The Alpha and the Warrior

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XXIII. THE BANQUET

Right when her clock hit four in the afternoon the next day—the day of the banquet—Isla received a knock on her door. She groaned, rising from the edge of her mattress—where she’d been working to remove her mud-slicked shoes—and hobbled over to it, her limbs barking in protest.

She’d just returned from training with the Guard again—given approval to retire early in order to prepare for the festivities later that night—and there was only a little less than two hours until she’d need to meet General Eli in the lobby. She would need every second of it—mostly to remove all of the dirt that seemed to coat her like a second skin. She didn’t necessarily have time for visitors.

Hand on her sword, which she always had perched by the exit—while Lukas’s dagger, claimed as her own, remained hidden under her pillow—Isla opened the door, leaving the chain latched.

“Davina?”

On the opposite end of the threshold, the fiery-haired woman beamed, green eyes sparkling. Isla moved to close and unlock the entrance.

Once given full-view of the Warrior, Davina’s features fell, screwing as if she’d eaten something sour. “You haven’t showered yet?”

Isla retreated a step, feeling slightly self-conscious. “I just got back.” She darted her eyes to the large brown leather trunk that sat at Davina’s side. “What is that?”

The floral scent of Davina’s perfume wafted through the room as she brushed by Isla, dragging the heavy-set box along behind her. “I told Rhydian to make sure you got back here by three.”

No answer to the question, but Isla didn’t bother asking again.

“Rhydian’s not my commander,” she told her, closing her door softly.

“Funny, he said the same thing, but I’d heard countless stories of the boys sneaking out of things before, I figured he’d get creative.”

Davina heaved the trunk onto the bed, and Isla watched as it bounced atop the mattress. Listened to whatever was inside rattle. She bent down to untie her other shoe, not removing her eyes from the casing. “What are you doing here?”

Once again, Davina failed to answer right away, instead moving to flip the brass latch on the front of the trunk. It came undone with a click beneath her fingers, before she flung it open. Isla rose to peer inside, abandoning her shoes in their spot.

She let out a soft whistle at the overabundance of cosmetics and hair accessories, seemingly for every occasion. From the soft hues of morning brunches, to the dark, sultry shades of night’s out and dinner gatherings.

Davina turned to Isla, placing her hands on her wide hips and proclaiming, “I’m getting you ready for the party.”

Isla’s mouth opened and closed as a particular silver and ruby comb caught her attention. It almost looked like a tiara. She met Davina’s eyes. “You—you don’t have to do that.”

“I want to,” Davina argued, pulling a few powders from the trunk and comparing against Isla’s skin. Isla wasn’t sure how she could even see it beneath the dirt. “You’re going to blow away everyone in that room. Especially that mate of yours.”

Isla ignored the small rise of wicked excitement her words had brought upon and instead focused on the reminding of her objectives. Why she was attending the party in the first place. “Did Kai make you do this too?”

Davina scoffed, dropping the powders and picking up a rouge. “Kai is my Alpha, but he doesn’t make me do anything.” She dropped the blusher, then went to examine Isla’s fingernails, smudged with the grime that was also matted in her hair. She clicked her tongue, before waving her off. “Go shower. We don’t have much time, and you look like you’ve been living in the mud.”

| ☽ |

When Isla emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in the fluffy white robe that had been left complimentarily with the various soaps and hair products, Davina was examining her dress hanging near the closet.

“This is gorgeous,” she commented, running her fingers over the silk.

Isla continued scrunching her hair with a towel. “It’s not mine.”

She glanced over. “He gave it to you, didn’t he?”

Isla rested the towel back around her neck. “You knew what was in the package?”

Davina smiled. “When it was Marin who dropped it off, I put the pieces together.”

Yet another female name associated with her mate that she wasn’t familiar with.

“Marin?”

“Kai’s do-all.” Davina stepped back from the gown. “He has his Council, obviously. Then he has us—we’re like his. . . personal Council—and then there’s Marin.” She fluffed the pillow on the chair in front of the bureau she’d converted into a makeshift vanity. “She wears many hats, the Alpha’s secretary being one of them—she was his father’s too. From my understanding she keeps him sane, organized, and maintains face within the Pack and outside of it.”

At the description, Isla felt a pang of homesickness. “His Winslow,” she said in a breathy laugh, remembering the official who’d spent more time with her in her childhood than he would’ve ever cared for.

“His what?”

“Nothing.”

Davina gestured for Isla to take a seat, and as Isla proceeded, she added, “She’s a scary thing, quite honestly, and she was probably strung out because of the banquet. I was surprised she agreed to waste time running the errand herself—but Kai can be pretty persuasive when he wants to be.” She gathered Isla’s hair in her hands and clipped it back out of her face. As she examined her features to determine the first line of attack, she said, “You have beautiful eyes.”

Feeling heat rise to her cheeks, Isla thanked her, before commenting, “My mother had the same.”

Something flashed along Davina’s face—something like regret—as she caught the word. Had.

“Very pretty,” she complimented again, before rising and retrieving a cream off the dresser. She nodded to the side, and Isla followed her gaze to Kai’s jacket sitting by the window. “That looks familiar. Did he leave it here?” A playfulness colored her tone. Probably an attempt to lighten the mood.

No,” Isla countered, just as sprightly. “It was cold, and he let me wear it.”

“And you kept it?”

“I forgot to take it off, and never had a chance to give it back.”

“I’m sure he has no problem with you keeping it. He has plenty.” She shook her head and snickered. “You know, I cannot believe you’ve gone this long without even touching. I mean, Kai is—Kai, an Alpha, and your destined mate. You have the self-control of a saint.” She dabbed spots of the lotion over Isla’s skin. “One look at Rhydian and I was ready—well, I already explained.”

