When the door closes behind the queen and her guards, the room erupts into a hot and chaotic swarm of people.
People running to gossip with their friends, the quiet whispers melting together into a loud hum.
Slipping between chatting groups, I leave as quickly as I’m able. Making my way down the courthouse steps, I look through the crowd.
The sea of gray uniforms is separated only by the occasional yellow. I hate moments like this, when I stop and take note of how alone I really am.
Vampires and humans fill the streets. Wolves are almost never seen during the day unless they are repairing a road or constructing a new building.
At night, when the respectable citizens are at home, they roam the streets.
Weather-battered wolves will be released from their jobs in the fields, assembly lines, or factories and fill the streets.
Wolf traditions are mostly outlawed, but they can’t keep us from our pack-like communities and social natures.
Most of us live several families in a house, pooling our resources and taking care of one another.
Even with our wolves caged, we can feel our alpha. We can sense a bond between wolves that would have belonged to our pack.
As I race through the crowded, curved streets, I watch the people around me.
Humans live on the edge of a dangerous cliff. As long as they behave and keep themselves out of trouble, they are allowed to live in relative comfort.
A human is no match for a vampire, but as long as they keep their heads down and don’t irritate or anger a vamp, they will be all right.
They never look fully at ease unless they are out at night, after the vamps have gone home.
They are at ease with wolves. Even before we were collared, our relationship with humans was amicable.
Wolves and humans often have romantic relationships, which are usually kept secret. The children from these relationships can be human or wolf.
It used to be that two wolf parents would create wolf offspring, but that has changed.
A human child can be born to wolf parents now that our wolves are dormant.
I have heard of the pain this causes. On one hand, no parents want this life for their children, on the other, we are proud people.
To not pass on the werewolf genes is a new kind of heartbreak.
Walking up the crumbling cement steps to our old house, I hear voices inside. My aunt and uncle work late-night shifts and often beat me home.
The room goes quiet as I enter. My aunt and uncle and man I don’t know personally but immediately recognize are huddled at the small kitchen table.
“Noelle.” My uncle nods. “You’re back early.”
“Yeah, they are presenting closing arguments Monday. The trial is almost over,” I answer him quietly, hoping they won’t send me to my room. I want to listen in on their conversation.
“This is Orin Killion. His son’s birthday is tomorrow also.”
I’m not sure what to say. I’m surprised that he introduced me. I know who Orin Killion is. Everyone does. We’ve just never spoken to each other before. Authority rolls off him in waves.
I didn’t know that there was anyone who shared my birthday, especially not his son.
“I’ll bring him by later, for the history,” Orin says to my uncle before standing to leave.
His voice is strong and deep, my instincts are to bow my head. An alpha, definitely. My alpha. I always get the feeling that he doesn’t like me.
Once he is gone my aunt brings a small muffin-type bread from the stove. I smile. It’s not the birthday cake that humans or vamps get, but it’s special and she made it for me.
“Happy birthday, Elle!”
My uncle joins us. “Happy birthday,” he says, kissing my temple.
I offer them a bite but they refuse. My eyes go wide as I taste it.
“Is there real sugar in this?” I can’t believe it.
My aunt grins and nods her head. “A few of us chipped in to buy some.”
“You could have used honey! You didn’t have to spend money on me. Thank you so much!”
Groceries in general are expensive, but anything sweet or special is extra. The wages that wolves make are so minuscule that we can never afford anything special.
Pre-test teens often work but our wages are minimal.
“You only turn seventeen once.” She winks at me.
“Are you ready for tonight?” my uncle asks, the lighthearted part of the conversation, apparently over.
“Yes, I’m ready.”
“Good. The Killion boy will be here at sundown to hear the history before you’re taken.”
I nod. A werewolf tradition, before the collars, was to hear our history on the eve of our first shift. It’s a tradition we all still observe, secretly.
I want to ask about the boy coming here tonight. Is he like me? I know there are others.
Wolves who trained to beat the test. Wolves who are passing as humans, hiding their ability to shift. My questions burn in the back of my throat. I know he won’t tell me.
“I’m going to go to my room for a while, get cleaned up before things get started.” I excuse myself.
I need to be alone, to focus on what I need to do tonight. I wish my uncle would answer my questions.
How many people have successfully done this before? Has anyone ever been caught? Are any of the humans I know actually wolves?
I pace around my tiny room, walking the four steps from my bed to my door and back again, over and over.
I know I can do this but I’m still afraid. I wish I could go for a run, let my wolf out, burn off some of this nervous energy.
As I pace, I notice the shadows change across my wall. The sun is beginning to set, casting an orange glow across my room. It’s almost time.
The vampire guard will be here to take me away soon. The testing facility is somewhere in the castle.
This will be my first time even being on the royal grounds. It’s rare even for humans to enter the grounds, unless they are a blood donor or a pet.
The royal family uses other vampires instead of humans for their staff. A knock at my door startles me.
“You ready, Elle? James is waiting for you,” my aunt says through the door.
“Yeah, coming.” My voice shakes with nerves.
Making my way down the narrow staircase, I stop short, listening. They are whispering quietly to each other.
I can’t make out what they’re saying. Secrets and whispers are as typical to my life as breathing.
For years I’ve lived with half-truths and sneaking around, my uncle’s unnamed friends and acquaintances sneaking in and out of the house. My family is hiding in the shadows.
Nothing is ever explained to me. The plans are never laid out when I’m around.
I only know my own small part. I know I am a cog in a much larger machine.
I wonder if I will ever know more, if my aunt and uncle know more, or if they are as in the dark as I am.
It feels like a nameless, faceless giant that is consuming everything around me, but I can’t see it. I wonder if every wolf I meet is a part of it. If every human is a wolf in disguise.
It’s enough to drive you mad. I hope that after tonight, if I can beat the test, I will be told something, anything.
“Noelle?” my uncle calls to me. “What are you doing?”
“Just collecting myself. I’m ready.” I try to smile, to appear calm and steady.
“I made some tea.” My aunt’s face mirrors mine, a calm facade covering nervousness.
“What happened with the trial today?” my uncle asks. I assume to give me something to talk about other than the inevitable knock at the door.
“I don’t know,” I say. “There hasn’t been one single piece of solid evidence against her.
“She’s accused of treason but they keep showing papers with redacted information, or the judge calls up the lawyers and they talk quietly, then sort of just, move on.
“It’s like everything is classified and they either can’t show the evidence or they don’t actually have any.
“It’s crazy,” I say after telling them about the evidence, or lack thereof, that was presented today.
“The rumors I hear are wild. A group of vamps was talking in the row in front of me. They were saying the king caught her in bed with a wolf!
“Another lady said she had a half wolf-half vampire child that she’s been hiding for years.”
“Don’t listen to idle gossip, Elle,” my uncle says. “You’re there as a representative for the family you work for. Don’t join in to that ridiculousness.”
“I don’t,” I assure him.
Taking a sip from her mug, my aunt asks, “Still no sign of the king? Or the prince?”
“No! You’d think they would show up for this. It’s kind of important.”
“I’m not surprised about the king, but the prince is said to be a kind boy, more like his mother than his father.
“I’m surprised that he’s not been there.” My aunt hums into her mug.
“He is a prominent topic of gossip also. People want to know why he isn’t coming out and publicly supporting his mother or father.”
“Maybe he can’t publicly support his mother. Supporting treason publicly isn’t exactly smart.”
“Yeah, but she hasn’t been found guilty of anything, yet.”
“Yet.” My aunt nods quietly.
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