A Meeting With Death
Just as promised, the two Frosthounds waited by the mansion. Cora thought they seemed much more at ease than the Saxby goons had been, speaking quietly to each other while watching her and Hayes approach. The male guard had one hand resting on the hilt of his dagger, but his careless tone made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a fight. “We’re not checking for or taking away any weapons.”
Hayes didn’t look surprised. “Does that include ones containing silver?”
“It does,” said the female guard. Like her partner, she didn’t seem interested in intimidating them.
“Silver?” echoed Cora, using the distraction caused by the question to scan the mansion’s entrance. The massive marble columns were carved with depictions of writhing skeletons. It was impossible to tell if they were in pain or ecstasy, whether they fought each other or were passionately entwined.
When her gaze returned to the guards, she realized they both studied her. It was the she-wolf who answered. “Aside from age, silver is the only thing that kills wolves. Again, you won’t be safe inside. But at the very least, your chances will be absolutely fair.”
Then she realized they weren’t sure whether she understood she’d be in as much danger as Hayes. She gave them a broad smile, remembering to keep her mouth closed. “Detective Hayes was very clear about what it meant to come here.”
The male guard simply jerked his head at them to follow and then led the way, but the female guard walked beside them, amusement obvious in her body language over how Hayes immediately angled himself between her and Cora. “Very gallant, Detective, but she’s not even nervous.”
Hayes ignored the comment, instead studying every corner of the room they were being led through as if an assailant might leap out at any moment. Everything was utterly white, from the ceiling to the walls to the floor. It was also very bare, with only a staircase spiraling up from the very center, twisting around a massive statue of a skeleton wrapped in a shroud. The top section of the steps circled its skull like a crown.
The effect was striking, and as they began up the stairs, Cora found herself saying, “Is this…”
“The Lady of the Dead,” answered the male guard.
“A lot has changed since my last visit,” said Hayes, his tone as neutral as his expression.
“I remember you. You were still a junior inspector then, investigating the potential alliance of mating a Saxby princess to our king. A polite formality between neighbors and nothing more. Really, a waste of time.”
“I never said that.”
“There was no need. The Saxbys never consider an alpha-king who built his name and lands over one who inherited it.”
At that point, Cora was utterly confused by the conversation and glanced at Hayes. He seemed satisfied by the guard’s knowledge, as if it had confirmed something for him.
Then the female guard spoke. “Instead, our king found love with a cultist and cluttered up his territory with shrines to the goddess that she worships and he ignores.”
Cora blinked, surprised at how casually they spoke of their king and queen. She’d always heard that wolves cowered before their leaders. “I think that’s sweet of him. Cults can be very trying.”
“Experienced with them, are we?” said the male guard.
Cora took the question seriously. She always did when someone was being sarcastic with her. It was the easiest way to make them regret it. “More than most people expect. My uncle led one. It’s not well-known, but it happened.”
“Is that so?” The she-wolf’s mask prevented any hint of her expression from showing, but she sounded genuinely interested compared to her partner.
The stairway they were on looked very long, so Cora kept babbling, realizing it would probably help if they thought she was a complete idiot. “Uncle Alfie used to be an archeologist, you see. He led all sorts of successful expeditions funded by my father. It was swell for them both. Uncle Alfie gained prestige and respect in all the scientific circles, and my father got his money back and more from selling the gold and artifacts Alfie found. Mostly private collectors, but sometimes to museums, too.”
Hayes had glanced at her several times without giving any hint that she should shut up. If anything, he seemed to use the guards’ distraction to study the glimpses of what waited for them at the top of the stairs. It was the only incentive she needed to keep going. “Well, eventually, he found a strange idol during an expedition that changed everything. He thought it was a relic from an ancient cult and grew determined to resurrect it.
“My father didn’t like that at all. Uncle Alfie had stopped making money for him and was now spending loads of it. He refused to fund any of Uncle Alfie’s cult dealings, and the two had a very bitter fight. I heard some of it. You wouldn’t think brothers could say such things to each other. They didn’t speak again, and poor Uncle Alfie spent the final ten years of his life estranged from the family.”
The male guard said nothing, perhaps having already learned his lesson, but the she-wolf still tried to be polite. “How sad.”
