The Alpha and the Warrior

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XXII. THE PLAN

A little over one month.

She and Kai had made it only a little over a month before they’d found themselves together again. Isla would laugh if she wasn’t so bewildered by it.

She’d known a reunion could happen—that it likely would happen—when she agreed to come to Deimos. Figured she’d spot him from a distance, maybe in a crowd or a gathering somewhere down the line. There would be a moment, an acknowledgment, and then they’d part, continuing on with their lives.

Like they’d planned.

But this? She’d been within Deimos’s borders for no more than five goddess-forsaken hours—maybe even less than that.

And yet, here she was. And there he was.

And she could feel it.

The tether, the bond, coiling around her, urging her forward. To him. To his touch.

“Damn mates.”

She barely heard Jonah grumble. Paid little mind to him as he moved past her to go to the counter on the other side of the room.

She felt shameful for glancing to the floor, if only to picture, for a moment, what he’d warned against.

Mates.

It took Isla, in her daze, a while to register exactly what Jonah had said. But eventually the words sunk in—further and further, deeper and deeper—until they hit her full force.

With wide eyes, she looked between him and Kai, just in time to catch the two exchanging a quick glance. A knowing glance. A glance between acquaintances. Between. . . friends?

But before she could jump to question, Kai’s attention was on her again. Intent and arresting.

Something familiar blazed behind his eyes, and it pulled at that wretched part of her. The part of her that craved. That skittered through her body and torched her skin in a maddening way she remembered well. In a way that only he could soothe, that only he could touch and kiss and fuck away. Not a man she pulled into the bathroom or back alley of some bar. Not some random suitor she dragged to her apartment. Only him. And he knew it—how badly she wanted him, for the most dizzying of seconds. And maybe she’d been so blinded by her own desire the first time they’d met, or now she was more in tune to him than she’d realized, but she could feel it from him too.

And it just made things worse.

“I’m not kidding,” Jonah reiterated as he sorted through some books. “I’m sure the binding of an Alpha and Luna is a beautiful, momentous event, but I want no part in it.”

Isla managed to tear her eyes away from Kai to look towards the shop owner again, hearing the words—her ‘destined’ title—enough to jar her from whatever fantasies had been blooming.

She would only spare Kai a quick look-over. “You two know each other?”

Silence fell.

It didn’t seem like that hard of a question, but Jonah looked at Kai. And then Isla had to.

Sensing her impending irritation, her mate let out a sigh, before gesturing between them. “Isla. Jonah. My. . . well, you could call him my brother.”

“Pleasure,” Jonah said, before going back to his work.

Brother.

Isla knew what Kai had meant, but still, a dumfounded expression cast across her face. She tried to wrap her head around how she’d ended up here. Felt horrified that she’d been with Kai’s ‘brother’ for the past few minutes, interacted with him, talked with him, and had no idea. All the while, he knew exactly who she was the second she introduced herself.

She folded her arms across her chest, very aware that she was about to be a hypocrite. “You told people. We promised to keep this a secret, and you told people.”

Kai took a few gentle steps forward.

Isla retreated back the same amount.

He flashed a deadpan look, and she raised her brows, urging him to explain.

“They’re not just ‘people’,” he said.

“They?” she echoed. “Who are they?

Almost on cue, the bell above the shop door chimed—high and sweet—as it was pushed open. Through it strolled a familiar small, full-figured woman. Davina froze a step into the shop, taking in the sight before her—Isla and Kai in some sort of stand-off, and Jonah left to bare witness.

“Hello,” she drawled, letting her russet hair free from beneath the hood of her cloak. Her greeting was followed by thick seconds of quiet. All too long. “Right,” she muttered, before taking cautious steps over to the counter. “This seems like something I’m not meant to be a part of anymore, so I’m just going to go into the back and get a drink. Care to join me, Jonie?”

Jonah didn’t speak. Only dropped everything and eagerly followed.

Isla watched as the two descended behind the shelves, not missing their muttered exchange.

“You weren’t supposed to send her here.”

“I didn’t think she’d go out tonight.”

