Chapter Sixteen

“Look out!

“What?” I duck, just narrowly missing the large wooden pole that swings above me. “Be careful, please!”

“Sorry, Luna,” a few sheepish men mutter as they walk past me. Over their shoulders they carry prickly long, brown cylindrical trunks and pause by the spot that I’m standing. They drop the trunks down and pull out the old wood that holds together the octagon pavilion. While some of the men pull the poles, another bunch puts the new ones in. They take out their saws and begin to clean the wood.

“This is certainly exciting.” Bea returns with the ladder that I had asked her to fetch. She puts it up against the new pavilion side and holds the bottom as I climb up. “Finally we have another Luna in charge. There aren’t many of them.”

“I’ve heard,” I say. “Toss the banner please.”

Bea complies. “The last Luna we had died in the eighties. You’d be surprised how many men are born first.”

“I heard somewhere that if a mother is stressed during her pregnancy, then the baby is most likely to be a female,” another woman joins us. Her name eludes me momentarily, but then I remember it when I see the necklace around her neck. Amethyst.

“That I can understand,” Bea says. “But knowing mates, they always try to make the pregnancy the least stressful moment possible.”

“Then the baby comes and suddenly it’s hell on earth,” Amethyst adds with a chuckle. “I would know. That’s how my mate was.”

“Who’s your mate?” I ask as I crawl along the top of the pavilion’s skeleton. I’m on my hands and knees like a tiger, but gripping to the post like a koala in my attempt to string the banner on properly.

“I don’t think that you both have met before,” Amethyst says. “But her name’s Jade.”

“Jade?” What is it with all of these jewelry names? I think. “It’s a nice name, but no, I don’t think that I’ve met her yet.”

“You’re bound to meet her soon, Luna,” Amethyst gushes. “She works in the customs department in the human part of the world.”

“Really?” Bea expresses my surprise before I can. “Jackson allowed it?”

“He’s been trying to open communication with the humans.” Amethyst sighs. “But I’m sure you can imagine that they are quite reluctant to do the same with us.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because to them, we are nothing more than monsters,” Bea scowls. “Even to our own kind, they see us as monsters. Right, Adonis?”

Adonis, who had been passing quietly behind Amethyst and trying to be discreet, stops and shrugs. “I call it like I see it,” he says. “We’re monsters, through and through. They can’t change who we are.”

“Jackson isn’t trying to change us,” Amethyst snaps. “He’s trying to open us to the world that we’ve rejected for so long.”

“The humans have rejected us,” Adonis says. His eyebrows draw together. “If that’s what they want, then I’m fine with it. It’s my brother who keeps insisting.”

“They’re not all bad,” I mutter. “They’re just scared, rightfully, considering our history with them.”

“So, we killed a few and kidnapped some, big deal?” Adonis scoffs. “That was ages ago. Humans just can’t let go of the past, Anvi. They call us savages, but we don’t kill our own kind mindlessly.”

“Coming from you, that’s amusing,” Bea snaps. “Now leave us and go do your own thing, Adonis. We don’t care what it is.”

“Hey, you called me here to talk,” Adonis says and begins to walk away. “I didn’t butt into your conversation.”

Amethyst sighs. “I don’t know how you plan to live with him for the rest of your life, Anvi,” she says sympathetically. “He’s such a pain in the ass!”

“He’s not all bad,” I say. I wrap my legs tighter around the plank as I tie the banner. “He’s just a bit cynical in his sense of humor, that’s all.”

“Anybody could have guessed,” Bea mumbles. “Now, are you done? You’ve been up there for ages.”

“Ten minutes, Bea,” I call. “It’s been ten minutes.”

“Whatever, we just need to keep moving,” Bea calls back.

I slide down the ladder and push some of my hair behind my ear. “What else is there?”

“Just food surveying,” Amethyst says.

“Food surveying?”

“As Luna, you have to make sure all the food is good and in its proper positions,” Bea explains.

“Proper positions?” My jaw slackens. “What does that even mean?”

Amethyst giggles. She takes my arm. “Come, I’ll show you. Bea, can you grab Ben and Jackson?”

“I’ll see if I can find them first,” Bea sighs. “Knowing those boys, they’re either finishing their speeches or playing table soccer.” She winks at me. “Most likely the latter. See you in a bit, Anvi!”

“See you,” I murmur, waving after her. I let Amethyst drag me to the rows and rows of tables that are laden with a wide assortment of food and sweets. I can’t possibly eat all of this, much less taste it all, but Amethyst assures me that I only have to try the main courses.

“We have dishes from all over the world,” she says, guiding me through the list. “Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, even the islands!”

“They all look amazing,” I murmur and try to soak in the plethora of greens, browns, pinks, purples, and blues. There are some yellows too, but mostly in the dal.

