The Alpha and the Warrior

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XVIII. THE HOMECOMING

Whatever had been on that blade had to be some kind of liquid fire. It seared through every bend and curve of Isla’s being, had her cursing anything and everything in the universe.

The way she was jostled with every step Adrien dragged her down through the stairwell. At the glow of the lights they passed on their descent. At how loud it all seemed around her—his footsteps, her heartbeat, his breathing, the echoes, the opening door. Her wolf was fighting—against what, she wished she knew—but the battle was leaving her body oversensitive and on high alert. And not only that, but she could’ve sworn that with the trauma, those lost pieces of herself reformed. Recaptured in a tether desperate to keep her rooted to this earth.

Or maybe she was going crazy. Whatever was on that knife—which she worked hard to position in a way that she wouldn’t accidentally impale or touch she or Adrien—working through her. To poison her mind. To drive her mad.

Either way, all of it was good—the pain, the odd sensations—because they distracted her from what lied above.

What she’d done.

The hallway Adrien had brought them to was just as dark as the one they’d left. Either the third or fourth floor, she assumed. Not her room.

He pushed open one of the doors and brought them inside, clicking on the light on the wall. Isla cringed at the sudden brightness and groaned as he placed her on the cold surface of an examination table. She dropped all she’d taken to the metallic tray sitting at its side, the items clanging as they met it. The ring of the blade hit her hardest, making her wince.

“How bad is it?” Adrien asked, ignoring the lot, sounding more panicked than she’d thought he’d be. He’d seen her much, much worse very recently.

“I’m fine,” she tried to abate him, though she wasn’t entirely confident in the statement. She inched up the table on her own accord, saying off-handedly, “It just hurts.”

“Because you were stabbed, Isla,” Adrien said blatantly. “He attacked you. I should’ve never let you—”

She let out a strained sigh, cutting him off. “He just nicked me.”

“How did he even get to you? I thought he was restrained.”

“I thought so too, but they were—cut.” Her eyes went to the dagger, and right at that moment, the door flew open. Her heart leapt into her throat, expecting guards or her father.

But it was only Sebastian, who was somehow able to find them.

His eyes widened when they fell upon his sister, shirt bottom torn with blood smeared over her stomach and hands. “What the hell? What happened?” The door slammed behind him.

Isla made a movement and sound for him to quiet down, while Adrien answered, “He stabbed her.”

A look of murder took to her brother’s face.

“He didn’t stab me,” Isla said, fighting to sit upright and failing. “It’s a graze. There’s just something on that blade.” At her words, Sebastian brought his eyes down to the glinting metal. Isla painfully threw a hand up as he reached for it. “Be careful!”

Her brother took hold of the weapon and held it up to his face. Malice still shone in his eyes, and the same lividity flashed in Adrien’s at the sight of it. Now Isla could really see what it was. Beneath its coating of blood, the hilt was an ivory, entirely, from the guard to the pommel. The grip was made up of studs and corded patterns, but they were so steeped in crimson, she couldn’t make much of them from afar.

As Sebastian examined it, he turned it in his hands, catching every angle, balancing it to test its weight. “How the fuck did he get this?” He brought it back to the table, and his eyes flitted over the book and the marker carelessly. He didn’t even bother reaching for them. There wasn’t pause for her to answer before he appended, “And why the fuck did you take it?”

Isla wished she could’ve grabbed all of the items and hid them away, had some method of washing their existence from the boys’ memories. At least until she knew exactly what she was looking at. Until she could gather her bearings and have a handle on the situation.

The writing in the book was the same kind as on the marker—that was simply her theory, until she could confirm it. And if that happened. . . well, she didn’t know what she’d do. But confirmation had to come first.

“I wasn’t going to leave it there with him,” she said, before her mouth snapped shut.

Like a tidal wave, reality crashed over her.

With him—Lukas—who she’d left unconscious and bleeding out on the floor.

Whose body she’d clawed into.

Whose blood was on her hands. Her hands.

Chest heaving, Isla looked down at the stained palm not attached to her side. A crimson concoction of them both. “Oh, Goddess,” she breathed in panic, before looking up at the boys. “Did I kill him?”

Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up, not having been clued in on the entire story yet. He looked to Adrien who wouldn’t look back, but the shift in their friend’s facial expression was enough to tell her brother not to interrogate.

Neither had asked her to rehash the entire situation yet, she realized. Adrien had seen what he’d seen and dragged her out. Sebastian just accepted what he saw, ready to do whatever had to be done with as little information as he’d been given.

