XX. THE GENERAL
The two weeks leading up to Isla’s lumerosi ceremony trickled by slowly—filled with cold-sweat inducing nightmares that led to sleepless nights, days at Io’s training center, used by Guard and Warrior alike, and some intermittent periods spent at the local library.
For somewhere as large as the Imperial City, the selection of books on languages and linguistics—even books that stretched far back in history—were scarce. Many of the chronicles didn’t even expand beyond Io, into the tales of the other territories, and Isla swore if it weren’t for the fact she’d already possessed the knowledge, it would be easy to assume the existence of the Pack of Phobos was nothing but a Realm-wide hallucination. Still, even with the limited selection, she’d leave the building—a good twenty-minute walk away—with heaps of titles in her hands, some not related to narratives of the past. With how much she still had to recover from her injuries, reading—something she hadn’t done in a while—had become a sort of new hobby.
She gobbled down fiction, escaping her thoughts with riveting tales of heroes and villains, love and betrayal. She engaged with some guides to ‘tap into her inner goddess’, pages and pages full breathing and exercises and stretches and poses that pulled and moved her body—as well as left it sore—in ways she hadn’t known possible. She wasn’t sure if it was those actions, time, or the physical work she’d been doing at the training center, but she was finally getting a handle on her wolf again. Finally able to complete her shift, but unfit to hold it for more than a few minutes.
She’d take any progress though, especially while her research and attempts to decode what the book and marker said—as well as puzzle together what it all meant—were going nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.
But even with the times of stress, Isla never passed another man through her apartment door. She’d gone to the bars some nights—batted her eyes, flirted, even made out with two upstanding suitors in the restroom and back alley—but she couldn’t bring herself to go beyond the kisses or touching.
That little piece of her—that tiny piece of Kai that still latched onto her soul like a leech, like it had imprinted itself there in permanent ink—kept drawing her away. The amount of times she’d cursed him to the moon was pathetic. . .
| ☽ |
Although the Warriors fell under the Imperial Alpha’s jurisdiction, the program’s base resided in Ganymede. Set on Io’s eastern border, it was the largest territory, solely by its mostly uninhabitable land mass. “The Warrior’s Village”, as the area was called, didn’t necessarily abide by its name. Easily, it could’ve been one of the largest regions within Ganymede’s borders, attributed mainly to the behemoth of an amphitheater located further eastward by the Realm’s coast. Before the decimation—before the Bak, the Hunt, the Wall—Warriors had been deemed through duels and trials in that coliseum, filled to the brim with spectators, facing both each other and ancient monsters that were described in ways Isla was convinced were exaggerated.
She marveled at the large double doors of the entrance to the Gallery as she approached them, the wood inscribed with the symbols of all the Packs—Phobos included. Eleven markings set in a circle, Io at the top and slightly larger than the rest. Isla couldn’t help but run a finger along it as she passed through the entryway, feeling pride swell and crash like a wave. She’d been too short to reach the symbol when she’d visited the base for a field trip as a child. When she first fell in love with the idea of what she’d become.
The festivities that had been planned for the late afternoon—into evening and then night—had been a lot of mingling and drinking, some speeches then a meal, more speeches, and then finally, just before the moon reached its peak, the releasing of the successful Warrior class to the temple where the Elders would bestow what they’d earned. The act of receiving the marks was intense, painful, but for all it represented, what it meant, Isla would take it. She’d endured it before, and she could handle it again.
Unlike at the Feast, where she’d socialized beyond her heart’s content, as Isla looped through the Gallery’s sectors, she kept mostly to herself. Her glass of white wine was gripped firmly in her hand as she meandered through the showcasings. She’d come to the ceremony alone—something else that differed from the dinner before the Hunt—telling Adrien and Sebastian that she would rather they stay in Io and not miss any important intel, rather than fuss around a party with her. And she hadn’t even needed to convince her father, as he’d left Io again on some “important business”.
