The Cursed Kingdom

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"We have to plant sunblooms in their own section along the back or else they'll kill the other plants."

Destry pointed towards the tall yellow flowers ahead of us that, towering over five feet tall with stems as thick as my wrists, acted as a natural fence along the garden's boundaries in place of the hedges that had taken up the space previously.

Gardeners rested on their knees in front of them, patting the fresh, moist soil they'd hauled to the palace early that morning while others scattered the mulch that I could smell from my spot a couple feet away. It was fascinating to watch them work, every single one of them full of passion for everything they were doing and always finding time to laugh in between the work, despite their clothes being covered with soil and sweat drenching their skin.

There were at least a hundred gardeners in total, all having much to accomplish within just a few days with the large variety of plants Henrik had ordered, ranging from the brightest flowers, pungent herbs and spices, and even a couple tall fruit trees that I looked forward to picking and possibly making macarons with.

One gardener excused herself as she walked by me with a pair of pruning shears, heading towards a light green bush with leaves as big as platters that another person was spraying water on, no doubt trying to keep them from drying out in the heat.

"Are their very roots long?" I asked with a frown, adjusting my wide, straw hat to keep the blazing sun out of my eyes after rolling up the short sleeves of my thin, yellow summer dress up to my shoulders.

The weather was almost unbearable that day, so hot and humid that a layer of sweat covered every inch of my body, and the bugs were even more ridiculous. I lost count of how many mosquitos I'd killed in the middle of trying to get a feast out of my blood.

"No, not at all!" Destry said, patting his forehead with an off-white handkerchief he'd pulled out from the front pockets of his trousers. "Although they represent friendship in a lot of cultures, sunblooms have small pores all over their bodies that release a toxin that dissolves organisms in surrounding soil, such as worms and other plants' roots, to absorb their nutrients," Destry replied, making my eyes widen. "Long ago, when Trellomar was one kingdom, people would use sunbloom oil for torture strategies."

I blinked.

"Oh," was the most intellectual response my mind could conjure, disheartened to know something so bright and exquisite as a flower could be used as a weapon.

I'd always assumed flowers to be one of the few things left on the planet that were free from the clutches of tainted hands, too innocent to ever be used for anything other than visual enjoyment and gifts of adoration.

To be aware that the truth was the exact opposite of what I originally thought was equivalent to realizing anything in the entire world—flowers, kindness, and perhaps even children—could be used as a method of bringing others pain. It was a disgusting idea that left a bitter taste on my tongue and I suddenly understood why my mother had urged me to never wish to grow up as I'd mistakenly done too many times in my youth.

"You will have to be an adult many times in your life," she had told me while tucking into bed one night, handing me my stuffed doll that she's made me for my birthday so I could hold it close to my heart. "But you can only be a child once."

Her words hadn't made sense at the time but now they resonated with me so much that I hoped she could feel my gratitude for her wisdom wherever she resided in the afterlife.

Growing up doesn't just include losing your innocence. It means losing trust in the innocence of everything. Even flowers.

Destry began leading me around the corner and back towards the front, having shown me everything on the other side of the garden already, and to an area with clusters of blue and pink flowers. I gasped in delight when I saw an orange butterfly with black stripes and blue dots land gracefully on one, opening and closing its wings slowly. Destry's dimples revealed themselves once more as he grinned from ear-to-ear, clearly very pleased by the vegetation in front of us and the reaction it elicited out of me.

"And these are—"

"My apologies." We turned and watched Jerium approach us quickly, his hands clasped behind his back and a grim look on his face. "But His Majesty requires Queen Raena's presence." The hybrid stopped until he was standing next to me, red curls glowing orange in the harsh sunlight and astonished eyes scanning the garden from side to side.

I furrowed my eyebrows, staring at Jerium's face in silent question and disappointment. However, he refused to meet my gaze, which both frustrated me and made me anxious all at the same time, one of the most displeasurable combinations of emotions I'd ever experienced.

"O-oh, of course, Mr. Jerium!" Destry exclaimed, his freckled cheeks and the tiny points of his ears, which had already been a subtle hue of pink from the sun, adopting a deep shade of red as he shyly scratched the back of his neck. He turned to me quickly and bowed, showing me the top of his unkempt mop of brown hair. "It was nice chatting with you, Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Destry. The pleasure is all mine." I looped my arm through Jerium's outstretched elbow, sending the boy an apologetic smile over my shoulder as the hybrid began impatiently turning my body towards the palace. "And, please, call me Raena."

