~ PRIDE AND PREJUDICE ~
I poked at my barely eaten chicken, listening to the sound of my metal fork scraping against the China glass as I pushed it around and watching the white meat leave behind a brown smear from its rosemary infused seasoning.
The high-pitched, teeth-grinding noise seemed to reverberate throughout the dining room, bouncing off the glass ceiling that revealed a bright blue sky as well as the plethora platters in front of us that held more varieties of meats on them than I thought there were animals that inhabited the mountains. Everyday, the amount of food seemed to slowly increase and I knew it was Henrik's way of trying to make amends with me alongside the new pieces of jewelry that appeared every morning on my bedside table, his section of the bed long since turned cold because he understood I needed space.
Perhaps if I was Lycan or possessed some amount of their animal instincts, I would've at least considered the gestures sweet. Instead, every time I held the diamonds between my fingertips or ate the freshly killed meat, I just felt numb. Yes, his gifts were beautiful and probably worth an entire continent and his increased hunting filled my stomach until it hurt. But my heart was left feeling hollow and like all the nerves in the organ no longer knew how to work, scared if it felt anything other than anger or sadness that the agony it felt the next time would surely damage it beyond repair.
"Raena, please eat," Henrik begged from beside me, his own plate hardly touched since he'd been watching me almost the entire hour we were together. I ignored him, choosing at that moment to drop my fork and reach for my glass of water, and he sighed, an action that had slowly seemed to become his new habit. "I've apologized for my behavior numerous times. I don't know what else to do."
I forced the burning cold water down my throat, his words sparking the memories of the two nights I had spent alone after our fight and how I'd become more of an inconsolable wreck full of worry and sorrow every minute that passed. After twenty-four hours went by in a torturous blur and Henrik still hadn't shown a sign of returning, I'd gone crying to Evander, explaining vaguely what had happened and ordering him to find his cousin and bring him home, even if he had to drag him by the tail.
From a window in the hallway the next morning, I'd watched the two relatives emerge from the woods behind the gardens, both covered in dirt and completely unharmed except for a single scratch across Evander's chest, something I just knew in my soul was Henrik's doing.
Rage filled me as I watched my mate, his beard noticeably longer and only in the pair of underwear that I'd made Evander take with him, saunter up to the house as if it was a typical weekday morning. It wasn't that I hoped he was physically hurt or in so much despair that it would be noticeable from three floors above. I just felt stupid for caring about him so much, for wasting two nights worrying instead of sleeping, when clearly he had no trouble forgetting about me and not caring to make sure I was okay.
A full hour had passed when a fully dressed and clean Henrik entered the library, where I was avoiding him with a large book that was about a topic I didn't care to remember when I was done with it. I was as stiff as a stone when he dropped onto his knees in front of my seated form, apologizing over and over again and telling me how wrong he'd been to let his temper get to him. When I didn't answer, he rushed to explain how he had spent time with his family to get his emotions off his chest and had lost track of time, which he was very apologetic for as well—or so he said. Henrik filled me in on how he'd played with Mercedes and Meredith and hunted with Alarik and his parents. I remained silent, staring at the pages of my book with a clenched jaw and feeling like I would burst into tears if I looked anywhere else.
Ten minutes of his blabbering passed before Henrik realized I was never going to respond.
Five minutes of quiet later, he finally left.
Henrik released another sigh from beside me and set his fork down gently, his face guarded but his eyes revealing the frustration and sadness he felt towards my persistent silent treatment. "I'm sorry, my female." He'd spoken those words so many times already that he'd begun to sound more like a broken record than a male that was genuinely regretful. "What more do you desire from me?"
I lowered my drink back down too hard, the clanking of the glass on the hardwood table piercing through the air sharper than a knife. "What I desire?" My voice was weak and breathless, resembling just how defeated and utterly exhausted I was. I stiffened when I felt him gently nudge at my mind, trying to sneakily persuade his way past its impenetrable wall, the first time he'd dared to do such a thing since he approached me in the library. It angered me that he would attempt it, as if I would ever consider letting him into my thoughts willingly after the way he'd spoken to me. I gritted my teeth, feeling my pulse quicken beneath my temple, and my hands fisted the napkin in my lap until the cloth burned my palms. "What I need is for you to give Ingrid her title back and let me see her." I said it as a plea through gritted teeth, my loneliness and desperation coming out in one blow, and for once, I didn't care how pathetic I sounded. Henrik deserved to hear how he'd made me feel.