Isla recounted her and Davina’s first interaction. Her description of that ‘special moment’. “At a bar?”

Davina nodded, swiping over Isla’s forehead. “Before I worked here at the hotel, I worked a pub in Abalys. It was my second night on the job, and some hooligan started up a fight.”

“Rhydian?”

Jonah,” Davina said, as if she’d still been wrapping her mind around it. “Rhydian and Kai had gone in to break it up. Got caught in it themselves. All the while Ameera was watching from the side. When I went in to berate them, I saw Rhydian and. . .” She trailed off into a dreamy sigh. “We went into the storeroom after that.”

“Sounds romantic,” Isla mused, trying not to grin too wide as Davina rubbed at her cheeks.

“We knocked over an entire rack of liquor. More than we could ever afford.” She sounded both amused and mortified. “Thankfully, Kai took care of it as a mating gift.”

The two women fell into a fit of laughter that forced Davina to break away for a moment.

Isla had used to always enjoy hearing the anecdotes of how mates found each other, even if it caused a smallest resentment to rise in her heart. It seemed the meeting—even with its increasing rarity—could happen anywhere. A crowded market, an elegant ball, a walk down the street, or bar brawl. Somehow the unpredictability made it feel plausible, possible.

She’d always wanted to have a story of her own—of Choice or of Fate, she’d take anything. If only to be rid the pitying look she’d receive when she confessed she had no one. And thus. . . Callan.

Though a bit unconventional, maybe now she did have that tale to share.

As Davina reached for a tinted powder, Isla began explaining. For the first time to anyone. “We met on a terrace by the garden of Callisto’s Hall. I was trying to get a break from the Feast, and, I don’t know, just found myself outside. He was already out there apparently, hiding in the shadows.”

Davina grabbed a firm feather brush and dabbed it into the small glass jar. “It’s like your body knew where to lead you.”

Isla pursed her lips. “I’d never thought of it that way.”

“Crazy how the mate thing works,” Davina chuckled. “I’d peddled this nonsense all the time, and I never really believed it until I felt it.”

Isla couldn’t stop from jerking her head, earning a soft tap to right it again. “You were the one who worked the mate gatherings?”

Davina leaned back, a hand on her chest with mock-amazement. “He told you about me?” After Isla nodded, unable to contain a smile, she continued her work. “The pay was horrendous, and I felt terrible about it. Sorry saps.”

Isla’s grin bittered. “Yeah, sorry saps.”

The two settled into a silence as Davina finished pressing the powder then reached for a brush of fluffier variety to dust a shimmer over Isla’s cheekbones. As she did, Isla found herself closing her eyes, getting comfortable. She didn’t know Davina well—if at all besides these small stories that had been shared—but she felt understood by her in a way she hadn’t been.

Isla opened her eyes and looked at Davina through the reflection. “What happened after you were mated?”

“I pulled my skirt back down.”

Isla snorted.

Davina smirked, knowing well what response she was really looking for. “After my shift ended—meaning, I got fired—I went back to Rhydian’s.” She shrugged. “And I guess I never left his side after that.”

Isla bit the inside of her cheek. It was exactly as she thought it would be. Mated and dropping life as one knew to take on one with another. She’d leave—she’d lose—everything.

“Did that scare you?” The words tumbled from her lips before she could stop them.

As if she’d sensed the sincerity and unease in which Isla spoke, Davina’s tone had gone soft. “I think it scared both of us—but I don’t think it’s meant to not be a little terrifying. I find, the beauty of a mate is that. . .” She padded along Isla’s cheeks with the rouge. “Even though it’s scary and uncertain, it’s not just you who’s terrified and unsure. You figure it out together. All of it. The newness. The having somewhere there to care for, to worry about. Someone to care and worry about you. Probably in a way no one else ever has.” Isla caught her jaw tense. “Yes, it’s sudden, and it’s overwhelming, but that’s just the way life is. I wouldn’t want to work through it with anyone else.”

Isla swallowed, allowing the words to sink in, watching as Davina’s eyes glossed over. Noting how she’d gotten choked up.

Realizing she’d gone a bit too serious, Davina’s lips twitched into a devilish smile. “And then there’s also the really great sex. That helps with the adjustment.”

Once again, they descended into hysterics.

| ☽ |

Isla wasn’t sure how Kai had known, but the dress made her look like a dream. And not necessarily the whimsical kind. The smooth black fabric bunched and hugged, draped and flowed, in all the right places, accentuating every curve that seemed non-existent in her Warrior garb. It brought out the best parts of her, and the jewels were dazzling. The mix of diamonds within the ruby made it seem like she were a fiery star fallen from the sky before the sun had finished setting.

Davina had been an artist, and Isla her canvas. Her face had been made up in the perfect balance of sultry and sweet. Unassuming. There was a dewy look to her skin, drawn and highlighted, tinted rosy to the right shade of innocence. Charcoal lined her eyes, her lashes plumped and long, and crimson—matching the jewels around her neck, dangling from her wrist and ears—painted her lips. She’d allowed Isla’s hair to dry into its natural state, letting the waves take the wild shape they wanted before she’d swept it off to the side, clipping it over, and then sliding through her tresses, the tiara-like comb.

Davina had sighed in satisfaction as she stepped back, admiring her work as Isla towered over her small stature in her heels. “Kai is going to be furious with me.”

Isla, feeling invigorated in the ensemble, and conceitedly unable to stop staring at herself, asked, “Why?”

