The rest of the meeting went without further incident and soon everyone disbanded from the meeting hall to congregate outside. It was sunset by this point and I could feel everyone‘s exhaustion around me as they waited for their sleeping arrangements to be made available for the night.
Aleric and I stood to the side, avoiding further interaction after the events that had occurred. Not that I imagined anyone would be upset by that. If anything, they would be grateful for our distance, not wanting to find themselves as the next subject of our focus for too long.
But there was one individual I had a feeling wouldn‘t pick up on that obvious social cue. An individual who had just left the building, their eyes beginning to scan the area around them.
Without hesitating, I quickly pushed Aleric around the corner of the meeting hall building to hide ourselves from none other than Alpha Fredrick.
Only he would be brazen enough to not let sleeping dogs lie. Or in this case, wolves.
| peeked around, watching as he frantically searched the crowds of people conversing outside. Searching for something or someone in particular.
“Why are we hiding?” Aleric asked quietly behind me.
He was close, his body right next to mine so he could whisper and not draw further attention to our location. I was grateful given the keener senses of our peers around us.
“Because Alpha Fredrick is going to try to speak to me privately,” I explained. “And he‘s going to demand to know where I heard those rumours about him from; something he couldn‘t ask me in that meeting without looking further guilty in front of the other pack representatives.”
“…And are they true? The rumours?”
| spun my head around and smiled wickedly up at him. “Who knows? They‘re just rumours after all.”
“Aria, what the hell,” he laughed. “It‘s a pretty serious thing to infer about someone.”
| shrugged, turning back to see if Alpha Fredrick was still looking for me. “He deserves it even if they are false. And besides, I‘m pretty sure that fighting a rumour with another rumour is far better than attacking him, like what you wanted to do.”
“I‘m sure that he is wishing right now that I actually had hurt him in order to save him from that social execution you just served him–.”
Alpha Fredrick‘s eyes then started searching towards the general area we were hiding, perhaps catching our scent in the wind change.
“Crap, time to go,” I said, grabbing onto Aleric‘s hand, and I ran towards the back of the building, all the while dragging him behind me.
“Aria, wait,” he called out, intending to sound disapproving over my immature reaction but his laughter betrayed him.
Behind the large hall was a grassy slope that led all the way down to a small pond at the bottom. Perfect for resting while I caught my breath for a minute; the lack of my own strength and endurance painfully obvious, courtesy of the collar.
I doubled over, both hands on my knees as I breathed in deeply. All the while, Aleric simply watched over me. I could see the amusement in his eyes at my state, something that was probably bad for even human standards.
“Give me a break,” I whined. “I haven‘t trained, nor done anything even close to that in months.”
“I‘m aware,” he said, walking past me to seat himself by the water‘s edge.
I followed only a moment later once my breathing was back under control, plopping myself down on the grass beside him.
It was so peaceful here. The sunset, the fresh air… how the water glistened orange in the dying light. I felt I could stay here for hours, relaxing as I continued to neglect all the problems mercilessly waiting for me ahead.
“I think I know why you brought me here,” I said after a few minutes of silence, now staring intensely at the lily pads.
“Is that so?”
“This is some sort of attempt to try and make me feel better,” I said, pulling my legs up to my chest and hugging them. “But which was your train of reasoning… fresh air and a change of scenery? … Or taking met o a meeting so I could pretend I‘m still a Beta heir?”
“Neither,” he said, a half–smile on his lips. “You enjoy puzzles and problem solving, Aria. During your Beta training days, I saw how you would get thrills from thinking of things in meetings that no one else had. I thought if I brought you here with me, it might help ignite that passion inside you again.”
A small crease formed between my brows. It seemed he knew me much better than I realised.
“…So that‘s why you were trying to get my input on those pack matters yesterday, including even those petty issues that anyone could solve.”
He nodded. “And whilst you didn‘t feel like participating in the actual discussions today, I still got to see you in there. It was like you came alive again, Aria. Something I was beginning to think I‘d never see again.”
I turned to meet his eyes finally and found them full of only genuine concern. The orange-toned light around us had made the green in them appear as if they were more saturated. How crazy that those eyes were so innocent in comparison to the ones I‘d known.
… Which was why, physically the same or not, it was becoming impossible to pretend that this Aleric didn‘t care about me. In fact, it would be naive of me to think otherwise,
This Aleric listened to me, taking note at least of what I was trying to tell him, before making his own mind up. He might not be ‘under control‘, but perhaps I didn‘t need that after all. The fact he at least considered what I had to say was still far better than anything else I could have hoped for in the past.