Destry looked like he was about to pass out from my request, wide eyes becoming indescribably wider with shock and excitement. "Thank you... Raena." His voice was a mere squeak and an older gardener watering orange flowers a couple feet behind him chuckled at the back of the boy's head.

Jerium nodded in goodbye and I allowed the hybrid to begin leading me back towards the palace silently, my grin falling into a worried frown and only returning for a couple seconds to greet a few gardeners who stopped in the middle of their work to bow as we passed.

Henrik typically never asked me to go to his office unless he needed my signature on a document or simply wanted me to keep him company during a long day of work, which he usually informed me of himself either the night before or the morning of. Henrik was also fully aware I had planned to spend the entire afternoon Destry to make up for not being able to go to the greenhouse with him, which I knew meant that whatever Henrik was summoning me for must've been crucial.

And that fact terrified me.

"Is everything alright?" I whispered, my voice barely audible over the mumbles of the gardeners and all the commotion around us. My gaze flickered upwards and to the windows, where I could see servants sticking their heads around the curtains and staring in awe at the multicolored garden. Using my free hand, I lifted the skirt of my dress as we began ascending the stairs at a pace that would've been considered calm by onlookers but, by how tense Jerium's arms were, I knew calm was the last thing to describe what was happening. "Why has Henrik called for me?"

"He did not say. Only mentioned it was urgent." There was a pause with him assessing the side of my face with a sigh, shaking his head as we made it to the top of the stairs. "But, Raena, you should know he did not sound very pleased..." Jerium trailed off, suddenly coming to a halt as he stared blankly at the doorway, breath hitching in his throat while his grip on me tightened.

"What?" My frantic voice fell on deaf ears as I looked to the doors that were opened by two guards, attempting to see what he was seeing. But there was nothing there. Nothing at all. "Jerium, what is it?" My heart skipped a beat, confused by what he said and why he was acting so strange suddenly, feeling his magic buzz more wildly than usual against my arm through the fabric of his dress shirt.

At the sound of his name leaving my lips, the hybrid shook his head, blinking rapidly and appearing almost as befuddled as I was. "It's nothing, sorry." He cleared his throat and forced a smile. "I just thought of something, is all."

* * *

I entered Henrik's office, Jerium having dropped me off at the end of the hallway, and nodded at the guard who tended the door, keeping my chin high in the air as I met the penetrating stare of my mate.

"Leave us," Henrik told the guard from his place behind his desk, appearing as regal in his leather seat as any throne. My eyes momentarily found the back of the oval-shaped picture frame seated on the right side of his desk, the other side completely occupied with stacks of books and papers. "And make sure no one enters this hallway."

The guard bowed without missing a beat. "Yes, sire," he told his king and closed the door behind him as he walked out, his movements noticeably quick as he tried to leave as fast as possible. I didn't blame him in the slightest, even finding his behavior humorous. If I could've, I knew I would've done the same to escape the suffocating, tension-filled air.

Slowly, I untied the bow under my chin that kept my hat in place with shaky fingers and slid it off my head, placing it on the seat to my right as I stared at Henrik unsurely and waited for him to make the first move. My heartbeat was so erratic that it felt like it was trying to break free from the confinements of my chest.

"Do you think I'm incompetent?"

The question came as a surprise and I stared at his unreadable face, wishing he would lower his mental walls that he'd put up when I left to meet Destry so I could at least get a sample of what he was feeling. At the time he did it, I'd figured he'd done so with the intent to give me privacy while I was with my friend since that's what he did whenever I was with Callie or Ingrid. But now I knew that wasn't the case and the fact that our bond was closed off made me nervous, equivalent to someone who'd lost their sight suddenly and was now groping around for something to grasp onto only to discover over and over again that there was nothing there.

"No. Of course not."

