I wasn't quite sure how to tell if someone was my mate. Mom always described it as a rush of emotion. She always said you could practically feel the mate-bond spring to life under the touch.
I felt nothing but familiarity with Erik's touch. Nothing but a friendly reminder of what could have been.
"I always thought.." Erik's voice trailed off, and this time I didn't have to pretend.
I gave him a sad smile, but I saw this coming.
"Everyone did, and for awhile I did too." I took his hand in my own, giving it a light squeeze.
Erik's crystal eyes lingered on my own, many emotions swirling in their depths.
"If you're not my mate..who is?" He sounded so lost. "I'm already nineteen. I should've found her by now."
"You still have plenty of time, Erik." I smiled, "Sometimes you don't need to go looking."
Erik sighed, but didn't take his hand from my own.
"We could still be together y'know." Erik gave me his breathtaking grin, but it didn't reach his eyes. "We've always been good for eachother."
I had been getting offers like this all night, but Erik's felt completely different. I didn't feel like I was being used for power. It simply felt like Erik was lost and was looking for what was most familiar.
"You know why we can't do that." I let a sad smile play on my lips.
Erik was raised the same way as I. Our families cherished mate's and respected the power of the mate bond. No other person could fill the space of your mate.
Erik sighed, but when he smiled again it seemed less forced.
"Our Mom's would never forgive us if we gave up on our mate's." Erik chuckled.
I let out a giggle and nodded, "We'd hear it for the rest of our lives."
"We'll always be close though, right?" Erik's smile wavered as he looked down at me.
"Always", I grinned. "You'll always have me and my Kingdom on your side."
It was risky making those kinds of promises, but Erik was a good person with a good heart.
"And you'll always have me and my Kingdom, even if it isn't much." Erik chuckled.
I shook my head, "Quality over quantity, Erik. I've met one of these Royal's today and I'm not impressed."
"Which family did you meet?" Erik snickered.
In the aftermath of losing my Mom, I had missed Erik's coronation. It's usually custom that other Royal's attend eachother's coronations as a sign of respect. I had no doubt that Erik had become incredibly familiar with some of the other Royal's.
"Bryton Duboi." I said rather dramatically.
Erik's carefree smile dropped, and a weary laugh came from his lips. He didn't look like the little boy I had once held hands with, he looked like a ruler. He held that air of authority around him, even as a look of caution crossed over his face.
"Bryton Duboi." Erik grimaced as he spoke his name, "Stay on your guard around him-"
Erik was cut off by Shannon rushing up to my side.
"There are some very impatient Royal's that would like to meet you." Shannon grumbled.
I gave Erik an apologetic smile, "Don't worry about it. I feel bad for you." Erik chuckled, "I'll catch up with you later and we can continue our conversation."
Erik gave me a strange look, one that told me he wanted to say more.
"Get any weird vibes from these Royal's?" I frowned, glancing around the mess of people.
Shannon grimaced, "Watch out for the sister."
Shannon failed to elaborate when she grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me into the crowd.
She finally let go of my elbow when we approached two very identical people.
I could tell the girl and boy were twins at first glance. The two of them were equally tall and lean. A mess of fire kissed hair sat on top of their heads. Their skin was extremely pale, but was almost translucent under the lighting.
The moment I approached them, the girl's face turned up in a sour grimace.
I could feel Shannon's elbow graze my side, but I kept my eyes on the twins.
"Princess Arabella, pleasure." The red-head girl spoke in her wispy voice, the spatter of freckles on her face moved as her nose twitched.
I plastered on my fake smile and grinned at the beautiful twins, "Pleasure."
"She doesn't even know who we are." The girl scoffed, but was silenced when her brother placed his hand on her arm.
The boy stepped forward, his movement smooth and lithe. While he was tall and lanky, I could feel something strange rolling off of him. Appearances were deceiving and my gut was telling me this guy wasn't someone to mess with.
