III. THE QUESTION
Wedging shaking hands into tawny hair, Isla paced back and forth, alone, on the terrace.
Alpha. . . he’s an Alpha.
She couldn’t decide if she was more confused or pissed off—at the Alpha or at herself.
It had been a few minutes since Winslow had escorted him back inside, and Isla just couldn’t get herself to follow. Not yet. She needed to take the time to wrap her mind around what had just happened, what she’d done.
Looking past the lust she’d worn like a patch on her sleeve and the abandon of her poise that she’d prided herself on, Isla had broken so much of the Code, it would make the Elders of past and present roll in their graves. Even if she was from Io and her father in high standing, she was still rungs and rungs below a Pack Alpha in the Hierarchy. So far down, she was surprised he’d spared her as much conversation as he had. That he’d tolerated her snapping and attempts at daunting as much as he did.
In another situation—maybe with a different, more quick to enrage, crueler Alpha who viewed himself a god and had no tolerance for disrespect—she wouldn’t still be standing.
But he never said anything, Isla told herself, shaking her head. If he’d said something, she would’ve acted accordingly. Not that she would’ve been weak and submissive—she didn’t think she was even capable of that—but she would’ve been less. . . combative, in the moments when he irritated her.
Adrien and Sebastian would surely get a kick out of this.
Isla—the good one of the trio who was viewed as an Official’s dream because of the façade she could put on in front of those in the highest of places—trying to intimidate an Alpha. It was laughable.
Though she’d likely leave out the part where her body wanted desperately to jump his bones. If this was how sexual frustrations were about to start manifesting themselves, she definitely needed to find a suitor for the night or take care of things herself when she got back to her room after the party.
“Whatever,” she muttered under her breath, though this was far from a moment she’d forget any time soon.
Gathering herself, she made her way back to the Hall. With every step towards its grand opening, Isla felt the strength of Kai’s presence growing. She could really sense it now, his power. Alphas had an undeniable aura to them, and she realized she’d only gotten the faintest taste of it in that cold moment just before he walked away. He must’ve been masking it before.
Her eyes immediately went to the slightly raised part of the room where the Alphas had been set with their Heirs, Betas, and select high officials. Kai was where she’d expected, where she’d been told, next to Adrien. They were talking about something. She couldn’t help but wonder what it was.
As if he could feel her staring, she caught him peer beyond her friend. The second their eyes met, that fire returned to the pit of her belly. One of her swinging arms at her sides paused to take light hold of her dress, bunching it up in her hand. She doused the flames as quickly as she could, looking away, though her cheeks still burned in fury.
This feeling wasn’t normal, and her traitorous mind was beginning to think the worst.
But no, it couldn’t be. It didn’t fit the descriptions.
Along with the Alphas and all of their Councils, the Feast brought together Warriors of Hunt’s past. Isla took her assigned seat at the long table across from two of them that she knew. Both Alina and Orson were native to different Packs, but after reigning victorious in the Hunt and serving their time as Warriors, had taken the current, relative peace of the Packs to settle in Io. Both had the specialties, wisdom, and experience Trainees were nipping to get their hands on. They knew all of the skills and strategies needed to survive and accomplish the biggest trial in the Realm.
But Isla couldn’t get herself to focus on their advice. She found it difficult to really hear and absorb anything at all. All of her attention was on the feeling of Kai’s stare on her back, but she dared not look up to meet it. She clenched her fork tighter in her hand and found herself rubbing her legs together, crossing them, anything to dispel the heat.
This cannot be what’s happening.
She snapped her head up from her plate. Someone had to have an answer for her.
“You two are mated, right?” she asked the two Warriors once they’d trailed off from their topic, respectfully. “Not to each other, obviously.”
They both looked at one another taken aback by the random line of questioning. Alina seemed far more amused than Orson did.
“Yes, we are.” She glanced at him in case she’d remembered the fact incorrectly. Unsure of Isla’s goal of the query, she lobbied back some small talk. “And you aren’t, correct?”
“No.” The word fell out of Isla’s mouth like it was the worst prospect in the world, which was pretty much her opinion on the matter. At least, at this point of her life. But she wasn’t going to tell them that and potentially get locked in some kind of debate on whether finding a mate was worth it.
She had to make sure that a few minutes ago, she hadn’t.
She cleared her throat and pushed around the vegetables on her plate, playing aloof. “Did you choose or was it a Fated deal, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Alina narrowed her eyes suspiciously, but still with her entertained smile. “Fated.”
“Fate,” Orson also echoed.
Isla’s eyebrows shot up. It actually wasn’t that common to come across one’s destined mate. The Realm was so expansive, the Packs so large and spread out, unless your mate happened to also live within your region, unless you had means for consistent travel or attended the events meant to bring unmated wolves together, it was a pretty low chance you’d find each other. Most people ended up settling with another wolf of their choosing.
If she were being honest, Isla thought that was the better option of the two. The one with more autonomy, with free will, but of course, it didn’t come without potential risk. She’d seen the consequences firsthand.
“How did you know?” she asked them.
“You want me to give you the play-by-play?” Orson seemed a bit more tickled now, innuendo in his tone.
Isla smiled. “You don’t have to get that detailed. I just want to know how you knew. You saw your mates and what? The seas parted, starlight rained from the heavens. . .”
“I don’t know what fairytale you’re living in, but Fate’s not that innocuous,” Orson laughed. “If it’s actually her doing, she’ll let you know.”
“It’s like the feeling of sealing the bond with your Chosen mate, but amplified by a thousand, it’s crazy,” Alina said, beaming. “And that’s just the initial attraction. Everything else that follows is. . . intense.” She leaned in, half covering her mouth as she whispered, “And really good.”