"Then, what in Mother of Gods's name," he yanked open his drawer and reached inside, "is this?" He slammed—slammed down so hard that I was surprised it didn't shatter—the almost empty bottle of my birth control pills onto his desk, my body becoming more rigged and colder than ice. I gulped and stared at it with wide eyes, although I wasn't the least bit surprised, having known the moment Jerium approached me that the chances of this being the reason Henrik needed to talk to me was extremely high. The sight of the tiny capsules made my eyes well with tears of grief and shame, my lower lip wobbling and my hands nervously fiddling with the buttons on my dress. "Did you really think hiding this shit in your menstrual linens would keep me from finding out? From smelling them in you?" His voice was calm. Too calm. It wasn't the voice of my Henrik, the one that had whispered nothing but words of kindness into my ears—No. This voice scared me.

"No," I replied, my voice shaking almost as much as my knees. I felt absolutely sick to my stomach, my insides churning with the breakfast we had shared in our room just that morning with laughter and joy in our eyes. Ingrid had warned me that this would happen. She had warned me that Henrik would find out one way or another and I had been too prideful and childish by thinking that somehow I would escape the consequences of my actions. Too stupid. "I was going to tell you!" I blurted defensively. It was petty and I knew it but my brain was desperate to get something—anything—out of my mouth, desperate for him to see the guilt in my eyes and hear it in my voice.

Henrik scoffed, eyes glowing brighter than the sun. "Well, that just makes this all better," Henrik growled sarcastically, shooting out of his chair to lean his clawed hands against his desk. I took a step backwards instinctively, an action that did not go unnoticed by my mate. "Please do share when you were planning on telling me you don't want my child. Tomorrow? In a week? A year?" His mocking tone made my head pulse painfully. He slapped a palm on the top of his desk, the sound of his skin on the hardwood making me jump in fright. "Answer me!"

"I don't know!" I cried, hiding my face in my cupped hands as I sobbed uncontrollably into my palms. I sobbed for what I guessed to be a few minutes or at least until my throat and lungs ached too much to continue and I was belittled to a mess of hiccups and sniffles, using the back of my hands to wipe away snot from my nose and the tears from my cheeks.

"You've made me feel like a fool," Henrik breathed and I whimpered, fresh tears burning my cheeks as my raw throat began protesting, begging me to let it rest. It'd been over two weeks since Heat, two wonderful, tranquil weeks, and every night since the holiday, Henrik would find a way to press his ear against my stomach. He never told me what he was doing, but I didn't require an explanation to know he was searching for a heartbeat or anything that could prove there was a life inside my womb. And I had let him like a coward, too afraid to rip that hopeful gleam out of his eyes when in truth, I'd done so the moment I wrote that letter to Ingrid. "You do realize that Ingrid should be locked away for treason," he uttered and my head shot up at the sound of her name, my hands covering my agape mouth in horror.

"No!" I shouted, my voice scratchy from my crying and loud with emotion. "This was my idea. She was against it and I forced her against her will to do it—used my title against her." I knew I was exaggerating and was intentionally doing so with the hope to spare my friend from the repercussions of my mistake. "Please, Henrik! Don't. Think of her family."

Henrik stared at me as I did the same to him, his breathing uneven as he observed my red, swollen face.

A moment passed. And then another.

Finally, when he saw the desperation in my eyes, he sighed. "Alright. I promise she won't be arrested," he muttered begrudgingly. I let out a relieved, shuddering breath towards the floor, cradling my head in my hands. "But Ingrid will be stripped of her title as Royal Healer and is prohibited from this hour forward from having any form of communication with you."

My jaw fell open in complete shock and rage, looking up at his impassive face in disbelief and hoping that what I heard wasn't true, that I wasn't about to lose another friend or have them punished because of my careless choices.

"What?" My hands balled into fists at my side, my head spinning with a storm of emotions. "No," I said through gritted teeth, the tears in my eyes now ones of anger—anger that was directed towards both Henrik and myself. "You can't!"

"Actually, Raena, that's the funny thing about being King—I can," Henrik responded coolly, his tone making me flinch. I watched through narrowed, glassy eyes as he rounded his desk, prowled towards me, and bent forward until his face was so close I could see every speck of green around his contracted pupils. "Why?" he gritted out, voice agonizingly softer than before and eyes searching my face as if the answer he was looking for was on my nose or my chin. "Why did you ever even consider taking such a vile contraption? Do you think I'm not strong enough to be a protector for our offspring? Have I not proven myself to be a good provider? Why, Raena?"

Every word injected more acid into my body, filling it with nothing but burning rage that gave me the urge to rip my hair out, slap Henrik, and cry all at the same time.