“Because you are sex on legs, and he already has a hard enough time containing himself around you.”

To that, Isla scoffed, but her cheek nearly bled between her teeth as she kept from a wicked grin.

Eli’s reaction when she’d met him in the lobby was another great way to boost her confidence.

“You look. . . wow.” His eyes were wide as he took her in, and it seemed his gaze didn’t know where to land. Though the ruby pendant glittering between her breasts, just covered enough by the deep-v of fabric, seemed to be his favorite resting place. “Wow.”

Isla glanced at Davina sitting at the concierge desk, pretending not to be watching and failing at hiding her smugness at the compliment to her efforts.

“A man of many words,” Isla couldn’t help but tease, before nodding towards the lobby’s door. “Come on. We can’t be late.”

They had gotten a town car for the night, courtesy of the “Alpha’s Estate”. It was yet another way that Kai seemed to have his hand in everything, but it was much nicer than the Warrior’s transport van—which still hadn’t returned from the Guard’s mountain base—so Isla couldn’t complain much.

As they drove along the streets of Mavec to get to the Pack Hall, a soft hum of music cooing from the radio, Eli also made attempts at small talk. It mostly pertained to Io. Isla’s life there. Her father. How often she’d find new members entering her Pack. It seemed he didn’t care he was becoming more and more transparent with his motivations as of late. Isla only offered him baseless answers, too distracted by the raucous of life they passed on their route and still nagged in the back of her mind by Davina’s words.

They hadn’t particularly gone down into the heart of the city, but they still had a fantastic view of it as they crossed the bridge over the river to Abalys. Isla gaped at the sights all over again, taking note of every little shop she’d like to visit, every parlor, every square. Where, maybe, she’d want Kai to take her. Or maybe Davina. If she ever had a chance for free time.

Once Eli had turned the car in a way that left the city nothing but lights in a whisper of fog, Isla faced forward to behold a new marvel.

“Not a palace, my ass,” she muttered, observing Deimos’s Pack Hall.

Eli leaned over, inclining his head. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” she said, restraining a roll of her eyes at how much Kai had tried to downplay the structure.

As she’d already taken note of, the Hall of Deimos stretched tall, its looming presence bolstered by the incline it sat upon. A network of trolleys rested on either side of the road they tread along, the cable cars seemingly fit to hold hundreds to loft them to the heights without the need of other transportation or slaving through a strenuous walk. There were people in them, Isla was bewildered to find, but they vanished behind the coal-tinged stone wall that began raising alongside them.

Brows furrowed, she gazed forward again.

While Io boasted pillars of marble and moonstone, shades of gold and crimson, Deimos seemed to lend itself to workings of obsidian, silver, and sapphire. From the onyx columns baring flags of the Alpha’s seal, to the sable lamp posts, overworked by silver twinings and encasing writhing flames within clear glass orbs, everything followed the same motif. Dark—a little forbidding—and beautiful.

Eli suddenly let out a low whistle as he slowed to a stop within a line of other fine vehicles, and Isla’s jaw unhinged when she realized that each person in this queue was going to the banquet. Blinking, she leaned forward in her seat and craned her neck to get a better view.

There were so many people. And she could’ve sworn up ahead, there was the firing of flashbulbs. Reporters.

All of this for a retiring Delta?

“Who’s supposed to be here again?” Isla asked Eli.

The General shook his head, as if he too hadn’t realized what he’d signed up for. “Anyone who the Delta has influenced in his tenure. He’s been in service for nearly fifteen years. It must’ve been quite a few.”

Quite a few indeed. How in the Goddess’s name did Kai expect her to navigate this place?

As it turned out, Isla had plenty of time to assess her game plan as she and Eli slogged up the rest of the Hall’s drive. Mercifully, once they’d passed beneath the ebony metal archway—a crafting of wolves lurching for a sapphire orb that Isla pondered a representation of the moon—two attendants came to their aid. While one valet tended to Eli and retrieved the keys, the other assisted Isla, opening the door before taking her hand. Panic gripped at her heart as she stepped out onto the stone, too overtaken by the commotion before her to feel proud as the attendant’s eyes tore over her form.

She knew the fanfare she’d witnessed at home, for the Imperial Alpha, Luna, and Adrien. For her father, and sometimes, even for Sebastian, with the right crowd.

But this was on another level. She felt like a whole new breed of outsider. Everyone who held any type of standing in Deimos had to be at this party.

She scowled.

What the hell did you get me into?

Isla found her gaze drawn upwards, not up to shoot a prayer to the Goddess—which maybe, she should’ve—but to the stain glass window in the Hall’s high center. Even with the distance, she could’ve sworn she saw something like a speck move along the base—outside of it. She scrunched her brows and squinted, as if it would help her see any better, but as soon as she blinked, it had vanished.

“Ready?”

She felt a hand on the small of her back and looked to Eli, whose face was a picture of pure political grace.

No, was her immediate thought. No and take me back.

But she had a job to do here. Kai had given her a job to do here.

And as pissed off as she was, she’d do it.

Forcing a smile, she subtly side-stepped from his touch and nodded.

| ☽ |

They’d gone from one line to another. Driven under one archway to walk beneath a second. However this passage sat at the base of what Isla, herself, deemed “the Front Hall”. The facade.

It was what one could see clearest from the streets. What bore the massive pane of stain glass—something that almost seemed to be a wondrous distraction, the hypnotizing eye of a large-bellied beast which protected what lied behind it. Because once one walked beneath the second archway, they ended up in a wide-mouthed underpass that cut beneath the structure. And from there, they found themselves in the most gorgeous courtyard Isla had ever seen.

