The Alpha and the Warrior

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XL. THE LUNA

Isla couldn’t stop cursing under her breath. Disgracing her ancestors, and likely sending her favorite enemy in Fate cackling again.

For one, she couldn’t remember for the life of her where the library was, and she’d been ambling the corridors of the Pack Hall for minutes and minutes too long with no direction. Staff members passed by, Guards too, maybe one Delta or another, but everyone seemed to live in their own worlds. A necessary defense while the real one seemed to crumble around them, beneath their very feet.

And two—she hated leaving Kai with Ezekiel.

As she drifted further away from where they stood in his office behind the heavy oak door, as she felt their bond dull where she knew trying to communicate with him would be hopeless, her skin crawled. She knew her mate could perfectly take care of himself—he was the most powerful and feared wolf within this Pack territory. Viewed powerful and feared in most Pack territories, she supposed, after his showing in the Hunt. But she couldn’t help her instinct—not only as one bound to him by soul, but as a person not easily swayed from protecting anyone she loved. Protecting anyone who may have needed it.

She couldn’t allow herself to jump too far in her conclusions. Though Ezekiel was certainly privy to something—and he was also most certainly an asshole—did that make him a threat worth fearing, or just another item on the too-long list?

She couldn’t risk being blinded. Couldn’t risk a piece on their board shifting without their notice.

Everything’s connected.

After a quick glance around a hallway’s corner, Isla wriggled the diadem piece from beneath the jacket she had slung over her arms and looked down at it in her hand.

Ezekiel had recoiled when Kai had picked it up, like he’d been afraid of it. But why? Because of what it was, or because he was afraid the Alpha would chuck it at his head?

As much as she’d rather the latter, her gut called for the former, especially in those heart-halting moments when she swore it hummed to her. Like its missing sisters, like the dagger. There was more to them than intricately crafted weaponry and embellishments—she realized as she touched her fingers to her forehead, as the killer once had. They just needed to figure out how.

Isla came to a halt at the beginning of one of the many long bridges constructed to connect two of the three main buildings.

Kai had mentioned the location of the library briefly while they were up in the study—somewhere amidst his explanation of the Hall’s multi-faceted layout—but within the shuffle of the many rooms and histories of construction, she’d lost it. By a process of elimination, after figuring the Northern Hall was for business and the Western Hall, if she remembered correctly, mostly for entertaining guests and visitors, meant to house the galas and balls and various other crowd-wooing activities, the Eastern Hall was her best bet. She vaguely recalled claims of cultural enrichment. Close enough.

The carpet beneath her shoes whispered as she stepped into the empty passageway and took a moment to drift over to one of the many windows feeding light onto the floor. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and the metal panes surrounding the glass were jarred open a handbreadth, allowing a breeze to sway the royal navy embellished curtains. It swept across her face, through her hair, and carried the softest floral scents by her nose. The summer air felt warmer than it had on previous afternoons here, but nowhere close to what she imagined Io would be right now.

She sighed and leaned against the window’s stone encapsulation, embracing the pause, the split second of rest she’d allow herself. She hated feeling shameful as she closed her eyes and thought back to a simpler time. When that scorching heat during training sessions or games outside with the boys or even causing melted cosmetics on nights out were the greatest of her worries.

With the memories, the sense of homesickness, she ground her teeth.

“Isla?”

Isla started, eyes snapping open as she pushed off the stone. Her fingers splayed reflexively, but her wolf was still resistant and no claws emerged. It was safe to say her body was running on fumes and borrowed waking time.

The voice vaguely familiar, though not clear enough, she braced herself with a quick story and a plan to dash away. But all of it became nothing when she turned and found herself face-to-face with Zahra.

Isla’s heartbeat ratcheted up as the former Luna—Kai’s mother—approached her. The older woman tilted her head, her dark hair braided along the crown and held back by a silver comb shining as it slid off her slim shoulder. A smile played along her lips. “It is Isla, correct?”

Isla couldn’t believe that she remembered.

She righted herself, her hands going up to fix her hair, even if it was hopeless.

Zahra stopped a few feet away, hands folding within the billowing sleeves of her housecoat, an emerald green and more fine than anything Isla had ever worn.

