“…What did you just say?” I asked, my voice thick with disbelief.
“I said they‘ve declared war,” Alexander repeated. “They‘ve said that if we don‘t release Caius before sunset tomorrow that they will officially announce their intent to bring him home by force.”
Less than twenty–four hours. I had less than twenty–four hours to free him or we would be initiating a war.
…And it would be my fault.
“It‘s not enough time,” I whispered, the panic rising inside me once more. “…It‘s not enough time… It‘s not enough time.”
I took a step backwards as my mind continued to whirl. This was it. Everything had been leading to this moment and it was finally here.
“Is there anything else I need to know?” Aleric asked him.
Alexander frowned as if he‘d expected him to have a different reaction.“… No? Just that we received a letter from the Silver Lake just now… —”
“You can go then,” Aleric interrupted. “Thank you for telling me as soon as possible.”
“What? ….Uh, yeah, okay…,” Alexander said, confused.
He took a few steps backwards, still unsure as to why he‘d been dismissed so quickly, before finally turning around to leave.
As soon as Alexander was out of sight, Aleric immediately turned his attention to me.
Everything was spinning, making it hard to focus. What could I possibly do to stop this now? Maybe confronting Thea myself and trying to get her to confess again? But no… that energy inside me had become disconnected, like a flickering light whenever I tried to grasp it. I remembered how sick it made m e last time and didn‘t think I could force anyone to follow my orders right now even if I wanted to. A parto fme knew that doing so would be reckless… potentially deadly.
“Aria,” Aleric said, his voice cutting through my thoughts. It was enough to make me look up to him, meeting his gaze directly. “Breathe. In and out.”
As he said the words, I realised my breathing had become shallow, my concentration on thinking taking priority. Slowly, I breathed in deeply and back out again.
“You‘ve got that same expression that worries me,” he said. “The one where I leave you alone to calm down, only to find out you’re acting completely insane a few days later. We don‘t have time for that anymore. I need smart Aria right now, not self–destructive Aria.”
He was right, I needed to slow down and think properly. Confronting Thea myself was far too risky and
almost certainly wouldn‘t work out in my favour.
And so, I closed my eyes, my breathing still shaky, but I did my best to focus.
I went over it all in my head, thinking through the different possibilities, the different outcomes… but with the limited time we had left, there wasn‘t much we could do.
Shaking my head, I frowned. “There‘s no time, Aleric… our best hope is that Jonathan accidentally reveals himself tomorrow or Thea slips up.”
“… That‘s cutting it pretty close,” he said.
“I know… which is why I have one more solution as a backup plan that is almost guaranteed to work.”
He crossed his arms, his brow furrowed. “If it‘s quaranteed then why don‘t we just implement that one first instead?”
I bit my lip, unsure if I should tell him. I already knew what his reaction would be.
“Well… because..,” I started hesitantly.
His frown deepened for a second before finally, he understood what I meant without me even needing to finish. I could see the recognition on his face when he realised what I was planning.
“No, no way,” he said, a tone of finality in his words. “You‘re not doing that.”
“Aleric, I don‘t have a choice.”
“You‘re throwing your life away,” he argued. “Everything you‘ve worked towards, everything you‘ve fought for. You‘re going to give it up for him?”
“I‘m not giving it up for him… I‘m giving it up for the pack. Both packs. I‘m giving it up to save innocent people.”
He shook his head. “Aria, think this through clearly.”
“I am thinking clearly!” I hissed. “I can‘t let thousands of people die for my mistake. If the worst–case scenario really does happen… I‘m going to confess. There is no other way. The side effects of my punishment do not overrule the lives of innocents. You‘re the one who needs to think clearly here.”
I wouldn‘t let it happen. Not again. I‘d participated in too many wars already and knew too well the destruction they left behind. This time the cause wasn‘t even for power or territory… it was over releasing an innocent man. A man accused of my own crimes.
I took a breath, calming my voice back down to help him see reason. “Aleric, if you really cared about the Winter Mist, and I know you do… you‘d let me do this. Please don‘t ask me to stand by and let people die for me. I don‘t need their names weighing on my soul any more than I already have.”
“And what if Tytus sentences you to death? What then, huh? I can‘t save you from that, Aria. You know as well as I do what the punishment for treason is.”