She wasn’t sure what parts were done up for the event and what was mainstay for the Hall. There were delicate lights through trees and endless blooms of flowers—deep purples, some nearly black, and blues, much like the window eye above. There was a great fountain in the center that seemed to glow. Metal structures were strewn about that seemed to have movement, tell a story if she could focus enough on each of them, but all she was really drawn to was that same depiction of the two wolves and the sapphire, more detailed, it seemed from her distance, than the one of the first arch.

“The Alpha’s choice,” Eli quipped from his spot beside her. Isla stiffened, directing her eyes to where his had been.

A crowd was gathered beside them in their queue. Their chatter and laughter, along with the shutter of reporters’ cameras, echoed within the open-ended cavern. Part of the group was the same band of people that had come up on the tram. Isla recognized someone’s extravagant, seemingly out of place, powder pink hat. They weren’t in the line to come in. They were just standing there, watching, waiting. She’d been struggling to think of for what, when Eli’s statement answered the question for her.

Many of the women, though not invited to the festivities, were dressed beautifully. In all types of ways. Much like Davina’s trunk of cosmetics. From soft and delicate to bold, sultry, and daring.

“I swear every unmated girl in this Pack is tripping over themselves to get in his eye-line and catch his attention.”

Alpha’s choice.

That roaring returned to her blood, much like when she’d heard Belle disclosing her past on the guard for Amalie.

Davina’s words itched at her mind again and again. They were here for Kai’s attention. To be the woman the Alpha chose to take as his mate, or to be. . . the one.

That magic spark.

Isla shocked herself as she snarled and fought the urge to start waving her arms around and telling them all to go home.

Thankfully, Eli managed to break her focus with his never-ending remarks.

She felt him nudge her with his elbow. “A little excessive, don’t you think?”

He’d said it as a joke. As if it wouldn’t have taken her several moments to recall his comments from weeks ago. About Kai and his killing of four Bak being a bit much.

He’d gestured to the heightened Guard presence within the underpass leading to the banquet’s entrance, and the fact they’d been waiting in this line for so long for security reasons. To be checked out, inspected, and cleared by name and invitation. With so many guests—and so many gate-crashers—it was taking quite a while to get through.

“Necessary,” she said, grateful for the protection Kai had.

“General.”

At the voice from behind them, Isla felt the hair of her neck stand on end. She turned slowly.

“Beta Ezekiel.” Eli beamed, reaching forward to shake Ezekiel’s hand. Immediately, he nodded towards Isla. “I’m happy we crossed paths. This is Isla, the recruit I was telling you about.”

When Ezekiel’s worn eyes fell upon her, she bit down hard on her tongue, resisting her urge to snap.

The last she’d seen him, she’d threatened him, more or less. Told him that he had better hope she never ended up in Deimos to claim what was rightfully hers. That she wouldn’t be here, his queen, to make him get down on his knees and bow to her. He’d called her brazen and stubborn and proud. He’d called her insolent and dim-witted. He’d said she wasn’t right to sit at the helm of the Pack. . . and he was right about some of it, but he was also rude as all hell.

Though even if she wanted to pretend he’d just told her he was shipping her off to a safe house so she could just kick his ass right here, she flashed him a soft grin. So pure, so fake. Ameera would surely love it. She could see now, where the female General and her Beta father shared their looks—the hair, the eyes, the arrogant scowl.

Ezekiel didn’t smile back—Isla hadn’t expected him to. He simply said Warrior, before turning back to Eli. “Delta Sol would like to reconvene with you. He’s in the veranda between the Western Hall and the House.”

Western Hall and House.

Isla noted the names as Eli asked, “What for?”

“Wouldn’t say,” the Beta said. “But it sounded urgent.”

“Odd.” Eli furrowed his brows. “I’ll have to clear this line first.”

Ezekiel reached into his pocket and pulled out a stamped placard. “Just give them this. They’ll let you through.” The General took it before his eyes shifted to Isla. Ezekiel caught on and added, “I’ll escort her in.”

Eli had no words of protest, eager to escape the waiting. “I’ll see you inside,” he told her, with the smallest touch, and he was off.

As he walked away, now beside her, Ezekiel snickered. Isla wondered if Sol truly wanted to meet with the General at all, or if this had all been a ploy to get her alone.

“Close,” Ezekiel said to her once he turned back to face her. He’d noticed the caress.

“It’s nothing like that,” Isla said pointedly.

Ezekiel hummed, not offering a rebuttal. “Come with me.”

She didn’t want to—but she didn’t really feel like waiting in the line anymore. Not as the amount of women by the barricade increased. Not as she had to watch them preen themselves. See their beautiful faces. Be reminded that they all knew this Pack better than she ever would.

“Hide your face,” Ezekiel said, as they moved along the line by some reporters and photographers that were approved to be at the banquet. To capture the moments.

Isla didn’t want her time here immortalized, so she did so. Using the lightweight black shawl Davina had offered just before they left to cover herself.

At the end of the line, at the cusp of the courtyard, they approached a woman running over a list of items—written in a large notebook—with one of the Guards.

“Marin,” Ezekiel said.

As the name rang familiar, Isla examined Kai’s secretary. She was short—shorter than Davina, who was already quite petite—and her silvery hair was pulled into a tight low bun. But despite the color of her tresses, she appeared relatively young. Couldn’t have been more than in her forties, fifties.

“Ezekiel,” she greeted hastily, not out of crudeness, but because she seemed in a rush. She didn’t bother turning until something—maybe the glint of Isla’s jewelry in the underpass lights—caught her eye. She gave Isla a long once-over. “Which one is this?”

