“The Territorial Wars were a storm,” Dalton said at last, “creating a thousand ripples. Shattering everything that should be.”
Including, Riaz understood with a painful burst of raw hope, the normal rules when it came to courtship and mating.
“Records from that time are fragmented at best,” Dalton continued. “Many Librarians were killed in the fighting, while others made the choice to begin anew when the postwar packs were founded.”
Riaz thought back to his history lessons as a boy, recalled that decimated by the bloodshed, a number of packs had amalgamated across the country, each group choosing a new name to represent their varied membership. “So a lot of the records made during the wars may have been destroyed?” Regardless of his intense frustration at coming up against the roadblock, he could understand the survivors’ desire to leave the horror of war in the past—especially when some of those who had amalgamated had once been bitter enemies.
“Yes.” Dalton put his hand on Riaz’s shoulder, squeezed. “But some believed as I do, that the past must not be forgotten, no matter if it is the Librarian alone who knows the truth. Those records exist.” Squeezing again, his fingers strong despite their apparently gnarled state, he dropped his hand back into his lap. “Even in war, the rejection of a mate was a rare thing. More often, when it happened to combatants on opposite sides of the line, the choice was made to come together, to attempt to effect peace. Sometimes, it worked. Other times…”
“They failed, were executed,” Riaz guessed.
“No,” Dalton answered, to his surprise. “Mating is so precious a gift that even warring alphas would not execute those of their packs who bonded with the enemy—but such bonded could not be allowed to remain in either pack. The mated can keep no secrets from one another.”
Riaz thought of Mercy and Riley, and the impossibility of the pair remaining part of their respective packs if SnowDancer and DarkRiver went to war. “It would’ve been hell.” To walk away from your pack was no easy thing, not for a wolf.
“Especially for the most dominant, the wolves the packs desperately needed to protect their vulnerable. The one unambiguous case I know of where two changelings who felt the mating urge chose to reject one another, involved enemy lieutenants.”
Riaz’s wolf lowered his head, comprehending the agony that had to have torn those two apart. Mating was a joy every changeling hoped for, but protecting those under their care was as primal a drive. No dominant could walk away from that duty and live with himself—the guilt would poison any relationship. “What happened?” It was a crucial question.
Dalton rubbed a fallen oak leaf between his fingertips. “The records aren’t as clear on that, but there are hints the nascent bond may have broken under the force of the dual repudiation.”
The ember of hope within Riaz flared brighter—Lisette’s continued and deep love for Emil was as much a rejection as Riaz’s conscious one, their situation not so very different from Dalton’s lieutenants. “So they were able to bond with other people?” To have the chance to mate with Adria…
Dalton’s smile was sad. “We’ll never know—they both died in the final battles.” Glancing at Riaz, he shook his head. “Such disappointment. You wanted a road to follow, but all I give you are ghosts and shadows.”
Shoving his hands through his hair, Riaz rose to his feet, paced across the pebbles and to the water’s edge before walking back to crouch beside Dalton. “There is no reason for the female to have a choice if it means nothing,” he said at last, because while Dalton would share information, he had always made his students find the answers to their own questions.
“Yes.” Wrinkles fanned out from the corners of the Librarian’s eyes. “Perhaps you will be the one who solves this riddle, eh, Riaz? It is ever the lone wolf’s task to journey into the unknown alone.”
“I’m not alone,” Riaz said at once, the words requiring no thought. “Adria walks beside me.” Even if the stubborn she-wolf didn’t see it yet.
Dalton smiled. “So.”
And Riaz understood that while a mate bond would be an incredible happiness, the lack of it did nothing to diminish his love for Adria, his wolf’s devotion absolute. “Call me a fool and be done with it then,” he said to the elder who saw the present and past both with crystal clarity.
Reaching out, Dalton instead patted Riaz’s cheek as he’d once patted the tree trunk. “Go court the one you have chosen, pup, and leave an old man to his ruminations.”
IT wasn’t until Adria walked into the garage that night—two days after Riaz began his relentless pursuit—that she realized she’d been outflanked. “I thought I was on watch with Sam.” The tiny carving this stubborn wolf had left sitting in her locker earlier, of a hilariously drunken skunk, burned a hole in her pocket.
“I’ll only give you so much space,” Riaz said, his smile dangerous, “and you’ve used up your quota.”
She didn’t tell him he was an arrogant S.O.B. who had a store of impossible charm, and she didn’t wrap her starved body around him until nothing hurt anymore. Instead, she got into the SUV and said, “I didn’t have a chance to read the entire brief.” Three of her kids had been pulled into the principal’s office—proof that being submissive didn’t mean good behavior. She’d spent the past two hours getting to the bottom of things. “Anything I need to know about this particular anchor or the location?”