Effortless and stunning and regal. As Imperial Luna Marlane was.

Embarrassment formed in warmth creeping up Isla’s neck. She tried not to look down at Kai’s too-large shirt. Or compare the glow of Zahra’s skin to the sallowness she imagined of her own. Or picture the dark circles she’d noticed under her eyes—maybe still a little bloodshot from crying—in the mirror.

She was in way over her head. Completely out of her league.

She was supposed to replace this woman in Realm gatherings, in discourse with leaders of other Packs?

As Zahra’s face contorted in suspicion, Isla forced herself to nod, to smile. “Uh, yes, that’s right. It’s Isla.”

Zahra’s eyes drew up and down her frame. No disgust crossed her face, thankfully, but the persistent intrigue was alarming. “May I ask what you’re doing here?”

“Do not stop or speak to anyone until you reach him. No staff, no Council members, and if a Guard asks, you’re Marin’s guest.”

His mother hadn’t been on Kai’s list, but—

In her pause, Zahra took another step closer, and Isla gulped as she caught the former ruler’s nose twitch.

Goddess, did she smell of Kai?

“I’m a. . . I’m a guest of Marin’s.”

“Marin? I hadn’t known that you two knew each other.”

“We met at the banquet.”

Zahra’s brows raised. “One of her many maidens after my son’s hand?”

Isla opened and closed her mouth. She could tell her. She’d certainly learn, eventually. But instead, she answered quickly. Too quickly. “Oh, no. Definitely not.”

She swore she could hear Kai laughing in the back of her mind, ready with taunts of how easily he could have her putty and pursuing him with a few well-placed kisses and well-spoken words. Hell, even a look could get her.

Isla’s answer had Zahra’s smile growing along with a nod of concession. “May I ask now where you’re headed?”

Isla couldn’t think of any valid excuse but a semi-truth. “The library. Marin wanted me to retrieve a book for her.”

“I didn’t know our Warriors also served as errand girls.”

So she remembered her position, too.

Isla bit the inside of her cheek.

Did she also remember where she was from?

“Not an errand,” she said. “A favor.”

Another nod, now in understanding, before Zahra moved in even closer. “I’m actually quite happy that I ran into you. I’ve been meaning to thank you for what you did during the Rogue attacks.”

Pride blossomed in Isla’s chest, though behind her, she swore she felt the weight of the moment banging on the window. As if the ghosts lingered in the courtyard just outside it. The death, the screaming and chaos.

Isla forced a grin as she answered as she had to Kai, “I did what I could.”

“Well, it was commendable. You saved many lives. All I wanted to do and couldn’t.” At Isla’s inquisitive stare, Zahra continued, “Without my wolf, I fear I would’ve been more of a hindrance than a help.”

Without her wolf?

“You can’t shift?” Isla attempted to abate her surprise and resist the desire to crawl in a hole for speaking so out of line. It wasn’t her business.

Zahra pursed her lips. “Not anymore.”

Isla swallowed. There were so many questions that she wanted to ask. ‘When did her ability to shift stop’ was the biggest one.

Zahra gestured out the window. “I was just about to head back to the House for some lunch, if you’d like to join me.”

Isla’s eyes widened at the offer.

Her hand went to her stomach, grumbling low in response. With all that was going on, she’d forgotten to eat. It would also be rude to refuse, but she had to get to the library, to Jonah, to the book, the original marker, the old messages. “Uh, I really should—”

Zahra pinned Isla’s tongue with a narrowed stare and a lofting of a perfectly manicured brow. A look of dangerous, daring persuasion.

Isla let out a nervous laugh. “I’d love to.”

| ☽ |

Two Guards and two members of the House staff flanked the large double doors of the home’s entrance. Isla wasn’t sure if the additional protection had been commonplace or something established after recent events. The doormen readied their grips on the thick, curved metal handles as the two women meandered up the stone walkway to its several ascending steps. They greeted their former queen with a bow of their heads. Further away, the Guards did as well.

The four sets of eyes met Isla with wary yet curious looks before they bowed again, now in greeting, not nearly as enthusiastic.

She could’ve sworn amusement perked Zahra’s features.

Isla stared back at them with the same level of judgment, recalling two words.