“No, not really. They were always arguing. I remember Uncle Alfie smiled much more than my father, but the strange thing is, I wouldn’t call him any friendlier. I think their natures were very similar, but their goals were very different.”
“What happened to the cult after your uncle died?”
“Oh, I have no idea. We had no contact with him and weren’t beneficiaries of his will. I don’t even know what it was called. It was just another ascension cult. Those are a dime a dozen in the human parts of Crescent City. But I suppose it did all leave me with a very nonchalant view toward them in general. Once you see the figures behind the mystique, it all becomes very boring, doesn’t it?” she said, finishing just as they reached the end of the stairs. A massive set of wooden doors waited in front of them.
“Maybe you just haven’t met the right ones,” said the male guard, and then laughed when Hayes glanced at him. “Relax, Detective. We’re not the ones to bristle at when it comes to protecting your client. The ones behind these doors are.”
Then he and his partner pulled them open.
Murmurs flooded through, as did the echoes of shuffling footsteps and the rattle of weapons. Cora’s anticipation quickly faded as she realized it was just another hallway, this one much shorter in length. Beautiful, though, with stained glass windows on either side that depicted bones entangled in the roots of rose bushes. An even more impressive pair of doors waited at the end, black as pitch and with what looked like genuine wolf skulls somehow embedded into the wood.
It wasn’t exaggeration to call the sight ominous, but all of Cora’s attention jumped to the figures waiting by the doors. Saxby wolves, twelve in all. Most either were or looked like the goons from outside. The diplomat, Rowan, was easily recognizable, but it was the two Saxbys in military-style uniforms who truly stood out. None of them looked happy.
Hayes stopped her from moving any closer and turned to the Frosthound guards. “What are you playing at? Why isn’t the room ready?”
“The meeting before yours has gone late,” said the she-wolf. “Everyone will have to wait in the hallway.”
Hayes scoffed. “There’s nowhere else it can be held? In a place this size?”
“Not for outsiders.”
When Hayes just shook his head, the male guard added, “You’re free to pull out of this and leave, if you’d rather.”
Cora knew Hayes would be tempted, and quickly glanced at him. When their eyes met, she said, “I don’t see how it’s any different to being in the same room.”
“There won’t be a table between us, for one thing,” he muttered, but then offered his arm to her. She took it, keeping her smile confident as they followed the guards.
Their escorts stuck close, and there were several other Frosthound guards near the Saxbys. Without a word between them, the Frosthounds moved together to form a living barrier while the Saxbys resituated themselves to stay away from her and Hayes. Even then, less than six feet separated them. When the Frosthounds melted back toward the doors, Cora wondered if the alpha-king and alpha-queen were already inside the room.
Hayes wasn’t inclined to talk, and none of the Saxbys seemed to be, either. She found herself glancing out the nearest window and then realized they were so high up that there was nothing except sheer air surrounding them. Falling out of one would mean sure death. She was glad she’d never been afraid of heights.
It didn’t take long for caution to soften into boredom, and she began peeking at the Saxbys beneath her lashes. Frankly, she didn’t think they were very intimidating, not compared to the Frosthounds, anyway. The diplomat was as sour as ever, and the goons just looked like goons, which made the two uniformed wolves stand out all the more.
The male wolf had the more intricate uniform. Gold braiding draped over his right shoulder, gleaming against the stiff, navy fabric, and he had a peaked cap tucked beneath his right arm. Cora disliked him immediately. He looked like a self-important fella, with an imperious expression on his well-fed face and too much care put into that frankly ridiculous mustache.
The other uniformed Saxby was a she-wolf, taller than Cora by a head. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a braided bun, emphasizing the sharp beauty of her features. She looked like the dagger at her hip—no-nonsense compared to the male wolf she kept close to, and yet all the more striking for it.
There wasn’t much chance for private conversation, but Cora still turned to Hayes, too curious about who they were to wait and find out. The question died on her lips at the sight of him staring at the Saxby she-wolf. She didn’t look back but stood with a particular stiffness that suggested she was well-aware of his attention.
Cora glanced at him again and found his focus had jumped to one of the windows beyond—but not fast enough to keep her from seeing what flickered in his eyes.
“Oh…” she breathed, too softly for anyone else to notice, as if a human would be noticed at all in a room full of tense wolves. She recognized that look, for an echo of it reverberated throughout her heart whenever she remembered the ghost of a kiss, or caught sight of an almost-familiar silhouette in the distance.