Which one?

“None of them,” Ezekiel told her. “She’s the guest of the Warrior General. A Warrior herself.”

“A Warrior,” the secretary considered, before her teal eyes traced Isla again. Long and calculating. “Bloodline?”

“She’s not interested,” he said flatly.

“Then what are you badgering me for?” she responded, before waving them off.

Ezekiel laughed—so odd to hear—before stepping around Marin and breaking into the party. Isla was on his heels. But before she’d gotten too far, she couldn’t stop herself from glancing behind to see what Marin was going through. The list seemed to be many names—female names.

She growled and distracted herself with the wonder of the courtyard again.

The banquet was being held in a hybrid setting, indoors and outdoors, for the chilly summer night they’d surely face as the hours ticked by. The ballroom sat in one of the four buildings that encircled the opening. All dark-wash stone, each appeared to be multiple floors, and the first three in the front were connected by suspended hallways. The one in the back didn’t stretch as tall as they did, didn’t have any looming towers, but it was still large and reminded her a bit of the Pack Hall in Io.

Waiters were fluttering about, holding trays of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of different types of drinks—wines, spirits, and cocktails. Davina had told her to have an eye out for an open bar though. The guests—the entire overwhelming lot of them—seemed cheerful. Seemed to come from all walks of life, if she looked and analyzed the fine details of their clothes.

She knew none of them.

“What did she mean by which one?” Isla asked Ezekiel once she caught up to him.

“Our Alpha must take a mate,” Ezekiel said, ignoring how Isla jerked a bit. “And before we jump to a mating ball, Marin wants to see if we can kick off something a bit more naturally. Less archaic in the face of younger, more progressive leadership.”

That sounded all too political, but Isla got enough of the hint. There were potential brides for Kai here. Hand-picked by his own secretary, his do-all. The person who kept him sane, organized, and looking exactly as he should in the face of his Pack.

“Can you control yourself?”

Isla opened her mouth for a snap retort, before she closed it and considered. “What does that mean?”

“You’re bold in your stand against the Goddess, but you’re also naive. You cannot change the fact that you’re a wolf, and therefore, territorial over what’s yours.” His last word had a slight bite to it. “So unless you’re here to claim it, don’t interfere.” He looked forward and nodded his head at a passerby who’d greeted him. “I told him you being here was a bad idea, but he insisted. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t have even been approved.”

“Good thing it’s not up to you then,” she said, now not taking time to think.

“Goddess above,” Ezekiel cursed under his breath, but it wasn’t at her.

He powered forward, and Isla debated ditching him, but decided to keep up. He was insufferable, but he was familiar. And apparently, she could trust him.

He rested his hand on the back of a woman’s shoulders who’d been telling what seemed to be a highly entertaining story to a group of guests.

The woman turned, and Isla found herself stumbling a bit.

Upon the Beta’s approach, the group disbanded.

“Zahra,” Ezekiel said, dropping his hold. “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to enter after Delta Atesh, before Kai.”

Zahra.

This was Kai’s mother.

The former Luna narrowed her gaze, and Isla could see where Kai had drawn his looks. The strikingness of his eyes, the elegant draw to his face. The former Luna was every bit of stunning and regal as she’d expected. But to Isla’s surprise, her amber skin—just like her son’s—wasn’t sallow or drawn. Her deep blue-grey eyes not bloodshot from endless crying and sleepless nights. She wasn’t hunched over and brittle-boned. From all she’d heard, the former Luna of Deimos was supposedly on her death bed. This woman seemed—vibrant.

“And I told you that’s not my place anymore, Ezekiel.”

“Zahra. . .”

“Beta.”

“Ezekiel!”

Ezekiel turned as he was called by yet another person Isla didn’t know to meet someone else Isla didn’t know. He muttered something to Zahra—something like don’t move—before stalking off. Isla pursed her lips at being left in the dirt and watched as the former queen shook her head and rolled her eyes. The typical actions shouldn’t have stunned or amused her as much as they did.

As if she could sense Isla staring, the Luna turned and met her gaze.

Isla blinked at her in awe, but Zahra looked at her flatly.

“Another one,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

Zahra sighed. “If one more person looks at me like I’m about to keel over and die, Goddess help them.” Isla felt heat flood her cheeks, and before she could nod in the respect she’d forgotten, the Luna scanned her peculiarly. “Have we met?”

“No,” Isla answered quicker than she meant to.

The Luna did another sweep. “Are you sure?”

“No.” Isla felt her nerves ratchet up. This wasn’t only a Luna, it was her mate’s mother. A woman who’d lost nearly everything. What if she said something wrong and stupid? “I mean, yes, no, we definitely haven’t met, your Highness. I’m not from this Pack. . . I’m of Io.”

Isla winced, unsure how the Pack name would be taken.

“I no longer warrant that address,” the former Luna said, and Isla noted the uptick of her brows. “You’re far from home.”

No detectable animosity, at least.

“I’m a Warrior. Here to help with the Rogues along with my team.” Isla brought back her smile. “Isla.”

Zahra mirrored it, in a way much more refined, Isla was sure. “Well, thank you for your service to my Pack and your service to my son.”

At the last words, Isla choked.

The former Luna paused, but didn’t comment on it. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, that appetizer platter is calling my name.” Before she departed, she added. “Run while you can.”

Isla followed the former Luna’s eyes to the still-occupied Ezekiel.

She weighed her options—and then she did just that.

| ☽ |

Isla found Eli eventually—or he found her—and he immediately began grumbling about how Sol had no idea what he had been going on about.

