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Jessamy must have seen the confusion on my face, so she paused and waited for my questions. I didn’t know what to make of her position with the Pack, her cavalier description of Knox’s future replacement. She had called the transfer of power a bloodline ritual, a way I’d never heard the Alpha challenge described, and for what seemed like the hundredth time I considered that the transition of Alphas might look a little different for the Desert Pack than what I was used to.

“The bloodline ritual,” I began, a bit unsure what to ask, “tell me about that. What is it like? How does it work? Does it have anything to do with the magic loss solution?” Her brows shot up, surprised at my line of questioning. I worried immediately that I had said something I shouldn’t, if my limited knowledge of the magical ‘solution’ was something only discussed behind closed and locked doors. Jessamy didn’t ask how I knew, what I knew, who had told me - it was something I was starting to appreciate about her, how she tactfully navigated when to press me with a suspicious look and when to carry on as if nothing was amiss. She was easily one of the most expressive people I had ever met, yet the faces she did pull had layers to them I knew I would only learn to differentiate with time.

“Yes,” she confirmed, “the ritual is how we sustain and grow the magic of the Pack. Certainly you’re familiar with how Alphas usually come into power…most often it’s the son of an Alpha who kills him for the position.” I nodded and swallowed uncomfortably, mind flashing back to what Janus had said about Draven ripping his father to pieces to come after me. That was the way it had always been within the Packs, as far as I knew, the explosive tension during the battle for dominance only ending in death for the weaker Wolf. Such occurrences were common enough - though I had never been present for an Alpha challenge - the fiercely territorial and proud nature of our inner Wolves demanding proof in blood that an Alpha was up to the task of his position.

I had heard whispers amongst the estate’s staff about Alphas who faced frequent challenges, not just from their heirs at a point of transition but lower ranking Pack members as well, building a reputation of glory in killing that traveled well beyond their own Territory. The violence of it all wrenched my mind back to the feeling of hot blood splattering across my skin, Draven’s face contorted in blind rage… My eyes closed and I swallowed thickly, breathing in through my nose. Jessamy’s expression was furrowed in concern at my reaction, but the wary look in her eyes slowly faded as I assured her I was fine.

When she resumed, her voice was tighter than before. She paused frequently, words measured and slow. “That’s not how we do things here, I’m sure you’ve started to realize. The ritual…it involves the exchange of blood between the previous Alpha and the successor, though not in the form of a fight to the death. Through the ritual, the power of the Alpha is transferred instead of severed, the new Alpha bound in blood to the Pack’s line of Alphas the same way any natural-born heir would be of his sire’s lineage. In this way the power can be compounded, expanded on top of what is existing with each new Alpha, instead of resetting with the death of the predecessor.”

My mouth opened slightly in surprise, my mind spinning as I tried to picture the ritual that made Knox an Alpha. An exchange of blood… The idea of it didn’t repulse me as much as I would have expected, especially now that I had been on the receiving end of Claim bites from two different males. Stomach fluttering, I thought back to the way Knox’s lips had pulled against my skin, how I could feel as he swallowed my blood and pulled again for more. Surely my cheeks were stained at the memory of it, and shame rolled over me at the lustful thoughts that accompanied the image of him attached to my neck. His warm lips had felt soft against my skin, his grounding grip that had held me in place firm in all the right places. And when he pulled on my blood with his mouth…it had sent a shockwave through me, straight to my core.

Jessamy had returned to petting Crispy, glancing at me occasionally as I forcibly shoved away my thoughts. He didn’t actually want you, I reminded myself. He was just protecting you, nothing more. The day had worn on through the enchanted ceiling, the shadows in the room moving as the sun made its path across the sky. My joints felt stiff after sitting in one place on the couch so long, and restlessness had me shifting around in my seat. I wanted Jessamy to continue, wanted more even if it left me with a feeling of loss I couldn’t explain. Tucking my knees up and settling against the pillows, I waited in silence as she ran her fingers through the cat’s orange fur.

She must have decided I was ready to continue, ruffling her hair with a hand and tilting her head at me as she spoke. “Knox is the result of several generations of this practice,” she explained, picking up right where she had left off. “He contains within him the shared blood of many Alphas before him. Matteo’s power, the power of the Alpha before him, on and on and on…it all lives in his veins, mixed into his own magic. When the time comes, through the bloodline ritual his successor will become just as powerful as he is now, perhaps even more so if they contain magic prior to assuming the position.”