Orson scoffed, mumbling, “Until it isn’t.”
Isla could see it on his face, read between the lines, one of the unfortunate aftereffects of a Fated attraction.
No one knew for sure how Fate decided who belonged together. Some speculated it was which two wolves were closely matched in strength. Others, who would bear the best offspring. Others, opposites who would fill in what the other lacked.
The common theme, though, was there was not much choice, very little option. Most of the time, Fated mates were two complete strangers who had the decision to either take on life together from the moment that they met, or reject Fate’s wishes and face the horrible, hellish pain in her retaliation. That retribution, sometimes, was even fatal.
Most went with option A—avoiding the feeling of being torn apart from the inside—and not all of them were in the happiest of relationships. But they were still alive and their souls whole, which was apparently all that mattered.
Isla bit into a piece of steak, mulling over what they were saying. “So it’s a feeling?”
Alina nodded. “And after that, it’s all in the touch.” She wiggled around her fingers. “Then you’re basically locked in. A goner.”
Isla swallowed her meat, keeping her jaw clenched. Puzzle pieces were coming together to form a picture she didn’t want painted. “Touch?”
“Yes?” Alina looked confused. “Your mother never gave you ‘the talk’ before you turned eighteen, or told you any of this? The feeling, the touch, everything after?”
Isla chose not to mention that she hadn’t seen her mother in nearly ten years. Given that she was so young the last time she’d seen her, merely eleven, going through the rundown on how Isla would find her destined mate wasn’t really part of the bedtime story repertoire.
“Yes, she did,” Isla lied, voice hoarse. The reminder left an acrid taste in her mouth. “Thank you, both. I was just curious.”
After that, she changed the subject. Back to strategies for the Hunt, how to lure the Wilds’ beasts closer to the Gate to make an easier kill and run back to civilization. But once again, as she was explained to, her mind wandered.
She risked a glance up in Kai’s direction and saw him talking with some others now. No look at her at all this time.
Maybe he isn’t feeling the same thing, she thought, bringing her eyes back down.
Maybe this was just an extreme lust. He was an Alpha after all, an unmated Alpha. Exuding sensual grace, drawing in the available she-wolf population, was like an unwritten part of the Code.
I’m just overthinking it.
Despite being unpredictable, Fate couldn’t be so cruel as to put something like this—something so all-consuming, something so distracting, something she’d been dreading—in her path on the night before the biggest moment of her life. The moment she’d dreamed of since she was a child. Forget the fact that, if all of it was true, if he was her destined mate, then that meant the person Fate found her perfect other half, that the Goddess felt completed her soul, was an Alpha.
That wasn’t her fate. She was sure of it.
She just needed to get through the rest of the night. Avoid Alpha Kai and her temptations, and then tomorrow she would compete in the Hunt and become a Warrior.
That was the extent of her story. No Fate. No mates.
It had to be.
| ☽ |
As the night wound down and the dinner ended, following an awe-inspiring speech by Imperial Alpha Cassius, the mingling recommenced for a little while before everyone went their separate ways. Isla found herself up near the platform speaking with a new person of intrigue, a Trainee native to Callisto, when she heard her name called from behind her.
She spun around to find Winslow standing with a tall rugged-looking man—one she’d seen Kai speaking to during dinner—a little way away with his hand up. Taking into account what had happened earlier, she pointed to herself and mouthed ’me’. The Liaison, looking unamused, waved her over again.
She excused herself from the Trainee and strode up to them, noting how the man’s eyes tracked her movements carefully.
A sudden shock rocked her system, and she took in a sharp breath. It was as if the room had become smaller, her sense of direction narrowed. A dark cloud hovered overhead.
All she could sense was the Alpha.
Biting her lip, she turned and spotted him. Kai, standing across the room amidst a group of officials. A look of murder was in his eyes, directed straight at the man she was walking towards. His stare made her shiver, both in fear of its ferocity and. . . something else.
It felt like an invisible tether had been cast in her direction, tightening around her and trying to pull her towards him. Avoid the Alpha. Isla looked away, determined to stick with her plan.
When she reached the men, Winslow made a big gesture in presentation. “Isla, this is Eli, Beta Sampson’s son. He’s one of the Warrior Generals.”
Isla smiled and nodded to him in greeting. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”
She was surprised as Eli bent to her and reached for her hand. Lifting it to his lips, he placed a gentle kiss upon her knuckles. The greeting wasn’t that unusual, but felt odd from him. He was soon to be her superior. Had he not realized?
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, confident and smooth.
She laughed, pulling a piece of loose hair behind her ear. “Good things, I hope.”
He grinned, and Isla caught his not-so-sly once over of her body and noted that he hadn’t dropped her hand yet. “The best.”
Winslow had left their exchange early, always having something else to be doing. As the two of them stood alone, Isla could feel that tether tugging at her harder and harder, squeezing tighter and tighter, the room becoming smaller and smaller. Her senses honed on one thing and one thing only.
The Alpha’s rage was growing, his essence leaking over and infecting pieces of her she didn’t know she had. Like his soul was calling out to her, either intentionally or not.
Isla snapped her attention back to the General who’d since taken a spot by her side. He wrapped an arm loosely around her back, hooking onto the dip of her waist. “I’ll introduce you to some more of the ranks.”
At Eli’s touch, Isla was expecting his fury to boil over. The call to become louder, the aching to build, but instead, her sense of Kai faded. . . and faded. . . and faded until it was eventually nothing.
Her breath heavy, a piece missing, she spun out of the General’s grasp, searching the crowd for the Alpha, but he was nowhere in sight.