The Cursed Kingdom

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With ceiling-tall bookshelves that lined the navy blue walls and tall stacks of novels placed beside and on his desk, Henrik's office always reminded me of a miniature library. Although I typically preferred things to be extremely tidy, that room was the only exception, its unkempt structure giving it a sort of homeliness and overall feeling of safety—the epitome of how Henrik delivered himself as a person, frustratingly disorganized but still radiating a grounded warmth that promised content.

Our love of literature and hunger for knowledge were a few of our shared attributes that had originally bonded us together, although Henrik preferred books on economics and history while I liked ones on newfound discoveries, especially ones in the field of medicine. Very rarely we would have days, which would be the results of either Henrik finishing all the paperwork he needed to early or Evander generously offering to take his place, where we read next to each other on the sofa in his sitting area from breakfast until dinner.

There was once a time where we both deliberately chose books of the same page-length and font so that we could race each other and see who the fastest reader was, a pathetic attempt to settle a petty and quite lighthearted debate we'd had the day before. With me only having about fifty pages left, Henrik had ended up winning but I teased him afterwards that he'd only won since I found out later that his had graphs. He teasingly denied it and we ended up laughing it off, vowing to never compete against each other again, and concluded our night tangled in the bed sheets, smiles of content on both our faces until we eventually dozed off.

The memory felt like such a long time ago as I idly walked around Henrik's desk to slide out a thick book from one of the many shelves, the red-stained leather instantly drawing my attention the moment I walked through the door. But what had me ultimately deciding to pick it up after I had approached it was the swirling title pressed into its spine that was about the same width as my palm, The World of Humans.

It felt weird to hold it in my hands, especially since it was so thick and both the front and back covers had lateral creases near the spine as if it'd been opened an endless amount of times. Although I had read at least a hundred different books on other species, even a brief section on Dragons who used to live in Trellomar before migrating to a secluded island called Draterra, I'd never come across any on Humans and had settled on the assumption that they were simply very rare because of immortals' disinterests in learning about them.

My eyebrows furrowed after I turned it over and stared at the strange illustration on its front that depicted a naked man and woman with quite ugly features holding hands, their body hair overdrawn and bodies so distorted they resembled liquor bottles more than living people. It was disturbing to see and my stomach churned, already disliking the book without needing to read a single word.

Finally, after a silent argument with myself on whether or not I should or shouldn't look inside, I pride it open and stared blankly at the pages as I flipped through them randomly, seeing that they were full of facts and history about my species that ranged from our diets to which sounds we liked and disliked. It was all strange and some of it not entirely true, such as the chapter on Human stamina that claimed we don't need lots of space (only around five hundred square feet) because of our low energy levels and slow metabolisms.

Some of the pages' corners were bent, the sight of Henrik's terrible habit making my jaw clench more than usual, and his beautiful penmanship smothering the slight yellowed paper wherever there was empty space.

Growl less, was written in a corner with a few other notes Henrik had left for himself in the chapter about Human courtship, all short and never exceeding two words. Hold hands. Gifts. Dinner. Questions. Flowers. Apologize. They were such simple things that I thought it was odd that he felt it necessary to write them down at all, especially since I considered things such as holding hands to be a universal sign of affection equivalent to kissing.

There was even a list of gift ideas and every item had been crossed out with a straight line through them, all of which I had received but not in the exact order they were written—perfumes, hats, jewelry, flowers—everything. Two near the top were completely scribbled out, the black ink too thick for me to make out what they said, which I guessed were ideas he'd scrapped.

I turned to the next section of the book and felt my stomach grow heavy with sick when I saw the chapter's title: Sexual Intercourse.

I'd read many books about Lycans and a couple here and there about Mages and Faes whenever I was bored or ran out of things to read. Yes, there were chapters that focused on reproduction, but I'd never once come across anything that came close to explaining how they preferred to have sex itself.

Even though I tried not to be, I couldn't help but feel offended, knowing full well this was proof of how lowly Humans were viewed by other species. Just the idea of somebody picking this up and reading it and laughing at it—it was utterly demeaning. Having such a vile piece of literature in my hands felt equivalent to holding a pile of dung and all I wanted to do was throw it out the window and let it land in the dirt, where it belonged.

With an audible swallow, I flipped the page, knowing whatever I was about to see wouldn't be something I'd ever forget no matter how many times I tried.

It was so much worse than I expected.

My eyes widened when I saw all the notes—Patience. Ask. Face-to-face—and the dozens of pictures that covered the chapter's forty-three pages, reminding me of a shortened version of the erotic book I'd found in Tylem and Taylium's house all those years ago.