My head moved involuntarily, truly in awe of her explanation, of the implications of the ritual in relation to Knox’s power. The solution to the loss of magic was so simple when I stopped to think about it - of course it would make sense to maintain power through transferal instead of starting with a clean slate for each new Alpha. Obviously there was more to the ritual than Jessamy was willing to share currently, that much was clear in her hesitation to tell me about it in the first place, but I couldn’t understand why other Packs had never thought of something that seemed so logical. What was stopping others from implementing the same practice, especially considering there was far less bloodshed and greater magic?

“I know what you’re thinking.” Jessamy said, following my train of thought with ease. “If this solution exists, why haven’t we shared it with others? Why not encourage all the Packs to start the same ritual, to turn their focus on growth after years of decline?” Her head shook, and she scratched Crispy behind his ear. “In a perfect world, that is exactly what I would like to do…but you understand how it can’t be that simple, right? We’ve already discussed the challenges magic users face in this country, so consider what would happen if word got out that the best solution to magical decline is to employ the help of a witch?” She laughed, but it was a forced and dark sound, not soft and bell-like as I had grown to expect.

“What do you think would happen if the Packs were forced to turn back to the old ways of magic, to study how communities of creatures now extinct addressed similar shifts in magic over the years?” She gave me a pointed look, and I understood exactly what she meant. What Alpha would be willing to share such responsibility with a witch? What Alpha would be willing to let go of the old ways of Wolves, however antiquated and barbaric they may be? What Alpha would be willing to openly turn back on the ideology that had gotten them here in the first place?

“Knox would love to share the knowledge we hoard in the libraries here,” she continued, “and our silence on the matter is something I know he labors over frequently. His power, his position…while there is novelty in knowing there is no other Alpha like him, there is also extreme loneliness.” Her eyes turned sympathetic, if a little sad. “There have been numerous discussions on the topic, questioning the morality of keeping such knowledge a secret, but ultimately there is just too much at risk to try sharing with others. Our way of life here…it’s rooted in magic and tradition that is immensely protected by the Pack, but it is still a fragile thing.” She kept her eyes down on Crispy, her brow furrowed in concentration as she sorted through the gaps in my magical education to help make me understand.

“Knox is accepting of outsiders,” she explained, “so there is great potential for leaks of top secret information within the Pack. He keeps his circle as small as he can, but magic isn’t exactly a secret around here. It’s a constant struggle for him, keeping our magic hidden, one born out of desire to protect the Pack but allow others access to magic that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I know he’s weighed on heavily by these burdens, with his sense of duty as an Alpha, but his life is bound just as mine is to expel every bit of power he has in protection of this place.” The care for her Alpha was obvious in her tone, and I sensed a tinge of regret around her that I could not place. Jessamy didn’t address it further, summoning the toast she had prepared magically toward her to munch on before she continued. She fed a corner of the bread to Crispy, who scarfed it down with a few happy meows.

Wiping crumbs from her lips, she took a sip of her tea and cleared her throat. “The Territory too, provides challenges, the size of it demanding constant upkeep to ensure every inch of Perimeter is impenetrable to those who wish us harm. So what would happen if the knowledge of our magic resulted in retaliation from other Packs? What would happen if Knox became indisposed without providing a successor? How long could the Perimeter hold without him?” She looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t have an answer. “This Pack is not like others, where the strongest Wolf can assume the Alpha power if their predecessor did not provide an heir. If Knox dies before the bloodline ritual, that’s it. We’re back to square one magically.” Her shoulders shrugged, and the idea of this Pack without its Alpha made me shiver. “This Pack can’t afford that magical decline, and would not survive the onslaught of attacks from neighboring Packs without a powerful Alpha.”

My face felt cold, frozen at what she had shared. I already knew Knox carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders - that much was clear the longer I was around him - but I had never considered how that might weigh on him, how some aspects of his position as Alpha might grow heavier than he alone could carry at a time. Our previous conversations were colored in context with Jessamy’s words, and a pang of guilt surfaced in response to the annoyance I had felt when I began to notice him choosing words carefully around me. In some ways, he had as few choices as I did, even if he knew what he was getting into beforehand. He was trapped in an impossible situation, blessed with knowledge and power he was unable to share.

