Among the sights Ariadne was expecting to be met by as she walked down the intricate and ornate staircase at not even seven in the morning, seeing Ophelia buzzing around the tables set up in the foyer, as well as weaving in and out of the rooms attached, holding candelabras one moment and cornucopias’ the next in her arms was not written upon that mental list. Ariadne watched from the halfway landing in quite amusement as the siren cursed colourfully when she dropped one of the dozen pillar candles she had retrieved from a box near the door, only to drop another one when Ariadne asked, “What are you doing?”
Ophelia sighed and stalked over to one of the gold-gilded console tables and carefully put down the remainder of the candles, leaving the two now broken ones in the middle of the floor. She then whirled around, red nightdress making a swishing noise against the marble, and placed her hands on her hips. “It is only fourteen days until Samhain, I have usually arranged all my decorations by now, but thanks to the incident and everything after, I have not had the chance.”
By after Ariadne was guessing she meant the fact that she’d spent the last three days—to the demons surprise—helping the Society arrange patrols and then volunteering to take part in the ones situated in and around Whitechapel. Why Ophelia had been so quick to do so, Ariadne had no idea, and when asked the grey-brown haired woman only replied with a quick ‘personal reasons’. Ophelia had hardly been in the house at all, Ariadne realised, and instead had spent the time out wherever she went dallying with an allusive ‘friend’ and having ‘matters to attend to’.
Ophelia, Ariadne concluded, was a mysterious spirit. But she certainly did liven the house up, especially last night when she had returned in the middle of the morning singing Celtic folk songs—sorely out of key and sounding very much like she was suffering from a major throat disease, but perhaps that was due to Ariadne being a woman and therefore undeterred by the siren’s vocals.
Ariadne, as soon as she’d reached the floor and scooped up the broken candles, found herself saying, “I was not aware you held any beliefs, let alone celebrated Gaelic festivals.”
Ophelia picked up a candle, pressing the wick until it stood straight. “I was raised in Cornwall; the Celtic beliefs are imbedded within me. I celebrate the Gaelic fire festivals—Samhain has always been my favourite.”
Ariadne nodded. “Why?”
“The veil between the worlds is at its thinnest,” Ophelia answered immediately. “The spirits walk upon this land freely and we set places at our meal so that they may join. It is a day to remember our dead—I have many to remember.” One of her hands came up and wrapped around the ornate gold locket that hung at the hollow of her throat. It was a smallish trinket, usually hidden by the collar of her basque, but her nightdress had a low enough neckline to reveal both that and the curious ribbon of red velvet she wore as a choker. “There’s a sense of tranquillity in the festival, I find.”
“Why decorate now?—you have fourteen days.”
Ophelia shrugged with one shoulder and placed the candle back down. “I’ve decorated early for centuries ... but if it’s a problem ...”
Ariadne shook her head. “Not at all. I would offer to help but honestly I’ve never decorated for any festivity, so I’m afraid I’d be no more than a hindrance.”
Ophelia blinked. “Not even Christmas?”
“I’m not a Christian.” A demon cannot be religious, Ariadne left unsaid.
“Neither am I, but I still decorate and join in the revelry ... though I must say I only do so for the food, mulled wine and presents.”
Despite herself, the demon cackled. “Then I suppose you shall be decking the halls with holly and evergreens, bringing in a tree to decorate and sending out cards come December.”
“If I am still here in December.”
“If you’re still here, yes.”
Ophelia let go of her locket and swept up the remaining candles into her arms. “I’m going to arrange these in the parlour,” she murmured and turned, beginning to walk towards the mentioned room. As she turned Ariadne caught a glimpse of the top of jagged, silver-white lines that peeked out from the top of the siren’s nightdress; they crisscrossed from shoulder to shoulder across the expanse of her back. Ariadne knew she had scars, but had never known the extent of them since they were usually hidden by high collars and her hair. She knew they were the permanent remnants of wounds that had sliced deep and bled unrelentingly.
Before she realised what she was doing, Ariadne had stretched out her arm and was running her fingertips over the scar that curved over Ophelia’s shoulder. Under her touch she felt Ophelia stiffen, and so she quickly dropped her hand. “What happened to you?”
Ophelia snapped her head to the side so quickly Ariadne was convinced that it must have hurt, glanced over her shoulder with golden eyes that burned and bore into the demon. “The brutality of man,” was all she said, a venomous tone leaking into her voice. Without another word she stalked off into the parlour, carrying an aura of rage and . . . despair?—no, anguish—with her.