“He’s probably fine,” Adrien said.

“He survived over a week in the Hunt and the Bak,” Sebastian offered blindly. “You, of all people, aren’t going to be the one to do him in.”

Now Adrien turned his way, flashing a look that said, are you kidding?

Isla would’ve matched it if she wasn’t so horrified by it all. If the image wasn’t re-materializing in her mind. If she couldn’t feel the weight of him on her chest, the tip of a blade on her side. She shook her head to rid herself of it. To compartmentalize, as she’d been taught in training.

Focused and calm. She had to be focused and calm. Maybe not for the rest of the day, but for a few hours at least.

Determination written across her face, Isla finally got herself into a sitting position.

Adrien moved a step closer. “Let me see it.”

Reluctantly, Isla slowly removed her hand, subtly cocking her head away to solely focus on her friend and not whatever lie beneath. She hissed at the removal of pressure and watched as his eyebrows shot up. Horror flooded her heart. “What is it?”

Adrien blinked, and Sebastian joined him in observation. She winced as Adrien’s fingers brushed over her skin, while her brother said, astonished, “You’re healed.”

“What?” Isla snapped her attention to her side, gazing a few inches below her ribs where the pain was worst. Just as Sebastian had said, the area was smooth, free of any injuries. But she still felt it. Her body battling. Her—

“It still hurts,” she said, brushing her own hand over the planes of the skin. “My wolf—it’s—something’s wrong.”

Sebastian was examining the knife again, his jaw tight. “Is it wolfsbane?”

Terror coursed through Isla again.

It would take copious amounts of the poisonous root to kill her, but it could severely hurt her wolf. In archaic practices, it was used to aid those who couldn’t control their shifting, but now, it was outlawed through the Realm.

Adrien shook his head. “You could smell wolfsbane if it was on something like that. It would mess with her healing too. There would be a scar.”

Sebastian looked away from the weapon. “Then what is it?”

“Maybe you re-aggravated something from the Hunt.”

That wasn’t the answer. Isla knew what that felt like. This was entirely different.

She recalled how Lukas had also recoiled at the blade’s touch, but she wouldn’t speak on it. She wanted them to drop the subject. For now. Just, for now.

Sebastian went to sit in the chair meant for a physician, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Did he say anything worthwhile at least? Before he attacked you?”

Isla swallowed. The most meaningful words had come while he was attacking her.

“He said if I killed you, he’d let me out. . .”

Isla replayed everything that he’d said to her. Everything she’d said to him. Looped over her name said with a grit and—disdain.

Had he actually remembered her. . . or had he just been told who she was? The girl with wheat-gold hair who’d spoken with him at the Feast, who’d been with him behind the Wall, who would, without a doubt, try to visit him.

Her veins roiled with a mix of rage and fear.

Whoever had given Lukas these things knew her. Had told him to kill her.

But she found a twisted comfort—she had to, to maintain any even-keelness—in the notion that whoever wanted her dead was too much of a coward to do it themselves.

He. Who was he?

The only person who knew—who knew many things she’d been seeking—was Lukas.

It would be horribly idiotic of her to try getting back to him. Hands down, the worst, least thought-out idea she’d ever had—and she’d had many of those. But there was that clearness in his eyes before he’d gone limp. Something had been. . . different.

“Isla?”

Isla snapped her head up to find Adrien and Sebastian eyeing her expectantly.

“He just said a whole lot of nothing,” she explained. “He doesn’t remember a thing from before the Hunter shifting and woods that emerged from darkness. Not me, not the Bak, not the m—” Isla cut herself off before mentioning the marker. “It’s all nothing.”

| ☽ |

Isla had told the boys that the marker and the book were her’s. Not exactly what they were, but simply describing them as her “things”, saying she’d dropped them when Lukas had jumped her.

They’d accepted the explanation, though with some suspicion, but weren’t as forthcoming with her aversion to their plans of turning over the dagger. The proposal had come with the realization that they may have been screwed anyway, with Isla’s scent flooding the room and her blood on the floor. At least, something decent could come of their attempt at helping him, and they could figure out what had been on that blade. But Isla wasn’t ready to hand it over. It felt important—all of these things did—and she had to keep hold of them.

So, she’d convinced them that she had been able to keep her scent masked and that her blood hadn’t gotten anywhere but on her own person. Never mentioned that Lukas had known her name. And that was enough chance for them.