She kept her head turned, even when they’d disappeared. She could feel Kai’s eyes boring into her back, could hear as he moved in closer again. Could feel it.

“Isla.”

She didn’t turn.

Isla.”

Her name was said slower. Deeper. Softer. And from closer. Very close. A manipulation.

Isla spun around slowly, a grimace prepped and ready on her face. She wouldn’t let it falter as he was merely a foot away. As she clocked just the slightest bit of warmth exchanged from the proximity of their bodies, as she caught a hint of that scent she couldn’t bring herself to wash out of that damn gown.

She stepped back. “Do not.”

“You’re trying to make me believe you didn’t tell anyone? The Imperial Heir? Your brother?”

Isla clenched her teeth. There was no point in lying. “They figured it out themselves. I didn’t tell them voluntarily.”

The corners of Kai’s lips ticked upwards. “Why? Were you losing it without me?”

“No, you arrogant ass, because you couldn’t stay away from me for more than a few hours.”

“Can you blame me?” Kai offered, not missing a beat. Her glower persisted. “If it helps, they figured it out too.”

Isla’s features softened, if only slightly. Whoever this ‘they’ was—Jonah and Davina, she was sure of—she’d never met them beforehand. They weren’t at the Feast. They weren’t at the infirmary. They hadn’t seen the look that Adrien had mentioned. Hadn’t found them together frequently.

“How?” The question spilled from her mouth before she could stop it.

Kai hesitated.

“I was different when I came back.”

And that was all he said. All he would say, judging by the pensive, solemn look that had threatened his face. And Isla didn’t know if it was the bond, but she knew not to push for more explanation.

Not for that anyway.

She relaxed her arms. “How did you know I was here?”

“I went to the hotel—where you were supposed to be—but when Davina rung up to your room, you weren’t there. Then she mentioned she’d told you about Jonah’s.” Kai loosed a chuckle. “I should’ve known you’d run off at the first chance you had.”

He was going to meet her at the hotel?

A strangled ring of the bell above the door—so opposing to Davina’s—caused the two of them to jump apart as the entrance to the shop bursted open. A chill swept up Isla’s spine, but she blamed it on the air that had rushed through. Her eyebrows shot up as she found herself staring at the face of the person who’d been haunting her mind since they’d met weeks ago.

Ameera—hair done up again in that crown of a bun—pointed at Kai. The Alpha cursed under his breath.

“You son of a bitch,” Ameera seethed, pressing forward with her finger still up in the air until she was inches away from Kai. She pushed the digit into his chest. “Why would you send grumpy ass to my post? I was supposed to be the one to check the Warriors at the border with Rhydian. That was the plan.”

Isla blinked her wide eyes, wondering if all of this was some elaborate hallucination.

Kai and Ameera did know each other, apparently. But this didn’t seem like an exchange between lovers, or even former ones.

“Because I told you not to go to Ganymede,” Kai told her, brushing her hand away, continuing before the wide-eyed Ameera could ask where he’d gotten the information. “General Eli was wondering in what capacity you’d be helping with the Rogues. If you’d need to be considered part of his team and under his command as a Warrior. He mentioned he’d just seen you at the Warrior base.” Kai nodded down to Isla. “For the ceremonies.”

When Ameera finally averted her attention, Isla found herself too stunned to be as angry as she imagined she’d be upon encountering the female General again.

The Beta’s daughter hummed, her eyes slits. “So nice of you to decide to help out, new blood.”

“Meera,” Kai warned.

But Isla ignored it.

She tilted her chin to the General, matching the intensity of her stare. “Not what you expected?”

Ameera flashed her feline grin, trailing her eyes over Isla’s form. “It’s what I was hoping for.”

Isla bit down on her tongue. There were so many things she’d pictured saying to her, but they all felt pointless now. “You could’ve told me that he told you.”

“And where’s the fun in that?” Ameera said. “I wanted to see what I had to work with.”

Before Isla could ask what she meant, there was the sound of a closing door, shuffling footsteps, and then laughter, before Jonah and Davina re-appeared from behind the bookshelves. Jonah was holding a decanter of brown liquor and some glasses, while Davina matched with her bottle of wine.

