X. THE PARTING
Isla needed alcohol. A lot of alcohol.
Or sex. A lot of sex would work too.
From her spot atop the infirmary’s roof, skin kissed occasionally by the moonlight that slipped through the cast of clouds and the plume of smoke sent up by the glowing bonfire down below, she trained her eyes across the peeking feat of stone stretched long behind the treetops in the distance. She understood now why newly minted Warriors spent so much time in the bars and what were essentially glorified brothels throughout the Imperial City upon their return home from the Hunt. Lulling one’s brain to rest with booze or distracting it with physical pleasures seemed to be the only way to turn off the thoughts and turn away the memories of that horrid other world that lurked behind the Wall.
No other diversions had yielded her any success. Not talking with friends or her family, not endless pacing, not reading, not card games. The only time Isla’s mind wasn’t directly on what she’d endured in the Hunt, she was thinking about her annoying injury. . . from the Hunt. The Trainee. . . who was still in the Hunt. The marker. . . found by the Trainee during the Hunt. And Kai, who brought on a whole new slew of feelings that made the recollections of the Hunt feel like a reprieve.
But she wasn’t about to ask someone to smuggle her in a bottle of wine or find a stranger to drag into a supply closet for an escape, she had more class than that—she’d wait for the drinking and a casual tryst until she got back to Io—but with her discharge not until noon tomorrow, she needed something to leech some comfort.
And that’s when she went to the moon.
She sighed as she let the lunar glow work its magic, allowed its aura to seep deep into her pores. Beneath it, she finally felt some sense of empowerment. Her lumerosi—which intermingled with a now smaller amount of bandages over wounds that would leave some scarring—thrummed along her body, but their iridescence was faint, duller than it had ever been since her days as a pup. It had to have been related to her difficulty shifting, which according to her doctor—who she’d met upon her return to her room where the physician wore a disapproving look that matched her, also present, father at her disregard for medical advice—would take a while to come back. She’d gotten really hurt, and as Adrien had relayed, the all-around healing would be a slow process.
That news, along with her lingering displeasure from having to see Kai and his Beta again, almost had her flipping the bed. Thankfully, as a positive, she could get some of the wraps taken off of her hand and forearm, and due to her self-approved escapade not resulting in any deterioration, she was free to move where she pleased, as long she stayed on the premises.
The roof counted, at least in her mind.
So, with the marker in her pocket, she trekked up the several flights of stairs alone and broke into the slightly chilled night air, greeted by the moon, the soothing hum of wind, a chorus of prattling insects, and the faint smell of woodsmoke. She found her perfect corner, close to some shadows where she could look on at the people surrounding the fire at a distance and the trees, while keeping herself hidden along the railing. And then she tried to just close her eyes and relax.
To move on. To forget. Just for a second.
Isla had jumped with a sharp intake of breath at the voice. She didn’t need to turn to know who it was. She didn’t need to ask how he’d found her. Instead, she remained silent and glanced up at the night sky, glowering at the Goddess.
Of course, parting with Kai couldn’t have been easy, not a simple, ‘excuse me’ and walk away. Fate liked games. She had a sense of humor. She liked spinning stories—and what better way to have theirs end than the way it began, underneath the radiance of her sister.
The word had been said in a chuckle, a soft rumbling laugh that stirred a few passion-driven emotions inside Isla in spite of herself. One of them, a derivative of what she’d felt when they’d first met, would be far more enjoyable for Kai than the other. But the more potent of the two was her rage.
Still quiet, she brought her hand to the rail.
“What, no smartass remark?” Kai taunted good-naturedly, taking a few steps closer until she could see the outline of him in her periphery. He kept to the shadows. “I’ll admit, the brooding is nearly as arousing as the anger, but you, silent, is also quite unnerving.”
Isla kept her brows from rising, reacting, and bit down on her tongue to fight a snarky retort. He was really going to take this act of his to the end.
“What do you want me to say?” Her tone was even, but the rest of her body betrayed her, nostrils flaring and grip tightening ever so slightly.
Kai wasn’t blind to the actions, but apparently blind to the reasons for them. “It’s nice you got those wrappings off,” he said, softer than his earlier heckling. “Are you feeling okay? Does it still hurt?”
Isla’s lips twitched downwards, but she wasn’t sure for what. Anger? Sadness? He sounded like he actually cared.