Deimos. Traitor.

She wasn’t sure who she could trust.

The grand wooden doors groaned as they were pried open, the reverberation enough to prepare Isla for the grandeur that awaited her, along with the scent of jasmine and hints of rose that tickled her nose. Yet her breath still stole as the taps of her shoes echoed through the House’s short opening archway—much like the Pack Hall’s underpass—and entered the great foyer.

Her steps beside Zahra slowed until she came to a stop. The former Luna carried ahead before she realized. She turned and said something that Isla paid no mind to as she spun herself where she stood.

Between the multiple structures of the Hall and this house, Kai was a dirty liar.

Not a palace, her Goddess-damn ass.

She’d give him hell for it. After he’d given her a tour of the place.

Their. . . new home.

Deimos’s classic motif of black and silver and deepest blues that all seemed to lend itself towards was used to accent encompassing shades of ivory. The walls, the columns, the floors, all hues of the brightest white and near beige. Shadowy but eye-catching artwork and onyx sculptures were perched on the walls and gleaming floors. The surface so clean the decor’s reflections, with Isla and Zahra’s, served as splashes of color along with the blooms of flowers, picked not from the courtyard garden but from another.

Isla’s gaze travelled up the grand staircase in the house’s center, its steps covered in intricately designed sable carpet that bisected as it did, carrying into the estate’s two wings. After one landing, Isla caught the dark railings continue on, eventually where they’d meet another.

Her eyes drawn upwards, she squinted against the sunbeams spilling through the skylight. It made everything feel that much more spacious.

Though, she had to admit, for as magnificent as it all was from this one spot, much like Kai’s office, the space lacked a warmth. That coziness and a sincerity that she felt from him. Like he had made no marks in it himself.

For a moment, Isla wondered if it was possible to feel underdressed under what was supposed to be one’s own roof.

“The reigning Luna typically oversees the interior design,” Zahra said, as if she’d been reading her mind, and Isla snapped to attention. “It fits my tastes for now, but as Kai’s moved back in—as much as he insists it’s fine if I stay—I’ll be moving out soon. Then he or whomever he marries will have free rein to do as they wish. Start fresh and make new memories.” A somber smile spread across her lips as she trained her own storm-colored eyes over the space. “It’s been far too long since these halls have heard any laughter or joy.”

The catch of her voice had Isla biting down on the inside of her lip so hard she nearly drew blood. Distracted her from whatever future she’d begun picturing as the words stirred in her. A future against the backdrop of pattering little feet on marble floors.

Because in a flash, Zahra became that woman who’d lost her mate, lost her child, was at risk of losing another. The woman who woke up every day and faced the world with that weighing on her chest, but still held tall through all of it.

“Go ahead,” Zahra said quietly, before turning to Isla. She dipped her head in invitation. “Ask me.”

Isla blinked, contemplating again if she were being tested. If she’d be overstepping. But she still asked, just as softly, “How are you still okay?”

Zahra sighed through her nose. “Because the Goddess knew she’d have hell to pay when I got up there if she took me from Kai, too. I would never leave my son to bear this all alone, even if there’s only so much I can do. Alpha is a very lonely role.” She closed the distance between them to say even lower, “So I’m very happy that now he has you.”

| ☽ |

It took all of Isla’s willpower not to drool as food was placed before her on the patchwork stone table. A hearty bowl piled with grains, colorful summer vegetables, and a generous helping of spice-rubbed lamb, served with a side of bread and oil and a glass of white wine.

She thanked the server, another member of House staff, and Zahra followed suit before saying, “The vegetables are from my garden.” She gave a sweeping gesture to the land behind Isla, a deep mass of colors and greenery.

Isla wasn’t sure what poor excuse she’d used for an intrigued response, so blinded by hunger, but whatever it was, it was enough to amuse Zahra and get her to encourage Isla to eat.

Still, Isla waited until the former Luna took her first bite before she allowed hers.