But she didn’t dispose of the weapon as she’d told them she would.

No, instead, she’d gone back to her room. She’d compartmentalized. Told herself that everything was fine—that Lukas was, even though she had no idea what was going on—and washed the blood from the dagger with a rag, careful not to touch the blade’s surface. Then she shoved it, wrapped in one of her shirts—along with the marker and the book that had been damn near impossible to cleanse—to the bottom of her travel bag that had already been packed with her things from her hotel room by Adrien.

And then she was discharged.

And life went on as normal.

Nurses making their rounds through the halls. The occasional visitors to see patients. No extra security or guard.

It was as if nothing had happened at all.

Isla wasn’t sure if she should’ve been unnerved or grateful for it.

She did know that it took everything in her not to turn back. Not to scale those stairs until she reached the fifth floor to behold the aftermath. To repent for—

No.

No, Lukas was fine.

He was fine.

She repeated those words over and over until she reached Callisto’s Hall. Because it was noon, and time for her to leave this Pack, and as many memories of it as she could, behind.

Many of those from Io who’d come for the Feast and to witness only the descent of the Hunters had already returned to the Pack and to their duties. The only few that Isla knew remained within the territory were she, Adrien, Sebastian, her father, and a few other members and officials. All of them were supposed to depart today, but as Isla boarded the scarcely populated transport vehicle, parked in the Hall’s long driveway, she realized her father was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Dad?” she asked Sebastian, who’d made a home lounging in the back, spread across two seats, prepared to sleep for as much as the near day’s long journey as possible.

“He still has things to take care of here,” he told her.

“What kind of things?” she asked, figuring the answer she’d receive.

But that wasn’t quite what she got.

“Things he won’t even tell me about.”

Isla’s eyebrows shot up, and she ran her gaze along her brother’s face. A skilled liar through and through—but she could tell he was being honest. A selfish part of her liked that they were both clueless, but the rest had gone rigid as her mind ran wild. She glanced out of the windows and in the direction of the infirmary in the distance.

Maybe they were screwed.

“I’ll see you in prison.”

She whipped around to glare at her brother and his ill-timed quip just as he closed his eyes and leaned further back in his seat.

Adrien boarded about ten minutes later, taking the spot a row behind Isla, but in her eye-line. He hadn’t heard anything about Lukas either. But unlike her brother, she clocked something unspoken in his stare. She didn’t press on it though. Not here, with others. Not here, when the vehicle had already revved to life and set them off on their journey back home.

Isla could tell how close they were getting to Io by the feel of the heat and the increasing humidity. Summertime in their homeland could be damn near insufferable sometimes, and the weather was not bound by borders. Even if they hadn’t crossed into their territory yet, the cabin of the car was starting to become uncomfortable. The only form of cooling within the confines was the open windows and the air rushing through them. Isla had taken off her shirt, leaving her in the tight camisole she’d been wearing underneath that cut just above her midriff. The boys had stripped off their tops too, Sebastian dousing his fabric in water and putting it on his head.

Overdramatic, she’d thought at first—until she became dizzy from the heat. But she had too much sisterly-pettiness to copy his action.

The ride was full of bumps and rocky patches, making it hard for Isla to find any type of rest as her leaning head ricocheted off the window more times than she’d like to admit. So much she swore she had a bruise on her scalp beneath her hair. Her entire body ached from the rumbling, including that nagging in her side.

At a stop they’d made at one of Callisto’s outer posts to fuel, and while most were either sleeping or hadn’t bothered to move, Isla had taken the opportunity to get out and stretch her legs. Not drifting too far, and not as fearful out here of what could dwell in the shadows.

The moon had been half full tonight.

As she gazed upon it, a mix of light and darkness, she absentmindedly traced a finger over the creases of her opposite palm. Drawing out strings. . . the fraying strings. The threads stretching and falling apart with every mile.

When Adrien had packed her bag, he’d also packed away her gown from the night of the Feast—horribly, she’d noted, but that wasn’t what got to her.

The fabric still held the scent of that night. The lingering smell of the flowers from the garden, and the faintest essence of warmth and woods and spice and everything entirely Kai, who even then knew how to get close enough to test their limits.

She’d breathed it in deep—too deep—and blossomed that dull ache in her chest again. And now, being outside under the moon, as they’d found themselves frequently, it had gotten worse.