Ariadne watched the siren disappear around the corner of the open doors, before she moved into the drawing room and slumped down into one of the plush chairs.
Ophelia, she thought, was truly a mystery, an enigma, someone so tightly bound by secrets and drawn within herself that Ariadne could only wonder what had happened to the siren to make her this way. What had unfolded in her life to make her a woman who, despite her parading and egotistical cockiness, had anguish in her eyes and a smile that faltered? What, exactly, had made the siren break so hard she had built concrete and steel walls around herself and kept everyone out?
Ariadne was familiar enough with the faux demeanour, the act of bitterness to guard all other emotions, to know that it was a personality Ophelia had undertaken and long since honed. Ariadne Dante had known Ophelia White a long time, but she knew next to nothing about the siren.
A sharp knock on the front door tossed Ariadne out of her reverie, startlingly her so much she shot up and out of her chair. She was not expecting any callers; no one came by this early to speak with her about any matters. If it were Atticus he would step right in ... no sooner did the knocking start did it stop. She heard as the heavy door glided across the floor of the foyer, but there were no voices to accompany the opening.
Ariadne moved back towards the foyer, halting when she saw Ophelia was already there and conversing silently with Evadne, who stood just in the room. The High Alpha’s face was drawn, her body concealed in a sweeping cobalt blue coat that hung in a way to suggested she was not dressed in little more than her nightdress. She could tell by the frantic way Evadne moved her hands that something was terribly wrong, never mind the haunted look in her eyes.
Ophelia’s signing was calm, giving out words of comfort. After a few moments she placed her hands over Evadne’s, squeezing the lycan’s, before she raised her head and glanced over at Ariadne.
“What has happened?” Ariadne asked. A coldness churned in the pit of her stomach.
“A newly registered omega in the city failed to attend their integration into pack life last night,” Ophelia started. She gave Evadne’s hands another squeeze. “They were to be a new member of Evadne’s pack ... they were found dead behind a shrub in the gardens opposite the pack-house at dawn by one of Evadne’s betas.”
“How did they die?” Ariadne already knew the answer before Ophelia even said:
“They were murdered.”
Ariadne closed her eyes and took a deep, slow breath as she brought a hand up to rub at her temple. “Gender?” she asked after a beat of silence.
“Female,” Ophelia answered immediately.
Ariadne reopened her eyes and turned to Evadne, who looked close to being on the verge of tears. First the centauride, then Stride, and now a werewolf (she presumed, since lycan’s rarely cast out their own). Three deaths. There had to be a link, but Ariadne could not fathom any credible ones except for the victims all being female; they were sporadic, the last two had been so unalike in the nature of circumstance, social ranking, mutilations and lacerations.
There had to be some kind of viable link.
“I need to see the body,” Ariadne signed to Evadne, whose eyes widened by the slight. “I know you will want to start arranging a burial, but I cannot allow you to do so until the body has been inspected. Can you have two of your betas bring the woman here? I promise I will not keep her long, and then you shall be able to give her the proper ceremony. And I promise there shall be no autopsy.”
Evadne gave a slow nod, a small little thing. She did not sign anything in return as she turned and walked out of the door. Ophelia watched as the High Alpha of London descended the few steps and disappeared into the Brougham waiting for her. Ophelia carried on watching until the carriage veered around the corner, before turning to Ariadne.
“Where do you suppose a corpse shall be placed for inspection?” she asked, gesturing widely to the foyer and the house as a whole. “The dining table, perhaps, to make a morbid ornament? How hygienic that will be! Or are your forgetting that we eat there? I would rather not have a dead body strategically lying prostrate upon the tablecloth!”
“Are you saying that you’ve never used a corpse as an ornament before?” Ariadne knew it was wrong to create a joke from a murder, especially one that had shaken a dear friend—for she knew Evadne treated all werewolves and lycan’s alike in her pack as her children—but it was doing a good enough job of defusing the overbearing presence of graveness and melancholy that hung heavy in the air.
Ophelia, to her credit, joined in with the joke—though Ariadne did not miss the sharp sadness in her eyes—one which was gone as quickly as it appeared, but left Ariadne wondering the same thought yet again: what had happened to her?
“Well, of course I have,” said Ophelia. “But hanging from the ceiling: human corpses make better chandeliers than they do table decorations.”
