XXIV. THE OVERLOOK
“I’m not going in there.”
The declaration fallen from Isla’s lips was met by the flattening of Kai’s brows. The Alpha leaned against the edge of the opening he’d revealed behind a thick tapestry and hidden door in one of the sitting rooms of the Front Hall. “You’re a Warrior, right?”
Isla met him with an equally deadpan expression and nodded forward. “What even is this?”
The two of them stood before an empty. . . was it a hallway?
Isla could barely tell with how dark it was. Only faint crystal buried in the drab stone walls, likened to the tunnels, were present to light what was a pretty shoddy path. The musty scent and slightest chill had smacked her in the face the second Kai had exposed it. She didn’t know where it led, what it connected to.
They’d gone down a plethora of corridors to get to this point, turning various corners, up two more flights of stairs. Though Kai was the Alpha and could technically do whatever he wanted and not dare be questioned, they tried their hardest not to get caught. The long walk, along with the spike of adrenaline in avoiding lurking Guards or working staff, provided a decent distraction from their. . . talk.
Kai blew out a breath. “Do you trust me?”
“Enough that I know the quality of your life hinges on the preservation of mine.”
Kai snorted. “That’s a yes.” He gestured to the opening again. “After you, my gift.”
Isla rolled her eyes at the endearment. “Why can’t you go first?” Kai gestured again wordlessly, and she glowered, offering over her shoulder, “You just want to stare at my ass.”
Kai didn’t deny it.
With his laugh echoing behind her, Isla entered the cavern. The click of her heels and the hush of her breath reverberated off the walls as she moved forward through it. Step, step, step. She shivered, hearing the heavy wood of the hidden door fall back into place.
“Kai, I swear to the—”
“Just keep going, Warrior.”
Grumbling, Isla lifted her hand and flipped him off.
His chuckling continued.
She could sense him trailing behind her, could hear his heavy steps, until they eventually reached an opening that sat before a set of stone stairs. They were narrow, nearly a foot high, and splattered like paint with the same crystals of the wall. Isla leaned forward to find where they ended, but they were so closed in, they just seemed to spiral on and on to Goddess knew where.
She opened her mouth to protest, but then closed it promptly.
One step, then another, then another. Up and up and up. Around and around and around.
A chorus of their breath and the hits of their shoes was all Isla could hear as they continued on for what felt like eternity on her legs, her feet, and her stability. The circles were making her unbelievably dizzy—especially when she sped up after feeling the need to prove a point following Kai’s jeer of how slow she was—and eventually, she’d halted them to take off her shoes.
Her body was coated in a light sheen of sweat—and she wasn’t sure how that boded for the silk of her dress—but she was grateful for the exercise. Just another way to redirect any of the leftover tension.
At last, they reached a large oak door. Steadying her breath, Isla traced her eyes along the inscriptions on its surface—the two wolves and the orb. She hesitated before running her hand over it, and then, without prompting from Kai, she pushed. The force needed was much more than she’d expected, the muscles in one arm straining enough that she used a second.
A gasp fell from her mouth as she stepped inside, but it wasn’t for the furniture—large mahogany desk, some chairs, bookshelves, an old dry bar, and easels with maps, slightly covered by cloth and dust—or for the high sloped ceiling that dissipated into blackness. It was the pool of color that would’ve engulfed everything if the pieces had been set further into the room. A cast of rich, deep purples—nearly black—and arrays of blues that seemed to ripple on the wooden floor.
The stain glass window. The eye of the beast.
No wonder there had been so many stairs.
It only took a few patters of her footsteps for Isla to find herself bathed in the hues. She’d stopped right at the cusp of the window’s shadow, taking in its glory, eyes wide with wonder. She felt a strain as she lifted her head to catch sight of all of it.
“Goddess,” Isla breathed, and she felt it. In the way the moon beams amidst color fed through the glass, she felt kissed by something divine. She looked around the room. “What is this place?”
She didn’t turn to Kai, but could hear him closing the door and move towards her. He was so proud, reveling in her awe, she could practically feel it through their jilted bond. “My great, great, great, great. . .” He trailed off, before simply saying, “My ancestor’s study.”
A study all the way up here?
“Which one?” she asked, bringing her eyes back to the window.