Ameera moved away from Isla and Kai, further into the room. “Thank you both for telling me Isla was here. I had to find out from my father during the worst family dinner I’ve ever had.”

Ezekiel.

Ameera gestured to the liquor in Jonah’s arms. “I need half of that.”

As she watched the exchange, Isla had never felt like such a fish out of water. An outsider to this Pack, and an outsider to what seemed to be a tight-knit group of friends. She knew nothing much of them beyond their names, and yet it felt like they could read her like a book, standing there, staring, with Kai at her back.

As if he could sense her becoming overwhelmed and uneasy, Kai craned his head down. She could very faintly feel his breath as he asked, “Do you want me to walk you back?”

Isla turned to look up at him, taking note of how close their faces were. Becoming aware of the twisting and winding. Aware of the comfort. Aware that of all the unknown she’d just walked into, he was the most certain thing she had.

And maybe it was that which had her nodding without very much thought and saying, “Okay.”

Kai’s brows lifted a fraction of an inch before he smiled softly and nodded. He rose up, and Isla found herself missing the closeness. “I have to head back to the Hall,” he announced to the room, earning noises reminiscent of groans. “I’m going to walk Isla back.”

“And so it begins.” Ameera sighed over-dramatically, reaching over to clink glasses with Jonah. “It’s just you and me, buddy.” They both followed the exchange by drinking their whiskey to the dregs. As Jonah poured them another, Ameera jerked her chin towards Kai. “When will you be unchained from that place so we can actually go down to Abalys and stop hanging out here? Or actually see you more than once a week.” She added the last part in a murmur.

“I like it here,” Davina said, finding a spot on one of the plush arm-chairs set up by the shelves. “It’s cozy, and it doesn’t smell like sewer.”

As an argument began to ensue over the odors of Abalys, Kai turned and waved Isla to follow. He pulled the shop door open quietly, so as not to cut in or draw attention, and held it open for her to pass through.

The beautiful streets of Mavec greeted Isla with moon-touched stone and a cold slap to the face. She sucked in a sharp breath and let it out, watching the faintest cloud materialize before her mouth. It hadn’t been this chilly when she’d left the hotel. She circled her arms around her body to warm her exposed skin.

“It can get pretty cold here at night, even during the summer months,” Kai said, while removing his jacket. An action completely at odds with his sentence.

But it made sense when he held it open to her.

Isla blinked at it for a few seconds—a no, thank you sitting on the tip of her tongue—but as if goading her to take it, another ice-laced wind swept by. Self-preservation trumped pride and doubt as she stepped over and very carefully stuck her arm through one of the sleeves. As she and Kai went to work the other, they both moved in a way so methodical, so unusual from an outsider’s perspective, she was sure, they couldn’t help but laugh.

She was drowning in his clothing. The black fabric limp on her frame. The apparel was accustomed to the broadness of Kai’s shoulders, the muscles of his arms. But she was perfectly fine with it, how the sleeves extended past her fingertips and the hem ended at her mid-thigh, rather than her hips. It was warm. . . and it smelled like him.

“Thanks,” she said.

And then the two began walking.

At first, they moved in silence, side-by-side, but at their safe distance. Isla shoved her hands in the coat’s pockets and closed her eyes for a moment, taking in the softest of sounds. The faintest hint of music, of laughter and joy, from people down in what she would consider the heart of the city. The hums of the wind as it wound through the mountains, the buildings, the pine of the trees. The ringing of bells and the lick of water against the surfaces of the boats on the river.

But mostly, she focused on the easiness of their footsteps, finding herself calmed by each rhythmic hit of their shoes to the cobblestone walkway. Completely in-sync. Her breathing slowed, and her shoulders relaxed from a tightness she hadn’t realized they had.

And then, in the quiet, the disbelief hit her full-force again.

She was with Kai. In Deimos.

“I’m sorry.”

Kai’s apology caused her to snap her eyes open. She averted her gaze to him. “For what?”

“That isn’t how I wanted you to meet them,” he said. “At least, formally. They can be. . . a lot. But, they’re like family.”