Ma used to make dal, I think, and my mouth waters. Dal and rice and string beans – that was Ma’s go-to food whenever she was tired after work. Dad and I hated it, but we had to suck it up or else go to bed with an empty stomach.

“Try this,” Amethyst hands me a plate of jalebi, sticky orange sweets from India. “It’s delicious!”

“It is,” I agree, biting gently into a piece. I hover my hand over my mouth to cover any pieces of food that have escaped my lips until I can eat it. “Who made all of this?”

“I did.” Delia pops out from behind a large cake. “With the help of staff from Luna Hailey’s pack and our own, of course.”

“You made all of this?” I gesture to the rows of food. “Delia, you’re amazing!”

“Oh.” She blushes, and in the warm sun her eyes glow gently. “Thank you. I’m glad that you like them.”

“So was this your secret project that you wouldn’t tell anybody?” I ask, smirking.

Delia hesitates, then laughs. “Yes, it was,” she says. “I didn’t want any little mice to come in and take a bite of the surprise.”

“Mice?” Amethyst looks insulted. “We are not mice!”

“Explain last week’s cheese fondue then,” Delia shoots right back.

“Oh.” Amethyst’s cheeks color. “That was…okay, fine, maybe some of us.” She huffs, embarrassed, and picks at one of her nails with another. “Do you want to go look at some of the games, Luna?”

“I think we may have to try that later,” I say, pointing to the area where a few games were set up. Adonis romped around the medium-sized circle, swiping in the air with one of the fake swords whilst he checked the locks of the inflatable machines and toys.

Amethyst scoffed. “For someone who has a big mouth he sure acts childish.”

“He is the younger brother.” I shrug. I glance at Delia, who’s running her finger carefully over a glowing gold orb in her hands. It looks just like the sun, but smaller, and cold enough to fit in her palm perfectly.

“Do you need any help, Delia?” I ask. My hand prickles with curiosity – what is she holding?

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry about me,” Delia says. She brings her hands under the table and when she places them on the table again, the ball is gone.

“Huh, I guess it was one of the balls from the playhouse then,” I say, loud enough so that only I can hear. I glance at the ball castle. Adonis is there again, scoping the area. That’s what he was supposed to be doing all day, but considering that I’ve seen him in every place that I have been, it was an easy assumption that he had spent the day philandering instead of working.

“Hey, we should get going.” Bea approaches me. “The guys are done and we’re gonna go on stage soon.”

“Were they really playing table soccer?” I laugh.

Bea chuckles. “They were doing both. Reciting their speech while playing.” She shakes her head. “I can’t say I blame them though. On a hot day like this I’d much rather be in a pool than standing in the sun playing the polite princess.”

“I don’t mind being outside,” I say. I turn to the entrance of Alpha Ban-I mean, Luna Hailey’s pack as the gates flood with visiting allied packs. “I like the outside.”

Bea wrinkled her nose. “Are we both talking about the hot, sticky outside? You like this?”

I shrug. “Going outside was a rare treat for me. I missed a lot of vitamins.”

“Banastre never let you out?” Bea asks.

“Sometimes he did,” I say. “But it wasn’t often.” I laugh, but it’s not a very appropriate memory to laugh at. It’s my memory though. A bitter, helpless memory. My chest quakes at the thought.

“Shit, he was a tyrant,” Bea mutters. She wraps her arm around my shoulder and squeezes it gently. “Well, on the bright side, he’s gone now. He won’t bother any of us anymore.”

“We don’t know that for sure.” Together we climb up the peach-colored steps of the stage and stand by the makeshift red curtain. In the wind, it wavers, like dancers waiting for the queue of the band. “He could be back anytime.”

“We’d take care of him if he came back,” Bea promises. “But of course, we’d let you take the first blow.”

“I could never hit him,” I say with a small laugh. “Of course, I’ve dreamed of doing so, but…” I stare miserably at the small fist my hand makes. “I’m not strong enough.”

“Not yet,” Bea says. “With Adonis’s training, you’re sure to become strong enough to take on Banastre. Just remember, you can do it!”

I can do it! I repeat to myself, and my fist feels stronger. “I know, well, I know that now. I’m trying to make it clearer to myself.”

“Hey, after living with that piece of shit for two years, who could blame you?” Bea shakes her head. “Thank goodness you got away.”

“Well, I had help.” I smile at the two men that run towards us. Climbing up the steps of the stage, Ben hands Jackson a piece of paper and takes Bea aside after nodding to me.

“Finish the script?” I ask after Jackson kisses me hello. “Or was your soccer game more important than memorization?”

“Obviously,” Jackson says, laughing. He flicks the paper open and shows it to me. “What do you think? Not too long?”

“It’s fine,” I agree. “Where’s Luna Hailey? Have you seen her around?”

“She should be…there!” Jackson’s quick survey of the small pack spots Luna Hailey approaching us. Dressed in a dark jade dress and covered in her finest jewels, she pats the curls that her dark hair makes and titters over to me anxiously.

