A Night at the Opera
Someone knocked on Cora’s bedroom door just as she removed cucumber slices from her eyes, which were puffy from a night of crying. The vases of lilies and chrysanthemums on her dressing table gave the air a funereal quality, but arranging flowers had been the only thing keeping her sane since returning home with Father, and she stared at the white petals while Maisie entered with a quick curtsey.
“Good morning, miss. Your father wants to see you in his study once you’re dressed.”
“Thank you, Maisie.”
A small frown at her reflection was the only sign of her struggle against her hands mechanically choosing clothing her father considered proper: a long-sleeved knit dress in a hideous shade of brown and sensible shoes with the lowest heel possible. She knew it was useless to fight the sigil but refused to simply accept how it could take control of her body over the slightest things.
The resistance left her with a headache by the time she reached her father’s study. The sigil pulsed contentedly in his presence as she stopped in front of his desk. “Good morning, Father.”
“Cora.” Her father was in the middle of writing letters and didn’t look up. He had gone grey early in life and now his hair was completely silver, glinting in the lamp light. With some surprise, she realized all the window curtains were drawn, as if the bright sunlight would be too much for him.
Without looking up from his work, he said, “You’ll be going without me to all our social appointments. I’m not feeling well.”
He did look sickly, she had to admit. Her father had always been an imposing, distinguished man, but now his skin had a grey pallor and the pen in his hand moved with less force than usual. Inwardly, in the small part of her mind that remained free to think however it wanted, she wondered if he had contracted an illness that might kill him. She hoped so. It was a shocking thought, but she wasn’t sorry for it at all.
Just then, his gaze flickered up from the letters. “Did you hear me?”
The sigil pulsed painfully until she answered. “Yes, Father.”
“And do you remember what the appointments are?”
“Yes. Visiting with Mrs. Crainshaw and her daughter, going to Mrs. Einhorn’s luncheon, and finally the opera tonight.”
“Good. Explain to them all my absence as needed. That’s all.” Then her father bent his head toward his work in silent dismissal.
There was nothing to do except return to her room. The sigil burned steadily against her urge to scream and throw things, and at last she sat on the bed, glaring at the flowers around her. Over a month of living like this, and it hadn’t gotten any less infuriating. Her father was like a block of granite, slowly crushing her life into a model of his old-fashioned propriety.
Oh, she knew why she had to visit all the fuddy-duddy family connections today even without him. He wanted to build a good reputation for her with those willing to pretend that the recent scandals still shaking the city could be left in the past. Worse, it would possibly work.
She didn’t know what the newspapers claimed and couldn’t read them to find out. But she was very aware that out of the sprawling mess created by Freddy and his cult, she and her father were seen as the only innocent figures involved. It left her in a positive light with Father’s old-money friends, all of them proud of being as stiff and unchanging as statues. And now she was forced to act like them, one command at a time.
Well. She had never given in easily, and wasn’t about to start.
Her determination spurred her into fighting the sigil throughout her day despite a growing headache in response. As with all her previous attempts, it proved impossible to win against the nasty little thing, and by the time she was settled into her father’s private box at the opera house, she was both furious and fuzzy-headed.
The singing didn’t help with the pain, and it was only the sigil that kept her smiling during the intermission when she mingled with the other members of the audience. She wasn’t allowed to drink or smoke, and the sigil also smothered a groan of frustration from her when Mrs. Portsmouth, one of Father’s old friends, caught sight of her and came over.
“How are you, dear? You’re looking well. So much more composed these days.”
The other woman appeared unchanged, hiding her bulky body beneath layers of beaded chiffon, and sounded the same, too, her voice as loud and squawking as a parrot while she dove into a mostly one-sided conversation.
Frankly, it was the most depressing moment of the night to realize she was dressed as modestly as the other woman. Perhaps even more so, seeing as her gown and shawl were a bland taupe compared to Mrs. Portsmouth’s raspberry. For the first time that night, Cora gave up and let the sigil guide appropriate responses from her mouth. Her thoughts thickened into a mindless fog that always seeped in whenever she wasn’t actively fighting the sigil and its full strength, and she wasn’t sure how much time had passed before one word brought her back.