She could continue her attempt to act cold—something she doubted she could keep up much longer—and hope he’d get bored and disappear, or she could do what she really wanted.
“I heard what you said about me to your Beta.”
Even just saying it felt like a weight off her chest. She had refused to turn and look at him as she spoke.
“When I introduced you at the Gate?” Kai asked, understandably confused. The bit of concern still lingered in his tone.
The word hung heavy, and the air went still. No whir of wind. No distant crackling of fire. Even the chittering bugs seemed to fall mute.
It didn’t take very long for Kai to put the pieces together. “You—” He stopped himself, finding no need to waste his breath finishing a question. No need to ask how she’d heard or even berate her for the eavesdropping. That was all trivial at this point.
Instead, he sighed and began, in a way one would to a friend—or lover—they’d done wrong, “Isla. . .”
“No,” she repeated, this time sharp, dagger-like. “Don’t Isla me. You don’t get to Isla me.”
“How—” Now Kai went quiet, contemplative. He picked over his words carefully. “How much did you hear?”
Another hush followed her snapped response. Amidst the silence, Kai’s long and careful deliberation, Isla fought to keep her temper in check. She’d let him know how pissed off she was, but she wouldn’t let him take her poise.
“I’m trying to protect you.”
Isla whipped her head around to look at him, breath catching slightly at the sight, simply by nature. But she buried that feeling of connection deep, hid it away in some corner of herself to shrivel and rot.
“Protect me?” Her fingers constricted around the railing until the metal pulled the skin of her palms taut, until it burned, until it hurt. “None of this has been about ‘protecting me’. Just yourself and your stupid title and bloodline.” Her tone earned the ice that colored her eyes; it brought her to the brink of dangerous territory. “What you told Ezekiel is the truth, right? You can’t have me—no, you don’t want me—as your mate because if I became your Luna it would be a disaster.”
“I didn’t say that.” A technicality.
While her anger simmered, Kai remained even-keeled. His restraint—that she was finding increasingly difficult to maintain herself—got even more under her skin.
“I must’ve missed you disagree.” She scoffed. “Questions, unrest. . . how unstable is your Pack if I could screw it so easily just by existing?”
Isla had winced even before Kai growled at her through gritted teeth. She knew she’d gone too far the second she finished the sentence.
Eyes narrowed, a sharp line appearing at his cheek, Kai stepped closer, dangerously close. Enough that a strong gust of wind could throw all of their efforts of the past week out the window. Enough that Isla could see the bright flecks in his eyes, like stars managing to peek through a horde of stormy chaos. Enough that his breath was warm on her face, tickled at her nose, her cheeks, her lips.
Her skin prickled, and her heart pounded with ire and that maddening ‘something else’ that only he could draw out.
“I know it might be difficult for you, but you’re going to listen to me.”
The stern, guttural words, full of assertion and power, mixed with his proximity, proved to be something cruel.
Isla couldn’t stop herself from becoming locked in place, hanging onto whatever left his mouth, focusing on the way it moved. That essence of their bond she’d tucked away was reviving and leaking back through her invisible armor. Kai had to have known what he was doing, or he wouldn’t have risked the distance.
“I don’t know exactly what you heard, or what conclusion that mind of yours is running to, but everything I said in there was for a reason and in your best interest,” he told her, slow, so she could absorb every part of it.
“But he’s your Beta, and he figured it out. Why not just tell him the truth?” As she stated her inquiry, Isla scanned his face, going back on her vow to never scour for his emotions or thoughts again.
When she reached his eyes again, the windows to that piece of him that she innately recognized, that had supposedly been split from her before their time, she concentrated. Followed the dark clouds and starlight until, much to her surprise, for the first time, she felt she found success.
He was nervous about something.
She would’ve thought that it was due to the fact she’d figured out his true intentions. Fear that, out of spite, she’d touch him just to reject him—because it had, admittedly, crossed her mind at the peak of her fury.
But that wasn’t the answer, because she also found honesty, truth. The same conviction she’d seen during the most certain fact spoken between the two of them—that they were destined for each other.
Everything Kai had said to his Beta was purposeful, and it had all been with her well-being in mind. Which made everything so much worse.
“Why do I have to be nothing, and why do I have to be ‘handled’ for you to feel I’m protected? This isn’t just about what I want, and it’s not just about that public unrest either. You’re keeping the truth from your Beta. There’s something else—bigger. What am I missing?”