The banquet technically would not be in full swing until three things occurred—all guests had arrived, the guest of honor finally made his entrance, and then finally, Kai, the Alpha, entered the room and declared it begin. Right now, it was aimless chitter-chatter, eating and drinking, and already, Isla was ready to stab herself in the eye with her tiny toothpick.

Kai’s plan had been working. She drew attention—both good and bad. Sneers and smiles. Genuine questions and snide, underhanded remarks. Lecherous glances from unmated suitors. An offer to get out of here with one particularly inebriated man that was lucky Kai hadn’t appeared yet.

But that wasn’t the worst.

She had never heard so many people brag about themselves—and Sebastian was her brother. Callan was her ex. At least they didn’t try to mask it in some false sense of humility. They knew they were pricks. They embraced it.

And not only that, but if she had to hear one more rosy whisper of when will Alpha Kai be arriving from the mouth of one more female, if she had to listen to the ambitions of getting a dance or being invited to the Alpha’s chambers, she would turn feral.

Isla hadn’t encountered this before.

She knew Kai was an Alpha. That a person of his standing had that draw. She’d experienced it all the time, but it was easier to just call it the bond. But she’d never seen it, heard it, felt it in a room. All the people that wanted him. To be with him or to be him.

On the second open of the wide double doors set at the front of the room, Isla went rigid. The guests of the party clapped and cheered. Delta Atesh.

The next person to enter would be Kai.

Isla counted every second that passed, half-listening to the man in the group before her, Eli standing at her side. Baron, the farmer turned game trader, had lived in Surles for his entire life until ten years ago, when all his crops started dying, and he moved to Ifera. Delta Atesh had been sent on the behalf of Alpha Kyran to pay for the profit he’d lost and to buy the land off of him. Now he was as happy as could be with his livestock and hunted deer.

Isla was glad.

Just as she was about to make an excuse to get Eli to walk away, or to leave everything on her own accord, the room fell wholly quiet.

Everyone went still.

Isla felt Kai before she saw him. Everyone did. He did nothing to mask that “Alpha’s aura” of his. Nothing to hide the strength and power he had above them all.

As the double-doors opened again, Isla’s breath caught.

She didn’t know if it was that general aura, the bond, the relief, or just the genuine attraction to something beautiful, but he looked—ethereal.

And alone.

Isla felt a small pang in her chest. Of sadness. Of guilt.

A Luna would be at his side in typical circumstances. An Heir would’ve walked in a few minutes before. But he stood alone.

Everyone bowed their heads.

Distracted, Isla’s remained up for the slightest second. The tiny bit needed for him to find her. When they locked eyes, she dared to give him a soft smile, barely moving her mouth. He didn’t return it. He didn’t break his form. The stone expression of a leader. But she did feel. Not an Alpha’s reach, but something like a caress through the bond. Just for her.

She’d be concerned over what that meant about its strength later.

Finally following the suit of everyone else, Isla dipped her head.

But it wasn’t before noticing that there’d been someone else who’d remained lifted. A beautiful woman a few yards away, with long, sleek black hair, pulled back by a tiara much more extravagant than Isla’s, with jewels of blue that matched her eyes. Her silver gown fit her, her generous curves, like a glove. As she smiled, Isla could only surmise her as Deimos made flesh.

“Thank you all for coming,” Kai said, voice loud and assured, filling the room. He’d make a grand speech later in the night after the dinner, but for now, as they all looked up, he told them, “Please, enjoy.”

And then the party recommenced.

| ☽ |

Before the actual eating began, Kai made his rounds, greeting his guests. Isla had a faint idea of where he was in the room. Not only through the bond, but through the way the guests seemed to gravitate towards him. The party grew lopsided when he’d been off to sides and corners. Once again, she had to listen to all the plans, hear all the giggles. A dance, a kiss, finding their way into his bed.

Some had sounded so confident in their chances. Until they were reminded by their cohorts of a name. One that made Isla’s blood boil.

Amalie.

Amalie was here. At this party. Somewhere.

“Are you having fun?”

Isla felt a warm hand on her back, felt the gentle brush of a thumb along her skin. She looked up at Eli, whose eyes were slightly glazed over from the alcohol he’d consumed. He’d been getting a bit more touchy as the night progressed. Enough that the questions of is this your mate became more and more frequent.

Just as Isla was about to pull from his touch, she felt it. A dark cloud. A sharp tug. She whirled around, enough to escape Eli’s hold, and found herself face-to-face with Kai.

She could confidently say for the smallest of seconds, that she had never, ever been looked at the way that Kai gazed upon her then. With such intent, ferocity, and hunger. All that power, all of that predatory focus honed in on her, on her body. He was stripping her down with his eyes. Bit-by-bit. She honestly thought he was about to pick her up, throw her over his shoulder, and take her out of that room. Or maybe clear off the banquet table and have her right there.

And maybe she’d let him.

Even if everyone was watching, though they were pretending not to.

Isla bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. Shuffled on her feet as heat rose in her blood, between her legs.

“Alpha!”

Eli—the dumbass when it wasn’t battle strategy, none the wiser, in his semi-drunken state—stepped forward with his hand outstretched.

For once, Isla was grateful.

Kai, in a snap, appeared to be the picture of coolness, but she still felt it lingering. That tug. The hold.

He grabbed the General’s forearm. “General.”

Eli pulled away and turned to Isla, expecting Kai to take hold of her arm next. They would do no such thing, but they would pretend they hadn’t seen each other for over a month.

“Alpha,” Isla said, standing tall.