The two of them ate in silence at first, soft sounds of their chewing and drinking, the sounds of silverware against ceramic dishes, blending into the trilling of birds and buzz of insects tending to the grounds along with its other keepers caring for the lawns and clipping hydrangeas along a small white picket fence. For a chance of fresh air, they’d sat for lunch beneath the pergola over the House’s back terrace—extensive enough to entertain numerous guests—giving Isla the perfect view of the expansive backyard, a glimpse at Zahra’s garden, and the length of a swimming pool and its accompanying house further away. A look up and in the distance, beyond the forest, gave her a view of the surrounding mountain peaks, their outlines gray-cast.

A compliment for its beauty sat on the tip of Isla’s tongue, but there was something more important to be said first.

She still hadn’t asked Zahra how she’d known about her and Kai.

By the time her initial shock had worn off, Zahra had them moving through the hallways of ivory, and Isla had become too caught in keeping up with her and distracted by what they passed. Particularly by the corridor of family photographs, which had rendered her completely speechless.

Isla counted out twenty-eight of them, and they varied in size, yet despite the abstractness, they flowed somewhat chronologically. It seemed the favorites, the key photographs, were the largest. The year of one infant, and the year that infant had become a toddler and was joined by another baby.

As Isla had traced how Kai aged through the years—from an adorable newborn to the man he was now—Zahra explained, “We always take them for the Equinox. It’s a time to reflect, be grateful, and there is nothing that I was more thankful for than my family.” The Equinox had explained the warm hues of Autumn.

Isla noted how Kai had always tended to the side of his mother, while Jaden—who she found had been so accurately depicted by the mural’s artists down in the city—kept close to his father. She could’ve stood there for hours trying to break down the royal family’s dynamic through their shifting expressions and body language. Because there was something with Kyran’s push that they were a “loving, united family front, always” that a picture couldn’t hide.

Somewhere along the way—as the boys lost their exuberant smiles, and Zahra and Kyran drifted farther apart—they’d fractured.

After a particularly large bite of her meal, Zahra sighed, savoring it, and threw her arm over the back of the empty chair beside her. She tilted her head and shut her eyes, sunning her face. Her brown skin seemed to glow in the light.

Isla paused herself after another swallow, holding back a grimace at a slight ache in her stomach. Maybe she’d eaten too fast.

She lifted the napkin from her lap and wiped her face, before finally daring, “When did you figure it out?”

Zahra’s head remained lulled. “At the banquet, after we talked.”

That long ago?

Isla choked and reached for her glass of wine. That meant Zahra had known the entire time in the Hall as she lied straight to her face. “How? Did I—did I say something?”

Zahra laughed, lazily lifting her head. “Your bond.”

“You could. . . sense it?”

“I sensed him—or that part of him that’s been with you since your destinies were woven. Call it mother’s intuition.” Zahra lunged for her own glass of alcohol, inspecting the way the liquid sparkled in the sunshine. She motioned towards Isla’s neck. “You were not mated then. I would’ve noticed in that dress you were wearing. Chosen by him, I’m assuming, along with the jewelry from our vaults.”

Isla flushed and absently reached up to graze the spot on her skin. There was a question in her words. A why.

How could she best describe what the past few months, the past few years, had been? Everything she’d felt and experienced since she’d come of age at eighteen. Even a bit before that.

“I didn’t want a mate,” Isla settled on. “For various reasons, and Kai respected that—among other things.”

Zahra appeared amused by her vagueness, and maybe a bit prided by her son’s actions—or lack thereof. He hadn’t forced her into anything, something Isla had also made note of that night they’d met.

“So what changed your mind, then?” She swirled her glass before taking a sip.

“I love him.”

The answer was simple. So easy and quick and wholeheartedly honest, Isla laughed as she’d said it.

For as much as he drove her crazy and could piss her off. . .

“I love him,” she repeated through a breath. “And I can’t picture my life without him in it.”

Zahra nodded her brows, as if saying good answer. “I’ve heard and I’ve seen that with Fated connections the love isn’t guaranteed, so I’m happy it seems you two. . .” Her eyes drew along Isla’s frame again, and Isla realized that she somehow recognized the shirt as Kai’s. There were only so many assumptions one could make—given the circumstances, how she looked. In the middle of the damn day, too. “Get along.”

As Isla’s cheeks heated again, Zahra’s laugh echoed through the yard. “Just saying, I am fully prepared to spoil my grandchildren rotten.”