“I’m sorry?” she said. Her own query. Her own focus on what the other woman had just said.
Mrs. Portsmouth frowned slightly, looking toward the bar where a large crowd had gathered to order drinks. “I said that it’s unfortunate you had to seek out dealings with the type of creature one would really rather not know. I don’t blame you for the circumstances that forced you to that decision, but it’s terrible how every wolf now must think you’re friendly with their kind. That one has been staring at you in the most audacious way for the past five minutes.”
Cora’s heart jumped in her chest at the same time the sigil flared against her skin while she looked with Mrs. Portsmouth, expecting a familiar figure that she was still able to visit in her dreams. The sigil relaxed a fraction of a second before disappointment replaced her hope.
It wasn’t Hayes. Instead, it was the alpha-king and alpha-queen of the Frosthound Pack, standing together in much the same way as when Cora had last seen them, bloody and amused while surrounded by savaged bodies. They still looked amused, chatting with the few people who weren’t giving them a cautious berth. Cimorene’s black hair was pulled back into a bun like most of the other women, but she wore a tuxedo as tailored as her king’s, the outfit turned into something more feminine by plunging down in a daring neckline and matched with two-toned brogues customized with high heels.
It was she who watched Cora openly, her interested expression sharpened by her bold red lipstick. Alpha-king Thane murmured something to her while glancing around the room, sardonic humor brightening his gold eyes whenever a human started back from their presence.
When Cora’s gaze met the alpha-queen’s, the she-wolf nodded and then approached, passing through the crowd with ease. Mrs. Portsmouth just had time for a scandalized gasp before Cimorene was within speaking range. Her voice sounded as cool and collected as Cora remembered. “Miss Marshall. So many things have happened since we last met.”
The sigil didn’t seem to know what to do in the face of a wolf with ambiguous intentions, and so Cora was allowed to sound a little like herself as she replied, “They have, haven’t they?”
“And now you’re back with your father.” The arch of Cimorene’s eyebrow could have meant anything.
“Is this really necessary?” interrupted Mrs. Portsmouth, with a frown.
“Not for you, no.” The alpha-queen looked unoffended by the stiff glare, merely motioning Cora to move away with her. When the older woman huffed, the she-wolf added, “We’ll remain within sight, never fear.”
They found privacy on a velvet bench large enough for two. The alpha-king moved closer to them, his attention on the people around them even as Cimorene’s focus seemed to fully narrow to Cora. “I won’t waste time. Do you remember when I said you were ready to die to protect your detective? That you in fact saved his life?”
Cora felt the sigil start to pressure her to demur that her connection with Hayes was long ended, but before she could do more than open her mouth with a heavy throb in her heart, the alpha-queen shook her head. “I’m not interested in polite excuses, so you don’t need to give me any. I want to clarify because it’s important you understand. The tattoos on my back warn me when Death is near, whether my own or another’s. They allow me glimpses of the future… at least when it comes to a life’s end. There was danger around you both that day. It’s still there for you.”
“I—but everything’s over. Isn’t it?”
“Don’t be so sure. I can’t tell how individual fate plays out. Only when someone is on a path that promises death. For all the dead bodies borne from your father’s disappearance, there are still more that will be connected.” Then the alpha-queen nodded and rose to leave.
“Wait.” Cora heard her voice rise in panic and spat out the next words before the sigil had a chance to constrict her throat. “What about Detective Hayes? Is he also…”
“In danger?” finished Cimorene. “I haven’t seen him, so I can’t answer you. It’s interesting, though. When we first led you both onto our land, I sensed how one of his possible paths was suicide. That path disappeared when you saved him.”
Cora felt a knot form in her throat as she stared at the alpha-queen, speechless.
Cimorene studied her for a moment longer and then nodded in goodbye. “Remember my warning. Enjoy the rest of the opera.”
Then she moved away with her king, soon disappearing among all the bodies and cigar smoke.
“My dear, are you all right?” Mrs. Portsmouth’s voice sounded theatrically concerned after the alpha-queen’s assured tones. “Whatever was she talking about?”