"August Halifax, princess. And this is my charming sister Annalise." August gestured to his twin.
The two of them were wearing colors that matched, but they both looked as though they had stepped off the runway.
His sister's ballgown was a deep shade of purple, highlighting her slim waist. August's suit was black, but had bits of the same purple thrown about. If they didn't look so eerily similar, one might think they had come as dates.
"August Halifax." I committed his name and family to memory.
"Remember that name." I told Aela.
Aela nodded, "Don't worry. I've got this."
I planned on committing every Royal I met to memory, along with my experience of meeting them.
"And you Princess Arabella, look stunning." August's thin lips pulled back in a smile. Another set of flawless teeth. August extended his hand for my own and shot his sister an annoyed look as she scoffed.
"Why have we come here, dear sister? If not to help the princess find her mate." August sounded annoyed and somewhat tired. His flame colored eyebrow lifted at his sister.
Annalise rolled her eyes, an act that was both annoying and beautiful. "I'm here for the wine. Suit yourself."
Annalise glided away, but left me with one last nasty look.
My eyes flickered down to August's outstretched hand for just a moment. I placed my hand in his own, desperately hoping he wasn't my mate.
I held back the sigh of relief when nothing happened under his touch.
August looked completely unfazed. It was as if we had never touched.
"She's going to be someone to watch out for." Aela sighed.
"I apologize for my sister's lack of manners." August frowned, genuinely looking apologetic. "I'm afraid she's quite jealous."
I couldn't hide the surprise that flashed over my face. My facade had cracked for just a second, but I firmly replaced it after the slip.
August caught the shock in my gaze and gave me a grim smile.
"We're the only set of firstborn twins in over a hundred years. Annalise is just a few minutes older than I, and yet I take the throne." August spoke this with indifference, not a hint of emotion in his hazel eyes.
It was hard to believe some of these Royal's had been taught to hide and cover up their emotions from childhood. It made me feel sheltered an inexperienced.
"She want's to rule?" I questioned. My curiosity was peaked and I wanted to know more. I wasn't sure how much he would be willing to tell me.
August's grim smile returned to his face, "Rightfully so, but my sister and I share different views on certain subjects. It would be.. wise of you to play on my team, and I would do the same."
August's words equally confused and worried me. I could feel the hidden meaning in his words, but had no idea how to decipher it.
August's gaze was stolen as another red-haired man began to approach us. Something strange flashed in his eyes, and he turned to me rather quickly.
His eyes flickered to Viktor, as if he finally noticed he was standing there.
In a move that I hadn't anticipated, August leaned in close to me.
I could feel his liquor stained breath caress my cheek as he hastily leaned in and whispered in my ear.
"There are no length's she wouldn't go to for what she wants." The words rushed from his lips just in time for the red-haired man to approach us.
August lurched back from me, his face a mask of indifference. It was as if our entire exchange hadn't taken place.
"Princess Arabella, I see you've met my son." The red-haired man gave me a friendly smile.
After what August said to me, I was more on guard than ever. I wouldn't let a friendly smile chip away at the mask I had placed on.
"I have." I beamed back up at the man.
The only thing August and his father had in common was the flaming red hair. His father was a large man. What muscle he had was equally covered by some fat, making him look half giant.
A woman with hair so light it almost resembled snow walked up to August's Dad.
"The Sheamus and Elena Halifax, pleasure to meet you princess." August's Dad smiled down at me.
August's Mom looked at me strangely, a look that resembled her daughter.
"Darling, why don't the two of you catch up with Annalise. I'd like a moment with the Princess." Elena gave a sharp smile to her husband and son.
August shot me a look of caution as he strolled away with his Dad.
August and Annalise resembled Elena almost entirely. It was clear they had gotten their hair color from their father, but the rest of them belonged to Elena.
Elena was absolutely gorgeous. Her snow white hair stood out against her pale skin, along with a pair of hazel eyes. She was tall and slim, with the body of a supermodel. Her very being was one of experience and expertise.