A little bit of desperation clouding her judgement, she closed her eyes and dug—one last time, she told herself, one last time—for that tether. Sought that connection. That lapse. Some peace. A comfort.

But she couldn’t find anything at the other end. No one. Just emptiness.

Just alone.

| ☽ |

Io’s borders—as with Callisto’s, and she was sure, with other Packs—were under constant surveillance. The understood lines stalked along by the wolves of the Imperial Guard. As the caravan was cleared and crossed into the territory, the soldiers of the Guard howled, announcing the incoming travellers. . . and also for her. The newly-minted Warrior.

Isla bit the inside of her cheek to keep from beaming. That was what she needed to focus on—reigning triumphant. She had to hold onto that for as long as possible for a reprieve before she lost her mind.

Even though they’d passed the borders, there was still a few more hours until they reached Io’s Pack Hall. The route they’d taken went around the bustling Imperial City, through the roads with clear views of the towering mountains of the Valkeric ranges, where one would find the High-Ground, the prison.

As they curved into the outskirts of the City, Isla caught sight of the iconic golden gates that surrounded the Pack Hall, stretching high into the air, near-blinding in the brutal sunlight. A beautiful, behemoth of a structure—the building was at least three times the size than that of Callisto’s. Pack members were buzzing outside of the gates as they approached, reporters and gossips too. As usual.

The boys had since woken up and found themselves looking out the windows at the gathered crowd, who caught sight of, mostly, the Imperial Heir. Adrien lifted his hand to wave to them, drawing more of a commotion, and sending those reporters and gossips scribbling in their notepads. They’d take anything to record, Isla figured. Even the most professional of journalists were itching to get the inside scoop about what had actually happened between their prince, and the woman who was basically set to be their future queen.

Some parts of the story were even still a mystery to Isla.

The gates of the Hall were nothing like that of the Wilds. They drew open easily, languidly, and the vehicle rumbled up the long drive, by the long pool of water, sprouted with fountains, gleaming with the light, that Isla wished it would be acceptable to jump into.

She leaped to her feet before the van had even come to a stop, her body releasing groans and cracks in celebration of finally being stretched out again. Her head spun from the exhaustion, but despite it, she practically raced down the row of seats, eager to feel the earth beneath her feet, to maybe find a breeze in the open air.

She’d gotten one of the two.

“Shit, it’s hot,” Sebastian cursed, wiping the sweat off his brow as he joined at her side. His shirt, soaked again, was slung around his neck.

“It’s home,” Isla said with a smile, not caring about how cheesy it sounded and tying her shirt around her waist. But the words also felt. . . wrong out of her mouth. Out of place. She wouldn’t dawdle on it. Couldn’t.

As Adrien came to stand at her other side, Isla’s eyes directed up the stairs to the opening of the Hall’s grand door. Out of it strode a familiar gangly man, a clipboard tucked under his arm. Of course. Isla’s grin grew as she observed their Pack’s Liaison walking down the stairs towards them.

Bags under Winslow’s eyes were typical, as was the slight jitteriness he exhibited from drinking too much brew, but the veins spider-webbing his temples told her he’d been more stressed than usual. It didn’t take much thought to figure why.

“Welcome back,” he greeted the three, a tiredness in his voice, saved just for them, residual from the years he’d dealt with them as they grew up—′complete animals’.

“Good to be back, Winsy,” Sebastian replied, beaming widely in a way that made the Liaison arch an eyebrow in suspicion. He’d given up in trying to deter them from using the nickname.

Before any other comments could be made, the Hall’s doors opened again, and Isla’s breath caught as down the stairs—dawning a beautiful maroon dress, cut in a way that was both modest yet left enough skin exposed to keep temperate in the heat, the sudden wind catching perfectly in her long flowing hair—came the Imperial Luna.

Despite her closeness to their son and being their closest confidant’s daughter, Isla had never been the same with the leaders of their Pack. But she’d always been in awe of Imperial Luna Marlane. The easy, powerful grace she exuded. How beloved she was. How kind.

Growing up, through every rigorous lesson in etiquette she’d endured at the helm of the Elders, she’d been taught that the Luna was the prime example of everything a she-wolf should be. Been taught about how the role she played at the Alpha’s side, the role she played for Io’s people—a foundation of strength, a pseudo-mother, a caretaker—would be one Isla would need to carry herself to a smaller scale in her own domestic life.

When Isla had a mate and children and was bound to those things and her home as she took care of them. And she would try to emulate it—when she was ready for that. To be a mother and. . . someone’s mate. But that was enough to take on.