“I’m not sure,” said Cora, in all honesty. “She left me confused more than anything.”
Then, aware of how little time was left before the intermission was over and she would have to spend hours back in her seat in that stuffy box, she turned to the older woman and added, “Would you excuse me? I think I’d like some fresh air.”
“Are you sure? All by yourself?”
“I won’t be alone. There’s still an officer watching over me for protection.” Then Cora made her final excuses and slipped away, aware of the sigil throbbing against her scalp.
An attendant opened the door for her, and then she was outside in the cool night air. Cars rumbled down the street, erasing any sense of privacy. The sigil burned its ever-steady beat as she walked without thought, following a desperate urge to slip away for just a little while. Her mind spun over the alpha-queen’s words while she moved toward the dim buildings of businesses that had closed for the night, eyes still dazzled by the bright lights she’d left behind.
Then hands grabbed her. One clamped over her mouth and the other snaked around her body, pinning her arms to her sides. Her scream came out as a muffled squeak while she was dragged backwards into a nearby alley, the darkness barely pierced by moonlight.
Even as she writhed against her attacker’s grip, a second figure appeared before her with a brief growl. The hands against her tightened. Before she had time to realize anything more than they were wolves, the one holding her bit into the side of her throat.
She shrieked, her shock matching the sigil’s as it flared against her scalp until her entire skull and neck burned. It wasn’t the pain that made her cry out again but the feeling of movement under her skin, slithering toward the bite in a way that made her shudder against the grip holding her still. The wolf in front of her stepped closer with another growl.
The pressure of the bite changed. Something dark and rancid slid over her dress, leaving a trail of blood and slime until it dropped to the ground with a wet slap. Before her eyesight could clear enough to take in what had just happened, the wolf holding her quickly dragged her backward to a waiting car. She came over her shock enough to try to struggle, but found herself dragged into the backseat with her kidnapper.
Before she could do more than scream and scratch at any part of the kidnapper within reach, the car’s front door opened and the second figure slid in behind the wheel, ripping off what Cora now saw was a leather thaumaturgist’s mask. “It’s out and caught in a specimen jar. She’s safe.”
Just as Cora gasped, recognizing Jane Feral’s flat voice, the hand against her mouth shifted to cup her chin instead. “I’m sorry, Bunny. We had no other way to rescue you.”
“H-hayes?” she managed, her terror evaporating into lightheadedness as Jane started up the car and joined the flow of traffic. Despite her body’s sluggish shock, she forced herself to twist toward him. In the flickering illumination of the street lights, his eyes were the same bright gold she remembered, fierce and intent on her face.
She immediately burst into tears, now clinging to him. “Did I hurt you? I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you.”
The feeling of his arms settling around her now felt like the sweetest sensation possible. “Believe me, I was glad you fought back. If you suspected who I was, this whole plan would’ve failed.”
Her hands kept tracing his shoulders, neck, and jaw out of fear that this was a mere dream she would wake up from. When he pulled off his gloves to wipe the tears from her cheeks with bare fingers, though, the heat of his touch reassured her it was all real. She began shivering, now crying out of sheer relief. “I can’t believe it. The sigil…”
Hayes seemed more intent on pressing a handkerchief against her neck, which now felt merely tender, and it was Jane who responded to the uncertain words. The she-wolf looked slightly disheveled and flushed from wearing the heavy mask, but her expression was one of complete triumph. “We took it out of you. This little charade was a way to make the sigil believe you were about to die. From my research, I knew that it would panic and escape from your body. And it did.”
Then she reached into the front passenger seat for a moment before holding up a glass jar. A slug-like creature inched against the glass, leaving behind a trail of slime and blood.
Cora’s shriek made the car windows shake. “That was in me?”
“I was hoping for a ‘thank you,’ not ruptured eardrums.”
“Jane,” growled Hayes, pressing closer to Cora as she fell limp against him once more, staring at the jar until Jane returned it to the front passenger seat.
The she-wolf sighed, but her expression remained smug in the rearview mirror. “The sigil didn’t look like that while it was attached to you. It was merely a tattoo. I modified its escape mechanism so that it would turn into a separate entity rather than take over a part of your body. It’s a clever idea, isn’t it? And I was able to pull it off.