But the image that caught my attention the most was the very first one, which displayed a man with teeth-too-large-for-his-face above a woman, holding her hands over her head by her wrists just as Henrik had done when—

I snapped the book shut barely a second before the sound of the doorknob turning invaded the room, my body as stiff as stone while my head bowed towards the ground, wishing I could be anywhere but there. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on edge when they felt his eyes on me, my heartbeat so fast that it felt like it would burst out of my chest. My breathing came out in shallow and uneven bursts as I continued looking at the horrible book and its disgusting images that seemed to stare right back.

Before that moment, I thought I'd had the whole situation under control. But now that Henrik was just a few feet behind me, I felt more prepared to dive off a mountain than confront him.

"Yrmus said you needed to see me." His voice was still gravelly with a hint of a growl, despite the fact I could tell he was trying to suppress it, an effect of the full moon that I knew would last with him for at least a couple more hours. Even while mad at him, my heart clenched at the sound of it and remembered how that same voice had vowed to be my husband in front of Zuerstelle's statue and to be honest and true to me forever until death parted us.

It all felt like such a cruel joke now.

Even after everything that had taken place only a couple hours ago, all I wanted to do was run straight into Henrik’s arms and make his magical warmth scare away the coldness of the world. And it hurt more than death itself that I couldn't. That Henrik's lies stole that ability away from me until I was like a broken vase that could no longer hold flowers or trust anything beautiful again.

When the door clicked shut, I released a shaky breath and turned around to face the one responsible for both my happiness and suffering within the past few months, Henrik’s body stiffening and eyes narrowing in confusion when he saw my very red and swollen face from hours of crying.

He took a confident step forward but then stopped, almost looking as if he'd stumbled into an invisible brick wall, and his gaze racked over my form as if seeing me for the first time all over again.

I was still wearing the clothes that I'd discovered Oriana in and I knew he could smell the dungeon on me, could see it in the way his nostrils flared and his eyes widened with shock alongside something close to fear. Even I could still detect the putrid scent of feces and urine and the weight of people's pain surrounding me like a dense layer of fog on a humid autumn morning, my skin crawling as if my disgust were living insects.

Hugging the book above my heart until my breasts made it impossible to pull it any closer, I said, "Yes, I do." My voice sounded as raw as my throat felt from the hours of dealing with my emotions but my tone was dull, so tired of feeling and thinking without respite. "I wanted to see if you remembered how a little over a week ago you stood right here," my eyes flickered towards my boot clad feet, "in this room and belittled me for taking a pill every morning while you were holding my best friend prisoner." By the time I was done speaking, my whole body was shaking with rage as if I was reliving the emotions of finding Oriana all over again. Finally, as I stared at the male who both implemented life in my heart for the first time and destroyed it, I understood how murderers could kill—how somebody could twist a person's mind to hate the very thing that made them a person.

"Raena..." Henrik trailed off, placing his hands in the air with his palms towards me. The actions had my gaze flickering down to them, the sun from the window hitting them just at that right angle that they almost seemed to glow as much as his eyes. They were the same hands that had caressed my cheeks in the mornings, wiped away my tears whenever I was sad, and pleasured me until every creature in Trellomar was jealous that I got to call Henrik mine. But as I looked at them, my eyes taking in every line and callous on his wide palms, all I could think about were the scars on the Fae's neck and wonder how many others' bloods tainted them—how many lives those hands had ripped away. "I can explain."

Those three words broke whatever tether had been holding back the true intensity of my rage and I threw the book down to the ground, the loud smack of the leather slapping against the hardwood making the almighty Cursed King flinch as if the sound had pierced more than just the tension-filled air.

"Explain?" I echoed the word in disgust, searching his face as if common sense and reason had abandoned him. "Explain what exactly?—How you sat and watched me cry for hours upon hours about how much I missed my friends when one of them was fully alive in your dungeon?"

"You don't understand!" Henrik barked with a shake of his head, his hair falling into his face. His eyes were so wide that he looked crazed. "I had no choice."

"That's bullshit," I sneered. "That's bullshit and you know it—Your Majesty," I added mockingly, remembering how he had no problem using his title to keep Ingrid and me from speaking to each other just a little over a week ago. But, of course, it meant nothing to him when it could be used for good.

"No, it's not. It's the law that was put in place by my council and myself at the beginning of my rule that whoever disturbs the kingdom is questioned and arrested for life," Henrik gritted out, running his hand through his hair while looking towards the ceiling. "Just because she's your confidante, doesn't mean I can rebuke that. It would be dishonorable and it was dire at the time that I speak with her without any influence from an outside person since you were attacked without crossing my kingdom's boundary line. That has never occurred in my two hundred and eleven years of being king and, with you being my mate and the Moon Goddess's rage known for being as eternal as her very existence, I had reasons to believe there was foul magic at play. I needed to make sense of things and fill in the holes you simply couldn't and by the time I had adequate information, the knowledge of her existence would've only disturbed you."

