~ PERFUME BOTTLES ~
"My mom was a human, my father Mage. That's all I really know about them other than the fact they had sex because..." Jerium gestured to himself with a funny face that had me smiling. I couldn't recall exactly how we got on the topic of Jerium's past but I didn't mind. It felt relieving to not think about my own for once so I let him rant while I feasted, gnawing idly on whatever my fork landed on. "My mom died in childbirth after my father ran back to whatever place in hell he crawled out from. So, seeing that my mother's family didn't want me, I was left to be raised by two priestesses. They hated me because I'm a hybrid. Humans are funny that way." He paused to take a large bite of his salad with a vinaigrette and gave an audible swallow. "They kicked me out when I turned twelve an' I nearly starved at age sixteen. But then Henrik came right around the time he ascended his throne and found me hiding under a bridge. He spared me and brought me here and made sure I was educated."
I had been surprised at first when Jerium told me he wasn't Lycan, the official word for the species that inhabited the Cursed Kingdom that I learned after Henrik got tired of me using the phrases 'Cursed Ones' and 'his people'. But as I thought more about it, the more it made sense—the more Jerium made sense. Although he'd explained to me earlier that his abilities were limited, ever since I met him, I could feel that indescribable buzzing sensation of magic just beneath the surface of his skin, a sensation that only a person of Mage or Fae descent could produce—or so I'd been told.
"Would you like anything else, Madam?"
I turned my head to face the owner of the soft voice, a young female dressed in a simple black dress and white apron finished with a bonnet on top of her curly hair. Her brown eyes had a tint of gold to them, the only feature that gave away what she truly was.
My eyes swept back to the large plate that had been placed in front of me about an hour prior. At the beginning of Jerium and I's lunch, it had been filled to the brim with all kinds of meats—pork, rabbit, and elk being a few I could identify—and two bowls of green vegetables to accompany it. I had eaten about a quarter of it all and still every plate looked barely touched.
In Amaryllus, I had grown accustomed to eating only one meal a day, a meal that would take everything I earned from doing house chores, such as laundry, patching up torn clothes, and shining shoes, for Julius, who was always generous to throw in an extra silver coin. And in just a couple hours of being in Henrik's castle, I had eaten a typical week's worth of food for me—maybe even two.
Now the consequences of eating too much too fast was finally catching up to me and my stomach churned just at the thought of stuffing anymore inside it, my lungs physically hurting because there was so much food inside me.
"No, thank you," I replied, giving her a soft smile. I took my napkin from my lap, patted the corners of my mouth in a manner that I hoped reflected a proper lady, and placed it beside my plate.
She nodded and did a small curtsy before walking back to her position against the wall, her heels clicking underneath her dress as she did so.
I met Jerium's eyes from across the small, round table and found him smiling while glancing at my hardly touched plate of meat, his eyes full of unspoken thoughts. My hope was that he wasn't guessing I disliked it. The food itself was scrumptious, everything having been cooked that perfect way where the meat fell apart on my fork and almost seemed to melt in my mouth. But it was just way too much, especially for a short and fully grown woman such as myself.
Noticing he had eaten all of his salad, whose bowl was the smallest dish on the entire table, I asked, "Do you want anything?" I waved my hand over the elk steaks and pork ribs. "I hate being wasteful."
"No, no, no," Jerium chuckled, shaking his head and causing me to frown. I didn't see what was funny. I never seemed to around him. It always felt like he knew things I didn't, which I didn't doubt, but it was frustrating nonetheless. "That is all yours, Madam."
I nodded, my hands fumbling with the tie of my robe under the white table cloth. Not wanting to argue or make him feel pressured to eat my scraps, I sighed through my nose and grabbed my glass of cold water. "This is a lovely room," was my attempt at small talk, seeing that Jerium was finished ranting about his life and I could no longer stay silent while appearing casual.
I drank the rest of my half-filled glass of water in one swig, which perhaps wasn't exactly a part of anyone's idea of good manners, but I didn't care at that moment.
He nodded, gazing out the large bay window we were seated next to as if just realizing it was there, and stared at its view of the palace's large garden covered in snow. "It's even better in summer with flowers, green grass, and sunshine."
"I didn't realize you could grow flowers up here," I replied, referring to the high altitude of the mountains, which caused the low oxygen climate to possess a chilly wind almost all year round. We never had flowers in Amaryllus, except for ones we'd craft out of paper and stick in windows, and I always assumed our location was to blame.
"You can," Jerium confirmed, drinking his wine and eyeing me over the rim of his glass. "Did you not have any in your village?"
"No," I said, my stomach feeling heavy and it wasn't because of the food. I bit my lip, thinking back on the atmosphere of Amaryllus, which was always quite dull, even during holidays. If it wasn't snow covering the ground, it was mud, the red kind that stained clothes and got everywhere no matter how careful anyone was. It's why I always preferred winter. "We didn't."
Without hesitation, Jerium said, "Well, then I'll make sure His Majesty arranges for them to be extra colorful this summer just for you."
Summer felt so far away. I couldn't imagine myself settling for staying cooped up in the palace for all those months, reading, eating, and sleeping the time away.