Isla smiled softly, feeling a little bit of warmth bloom in her chest. He’d wanted her to meet the people he was closest to. “It’s fine. Adrien and my brother can be the same way,” she dismissed. “Are they the only ’they’ that know about us?”

“The only other person is Rhydian.”

“The Guard?”

Kai hummed in affirmation. “My other ‘brother’. Jonah’s twin and Davina’s mate. I owe him for tonight—and Thyra. I’m sure Sol was pissed I sent him out there and took it out on them.”

Isla snickered, remembering the Delta’s demands for an impossible return of the Guards. “He wasn’t thrilled.”

Kai laughed. “Great. . . you can trust him, if you ever need anything here, but don’t ever tell him you’re my mate. If he knew that’s why he was at the borders. . .” Kai’s smile grew. “He used to train me, Rhydian, and Jonah while we were preparing for the Guard—Ameera too, before she went into the Warrior program—and before he became a Delta. He’d bash my skull in, but he’d do it because he cared.”

Isla’s face contorted into a grin the mix of confusion, concern, and slight amusement. “Right.” But then she went over the first part of Kai’s words, and her lips fell. “Who else can I trust?”

“Ezekiel,” Kai answered almost immediately, and Isla worked to fight off her scowl. “I told him that if he tried to shove you in a safe house, I have no problem with you kicking his ass. Or I would—but I felt like you’d enjoy it more.” Isla’s beam returned, and Kai chuckled again. “And you say I don’t know you.”

Isla rolled her eyes, before asking with some levity, “Anyone else?”

Though, any mirth of her’s dissipated when Kai’s face went serious.

“I’m still working on that,” he said, voice a soft rumble. He paused. “And I think you could help me.”

Isla blinked, her steps slowing enough to ruin their rhythm. “What do you mean?”

Kai’s throat bobbed as he darted his eyes around them. Isla mirrored the action, and it dawned on her that she’d blindly followed him down a different path. One that veered away from that of which she’d taken from the hotel to the shop earlier. With this, there was no chance of encountering anyone, cutting along a dirt road through sparse forest.

“In a couple days,” Kai began, before she could question the detour, “we’re having a banquet for a retiring Council member. General Eli was added to the guest list, and I made sure he was allowed a plus-one. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to ask you.”

Isla averted her eyes from the surroundings and back to him. Was this all about Eli? “I would never go with him.”

“You have to.”

“Why?”

“Because I trust you—and you’re of Io.” Kai shoved his hands in his pockets, a muscle fluttering beneath his cheek. “I need you to work that charm of yours. Be the woman I saw from across the room at the Feast. I need you to tell me everything you hear, everyone you talk to. What they say, how they say it. If they came up to you, or if you sought them out.”

“What are you looking for?”

“I’ll know when I hear it.”

Isla opened and closed her mouth, unsure what to say. She caught sight of the backside of the hotel up ahead. As quickly as she could, she attempted breaking down what Kai was asking of her. “When Sol had found out that me and Callan were of Io, he asked if we were here to aid you or investigate you—but apparently I’m here to aid in your investigations?”

“I suppose.”

“Is that why you approved me then?” Isla asked. “Why you endorsed me being here. So I could be your spy?”

A little hurt crept into her voice, and it made Kai slow until he came to a stop. Isla followed suit. They were a few yards away from the hotel’s backdoor. He turned and gradually closed the distance between them until all that was left were inches.

“I approved you because you deserve to be here,” he said, locking her gaze. “I’m not going to deny you what you’ve worked for just because I have to work harder to not think about you all the time and to keep my hands to myself.”

Isla bit down hard on the inside of her cheek, not wanting to address or show reaction to the tease. “I didn’t bring any type of formal wear, and I don’t think I can show up to a banquet in my armor or Warrior gear.”

Kai smirked. “I’ll take care of it.” He moved in just one step closer. Another, and they’d be against each other. “I need you, Isla.”

The statement shouldn’t have made her shiver, shouldn’t have had her mind running through the other situations in which she’d want to hear it from his mouth. But it did. Thankfully, she was able to quell anything before it started.