“I can’t tell you how much it means for you to be here today, Anvi,” she tells me. “I owe you a huge thank you. You as well, Alpha King.” She bows to Jackson, and I’m glad that she doesn’t bow to me. All that bowing makes me uncomfortable, but when I think about the future, I realize that I’ll have to get used to it.

“You don’t have to thank us, Hailey,” Jackson says. “This is what’s right. Keeping Banastre was wrong, and I’m going to see if I can do something about this three strike rule.” He pauses. “Excuse me, the ceremony is about to begin.” He cups my elbow and kisses me quickly. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay, see you,” I say, watching him as he goes. Luna Hailey watches him too, then she turns to me with a wide grin.

“I love seeing you this happy,” she says. “It’s rare that I’ve seen you like this.”

“Like what?”

“Glowing,” she says. “Positively glowing.” She leans close and kisses my cheek gently, like my mother used to do. In so many ways, Luna Hailey reminds me of my mother. Like a second mother, I suppose.

Jackson begins to say his speech, and Luna Hailey’s attention is diverted from me to the sprawling, cheering crowd before us. Men, women, and children all raise their fists in the air as Jackson riles them up, warning them of Alpha Banastre and his crimes, encouraging them to stand up for themselves and stay proud.

My heart wilts hearing him speak. It’s almost like he’s talking to me, telling me in my face that I have to stand tall and collect my pride. He doesn’t know that I have no pride no more. It’s all gone. Washed away with the rivers of tears that I cried for years – hoping that a small part would come back to me, but it never did. His words are powerful and rejuvenating and has the whole crowd roaring and applauding. They are enamored by his words, and so am I. I want to speak like he does, act like he does, have that confidence that I used to have. But all that is gone – how can I ever find it again?

I’ll find it, I tell myself, filling my mind with empty words of comfort. I know I won’t really find it, that’s what most of my brain tells me, but then there’s another part – a small, insignificant, part, that assures me that I will find that Anvi that I used to be. I’ll free her one day, I just have to keep trying.

That confidence that sprouted in me basked in the light of my resolve, but as soon as the speech finished and the official crowning ceremony began, it hunched, like a flower who had tasted water for one day then suffered the next week with dry roots. This plant needed to be nurtured, cared for with gentleness rivaling that of a mother to her child. Do I have that gentleness? That maternal instinct? I’m not sure. I’m never sure of myself.

I realize that I haven’t been paying attention to a word that Jackson’s been saying throughout Luna Hailey’s inauguration, and I quickly spur myself back into the moment as he lets the small, wavering bead drop into her hair. Astonishment glimmers in everyone’s eyes like the sparkle of the sun as the small droplet soaks Luna Hailey’s hair up and turns the roots gold. Her veins turn next, then her eyes, and in a dazzling flash of gold light, she’s on her feet with a new aura surrounding her. A surefooted, fearless aura that only Alphas and Luna’s possessed.

She’s a Luna, I think. My heart swells. Luna Hailey deserved this. She truly deserved this.

Beside her, Oscar, dressed in a dapper black suit claps loudly and rouses the audience into clapping as well. Bea and I turn to each other and smile.

“What else is left now?” I ask over the roar of cheering and clapping.

“Partying!” Bea yells back. There’s an excited gleam in her eyes and as soon as Jackson finishes his speech, dismissing the audience, Bea drags me to the food table. She pushes a red paper plate to me and begins to pile heaps of food onto hers.

“Bea, you do know that this event will be going on for a while, right?” I try not to laugh as I watch her shovel food into her dislodged jaw. “You have time.”

She swallows. “I know,” she says. “But I want to go bounce on the Bouncy House with you and Ben! So I need time to digest my food before I throw up and spoil all the fun.”

“Like last year, you mean?” Ben swipes a peanut from her plate. “Did you tell Anvi what you did last year?”

“No.” I smirk. “What did you do last year, Bea?”

Bea stares down at her food stubbornly. “Nothing,” she mutters petulantly.

“Ha! Tell her, Bea,” Adonis snickers. He comes up and claps Bea on her shoulder. “I’m telling you, Anvi, it was -!”

Bea shoves him. “Shut up, Adonis!” She scowls. “Shouldn’t you be supervising the play area?”

“Eh, the kids will be fine,” he says with a shrug. “I came to dig in on the juice.”

“There’s nothing juicy here,” Ben says, his tone hard. “Just get your food and go.”

“Geez, tough crowd.” Adonis holds his hands up in surrender and pops a peanut from my plate into his mouth. He winks at me. “See ya around, Anvi,” he says before jogging away.

I watch him go. “What was your deal with Adonis?” I ask Ben, who has enough dignity to blush. “He was just fooling around.”