Knox existed separate from all other Alphas, unlike them in so many ways, all the way down to how he came into his role. He was perpetually othered in his unique power, even within his own Pack, and I felt a surge of understanding towards him at that realization. Our circumstances were completely different, but I intimately knew how it felt to stand on the sidelines of a place you could never truly belong. I only wished I could see him, talk to him myself about all the things I was learning, but the sting of his rejection remained at the forefront of my mind.

I couldn’t keep the frown from my lips, the downturn one Jessamy noted with curious eyes as I attempted to sort through my thoughts. There wasn’t a word to identify the way I was feeling, the frustration of my ever-complicated relationship with Knox clouded with other emotions I couldn’t quite place. Jessamy sighed, head tilting to the side and eyes fluttering closed. Guilt welled at her obvious shift, concern that I had occupied too much of her time barreling its way through my head. She was gracious to provide so many answers to my questions, kind to explain the differences of the new Pack I found myself so entangled in, but as the dust settled on our conversation, I hated feeling like she was assigned to babysit me.

“What are you thinking?” she finally asked, her thoughtful turquoise eyes once again studying me intently. How could I answer that, when I barely knew myself?

“I’m thinking,” I began, swallowing past the lump in my throat, “that I don’t know what to think.” Her lips pursed in a sympathetic frown, waiting patiently for me to continue. “I’m thinking…” my voice died, head shaking. A heavy sigh escaped me. “I just don’t understand why he would Claim me,” I mumbled, the beginnings of tears pricking at my eyes. “And why would he send me here, instead of telling me all of this himself? I know the meeting was tense, but…” my hand drifted to the bite on my neck, and I tried to settle myself with a breath. “Almost everything I know about him, about the Pack…it’s all come from you. Why is that?”

“Well,” she began, running a hand through her blue hair, “this is my job. My role here. Everyone ends up coming to me at some point, either to grow their magic, or ask for a spell, or just to get things off their chest. But I’m an educator, capable of breaking down the most complex magic into teachable parts, so it’s logical for him to send you to me for answers. As for his Claim…” her eyes flitted to the spot on my neck, the spot I self-consciously covered under her gaze. “I don’t believe he intended for things to go that way. We had discussed privately how far he was willing to go to protect you, but if he had any plans then to Claim you for the Season…he did not share them with me.”

Jessamy’s expression was disgruntled, as if she too, was annoyed at being kept in the dark when it came to Knox’s plans. “And now?” I managed, barely a whisper. She laughed her tinkling laugh, as if my question was hilarious.

“Now? I have no idea. It seems like I’ve been inside Knox’s mind enough to know him as well as myself, but that doesn’t mean I always understand his motivations.” Her face softened, a hint of a grin remaining from her laugh as her eyes turned teasing. “Most likely, he couldn’t help himself. His power…well, I couldn’t keep it contained like he had asked me to. Everything that came after my containment failed…” she didn’t need to finish the thought. We had both been there, both had felt how out of control the situation had gotten, Knox included. “He just needs some time,” she continued, a quiet sigh in her tone, “I know he feels terrible for making that choice for you, but he can’t avoid you forever.”

I shifted uncomfortably, cheeks flaming at her assessment. The thrill at the idea of seeing him again took me by surprise, and I silently cursed my traitorous heart for daring to want him. He couldn’t avoid me forever, not if I was really to remain within the confines of his Territory, and my pulse pounded with anxiety not knowing the next time our paths would cross. Would he acknowledge his Claim, sweep me off my feet and find the closest dark corner to wrap his strong body around me? Or would he ignore me, pretending I didn’t exist? Even worse, would he publicly reject me in front of all of his friends?

Jessamy glanced towards the sky and pursed her lips, clearly disgruntled about something. I sensed our time reviewing magic was coming to a close, confirmed when she stood and set Crispy on the floor to wander off on his own. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, plastering a smile on her face that would have felt genuine if not for the tension emanating from her body. “I think that’s enough for today,” she said, leaving no room for argument.

Funnily enough, I had to agree. For now, this was enough.

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