“Alpha Orin, I think. At least, that’s what I found with some papers in the desk. They’re written in our native dialect, so I can only pick out his name. I wish I’d paid more attention to those lessons in the Academy.” Kai walked by Isla to the window, and she found herself becoming entranced by the way his shadow danced amongst the colors. “I’ve been meaning to get some references in our library to figure out what it says—for my own curiosity—but I barely have the time.”
“You have a library here?” she asked, excitement edging her voice.
Kai placed a hand upon the glass. “Of course we do. Not for public use, just for the Alpha’s estate and our Council members.” He ran his fingers on the metal panes of the window before pressing flatly on them. There was a click and then a whine as the glass loosened and freed. A whip of cool breeze took to the space.
“Come on,” he beckoned. “This is what I really wanted to show you.”
Isla bit the inside of her lip. She wanted to tell Kai to wait. Wanted to tell him to forget whatever this was and get her down to the library. The private property of the Alpha surely possessed knowledge not available in a local bookshop, right?
But the opening from the window had created a path clear to her, like it was presenting whatever lay on the other side. Tempting and inviting.
Hesitantly, she walked along, and as if she knew what was about to greet her would steal her breath away, she wouldn’t look up until she’d stepped over the small edge of stain glass rising from the floor and onto a small stone balcony.
And when she did finally let her eyes behold what was before her, she nearly fell over.
She was one with the mountains, on top of the world, as she looked upon the entire city of Mavec rolling down hills to its faint glow of star-fallen streets. The river was a inky black passage leading to tiny dots, like the flicker of the eyes of beasts in the forest, at its end. Surely, Abalys. Isla scoured for what she knew. The top of the hotel. The bookshop. Any of the stores and squares she’d desired to visit. From here, she discovered game parks she’d never crossed. Some open fields. The train that shot through another mountain to get to Ifera.
She moved back and forth along the balcony, her eyes hungry to take in everything she could, barely blinking as if all would disappear if she closed them.
She didn’t know how to speak. What to say. How to say it. What to ask.
As she stammered over her words in an almost embarrassing fashion, she could sense Kai watching her. Could see him moving in her periphery to remove his suit jacket. She hadn’t even realized she’d been shivering—the air even more frigid so high up—until its warmth enveloped her. She couldn’t get thank you to even escape her mouth, only one simple word that seemed to be the only one she could use to describe this place. “Beautiful.”
Kai hummed in agreement, but his eyes never left her.
She moved to the railing, a black metal that leveled off at her chest, and placed her hands upon it as she looked down. She mapped the path they’d travelled to get to the Hall. Along the lamp posts, beneath the archway. All of the spectators had departed now, and all the cars of the guests had been left parked and waiting to be reclaimed. Guards hung about, two of the half dozen doing some kind of sparing while the others watched and chortled, surely having placed bets.
“So what do you have for me?”
Isla turned to Kai, who’d since paced backwards to lean against the thick glass of the window. He’d surely been up here many times and wasn’t nearly as enthralled by the view.
“Your Pack tends towards intense vanity, for one,” Isla said, sliding her arms in the too-long sleeves of the jacket, feeling the slick material that lined the inside and subtly breathing in the scent of him that it held.
Kai snickered. “That’s rich coming from the member of a Pack that deems itself Imperial.”
Though it had been a joke, Isla couldn’t help but catch a biting undercurrent to it.
She pursed her lips, but didn’t comment on it. Instead, she crossed her arms. “My presence was really hit or miss. People either wanted nothing to do with me or were courteous enough to ask questions and entertain conversations. A lot of people asked if I was the General’s mate.”
Her mention of retribution for the dig at Io was met by the unamused reaction she’d expected.
Kai began rolling up the sleeves of his dark dress shirt—somehow not freezing—stopping them just at his elbows. Isla’s eyes honed in on the ink that cut a bit over one of his forearms that she’d never noticed before. The patterns of the tattoo didn’t look like those of any lumerosi she’d seen.
“Who fell in what category?”
She flicked her gaze back to Kai’s, and then began rattling off names—at least those she could remember—and then covered the rest with very vague descriptions. By the time she’d gone through each of her accounts—through every detail she picked up, big or small—she’d felt winded. But Kai had listened to every word, eyes focused on the ground, brows drawn, and his jaw clenched. Isla had tried to mark every twitch of any muscle to glean some kind of hint as to what mattered most and what didn’t, but her mate was unreadable.