“Warrior,” Kai echoed. He put his hands behind his back, as if he had to lock them there, away from her. Or from punching Eli, who was getting increasingly close to her side again.

“It’s nice to see you,” Kai said stiffly, eyes flicking to the General periodically. He gestured to her arm that had once be swathed in heaps of bandages. “You seem to be healing well.”

Isla smiled. “I’m back to form.”

Kai returned it genuinely with some bit of excitement and relief flashing in his eyes. “You’re able to shift again.”

Eli’s hand fell to her shoulder. “You couldn’t shift?”

Kai’s brows drew into a scowl, and his arms loosened. As his hands threatened to come forward, a voice, sweet and seductive, emerged from the guests.

“Alpha Kai.”

Isla turned and found it was the beautiful woman, with the sapphire tiara and matching eyes. Deimos incarnate.

“Amalie.”

Isla blamed the way Kai relaxed on the distraction from Eli. Not on the presence of the woman before him. Or maybe, somehow, through some odd bond transfer, all of his tension had gone straight to Isla’s shoulders.

She found her fingers constricting at her sides as she darted her eyes between the two of them. They were a good-looking couple. Great. Even the murmurs held the fact around her.

“I forgot to mention something in our meeting earlier,” Amalie said, not paying Isla mind. But Isla knew that she saw her.

What meeting? she thought.

Amalie cocked her head. “Do you have time after the festivities tonight to talk again?”

After the festivities? That would be nearly midnight. Isla knew nothing good—nothing she’d want—could happen during talks after midnight.

Kai glanced briefly at Isla. “I don’t—but speak with Marin. She can tell you when I’m free, or you could talk to Ezekiel.”

Isla tried to keep her satisfaction at bay.

Which wasn’t hard when it was so overtaken by irritation as Amalie reached for Kai’s sleeve. “Okay.” Her delicate fingers brushed over the fabric of his suit jacket. “Is this new?”

Like some kind of twisted gift from the Goddess, Isla spotted Ezekiel then, watching her intently.

Unless she was here to claim Kai as her mate. She shouldn’t interfere.

She was going to, if she didn’t leave that room. She was going to interfere and make a scene and probably ruin everything.

So she made an haphazard excuse that no one really cared about and walked out.

It wasn’t hard to get away. Eli was just a bit too drunk to follow her body weaving through the crowd, and Kai—the only person who could maybe track her as she’d masked her scent—couldn’t rush off without making it obvious. She found herself in the courtyard again and fighting a chill in the air. The shawl she had didn’t do much.

Her eyes trailed over the expanse of the grass, and then over the doors of the multiple buildings. It was possible that she’d get in trouble for it, but she went for the one that caught her attention most—the fourth door of the Eastern Hall—and walked through it. From there, she found some stairs and walked up those too. She ended in one of the suspended hallways. The one that connected the East and the North.

She could see down into the city from one of the windows here. Nearly all of it, if she craned her neck enough. For a minute, she almost felt like she was home again. In Io. In her apartment window, watching the more ample, bright lights of the Imperial City gleam. Maybe she’d try calling tomorrow—Adrien, Sebastian, her dad. She’d just need to find a long-distance service that would reach them, and then hope one of them was home to pick up.

She remained like that, staring out the window and drawing patterns over the stone’s edge, for nearly twenty minutes before that pull came.

Not the Alpha.

Just Kai.

“You’re never going to change, are you?” His voice had come from a different angle than the one she’d climbed from. He knew this Hall, obviously. He must’ve gone a faster way. One that didn’t venture through the cold courtyard.

She glanced at him, handsome as always, and looked away, back down at the city. “You should be thankful.”

“And why is that?” There was a smugness in his tone.

She rolled her eyes. There was no point in hiding. She knew he could feel it.

“If you were ready to kill a man when there was no chance of anything happening between us, I can have feelings about someone you apparently have quite a history with and know very intimately.”

Kai stopped a few feet away. “Who told you about Amalie?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, turning to face him now. “Why did you meet with her?” She narrowed her eyes, as if daring him to utter those words—Pack business.

“It’s really something that wouldn’t interest you. Unless you care about the state of our trade with Mimas.”

“I could.”

She didn’t.

Crossing her arms, Isla lifted herself from the window and paced a few steps away. She didn’t know if she could go back there. Do this. Watch Kai dance with and entertain all of these—

“You look beautiful.”

Isla froze, her heart stumbling a beat. She spun to examine his face. He’d spoken genuinely.

“Davina is a miracle worker,” she joked, before gesturing down to her gown, the jewels. “And you have good taste.”

Kai snickered. “I really didn’t think it through.”

Isla quirked a brow. “How so?”

“All I can think when I look at you—all I can think when I’m down there—is what I would do if it weren’t for the bond.”

Isla felt that tether tremble, just the slightest bit. Felt a cruel rise beneath her skin. She bit down on her lip.

“Like what?”

“What?”

“What would you do if it weren’t for the bond?” Her voice was as silken as the fabric upon her skin. “Tell me.”

Kai’s brows raised, a challenge, and Isla swore uncertainty crossed his face for the smallest of seconds. They hadn’t played this game in a while. It was dangerous. So, so dangerous.

But she didn’t care.

It had been so long since she’d been taken to bed. So long since she’d been able to feel. . . this. The heat, the need, the want, without the nagging of wrongness in the back of her mind. She’d take advantage of what lay between them. Just for this moment. She’d embrace the tension, the pull. Let it drag her deeper and deeper into the chasm it was. She’d worry about the consequences later.

Kai, bless the Goddess above, seemed to think the same.

He took one step.

Another.