Despite the emotion that had occurred in a flash in the siren’s eyes, the tone of her voice made Ariadne uncertain as to whether she was actually joking or deadly serious. Though, knowing Ophelia’s past and penchant for killing men, Ariadne was inclined to believe the latter option.
Ophelia shifted from one foot to the other, leaning her weight onto her left side and placing her hand on her right hip. “I was serious when I asked where you shall be examining the body; I see no viable places for you to do so.”
“You have been residing in this house how long? Just over a week?” Ariadne asked, though it was purely rhetorical. “If you’d gone about exploring rooms other than your own and half this floor, you would have discovered many rooms viable for the inspection of a body.”
Ophelia’s brows rose. “Oh, don’t tell me you just happen to have a medical room or a morgue somewhere in this house.”
Ariadne smiled. “You are quite astute with your guesses.”
Ophelia’s eyes widened, becoming gold and white and black orbs in her sockets. “Surely you are not serious!”
“There are rooms in this house that fit all purposes, never mind ones for simply receiving guests, sleeping and bathing. Oh, you must go exploring your accommodation, Ophelia, I’m quite certain you shall find many that suit your tastes and likes.”
Ophelia practically beamed, her whole face lighting up with what Ariadne could only imagine was due to her imagining the rooms she should find. Hopefully she would not go stumbling across the passage leading to that room, though the stairwell was hidden in plain sight and the door to the room enchanted to only open at the demon’s touch ... still, the idea of the siren finding it and wanting answers to questions Ariadne could not give without there being more questions ...
Ariadne shook the thought from her mind, casting it away.
“I intend to do just that,” said Ophelia. “So, where is this secret morgue?”
Ariadne moved over to where the falling angel mural was, placing her outstretched hand against the face of the screaming being. “If you had been paying enough attention to this those few nights ago, you would have noticed that it also a door.” She pushed against the wall with little force. It swung back quickly and easily, revealing a simple grey stone wall on the other side.
Ophelia moved across the foyer and stepped into the alcove created, peering down into what was, for a moment, darkness until Ariadne clicked her fingers and the torches hung in sconces lit up. The light revealed a vaulted, spiral staircase composed of the same grey stone as the walls. She noted that the steps were small and the turns narrow, too narrow to—
As if she had just read Ophelia’s mind, Ariadne said, “There is a series of portal networks in a part of the lower level, each one connected to another one in each of a sub-leaders residence. They function only when a two-way allowance has happened, however, so no one can simply walk into this house and vice versa without mine—or your—consent.”
“And how is consent given?”
Ariadne looked over at her, saw the genuine curiosity in the siren’s eyes. “A placement of the hand against the portal, otherwise it is just a visual communication aid—you can see, hear, and talk to each other, but passage cannot be made.”
Ophelia seemed to consider this, running a fingertip across her lower lip in thought for a moment. “Do you need any assistance in observation?”
Ariadne blinked. “I thought you had tasked yourself with decorating?”
Ophelia shrugged. “I can put it on hold for this. I can be of great help; I am quite knowledgeable in the subject of weapons used to inflict injuries and I’ve been told I am quite observant.”
Despite herself, Ariadne smiled, the expression crossing over her face widely. “Then of course, the more help the better. I need to write and send a message to Atticus, but do head down.” She began to walk away then, in the direction of the study and her beloved desk, but stopped by the side of the staircase and looked back over her shoulder to Ophelia, who was staring right back at her. “Be careful, young siren, or some people might begin to think that you care.”
Ophelia only chuckled before disappearing down the stone stairs.
The stairs wound round and round and down and down for what seemed like an infinite amount of time, but eventually Ophelia reached the bottom and walked into a sort of antechamber with a hallway to her right and another to her left. The stone walls and vaulted ceiling theme carried out throughout the chamber and down the hallways, but the stone steps became a pattern of dark flagstones that would have chilled her toes were it not for the slippers she wore. Indeed it was on the cold side down here, the lit torches providing little warmth, and she cursed herself for not shrugging on her dressing gown before she had headed down the ground floor—though only muslin, there were many layers and folds would have provided some insulation, especially over her all but bare arms.
Sometimes she cursed herself for owning nightdresses that were more scandalous than modest, the low neckline and short open sleeves enough to send the patrons of propriety into graves before their time. She probably had time to actually dress herself in more suitable attire, given that Evadne lived far enough away to take advantage of a carriage), but if Ariadne seemed to be staying in her nightdress and Evadne had arrived in hers, then she supposed it was appropriate enough to carry on wearing hers. Besides, the dress looked more like something from the medieval era than a nightdress.