The day after Heat, Callie made the abrupt decision to leave with Neit and stay with her and her family for an indefinite period of time, something I encouraged her to do and had even helped her pack for the journey. Almost an entire month already passed with no word on when she would return and I refused to deliver her letter. Callie deserved to spend as much uninterrupted time as she needed with her mate and I knew that I would only ruin the couple's happiness if I sent her anything, scared that no matter what I said, my words would somehow give away my despair.
Evander had left to train a group of soldiers the day after he brought Henrik back, a firm order that the king had apparently given him the day before our fight. But before he departed, he stopped me in a hallway, grabbed my hand as if he thought I'd run away if he didn't, and practically begged me to write to him to keep him informed of what was happening at the palace. Whether it was for his sake or mine, I didn't know and it didn't matter since I lacked the ability to muster enough courage to ever actually go through with it, although I had begun a few only to toss them in the garbage bin a few minutes later.
Nothing of significance had truly taken place, unless Henrik's constant apologies and overwhelming gifts counted, and it felt more like I would've been sending him an excerpt of my own diary, something I figured a busy duke and skilled soldier wouldn't want to read. And, knowing Henrik's past jealousy towards Evander and I's relationship, I felt wrong doing it, as if I would be going against my wedding vows if I mailed Evander anything. So I decided against it.
Although I was upset with Henrik, I still respected him and his feelings enough to not do anything that even remotely felt like I was going behind his back. I only prayed Evander didn't take his empty hands as an insult.
A couple times, I had managed to track down Jerium to invite him to lunch or just a walk outside as we used to do when I first arrived, even suggesting a picnic in the garden since the weather had been so lovely. But I soon stopped asking when I noticed he refused every time, not once giving a proper reason as to why he couldn't, and never tried to reschedule or make other plans with me as he promised he would.
Now that Jerium was away with Evander to document official reports and get the soldiers' signatures on a few federal contracts, the only people I had left as an option were the servants and of course, Destry, but they all had jobs and I felt more like a nagging burden than a companion when I was around them—not that they ever did anything specifically to make me feel that way. It was just simply how I felt.
Henrik breathed out heavily, head facing the table and hands clenching into fists beside his plate out of frustration. If we both hadn't already finished off the bottle of wine, I knew he would've been reaching for another glass as I was silently wishing to. "You know I can't do that," he said, a whisper of a growl in his tone, and picked up his fork, stabbing a larger-than-necessary amount of red meat onto it. "Not until I feel I can trust you two around each other again." He placed the food in his mouth and chewed quickly and forcefully, his eyebrows scrunched together in concentration, clearly trying to end the conversation with the action.
Feeling equivalent to if a door was just slammed in my face, my lips wobbled as I looked down, not wanting him to see my welling eyes, and picked up my own utensils to slice off a small sliver of rabbit. I was so full of emotion that I could barely chew, the muscles in my throat and mouth stiff as I held back a sob, and I felt sick to my stomach when I finally had no choice but to swallow.
"Where will Ingrid stay tonight?" I asked, my question referring to the full moon that was to take place in only a couple hours.
The changes in Henrik's appearance were already revealing themselves in his bright eyes and claws and even his voice had become noticeably more hollow and gravelly, the line between male and animal becoming blurrier each second time crept closer to sundown. Because we were now mated and he was confident that his primal instincts would no longer pose a threat to me, Henrik had decided to travel to Lyros again, a pack whose border resided only a hundred miles away in the East. He'd gone to a forest there for the last full moon as well and would only be gone one day instead of three like he had when he had to travel northward at the start of our courtship.
"There is a bunker in Aristea. Furkan told me she will be staying there," Henrik informed me and I couldn't help but picture a stuffy, dark, underground cement square whose only factor keeping it from being considered a tomb was the fact that the people inside it were living.
Ingrid would no doubt sew or knit the entire time as a way to pass time and distract herself from her nervousness and the misery that was entirely my fault—misery that could've been prevented if I would've just been an adult and spoken up about me wanting to wait at least another year until I got pregnant. The fact Ingrid and her family were feeling the weight of my actions' consequences made me want to vomit from the amount of guilt that swirled in my abdomen.
