I. THE FEAST
☾ PART I : THE TROUBLE WITH FATE ☽
As Isla watched the man beside her droning on about the natural dangers that lie on the outskirts of their homeland, the only thought running through her mind—a question, really—was how in the world, Goddess forgive her, could she possibly have almost let this imbecile become her mate?
One could claim that the members of their Pack—Io, for which their location was named—had a superiority complex. Callan, however, took the notion to a whole other level.
The humanoid form of egocentrism had come out of nowhere, butting his way into Isla’s conversation with a fellow Trainee who was from the Pack of Tethys. The man, whose name she’d never gotten to, was decently attractive, and as their conversation flowed, showed promise of being intriguing, up to talk about things other than fighting. And the bonus? Besides the fact he’d gazed down at her breasts just once, he was also unmated, as was she. Though she may had given up seeking her forever, that did not mean she was opposed to the temporary.
Isla knew that the brute’s interruption was for no reason other than to make her aware of his exclusive invitation to and presence at this Hunter’s Feast. That, and bare her witness to his newly acquired mark. A symbol of his recent bond with his Chosen mate.
As if that would make her regret ending things with him.
The master story-stringer kept the Trainee hanging on his every last word, discussing Io’s “City of Fallen Embers”, otherwise known formally as the Imperial City. What was surely one of their Realm’s most glorious landmarks, the City had taken on the fiery moniker following the momentous volcanic eruption—that Callan was nowhere near involved in—centuries ago.
While he continued on with his grandstanding, Isla trained her narrowed ice-blue gaze along his face. From his coppery hair to his amber eyes and his nose tweaked from battle. Over his lips that had long ago caressed her skin, and the stubble that had accompanied it.
When one caught him at the right moment, Callan was easy-on-the-eyes, though a little generic and plain, and aside from a few selfish rendezvous, he wasn’t too bad when the Season rolled around. But what he had in mediocre looks and being the occasional decent lover, he destroyed with his undeservedly garish personality.
“May I step in?”
Isla jolted when she felt a hand on the bare skin of her back that had been exposed by her low sweeping gown. Instinctually, she began to swing her arm in the assailant’s direction, before she came to her senses and realized she recognized the voice. She stiffened her limb and dropped it to her side, for this was not the time to be descended upon by the Imperial Guard. Not on the Eve of one of the biggest nights of her life.
With a preparative glower—because she hated when he masked his scent in order to sneak up on her—Isla turned to meet the golden-green stare of her longest friend. The bond formed by default or by choice, it would be too hard to judge now.
As Callan, to Isla’s bliss, fell into silence, Adrien took another step, standing at her side. His hands were behind his back, his posture tall and regal, but his grin held a reckless charm that only he could truly possess.
Callisto, the region where the Gate lay to the Wilds, had a tempered climate. Nothing compared to the heat Io had been experiencing following the recent Summers’ Solstice. So instead of his customary home attire, the Heir donned more modest cloths, crafted richly and finely, cut in a way that made it hard to miss the magnificence of his form beneath the fabric. The sash across the front of his intricately stitched tunic bared the blood red jewels and gold mined long before his time from the land of the ancient Packs. It was the way royalty called for, despite Adrien’s own occasional indifference to it.
“Goddess. . .”
Isla spun to find the Trainee’s eyes blown wider than they had been while tuned into the stories of catastrophic death and molten rock. He nearly snapped his neck, bowing his head to the ground. “Alpha. . . Heir. . . Your Imperial-ness. . . Highness. . . sir.”
With every fumbled word, any attraction Isla had previously felt to the man dwindled, likely visible in the gradual frowning of her face.
Adrien’s eyes flashed with amusement as he nodded his head in recognition of the paid respect. “At ease.”
The Trainee lifted his head, still in awe, like a child meeting their hero, though Adrien was not much their senior.
And although he claimed he wasn’t always for the grandeur of being at the top of the Realm’s Hierarchy, being the future “Alpha of all Alphas”, Isla knew the Heir relished in the fanfare. His hubris—which typically drove her mad—was enough to quell even the biggest of egos. Including one as big as Callan’s.
Isla watched, the inside of her cheek between her teeth, as Adrien turned his head, slowly and expectantly, to the grimacing man beside him. She knew she wasn’t the only one getting a kick out of this. Despite lacking a superior bloodline, Callan was a formidable fighter, deemed a Warrior through victory in the Hunt a few years ago, and a good challenger for Adrien in their earlier days. That was, until the Alpha-blooded wolf began rocketing to his own, seemingly limitless, potential.
“Warrior,” Adrien greeted his former training-mate and competitor, smug.
Callan begrudged a bow of his head, envy laced with defeat in his eyes. “Your Highness.”
“I never had a chance to formally extend my congratulations.” Adrien, still in the business of being cordial as a leader, gestured to the mark visible on Callan’s neck beneath his collar.
Callan bristled—they all did, really—and his eyes flicked briefly to Isla.
But it wasn’t to gloat. No, it was a call for help. For an answer. It was the most unsure she’d seen him in a while, maybe ever.