"Would you mind scattering?" Elena looked down on Shannon in contempt, and I bit back the insult that had risen on my tongue.
I made my grin sickly sweet as I looked on at Elena, "She's my assistant, and will remain at my side."
I could practically feel Shannon stand taller at my words, and I felt she deserved them more than ever. Shannon had always been there for me, and accepted my request for help without a second thought. The title of assistant was much to small for someone like Shannon, she deserved more.
I would feel the aura of power forming on me, and it wasn't a shock as Elena could feel it too.
Instead of looking frightened, she looked disappointed.
After meeting Annalise and Elena, I'm quickly beginning to learn that the female Royal's were not to be underestimated. I wasn't sure how Mom kept up with it all. It made my heart ache to think of her not being here with me, preparing me for all of this.
"Mm my son is not your mate." Elena sighed, her eyes narrowing as she looked me over.
I tilted my head in ignorance and gazed at her, "A bold thing to assume."
Elena let out a mix between a chuckle and a sneer, "You're much too powerful to be pared with someone like my son. The boy may look like me, but he has his father's wit."
"I don't like her." Aela growled, "I want to hear what Shannon thinks about her."
"You and me both." I nodded.
"He could make a fine ruler some day." I commented, not liking the way Elena talked about her own son.
Elena scoffed and rolled her hazel eyes, "You certainly believe that, don't you? Imagine how different things would be if women were in charge."
I thought about her words for a moment. Yes, things would be different with women in charge. But that didn't mean men were incapable of ruling either. There needs to be a healthy balance between the two. A mutual respect and understanding that women are just as capable as men.
The world needed good, compassionate rulers. Not selfish, demeaning ones.
"As a fellow she-wolf, I thought you might understand our plight." Elena sighed, her face turning down in a frown. While she looked like an oppressed mother, her eyes held a different story. They were stone-like and cold.
"I agree, but perhaps with a few alterations." I nodded, keeping my tone neutral even though Aela and I wanted to rip her a new one.
Elena wiped the false look from her face and looked me over, "You're a bright girl, just like your mother. You can see that we belong on the same team, after all we're going through the same trials."
I tasted the meaning behind her words on my tongue, and felt Shannon's elbow pressing into my side. I wasn't sure what she was trying to tell me, but it felt like a warning.
"I wasn't under the impression there were teams." I confessed, keeping my face an ignorant mask.
Elena gave me a cruel smile, "There have always been teams, and there always will. It's how you get things done."
"And what would being on your team entail?" I asked. I could feel the jewelry on my neck heat up, and a strange sensation rolled in my stomach.
My instincts were telling me something loud and clear.
I was treading on very dangerous waters.
Elena's smile stayed on her face, her eyes were lit up with anticipation. "Oh nothing extreme. You do me a favor, I do you one. We look out for eachother."
The word favor struck a strong nerve in me, and the anxiety that was brewing in my stomach reached levels of an all time high. The jewelry around my neck was practically buzzing.
I knew my next words had a strong chance at making myself an enemy; my first enemy.
"I'm afraid we might not be on the same team, Elena." My face leaked no emotion, and I struggled to keep my eyes the same.
Elena let out a sigh of disappointment, but brimming behind her hazel eyes was anger.
"Oh dear. So young, so impressionable. Soon you'll see how right I am. After all, us she-wolves need to look out for one another." Elena cooed, as if I was some young child who had done something wrong.
Elena made her escape, but not without sending a hard look at Shannon.
I let out the sharp breath I had been holding since talking to Elena.
My insides were a complete mess. I felt anxious, proud, exhausted, and annoyed.
This entire evening had proven my own strength. I had the nerve to play their game, and the will. I might not be experienced, but I was determined to learn.
In the midst of the secrets and deceit, I was certain of one thing.
There was no way in hell I would ever be on Elena's team.