Kai’s jaw clenched again, a signal she was on the right path.
“It’s not your concern.”
Isla blinked, dumbstruck. “Not my concern? Are you—No.” She shook her head furiously. “No. Not acceptable.”
Kai’s eyebrows rose at her challenge. “Not acceptable?”
“You can’t tell me that you’re trying to protect me, that I’m unsafe somehow, and then not tell me why. That’s not how things work.”
“It’s Pack business.”
“And mine if I’m in trouble.”
“I’m handling it.”
“Is that your favorite phrase?”
Kai gave her a flat look at the retort and then hesitated. He opened his mouth to speak, like the explanation was on the tip of his tongue, but then closed it. “It’s not your place, Isla.”
“My place?” Isla’s laugh came out in an astonished breath. “What even is my place? I mean, really. One touch is literally the only thing that keeps this from being ‘my place’. That keeps us from just making it my place.”
It had been a simple complaint, a simple message, one well-established. The only thing stopping her from reigning at Kai’s side was the fact the two of them hadn’t touched. . . or slept together, but one had to come before the other.
Such a simple gripe she’d proposed, yet, after watching Kai break his stance, shift on his feet, at the mention, one she realized had been the key that she needed.
Isla knew nothing about the intricacies of mates or their bonds. She knew of the technical aspects—the being together for the rest of time, broken apart only by death, and if then, temporarily, the ability to share thoughts without being shifted, the ability to bear children. But all of the emotions and deeper meanings, the intensity of the feelings, she was learning and discovering as she went along.
Kai never seemed to balk. He was always in complete control during those times he’d sent her mind spinning with his words and with his presence, all the while with a cocky grin on his face. Except for the night of the Feast, while he watched as she was touched and bestowed a kiss by another man. Gone was the grin and the composure when she’d found him, completely unraveled, out in the garden. A break that stemmed from the deeply ingrained notion that her body was his and his alone.
Their bond was his weakness too, though manifested in a different way. A more physical way. And if she wanted to disarm him as he did her, if she wanted to bend him to her will, lock him down to get her point across, she had to take control and pull on that innate desire for her. For her touch, for her body, as his.
“How do you think it would go?” she posed the question, feigning some innocence. Though the air seemed to take a new charge.
Isla swallowed and trained her eyes across the surroundings. “I personally don’t think we’d make it off this roof or even waste time taking off all our clothes.”
She flicked her eyes back to Kai, whose gaze had turned suspicious, though a danger lurked beneath. “What are you doing?”
Isla shrugged and pursed her lips. “Just thinking out loud.” She knew there was only so far she could toe the line before something manifested they may not have been able to get back from. “I think one touch and you’d have me up in the air and pressed against that wall.”
Kai released a loud breath through his nose, not breaking their eye contact. He knew the game she was playing—he was a master at it—and yet, he seemed defenseless. She could feel it building already. That same possessive pull. That tether.
Isla kept her voice soft, like the caress of silk—or her fingertips—languid to allow him to absorb every last word, allowing him the time to paint the picture. “I think, just one touch, and I’d be begging you to take me. . . I wonder if I’ll have a hard time keeping quiet. How hard you‘ll have to kiss me to muffle the sound. Or if everyone down at the fire will just have to hear me screaming your name while you fuck me and make me yours.” She broke her next words down to syllables, craning her neck to say in a hush as close to his ear as she could. “Again. . . and again. . . and again.”
She had to stop, not just for his sake, but hers too, judging by the fluttering of her stomach and heat building between her legs.
Kai’s gaze had gone completely dark as he ran his tongue lightly over his bottom lip. He brought it between his teeth, and his eyes flickered down to Isla’s mouth, followed the line of her neck down to that little spot at the crook of her collarbone where he was meant to mark her. His chest rose and fell, deeper, faster, his breath mingling with hers.
Isla caught his hand moving forward in her periphery, almost grabbing at her hip before it stopped. She hadn’t flinched at the action, she’d waited for it, almost leaned into it.
“What do you want, Isla?”
She shivered at her name, said roughly, achingly.
If she was honest, right now—him. She wanted him. All of him. Everywhere. She wanted everything she’d just described. The toe-curling, back-arching, mind-numbing, forget-her-own-name sex that she needed. But she couldn’t have it—never with him—so she stowed away the lust and stood tall, pushed her shoulders back, and took control.