Would he say just the right “wrong” thing to piss off one of the more powerful wolves of the Realm? Would an incorrect slip of his tongue serve as a reminder to his future king of the sacrifice he’d made at his own expense for the she-wolf he’d once loved? That Isla wondered sometimes, if he still loved.
The Heir’s tribulations of the mate-variety had been the hottest Pack news and gossip for the past year. Even this gathering was one of the earliest Adrien had been to since the unbinding and his own personal hell that followed.
Callan coughed, seemingly steeling himself, before he answered, “Thank you—sir.”
There was the smallest downturn of Adrien’s lips. A flicker of words to remain unspoken in his eyes. Isla could see the contemplation on his face as he pondered whether to keep on the questioning. He didn’t.
“Well, may the Goddess bless you both with a bountiful future,” Adrien said, a sincerity, but also a finality, in his tone.
Immediately following the words, he turned his attention and topic of conversation, to Isla. No more was his slight air of morose as he put back on his uniform grin and subtly cleared his throat, knowing what had to come next.
Isla glared at him, but having been drilled in etiquette since she was a pup, knew her place. She dipped her head wordlessly.
Adrien was all too happy about it. “Milady.”
Isla wrinkled her nose. What the ever-living-fuck was that address?
Adrien, his own slight look of distaste on his face, spun back to Callan and the Trainee. “May I steal her a moment?”
Sick of his act and being amongst this group of males, Isla grabbed Adrien’s arm with a huff. She didn’t need anyone to answer for her. “Yes, you may.” She could hear her friend chuckling as she dragged him away, likely the only person in that room who’d get away with it.
As the two dove into the depths of the gathering, past the bustle of staff getting the grand table set in the middle of the room ready for the feast, Adrien’s laughter died down. “Do I sound like as much of a pompous ass as I think I do?”
Isla dropped his arm. “Worse than usual."
Adrien shook his head. “I never want to address you—or anyone—as Milady again. I’m burning Winsy’s Pack Relations Code encyclopedia and leaving the ashes in his front yard. I don’t need to sound like I have a stick up my ass to be a good Alpha.” He veered in a bit of a different direction, and Isla followed blindly. He knew his way around Callisto’s Pack Hall better than she did. “You’re welcome, by the way. You looked like you were ready to kill him.”
“No, no murder. Maim him, maybe. I’m surprised you both fit in this Hall with your giant heads,” she jeered, trailing her eyes along the party’s patrons. “And speaking of a disproportionate amount of inflated egos, where’s my brother?”
Adrien left Isla in suspense for a few moments as the two approached the open bar. He called the tender for a spiced gin—Isla, for a glass of wine—before situating himself behind the counter’s decorative willow, shielding himself from the eyes of the room.
“I don’t think I even need to answer,” he addressed, finally.
Isla retched, regretting the inquiry, very aware of her sibling’s lack of self-control and favor with women. “We haven’t even eaten yet.” At her response, a mischievous look took to Adrien’s face, an innuendo on the tip of his tongue. “Don’t,” she chided with a scowl, leaning back against the bar and looking back out at the floor.
There weren’t many unmated wolves at this gathering, from what she could see and sense, but enough for a few to pair off, had any urges risen. She wasn’t that desperate tonight, though it had been quite a while. . .
“I’m surprised you’re not off screwing someone,” she offered Adrien impassively. “That waitress seems just your type.”
Adrien peered around his plant-formed shelter to follow Isla’s gaze to the long-legged, caramel-skinned, chestnut-haired she-wolf setting up the centerpieces on the table. His eyes drew lengths up and down her lithe body, eyebrows raised and an impressed smirk on his lips.
Isla thought he was actually about to do it. Surely sweep the server off her feet with few words. Get her briefly caught in the blissful illusion that his courtship was the start of a fairytale. One that ended in the ultimate form of love and connection. One where she eventually found herself being crowned Imperial Luna.
But Adrien, instead, settled back in his spot and shook his head. “If it was easy for me to sneak away, I’d consider it, but my father would rescind my title and probably have my head if I do anything off the book and make the Council question me. Even baseless rumors by Pack gossips is enough for Winslow to pop by my house to ‘have a chat’.”
The last of his words came out mockingly, a perfect impersonation of the Imperial Council’s “Head of Pack Relations” and “Interpack Liaison”. The poor official had been the butt of all their jokes and receiving end of their mischief since they were kids. For a while, he seemed, a glorified babysitter.
Isla sighed. “Have to keep the Hierarchy looking polished.”
“Goddess, help me,” Adrien answered with a grunt.
As the two of them lost themselves in another conversation, Adrien giving Isla crucial tips for finding the safest routes and achieving the fastest kill in the Hunt, the bartender brought over their drinks. They were gone quickly, both of them realizing they were just about ready for the night to end—or at least blur—before it had truly started.
“I think they’ve arranged to have me placed next to the new Alpha of Deimos,” Adrien said, after Isla had asked him of the Feast’s seating arrangements.