Grimacing, she brought her hands together, rubbing her thumb over her palm.

The Imperial Luna greeted Adrien with outstretched arms, pulling her son into tight, tight hug. As if that he’d fade away if she loosened her grip. After everything the Heir had gone through in the past year, after he’d suffered in a way many could die from after the severing of his bond, Isla understood. Though she knew the coddling had been driving her friend mad.

After they pulled away, but not until she could bestow a kiss to his cheek, the Luna turned to the Beta’s children, greeting them both, before she focused in on Isla.

“Congratulations, Warrior,” she said, her smile dazzling. Bright as the sun above them.

Isla bowed her head, stomach twisting in nervous knots. In insecurity. How could she be expected to be someone like this?

“Thank you,” she answered, and then noticed Winslow had drifted a few feet away, his hand up and gesturing her over. Reluctantly, and praying she didn’t come off as rude, Isla excused herself from the others and went to him. “Yes?”

Winslow kept his voice quiet. “The High General is here and would like to speak with you in the Hall.”

Isla’s heart skipped, and her eyes widened. “The Warrior High General?”

“That is the only High General in the Realm, I believe.”

Isla pursed her lips at the sarcasm. “What about?”

“That’s for you two to discuss,” the Liaison said simply, and then, wasting no time, turned on his heel to head up the stairs.

Isla took a deep breath, almost choking on the thickness of air.

This was. . . sudden. But it had to be good news? Right? Why else would the High General go out of his way to travel to Io from Ganymede?

Her insides bubbled with a mix of nerves and anticipation as she followed, the numerous steps to the door working the muscles in her tired legs.

She almost sighed in relief at the coolness that greeted her once inside the foyer, the establishment having as grand an interior, drenched in burgundies and golds, as outside. Isla wished she’d been wearing something that seemed a bit more put together than the outfit she’d donned after ditching her bloody nurse’s uniform, a wrinkled shirt she haphazardly threw back on and her, simply head-to-toe coated in sweat.

As she contemplated if there was anything else she had to change into—trying to remember where the bathrooms were in this place to freshen up—Isla’s blood iced over ten thousand times.

She still had her bag. She was still holding her damn bag.

She had the marker, the book, and the dagger here, in Io’s Pack Hall—a place ridden with the highest officials and, likely lingering somewhere, the Imperial Alpha himself.

One of the Hierarchy’s most tightly-kept secrets, and two items that she just knew, in her gut, meant bad news, simply dangling off of her shoulder.

She balked at the thought, steps faltering, and nearly fell over when Winslow came to a sudden stop.

He turned to her, explaining something Isla could only half-listen to. Because she needed an excuse to leave. She needed to get out of here, couldn’t risk letting anyone find what she had.

But this was the Warrior High General. It would be a blatant show of disrespect if she skipped the conference. It could cost her in her career, any position she wanted to hold.

Her grip on the strap of the bag tightened as Ravona, Winslow’s assistant, appeared on one of the two staircases leading up to the second floor, where the High General was waiting.

Isla gulped. Focused and calm, she repeated her mantras. Focused and calm. It’ll all be fine.

And she followed.

There were three levels to the Pack Hall. The bottom was reserved for public use, holding functions, galas, balls and some lodging for travellers. The second, for more official business. But at the highest level, the level not many were permitted up to, were the offices of the Imperial Alpha, Beta, and highest-ranking Council members. Isla had been up there very few times in her life. Back when she was too young to know what she was looking at.

“Please wait here,” Ravona said, stopping once they’d opened up into a new hallway. “Let me make sure he’s ready for you.”

Isla muttered an ’okay’ and ’thank you’ as the petite woman went a few paces down the corridor, to one of many big, mahogany doors, and disappeared behind it.

Once alone, Isla released a long breath. “Shit.” Her bag felt so heavy on her shoulder. “Shit, shit, shit.”

But it was all going to be fine. It would all. Be. Fine.

This was just a quick talk, and then she’d go home. Walk back to her apartment near the Market Square. Maybe stop for a drink on the way. Maybe find someone to keep her company for the night. That had been her plan a couple nights ago.

After a few more moments that felt like centuries, Ravona finally reappeared in the hallway. “He’s ready,” she said softly.

Isla nodded and then went to her, finding herself soon before the mahogany door. Back were the butterflies of anticipation. She embraced them, fed off of them, as the secretary pushed open the entrance and gestured inside.