Isla’s breath hitched as she moved backward until she collided with the stone wall. The coolness on her exposed back, her arms, did little to damper the fire torching her skin.

She watched as Kai’s throat bobbed, resisted the urge to lean forward and run her lips over the column of his neck. Where she would make her mark on him. Maybe that was another reason she’d craved this so badly. To make a point to those who would never see. A selfish, stupid point. The Alpha was hers—even if he wasn’t.

Kai braced his arms on either side of her head, trapping her in. He felt so much bigger than her like this, and her senses were flooded with all of him there was. She had nowhere to go. No way to escape without touching him.

Kai drew a long, considerate stare up her body. Isla could see as his mind worked, as he devised what to say. What mattered. As if he’d thought about it frequently and didn’t want to bother her with the extraneous details. “Maybe I wouldn’t take off the dress,” he pondered in a gruff whisper. “Or the diamonds.”

Her insides grew molten as she trailed her eyes over his face, his mouth—but she played it coy, innocent.

She tilted her head. “No?”

“No,” he said immediately. “Waste of time.”

Isla swallowed thickly. “So you’d just have me like this then? Right here.”

Kai shook his head, his mouth twitching up again as he leaned forward a fraction of an inch. “I’d get on my knees first—only for you—and see how ready you were for me. Feel it. . . taste it. I can already scent it off you.”

Isla’s heart slammed in her chest as she squeezed her thighs together. The thought of his head buried between her legs. Of feeling his stubble scratching along her skin. Of his hands, his lips, his tongue. . .

Isla struggled to keep her voice full. “And then?”

“Then—” Kai leaned closer, and instinctually, she craned her neck. Baring it to him. “Then after I had you begging me to fuck you, I’d bring you to the window, so you could look out at what’s yours while I take you from behind.”

She didn’t even pay mind to what his words truly alluded to—her, the queen to this kingdom. She was too wrapped in the idea of his fingers digging into her hips, fisted in her hair. Of his breath on the back of her neck, his teeth grazing, as he drove into her. As she tried her hardest not to cry out. Not to let anyone hear what they were doing. Again, again—

“I don’t beg.”

“You would.”

Isla almost whined when he moved closer.

“We wouldn’t go back to the ballroom after that.”

“What about dinner?”

Kai just smirked, and she knew where his mind had gone without him saying it.

As he continued, he mimicked that tone she’d used on him oh so long ago. Let her savor in the words, the images they brought. “I’d want to take my time with you next. Peel off that dress and map every inch of you with my tongue. Then I’d take you again—slower. . . deeper. And then again—harder, against the wall. And then I’d have you ride me.”

Isla felt her core throb with each word, slickness building between her thighs.

Everything ached. Her breasts felt heavy, pebbled and pained against the fabric of her gown. Her knees were about to give out. Her hips arched forward—dangerously close. Waiting. Wanting. Eager.

Her self-restraint was dwindling.

Ever still, she hummed a laugh. But it took nearly everything in her not to whimper. “You really want me on top, huh?”

Kai drew in a long breath, as if taking in her heady scent. “I can think of no better view.”

Isla was desperate for any friction, rubbing her legs in a way that gave just the right pressure. But not enough. She wanted more. Needed more.

“Kai.”

His name off her lips, breathless, made him shudder. Made him move in a way that Isla wondered. . .

She dared a look down, not moving her head, only her eyes, to find him hard and straining against his pants. Her fingers twitched, and her mouth went dry as she greedily traced the shape of him. The thought of him inside her. . .

“Isla.”

She looked back up. His eyes were endless depths of stormy night, and she imagined the crystal blue had vanished from hers too.

He leaned in again, and Isla was about to scream, she could hardly stand it.

Maybe she would beg. Just for him to touch her, for Goddess’s sake. Forget fucking her senseless. That would come later. Right now, she just wanted to feel his skin against her own, have the taste of him on her mouth.

One. More. Fraction.

He moved the closest he could ever get without throwing all of their efforts away.

“I am keeper of a burden I was never meant to bear,” he began, speaking near her collarbone, sending hot breath along it and up her neck as he continued up to her ear. “But resisting you, all this time, may be the truest test the Goddess has given me.”

Isla couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think about anything else.

She pressed her head to the wall and turned to look him in the eyes again. He was so close. So close. Her fingers constricted around the fabric of her gown. So she wouldn’t reach. Wouldn’t touch. . .

She drove her hips backward.

No. No.

But, Goddess, he was. . .

Just as she was about to brashly throw caution to the wind and propel forward—abandon Kai’s plans and just take him, right there on the floor—the sound of a closing door echoed from far down the hallway.

He pushed off the wall and stepped back, and Isla let out a soft gasp, like she’d been drowning. As he focused down the corridor, she brought a hand to her chest, feeling her heart thrumming wildly beneath the ruby pendant.

“Maids,” Kai said, turning back around.

“Do you think they saw us?” Isla asked. “Or. . . heard us?”

Oh Goddess.

“Maybe saw us—but they don’t know who you are. It will be enough for the staff gossip, but it won’t go far. No reporting for the columns.”

“Okay,” Isla breathed. “We should get back.”

“Wait.” Kai held up a hand. “Maybe we should take a walk first, and then we can debrief on what you’ve heard.”

Judging by how flushed they both were, by the outline of him she was trying her hardest not to look down at, and by how dazed she still was—still drunk on him, on her thoughts—a walk, some fresh air, may have been a good idea.

“Where do you want to go?”

Kai shoved his hands in his pockets, pulling them outward a bit, maybe getting some relief. He glanced up. “I want to show you something.”

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