A familiar tickling sensation crept from the back of my throat and into my nose and I quickly grabbed my napkin to sneeze into it, quickly wiping away whatever came out while avoiding Jerium's eyes.
That was the sixteenth time I sneezed since we began eating. I had been keeping count.
"Ok," was all I could muster in a meek whisper with my cheeks burning in embarrassment and my eyes still not daring to meet his, scared they'd find judgment in those otherwise welcoming orbs.
After a moment of silence, Jerium stood abruptly and my eyes followed his movements, startled by the sudden screeching of his chair. "My apologies, Madam Raena. It seems I have overstayed my welcome," he said, his eyes uncertain and almost looking like they were seeing through me, "and now His Majesty calls."
Confused by his last statement, I twisted my head in every direction, expecting to see a sign of the infamous king standing in a corner or right behind me but there was none. It was just Jerium, the servant girl, and myself in that small, cozy room with the fireplace placed in the corner crackling away like tiny, individual bursts.
"Is everything alright?" I questioned warily, slowly making my way to my own feet and ready to run if needed.
"Yes, of course," Jerium told me, his smile clearly forced. "Good day, Madam," he said, not sounding like himself and looking pale. The bruises under his eyes looked more pronounced and I realized that the hybrid in front of me all of a sudden looked very afraid—and sad.
I wanted to stop him. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and hold him down until he answered every question bubbling in my lungs. But I didn't. Instead, I just stood there like a coward and watched his back leave the room and disappear around the corner, my words dying my throat as I stared at the empty doorway. The fact that Jerium left the door open instead of closing it on his way out, as he usually did, added onto the oddness of the situation and put emphasis on how rushed exactly he was to leave.
It didn't make any sense.
Thinking back on the conversation, I couldn't understand where I could've gone wrong to make him want to abandon our lunch so suddenly except for my sneeze. But seeing that it was the sixteenth time I'd done it, I figured he would've left me a lot sooner if my illness was an issue. Then again, I didn't understand Mage or Lycan culture and perhaps I said or had done something inappropriate that made him uncomfortable.
Feeling worried now, I voiced this concern to the servant girl who still stood at the wall. She smiled and shook her head slowly, looking slightly amused by my thoughts.
"His Majesty has the ability to communicate with those close to him through mind," she explained and I think my heart stopped. Just the thought of that sort of power being in the hands of anyone was frightening. Henrik especially. "Don't worry. He probably doesn't have that ability with you yet." She said it so lighthearted and with a smile that I almost thought I had misheard her.
I nodded with thinned lips and somehow managed to thank her before I made my own dash out of the room, now aware and very insecure of every little thought that entered my head.
It was very easy to keep my mind clear, though, as I hurriedly walked through the hallways and down a flight of stairs and to one of the only places I knew where to go.
I thankfully saw only a few servants, who all bowed and referred to me as 'Madam' with wide smiles before bashfully scurrying along to finish their work. I wondered how many of their minds Henrik violated each day.
Jerium explained to me on our short walk through the first floor that the Cursed Kingdom didn't get many visitors, so few that he claimed that he could count on one hand how many there had been that weren't subjects of Henrik's in the past two centuries, which was what I blamed for the palace's staff's excitement. Having a guest that stayed for more than twenty-four hours, let alone a guest of another species, probably made them feel like they had a purpose again.
Still not used to being treated equivalent to a person of higher class, I twice ran right past servants who greeted me with the respectful title of 'Madam' and had to turn around to apologize and explain myself hurriedly. Neither seemed to mind and not one person commented on me being in just a robe either, which I knew for certain was an unusual sight.
Because of the palace's large size, it took me quite a while to reach the library again which was located near the front of the second floor and not that far away from the grand staircase. The particular area of that floor didn't seem used a lot except for the room with a full bar, where apparently the Lords and Ladies from around the kingdom preferred to spend their evenings in while being served drinks by the servants before they departed back for wherever they came from.
With a twist to the brass doorknob, the library door opened and closed with a whine.
My feet carried me back over to the sitting room straight in front of me but stopped when my brain registered the small table. I scanned the chairs, the floor, and couches just to make sure I wasn't remembering something incorrectly but only found myself to be even more confused afterwards.
The book was gone.
The area where I knew I had sat it on the table, in the dead center, was empty.
Even though the place was still as dirty as when I'd first seen it, I wondered if a servant had seen me leave, found it lying there, and assumed I was done reading it so they put it away.
Without hesitation, I hurriedly made my way towards the back of the library where the sun could not reach and the cobwebs and smell of mildew were the thickest. My footsteps were heavy against the old wood which creaked and groaned with every 'thump'ing of my feet.
I turned around the corner and stopped, my shoulders as rigid as stone and my heartbeat began playing a faster rhythm. The room suddenly felt cold and I shivered as I stared at the sight before me, like that out of a horror-mystery novel.
The bookshelf, the same one where I had found the book Galycia, was empty with only shadows in the dust remaining to prove I wasn't insane.