Quick talk, get out, all will be fine.

Isla smoothed out her shirt the best she could, turned, and stepped forward, breaking the threshold of the room.

And then, she was ready for the ground to swallow her whole.

Because she wasn’t faced with the High General—but with Imperial Alpha Cassius.

Shit.

Adrien was the spitting image of his father—the only difference was, instead of the golden-green eyes her friend had inherited from the Imperial Luna, Cassius’s were endless depths of dark brown, nearly black, especially when swathed in the dim lighting of the corner of the sitting room. The darkness accentuated the hard lines of his face, made the grin he flashed seem more feral. Isla wondered if he could sense her heartbeat, if he could hear it. If he could hear her cursing so vilely in her mind that it would make her ancestors roll in their graves.

Alpha Cassius tipped his head to the secretary. “Thank you, Ravona. We won’t be long.” He strode into the center of the room. Into some light. It didn’t do much to soften his features or make him seem any less intimidating. “Ten minutes, and you can escort her out.”

Ravona bowed in response, and Isla, shaking out of her terrified stupor, quickly followed suit, eyes lingering on the ground a second longer than necessary while she continued on the internal tirade. But there had also been something that struck her as curious.

It was more than likely that Isla was being guided out of the premises due to the several halls they’d taken to get here. Halls that she’d need a map to track again, completely unfamiliar. But she couldn’t fight the gnawing feeling that the Alpha didn’t want her freely moving about the floor.

She wrenched up quickly at the feeling of a hand on her arm and the jostling of her bag strap.

Whipping around, she found Ravona with an arm outstretched. “Would you like me to take this for you?”

Isla blinked.

She could let her take it. Get it out of this room, as far away from here as possible. But where would it end up? With Winslow or with some nosy guards who’d pry through it? She couldn’t risk letting it out of her sight.

Fighting to keep her tone even, she said, “No, that’s fine. Thank you though.”

Ravona nodded, before giving one more bow to the both of them and backing out of the room. The hard sound of the door closing behind her couldn’t help but make her jump, and the high click of the latch may as well have been the snapping of a trap made for a mouse. Her body went stiff under the Imperial Alpha’s stare—slightly narrowed, always calculating. And though it shouldn’t have been her instinct before her leader, for a moment, all Isla wanted to do was match it—but that air of defiance was squashed before it could manifest into anything she’d regret. She shifted her gaze to meet his, before quickly diverting it, remembering well the lessons of her childhood.

Never look an Alpha directly in the eye.

She was careful adjusting her bag on her arm, hoping there was no scrape of metal against wood or ruffling of papers. “I apologize, Alpha, for my appearance. It was a long ride back, and it’s quite hot outside.”

At her tone, Cassius chuckled, and Isla risked a glance again.

“Please, Isla, you’re like family,” he said, taking a few steps closer, resting his hands on the back of the long leather couch facing her. “We don’t need the formality.” He gestured to the dry bar against the wall beside them, a generous spread of liquors and spirits and wines. “Can I offer you anything?”

Isla sized up the array, mouth almost salivating at the idea of the burn of wine down her throat. At the thought of the blissful fog it would bring her into. But it was far too early to be drinking before the Alpha. Though it was also rude to refuse his offer. “I’ll take some water, if you have it.”

The slightest look of amusement took to the Alpha’s face as he walked to the table and grabbed a pitcher filled with clear liquid to pour. He placed her filled glass on one of the coasters atop the small table set in the middle of the seating area, both pieces etched with the Imperial crest.

Isla caught the hint and battled away the panic that rose in her chest.

The Imperial Alpha had taken time out of his day to sit and share a drink with her? To talk with her? She could count the number of one-on-one conversations they’d had in her twenty-one years of life on one hand, and most of those had been at times of convenience, for no longer than a minute or two, when her father had stepped away or Adrien. Never like this. Direct and intentional.

She swallowed, before slowly dropping her bag to the floor at a distance where she stood. Focused and calm. She walked to the chair and sat, the soft leather caving slightly at her weight. Focus. She took hold of her glass. Calm. “Thank you.”

Alpha Cassius nodded in response before preparing himself a small glass of whiskey. “If you don’t mind. . . long day.”

It was only a little past noon.

As Isla chanced a small laugh, the Alpha lowered himself to the couch across from her. He lifted his glass. “Cheers to you, Warrior.”