“He won‘t,” I reassured. “He can‘t. He‘d chain me to a pole for the rest of my life before killing me. He likes the status image I provide too much. The ‘Winter Mist Saintess‘. No, he won‘t kill me.”
“Then we‘ll have every Goddess devout nutcase on our doorstep demanding their Saintess‘ freedom. You‘ll become a martyr within your own oppression. We‘re potentially trading one war for another.”
“Don‘t worry about that,” I said, desperately trying to help him see reason. “That‘s at least a more manageable problem. One thing at a time here. First, I‘ll call an emergency meeting scheduled for just after lunch tomorrow. In the morning before that, we‘ll see how Jonathan goes with Thea then… well… worst–case scenario, I‘ll be using the meeting to finally clear all this mess up.”
“No,” he said flatly.
His plain refusal bristled my temper once more. “Aleric, what the hell is going on with you? Is this really due to dealing with the devout follower backlash or is this about something else? is it Cai? Do you really hate him that much? I know you guys don‘t get along but this seems a little extreme.”
“What? No, Aria… You don‘t… whatever.” He sighed in frustration, giving up on whatever he wanted to say and opting for silence instead.
*I don‘t‘ what? What were you going to say?” I pressed.
“Nothing. Forget it.”
I crossed my arms defensively. “You always do this,” I said, not bothering to hide my irritation. “I say something or do something and you just go quiet instead of telling me whatever it is you‘re thinking about.
“It‘s called making smart decisions and knowing when some things are better left unsaid. Would you like me to teach you how that‘s done?”
I clenched my jaw at the direct insult. “At least I‘m not fine with killing off innocent people for the sake of avoiding a smaller confrontation. Wars don‘t solve all your problems, Aleric. What are you really afraid of here? Is it that you‘re insecure over whether I‘ll usurp you one day? Gather followers of the Goddess around me and take over what you feel you‘re entitled to? Let me give you a quick tip for avoiding that future; don‘t p**s me off. I never wanted the job anyway. Why do you think I‘ve tried so hard to become a Beta instead?”
“Betas don‘t give Alpha commands,” he retorted harshly. “You can‘t just pick and choose which title you want whenever it suits you.”
I wanted to argue back but he was right, I had overstepped that line. Instead, a moment of icy silence hung between us, neither of us wanting to concede. Finally though, his eyes softened, sighing in release o ftension.
“…I‘m sorry, I shouldn‘t have snapped at you first,” he said quietly in defeat, running a hand through his dark wavy hair. “Just… do what you think is right, Aria. We‘ll deal with whatever happens after when we get to that point, just as you said.”
We were both in the wrong here, I knew that. We had burnt ourselves out with this investigation the last few months, spreading our free time too thin with all the additional work it brought us. It was no surprise really that we were both now in each other‘s faces the second that war was finally at our doorstep. It was a cocktail for short fuses and high tempers. Which was exactly why the best decision here was for us to walk away before saying something else we‘d regret.
In truth though, I was sure neither choice presented was the best decision here. Both paths ahead had their own obstacles, their own pros and cons. And whilst it felt as though Aleric‘s opinion on this right now seemed off, I had to give him credit where it was due. If it hadn‘t been for his support over these last few months, I would have been worse off and probably done something far more drastic already by now. I n a way, I owed him.
Which was why I wanted him on my side for this decision. After all the time and effort we‘d put in, it was now just as much Aleric‘s choice as it was mine since it was technically his life on the line as well. He‘d lied about my involvement and had been helping me during all of this mess. If he was found to have been withholding information, I was sure Tytus would not be pleased.
“…I‘m sorry, too,” I mumbled. “It‘s not like I want to do this, Aleric. Just… trust me. You‘ll have my support with whatever happens afterwards, I promise.”
He sighed, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. “Aria… that‘s not… Yep. Okay, sure. Thank you.”
“It‘s going to be okay,” I said with a small smile. “Maybe we‘ll catch Jonathon tomorrow and be dragging his a*s into that meeting instead.”
We stood facing each other, neither of us moving. I could see on his face that he looked as though he wasn‘t exactly pleased with the outcome, but I was happy that he seemed to be on board at least for now.