Isla’s thoughts returned from the ferry, from the foyer, along with that gut-twisting feeling that came with the notion that she’d one day be. . . a mother. Not just to anyone, but to a future Alpha.

Her hand drifted to her lower belly. If they were trying to prevent anything, they really hadn’t been smart about it.

“We haven’t really talked about it yet, but I hope we have some time first. It’s a lot to adjust to already,” Isla confessed, surprising herself with her own openness. But Zahra, of all people—maybe she’d understand. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of all of it. What comes next. I mean, as a Beta’s child, I was merely a spectator growing up. Within the circle, yet far enough away that with the inner machinations and what goes on behind the curtain, I’m as good as clueless. I can play the lady, but I’m not a queen.”

“No one is born a queen. The idea of what a Luna is shifts like the seasons. Changes as easily and routinely as the moon. Over dynasties. Within years, months even, what’s needed. . . it’s different.” Zahra’s tone was soothing and assured. “You’re not meant to be me, and Kai isn’t meant to be Kyran. Our Pack is entering a new age with you two at the helm, and the Realm, the entire world is changing, too. And you’ll adapt with it. You’ll become exactly what it all requires when it’s time.” She nodded her head. “Frankly, you may be ahead of the game right now, too. A queen with a Warrior’s heart and skill seems necessary.”

A weight on Isla’s chest eased, was replaced, and she gnawed on her bottom lip.

Talk about overwhelming. Driving a new age? A changing world? Being what’s needed. At the right time.

She hated that Ezekiel’s voice of them all rolled through her head. His words that had haunted her since he’d spoken them to her in the woods of Callisto.

A queen needed and a queen deserved. . .

Isla ducked her head to focus on her food. “I know I’m going to need to earn people’s trust here and their respect, and I want to—earn it, I mean. I don’t want them to feel stuck with me as a ruler because they have no choice. I don’t want them to think I don’t care or have what’s best for them in mind. They deserve better than that. They should feel secure in who’s leading them. Protecting them.” She sighed. “And I’m sure it’ll be hard, but I want to do it without completely renouncing my family or where I came from. Because as angry as I am about certain things happening, I wouldn’t be who I am today without either of them.”

She chanced a look up at Zahra, unsure what to expect, but was relieved to see a soft smile on her face. She carefully lifted her glass to Isla in a toast. “Well, you’ve already earned mine.”

Isla’s heart swelled, and she beamed back. “Thank you.”

And they returned to finishing their meals.

| ☽ |

After lunch, Zahra had offered Isla something else that she’d so desperately needed: a chance to bathe and some proper clothes.

She’d pointed out the eastern wing, where Kai’s rooms were—now also Isla’s rooms—but Isla had been hesitant. Call her crazy or sentimental or whatever, but she hadn’t wanted to go in there without him. At least, not for the first time. Zahra had understood—as she always seemed to—and instead directed her to one of the guest suites. It was there that Isla had met one of her handmaidens, not much older than she herself was. Tall and thin, donning a plain navy apron-style dress over a white shirt, with her dark, red-tinged hair intricately braided into a coronet. Maeve.

Though Isla had said the assistance wasn’t necessary, both Zahra and Maeve insisted.

And after opting for a quick shower rather than a bath in order to get moving to Jonah, she’d exited the bathroom, clad in a dressing gown, to find Maeve had laid out her clothes.

She wasn’t sure where the dress had come from. It was a carnation red meant to wrap around her body, cinch at the waist, and flow down to a sliver above her knees. Its neckline tastefully dropped into a v, enough to show the layers of delicate gold necklaces that had also been left out, but not reveal too much. Tiny white petals decorated the thin but exquisite fabric, perfect for a summer’s day. Great, along with the flat, nude-colored shoes, for easy movement.

As Isla tested the cloth between her fingers, Maeve took a comb in hand. It was yet something else Isla had deemed unnecessary, telling her not to let her hinder her day, but Maeve was persistent and eager to try out a braiding style that would accent the way lighter and darker shades of gold played in Isla’s hair.

So Isla sat before a vanity, as she had days ago for Davina, and tried to relax as Maeve worked the tangles from her damp tresses.

“You’re mated?”