It all worked for the best. The last thing she wanted was any of them coming face-to-face with Kai. Who she realized, to her horror, had earned his right to the Warrior mark as much as she had, and could very well appear here.
But she hadn’t seen—or felt—him yet. Thank the Goddess. . .
Still, she frequently canvassed the area, stepping back into corners for the best vantage to scour the floor. It likely looked suspicious, but she was beyond caring.
No pulls. No reactions of her wolf. No sweeps of slightly curled dark hair. No catching of storm-cloud eyes. Just Elders, former Warriors, the current class, and—
“There’s the new recruit.”
Upon the sudden voice from beside her, Isla, more on edge than she’d realized, practically jumped out of her skin, nearly coating her navy cocktail dress in wine. Heart hammering, she twisted to meet a familiar rugged face that she hadn’t seen since a few weeks prior. She blinked at him for a few moments, trying to get her bearings, before she forced a grin and the sweetest tone she could. “General Eli.”
The General’s eyes danced with amusement. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you. I forgot how skittish recruits can be right after the Hunt.”
Isla held onto her smile like her life depended on it, remembering well the last time she’d been in Eli’s presence. She had an odd, almost comical feeling that if Kai was in fact here in the Gallery, he’d surely emerge from the woodwork now.
“I didn’t have a chance to congratulate you after your victory,” Eli said, swirling his drink—what smelled like bourbon, with a few cubes of ice—in his hand. “I’d already departed for the Base, but I heard you were a marvel.”
“I’m not quite too sure about a marvel,” Isla demurred, genuine in her hesitance to his flattery.
“I am,” he countered. “You’ve been on my radar since the High General sent me to scope the rising talent. He told me to watch out for you.”
“The High General spoke of me?”
“The daughter of the Imperial Beta,” Eli boasted. “He told me you could be promising, and you haven’t disappointed.”
Isla battled to keep her features from falling into a grimace. There it was again. All accomplishment and strength relegated to something that wasn’t even a title, simply an association.
“Have you seen your display?” Upon the shaking of Isla’s head, Eli’s eyebrows shot up, before he smoothly slipped a hand behind her back to guide her in the proper direction. So much like the Feast—but here, there were no possessive tugs of intangible tethers from her mate. “Let’s go relish in your glory.”
Relish in her glory.
The words had sounded decent enough in principal, incredible even, but as Isla found herself staring up at the large fabric banner flowing on a phantom wind towards the back of the room by the podium for the speeches, all she felt was sick.
There was too much for her to focus on. Her name—being deemed “second”—embroidered just below Kai’s. The reminder of the two Bak she’d killed. The fact that Lukas’s name—even though he’d emerged, even though he’d slayed a beast—was nowhere in sight.
“Is this supposed to display the entire class of Trainees that had descended?” she choked out, trying to sound impassive.
“I’m not too sure.” Eli paused, his eyes raking over the names with intent. “Have you seen the Alpha of Deimos here?”
Isla straightened, and she suddenly became very aware of the wine in her hand. She gulped down some of the sweet liquid, feeling a light tingle in her throat. “I haven’t.”
There was the smallest uptick of the General’s lips that fell promptly. “Four Bak. Insanely impressive—but maybe a bit much, don’t you think?”
Isla pursed her lips, always finding herself so keen on the tones used when her mate was spoken of. It had happened with Adrien, then the Imperial Alpha, and now again. The urge to defend Kai—his actions, who he was—rose quickly.
“He did it to—” She cut herself off, remembering that no one knew about what really happened behind the Wall.
“Prove a point?” Eli thankfully suggested in the pause. “You two lock in some friendly competition?”
“Something like that,” she offered falsely.
The General nodded, looking back up at the names. “Well, I’m going to need that fire.” He turned, a smirk forming at the sight of Isla’s raised brows. Like he’d wanted to build anticipation. Been preparing something.
Isla, feeling like there was a secret script she was meant to follow, asked, “What do you mean?”