“I’m your mate, talk to me like one. Because even without sealing this bond, you know, you feel, that it means something. That I have my own place of exception.” She took a step back from him to keep her mind unclouded. “You don’t have to speak to me as an Alpha. I understand Pack protocol and that there are rules, I don’t need all of the official details. But I at least deserve to know enough so I can think about protecting myself. If you, as my mate, want me to be safe, truly safe from whatever it is, I need something. Give me something, Kai.”
It was the first time she’d ever addressed him by his name, no formalities. At it, Kai’s eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t comment on it. He just looked off, past her, into the forest, and then paced a few steps away. As he took the moments to gather himself, Isla did too.
Her plan had been risky, but it worked.
“Ezekiel is very by the letter,” Kai explained, finally. “and if there was even the slightest chance of this—of us—happening because I don’t resent you, he’d batten down the hatches to prepare for the potential storm. Your name would be thrown up and down the hierarchy of Deimos like no tomorrow.”
“I. . . I don’t believe I’m seeing the true face of everyone in my Council. I don’t believe everyone has the best. . . intentions. . . for me, so the further away from Deimos and an association with me I can keep you, the better. For my sake and yours.”
Isla fought the urge to ask for more information, who Kai felt distrustful of, why. Her skin crawled at what he was alluding to. It was one of the most heinous methods before regulations were imposed on challenges for an Alpha title—go first for their mate.
Though she and Kai hadn’t completed any type of bond, or really initiated anything without touching, they didn’t truly know, now that they’d met and recognized each other for what they were, what effect the death of the other would have. If someone went after her, after learning that she was the Alpha’s mate, who was to say it didn’t weaken Kai enough to lose a challenge, his title, and his life.
Isla couldn’t stop herself from trying to dive further into it, piecing together what she could. The former Alpha and the Heir had just mysteriously died. And now Kai didn’t trust members of his Council?
“Don’t ask me any more questions,” Kai said, as if he could see the gears in her mind turning. “Right now, you have to just stop being you for a few seconds and trust me.”
“Are you safe?”
Kai let out a chuckle, a light air of disbelief, both for her complete disregard of what he’d said and that she cared. “I can protect myself.”
Isla sighed and gazed off. She had so many questions. . .
“Fine.” Isla looked back up and noted how Kai’s face had fallen into a grimace. “That wasn’t that hard, was it?”
“That wasn’t. . . isn’t.”
She caught the innuendo and felt another rise of heat. She had to stop her wide eyes from wandering down his body. She wasn’t getting all twisted in that again.
“What did you expect talking like that?” Kai mused, noting her bewilderment.
Isla bristled. “I wouldn’t have had to do it if you didn’t make me.”
“Oh, you enjoyed every second of it,” he jeered. “Never thought such wicked things could come from such a pretty mouth.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “That’s because you don’t know me very well.”
“A regret I’ll carry, apparently.”
Back to square one again.
Isla rolled her eyes and spun to face the field, moving forward until she was back at the railing. The people down below were still at the fire, none the wiser to what was occurring up above. It actually made her start to feel a bit shameful, considering they were down there at the flames sending prayers up to the Goddess for the safe return of the remaining Hunters. She was never necessarily fond of the tradition, meant to mirror the pyres burned for deceased Alphas and Lunas, Heirs, leaders, Warriors. Wolves lost in wars and battles. The Fallen.
No one was dead. Not yet. There was no need for the flames.
Isla suddenly felt Kai’s presence as he joined her at her side, though he kept his distance. She gave him a sideways glance, feeling the marker of the Pass still burning a hole in her pocket.
Bad blood. . .
“Why is it so horrible for me to become Luna?” she asked, surprised by an inkling of hurt that crept into her voice. “Why the questions and unrest?”
“Politics.” There was disdain in his tone. “Lunas have come from other Packs, but you’re the daughter of Io’s Beta and have strong ties to its current and future leaders. There would be questions if you could ever fully renounce that Pack membership and shift your full interests to Deimos.”
Politics, though ruthless, didn’t sound like deep-seated ancient grudges. But the Trainee had been so confident in his words, in his warning for her to be careful. She touched the marker in her pocket, felt along its ridges.
“So nothing else? You have no problem with me being from Io?”