Maeve spoke softly, and Isla glanced at her, and then herself, in the mirror. Her mark was clearly visible beneath the loose, white silk of her gown.

The corners of her mouth curled upwards. “I am.”

Maeve’s brown eyes met hers briefly. “Fated?”

“Yes, actually.”

Maeve’s fingers stalled at the ends of Isla’s hair. “Really? You don’t hear that much anymore.”

“I know,” Isla mused.

Maeve bit her lip, continuing her ministrations. “So who’s the lucky guy?”

Isla smiled, and though she spared his name and most of the dead-giveaway details, she was more than happy to share about the day they’d met and feed into whatever other questions Maeve asked. A spark had lit in the handmaiden’s eye—one Isla was familiar with, and one she’d resented in her life. The hope that it was possible to find the person one was meant for, and the all-consuming drive to find them.

Any joy that the two women had found soured after a knock came at the door.

It was another staff member, a man, clad in a navy buttoned tunic and dark pants, and the news he shared, although Isla had been aware, seized the room. The world.

The Alpha’s challenge had been approved.

Maeve gasped, her fingers trembling so much she’d dropped a strand of Isla’s hair, and Isla willed her teeth not to shatter as she experienced that horrible sinking feeling all over again.

“There will be a broadcast shortly,” the man said. “Alpha Kai will address the Pack.”

Isla perked in her seat. “Over the radio?” He nodded. “Can one be brought in?”

Another nod, and he vanished.

“Goddess,” Maeve breathed, taking hold of Isla’s tresses again. “I can’t believe it.”

Isla cast her eyes to the floor. “Tell me about it.”

Once her braid had been woven, Maeve had helped her into her dress, and the man—Cesar, she’d learned—had arrived with the radio, the broadcast began.

Ezekiel spoke first, presenting the situation, the logistics.

In ten days on the night of the full moon, Kai would face his challenger, Brax, a wolf hailing from Rogue territory.

The Beta left out any explanation of Brax’s claim of murdering Kyran and Jaden, but supplied the new information that it would be held in the arena burrowed in the mountain at the end of the river. All Pack members could and were urged to attend, but he warned the arena could reach capacity. There would be a broadcast for those who couldn’t make it with live updates.

Isla’s lunch turned in her stomach, and the weight of the reality forced her to sit down again. She tasted blood as she bit down on her cheek to distract her from the sting of her eyes and the thoughts of having to sit and watch Kai while he—

Her grip tightened on the fabric of her skirt as her mate’s voice came through the speaker.

“I wish I were addressing you all under better circumstances.”

Both Maeve and Cesar seemed to hold their breath.

Her heart sank. She should’ve been there with him. They were somewhere in front of the Hall, she assumed. Either before the gates, or they’d been opened to allow the reporters in.

As Kai continued, urging everyone not to panic, recounting the longevity of their bloodline, and the challenges all won by his ancestors in the past, she watched the hard emotion pass over Maeve and Cesar’s faces. He spoke of what was being done to handle the Rogues from days prior. The ones that had been captured and were being questioned, and ensured everyone that they would be safe, because though it was unlikely the Rogues would strike again as they had, there was an even heavier presence being placed at those borders.

A presence—resources, Isla realized—that had been taken away from around the Wall.

“We’ve been dealt a heavy hand these past few months,” Kai finished. “But we are resilient, and we will prevail against all else. There is light for us at the end of this, I promise you—and I don’t just mean the lanterns of the Equinox.”

His voice had lightened with the quip, and even Maeve, her eyes lined with silver, managed a chuckle. But Isla had to steel herself. Because she knew what he meant by that light, she felt it. He’d told her.

Kai called for any last questions.

Amidst the raucous of Pack reporters’ shouts, Isla heard the cracking of flashbulbs.

Another voice came through the speaker. “Is it true that this Rogue Brax is claiming he is responsible for the deaths of Alpha Kyran and Alpha Heir Jaden?”

“Yes, it’s what he claims.”

And it wasn’t true.

A new voice. “Realm law states that the Imperial Alpha needs to be in witness of the challenge. Will he be coming to the Pack?”

Isla went rigid, her breath hampering. What?

She hadn’t heard that and certainly wasn’t prepared for Kai’s answer of—

“Yes.”

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