A lost love.
Before she could say anything to him, the uniformed Saxby wolf turned to the Frosthound guards still blocking the doors, frustration clear on his face. “This is ridiculous. I was told that everything would be set up.”
The response could have come from any of the bone masks turning in his direction. “The alpha-king and alpha-queen will offer their apologies afterward.”
“What good are apologies for wasted time?” he snarled.
Cora didn’t miss how the Saxby she-wolf quickly whispered something in his ear, or how Hayes shifted his weight as if ready to fight.
Then the Saxby diplomat stepped forward, separating herself from the rest. Her voice sounded downright oily as she said, “We mean no disrespect, of course.”
“You have a funny way of showing it,” said one of the Frosthounds, and Cora recognized his voice as belonging to the male guard that had escorted her and Hayes.
“I apologize. It’s simply that…” The rest of the diplomat’s words faded to a murmur as she leaned closer, obviously hoping she could smooth her way into having a guard prompt the alpha-king and alpha-queen into seeing them sooner.
Cora used the distraction to turn her back on all the wolves and step closer to Hayes, fluffing her stole as if she were merely preening. Instead, she hissed up at him, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
His reply was just as quiet, but he didn’t look any less tense than the others. “Tell you what, Miss Marshall?”
“Hayes, I’m silly, but I’m not that silly. I’m talking about—”
Then the Saxby diplomat raised her voice. “Very well. The royal inspector is willing to conduct the interview here and now if you are, Miss Marshall.”
Cora faced them with a bright smile but knew enough to let Hayes answer.
He shrugged, appearing indifferent except for the hardness of his eyes as he glanced at the uniformed wolf. “What’s wrong with waiting?”
The simple act of him speaking, or perhaps speaking to a high-ranked pack member like the royal inspector, left several of the Saxby goons growling. The hallway suddenly felt much smaller.
The diplomat held up a hand in warning. “You’re to speak only to me.”
“I thought you didn’t want to waste any more time. It’d be much faster talking to each other.”
At that, the royal inspector responded, his voice as stiff as his posture. “If that’s the case, why not let us directly question your client?”
The Saxby she-wolf leaned in to whisper something else to him. This time, he flashed his teeth at her and sent her flinching back.
Cora didn’t miss how Hayes jerked in response, or how his next words deepened into a growl. “Because I wouldn’t trust you with a dime.”
“Favoring a human over one of us?”
Hayes smiled grimly. “You’re missing the point by a mile.”
Cora bit her lip hard enough to hurt, trying to keep quiet as they both stared at each other. The air thickened into something dangerous.
Then one of the Frosthounds spoke—the female guard. “If you start fighting, it’s up to you two to finish it as well. You’re both in the presence of the Lady of the Dead, and She doesn’t care whether you believe in Her or not.”
And neither do we.
Even Cora understood the implication. Any fight could be finished only with a death. The royal inspector lost some of the bloodlust in his eyes. Hayes didn’t, and the Saxby diplomat quickly intervened. “Your king would really accept such risks to your court?”
“If it comes to that, and sometimes it does. Anyone who fights in here may fight to the death without being interrupted… or saved.”
The Saxbys milled among each other uneasily, their eagerness suddenly snuffed, but Hayes still seemed ready to lunge. Cora knew she had to act. “If there’s going to be all this fuss, then go right ahead and question me. I never mind being the center of attention.”
She ignored Hayes’ sharp glance, keeping her smile in place even when every other wolf shifted to look at her. When she was sure she had their attention, she breezily added, “What do you want to know?”
Hayes murmured her name, his voice still guttural, but the Saxby diplomat spoke over him, relief bright in her eyes. “Very well. Inspector?”
When the royal inspector turned to her, she acknowledged him with a nod, much too used to stuffy, important officials to feel cowed by his rigid manner. She briefly found herself wondering how Hayes had looked in such a uniform before the wolf said, “Crescent City officials have refused to give us any information about the creature who killed four members of our pack, or the man it turned into after dying, or the strange magic used to transform him in the first place.”
Cora blinked, remembering how Captain Dempsey had told the Saxby diplomat that the police would pass along any information they learned. Even as she wondered which of them had lied, she said, “His name was Dominic Tierney. He was my father’s driver.”