“All Adonis does is fool around,” Ben says. “He never takes anything seriously. Well, except fighting, that is.”

“Yeah, I heard even his mate left him for that!” Bea hisses.

“What?” My gaze snaps to her. “Adonis had a mate?!”

“Rumor has it,” Ben says. “We’re not sure, but they say that he was so undecided and flamboyant about life that she left him for someone else.”

“Who?”

“Nobody knows,” Bea says, ripping into the chicken. The grace and poise that she displayed during the tea she and I had a few days ago seems to be a forgotten memory to her. “Then again, nobody knows if Adonis having a mate was even a real thing. Like Ben said, it’s just a rumor.”

“Probably a fake one too,” Ben adds. “I mean, Adonis? Settling down? Damn, that’ll be the day that pigs fly and snakes grow legs.”

“It could happen one day,” I say. “Everybody gets a mate.”

“Adonis is the type who would reject his mate if it meant he got to keep his selfish lifestyle,” Bea says. “You haven’t known him for long, Anvi. We have.”

I shrug. “Maybe so, but I’ll make my own judgment on him when I know him more,” I say.

“We’re not trying to influence your view on him,” Ben explains quickly. “We’re just…warning you. Adonis isn’t a person that you can take very lightly.”

“Really?” I raise my eyebrows and point with my thumb to the left. Bea and Ben turn and we all stare at Adonis as he jumps in the bouncy castle with the kids circling around him, all of them laughing and shouting merrily.

“Okay, most of the time,” Bea corrects herself. She goes to say something else, but her eyes narrow and she stops, staring at something over my shoulder.

“What?” I turn just as Jackson and Luna Hailey approach. Behind Luna Hailey is Oscar, who waves shyly at me. Beaming, I wave back.

“They’re going to be putting on some songs soon,” Jackson says. “Do you want to dance?”

“Sure,” I say and put my plate in the bin. I wipe my hands on a napkin. “I’ll see you both later, yeah?”

“Yeah, sure,” Bea says. She and Ben leave.

“I just have to talk to Oscar real quick,” Jackson says. He kisses my forehead and squeezes my arms. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”

“Take your time,” I say. “I’ll be fine with Luna Hailey.”

“Just Hailey, Anvi,” Luna Hailey chides me. “Otherwise I’ll start using your full title.”

“Oh god, please don’t!” I laugh. “I promise, I’ll try to start calling you by your name.”

“Thank you,” she says. “It sounds so weird when you call me that.”

“Why? I’ve called you Luna Hailey for two years already.”

“Yes, but…” she fidgets. “Oh! Is that jalebi?”

“Yep!” I offer one to her. Behind me, I can feel Delia’s eyes scorching my skull, but I ignore it. Or at least, I try to. It’s hard when one person in front of me is glowing like the sun and a person behind me is also glowing like the sun.

“Thank you!” She moans in appreciation. “I haven’t eaten anything that good in such a long time, I’m telling you!”

“I can imagine,” I say. I bite my lip. “Lu-um, Hailey?”

She smiles. “Yes, Anvi?”

“How…” I struggle for a moment to find my words. Am I shy? Why? I’ve known Hailey for two years! She’s been the closest woman in my life. Why suddenly has everything become so polite and cordial?

“Yes?”

“How are you feeling about being Luna?” I ask instead, brushing my other question away. She’ll get suspicious if I ask.

“Great!” She says. “Banastre is finally gone and I can breathe for the first time since my marriage!”

“You aren’t worried about being in charge?”

“No. Who do you think did all the work while Banastre fooled around?” Hailey smirks. “Of course, he did the important tasks, but I did the ones he considered to be too below his pay grade.”

“So, you’re confident?” I ask.

“One hundred percent,” Hailey replies. She takes another bite into her jalebi. “Come, Anvi, let’s go greet everyone else before the dancing begins. I know Jackson will whisk you away from me for the rest of the evening then.”

I laugh. “No doubt about that!” I say, and even though she’s right, I still manage to snag one dance with her before the slow songs begin to play. We hold each other like comrades, friends, sisters. She spins me around and I spin her. Laughing, dancing, tickling, we all spend the night like fools drowning in the party lights, drunk on excitement with our friends, indulging in lust with our mates, and moving our bodies like nobody can see us. In the later hours of the night, I suppose that nobody could really see us. Night vision had been diluted by the cups of alcohol strewn on the grass and stragglers of the party sloppily leave, leaving the mess for us to clean up.

Tomorrow, I think, surveying the mess. Hailey dances to herself on one side of the pack, humming and swaying to the beat of her own music. Lost in the tune, she’s carefree, a moment of peace and solitude. She’s relaxed, happy, for the first time in her life. Happy to be forgotten, happy to be found. Happy to be saved, happy to be lost. Lost in the music, she stays. She sways and sways and sways.

And the next morning, she’s dead. 

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