But it‘s not as though Aleric from the previous timeline was incapable of kindness. It‘s just that his kindness had never been directed towards myself. He had loved Thea, loved the pack, loved his work… it was just me that he hadn‘t loved. As if he was incapable of seeing me for who I was, or even willing to give me a chance.
So where was the line between fear and friendship now? It had become so blurred that I felt my uncertainty shift on any given day. Did I enjoy his company now? Yes… but at the same time, it was impossible to push aside my concerns.
For all I knew, he could be a volcano waiting to erupt at any second; its final trigger still unknown to me.
“I‘m sorry for worrying you,” I said, pulling my attention back to the pond. “It‘s just a hard adjustment, everything considered… and I don‘t like the room. The quarters. They… they make it hard to focus.”
… Make it hard to distinguish between two lives,‘ I elaborated in my head. The absence of having anything to do or focus on, mixed in with those quarters… it was like living inside my nightmares. Slowly, day by day, losing a piece of myself and becoming her.
He frowned in confusion but laughed a little. “Given how much time you‘ve spent in there, I would never have guessed.”
“I know… but it‘s actually the lesser of two evils,” I said with a small reciprocating smile, my chin resting on my knees
He then leaned forward, trying to catch my attention once more, and I flicked my eyes back to meet his now completely serious gaze
“You could have just told me earlier, Ana,” he said with disappointment “A room is at least something negotiable. I can talk to Tytus about switching your room to another one and I doubt it would be that big fan issue. The only problem is you might need to sleep there for a few more nights until I can organise it. Is that alright?”
I nodded my head. At least that was one thing I wouldn‘t need to worry about soon
One tiny thing in the hundreds of issues I‘d been neglecting
The sun was then almost completely down and a cool breeze came through, sending a small shiver through me. It looked as though the scarf came in handy for more than initially intended Funny as we weren‘t anticipating colder weather for another month or two.
“They‘re probably looking for us,” Alerc said, standing back up Td say we were at the top of the list for being shown where our guest lodgings were and we ran oft*
“Probably.” I agreed, stretching my legs back out in front of me. They were almost asleep from hugging them to my chest for so long
Aleric then held his hand out for me and I happily took it grateful for the gesture
“You‘re going to need to start training squats again at this rate,” he joked “Can‘t even get up by yourself now.”
I grumbled lightheartedly, now less grateful for the gesture, and we started our ascent back up the slope towards where we‘d left everyone.
“Hey, Aria,” he said slowly. I‘ve been meaning to talk to you about something
I stopped to look at him as we were almost at the top of the hill, “Yeah?”
“Well, it‘s about when”
But his words were drowned out as something then suddenly caught my eye behind his shoulder, immediately taking precedence over anything else A figure standing by the meeting hail, staring at me.
A figure i recognised immediately
“Aleric, I‘m sorry,” I said, interrupting him. “Surprisingly, I‘ve just seen someone I know.”
He turned around confused to look at who I was referring to. Who is that? They have Alpha blood.”
“I know. They‘re a friend of a friend. But I should quickly say hi Is it okay if we talk about your thing later?” I asked but i was already walking to where the person was waiting “I‘ll see you tomorrow morning for the trip back!”
But it was too late. I‘d already ran off without wasting any more time.
I felt bad for leaving so suddenly but my focus was elsewhere. Or, more accurately, it was on the person who I never expected to see here.
“Ana,” they greeted, almost as if in a sigh of relief
To my surprise, she immediately engulfed me in her arms, her dark curls falling onto my face as she hugged me
“ins..?” I asked, uncertainty thick in my voice. “Why are you here? This meeting was for small packs within the Winter Mist alliance. The Hidden Moon pack is by far one of the largest in the whole country.”
She laughed, pulling away, “I know that I came looking for you.”
“I heard from some sources that you were added last minute to the registry of guests staying here,” she explained. “I came as quickly as I could to ensure I didn‘t miss you.”
“But why?” I repeated, folding my arms over my chest. “You could have just sent a letter. Seems like a long way to travel.”
“Why? Because I‘ve been worried sick, Aria. We‘ve* been worried sick. The one living Saintess goes missing one day and the only public updates provided were coming from the same sketchy Alpha some weird rumours were involved with. Do you realise how worried we were?”
Iris Sullivan, the only child of Alpha Sullivan, was the girl I‘d helped save three years ago, back when I‘d used her whereabouts during a kidnapping for my own financial benefit. Back when I thought running away was still a viable option. How times had changed.