"So I'll be alone?" my voice cracked and my eyes finally weren't able to hold back my tears as the last bit of my strength wavered into almost nothing. I turned my face away, gritting my teeth, hating that Henrik was seeing me so weak—hating that he was the one making me feel that way.
"My female, please do not cry. Jerium already placed a spell around the palace and you will be just as protected as always," Henrik told me pleadingly, trying to meet my eyes and failing. He reached for my hand and his fingers had barely grazed my knuckles when I snatched it away like his touch was laced with fire.
You don't understand! I wanted to shout but knew it would be futile, that Henrik was a king who'd been handed everything his entire life and would only hear what he wanted to. My tears weren't just out of fear of staying alone in the palace by myself on the full moon. They were pure, utter sadness running down my cheeks in the form of salted water.
What hurt me the most was that Henrik couldn't even put his pride aside for a couple hours to ensure I could at least have a friend by my side for comfort when he was fully aware of how anxious I was every full moon—how Ingrid always turned a night of stress into one of drunken laughter and memories.
Not knowing what to say for once, Henrik went silent and watched me cry, my tears splattering onto my thighs and my heart shattering within my chest. I could've sworn I heard a whine come from the back of his throat but it was too silent and quick for me to be sure. Even if he had, it didn't matter. It wouldn't change anything.
Another few minutes passed and I was left hiccuping, embarrassed and ashamed for being so emotional, and my eyes flickered over to Henrik when a flash of golden light slightly blinded me. "I must depart." Henrik gazed remorsefully at his watch that the bright sunlight was reflecting off of, its face gripped between two clawed fingers.
I bit my lip, holding back all the nasty words I truly wanted to tell him that would perhaps make him feel a fraction of the hurt he had inflicted on me. But I knew I was better than that. I knew that I needed to be the mature person in the situation since Henrik had already failed to do that. My silence spoke everything I wanted to. It was up to him to respond appropriately to fix it.
Henrik stood, his chair scratching against the marble floor, and immediately walked to my side, making me hold my breath as his scent wafted through my nose. "Can I not even get a goodbye kiss?" The hurt in his voice made my heart clench, although I disallowed myself to show it.
Sighing in defeat, I turned my head and that was invitation for him enough to connect his lips with mine before I could change my mind, his movements slow and almost lazy as if he was savoring every indent in my lips and small buds on my tongue.
Although we continued sharing a bed, it was only because the mate bond made it almost impossible to sleep in the same building unless we were right next to each other. I didn't let him hold me anymore, always hugging the very edge of the mattress, and I would lie awake sometimes for hours as he tossed and turned restlessly until exhaustion conquered his consciousness at last.
The feeling of our lips finally pressed together after so long was otherworldly and I trembled when Henrik moaned, my core heating almost immediately as his hands traced my jaw while mine remained stiff in my lap. My eyes filled with tears as Henrik leaned further down to deepen our kiss and he didn't stop when they rolled down my cheeks and to our conjoined lips. Instead, he licked them away and held me closer and I let him, pretending for those few moments that everything was going to be alright. That we would be alright.
When he began trailing his lips away from my lips and towards my mark, I turned my face away and towards the table, screwing my eyes shut and taking in a deep, shuddering breath. I cursed the mate bond and myself for allowing me to act like such a fool who couldn't make up her mind. While my mind was too stubborn to forgive Henrik, my heart had never been angry with him at all and begged me to hold onto him so we would never be apart—and only the gods knew how much I wanted to. How much I yearned for him to embrace me and whisper empty promises into my ear until I was mere ashes blowing in the wind.
Henrik sighed, the disappointed sound making me flinch, and forced his body away from me.
I listened to the quiet clicks of his shoes walking away, sounding more like the ticking of a clock counting down to the end of something, until they suddenly stopped and I felt his gaze burn the side of my face, his irises glowing with emotion. "I adore you, Raena," he rasped, the doors opening and the guards that tended them standing stiffer than normal when they registered the tension. "There is nothing in the world I wouldn't do for you. I can only pray to the gods that one day you'll see that." I stayed silent, staring straight ahead of me and remaining as motionless as a statue. "Please eat," was the last thing the Cursed King told me before he sauntered away.
And when the doors clicked shut, I felt as alone and unheard as the only person left in the universe.
Thank you for all your comments on the last chapter Xx
Do you think Raena’s night alone in the palace will be peaceful?—Or could something more devious take place?