Eli cleared his throat. “Warriors are being deployed along the midland borders of Deimos, Rhea, and Charon to aid in Rogue eradication efforts. I’ll be heading the squadron in Deimos, and as a General, I get to pick my own unit.” He paused, letting Isla fill in some gaps. Gaps that quickly made the wine sour in her stomach. “I’ve asked the High General if he’d allow you to join me in the field. Given you’re a new recruit—and it’s almost unheard of—he had to reach higher up and was able to get clearance from the Imperial Alpha based off your recent showing.”
“You—you want me to join you in the field. . . in Deimos?”
This couldn’t be real. She was drunk or. . . something. Somehow, half a glass of wine had been too much.
“Some things may need to be on an observational basis,” he acknowledged, a smile now threatening to stretch as wide as his face. Isla had no doubt he was completely misinterpreting her shell-shocked reaction. “But it’s a great opportunity not many or any new recruit will ever be granted, and it will look great on your ledger.”
He wasn’t wrong. She hated that he wasn’t wrong. About any of it. New Warriors, especially now with the times of peace, could only dream of getting time out in action. Most of the first couple years was spent in even more training and patrols with Guard. But this? Eradicating Rogues? Helping people, protecting and serving the Realm as she’d always wanted. . .
But why couldn’t it have been anywhere else?
She feigned humility. “Oh, I could never.”
“Why not? You’ve earned it.” Eli gestured up to the banner, and she looked at it again. Her name, just below Kai’s.
Goddess, they’d be within the same borders again. Possibly find themselves face-to-face again.
At the thought, something stirred in her. Something bad. Something feral and claiming that wanted him back and had been awoken in the presence of the opportunity to get to him again.
Isla masked her groan with a sigh and battled that beast back into its dark, dank corner. “I can’t go with you to Deimos.”
“And what’s wrong with Deimos?”
The words hadn’t come from Eli.
Isla whipped around to where the voice had crooned from behind and found herself confronted by a woman making her way over. When she stopped before them, Isla took her in.
She stood just a bit taller than Isla herself, and her silken black hair must’ve been long, given how large her tightly-wound top knot was as it sat on her head like a crown—a crown it felt like she deserved. Her brown skin was practically glowing in the sunbeams spilling from the skylights above, and it drew Isla’s attention to the black ink that seemed to stretch from her collarbone beneath the neckline of her ebony dress, over her shoulder, and to her back.
“Ameera,” Eli greeted, but not much could be done to mask the bitterness in his tone.
The woman, Ameera, had her eyes honed in on Isla, sizing her up like prey, before she turned smoothly to face the General. “Eli.” She grinned, but even in its softness, it held something biting.
Eli’s matched it. “Funny seeing you here, I don’t recall you being at the Feast.” There was a smugness to his voice that gave Isla the nudge that she may not have received the invitation.
“I had other obligations,” Ameera cooed, almost mockingly. “But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check out the new blood.”
“Your Alpha did well,” Eli remarked, again with the touch of something caustic. “Beat them all.”
“You’re of Deimos?”
Isla’s outburst earned Ameera’s attention again.
“Not everyone who becomes a Warrior has goals of ‘ascending’ into the Imperial Pack,” Ameera countered, casting another long look up and down Isla. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Isla was convinced Ameera could cut down entire battlefields with her stare alone, but she wouldn’t cower beneath it.
Pushing her shoulders back, she stood a bit taller and stuck out a hand. “Isla. I’m the new blood.”
Ameera looked at the appendage for a few moments, before grabbing Isla’s forearm in the greeting.
“She was second to your Alpha.” It was Eli who bragged from beside her, gesturing upwards to the banner, before the call of his name drew his attention away.
One of Ameera’s perfectly-sculpted brows rose. “Was she now?” But she never looked up to observe the display as the two women pulled away from each other. Her eyes never left Isla’s, in fact, even when Eli excused himself and walked off.
With just the two of them now, the air seemed to shift. Become more tense. As if a curtain had been raised.