“Who identified him?”
Cora glanced at Hayes, sensing his spike of tension. He answered for her. “Initially, Miss Marshall. Dental records confirmed it.”
“We’ll want to see them.”
“Not up to me.”
The royal inspector’s face grew red. “Do you have any talent with magic?”
“No,” said Cora, feeling that was a safe enough question to answer immediately. “Not at all.”
“Have you ever hired a thaumaturgist?”
“No.” It was the truth, but she couldn’t help but notice how the sigil hidden beneath her hair suddenly burned hotter, as if it didn’t like the mere idea.
When the royal inspector and the diplomat both looked disappointed, Cora suddenly realized they could smell the honesty in her answers—and didn’t like it, either. “I really don’t know anything. Why would you think otherwise?”
The royal inspector looked affronted at a human asking him anything. At his significant glance, the diplomat responded instead. “It seems obvious that transforming the driver with unknown magic was an attempted assassination against Isaac Marshall. We don’t care about the affairs of humans, but this magic… our enchanters are baffled by it. It’s unknown. Our ability to shift form is ours and ours alone.”
“According to witnesses, it does resemble a wolf in some ways,” said Hayes, watching the diplomat carefully.
“Bosh,” said the royal inspector, his mustache bristling. “This thing shook off even silver.”
“Then what killed it?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we need to find out what’s going on. Whether there are more of them, and who did this.” With those words, each and every Saxby stared at Cora.
She voiced their obvious implication. “And you believe that I know all these answers because I was the one who ordered the hit on my father.”
“She’s smarter than she looks,” muttered the Saxby she-wolf to a nearby goon.
Cora gave her a sweet smile. “Oh, no. It’s just that you’re all being far less subtle than you think.”
A laugh came from among the Frosthounds. The Saxby she-wolf glared at Cora, who looked right back. Beside her, Hayes had fallen very still as if forcing himself calm.
The royal inspector’s face now appeared nearly purple. “We know your father was traveling to New Obsidian for business. Who was he going to see?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s his body?”
“It hasn’t been found.”
“Yes, but where is it?” he growled. Cora couldn’t help but stare at the vein that had appeared on his forehead. She couldn’t remember the last time she had annoyed someone so quickly.
“No more games,” said the diplomat, perhaps realizing he was ready to snap.
“I’m not playing any,” said Cora. “I really don’t know what happened. And anyway, why ask after my father so much? Surely you’re more interested in Dominic Tierney.”
“We’re interested in what you’re obviously hiding from us.” The royal inspector’s teeth flashed at her.
It was a threat that Hayes wasn’t about to ignore, and he bared his own teeth. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
“Don’t try to throw your weight around.” The royal inspector seemed to have lost his earlier fear of starting a fight, the yellow of his eyes gone black. “You’re lucky I haven’t killed you on sight for your crimes.”
Hayes laughed, but it was a brief, bitter sound. “You wouldn’t even know how, since you always have others do your dirty work. And people ask how I can live with myself.”
Snarls filled the air from the Saxby goons, and Cora felt her heart thump a little faster. Her fingers twitched at her dress. The revolver against her thigh felt hot enough to burn.
“Stop goading him,” hissed the Saxby she-wolf, looking directly at Hayes for the first time. A muscle jumped in his jaw, but he didn’t say anything back.
The royal inspector drew himself up. “I thought heeling to humans like a dog would’ve given you some humility, Sam. Instead, I see the same arrogance that nearly crippled our pack and killed our—”
Hayes punched him right in the face. The crack of fractured bone cut through the air. It was so sudden that Cora didn’t even have time to gasp before the royal inspector reeled back. Then Hayes looked at her and growled, “Get out of here. Take the car and don’t stop until you’re in human territory.”
“Hayes—” she managed, but the Saxby guards were already lunging at him with drawn daggers. The hallway exploded into chaos.
Cora squeezed herself into a recess, dimly aware of the Frosthounds watching in silence while Hayes disarmed one goon and threw him straight through a window. Glass shattered as the wolf fell to his death. Another sliced at him before meeting the same fate. The rest snarled in frustration, the narrow hallway trapping them into waiting behind whoever was closest to Hayes.