She pushed all thoughts of her nightdress out of her mind—honestly, when had she become so self-conscious?—and surveyed the antechamber in more detail. There was a faint muggy smell about the place and she was certain she could faintly hear the sound of water. How far underground had she come? She wondered if it were a labyrinth of hallways, and if she went continuously in a direction she would eventually hear the sound of the Thames or the boats in one of the docks. Did this place sprawl underneath much of the capital, or if it was contained to the square above only? She supposed it had to be contained to Bedford Square, or else it would eventually collide with the Underground at some point.
She would have to come exploring the extent of the tunnels, find out if it transformed into a catacomb, but for now she was content to wait for the arrival of Ariadne. There was no need to get lost, and when she came back down she would bring chalk or string to help her find her way.
Ophelia turned when she heard the sound of footsteps. A moment later Ariadne appeared, still clad in her nightdress—though it was more to the fashion of the time than that of a court dress from a bygone era.
“I should have warned you about the chill,” Ariadne said and brushed past Ophelia, heading off down the right corridor. Ophelia set off following immediately. “It’s needed for many things; you will become accustomed to it.”
“Many things? What else is down here beside a morgue and the portals?”
Ariadne glanced over her shoulder and smiled, before turning a corner. “Oh, the usual sort of rooms: cells, interrogation rooms, torture rooms, execution rooms, tombs.”
“You should have bought a castle—found a way to occupy the Tower.”
“I do believe that would have been quite conspicuous.”
“That’s why we have glamours—”
“Which are exhaustive.”
Ophelia’s only reply was a huff, which earn a quiet laugh from the demon.
They turned a corner, which was followed quickly by another and another—Ophelia would definitely have to mark corners when she came back down here, all the corridors looked exactly the same; all the same grey stone and marble floor that stretched on and on, twisting and turning. The sound of water suddenly began louder, faster, a low roar which reverberated through the cavernous depths of this lower level.
“What is that?” Ophelia asked. As they walked further down the corridor and took a sharp right, the sound became everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“It’s the waterfall,” replied Ariadne candidly over the sound.
Ophelia gawked at the demon’s back. “A waterfall?”
Ariadne glanced over her shoulder and gave her a smile. “It feeds an underground lake, which in turn flows out into the North Sea eventually.”
Ophelia barely heard the words, registering only the key information, and so waited until they reached the end of a long, winding corridor and the sound became a roll rather than a roar to make her reply. “Is it a natural formation, or does it lie outside of London like your house? I have never before heard of an underground lake in London.”
“It is a natural formation, controlled and concealed by magic, as all things of our world are.”
Ophelia immediately made this underground lake her top priority upon the list of places to investigate, when she eventually returned here alone. She would free herself of all physical constraints and surround herself in an expanse of water, where she could dream, imagine, with closed eyes and a wistful smile that she was not beneath the ground of London but instead in one of her caves in Cornwall. She could press her legs together and dare to believe that they were not legs at all but a tail, that all that had happened had never been and she was where she belonged—where she longed to be—instead of a cursed siren on the miserable land.
She shook her head sharply, casting the hopeless thoughts away. There was to be no pretending, for there was no use in pretending; the past had occurred, the losses had been dealt . . . but the memories were still fresh, still raw in her mind. Her heart began to ache, weighed down by unsettled grief, and despite the ache and the creaking of her lungs a wave of emptiness washed over her. It was an emptiness she was familiar with, one that broke viciously against the sands she stood against, each coming tide threatening to be the one that would pull her in but stopping at her toes before moving back; she knew why, she’d stood on this shoreline for long enough to know that the tide would not take her, that she had to be broken enough to willingly join, and then it would toss her until she became lost in the water.
She willed the emptiness to disappear, to leave her only with the aching of an ageless grief. It was not her tail or her old standing that she mourned over, but instead for her—
“Ophelia?” Ariadne’s voice cut through the dull throbbing of the ache, through the emptiness in her mind. Her voice was soft, full of concern. “Ophelia, are you alright?” Ophelia was aware of the hand that gripped her shoulder, fingernails digging into the flesh of her back—the registering of pain grounded all people, including her.
Ophelia slowly raised her head and her eyes to the demon, shaking off all internal emptiness. She forced her lips to stretch into a smile, forced herself to will some light into her eyes. “I am fine,” she said. “I apologise, sometimes I tend to get lost in my head.”
