~ THE KING ~
I woke up for the second time a few hours later in the same bed from before, the covers this time tucked tenderly over my shoulders and reminding me of how I used to fall asleep when my mother was alive. The memory of her made my consciousness stronger all of a sudden until I blinked open my eyes and stared up at the painted ceiling, unnerved slightly by the naked nymph staring at me with a sly, secretive smile.
My eyes trailed over the rest of the painting that displayed stunning faeries and other winged creatures alike peeking over and dancing amongst white clouds joyously in a dark blue, star-infested sky. It was a lovely image but it felt out of place in that particular room.
I wiped away the dried tears and drool on my face and sat upright, wincing when the orange setting sunlight shining in through the open window cruelly assaulted my eyes. Sitting there like that for a few more minutes while appreciating the softness of the silk sheets and the fur comforter, I finally forced my body to move when my legs started cramping and my spine ached, both reminders that sleeping on a hard floor was a foolish decision. Although my limbs were still shaky, it felt good to stand again and stretch out my joints which noticeably popped a little more than usual.
My feet slowly padded against the dark floorboards as I finally took in the large room—almost as big as an entire cottage—in all its fine detail.
To match the dark wooden flooring, the walls were covered with patterned wallpaper that was more extravagant than I thought anyone would ever want wallpaper to be, featuring dark blues, blacks, and accents of white and gold.
When facing the end of the bed, the double doors to the bathroom were on the left and on the opposite side of the room were the grand floor length windows with elaborate drapes of gold and blue. Along that same wall but much further down was a sitting area with a black marble fireplace in the corner that had two beautiful carvings of merpeople on each side, one male and the other a female and both clutching tridents to their chests.
I walked towards the carvings and came face to face with the marble mermaid whose tail I traced with my fingers tips, the scales scratching the delicate skin. Next to catch my eye were the gills right under her ribs and that ended where the line of defined abs started. Her triangular face was beautiful, angelic almost, and her eyes were wider than that of a human's. All of it fascinated me because it was the closest I had ever been to living my dream of seeing one in person, all the images I'd seen in my childhood having been horribly drawn by talentless people who called themselves illustrators.
The two plush chairs and the one couch facing the fireplace all looked welcoming, as did the couple small round tables, but I decided relaxation would've been an inappropriate option to invest in at that time. Across from the sitting room in the other corner, which looked unattractively empty, was a large wooden dresser with golden handles and swirling designs. Attached to it was a round mirror with a golden frame and I instantly averted my eyes away so as to not catch my reflection, scared I wouldn't like what I saw.
Three sharp knocks from the door reverberated around the room, making me jump in panic. My head searched everywhere, in every corner and shadow, and confirmed I was the only one inside before I slowly made my advancement towards the daunting entryway, which was so wide that I was surprised there weren't two doors there either.
The gold knob was cold under my palm as I twisted it to pull the door open and reveal my visitor, a man in a long black buttoned coat with matching pants and a white dress shirt underneath.
In his folded arms hung a dress and frilly undergarments no doubt meant to accompany it. My nose instinctively crinkled at the sight.
"Madam," he said with a strange accent, similar to the one the scarred man had spoken with yet different all the same, and bowed his head, giving me a clear view of the red mane he called his hair. "His Majesty the King has requested your presence to dine with him at dinner tonight."
The King? My head went fuzzy and I almost felt like fainting.
"He hopes these clothes will suffice."
At the mention of clothes, I remembered my lack of them. So I quickly accepted the dress from his outstretched hands and held them to my chest to return some of my dignity. I was surprised at how heavy the garments were, having always assumed dresses would be much lighter than the fur and skin garments I was used to wearing.
"Thank you," I managed to utter, giving his face one last look over before I slowly shut the door until it clicked in place, and I was alone once again.
The Cursed King wants me to eat dinner with him.
A part of me, the childish part that I tried to stow away most of my life, felt almost giddy at the thought of meeting the infamous male, whose tales I'd heard my entire life. But the other part, the more reasonable one, made fear spike throughout my system until it became overwhelming and I found it hard to breathe.
My heartbeat pounded against my temple painfully, sounding eerily like the ticks of a dying clock.
Perhaps I am the dinner, I thought and tossed the new clothes onto the bed in sudden disgust, a lump forming in my throat and making it hard to breathe or think or do anything at all but let anxiety eat away at my very being. If even an ounce of the horrific stories were true, the Cursed King would have no problem shedding the blood of a weak human such as myself, especially after the scene I'd made in the bathroom.
Panicking, I darted my gaze around the room until I found what I was looking for sitting on top of one of the tables in the sitting room, like it was posed and just waiting for me to find it.
* * *
"You look stunning, Madam."
I thanked the red-haired stranger and flushed, fiddling my fingers restlessly, when he shut the bedroom door behind me, leaving no room for retreat or second guessing.
Reaching up, I fidgeted with the necklace that had accompanied the rest of the new attire, a simple circular blue stone that hung from a golden chain. Its color matched my dress; however, my disheveled hair, which only had my hands as its comb, and my bare and still-very-swollen-and-red-from-crying face felt very out of place in such elegant attire.
