracing his scar with a giggle, while two little boys struggled to climb up his back. About a dozen more were waiting for their turn to have their own interaction with the king. They were treating him like a tree, climbing all over him and messing up his appearance, but he didn't seem to give one care and only growled at them playfully, which caused them to squeal and giggle in delight. His eyes snapped to mine and his smile turned into a smirk that had my heart skipping a beat. Henrik said something to the kids that had them heaving with laughter and instantly rolling off him and he stood to his full height, making them all look like insects in comparison.
At that moment, I wished I did have Lycan hearing so I could hear what he'd said to make them react in such a lovely way.
"Well, it appears that dreadful meeting is over. Do feel free to write to me, Your Majesty," Lady Ursa said before walking away and towards Lord Jackyn, a male with cropped black hair and a long beard that covered his neck, who was talking with Evander against the brick wall of the town hall building. I didn't bother to watch what happened after that, the need to be with my own mate growing to an unbearable amount.
Giving Furkan the silent signal I was ok to be alone, a soft nod with a smile, I walked to Henrik and he met me halfway, adjusting his cuffs and straightening his jacket.
"Good meeting?" I asked, not being able to keep the grin off my face as I watched him trying to fix his hair. Henrik needed a trim just as badly as Furkan.
"Productive," he stated, unspoken stress in his noticeably duller eyes. The happiness he'd had with the children was gone as if it'd never existed and my smile dimmed, having craved for a different reaction. Not wanting me to feel his negative emotions, Henrik had secured a wall over them in the bond that morning and it aggravated me, wishing he would at least confide in me—if not like a king to his queen then at least like a husband to his wife. "How was your day?"
"I love this place," I admitted without hesitation, my enthusiasm partly spurred on from the alcohol still flowing through my system. "For it being such a large town, it feels so calm and quiet."
Henrik nodded and wordlessly embraced me, placing his nose in the crook of my neck while wrapping his arms around my waist, the hairs of his beard tickling my sensitive skin. He pecked my mark and made a noise between a hum and a growl, which instantly tuned out all other noises—the music, the chattering crowd, and the few screaming children. All of it disappeared as my senses focused on Henrik and Henrik alone. Suddenly, like a small itch, I could feel the slightest hint of his exhaustion from the meeting and his gratitude for me being there as my hand raked through his hair, which made me smile, knowing he was finally letting me in.
He sighed and breathed in my scent deeply, letting some of his body weight lean onto me and I welcomed it.
"Can I ask a question?" Henrik grunted his reply, the sound muffled against the skin of my shoulder. "Are we celebrating Heat next week?" I said and Henrik immediately stiffened at the word, pulling back but keeping our hands adjoined. When I saw his face, staring deep into his troubled eyes, I wished I hadn't said anything at all.
"Who told you about that?" His eyes narrowed and brightened at the same time. Claws softly poked against my palms and I could feel his turmoil through the bond like an internal storm.
"Does it matter?"
He sighed in defeat through his nose, crown glimmering as his head lowered. "I suppose not." I looked at him expectantly, sending only soothing sensations down the bond, similar to the ones he'd used on me many times before. Slowly, I felt his claws retract but his canines remained, as they had all day. "I'm sorry for not mentioning it to you. I figured it would be crossing a line and with everything else going on, I frankly forgot all about it."
"Crossing a line?" I echoed, watching his face and its expressions closely. "What exactly is it?"
"The celebration in itself resembles a child's game of chase, something created millennia ago after we'd just been gifted our human forms and our animal instincts were still dominant," Henrik said, his words slow and thought out. "It's believed by some to be our first holiday. Before sunrise on the day of Heat, the day that the Spring and Fertility Goddess was supposedly created, surrounding packs gather together. At the first sight of light over the mountains, one mate runs and after ten minutes, the other runs after them. When the runner is caught, the couple are then supposed to copulate under the rising sun and blooming plantation. Once the sun is fully emerged in the sky, the couples return to their homes, where they celebrate the rest of the holiday as they please."
I blinked once. Twice.
"So it's like a kingdom-wide orgy?" I said, lifting a brow with an amused smirk.
Henrik nodded with a grimace, looking off to the side to stare at nothing. He almost seemed embarrassed but I couldn't sense such emotion through the bond. "I suppose in human eyes, yes. But in Lycan culture, we don't associate it with being sexual. Intimate, yes. But nothing sexual."
There was a pause of silence between us and we listened to the chattering crowd, my thumbs grazing the scars on his hands, his wedding band, and even skimming the edge of his watch that was poking out from under his sleeve.
"Do you want me to go?" I asked hesitantly, gazing up at him through my eyelashes.
"Of course I do," Henrik said quickly, pulling me in closer so his hands rested on either side of my waist, and I craned my neck to look up at him. "Don't let my silence fool you. I wish for you to be a part of all our people's traditions, the old, new, small, and large. But I also don't want to force you into anything you're not completely comfortable with."
I sighed, nodding mindlessly with slightly pursed lips. I stared down at the gold swirls embroidered into his lapels, so deep in thought I hadn't realized a whole minute had passed before I answered. "I'll do it."
Henrik's eyes widened, shocked with the slightest hint of excitement, and searched my own for any doubt. "You will? Are you positive?"
Just a couple months ago the very idea of me agreeing to partake in such a ceremony would've had me viewing myself as dissolute and the perfect candidate for the lowest level of hell. But Henrik was my husband and my mate and I wasn't that naive girl from Amaryllus anymore, the one who thought tattoos and sleeping in the same bed as him was disreputable. No—I was a queen, a queen who'd been shown nothing but understanding and respect towards my culture, so I figured the least I could do was do the same in return.
"Well, what can I say?" I giggled nervously, doing my best to sound teasing and perhaps even the slightest bit of seductive. "Sex in the woods doesn't sound too bad."
And with that, Henrik gave me a smirk that was the epitome of sin itself.