Swallowing hard, she ran her eyes along his face. He appeared older now than he had when she’d last seen him—a tiredness to his eyes and a shadow of stubble dusting over his jaw and cheeks. Another month spent adjusting to a role he’d never prepared for and could never have a reprieve from.

Even with how assured he’d sounded, there was something pleading in his gaze. He needed her.

He needed her.

Taking a breath, Isla squared her shoulders to him and said, “You have me.”

| ☽ |

Kai had been right.

Before the sun had even crept fully over the mountains surrounding Mavec, before its beams could cast a gleam along the river, Eli had asked Isla to the banquet.

He’d fallen upon her in the hotel lobby, just as she’d been returning from grabbing a sunrise breakfast alone at the café nearby—a recommendation from Davina. The way the General had framed the invitation, she would be accompanying him as his protégé. His second. It was all to observe how one would interact as their position within the setting. Navigating political conversation, easing minds—and maybe tempers—especially in times of uncertainty and strife.

It would’ve been an honor if she wasn’t so aware of his ulterior motives. If she hadn’t caught his reflection in one of the windows as she’d walked away, his eyes honed on her lower half. Still, even if his objective at times had been to woo her, he seemed shocked when she’d been so gleefully responsive, flashing him a wide smile, thanking him and saying that she’d love to attend. She’d played the ‘role’—as Ameera called it—perfectly. And just as Kai would want. Eager and bright-eyed, ready to schmooze and flatter.

She hadn’t seen her mate or heard from him since they’d parted last night—with a ’goodnight, Alpha’ and ‘goodnight, Warrior’, that she replayed endlessly through her head as she walked up to her hotel room. She’d still been wearing his jacket, she realized. He hadn’t asked her to give it back. Maybe because he liked the fact that his scent was all over her, even when she’d taken it off.

Only after an hour of scrubbing her body head-to-toe in the shower—while trying her damned hardest to keep her fingers from drifting anywhere else as lecherous thoughts of him, particularly running his hands over her body, made their return—did she feel like she’d removed every trace of him.

Though a leery look she’d received from Callan as the Warriors boarded their vehicle that morning made her paranoid that she hadn’t.

As instructed, while Eli went to meet Beta Ezekiel and the Lead Commander of the entire Deimos Guard, the rest of the unit went on to spend the morning and early afternoon touring the Guard’s main campus and getting to know the remaining Order that hadn’t been sent to deal with the Rogues yet. The strategy was to have the Warriors—being the most elite fighters and strategists the Realm had to offer, according to their rank—working alongside the Guard battalions to drive their nefarious brethren from the towns of southern Abalys.

Isla knew the two fighter classes were meant to mix, to get along and build rapport, but she didn’t have much hope for that happening. From Eli’s words, it seemed they didn’t want the Warriors involved at all.

The campus sat at the base of one of the mountains. It was the furthest of the various peaks, deceptively so, as it took them nearly an hour of winding roads and hills and valleys to get there. It was similar to Io’s Guard headquarters—dormitories and training rings, a reference center and dining quarters, medic buildings, and a horde of new, young recruits running drills over the landscape. Some of them looked as if they’d pass out. Isla was sure they’d been going since sunrise.

When a break from the touring came at lunch, Isla was late getting to the mess hall. She’d gotten “lost”, “separated from the group”, and conveniently found herself amongst the books and maps of the camp’s collection.

There had been nothing on Phobos.

Nothing on any language but the Common and the native dialect of Deimos that was now obsolete.

Both used the same uniform alphabet. Nothing like the symbols of the message, the marker, or the book.

She would have to go back to the Bookshoppe and see what Jonah’d had to offer her—before she’d been distracted by their surprise guest—even though she wasn’t sure how she’d interact with the shop owner now that she knew he knew. Wasn’t sure what their relationship was—if there was any type of “relationship” between them. She was simply destined to be with his “brother”. The same went for all of Kai’s closest companions.

Including Rhydian.

Who she spotted before her in the long line waiting to get his food.

The Guard looked different from his twin, more brawny and muscle-bound compared to Jonah’s sinewy stature. Rhydian’s hair was longer too, the tight curls coiling a bit higher on his head. They shared the same dark skin though, and similar amber and honey flecked eyes. Eyes that were warm and inviting—that urged her forward.

