Aeron leaned forward and looked over the other alphas. Compared to them, he was rags and sheets. Their cashmere was the finest, imported from human territories like Hosckwith. Aeron fashioned a blood-stained hoodie. He took it off to be decent, but his long-sleeved year-old shirt was hardly an upgrade.
“Smells like dead skunk in here.” The white-haired man, sitting next to him said. Heavy, white foundation softened his hard, boxy features. At least it matched his suit, white enough to disband the color white forever.
“Was that a snag at me, Franc?” Aeron hung his sweatshirt over the back of his chair. He checked under his seat to make sure his ceremony mask was there. It was face down, unlike everyone else’s, but it was there. The rest of the room was quiet, though each one whispered amongst themselves. A couple sly glances caught Aeron’s eye. “That’s the smell of real wolf, Franc.”
“Don’t keep saying my name like—”
“Did we come here to listen to puppies squabble?” Rioux focused his snake eyes on the quiet hall below. Once upon a time, Rioux would’ve iced over hell for Aeron’s family. His loyalties stayed with McCarthy now. “Quite a group this year.”
Rolling up his sleeves, Aeron glanced at the crowd below. Every year, there was a mix of women and men. This year, mostly women swayed in confusion, most of them long-boned, like wolves.
“They’re Amazons,” Aeron mumbled, thinking how useless it would be to have another big wolf in his pack. Granted, these humans could never be wolves, but they would be part of his pack. He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. How wonderful would it be to have a little human cooking all their meals, cleaning all their filthy laundry and stashing clothes all over the forest, he thought. He chuckled to himself. As nice as having a human servant would be, they were there for one purpose alone. They were aide for the Alpha Competition. As Aeron observed the cluster of women, however, he wondered if the higher up had something else in mind. Breeding, for example.
Franc cleared his throat, arms still crossed. “Are we all ignoring the elephant in the room?”
Aeron huffed. He’d almost forgotten anyone else was in the room. On a table, near the door was a spread of bottled waters and thin slabs of meat rolled around something green that smelled like dirt, kept together with vomit yellow toothpicks. “Where is it, Franc?” Aeron slapped his legs, stood up and went to the table.
Franc turned with his arm over his chair. His thin lips pursed in satisfaction. “Didn’t you get outta jail today?”
“I was on ‘vacation’.” Aeron clicked open the bottled water. “Didn’t your parents teach you manners?”
“Why would I need those useless things?” Franc turned, rolling his eyes and re-crossing his arms.
Aeron gulped half the water in his bottle, while staring at the back of Franc’s head. There had been a gash there once, which he’d procured protecting his pack from McCarthy’s in the last competition. Now, a jagged scar was left in its place, partially covered by his swooping hair. “It’s almost like you didn’t miss me at all, Franc.”
“Stop! Saying! My name like—”
“I had plenty of free time, Franc.” Aeron twisted and untwisted the cap on his bottle. The last thing he wanted, after the isolation of four prison walls, was to be locked in the presence of idiots. Rioux normally behaved appropriately, but he could never get Franc to shut up. Unfortunately, like them, he had to be there to choose his members for the competition. After that, he’d kick Franc’s ass on the battlefield. “To think.” He pounded in a button with a speaker symbol. The speakers on the ceiling screeched before they could hear everything below.
“I wasn’t aware thinking was your forte.” Franc curved his mouth into a crooked grin, like he was waiting for everyone else to laugh. When no one did, he chuckled to himself. He rarely won their insult games, but he kept at it anyway. Hell, at least Aeron wasn’t bored. He finished his water before joining them again.
“What kind of pack’re you going for?” Rioux leaned back to see Aeron.
“Same as always,” Aeron said, taking his seat. Rioux’s question was probably coming from a good place—a clever segue, nonetheless. But Aeron didn’t think it was his business or place to ask such a thing. He was looking for the same thing everyone else was—strong, resilient and stoic individuals who knew how to fight. But while the others would go for humans almost as big as themselves, Aeron needed someone small, who could fit into tiny places.
Most of the wolves here were monstrous. He recalled one towering over his human frame at the start of the last competition. Hell, even Franc was about six-feet-four-inches, close to two-hundred and fifty pounds, though one couldn’t decipher that at a glance. Especially not with his more lavish style of dressing. Aeron was a measly five-foot-ten and he was about forty pounds shy of two-hundred.
“They weeded out the weak this year.” Rioux listed his head, leaning towards McCarthy’s representative.
Franc flattened the flaps on his jacket before hopping up. He stepped up to the window and pressed the glass with his fingers. “They all look weak to me.”
Aeron didn’t think any of them did. They were an assortment of trembling colors. Unusually large eyes darted nervously from one person to the next. There was one woman, small beside two tall women. The one with red hair, was tugging her shoulder, trying to get her attention, but the woman’s pixie green eyes were locked on Aeron. Another woman with the same brown skin snapped her out of her reverie. When the pixie-eyed woman realized Aeron was watching her, she swiftly turned away, inched deeper into the crowd.
“I heard training was intense this year,” Rioux said, with a sigh. “Yet, they all survived it.”
“We.” Franc said, and snapped his teeth together. “We all trained. We all survived it.”