But she was also the girl who was apparently close friends with Cai, the same girl who I‘d come to learn later had even confessed her attraction for him at one point. So my curiosity at seeing her here, mixed in with the unmistakable way she kept referring to ‘we‘, was making my heart clench at the potential possibilities.
…Did she mean Cai?
“Who do you mean by ‘we‘, Iris?” I asked carefully, making sure to not let my voice betray any sway of emotion.
“It‘s a group of us who have a shared interest in ensuring your safety,” she explained. “Mostly those who wish to follow in the divine path provided by you, the guide of our Goddess. Then there are a few of us who have a personal interest in you as a person.
Like myself. You were a beacon for hope and change in this country… then you suddenly vanished. I‘ve been so worried about you, wondering what the hell they did to you.”
My shoulders slumped a little from disappointment. Of course, she wasn‘t a messenger from Cai, I knew that ship had sailed. And, to be perfectly honest, after being away all these months, I wasn‘t even sure myself how I felt anymore. I missed him, ridiculously so, but I knew that he was probably better off far away from me. Not just for his own sake, but for my own too. After all, around my neck was the very reminder of everything that had gone wrong.
So then this was probably the group Aleric had expressed concern about, all the way back from before I‘d confessed my crimes to Tytus. Those who would fight in opposition if I were held captive. I never thought to see Iris here though. Was she still hoping to take over her father and become the first female Alpha one day?
“Did they hurt you?” she asked, her big blue eyes full of worry.
I shifted uncomfortably. “No, no, I‘m fine….”
…Physically, I added in my head
She signed in relief. “Good, I‘m glad to hear that. You‘re going to need all the strength you can get to
thought that there was no way they would actually so that fas”
“Well they did,” I muttered, turning away Shamefully
She grabbed the sides of my face gently and turned me so I was looking back at her front on There was so much anger and determination in her eyes now, something that was almost scarily prominent
“This is wity we need you, Aria,” she stressed, “This is why we need change. No man or woman, ranked or unranked, should have the authority to chain you.”
But the magnitude of what she was really asking for was impossible. Not in my current state at least I knew she was right, things definitely needed to change. Equality and proper recognition were far overdue ..and that was putting aside the inhumane treatment an Alpha was legally allowed to subject someone to.
No, things needed to change, painfully co. but I couldn‘t be the one to do it Not right now. If anything, I would actually be going against my current goal.
Because one of the main things I‘d concluded was that staying on Aleric‘s good side was paramount to preventing the future I knew. In our current standing, it seemed easy enough to maintain given our friendship but, should I take Iris up on her offer to lead, then I would be stripping him of his title; of which, he had already previously expressed apprehension over. If I did this, I needed to accept that doing so would be creating an unnecessary rift between us…
…And that was something more dangerous than my oppression.
No, my first step now was to see if it was even possible for me to free myself. Work with what little advantages I had and strengthen myself in other areas where I could. I needed to prepare myself for when Thea inevitably showed up again and work on delaying, if not completely freeing myself, before my upcoming forced union with Aleric.
“Iris… I appreciate that you‘re so passionate about this and I agree things desperately need to change,” | started, choosing my words carefully, “but I really can‘t help you. Not right now at least… I‘m sorry.”
She searched my face for a few seconds, looking deep into my eyes, before finally nodding. Whatever she had been looking for, perhaps she didn‘t find it.
“Fine then,” she said, taking a step away. “Not right now, but maybe soon. Just send for me and I will come help you. Whatever you need, whenever you need it. You have many more friends than I think you realise.”
I did my best to muster up a small smile for her. “I appreciate that, Iris. Really, I do. I promise that you will be the first person I call on when I need help.”
Iris engulfed me into another hug, somehow squeezing me even tighter than the first time. She was a lovely girl, something that made me feel a little guilty from the mild distaste I’d briefly held for her once over Cai. However, deep down, I couldn‘t deny that I also felt a sense of responsibility and trust having saved her life; as was the way I had felt about Myra once.
“This won‘t be the last time,” she smiled brightly.
And I was sure she was probably right.
But for now, I had something far more pressing weighing on my mind. Something that had been lurking within my mind, patiently waiting for when I was alone again.
Because whilst I wasn‘t ready to take over an entire country, I had still been given a small blessing. Something to focus on in the interim of my looming punishment.
Now was the time to find that spark of energy waiting inside me and practice. Practice until I was free again once more. And the best part? No one was going to see it coming.