I scoffed, my jaw falling open in a mix of shock and outrage at his last sentence that sounded as if he was trying to twist the situation so it was my fault that he chose to lie and make me believe my friend was dead. But I knew truly what he meant. Henrik meant that by the time he toyed with the idea of telling me about Oriana, he'd noticed I was finally trusting him and didn't want to ruin the fantasy that he had built from his lies.

"I don't care for your excuses!" I exclaimed, not caring who heard me. "They don't justify your actions or their cruelty. You could've told me she was alive. You could've let her stay in the palace as a guest and kept me from privately speaking to her until you got the information you so desired. Instead, you locked her up like a rabid animal. And the others..." I trailed off, tears brimming my eyes as I pictured the Lycan chained to the wall and Dario's mangled leg and every single emaciated face that was trapped behind silver bars. "Henrik, you can't treat people like that. It's horrible."

"The others are all there for reasons that don't concern you," Henrik snarled, baring his teeth. His breathing was coming out in hard, short pants, his eyes squeezing shut as he fought against his elongating jaw. He gripped onto the back of the two chairs in front of his desk and leaned most of his weight onto his stiffened arms, the veins in his hands sticking out more than usual.

"Oh, right—Just like Dario?" I said and watched him have the audacity to roll his eyes, the single action making my blood boil hot enough that I wouldn't have been surprised if it burned through my flesh. "How dare you." I shook my head, my eyes filling with tears of frustration and sadness for the tragic end of my first love. "How dare you do this to me. How dare you treat people this way. I trusted you, Henrik. I... I loved you." My voice broke and his bright eyes flashed to mine, a storm of emotion behind them at my usage of past tense. "I thought you were kind and gentle. I turned my back on what my people—on what my mother—had told me. But you're just as cold hearted as they said—just as evil."

Henrik growled down towards the floor in frustration, his claws digging through the leather of the chairs and making my eyes well with tears even faster than before. "Gods, Raena, shut up! She's just a pathetic Human!" Henrik roared, eyes glowing as bright as two suns, and I recoiled as if he had physically slapped me.

My whole face slacking with shock and my heart felt as if it skipped almost ten beats before it started working properly again. Out of all the things I'd expected Henrik to say, I never thought he'd ever say something so utterly wicked.

Digesting the weight of his own words, I saw the fire in his eyes extinguish as he realized exactly what he'd just told me. For the first time ever, the Cursed King looked terrified and he stood upright slowly as if trying not to scare me away. "I..." he held up his hands in front of him for the second time, eyes lowering to the desk while his claws retracted into his fingertips, "...I didn't mean that."

A heartbeat passed. And then another.

"Just a pathetic Human, huh?" I said slowly, tears falling from my eyes as my hands balled into fists. He opened his mouth. "Don't," I told him, holding up my pointer finger in his direction, and he didn't argue. We both knew meager, empty words could never stitch back what he'd just torn apart. It was over. It was the judge’s gavel hitting the podium. "Just answer me this: If I wasn't your mate and was 'just a pathetic Human'," I paused as I held back a sob, "would you have let the Rogue rape me?—Would you have let it kill me?"

Henrik remained silent and his throat bobbed as he swallowed thickly. His face was hard at the thought and I could practically see the images of me lying in the snow, ripped open and dead passing through his head. But his eyes were as soft and vulnerable as feathers, full of sorrow towards his unspoken truth that had me taking a step backwards as if I'd been physically punched in the gut.

I closed my eyes, forcing out a deep, shuddering breath as my body began vibrating with pure, utter rage and my shoulders were so stiff that they hurt as they held back every sob bubbling in my lungs. The demon had been right. The wool over my eyes had been so thick that I hadn't even realized the person who'd placed it there was my very own husband and mate and I felt like the stupidest person alive for it. Perhaps I was.

"I hate you," I seethed through gritted teeth, my nails digging into my palms from clenching my fists so hard at my sides. I welcomed the pain with open arms, finding physical agony to be much more tolerable than the one possessing my heart. "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you." I shook my head while I chanted that single phrase over and over until it was engrained into my very soul, Henrik's eyes filling with more despair each time I said it. "My people might've gotten a lot of things wrong but they were at least right about one. You're a fucking monster, Henrik, and I hate you!"