“I was two seconds away from claiming you on that terrace before your Liaison came out, and while he went on about seating arrangements all I could think about was if taking you in the restroom after dinner was a horrible way to remember locking our bond—though, in hindsight, maybe not as horrible as the roof of an infirmary.” He smirked to which she gave a dead stare. “But then I met your friends, your family, and I learned about who you were, what you stood for, what you wanted. I meant everything that I said in that garden. I want to do right by you. I want you to have everything that you want, that you’ve just earned for yourself.”
That didn’t sound like much of an ancient grudge either. Not someone to be wary of. It sounded—decent.
Isla chewed on her bottom lip. “And what if what I had wanted was you?”
“No matter what we decide to do with this bond, it’s ours, not an issue to be dealt with by my Council. If you wanted me, Deimos, then we’d make it work.”
Something else that she hadn’t been expecting. That innocent fluttering began brewing in her stomach again, that warmth, that comfort.
What if she had said yes? How different would things have been right now?
As a thought popped in her head, she couldn’t hold back a sharp laugh.
Kai furrowed his eyebrows. “Are you coming up with another way to seduce information out of me?”
“No—I just wish I could’ve seen your Beta’s face when you told him that the insolent, dim-witted woman is one screw away from being his superior.”
Kai broke out in a grin, tilting his head, signalling that it was just as amusing as she’d imagined it would be. “He means well.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“He’s protective of our Pack and of me, and sometimes he oversteps because of it,” he said. “He was my father’s best friend. He’s known me since I was a pup.”
That made sense. An Alpha’s Beta was their choice. Typically, it ended up being the Alpha’s closest friend, their greatest confidant. Like her father and the Imperial Alpha. And what would likely be Adrien and Sebastian—frightening.
“And that’s why you haven’t replaced him?”
“My father was Alpha for almost twenty years with him as Beta. He has experience and connections with the Council I can only hope to maintain as well as my brother would have. . . I’m starting to regret spending more time avoiding Mavec growing up than actually home in it.”
Isla raised an eyebrow, both at his aversion to the city and at the fact he was so freely speaking with her about something that felt so personal. “I heard Mavec’s beautiful?”
“Beautiful, yes, and incredibly suffocating. If your Warrior travels eventually bring you our way—and I’m sure they will—I’d say don’t waste too much time there. Stay at the Starlight in Ifera and spend the rest of the time out in Abalys—not alone though, definitely not alone. Probably have a weapon on hand—and don’t wear anything expensive.” He listed the rules with mirth on his face, a reminiscence. Like he’d done it all before. “And if you end up drinking and playing cards at Talha, stay away from Charley’s table. He’s a cheating bastard, but great if you want a good war story or need a good laugh. He’s won the tavern’s limerick contest the past ten years. . . I’d warn you that the rhymes are quite dirty, but you don’t seem to have much of a problem with that.”
Isla hadn’t realized that as he’d gone on his tangent, the grin on her face grew and grew. His joy had infected her. She’d never seen him speak so highly of something, seen such a spark in his eye. And from what he was describing, she also became exceedingly curious. Abalys didn’t sound like much of a fit for an Alpha, though Kai spoke of it like a home. A reminder that there was so much about him that she didn’t know. . . and would never know.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Isla said, and Kai looked at her, his smile softening. She felt so exposed under his gaze. “What?”
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I realized my mate was at that dinner, but you definitely weren’t it.”
Isla’s smile faltered, but she recovered it quickly, masking with a snicker. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
He’d said it so sincerely that it scared her.
Her breath hitched and those dammed butterflies multiplied. If this were any other man, this would typically be the part she’d kiss him, sweet and soft, an urge she surprisingly hadn’t felt yet with him until now. It was one the simplest and most innocent and yet somehow, being unable to do so due to the circumstances made her feel more empty than anything else.
Kai looked away from her and back out at the field, saying nothing more. He just rested his forearms on the railing and alternated his focus between the fire and the sky. For a moment, Isla felt obligated to cut into the silence, to ask him what he was still doing there, but then stopped herself.
She didn’t want him to go.
So instead, she turned and rested in her spot, her perfect spot, letting her eyes slide closed, listening to the soft sounds of wind and bugs and fire and Kai’s soft breathing. And then finally—not just for one second, but several—under the glow of the moon and with the comfort of her mate beside her, Isla’s mind found peace.
| ☽ |
End of Part I
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