A loud knocking sounded at my door the following morning, instantly waking me up.
It was dark, maybe dim morning light, but definitely earlier than I had expected to be disturbed that day. It was so early that I knew even Lucy wouldn‘t have arrived yet.
Despite my best efforts, my brain had refused to quieten down after I‘d gone to sleep the night before. Figuring out a possible theory to do with Thea had awakened a new spark within me, one which had prevented me from settling my mind down. As a result, I felt exhausted from the little rest I had managed to get.
I pulled myself out of bed sluggishly and made my way to the door, opening it to see a dishevelled looking Aleric on my doorstep. It appeared that early mornings still disagreed with him even after all this time.
“…Aleric? Why are you here so early?” | yawned, too tired to conduct the required formalities.
“So you just open the door for anyone without checking first?” he asked, ignoring my question. “What if I were someone here to kill you? I get that we‘re in the packhouse but it‘s not like we haven‘t had spies here before.”
I stared back at him completely unfazed, my eyelids heavy. “If it meant that I didn‘t need to be awake right now or go to this meeting, maybe I would welcome the hostile intrusion,” I replied. “Besides, what kind of murderer knocks on the door to announce their presence virst? Not very subtle.”
He stood frozen for a few seconds, confusion showing on his face momentarily, before finally, his lip twitched in a small smile. What was he confused about?
Oh. It was the first attempt at humour I‘d made to him in months.
Maybe I had been letting this place affect me too much. I could definitely feel that having something different finally happening today did help to dissociate myself from the less pleasant memories in this room. It made me more… aware.
“Come inside and wait,” I offered, opening the door wider for him to enter. “I need to get changed and grab the last of my things.”
“Don‘t take too long. We need to get going.”
I frowned. He‘d shown up almost two hours earlier than he needed to. Why was he in such a rush?
After getting changed and attempting to cover up the unpleasant new features of my face with makeup, I grabbed my bag and took one last look in the mirror
Once dressed up and nicely presented, it was easy to miss the signs of my own inner struggles the last few months. That is, of course, if you were also blind and completely ignored the collar sported around my neck
I sighed. There was no getting out of this now.
Refocusing on the task at hand, I headed back to where Aleric was waiting for me.
Surprisingly, in the time it took for me to get ready, he had somehow managed to tame his wavy hair a bit better and looked more presentable for the meeting ahead.
“Ready to go,” I announced, walking towards the front door.
“Wait, I‘ve got something for you,” he said, making me pause.
I watched as he then pulled out a length of quality violet fabric from a bag and showed it to me. It was a scarf.
“I figured you‘d feel more comfortable with something like this to hide the ah….” His gaze lowered to my collar.
Tied the gift sceptically. “…We don‘t have very cold weather right now.”
He shrugged. “The fabric is a bit thinner so it could be more of a fashion thing? I don‘t know. I‘m not good with that stuff. Just… here.”
He took a step closer and helped wrap it around my neck. A nice sentiment if not for his finger accidentally grazing the flesh by the collar, causing me to wince.
“Does it hurt badly?” he asked softly, lifting the metal up in curiosity to try and see the skin under it. “It looks really red.”
I grabbed his hand to move it away, adjusting the collar and scarf back in place behind it. “You get used to it. Mostly it‘s just a mild burn that you tune out just like the handcuffs. The problem is that, since it‘s on all day long, the skin gets irritated so it‘s far more sensitive. I have a cream that helps a little with that though.”
He nodded hesitantly, not looking very reassured by my response. But as he looked into my eyes, I could tell he felt guilty. .
“Aria… you know I‘m so–.”
“I know. It‘s not your fault,” I said, cutting him off.
I took a step back towards the door in an attempt to break the serious air surrounding us. “Anyway, you said we were in a rush?”
He frowned, as if remembering why we were here again, and cleared his throat. “Yeah… let‘s go. The house is still sleeping so stay quiet,” he said, leading me out the door.
I followed closely behind through the familiar halls, the eerie silence of those sleeping around us evident, until we finally made it to his car parked out front.
The fresh air was what hit me first. It was a crisp smell of nature, maybe even some freshly cut grass. Whatever it was, I took a second to breathe it in, greedily indulging in something I‘d deprived myself of. Already I could feel myself wake up and feel a little more stable. Maybe this trip was what I had needed.