After some strategic maneuvering, she was able to get beside him at one of the lines. He was distracted by a conversation with a man on his other side, glancing sidelong at him as he heaped some chicken onto his plate. Isla set her tray down to slide along the metal bar, her mouth watering as she waited and eyed the options for her meal. They’d gone through three serving stations, him leaving the utensil for her every time—but never acknowledging her—before he’d ended his exchange.

After a clear of her throat, she leaned over and asked, “So what’s good here?”

Rhydian didn’t turn. He picked up the serving spoon for the vegetables, a smirk threatening his mouth. “Uh, not the—” The Guard glanced and then did a double-take, cutting himself off when he realized who he was talking to. His wide eyes lingered for a moment, before he looked forward again. Then stepped to the side.

A smile played on Isla’s lips. “Oh, come on,” she teased. “I don’t bite.”

Rhydian furrowed his brows at the quip, as if he hadn’t expected it, and smiled. “My brother may be disappointed then.”

It was just quiet enough for her to hear, and her jerk-back reaction had his grin growing.

“Don’t get the beans,” he advised. Then continued down the way.

With Kai back on her mind, the two of them didn’t interact again until they were at the final station, lined with desserts. Most had forgone the sweets—with the hard day of drills continuing from the afternoon into evening—but Rhydian put a handful of cookies on his plate. When Isla took one off the tray for herself, Rhydian laughed. She wasn’t sure why, but either way, she laughed with him.

As her amusement faded into soft breaths, she realized that they were pretty distant from others. There had been a question plaguing her mind since last night. Why not ask?

“Did he really make you go to the border to check on me? To escort us—me—into Mavec?” She wouldn’t speak Kai’s name aloud, but Rhydian knew what she meant. “And then the hotel the Warriors were sent to—specifically the one Davina works at?”

His brows lifted at the mention of his mate. “I was on duty,” he tried to reason.

“But at that border?”

“He wanted to make sure you got into the city safely,” Rhydian explained. “He’s protective—of all of us, really—but with you. . . I get the feeling.”

She knew of Kai’s drive to protect her very well—she’d needed to seduce him and utter some rather lewd comments in order to get around it.

With a sigh, she smiled softly. “How long have you been together?”

Rhydian’s features brightened. “Next month makes a year.”

Only a year? That was quick to form a Chosen bond.

“You’re Fated?”

“Never thought the day would come,” Rhydian chuckled. “It wasn’t the plan, but she changed my life.”

‘Not the plan’ sounded familiar—and ‘changed my life’ resonated in a way Isla wasn’t expecting.

Eventually, Isla followed him to the table with his squad-mates.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” he’d asked, nodding towards the group of Warriors sitting alone at the table away from the rest of the Order.

Neither Emil, Lavan, Fitch, or Callan had displayed any hesitation in her absence. All four of them, donning their Warrior gear as she did, had already made their way down the long service line, acquired their heaps of food, and began digging in before she’d even stepped foot in the hall. Her being lost didn’t mean a damn thing. They were probably hoping she never returned.

“We’re meant to mingle,” she told Rhydian.

As they walked through the hall, Isla noticed the amount of eyes that tracked her. It was because of what she was wearing—what she very clearly was—but there was a small part of her that wondered, that feared, that they recognized her also as what she was meant to be.

The long table they approached had several groups spread over its lengthy bench, but Rhydian had stopped in front of a clear trio. The band of four beside them took one glance at her before leaving.

Rhydian glowered at them—Isla did too—before the Guard gestured to the three that remained. One of them—a young woman, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with black hair that went to her chin—she recognized as Thyra.

“Isla, meet the members of unit 37B—Thyra, Belle, and Magnus,” Rhydian presented in mock-grandness.

Thyra waved sweetly, while Belle and Magnus both nodded in curt acknowledgement.

“Nice to meet you,” Isla forced, before moving to take a seat across from them beside Rhydian.

“You’re of Io?” Belle asked, before her butt had even hit the seat.

Isla ran her tongue over her teeth. “Yes.”

