XV. THE GIVEN
Kai's words tolled Isla like a bell, clanging through every part of her mind, her body. The sentence running rounds, as if on the seventh repetition, it would be less jarring. It would make more sense.
Her arm had gone stiff at the side of his face, her fingers trembling a mere inch from his cheek. So close that one wrong move, one spasmed muscle, one particular strong gust of wind, and she’d touch him. Finally know what had eluded—what would forever elude her—in the true feel of his skin against her own.
Still possessing some coherence—even though she craved feeling something warm and real to tell her this wasn’t all some other waking nightmare—she lowered it shakily to her side. Fear played menacingly at her feet, like a feral cat circling its prey.
There was a killer here.
There was a killer here, in these woods.
One who’d taken down not just an Alpha, but also his Heir, and gotten away with it. Unseen, unscathed.
“H—how do you know?” Isla choked out the question before she could stop it. “What is this?”
And, Goddess, why were they still standing out here?
Kai’s eyes returned to her face. He took in her stunned silence, her surely aghast expression, and for it, his own features shifted. Steel and iron re-forged, as if him masking the rage and grief from the surface would do anything when she so freely felt it through what linked them. What had been twining with every second they spent in proximity.
“It’s a message,” he said. There was a strain in his voice. A hesitance.
Isla whirled to take in the tree’s surface again. She clocked every single curve and symbol etched into the bark, doing what she could to see beyond the claw marks made, she was sure, by her mate’s hand. But she couldn’t discern a thing. Not one bend or loop or—were these even supposed to be letters?
Her hand lifted to graze the timber, but she halted. “What does it say?”
“I don’t know.”
She whipped back around to Kai, eyes wild in confusion. “You don’t know?”
“You’re certain, Alpha?” Ezekiel’s question was spoken so evenly it nearly rang as a statement. The Beta hadn’t moved from his spot. His face, like Kai’s, was set like stone, and Isla wondered if all who hailed from Deimos were specialized at wearing it when chaos was upon them.
“Yes,” Kai said.
“Did you see them?”
“No. I just—I heard—I felt. . . I knew.”
Kai’s jaw tensed, and his lips threatened to rise in a snarl as anger shone in his eyes. It was as if the moment was about to consume him again, the realization of who and what this was. Isla could feel it bubbling, burning through her in a way that almost made her want to keel over, but she weathered it, wouldn’t let it show that it was having any effect.
At her voice, Kai met her gaze again and his eyes scoured her face for what felt like forever before, thankfully, he relaxed. Isla could’ve sworn there was a flash of guilt across his features.
The words ‘are you okay’ sat on the tip of her tongue, but they felt trivial at this point. Instead, she asked, “Should we still be out here?”
Kai dragged his hands over his face before moving to push his hair back to no avail. “They’re gone.”
Relief and doubt collided in a way that made her dizzy. “How do you know that?”
Kai lowered his arms. “Because I do.”
Isla kept her features from twisting into a scowl.
Here he was being vague again, but before she could be annoyed by it, she saw his reasons. Kai had been right in his assumptions earlier. If she’d known who he was going after, there wasn’t a chance she’d leave his side, and she probably wasn’t equipped in her state to take on one capable of killing an Alpha. But why was he being so ominous now? What about how he knew still put her at risk?
As if he could see the inner workings of her mind, Kai’s eyes hardened in the same way they had before, as if saying yet again, I need you to trust me.
“Do you think they know about her?” Ezekiel cut into their silent staring.
Kai turned back to him, body tensing as he thought. He released a breath, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
Foreign tendrils of fear kissed Isla’s bones again as Kai absently moved another inch closer, as if shielding her once more.
The Beta’s eyes narrowed between them, and his tone dripped with suspicion. “And you’re certain you aren’t bound in any way?”
“Not permanently,” Kai said.
“The ties will fray in time,” Isla chimed, almost in a reassurance to herself. Kai glanced at her, donning the slightest look of what seemed like stunned pride. She offered a small uptick of her lips, before saying dismissively, mock-conceit coloring her words, “What? I listen.”
Again, the exchange was watched with a keen eye, and again, Ezekiel fell into that tense quiet. He cocked his head away from them, scouting the forest. Isla did the same. Kai too. Until—
“We should take her with us.”