Aleric quickly got into the car and I followed after, throwing my bag in the back. He didn‘t waste much time afterwards in starting the engine.
The trip was going well and we were driving for a while before I finally spoke. It was something that had been bothering me since his arrival this morning, a nagging in my mind that wasn‘t allowing me to let it go.
“… Tytus doesn‘t actually know that I‘m going to this meeting… does he?” I asked dubiously.
There were no warriors accompanying me even though there should have been, not to mention it was far too early in the morning; way earlier than we should have needed to make it to the meeting on time. With all of this in consideration, there was only one conclusion I could come to.
…He was sneaking me out.
Aleric was quiet for a minute before replying. “…Sort of.”
| sighed. “You told me yesterday that he knew about this.”
“Oh, he will know… I left him a note.”
My disapproval was evident in my silence to which he laughed. “What‘s he going to do? Drag you home in
front of all those pack officials? I‘m sure that‘ll look great on our already wavering reputation.”
“What‘s that supposed to mean? Did something happen?”
I hadn‘t kept up to date with current affairs outside the packhouse so naturally, I hadn‘t inquired as to the aftermath of my punishment. But I would be lying if I said that reputational damage didn‘t surprise me.
Aleric‘s mouth flattened in a tight line as if he wasn‘t sure whether to explain.
“…Aleric?” | pressed.
“Well… I mean, it‘s not like we didn‘t anticipate a backlash from this whole thing,” he started. “There‘s been a bit of stirring, a few accusations…
After all, you just went missing one day, holing yourself up in those quarters. Tytus made an announcement to say you were taking some personal time off to recover following the death of Myra.
Of course, that didn‘t make much sense given the timeline of events. A few people weren‘t happy so it‘s just been a matter of putting out fires.”
“What do they think actually happened?” I asked.
“A few theories. The biggest one being imprisonment which is problematic. There was also a lot of petitioning for your release happening. Not just from within the Winter Mist either.”
“…And the collar?”
“Just rumours… but unfortunately, that one has spread around pretty far.”
I nodded, already having assumed as much. It was to be expected that people were curious regarding the collar since this sort of thing was completely unheard of
But inside, a small part of me felt satisfied that Tytus was having a hard time explaining my absence One of the main purposes of the collar was to allow me to still make public appearances, yet I‘d kept myself indoors anyway.
I knew it was petty of me to take pleasure, since causing more civil unrest was the last thing I should be advocating for, but my hatred for Tytus had been steadily growing every day that passed living with this humiliation
We drove quietly the rest of the way, my mind filling with anxiety the closer we got, until finally, I saw the border in sight. Several warriors from the Diamond Claw pack were standing guard, screening everyone as they came across.
I wondered whether the added security measures were introduced from hearing about all the rogue attacks and deaths the Winter Mist suffered.
The warriors peered down into Aleric‘s car window to identify him, though he didn‘t need much introduction. All the packs within our neighbouring territories would know who he was.
I could see their nervousness, the way they carefully showed Aleric respect, but their attention wasn‘t just directed at him.
The frequent and unmistakable eye shifting to where I was seated was… less than subtle. In fact, their staring was almost borderline rude.
But I knew why they were doing it… after all, their eyes were directed towards my neck, where I was sure they were wondering if the rumours were true, hiding away just behind the scarf.
I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, turning my face to look out the window to distract myself instead Coming here was a bad idea. If the lower ranks were this blatantly obvious, who knew how the ranked members would conduct themselves with less social constrictions
As if sensing my discomfort, a low warning growl rumbled out next to me, and I looked up in surprise to see Aleric‘s attention pointed towards the warrior
“understand how being brought up in a small pack like this would be educationally difficult,” he quipped with an undertone of threat that was impossible to miss, but your lack of social etiquette should not be an excuse to stare at her like a museum attraction Or would you prefer I bring it up as a formal complaint during the meeting today?
Recommend that your pack looks to invest more into its training if this type of insult is tolerated by even an unranked guard dog?”