Except for the fact that he knew what he’d wanted to hear.
“You know what you’re looking for,” she said. “What is it? Why am I here?”
Kai looked up and adjusted himself against the glass. He shoved his hands in his pockets, a picture of aloofness. “I just want to see how members of my Pack act toward those of others. Seeing how much they’re willing to say. What they say. We don’t get visitors often, you know.”
Isla didn’t buy it.
She quirked a brow. “And how does that help you figure out who you can trust on your Council?”
Kai pushed himself up. “You said it yourself. Delta Croan doesn’t like my push to funnel more resources into re-evaluating the Wall. My Head of Trade wants more say in what can be distributed—even if she has all control besides the need for my approvals. If they’re willing to share that around you, who knows what else they’ll say?”
He wouldn’t have her here for spats of trade and resources. Back in Callisto, he’d wanted to keep her as far away from Deimos and its higher-ups as possible because he feared their lives at risk.
But instead of going right at him to cut out the act, part of her wanted to wrench it out of him, to catch him off guard.
“Why do you want to look at the Wall?” she asked.
Kai leaned on the railing beside her. For a split second, a grimace crossed his face. “Because it borders my territory—more than any other in this Realm—and if wards are failing, if the Bak are acting strange, I need to make sure my Pack is safe.”
At the reminder of the Bak, the great structure that caged them, Isla found her eyes drawing outward. She’d forgotten which direction Surles—the region of Deimos that harbored its border with Phobos—lay, but she narrowed her eyes at the distance as if she’d could see the behemoth rising from where she stood.
There was so much that she wanted to tell him. That she needed to get off her chest from her time in Callisto. About the way the Bak had spoken to her, about the Ares Pass, about the marker and the book, about—
“Someone tried to have me killed,” Isla blurted before she could stop herself.
Kai whipped around to face her, eyes wide and face twisted in a mix of confusion and budding rage. “Someone what?”
Isla took a breath, trailing her tongue over her bottom lip as she quickly ran through the best way to divulge the information. “Back in Callisto, after you left, Lukas, he—”
“Lukas?” Kai stood up, fists clenched at his sides. “The Hunter from Tethys?”
“Yes,” she said softly, in a futile attempt to ease him. “I went to see him—after the few hours you’d asked for—and he had a dagger with him. Someone had given it to him, and told—told him to kill me. That they’d let him out if he did. It’s fine now. I’m okay. I got away.”
Kai paced away from her, and Isla could practically feel him on the edge of a shift. She wasn’t sure if it was a consequence of what had occurred in the hall getting in the way—the bond tighter, stronger—but she felt her own body start to react.
“I felt something that day,” he growled. “But I thought it was just from the bond and being away from you. I should have never left.”
“You needed to be here with your Pack,” she said, still trying to abate him.
“I needed to be with you.” He raked a hand over his hair. “Where is he now?”
Fury still tinged his voice.
“You’re not going to try—”
“Isla, where is he now?”
She swore the faintest hint of red fought over the grey of his eyes.
“In a prison in Io,” she told him, stepping towards him and finding her hand reaching out. Just like in Callisto as they stood before the message. A phantom touch. A reminder. She was here. She was safe. Everything was fine.
But Kai had stepped back, his face contorting as if that had bothered him more than anything else. “Why would he be taken to Io? An attempt on another’s life warrants trial within one’s home Pack—or the one it occurred in.”
“Because he still doesn’t remember anything,” Isla said, and tried to keep her own aggravation out of her voice, as not to feed into his, as she explained, “And the Imperial Alpha doesn’t want anyone else knowing what happened during the Hunt. I thought you knew that.”
“I do, believe me,” Kai said through gritted teeth. Then he went quiet, pensive. “Who was still in Callisto when he attacked you?”
Isla swallowed and forced her shoulders to rise and fall. “My family, Adrien, some other members of my Pack, other Packs, nurses. . . I don’t know. People. Why?”
Kai’s nostrils flared. “Which members of your Pack?”
Isla blinked, something in her gut twisting. Which members of her Pack. . . why did that matter?