“Excuse me?” Isla felt a twinge in her neck from how fast she’d snapped her head back.
“What?” Kai echoed her confusion.
“If what I just saw is any indication, you’re vulnerable like this, Alpha.” Ezekiel kept his voice low. “Only days ago you could sense her torment during the Hunt, and it made you turn back and risk everything. Now, it seems in your ‘nothingness’, you’ve grown even closer.”
Isla had barely heard the tailing end of his statement—the unfortunate observation that she may have been able to argue a truth, though they still remained very much in the dark about each other—and instead, focused on what came before it.
She looked to Kai, eyebrows drawn. “You could. . . feel me—during the Hunt?”
How could that have even been possible? They’d barely interacted but three times before then, and certainly hadn’t been as close as they had recently.
Kai let out an exasperated sigh, as if he’d never wanted her aware of it. “Vaguely.” The quick glower he sent his Beta’s way only supported the notion. “I knew when you started fighting the first one, so I waited and tracked you. I stayed out of your way and only interfered when needed.”
“She is a weakness.”
Ezekiel spoke before she could entertain Kai’s words. He earned mirrored scowls from the both of them.
“Your weakness,” he clarified, “as long as you are bound in a way that she offers no strength at your side. Fraying or not, in the scheme of an enemy trying to cripple you, you’re nearly as good as mated right now. If we bring her to Deimos, we can keep an eye on her until your bond is truly nothing but a memory.”
“Are you insane?” Isla gritted out.
“I’m looking out for my Alpha and his mate,” Ezekiel said pointedly, not doing well to mask his resentment in his typical air of arrogance. “Although you’ve eddied some of the responsibilities per your ‘agreement’, there are some that must be upheld.”
Isla ran her tongue agitatedly over her teeth. “Where would you ’keep an eye’ on me in Deimos? You don’t even want anyone to know I exist.”
“There are some safe houses throughout the region. You’ll be kept there until it’s determined things are sorted.”
“So I’d be a prisoner.”
“Those houses are far from a prison. You’d be given everything you need—food, water, and someone would come through every few—”
Kai, likely sensing how irate she was becoming, took a step forward, placing himself nearly between them—the two people meant, in a way, to be at his right and left hand. The two meant to advise and mediate him—not be mediated themselves.
He raised his arms in a motion to mollify them. “I think we’ve progressed beyond the times of kidnapping maidens.”
Isla folded her arms and tilted her head. That was. . . debatable. . . but she’d let Kai go on.
“So what do you suggest, Alpha?” Ezekiel asked.
“We move forward with what our plan always was.” She couldn’t help but notice the easy emphasis he’d put on those two words—we. . . ours. Kai pointed to himself and then to Isla. “Deimos, Io.”
In the pause he’d left, she finished, “Forget.”
Kai nodded, that satisfied look passing over again. “And we need to start now. There’s a chance whoever this is has no idea who you are, and we have to capitalize on it. I don’t know if they’re coming back, or how or why they’re here at all. I’ll be around until morning in case anything—happens.”
“You won’t,” Ezekiel said, earning raised eyebrows. “We have to return to the Pack immediately. It’s why I’d come out to find you.”
Terror flickered in Kai’s eyes. “What happened?”
“Emergent word from the Council—matters that can’t wait for us until the late afternoon,” Ezekiel explained. “We must be back by dawn. They’ve already sent transport that should be here within the hour.”
Isla’s interest piqued at the mention of Kai’s Council, laden with members he was distrustful of.
“What happened?” Kai repeated, a bit more forcefully.
Ezekiel didn’t answer, instead, he looked towards Isla, and she knew.
“Pack business,” she answered for him, wishing she could wipe off the small upturn of his mouth that followed.
“Zahra’s alright, I’ve been assured,” he told Kai. “The Guard is with her twenty-four-seven.”
Isla could practically feel the relief that washed over her mate, and soon, she realized, Zahra was the name of his mother. Another fact she could add to the list of the few she’d gathered of him.
At the thought of the former Luna, Isla’s insides felt heavy, and as she raked her eyes over Kai, the sunken feeling only got worse. How could she have let it so easily slip her mind the sheer weight of everything Kai, his mother, and even Deimos as a Pack, had been dealt? A family destroyed, entire community foundations shaken. . . she couldn’t even imagine.