“Deimos?” Her voice went high. The Pack’s name had already been enough to send a shudder down her spine. She glanced around them warily. The discussion, she felt, taboo this soon. The next person at the bar was a few feet away, though for wolves, that barely meant inches. But as they weren’t mates, it wasn’t possible for Isla to have unspoken communication with Adrien unless they shifted. She relented to just keep her voice quiet. “He really came?”
“He is a Pack Alpha, and this is the Hunt,” Adrien said, matching her volume.
Isla let out an astonished breath. “But his father and brother just died like a month ago. An—and his mother, she. . .”
“Probably doesn’t have much time either. Not that she’d want it,” Adrien finished, voice even.
Horrible, Isla thought, biting down on her cheek and looking towards the ground, reminded of the realities and weaknesses of their kind.
The bartender brought over their next round, and she and Adrien fell silent, mulling over the recent tragedy with alcohol on their tongues. Isla took the quiet to really ponder.
She tried to picture the Alpha of Deimos, the new Alpha. The boy—or man—who’d just lost everything and gained a throne. She’d never met him before, she realized. She couldn’t even remember ever learning his name. All she knew was of his existence, that he was the former Alpha’s second son.
He was never meant to take control. Eldest children inherited Alpha.
Isla thought back to all the training, all the lessons, the lectures, the talks, that Adrien had endured in their youth. Goddess, that Adrien continued to endure now after all they’d grown. Prepped to become Alpha since he was a child, so young that he barely even knew how to shift. Every move he made, every step he took, was down the path of what everyone knew his future—or figured his future, because apparently Fate was a fickle bitch.
The new of Alpha of Deimos probably had none of that.
Isla scoffed under her breath, baffled. How could it have even happened? People, wolves, they didn’t just. . . die.
“Has your father heard anything about it? Any reports?” she asked Adrien, who had his gin to his mouth.
“No.” Adrien finished the drink, put his empty glass on the counter, and waved for another in what seemed like one fluid motion. “No one’s claiming a kill. No one’s come to the Council requesting a Challenge. No one’s trying to take over that Pack. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“So he’s just Alpha now? His father and brother die, and he’s Alpha,” Isla tried to tease out, unable to wrap her mind around it either.
“That’s the Code. It’s a birthright until someone steals it for their own bloodline.”
Something in Adrien’s words struck her, reminding her of her previous thoughts.
She peered. “But it wasn’t his birthright.” She chose her next words carefully, a million questions with the same notion bearing heavily on her mind. “Do you think he’s dangerous?”
“Do I think he did it?” Adrien asked plainly, receiving his third glass. Isla’s silence was enough of an affirmation. “We don’t have the grounds to think so. I hope not.” Adrien drained the drink once again and rose with a whispered curse as he was spotted and waved over by the Beta of Ganymede.
“Deimos is already a death trap being next to the Wall,” he offered, taking a few steps away. “They don’t need a family-slaying Alpha as their leader too.”
And with those inspiring words, her dear friend was off. Isla followed his confident stride with a deadpan stare. Maybe Winslow needed to give him some more lectures on sensitivity.
With a purse of her lips, Isla swirled the wine in her glass and settled back against the bar. A curious spirit and unyielding inquisitor, her mind ran wild with possibilities. Trying to find an answer no one had. . . except maybe, the Alpha of Deimos.
She shook her head. She didn’t need to waste her time worrying about that now—or ever. All her active-focus had to remain on tomorrow, on the day that would change her life, and the rest of the time, like right now, she’d relish in the mindless moments.
Her eyes went from left to right, citing the company of dust.
How could one have mindless moments when all they had was their thoughts?
She let out a breath, looking out into the crowd. She spotted the Trainee and Callan, who’d returned to their state of being complete strangers, but she didn’t necessarily want to converse with either of them again. No one really looked interesting enough to talk to. She definitely needed more companions that weren’t Adrien and her own brother.
For a brief second, a carnal desire rearing its head in her tedium, she let it linger out there, the fact she had not been laid claim to, and she, not another. There was a bit more time before the dinner. But as heads lifted with sniffs of the air to discern her location, something switched, and she changed her mind, tempered any lust.
Instead, she finished her glass and let it down on the counter with a hollow clank. Then, going against the grain of the party, traveled away from the congregating bodies until she found a dimly-lit, empty hallway. A good-ways down, it ended with a glass door to a terrace. She pushed it open, the old metal of it creaking. Her steps echoed off the stones of the platform as she walked out into the tepid night air. The only source of light was the full moon. It was all she needed.
She approached the terrace’s railing and placed her hands upon it as she drank in the lunar aura, breathing deeply, absorbing its glow. The lumerosi markings etched into her skin throbbed, the intricate swirls and symbols of black ink taking on their signature iridescence as she teetered on the edge of the mundane and mythical. For a moment, she pondered it. Ripping off her gown, shifting, and hauling through the trees.
No one would know she was gone, right?
Isla’s markings flared, her eyes following in their glow, as she spun around to face who had snuck up on her.
But then the furious light dwindled to nothing, as she became frozen, disarmed, by one of the most striking men she’d ever seen.