“Alright, I should probably head off then,” I said, motioning towards the car. “I‘ll drop you off at the packhouse on the way if you want.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, starting to walk with me.
Chapter Sixty One
There wasn‘t much time left but I knew exactly where I needed to go next. Only it wasn‘t somewhere I wanted to bring Aleric.
“…I‘m off to go prepare for the worst–case scenario,” I replied.
Not long after that, I found myself walking down a cold hallway, my feet leaving an echo as I went. I‘d come here frequently enough that I was now familiar with these walls, but their contents had continued t o be a source of pain for me these last few months.
Outside a door stood James, positioned on guard duty. He was the warrior who had escorted me from m y cell to the trial grounds in my previous timeline. James barely knew me in this life when compared to the last but my respect for him had remained. Those last moments he‘d gifted me with my father had been precious. Although it did feel almost surreal to see that he would be the warrior on duty today given the circumstances.
“Beta heir,” he greeted me, inclining his head slightly in respect.
I nodded back in acknowledgement. “James. How is the prisoner today?”
“Same as always.”
He didn‘t say anything further and instead opened the door, accompanying me inside.
As soon as the room beyond came into sight, my eyes immediately darted around, searching until they fell on a pair of familiar gold ones staring right back at me. He was seated at a small table that had been set up to the side.
My first instinct was to run to him, nestle my head into his neck, and wish for the thousandth time that this wasn‘t real… but I couldn‘t. Not here, not today, and definitely not over the last few months, had I been able to do anything remotely close to that. We were forced to strict professionalism due to the ever present eyes of guards watching.
“Cai, how are you?” I asked stiffly.
It had taken me a moment to find my voice, my sense of guilt always hitting me hard whenever I got to see him. He hadn‘t hinted at any complaints even once since coming here but I knew it had to be hard. I could see the circles forming under his eyes and how he‘d lost a little bit of weight. It was all signs of him paying a price he hadn‘t signed up for.
“I’m well, thanks,” he replied. “It‘s good to see you.”
Hearing his voice almost made me lose my composure. I could see in his eyes what he was really telling me and it only made things so much harder.
I cleared my throat and tried to refocus. “You too.”
I‘d come here with every intention of telling him the news of the war conditions proposed by the Silver Lake but, seeing him now, I couldn‘t bring myself to do it. He would know what that meant, what two paths would potentially be waiting for me now. But, more importantly, he would know that this was goodbye. Regardless of how it went, tomorrow Cai would be free. I‘d make sure of it.
“I umm… I just wanted to check in and make sure you‘re still hanging in there,” I half lied, taking a seat at the table opposite him. “Are they treating you okay?”
He shrugged. “Can‘t complain. Since being upgraded to the larger room it at least feels a little less… prison –y. Kind of feels more like home arrest now… if my home was a white cell with uncomfortable furniture.”
My lip twitched slightly but I couldn‘t bring myself to give him a smile at his attempt at humour.
We were quiet for some time, neither of us knowing what to say. I couldn‘t speak freely with him and yet there was so much I wanted to speak about. It was torture. He was right there in front of me, within arm‘s length, and I couldn‘t even touch him.
…I‘m sorry.” I mouthed to Cai silently. James was at the door within listening range but my back was facing him.
And though I knew Cai couldn‘t hear me, I hoped desperately that he saw just how sincerely I meant that. How much weight I really meant behind those words.
He looked at me with concern, as if he was sensing exactly what I was feeling, and inside I could feel that pit of guilt clench. Everything was becoming too much.
“Well… I‘m glad you‘re doing okay,” I said, no longer having the strength for this anymore. I felt overwhelmed, like I couldn‘t breathe. “I should be going… I’ll come by to check on you again… When I can.”
I turned my face and was about to stand up when his hand suddenly shot out, clasping my wrist to pause me.
“Wait,” he said. I stared down at his hand in disbelief that he‘d just done that with James in the room.” Why does it feel like I‘m never going to see you again?”
“Cai…,” I whispered, darting my eyes in James‘ direction so he‘d get the hint.
He looked over at him in irritation, as if he were an obstacle more than a person, and immediately walked over to him before I could get another word out.