Cora hesitated, unsure of who to go for since he was fighting just fine against the goons. The diplomat cowered in the corner, screaming something at the impassive Frosthounds. The she-wolf was prevented from reaching him like all the rest.
The royal inspector bled from the nose and still seemed dazed when Hayes grabbed him and hauled him upright, choking off his breath with a tight grip. He looked wild, mindless, like he wouldn’t stop until the inspector was dead.
Then the Saxby she-wolf slipped through a space between two of the goons, dagger unsheathed.
“Hayes, watch out!” yelled Cora, pulling her revolver free even though she knew she couldn’t get a clear shot in from her angle.
But he didn’t react to his name, didn’t react to anything until the she-wolf pressed her dagger against his throat. The silver edge gleamed wickedly. His eyes blazed at her, but not with the rage that had sent the first two guards crashing out the window.
“Hello, Isabelle,” he said, voice still thick with a snarl.
“Do you think I won’t do it?” The blade pressed in a little more, and Cora felt her breath freeze in her lungs.
When Hayes only stared back, she hissed, “Damn you.”
The rest of the guards seemed frozen, unsure of what to do until the royal inspector gurgled, “Get him off me, you stupid bitch.”
Hayes snarled, his attention snapping back to him. The she-wolf’s mouth tightened, and then she shifted her grip on the dagger in an instant, smashing the pommel across his face.
Cora shrieked in fury, hating the stunned look in his eyes and how his knees buckled. Before she realized she was moving, she was by his side, kneeling on the ground and shaking his motionless body. Heedless of her dress while blood gushed. “You brutes! You horrible, horrible brutes!”
When a hand reached for her, she acted without thinking, aiming her revolver at the face of the goon who had tried touching her. “Get back. I’ll shoot whoever comes near us.”
He scoffed but didn’t try again. Then her gaze darted to the Frosthound guards. They all remained by the closed doors, those strange masks revealing nothing of what they thought while they watched her, but Cora saw one tilt their head a little, as if noticing something the rest had missed.
There was no time to think about it, because the Saxby diplomat cleared her throat and addressed her. “Miss Marshall. It would be best to give him the gun.”
Her answer was met by smiles from all except the Saxby she-wolf—Isabelle—who hovered beside the coughing, sputtering inspector. Cora was so mad she couldn’t decide who to shoot first. They’d all dropped their guards, standing flat on the soles of their feet, daggers holstered. Hayes still wasn’t moving.
Just as her gaze swept over them all once more, the royal inspector pushed through the ring of goons, still bleeding from his nose. “Don’t be a fool. Hand over the gun and you’ll be free to leave. We’re only going to kill him.”
Cora fired. It was a perfect shot in the shoulder, and the look on his face was almost as satisfying as his howl of pain. Smoke appeared from the wound as he screamed again, clutching at his shoulder.
“Silver bullets,” she said to the shocked faces surrounding her. “I thought ahead. Now back off or I’ll start taking heart shots.”
The goons all pulled back into a knot of confused bodies, circling their inspector while he continued to shake and swear. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead as he panted, “Antidote.”
“No.” That came from the Frosthound she-wolf. Her partner said nothing, just glanced at the other guards. They slipped from their positions in response, surrounding the Saxbys.
Realizing all the wolves were distracted, Cora murmured Hayes’ name to rouse him. When that didn’t work, she pressed a handkerchief against his head. He was bleeding too much to tell where the wounds even were. “Please. You’ve got to get up.”
“It’s silver,” gritted out the royal inspector between his teeth. His hand shook against his shoulder, fingers constricting. “It’s poisoning me.”
“You were warned about what it meant to fight in here,” said the female guard, still impassive.
Cora tried shaking Hayes, gaze jumping between him and the other wolves. Fresh tension filled their movements.
As the Saxby guards moved aimlessly around the royal inspector, seemingly helpless without direct orders, he staggered toward the Frosthound she-wolf. “And what if she shoots you next, you crazy bitch?”
The words were barely out of his mouth before her partner lunged, impossibly fast. The dagger in his hand winked just before slicing through the royal inspector’s neck.
Cora squeezed her eyes shut but still heard the splatter of blood hitting the floor. There were several yelps of shock. When she peeked through her eyelashes again, the Frosthound still stood over the inspector’s twitching body, his knife now bloody.