* * *
Henrik's room was on the second to highest floor, the fourth level, and the most inconvenient one to reach with all the stairs and hallways I had to trek through. The journey only added to my frustration and by the time I made it back inside his room, my mind was made up of what I needed to do. Not even the distinct scent of pine that embraced me lovingly when I entered could soothe my emotions.
I grabbed my dress, the blue one Henrik had given me for dinner, off of the chair I had draped it over and then went to the bathroom to grab my new toothbrush and hairbrush I'd been gifted after breakfast. That was all I had been planning to take, all that I thought I had, however I took a pause when I saw that the bathroom counter was now full of new products, all of them feminine and certainly not for Henrik.
Perfume bottles, makeup, deodorant, shampoo, and soaps of all kinds were just a few that I could see from the massive pile on the marble counter. They all looked expensive too, all in glass bottles that were engraved with the names of what they were on the side.
My mind thawed a bit at the sight. It was overwhelming, really, to see so many fancy looking things put together. But eventually a voice in my head whispered reminders of my plan and why I needed to do it.
Gifts or not, they were from Henrik, the Cursed King, the man I was told to fear and I refused to allow myself to take that piece of information lightly. Not listening to the warnings from my elders was the exact thing that got my friends killed and I wouldn't make that mistake again. For them.
I took a deep breath and grabbed as much from the pile as I could, leaving behind the unnecessary luxuries like bath salts. However, I did manage to grab a bottle of perfume out of the dozen options, the one whose bottle resembled a flower.
Before I could change my mind, I forced my feet to turn and walk out of Henrik's room and shut the door, setting my actions in stone.
I didn't know exactly where to go next but I let my feet carry me down the hallway and to the closest stairway, which like the others was made of marble and covered with a navy blue patterned rug, the banner a dark wood with patterns of gold in the center.
By the time I reached the third floor, my arms were tired from awkwardly carrying my things and I hurried my steps towards where I knew there were extra bedrooms. Jerium had shown me this hallway on our tour since there was nothing much else to see.
The first and second floors of the palace were reserved for entertainment purposes and the other three were mostly bedrooms with private areas here and there, such as the room Jerium and I had eaten our lunch in, for guests, royal court members, and the royal family to enjoy. It was odd to imagine that there might've been a time where all those rooms were filled.
Just a right and a left and I'll be there, I told myself, repeating Jerium's tour in my mind, and began holding my breath when I felt the unmistakable urge to sneeze start to reappear.
"Holy sh—" My heart felt like it had skipped a thousand beats by the time I turned around. My hands became sweaty and I clutched my items closer to my chest, like somehow they would protect me from whatever this male could do to me.
Henrik's calculating eyes scanned me up and down. He looked calm yet angry, a destructive combination, with his eyebrows lowered so much that they cast shadows over each of his eyes. "Are you displeased with my room?" he asked, his voice so quiet, like a haunting whisper. It scared me more than if he would've yelled at me.
"It's not the room I'm displeased with," I replied curtly, hoping I appeared as confident as I was trying to. "It's not appropriate for me to be sharing a room with a man," I explained, hating how I couldn't read his expression but I knew for a fact he could read mine. "Especially a king," I added shakily and I knew my facade of confidence was gone and replaced by my true emotions: uncertainty, frustration, and perhaps even fear.
That caught his attention and his eyebrows raised in surprise. His eyes, however, remained dark.
"So it's my title you're unhappy with?" Henrik accused, starting to take steps forward. His stride was long and it startled me how close he was getting all of a sudden. One second he seemed to be standing in front of the stairs and now he was so close I could make out the stitchings on his coat.
"No," I said quickly. "It's just inappropriate."
"What's inappropriate?" He said it with a smirk so I knew he was mocking me.
"Us sharing a bed together," I said, so frustrated that I could feel a headache begin to blossom against my forehead. "And it's weird and uncomfortable and..." I trailed off my rant, my brain too muddled to be able to come up with another word on the spot.
Henrik stopped nearing me at the word "uncomfortable." He didn't look angry anymore, but he wasn't happy either. I didn't know what he was.
He just stood there for a moment, watching me. I felt like an ant under his gaze, small and helpless and incapable of defending myself if he decided to crush me under his shoe like I knew he desired.
"Well my apologies," he drawled, face hardening. I hated that look. "From how you slept so soundly, I thought you were most comfortable. But I see I read you completely wrong." I could've sworn I heard a growl through those elongated canines of his. "Might I suggest the third suite down that hallway on the right? If you find that one isn't to your liking either, the one across the hall should more than suffice."
Without wasting another second, Henrik turned on his heels and walked back down the stairs, not allowing me anymore of his acknowledgement. I watched the back of his dark curly hair disappear around the corner with only the shortest glimpse of the scarred side of his scowling face.
I hated that I felt guilty about what I was doing. I felt stupid for it.
He's the king, a voice hissed, so cruel that I was surprised that it came from inside me. You're not the first and you won't be the last gullible female to wind up in his bed. And I believed it. I really, really did.
So I turned to walk towards the guest hallway and made my way towards the third door on the right, praying a peace of some sort awaited me there.