Isla stilled, blinking at the praise. At the unease that it had been brought upon with it, rather than pride.

She raised her’s too. “Thank you, Alpha.”

At the formality, Cassius chuckled again, before lifting his beverage a bit higher and tipping it back. Isla mirrored the action, more grateful for the clean, cool liquid on her tongue than she’d expected she’d be.

Cassius sighed against the burn of his liquor. “You’re the only member of our Pack I cleared for this year’s running, and you didn’t disappoint. You did us all very proud. I’m looking forward to having you in my ranks.”

The words weren’t missed on Isla. His ranks.

Ezekiel’s voice crept into her head against the backdrop of their argument as they’d walked out of Callisto’s forest and back to the infirmary. It was if she could feel his wicked, haughty grin circling her thoughts. She’d been so vehement in her argument of where the Warriors stood, who they served. They worked for the Realm, to protect its people. Not act as agents to maintain the Imperial Alpha’s position at the top of the Hierarchy.

But Alpha Cassius knew that, she told herself. It was just odd phrasing. Though, still, she wanted to make a point. So she grinned, putting on the charm she’d worked on mastering for years to finagle officials, and said with ease, “I’m eager to do my part in helping the Realm.”

The corner of Cassius’s lips twitched up, as if he’d clocked the precision she’d chosen. But he didn’t comment. Rather, he sat back. “There may be action sooner than you think. I’m afraid our times of peace may be coming to an end. Rogues have been a problem on some subjacent borders recently—Rhea, Charon, Deimos. They’re overwhelming Guard, getting into villages and towns, stealing supplies, terrorizing the citizens. I’ll likely be deploying some Warrior units to assist in the eradication efforts.” Cassius downed the rest of his drink, then went quiet, staring down at his empty glass. “It’s hard when people forget their place.” He met Isla’s eyes again, and she straightened. He’d been talking about the Rogues, yet still, the words stirred something in her. “It’s important to deal with the issue quickly and efficiently before too much damage is done or panic is incited.”

Isla’s grip on her glass constricted.

Quickly and efficiently. As he’d wanted everything with Lukas to be dealt with. The fewer people in the know about the divergence from order, the better.

There was so much that she wanted to say—to counter, to question—but knew their “informality” had its limits. She didn’t have a death wish.

“It will likely be a while before I’m allowed out in the field, I believe,” she settled for instead, hating the gnawing of something like cowardice in her gut. “I haven’t even received my lumerosi yet.”

“That’ll be in a few weeks. And you’re one of the most promising new recruits we have—slaying two beasts—I’m sure you’ll be out there before you know it.”

Isla’s jaw tightened, missing the opportunity to extend gratitude for the compliment, too busy reliving the most terrifying moment of her life. And too angry.

Don’t, she warned herself, biting down on her tongue. But she couldn’t pretend it didn’t bother her, that the Imperial Alpha didn’t want anyone to know why she’d killed two Bak. How she would’ve rather not having had to.

“It’s awful what happened out there.”

Isla’s features faltered.

Was he actually. . . acknowledging what had happened?

The Alpha’s eyes flashed with slight challenge, and Isla paused.

This was a test.

One to see if she’d speak freely about the incident or if she’d obey, keeping all under-wraps as he’d wished. But was that the only reason he’d wanted to meet with her? Why he’d gone through the trouble, taken time out of his day. . . lied to Winslow about it? Or had the Liaison been clued in the entire time, and the whole point was to ambush her?

Isla held in her groan.

Too many questions.

Too many questions, and she had enough to deal with already.

She could just give him what he wanted, all of them, this Hierarchy. Lie and tell them she’d leave everything forgotten. That, or she could actually do it. Toss her bag, with the marker, the dagger, the book, even her gown that still smelled of Kai, into the Barit Sea. Let all of it sink to the depths of nothing and move on with her life. That would be the smart thing to do.

She looked down at her water as she swirled it around her glass and braced herself for the line she was about to toe. “They came out of nowhere. We’re lucky we got out alive.”

The Alpha nodded slightly, as if accepting her position. He threw an arm out to the side to drum his fingers along the back of the couch and rested his ankle on his knees. “Yes. It’s a good thing Alpha Kai was out there with you.”

Hearing Kai’s name made her stomach flip, and hearing it from the Imperial Alpha’s mouth, spoken as if her mate were a peer, not a lowly subject, had Isla becoming hyper-aware of—and slightly shaken by—the exact high standing Kai held. As if she’d never truly gauged it all before.