Rioux leaned back in his chair, narrowed his eyes and zipped his lips. Like that, he was back in the dark, loneliness of his own mind.
“Did you train in jail, Pup?” There was a wicked playfulness in Franc’s pink grin. He gave Aeron no time to answer. “Either way. Regardless of their training here, my humans will be trained by me.”
“Then Higher help them all.”
“You two hush,” Rioux said. “Lady Cardi’s about to start sorting.”
“She always picks the best for me!” Franc clapped his hands with enough enthusiasm for everyone in the room. “But I’m always willing to trade.”
Below, Lady Cardi was droning on about an object under a red sheet. Someone had rolled it out on a push cart, even though it stood about seven-feet-tall. Aeron knew already that it was the statue of his brother, which they’d unveiled via national news a few months ago. They’d contacted him for a reference photo to fix his nose.
Lady Cardi pulled the sheet off to reveal his new and improved slender, more narrowed nose. It was a nose common to those like Aeron, Tenner and their mother. In Sath, noses were usually bigger and rounder, a common werewolf trait.
While the red sheet pooled around Tenner’s statue, like silken blood, Lady Cardi raved about their traditional welding techniques.
Aeron hadn’t thought it was possible to feel his soul burn twice. He clenched his fists. In his peripheral, Franc was shaking his head. Rioux was leaning forward, thick, blond eyebrows sinking. His focus made Aeron’s stomach wrench. Where had it been during last year’s competition?
“We’d like to take this time to honor the late Alpha Tenner Everest.” She sniffled, though she had no tears, and wiped her eyes with her pinky finger. “During last year’s competition, Alpha Everest was severely injured and ultimately succumbed to those injuries.”
It burned where Aeron’s fingers bit into his fists. It puzzled him how casually Lady Cardi could say he’d succumbed to injuries. It was like her mouth had a slow leak she couldn’t plug. Aeron turned his eyes only, wanting to see if the others sensed his anger. They’d already pulled their masquerade masks from beneath their seats and secured them on their faces. Aeron grabbed his mask, too, but set it on his lap.
The whole idea of those things was frivolous. Some believed it was to honor past alphas, while others thought it contained the strength of the alpha who wore it before. Tenner had worn Aeron’s before, but now Tenner was dead. What did that mean? Now, they were erecting a statue in his name, but wouldn’t tell the truth about his death. He’d hadn’t simply succumb to severe injuries. McCarthy’s pack had stalked and murdered him. Rules or no rules. “He killed my brother and they just brush over it.”
“Saying it any other way would make the Alpha Competition look bad,” Franc said, always entering his opinion where it wasn’t needed.
“Is that a bad thing?” Aeron didn’t see what was so great about any of them risking their lives like this every year for some scraps. He put on his mask, but knew he could never live up to Tenner. He wondered if he looked the part. Could he be an alpha without Tenner?
“Yes,” Franc said, and Aeron imagined him batting his eyelashes under his papier-mache. His personality didn’t match the bland sharp-toothed smile of his half-faced wolf mask. “We have to provide for—”
“Quiet.” Rioux barked.
“Thank you for that moment of silence,” Lady Cardi said. “Succeeding him is his brother and former beta, Alpha Aeron Everest.”
Through the narrow slits in his mask, Aeron looked towards a single applause coming from the tall, red-head from earlier.
“They’re not supposed to clap,” Rioux said, with a heavy sigh.
Aeron could’ve been wrong, but from the slant of her eyes, it appeared as though she knew that. “It’s wrong,” he said, staring at the woman, still clapping her hands and gazing back at him. “It’s wrong what we do to them.”
“Wrong?” Franc tilted his head.
“Bid on them, like this.”
“This is how we all survive. We protect them, if you ask me. The rest of our ‘were’ kind were wiped out.”
“Not all of’em,” Aeron muttered.
“The strong, I mean,” Franc said. “And who’do you think’s responsible? Surely not we. Weretigers—gone, weresharks—gone, werewolves were on the brink before the Alpha Competition.”
“Better to kill each other?”
“Better to keep the species alive.”
“Your fox genes always out speak your wolf’s.” Franc closed his eyes and twisted up his mouth. “There’s only you and your mom left, Alpha Aeron. Without the last of Tenner’s strong blood, there’s not much holding—”
Aeron knocked his jaw sideways before he realized it. Blood spray on his perfect white, suit. Aeron didn’t know when he’d gotten out of his chair and stood in front of him. Before his lip had the chance to bubble, he punched him again. If the myths were true, his fiery, red fox mask held the strength of a million alphas before him. They’d taken power when no one had offered.
“All right!” Rioux snatched Aeron’s fist.
Laughing, Franc licked his lips, redder than their natural pink. “Did I say something wrong?”
“Speak on my brother again and I’ll knock your teeth into your lungs.”
“Sit down!” Rioux shoved Aeron into his chair.
Aeron had found a way to snatch the crowd’s attention again. Everyone below riveted their eyes on him. He sat back, bit back the fire boiling under his tongue. He’d break that glass and hang Franc over the ledge by his uvula. He’d sit while he begged for mercy. Save it, he told himself, for the competition.
He waved Lady Cardi along.
He knew who he wanted and what he would do with them.