"This has nothing to do with your primal Lycan bullshit, Henrik," I gritted out angrily, his eyes darkening at my words while mine overflowed with tears. "You never asked me if I wanted to get pregnant! You just assumed that because me popping out your children is what you want, it's what I would want too. And guess what? It isn't. Yes, I know I should've found a way to be honest with you instead of going behind your back and I'm sorry. For that and for hurting you, I truly am sorry—so very, very sorry—and I wish I had the ability to change my past actions because I would in a heartbeat.

But you have to realize I'm only eighteen, Henrik. I'm still practically a child myself and our bond is still so new to me—this whole world and lifestyle is. I mean, everything has changed so quickly these past four months! There are still times where I think of something to tell Oriana and then I have to remind myself how she is mere rotting pieces of bone somewhere in the woods!"

Henrik's face hardened at my words, although I could see another emotion subtly slip past beside his rage and into his glowing eyes. Sadness? Hurt? Guilt? I couldn't tell exactly what it was. Perhaps it was a combination of all three.

"Say something," I begged, not trying to hide my desperation. "Please." He didn't respond and instead turned his gaze to the floor next to my feet, his fists and jaw clenched, my face falling. "Do you even care?" My voice cracked, searching his face as he'd done to mine only to find what I had feared the most: absolutely nothing. Another test rolled down my cheek and I didn't bother trying to wipe it away, knowing there was no point since only more would follow. "Or has this all just been about me providing you an heir?" The thought hurt me physically and my marked seared, the pain as intense as when Henrik's teeth had first torn through the flesh.

My question snapped Henrik out of whatever trance he'd been trapped in, eyes widening when they made contact with my own. "Are you serious? After everything..." he trailed off, his voice full of shock until his face hardened like stone and he growled viscously through his canines. "You disgust me," he spat and I cringed, his tone more violent than if he'd slapped me. "If that's what you would like to think of me after all this time, then fine," he snarled, turned around to grab the bottle of my birth control pills, and threw it at my feet, the sharp sound of the glass hitting the hardwood floor making me jump. I looked up and I stared at him helplessly, seeing the tears that lined his hard eyes. "Think that way and keep your damn pills." He walked past me in a blur, pulling the door open so fast that I was surprised it was still on his hinges. "And don't expect me to return to our chambers tonight." He slammed the door behind him so hard that the chandelier above me quivered, his fading growls echoing all the way from the hallway and into my ears.

My legs gave out from underneath me not even a second later and I cried into my hands, building my own barrier in the bridge that kept our minds connected and pressed it flush against his own—sealing it up so thick that I could hardly sense his presence in my mind at all and my mark went completely numb. I didn't want Henrik to feel how broken he'd managed to make me with just his words—didn't want him to feel how weak his pathetic excuse of a mate was.

You disgust me.

I wailed louder and louder, not caring how many Lycan ears heard me. Not caring if they all laughed at me for it later.

You disgust me.

I screamed, all my anger, frustration, hurt, and sadness coming out in one sound. In an act completely controlled by emotion, I grabbed the bottle beside my knee, hurled it at his desk, and watched it instantly shatter as it made contact with the wood—shatter just like everything inside and around me had—white pills and shards of glass flying everywhere. My hands instinctively reached up to block my face, eyes peeking through the cracks of my fingers and watching it all happen in front of me.

The force of the blow was enough to cause the picture frame on his desk to fall over face-first and the distinct sound of something cracking reverberated around the room, making me go silent and my heart leap into my throat.

Jumping onto my shaky legs, I hesitantly walked over to Henrik's desk, pieces of glass and pills crunching under my shoes. Carefully, I grabbed the edge of the frame and flipped it over in my hands, dread filling my abdomen at the sight that met me.

"Oh no, no, no..." I murmured to myself, staring at the thick fracture that ran down the very center of Henrik and I's portrait and slightly distorted both of our faces. I could remember how much it'd meant to him, him cherishing the image of us together like it was worth more than all the gold in the palace combined. Knowing him, it probably was—and I had just broken it. "I'm sorry," I croaked down to the portrait and to the newlyweds it displayed and brought it to my chest, hugging the inanimate object like I wished to embrace Henrik. "I'm so sorry."

Don’t hate me yet. Nine chapters to go :)

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