Then a Saxby guard went for him. The Frosthound she-wolf was already there with her own knife, which had a longer, curved blade that gutted the other wolf with ease. She cut through two more while her partner grabbed the Saxby diplomat, who whined and writhed until he slammed her against the doors and held the blade to her neck. “Enough words. Let’s see if your pack still remembers how to act like wolves.”
Cora didn’t miss how his gaze remained on the female guard, though, or how the rest of the Frosthounds circled carefully, not yet attacking. There was no need to; the she-wolf had already killed the last of the goons, too fast and precise for their sluggish brutality. Then she removed her mask, revealing a face lit with excitement. Her next act was to pull off the leather jacket of her uniform, leaving her in a backless, black shirt. Two skulls glowed between her shoulder blades, one wolf and one human. Their grins matched her own as she faced Isabelle.
The other she-wolf looked terrified, backing away despite the diplomat’s whining. Then she quickly bowed her head. “Your Majesty.”
Cora swallowed hard. She didn’t know much about wolf packs, but it was easy to guess that she was looking at the Frosthound alpha-queen, notorious for surviving longer than any other duelist even as she worshipped her Lady Death.
“Come on,” said the alpha-queen, yellow eyes bright. “It’ll be a fair fight. I killed your comrades. No one will stop you if you wish to avenge them.”
One breath. Two. Then Isabelle shook her head and glanced away from the nearby bodies.
The alpha-queen made a disgusted sound and turned away, kneeling to the bloodied ground with the dagger still clasped in her hands. Then she bowed her head in prayer.
The male guard shoved the diplomat away unharmed. “Looks like the meeting’s over. You’ve got ten minutes to leave.”
The implication of what would happen if they didn’t was clear enough. As the remaining Saxby wolves slunk out of the room, Cora shook Hayes again, starting to panic. “Hayes, please. We’re about to die.”
“No.” That came from the alpha-queen, who had slipped up unheard. “You’re not.”
Up close, the faint scars cutting through her left eyebrow and right collar bone were visible. Her black hair was soaked with blood. Yet the frenzied gleam had left her eyes, and behind her, most of the Frosthounds had relaxed enough to begin carrying away the bodies.
After a moment, Cora nodded and holstered her gun. “I can’t get him to wake up.”
“He will soon enough. In fact, I’d give him some room. The last thing he’ll remember is fighting. The moment he’s conscious, he’ll attack whoever is in front of him before his eyesight even clears. Do you want a bloody nose?”
“No, but…” Cora reluctantly inched back. “He needs help.”
“Here.” That came from the male guard who had acted as the alpha-queen’s partner.
Cora didn’t miss the glance his queen gave him, or his sardonic look in response. “I didn’t stand for the other one insulting you. Do you really think I’ll let this one hit you?”
That drew a small smile from the she-wolf before she urged Cora further away. Feeling helpless, Cora stumbled to her feet, her gaze never leaving Hayes as the other wolf approached him.
Just before the guard reached out, Hayes jerked awake, the gold of his eyes both furious and bewildered. The guard easily dodged his clumsy swing and steadied him as he staggered upright, stepping away when Hayes snarled in response.
“Hayes,” cried Cora, hating how blood was still running down his face.
The sound of her voice seemed to steady him, and his eyes constricted to pinpoints when he saw her next to the alpha-queen.
“It’s all right,” she said quickly. “They’re not hurting me. And the Saxbys are gone. And they’re not really guards. Well, not all of them. They’re actually—”
“Thane and Cimorene Frost,” managed Hayes, upright but looking none too steady.
At that, the male guard took his mask off as well, tossing it to the side without care. He had the look of an alpha-king, harsh and vicious despite the amusement clear in his words. “Even with a concussion, you’re the smartest of the Saxbys. None of the others saw what was right in front of them.”
Hayes ignored him, instead shaking his head as if to clear it. Then he moved for Cora, growing steadier with each step. “You’re bloody.”
“It’s not mine. It’s mostly yours.” Then she pressed her handkerchief against his head again. When he started to duck away, she huffed. “Oh, don’t be silly. We’re not in danger. We’d already be dead if they really wanted us to be.”
He let her touch him, but his gaze jumped among the pools of blood left in the hallway. The bodies were already gone.