I watched as Cai then started to speak to James in a low voice, smiling and laughing the whole time, before something unimaginable happened.
“Yeah, all good, man,” James finally said loud enough for me to hear,
“Ah, you‘re the best,” Cai said, patting him on the shoulder like they were best friends. “I‘ll make sure to go easy on you next time.”
… Then James gave me a small nod… and left the room.
Cai strode back over towards me like nothing insane had just happened, and I just stared at him, too stunned to move. But he didn‘t notice, not even pausing in the slightest. Instead, Cai immediately leant over, grabbing my face gently in his hand, and brought his lips down to mine.
His taste, his scent, all of it instantly overwhelmed me. In a span of a few seconds I‘d gone from accepting that I might never see him again, to kissing him in a cell with a guard on the other side of the door.
…On the other side of the door.
Reality kicked back in and I pulled away, breathless.
“Cai… what the f**k was that,” I asked incredulously.
“What? James? He‘s a good guy. We play poker all the time when he‘s on duty. Not a lot to do when stuck i na cell twenty–four seven.”
“...And so he just broke orders…. because you guys are pals?”
“Yeah! Well, I mean, he‘s not really breaking orders. Just hanging out on the other side.”
“Cai…,” I said cautiously. “Did you… did you order him?”
“What? No. Of course not. I couldn‘t even if I wanted to,” he replied. “Aria, trust me. All I did was ask if we could have a moment to talk in private. He really is just a good guy.”
Chapter Sixty One
I paused for a moment, thinking it through, before finally nodding. Cai sounded completely sincere and I knew from personal experience that James was capable of bending rules slightly. He‘d done the same thing for me. Not to mention that Cai really had a way with words. I‘d seen him talk his way out of all sorts of situations before. This really shouldn‘t have been so surprising.
I sighed. All of this was too much to wrap my head around without the added stresses. After all, if things didn‘t fall in my favour, it might be me living here by this time tomorrow.
“What‘s going on, Aria?” he asked, bringing my attention back. “Every time you‘ve come to visit me these last few months you‘ve always had this look of determination about you. But today... you look shaken.”
“…!, umm,” I started, unsure what to say.
Was I really going to tell him? It wasn‘t that I wanted to hide it from him. It was just that telling him felt like acknowledging that this really was the last time I‘d see him. And honestly, I didn‘t have any strength t o spare in order to say goodbye one last time.
“It‘s nothing, just stress,” I lied. “I found some information and might have a lead to get you out of here… but it‘s dangerous. I‘m just worried I might not be successful.”
“Hey,” he said, lifting my chin up to look him in the eyes. “I believe in you. You‘ll pull it off and you‘ll be back here telling me the good news in no time.”
“Cai… just in case I don‘t–”
He cut me off, silencing me with a kiss.
“Don‘t,” he said after we‘d broken apart again. “Don‘t talk about things you don‘t know yet. Focus on protecting yourself first, don‘t worry about me. When I see you next, you can tell me the good news.”
… There wasn‘t going to be a next time. This was it. This was going to be the last time I saw him. The best case scenario was that I might see him again one day at a political meeting from afar… if I wasn‘t in prison and still a Beta.
| gently brought my hand up to his face, tracing his cheek with my thumb. Being here, next to him, I wanted nothing more than to lean in and relax against him. I wanted that infectious energy of his to help me forget everything that was going on, help me forget everything I was scared about. But I couldn‘t. Now, more than ever, I needed to show restraint. I needed to be strong enough to sacrifice my own freedom for his should it come down to that.
“No matter what happens to me, please look after yourself,” I said. “Knowing you‘re safe and alive is enough to make me happy. Please remember that.”
I saw him frown as he was about to open his mouth to speak, but a knocking suddenly came from the door, stopping him before he could.
“Everything is going to be okay,” was all he ended up saying.
He leaned in, giving me a final quick peck on the forehead, before pulling away completely.
I wanted to reply, to say something, anything, but I couldn‘t. I knew that if I tried to speak that my voice would betray me. Tears were already threatening to spill from my eyes at any second.
And so I smiled. One last time. Because this was probably going to be the last image of me he ever had.
Tomorrow, a new fate would be decided. ...A fate where I couldn‘t follow him.