With that, I lowered the dam I'd placed between our minds over a week ago and let my emotions flood the bond, wave after wave of molten rage and ice cold sorrow slamming into his very soul, scarring it until it matched the rest of him. And I watched every single one of his flinches, watched him as every moment of pain I'd felt in the last week attacked him in only a couple seconds.

He cried out at the unexpected assault, eyebrows furrowing and one hand clutching his forehead while the other slapped over his heart, and his knees visibly wobbled from side-to-side. My mark seared and pulsed, sensing his distress but I welcomed that too, welcomed it more than I ever would him again.

I stepped over the book like the nothing that it was and stalked up to him, a sick power hungry side of me that I never realized existed feasting on the way he took a few steps backward.

“I trusted you!" I screeched, my voice echoing off of every surface around us while my toes were mere inches away from touching his. "How could you do this to me? I fucking gave you my virtue. I gave you everything I had," I told him, basking in the way his eyes filled with tears for once, hoping that long after this conversation was over he would mourn over what he lost because of his actions. It's not that I wanted him to be in pain. It just felt good to know that perhaps he was experiencing at least a fraction of the torment that I had for such a long time. "I'll never forgive you for this," was the last thing I hissed to him before I turned and brushed past him, marching to the door and yanking it open so fast that it blew a soft gust of wind in my face.

"Raena, please..." I could hear Henrik whimper from behind me, although he didn't attempt try to go after me or say anything further. He just stood there rooted to the floor like the lying coward he had proven himself to be. Although he had fought hundreds of battles, Henrik made it clear to me at that moment that he would never fight for me.

Almost halfway down the hallway, I side-stepped away from a frantic-looking guard who was running so fast that the scent of whatever cologne he was wearing wafted into my nostrils as he passed. He was too preoccupied by the thought of whatever he was anxious to tell Henrik to acknowledge my existence and I doubted he even realized I was there at all. The sound of the guard's sword bouncing against his thigh with each of his steps sounded out throughout the long hallway and only stopped once he reached Henrik's office. After that, I heard him faintly being cut off by a loud growl and I exited the hallway before I could hear what happened next.

All I could focus on were the swirling emotions building up in my abdomen, mixing together until they spread and controlled every part of my mind and body. My breathing was so fast that it was making my head spin until it felt like I was walking through water, tears running down my face and drenching the front of my tunic as I frantically rushed to the main staircase.

I was so consumed by my emotions that I didn't even notice the lights flickering as I passed beneath them, my fingers buzzing with a sensation close to static. Hurt, hurt, hurt, my thoughts repeated frantically. That's all I could focus on: Hurt, hurt, hurt.

Servants, sensing my anger and looking around quizzically at the flashing lights, didn't try to approach me, only willing to send me apprehensive glances before scurrying away or remaining stiff in their places until they could’ve passed as statues. I even spotted the girl with vitiligo scrubbing at the floor beneath Henrik and I’s portrait, who stopped and looked up as if to greet me but froze when she saw my face.

I wondered how many of the servants had known Oriana was alive, how many had smiled at me only to turn around and gossip to their nearest friend about how pitiful and stupid of a Human I was. The thought had me gritting my jaw and glowering straight ahead of me, not wanting to look into anyone's eyes in anger and fear that they would see the agony in mine.

It felt like the entire continent was against me—everyone except Oriana and myself.

I marched up the stairs, my boots heavy against the ground, and straight up to Henrik and I's bedroom, although I didn't plan for it to be ours for much longer. The image of us no longer spending time together hurt my heart but at the same time, I reminded myself about how he had lied about Oriana. Who was to say that every loving glance or proclamation of adoration he ever gave wasn't some part of a larger evil scheme?

A single hot tear, rolled down my cheek at the thought and I held back a cry of anger as I made it to the fourth floor, the sight of it in itself reminding me of Henrik's deceit.

A servant from somewhere behind me gave a shout when a lightbulb from a chandelier suddenly burst, my ears deaf to the sound of glass shattering and pattering against the floor. When I finally did register it, I was too numb to care—too ignorant to notice the factor causing the lights to act in such a way.

When Henrik's bedroom door came into my line of sight, I quickened my pace further, just wanting—no, needing—to have Oriana in my arms or anybody who genuinely gave a damn about me so I could feel some sort of comfort that could potentially chase out the darkness surrounding my heart.

Regret had filled me the moment I'd left Oriana alone with a plate of food that was meant to be my breakfast and the single promise I'd be back soon. I was anxious to see her again and to see that at least a tiny part of my ruined life wasn't completely bad. It couldn’t be if she was in it. It just couldn’t.

Without a single thought, I slammed open the door, my heart leaping into my throat when I took in the sight of a wide-eyed Jerium standing in the middle of the room with his hands on Oriana's shoulders.

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