She angled her head, asking slowly, “Why do you want to know?”
Kai didn’t answer right away, which was enough time for Isla’s mind, as if the possibility had been lingering just out of reach and out of sight since it had happened, not acknowledged. “You. . . do you think it was someone of my Pack that tried to have me killed?” More silence. Isla scoffed and moved back. “Are you insane? That—that’s my Pack, that’s my family. Why would they want me dead?”
But Kai didn’t need to answer.
The pieces began coming together, despite how much she fought against them. Despite how she mentally clawed at the figments to destroy them before they came to be. Her chest felt tight, like it was about to cave in.
Kai didn’t trust his Council. Thought ill of their intentions for him. Had wanted to keep her away and keep her safe—both of them safe—for that reason.
But now she was here, despite that fact. Because she deserved it, maybe, but there was something else.
She wasn’t his spy. She was bait. The woman of Io, the daughter of a high-ranking member within a Hierarchy that certainly had a history of questionable actions in its past. Actions that seemed far more far-fetched than conspiring to kill an Alpha and Heir to maintain its order.
Something had changed since Kai had come back. Something that led him believe that Io was responsible for what had happened to his father and brother. Which meant, in his eyes, with his—theory—her Pack thought so little of her that she was an expendable means to an end.
Isla felt a sting at the corners of her eyes, and she backed up away from him until she hit the railing. With only a quick glance, she could catch the sympathy on Kai’s face, like he could hear her every thought as she descended down the hellish hole to her conclusions.
“Isla,” he said gently, a reluctance. He hadn’t wanted her to know. For her own sake or his.
She shook her head. “No.”
“No.” More forceful. “No, you’re wrong.”
She heard him step forward. “Isla.”
Grinding her teeth to hold back a scream, Isla lifted her head. “Kai.” It was a mix of desperation, of anger. “You have to be wrong.”
Even closer. She was nearly trapped by him again, but he didn’t extend his arms. He just stayed and waited, silent until he opened his mouth—and then looked away. “What is that?”
Isla spun, careful not to touch him, and followed his line of sight to the large vehicle barreling up the drive towards the Hall.
“The gates should’ve been closed,” Kai said, retreating from her.
As Isla turned fully to face the streets, the vehicle came to a screeching halt. Doors on either side, doors in the back, flew open. Out of it poured over three dozen wolves—from those in full shifts to those baring claws and teeth and weapons in hand. Even from so high up above, their pungent stench made her stomach curdle.
“Rogues,” Isla choked, and Kai said nothing.
He’d already set off back through the entryway, to the room and to the stairs. Down below, Isla heard a Rogue’s howl and the squelching scream of a fallen Guard before she followed right behind him.
Down, down, down.
They were so far away from the party. They had too long to go.
Around, around, around.
There were Guards. A lot of Guards. Everything would be fine. They could handle them.
Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.
Isla felt nauseous and dizzy by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, but she pressed forward, urged by the screams of the banquet so loud they carried even in the dank, hidden space.
Kai was much faster than she was, and she nearly lost him a few times as they curved through the halls, riddled with cowering staff members and Guard charging towards the Western building. Through the windows they shot past on their run through the connecting passages, Isla could see the courtyard in pandemonium, could practically smell the putrid odor of Rogues and blood and fear in the air.
How had they gotten into Mavec? How had they gotten all the way up to the Hall?
Maybe it was the sight or scent that had struck him, but Kai had slowed enough to stick by her. And with a quick glance her way, she knew the plan. They’d shift the second they stepped outside and take down whoever they could.
As they broke out into the courtyard, Isla took a few moments of pause and surveyed the scene, to ensure it safe to leave herself vulnerable for those small seconds.
But it was moments too long.
Isla let out a yelp as she was pushed by a fleeing guest. She stumbled back, flailing in an attempt to stay upright, waiting to meet the unforgiving ground, just about to go into a shift before she hit it.
But she couldn’t.
Because she’d collided with something.
And though the surface she’d met was solid. . . it wasn’t a wall.
Walls didn’t have hands. Didn’t grip tight.
Only one thought rolled through her mind.
One word that reeled over and over and over again as her wolf writhed within her. As her blood rushed and fire erupted over her skin, through her body.
| ☽ |
End of Part II
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