The warrior‘s face went white, eyes wide with fear. Aleric could rip his throat out if he wanted and this pack wouldn‘t be able to do much about it. After all, they were under the Winter Mist‘s protection because of their own lack of resources.
But as much as I wasn‘t a fan of the warrior‘s behaviour, it was something I knew I should probably intervene with before it got out of hand.
Slowly, I reached a hand out and gently touched Aleric‘s arm.
“It‘s okay,” I said, trying to reassure him. “Let it go. I‘m sure you‘ve scared him enough for a lifetime. If can‘t cope under the gaze of someone like him, then there is no chance for me in that meeting room.”
Aleric slowly exhaled, tension releasing from his shoulders.
“Anything else required for the checkpoint?” I asked, leaning forward to address the warrior directly; a warrior who was still looking far too terrified to move.
Mutedly, he just shook his head.
“Very well then. Have a great rest of the day,” I said in a forcefully polite manner. “Come on, Aleric, let‘s just get this over with.”
Aleric grumbled but still drove on, never once turning back to look at the petrified warrior.
“You can‘t attack someone for just looking at me impolitely,” I said carefully after a few moments of silent driving. “Otherwise we‘re about to walk into a massacre.”
“I wasn‘t going to.”
I turned to stare at him, my face showing that I didn‘t believe him in the slightest.
“Well, they can at least show some respect,” he finally mumbled, amending his initial stance.
I sighed. If he didn‘t want to deal with people like this then he shouldn‘t have brought me. At best, it felt like I would be a distraction to the discussions taking place.
His temper wasn‘t anywhere near as bad as I once remembered it, but I was sure that this was still an unnecessary and avoidable test of that.
A few more minutes down the road and we finally made it to the main hall area. Several cars were already parked nearby despite our arrival being almost two hours early.
I assumed that some of the packs residing further out came early in case of any issues along the journey. Today would be important for them so I knew they wouldn‘t want to take any chances.
We got out and walked towards the meeting hall. In my chest, I could feel my heart beating loudly from nerves and I began to fidget restlessly with the scarf; double… triple… quadruple checking to make sure every part of it was covered.
“It‘s fine,” Aleric said, having noticed my agitation. “You‘re fine. It‘s just a meeting with a bunch of small, barely on the map packs.”
I nodded. I knew I shouldn‘t even care what anyone in the room thought of me, but it was through these men that more rumours could be spread.
Within a week, it was possible for word to have spread all the way to the other side of the country.
We reached the main door and I could hear the chatting of several groups of people on the other side. Maybe four or five packs worth of representatives. I wasn‘t sure how many were attending today but there probably wouldn‘t be many more left to arrive.
Without much further ado, I then watched as Aleric reached out to push the door open….
“–Wait,” I said quickly, making him pause.
I needed to slow my heart rate. It was making my body feel faint.
‘Calm down,‘ I told myself. ‘In… and out.‘
However, between taking deep breaths to focus, I suddenly felt a hand tilting my chin up, forcing me to raise my head and meet Aleric‘s serious gaze
“Head up,” he instructed. “Don‘t allow them the chance to look down on you. You‘re a Saintess and the daughter of the Winter Mist‘s Beta.”
I picked up immediately on how he didn‘t refer to me as future Luna. He must have realised that wouldn‘t have made me feel any better.
In fact, neither of us mentioned my future position as Luna, almost as if both of us knew it was too uncomfortable of a topic to bring up. But ‘Saintess?‘ It‘d been so long since someone had called me that.
These days, I certainly didn‘t feel like one. I felt no better than a human inside a cage; weak, powerless and unable to defend myself.
However, he was right. Even with just my birth status alone being that of the daughter of our pack‘s Beta, 1 still commanded more respect than the majority of these men from small territories. Whether they cared if l was a Saintess or not, we still held the most power in that room.
“Ready?” he asked, resuming his hand on the door.
And with that Aleric opened the door.
Just as I had thought, there were several groups of people scattered around the foyer. All of them mingling with others who I presumed were from different packs, their demeanours ranging from friendly to more reserved.
However, for all the conversations that were avidly taking place, it felt almost surreal to then see a whole room die to absolute silence as quickly as this one did.
Because all their faces instantly turned towards me, all filled with mixed expressions. And, internally, I sighed.