I apprehensively wove my arm through the man's when he offered his elbow to me and let him lead me down the seemingly never-ending hallways, corners, and the wide staircase with steps so steep that I counted myself lucky when I didn’t trip by the time we made it down all four flights. It truly felt like a maze more than a castle, a maze with golden designs in the corner of the walls, statues of naked faeries and nymphs on pedestals along the walls, and stunning marble flooring that I could see my reflection in because it was so clean.
Looking up, I marveled at the high ceilings with diamond chandeliers and then to the windows revealing the beautiful mountain ranges all varying in size and shape covered in layers of white. From what I perceived, we were very far up in the mountains—farther than Amaryllus, at least. But not too far away from it that I couldn't see Erdaon, the tallest mountain in Trellomar. On the other side, at the very base of that monstrous, rocky piece of earth, was my home.
"It's always breathtaking this time of year," my escort told me, notably slowing down to eye the view as well. He was too busy staring at it to notice the hopeful longing look in my eyes. "You should see it in Autumn, when the leaves are all different colors and it's bearable to take a stroll longer than five minutes." I let the corners of my lips quirk upwards at that remark. But only for a second. "I'm Jerium, by the way."
"Raena," I replied and squeaked when I stumbled, a repercussion for not looking where I was going, and was saved by Jerium's firm grip and fast reflexes. "Sorry. I've never worn heels before," I said sheepishly, referring to the outrageous shoes I had been given with heels as long as my finger. I had never worn a dress before either but I wasn't about to share that with him too.
"What a coincidence. Me neither," Jerium responded casually with a dazzling smile, one that I was sure many males and females alike had lost their hearts too.
Once I was settled back on my feet, we kept walking as if it had never happened and I thanked Jerium internally for that. There was something to be said about a person who could make someone feel secure after they did something that would usually have them drowning in embarrassment.
"What is the king like?" I asked out of curiosity, my eyes narrowing when I saw the head of a female with dark hair peeking around a corner, golden eyes staring directly at me. Noticing my gaze, she quickly retreated her head behind the safety of the wall and I was too baffled by what I saw to comment on it.
"Complicated," was Jerium's curt response that gave me the inkling that he didn't want to delve further on the topic.
So I stayed silent, looking around subtly while fully preparing myself to catch a thousand eyes on me. But there was none. And when we walked past the hallway where my spy would have been standing, it was completely empty with not a hint of a person ever being there at all.
Although Jerium appeared human, I knew beneath his red hair, freckled pale skin, and warm brown eyes must've been a beast too, a beast I didn't want to anger or upset. Just the way he carried himself told me he wasn't human alongside the unmistakable, faint buzzing sensation I could feel under my fingertips through the fabric of his jacket and shirt, a type of energy that no mortal could possibly possess.
The bite wound—or mark—on my neck suddenly tingled like the nerves there had fallen asleep. I resisted the urge to reach up and caress it, instead keeping my twitching fingers planted at my hips and adjusted my other hand on Jerium's arm.
Jerium suddenly came to a halt, making me look up at him in question. "The dining room is just through those doors." He gestures to a pair of double doors straight ahead. "It was a pleasure making your acquaintance, Madam," he told me, taking my hand softly in his larger one and bringing my knuckles to his lips to place a kiss there.
I found myself blushing like a nervous child, never having felt a man's lips on my skin before. In fact, it was the first time any man had ever shown the slightest sign of affection towards me, since the only two remotely close to my age in Amaryllus were like my brothers.
My mark prickled more intensely but I ignored it and focused on the man and his pink lips against my knuckles.
"Yeah, you too." I could finally breathe when he pulled away with that same heart-stealing smile and began walking back the way we came, the desire to run after him growing inside me with each second. But I knew there was no running away from this, so I turned my back to him and listened to the thuds of his shoes against the floor until they faded away into defeating silence.
I sighed shakily and took a deep breath, counting to ten internally to calm myself, and then made my way towards the doors, the clicks of my heels echoing off the walls. When I was about ten feet away, the doors were pulled open for me by two men in what I assumed were guard uniforms, swords strapped to their belts and pieces of iron armor strapped along their upper bodies on top of black leather suits.
I paused instinctively at the sight of their weapons and stoic faces.
"Don't be frightened, my love, they will not hurt you."
My head snapped to the male—no, king—lounging at the end of the longer-than-necessary table, dressed in a black suit with elaborate, golden embroideries that matched his eyes and the crown that rested on top of his short black hair. Rings of red, green, and blue adorned every one of his fingers and he smirked devilishly while he twirled the one on his pinky around and around, his eyes scanning my fork appreciatively.
"You?" I said through gritted teeth, overwhelmed by disbelief and humiliation.
"Me," the male said smugly, the scar across his left eye appearing more prominent as if it were mocking me. I glared at him, forgetting in my moment of anger just how powerful this male in front of me truly was.
The guards bowed towards their king before turning on their heels and walking out the double doors, pulling them shut and trapping me alone with the scarred man, my saviour, my enemy, the infamous Cursed King himself.