Thane circled back to his queen and said, “The diplomat and the captain of the guards left unscathed. I’m sure they’ll tell their king everything.”
Hayes didn’t react to that beyond a nod, and his voice remained flat as he said, “How much of this was a set up? You’re too pleased to be surprised by this.”
The alpha-king didn’t look offended at all by the question. “The previous meeting truly has gone over. Our engineers are arguing about water management. They’ll go until tonight if we let them.”
“And pretending to be guards…?”
At that, Cimorene grinned. It made her appear younger and much less serious. “With a meeting like this, we knew there would be spilled blood. I haven’t been able to fight since retiring from the ring. Thane would only agree to it if he was my partner.”
“And only because it was a soft pack like the Saxbys,” muttered Thane, but his eyes warmed as he glanced at her. Despite their bloodied, lethal appearances, the love between them was clear.
Hayes pulled away from Cora to retrieve his hat. There was a hollow look on his face that she didn’t like as he said, “I obviously missed a lot, but all I really want to know at the moment is why we are still alive.”
“It helps that you’re polite,” said Thane, raising an eyebrow. “And that when you did crack, you went after a Saxby instead of my queen.”
When Hayes only nodded, Cora decided to steer the conversation in a fresh direction. “It’s not that I’m not grateful to be alive, but… I shot a wolf with silver on your territory. Won’t that…?”
“Complicate things?” Cimor laughed. “The Saxbys expected this to swing their way. They won’t know what to do once they find out it’s blown up in their faces instead.”
“We didn’t trust them before,” added Thane. “Nothing’s changed.”
“Why not?” said Hayes, eyes clear again despite his bloodied appearance.
Another shared glance passed between them before Cimorene said, “A year ago, someone came to us claiming he had information that the Saxby Pack had been receiving financial backing from a human. And before you ask, we didn’t pay him what he wanted, so he left to see if anyone else would. Perhaps it was a mere ploy from another pack to make us suspicious of our neighbor. Or perhaps it might explain why the late inspector was so intent on your father, Miss Marshall.”
Shock chilled Cora as much as the blood drying on her clothes. “I… I don’t know what to say. Father hates wolves.”
“And the Saxbys hate humans. It sounds ridiculous, no?”
Then Thane spoke up, his gaze on Hayes. “Ridiculous, and yet you don’t look surprised at all. We all wonder what made you break with your pack. I do remember you, you know. Enough to doubt their claims of treason.”
“It’s always treason to leave a pack,” Hayes said, tersely. “Are we free to leave?”
When they both nodded, he offered an arm to Cora, who took it out of habit, still struck numb by the possibility that her father had been involved somehow. The sigil on the back of her neck burned horribly.
Thane had seemed to already mentally dismiss them, instead moving close to his queen with a look that held both feral hunger and a surprising tenderness. Cora didn’t need to be a wolf to understand how the pair would celebrate winning their fights.
Cimorene, though, watched them both with a thoughtful expression. Before they could turn to leave, she suddenly said, “There’s one more thing that should be said. Miss Marshall saved your life and faced death unflinchingly to do so. I felt both in my tattoos. No, I don’t expect you to understand, but I hope you believe it. It’d be better for you both that way.”
Hayes said nothing either to that or to the guard who led them out of the mansion, and kept his expression closed while telling Cora he was capable of driving.
“But surely your head hurts,” said Cora, fidgeting with the handkerchief. The blood on his face had gone sticky and dark, and now she could see the gashes near his eye and on the bridge of his nose left by that horrible she-wolf.
“I’m fine, Miss Marshall. Forget about it.” The words were as dead as his eyes.
“You’re not the forgettable type, Detective.” She tried a saucy smile.
But he didn’t rise to her obvious bait, didn’t even look over, and she began feeling scared. This wasn’t the detective she knew. Cora thought about telling him how this Isabelle wasn’t nearly worth spending the rest of his life with, that she was a coward and had the body type to get thin hair and bad skin later in life. That he was better off without someone who so obviously didn’t have a sense of humor or an independent thought in her brain.
But she also knew that none of these things would matter to him. Not since he loved her. And so Cora found herself in a position where she could do nothing but wring her handkerchief between her hands during the entire silent ride back, wishing the scrap of fabric could be the necks of the Saxby wolves instead.