“Without getting too technical with my explanation, let’s say it was impossible to put any spell on you without the sigil sensing it before it could take effect. So I enchanted Sam’s teeth instead. His bite sent the sigil in a panic and introduced my reverse spell in one swift act. I could have put the enchantment on my own teeth, but he didn’t trust me to bite you without puncturing anything serious. Your wounds should have healed to mere raw points on your skin, by the way. Don’t growl at me, Sam. Check for yourself.”
Cora blinked at Jane while Hayes pulled his hand away as if to look at her neck. Most of what the she-wolf said barely made sense to her, and the rest flew out the window when Hayes started licking at the bite. The heat of his tongue felt as intense as the sigil’s had been, but instead of burning her, it soothed.
When she gasped, Jane’s gaze flickered to the rearview mirror. “We have slight healing properties in our saliva. Nothing very noteworthy. How are you feeling, Miss Marshall?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, as Hayes growled softly against her skin. She had the feeling the sound was meant as a rebuke to the sudden sly tone in Jane’s voice, but against her skin it felt thrilling. “I haven’t been allowed to feel at all since Father came back.”
“That’s all over,” said Hayes, his voice still rough.
“I’m so glad,” she murmured, shifting until their faces were inches apart. Her nose was stuffy from crying, her hair felt like it had frizzed out of its finger waves in some areas and gone stiff from dried blood in others, and she wore an ugly, unflattering dress in front of him, but for once she didn’t care about her appearance. He was staring at her with an intensity she’d never seen, and at the moment, she wanted nothing more than to kiss him and feel his heat fill her throughout.
His mouth caught hers, teeth still sharp as if he hadn’t gotten rid of his anger. She could feel his frustration from the past month in every slide of his tongue, but she only felt a bubbling delight and melted into his rhythm until she forgot to breathe.
“You probably shouldn’t make her pant. She’s going to be weak enough as it is.”
Cora groaned when he pulled away, but she had to admit the inside of the car spun a little while she gasped for breath.
“More?” she whispered against his mouth.
She felt him smile. “Later. I better let you recover first.”
“I suppose that’s only sensible.” After she resettled herself against him, she gingerly touched the back of her neck, still in disbelief that the sigil was finally, blessedly gone.
The awareness of what had happened widened until she suddenly remembered about the officer tasked to watch her. “The police department assigned a man for my protection. He might have seen you pull me into the car.”
Hayes’ fingers lightly brushed her cheek, as if he couldn’t resist touching her. “I dealt with him before you came out of the opera house.”
Cora accepted it with a nod, but Jane suddenly said, “You didn’t do anything too nasty, did you? Captain Dempsey is very protective of his men. He’ll be mad if you hurt him.”
Hayes’ gaze remained on Cora’s face. “Why worry about that?”
Jane rolled her eyes. “I’m still trying to get that open contract for the force’s new submachine guns, remember? It’s hard enough to stay in the city’s good graces as lone wolves, especially now.”
“I punctured his car tire, that’s all. I didn’t want him following us. The city had their chance to protect her and failed.”
“Where are we going?” said Cora, half-wishing the car ride would never end. It felt too wonderful, snuggling up to him there in the dark.
“A place where you can recover,” he said. “Jane and I know someone who is a mind reader. Her name is Minnie Wilkes, and she’ll be able to sense what long-term effects the sigil might have left behind. She’s the best person to help you heal and get back on your feet. We’ll be there in another half-hour.”
“I can’t go back to your place?”
“No. Neither can I. Once the city realizes you slipped their watch, my office will be one of the first places they look. I don’t want anyone else knowing where you are tonight. Once you’re ready to decide what you want to do, it’ll be a different story.”
Cora nodded but couldn’t say she was all too interested. She was exhausted, shaky, and so glad to be back in his arms. In her mind, the only important question to ask was, “Will you stay at Minnie’s, too?”
“Tonight, anyway.” Then his voice took on a teasing note. “You’re still my client, Bunny. I need to look after you.”