“She’s the Imperial Beta’s daughter,” Thyra added—as if they’d spoken of her before, and she couldn’t believe that the brown-haired woman had forgotten it.

“So do you know the Imperial Heir?” Magnus asked bluntly, not even looking up from the food he was eating.

Isla raised a brow. Why bring up Adrien? “Yes?”

The light-haired man bit into a piece of bread. “No offense, but what kind of Alpha loses his mate? How can we expect him to—”

Without hesitation, Isla lifted her fork and pointed the sharp edge out at him, effectively cutting him off. “If you’re smart, you’ll stop talking.” There was no hint of humor in her tone.

This was why Imperial Alpha Cassius had been so adamant about Adrien and Cora staying together, keeping their bond. Because of how it reflected on the Hierarchy, how it was viewed by the other Packs.

As Magnus narrowed his eyes, Rhydian offered, “She just took down two Bak. I give you three seconds in the ring with her.”

Isla slowly lowered her utensil, giving the Guard a thankful glance.

“The Hunt is overrated,” Magnus argued.

Isla snapped her head back. Overrated? She’d nearly died.

“I’d like to see you last twenty-four hours in the Wilds,” she challenged.

“I could go a week, but your Alpha wouldn’t approve me.”

Her scowl softened. “Why not?”

“Because you can’t have too many Warriors born out of Deimos,” he sneered. “Then it may bring the question if your Pack is really the strongest in the Realm.”

Isla’s jaw slackened. “That’s not. . . true.”

Magnus put his bread down and took hold of the sides of his tray, letting out a humorless laugh. “Of course it’s not,” he said, before rising from the table and walking away.

The silence that followed was so tense that Isla thought she’d suffocate.

“He’s just bitter,” Belle commented to break the quiet. “He was denied entry to the Hunt four years in a row before he gave up.”

Even with the statement, a stillness took the table again. In it, Isla began digging into her lunch. Was that true?

“Isn’t our Alpha going to have to take a mate at some point?”

She stopped eating abruptly, looking up Thyra who’d had the slightest redness tinting her cheeks with the question.

While Isla became tense, Rhydian remained cool. He bit into the sandwich he’d made. “At some point.”

“Shouldn’t it be soon?” Belle commented brusquely. “We don’t have an Heir. By the time he chooses someone and a bond takes form, it could be years. That can’t look good to other Packs.”

Isla felt her stomach twist.

Thyra pulled a piece of her hair behind her ear. “Unless he finds his destined mate.” There was something light about her voice, hopeful.

Belle scoffed. “Yeah, right. What they’ll probably do is line up every she-wolf within these borders, and he’ll just take his pick. Who’s going to actually tell him no? He’s an Alpha.” She rolled her eyes, before mocking, “Or he could fall back into old patterns. Ones that are gorgeous, vain, and ’Goddess forbid I lift a finger’.”

Thyra giggled. “You mean Amalie?”

“Amalie?” Isla said the name before she could stop herself. All of their eyes went to her, and she shrunk slightly in her seat.

“A member of one of the wealthiest families in the Pack, probably the entire Realm,” Thyra began. “She’s the heiress to a fortune and descended from Alphas of Mimas. She and the Alpha had been on again, off again for years—before he became Alpha. My sister followed all of the gossip. The Pack ate the two of them up.” She let out a sigh. “They always looked so great in pictures.”

“In pictures,” Belle made a point in echoing while one hand went to rub her temples. “She’s nothing like she pretends to be when she’s behind closed doors. I was on her private guard for a while, while I was still in training. I have never heard two people switch up from fighting to fucking so fast.”

Isla straightened in her seat, feeling something inside her start to simmer. That was something about Kai’s past she wasn’t keen to hear about.

“That was literally all they did,” Belle continued to complain. “Fight, fuck, fight, fuck, fight—”

Rhydian put his hands up, and Isla felt his knee bump against hers beneath the table. “Okay, we get it.”

She turned to look up at him, but found his eyes cast on her hand instead. She followed them to the fork in her hand. . . slightly bent from the force of her thumb pressing down on it. Thankfully, neither Belle nor Thyra noticed.