Isla didn’t know the reason, but refused to be the one to break form. She’d hold Ameera’s gaze as long as she needed to.
Ameera, seemingly realizing what she was doing, chuckled. “You are certainly not what I expected.” She ended the stalemate carelessly by looking down at the clear liquid in her glass.
“And what were you expecting exactly?” Isla asked.
“The Warrior capable of killing two Bak,” she said. “Imagine my surprise when all I’ve seen for the past hour is General Social Climber’s latest obsession skulking around like a nervous, lonely, little mouse and playing the part perfectly to his face.”
The words took Isla aback. “Excuse me?”
Ameera continued on as if she hadn’t spoken at all, “You’re going to go down as greater than most of the triumphant in these ranks for what you achieved in there, as if they weren’t already prepared to chew you up and spit you out for training to be here in the first place. And now you’re granted your first mission before you even bear your mark when they haven’t even left their own Pack borders?” She snickered. “I suppose being the Imperial Beta’s daughter has its perks.”
Isla wasn’t sure which part boiled her more—the mention, yet again, of her parentage, that damned tone that seemed to be a Deimos custom, or the subtle, assuming look Ameera had cast in the direction Eli had departed.
Isla wasn’t dense, she knew the General’s manner around her wasn’t what was expected between a commander and their subordinate, both at the Feast and here today. But maybe a small piece of her had hoped it had stemmed from genuine interest in her. . . but ‘General Social Climber’?
“Look, I don’t know who the hell you think you are to pass any sort of judgement on me after an hour, but believe me, I’ve earned my right to be here,” Isla snapped, sending Ameera’s eyes blazing with delight, as if drawing out any grit had been her goal. “I’m more than just some Beta’s daughter.”
“And so am I.” As Isla’s face fell out of her scowl, Ameera added, “It seems we have that in common.”
It didn’t take long for Isla to put the pieces together, for her heart to drop to her shoes, and for her eyes to practically bulge from her skull. A Beta’s daughter from Deimos?
“You—you’re Ezekiel’s daughter?”
At either Isla’s faltering or the mention of the Beta’s name, Ameera’s face became more crestfallen. “Warrior General Ameera of Deimos,” she introduced, not confirming or denying Isla’s claim.
That part didn’t matter anymore though. Isla swore she was about to fall over.
I don’t know who the hell you think you are to judge. . .
She forced her arm to remain at her side, before she smacked her own forehead.
Goddess, this girl was a General? A General? She couldn’t have been more than a couple years Isla’s senior.
“Good luck on your mission, new blood,” Ameera said, the most genuinely gleeful Isla had heard her. “I guess I’ll be seeing you soon.”
The Rogues in Deimos.
Isla shook her head to right herself. “I—I never said I was going.” It only registered now that Ameera had overheard her and Eli’s whole exchange, been listening.
“And why not?” Ameera asked with a challenging lift of her brows. She allowed Isla to stew in her silence for a few heartbeats, before she loosed a breath. “I mean, I know you don’t want to be our Luna and all, but is it so horrible to help defend us?”
It felt like Isla had been punched in the stomach.
“What did you just say?” Ameera didn’t repeat herself, only grinned, and Isla was glad for it. She didn’t want it spoken aloud here again.
Suddenly, a hand brushed against her shoulder.
Isla whirled around to find Eli had rejoined their party. She hoped to the Goddess he hadn’t heard anything.
The male General took in their two expressions—Isla’s hard as stone and Ameera’s smug as can be. “Did I miss something?”
“No,” Ameera answered immediately. “Isla was just telling me how excited she is to get out in the field.”
Eli’s face seemed to brighten, and Isla wasn’t sure which of her commanding officers she wanted to dump her wine on.
“I’ll leave you two to talk strategy.” Ameera took a step forward and tilted her head down to Isla. “I’m looking forward to seeing you in Deimos, Princess,” she offered and then leaned in ever so slightly just before she walked away, her voice so soft—only for her—and flecked with taunt. “Or would you prefer queen?”