She was overwrought with the urge to apologize, to do—something—but before she could, Kai told Ezekiel, “Walk her back. I’ll meet you at the Pack Hall.”
“No,” Isla said immediately, as it dawned what that meant. “You’re not going to be alone.”
At her concern, Kai smiled in an almost endeared way, at odds with what he was presenting. “They could’ve tried to kill me already, but they didn’t. It’s something else I don’t know the reason for, but they don’t want me dead.” He snickered, adding with a hint of humor, “Not yet, at least.”
“That’s not funny,” Isla said, an uncharacteristic woefulness in her voice. “I don’t like this. It’s not. . . safe.”
Kai’s head jerked back, his eyebrows shooting up in mock-surprise. “Do you actually care about me?”
Isla narrowed her eyes, snipping, “Don’t be a dick.”
Kai’s teeth flashed again. “And there she is.”
Isla grumbled in response, though the gentleness with which he spoke she wished she could wrap herself in. He squared himself off in front of her, blocking her and their mouths from Ezekiel’s view. Though they weren’t far, and the Beta would surely hear everything they said. Still, it felt like they were the only two people out here.
Kai had gone serious. “I’m really going to need you to cool it with the Warrior princess act for a few hours.” Upon her even further flattening eyebrows, another smile threatened his mouth. “Are you going to be alone?”
Isla shook her head. “Adrien and my brother are meeting me in my room.”
Kai took in a deep breath at the mention, jaw tensing slightly, before he said, “You trust no one but your family until you’re back home, safe and away from this place. Away from me. Promise me.”
Isla bit her lip as she fought off the protests roaring in her skull, fought off her instinct, her wolf’s, to protect him. “Fine.”
He leaned a little closer, unwittingly or intentionally pulling those threads. “Promise me, Isla.”
She didn’t know why he needed to hear her say it, but she obliged. “I promise.”
She could see in his eyes that it wasn’t enough—nothing would be enough to convince him everything would be okay—but still, he backed away and turned to his Beta. “Ezekiel.”
“As I would defend you, Alpha,” the older man said, and Isla was sure the words grated his tongue.
As Kai turned to begin walking away, Isla realized what was happening—what was finally happening—and her stomach bottomed out.
“Goodnight,” she said, in a rush, the word falling from her lips without a thought. She couldn’t get herself to say the alternative, what she’d stood by so vehemently earlier—goodbye.
Kai halted, and as he had before, trailed his eyes over her, long and slow, taking her in one last time. Her—drenched and covered in mud and twigs and blood, probably cut and bruised.
This would be the final image of her in his head—wretched, absolutely wretched. Not a queen needed or a queen deserved.
But Kai still smiled, genuine and soft, in a way that warmed her cold bones, a way that gave that tether one last tug. “Goodnight.”
And that was it.
| ☽ |
Isla and Ezekiel had moved in stealthy silence through most of their trip back to the infirmary. The storm had died down by the time they broke the barrier of the forest, finding themselves in the open field just before the establishment’s walls. An easy patter of droplets fell onto Isla’s skin, and she used it to scrub away some of the dirt on her face with her free hand. The other was wrapped around the new fallen limb she’d acquired, which hung in her grip just as heavily as her sopping clothes that made it feel like she was moving through quicksand. The night was their cloak as they trekked, the moon, maybe blissfully, masked by the remaining dark storm clouds to keep them unseen amidst the barren area.
When she’d rubbed her cheek so much she felt the burn of skin-on-skin and the grit of sand, Isla brought her hand back to her side, forcing herself not to look upon it—not to attempt picturing those golden strings—but even as she glanced at the Beta of Deimos for a distraction from her mate, Kai’s voice was the one she heard in her head.
“He’s protective of our Pack and of me, and sometimes he oversteps because of it. He was my father’s best friend. He’s known me since I was a pup.”
Ezekiel was yet another person that she hadn’t thought much of, who’d been caught in the wake of the tragedy. For as horrible and obnoxious as she felt the Beta was, she couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she spoke softly, out of courtesy and to also lessen some of the tenseness that always held between them.