Thyra lowered her voice. “They were together right before. . . you know. I heard she was with him when he found out.”

It took Isla a while to register what the teen was alluding to, and when it did, her insides turned watery.

I heard they couldn’t find him for hours,” Belle said. “The whole Pack knew before he did.”

Her mouth went dry, and she couldn’t get herself to swallow. She couldn’t imagine how horrible that must’ve been for him. Didn’t want to.

“It’s all rumors and speculation,” Rhydian said pointedly. “No one knows what really happened.”

Did he know about what happened? About the murders, the killer?

“Well, whoever he picks, no one will live up to Luna Zahra,” Belle countered. “She’s a goddess amongst us all.”

Thyra nodded. “Amen to that.”

Isla bit down on the inside of her cheek, looking down at her tray. She felt Rhydian knock against her knee again, but she refused to turn to him. Instead, she pushed the food around on her plate.

Amen to that.

| ☽ |

The last part of the day had been filled with endless drills, with the Warriors joining the Guard. Isla stuck by Rhydian, doing her best to keep up with his long strides and endless supply of muscle-mass. At points, the two of them were in competition. Isla was beet-red and panting by the time dusk hit, and there had still been one more drill that involved climbing up a steep trail along the mountain that many had to drop out from.

Her body was screaming and sore when the Warriors finally retreated back to the hotel. They’d be doing the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day, until it was time to head off.

As she bordered on a limp through the lobby, she heard her name called from behind her.

It was Davina, standing behind the front desk.

“I recognize that look,” she greeted with a laugh as Isla approached, noting her physical discomfort and disheveled appearance. Her cheery mood did a little to distract and alleviate any pain. “There’s a package for you.”

Isla furrowed her brows. “For me? From where?”

Davina shrugged, before handing her the brown-encased parcel. Isla weighted it in her hand. It was considerably heavy.

The smallest nagging of fear gripped her heart—given her track record recently with unexpected events—and quickly, she bid Davina goodbye before moving as fast as she could to her room.

As soon as she broke the threshold, she tossed the box onto her bed, hearing a faint rattle with it. She paused—then was happy no one could see her as she grabbed hold of her sword, even if she had what she considered valid reasons.

She poked the parcel with the tip of her blade. Once. Twice. She made a clear slice along the side, peeling back the brown paper to reveal a sleek black box. Atop it was a white piece of paper, so stark against the surface.

Heart in her throat, she approached it slowly. Her fingers were trembling as she picked it up and read: A GIFT FOR A GIFT.

She felt a thrumming in her chest, but terror was no longer the reason.

The corners of Isla’s lips twitched upwards as she placed her sword on the mattress and brushed some of her hair out of her face that was coated in dry sweat. She lifted the lid from the box slowly. In it, she found the luxurious sheen of silk as dark as ink, the fabric rich and finely made. It was smooth beneath her fingertips as she ran her hands along it before hooking the two straps. They were thin, she noticed, as she lifted the dress. Diving down into a plunging neckline that ended at the cinched waist, stitched with subtle corded patterns, just above where her navel would be. From the middle it split again, a high slit, certain to leave her leg on display, before it pooled onto the ground like an obsidian lagoon.

It was beautiful. Too beautiful. Too nice.

But her admiring of it was cut short when something else within the box caught her eye. Jewelry of silver and diamonds and gemstones so crimson they looked like blood. Like the sheen of an Alpha’s eyes. . . or the trademark color of Io.

All of this must’ve cost a fortune—but it was necessary. At least, in Kai’s eyes.

It was a spectacle—she was. She had to be. As much attention as possible had to be on her tomorrow night.

If it weren’t simply for the bared skin of her body and the daring cuts of the dress, the thin straps and the low cut back left her exposed lumerosi. If the lumerosi didn’t draw attention or conversation, it would be the jewels. One way or another, Kai needed her to interact with as many people as she could, get as much information as she could glean. . . a Warrior and the Alpha’s spy.

With the dress still in her hands, Isla walked to her window, where she could just catch one of the towers of the Pack Hall dwelling in a sea of sunset—reds and oranges, purples and blues.

How bad could it be?

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