Her eyes shifted briefly to the map at her side, a clear view of the masses of Io and Deimos and Oberon’s territory set between them.

She tracked over the sketches of Deimos’s own mountain ranges, over the rivers that drew in and wound through the planes from bordering coastal Packs. The land broken up into four main regions—Surles, Abalys, Ifera, and then in its heart, denoted with a large, black, eight-pointed star and a sketch of a grand palace that she assumed was the Pack Hall, was Mavec.

Her lips threatened to twitch downwards, as, for a brief second, she wondered if Kai still thought of her too. If he’d sought something in their wilting bond—just randomly, just to see—and found nothing. If he’d been disappointed by that. If he’d ever felt that comfort from it—from her—at all.

Goddess, now’s not the time.

Biting down on the inside of her cheek, her gaze went back to her glass.

Focus.

“He saved my life,” she said, voice low.

The Alpha was quiet long enough to have Isla looking up to meet his eyes again. “Saved your life and killed four Bak,” he boasted. “One of the highest counts in our history. The ’hero of the Hunt’.” Isla’s grip tightened slightly. There was something about the tone the Alpha had used that she wasn’t keen on. “Your father and all of us are very grateful.”

Her father.

Still back in Callisto.

“Taking care” of things.

She ran her tongue over her teeth. “I haven’t been able to see my father much since I emerged. With all of the meetings and whatnot.” There was a slight bite to her tone which she hadn’t intended for. “I had thought he’d be returning with us, but it seems he stayed back.”

The Alpha’s eyes narrowed for only a moment before they softened, and he threw on a grin to match. It was more unnerving than anything. He rose to his feet and walked back over to the dry bar to pour himself more whiskey, letting the silence gather in a way that was almost suffocating. “That’s my fault, I apologize. Reporting fatalities from the Hunt is typically my responsibility, but I have too much to tend to here.”

The words clattered around Isla’s skull as she watched the translucent brown liquid splash and pool into the glass. It felt like a leaden ball had been dropped in her stomach.

Fatalities.

Fatalities.

“What do you mean?” Isla felt like her heart was in her throat again, and her tongue was sandpaper.

The Alpha gave a solemn shake of his head. “Unfortunately, the Hunter from Tethys succumbed to his injuries.”

She couldn’t swallow. Couldn’t breathe.

Lies.

He had to be lying.

Calm.

She battled to keep the bile rising in her throat at bay. She couldn’t sound like it had effected her. “When?”

Cassius put the bottle down and picked up his glass. “I received the report early this morning. It’s a shame. I really thought he’d pull through.”

The room had started spinning.

She was going to vomit.

He was lying. He had to be lying.

But why would he?

Isla didn’t know what to say. What to ask.

Because Lukas was very alive—in a sense—when she’d last seen him. When she’d pressed her hands to the bleeding wounds at his side that she’d inflicted herself with her own claws.

Her own claws.

She killed him.

Goddess, she’d killed him.

She was going to be sick.

She had to get out.

Out, out, out.

Shakily, she rose from her seat, nearly tipping over her water as she put it to the table. “I’m sorry. Would you excuse me for a second?”

The Alpha sipped from his whiskey. “I think we’re done actually.” He lifted his glass to her, smiling. “Congratulations again, Warrior.”

Isla barely heard his words as she turned and gathered her bag as quickly as possible, not caring if it rattled and shook. Ravona was already waiting outside for her.

“Can you show me to the restroom please?” Isla asked, barely able to choke out the words.

Then everything moved in a blur as she was escorted to the facilities, through the hall, through another mahogany door that felt cool on her clammy skin as she pushed through it.

Her knees screamed in pain as she crashed to the floor in front of the sole toilet in the lavatory, not caring where she tossed her bag, and rid herself of whatever was in her stomach. Over and over—until all that was left was dry-heaves and shallow breaths. Tears stung at her sunburned cheeks as she sobbed as quietly as she could over the porcelain, gripping onto it so tightly her knuckles turned a matching white to keep from falling over.

She killed him.

He was dead, and it was all her fault.

His voice rang in her head, that clear look in his eyes was all she could see.

She killed him.

She heaved again. And again.

Until she could no longer hold on and simply fell back against the wall beside her.

And then she let herself sob for a few more breaths—in and out, in and out—before she steeled herself, wiped her tears as if nothing had happened, and allowed Ravona to walk her out of the Pack Hall.

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