Ezekiel gave her a sideways glance, his eyebrows raised mildly in shock. The thanks that followed was muffled and low, but present.
Then everything was quiet and rigid again.
In the silence, Isla’s mind became a mess, questions of every sort swirling, wave after wave crashing so hard against her, she could barely keep herself afloat.
Before, Lukas was the problem. The Bak was the problem. Her finding her mate was the problem. But now, everything had circled back to the query that had haunted her mind and baffled not just her, but the entire Realm before she’d even stepped foot on Callisto’s territory—
What the hell had happened in Deimos?
“Does the Imperial Alpha know?” she asked Ezekiel, a foolish action she was sure, but she was too tired to care, too overwhelmed. “About Kai’s father and brother being. . . murdered?” The word made her gut twist.
Ezekiel went stiff, as expected, rattled by her question. He pressed his lips into a thin line before seething, “The former Alpha and Heir.”
The chastisings from her Elder tutors of the past echoed in the back of her head. It forced a sigh from her mouth.
She would give him that, the titles. It was a matter of respect.
She clamored to find her way back to that lady-like poise she once portrayed so well, but even still, a rasp slipped through with her annoyance as she corrected, “The former Alpha and Heir.”
If the Beta had been pleased or displeased, he didn’t show it. He was silent for a few moments before he answered, “Yes.”
Isla started, thrown off by the response to a question that she’d already had a vague idea of the answer to.
She recalled what she’d last heard from Adrien. According to him, the Imperial Alpha hadn’t heard any reports of what had happened at all. Just that they’d—died. His father usually kept Adrien in the loop about everything, so he could see and understand the true scope of what it meant to be a leader, especially one as he would have to be. The unforeseen murder of an Alpha and an Heir—it was unprecedented. Why keep that from him?
Isla gnawed on the inside of her cheek, pushing the thought away. “Are they looking into it?”
Ezekiel’s laugh was of genuine disbelief and maybe the slightest amusement. “You really are a presumptuous girl.” Despite his dig, he went on to humor her. “The Imperial Alpha is meant to keep order with all of us, but first and foremost, he leads Io. Which means to keep your Pack on the pedestal it rests, the lesser Packs must remain just that—lesser. Chaos and strife in our dominions are only addressed if it threatens your land or the Realm’s Hierarchy. Even the Warriors, our Realm’s strongest and most elite fighters and strategists are weapons at his command, to be dispersed where and when he sees fit.”
Isla regretted asking, because every word out of his mouth, every word spoken with that tone, roiled her. Set her blood on fire, made her wolf shudder.
The way he’d framed it. . .
She understood well the scheme of the Packs—how Io rested at the top of the Hierarchy, how actions she wasn’t entirely privy to had been done in the past—the far, far past—to maintain it. But now. . . things weren’t like that anymore.
“Our duty is to protect all wolves,” she battled one of his points, the one that had felt the most personal. “We serve the Realm, not the Imperial Alpha.”
Another sharp chuckle escaped his mouth. “The fact you cannot see that there is no difference proves to me that you are doing us a favor in forgoing your role as Luna.”
In that moment, she swore her wolf howled. Grinding her teeth, Isla forced herself to move a little faster to get ahead of him, then swung the limb out, parallel to the ground, using it as a bar to block Ezekiel’s path. Now halted, she slowly moved so she was in front of him and pressed the branch to his chest, making sure there wasn’t enough force to hurt, but enough that he’d remember it was there.
That she was.
“It would do you well not to forget that fact. That I’m choosing to forgo my role,” she seethed, pushing slightly to emphasize her words. “Because maybe one day, I’ll change my mind. Maybe I’ll come to your precious Pack to claim what’s rightfully mine, and you won’t be able to do a damn thing about it while you’re down on your knees bowing to me.” She threw the branch down at his feet and turned on her heel. “I can go the rest of the way myself—Beta.”
As she began her walk, Ezekiel’s laugh rumbled behind her. “Maybe they don’t teach this in the Imperial Pack.” The name was filled with pure, unbridled malice that made her pause. “But it would do you well to remember, Luna, everything given can just as easily be taken away.”
And though his words sent a chill down her spine, possessing the faintest air of a threat, Isla continued forward.