“No need to apologise.”
Ophelia shook her head and ran her hands down her face, sighing deeply and loudly. When she dropped her hands back down to her sides, she cocked her head to the side and said, “Whereabouts does Evadne live? She may be tapping her feet as she waits at the portal.”
Luckily Ariadne did not press the matter of Ophelia’s drifting mind, but instead let out a bark of laughter. “I hope she’s not waiting, though I doubt her horses and carriage are fast enough to return to the Royal Crescent in ten minutes.”
“She may have grown tedious of the morning traffic and decided to let her wolf take over.”
“I do believe a wolf running through the streets of London would be conspicuous.”
Ophelia shrugged. “I suppose you are correct.”
“Atticus, on the other hand . . . well, I do suppose he’ll either be pacing up and down or on route via a carriage, though he may not even be awake yet.”
“Carriages seem rather mundane and useless when portals are at your disposal.”
“I am surprised that you have ever deigned to travel via carriage, human contraptions of transportation that they are,” quipped Ariadne.
Ophelia rolled her eyes. “Humans have some purposes, I will admit that.”
“Ferrying you around from one place to another? Yes, that seems like an important purpose.”
“There are a few more bonuses than that.”
Ariadne stopped and turned, raising a single eyebrow. “Oh?”
“They do build impressive architecture, and create beautiful fabrics.” Ophelia walked past Ariadne, and carried on down the extensive corridor. “And I suppose they can be kind—I have met a few.”
“Did I just hear you correctly? I’m afraid I must have water clogging my ears or going deaf, for there is no way you have just complimented humans.”
Ophelia frowned. “Shut up, demon!” She carried on walking, ignoring Ariadne’s loud laughter, until she reached a crossroad and simply stood there with her hands on her hips. The right corridor was unlit, swallowed in darkness that definitely meant that was not the way. “Left or straight on?”
And so Ophelia carried on once more, but it was only a couple of minutes until she reached a pair of heavy-looking wooden doors. Ariadne regained her position of leader and pushed open the doors, not waiting for the siren as she entered the large room. The temperature plunged to even colder depths than the corridors, icy fingers wrapping around Ophelia’s bare skin. She should definitely have worn something warmer.
The doors swung shut behind her and she surveyed the room ahead. It was a standard mortuary with a row of metal tables in the centre of the room, cold chambers that lined an entire wall, an array of autopsy instruments, bottles of embalming fluid, cupboards, and a line of thick mortician coats that Ophelia ran over to and shrugged one on.
“You said that you were a ‘Cold One’ and yet you cannot stand the chill?” Ariadne asked from her spot by a sink.
“A mortuary is quite different to the sea, I can assure you of that,” replied Ophelia. She buttoned up the coat and wrapped her arms around herself, regaining some warmth in her arms. “This body of mine is different, less resilient to colder temperatures—I am trapped within my human form, and it is all but useless against winter snaps.”
Ariadne put down a scalpel she was inspecting and cocked her head at Ophelia. “Trapped?”
“I am cursed.”
Ophelia sighed and moved towards a table, placing her hands on the side and leaning her weight into it. She bowed her head to the metal, her reflection staring back at her. “It is not a story I wish to tell, not yet—I do not bare my soul and past to acquaintances.”
“Tell me one thing, please. Who cursed you?”
Ophelia gave an ugly laugh. “My dear, dear Matron.” She had closed her mind to this only a few minutes before, and yet the door had been reopened so quickly once more. But the feeling inside her chest was no longer an ache of grief but of rage. Her fingers dug into the metal ridge, and the words flowed out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop them. “Usually banished sirens are transformed into humans, but for her amusement she decided that I should be cursed to live on the land for as long as she sees fit—I live until I die by her hand.”
“That does not seem like such a bad thing, to live instead of dying so long ago.”
Ophelia raised her head slowly, locking eyes with the demon. “There are some events, some . . . circumstances that even time cannot heal the wounds of. I would rather have lived and died a human for it, and grieve for not so long, than live in this human form with siren traits and go through the endless cycle of grief. I am of the sea but banished to land; I am living a half-life—it is her vicious joke on me, I live until she casts her dice and I go through care and grief over and over again . . . that is the true punishment she delivered me, not the loss of my tail and all that it means but to be a recipient of never-ending love and loss.
“Why do you think she allowed me to keep my voice, to keep the other traits of a siren? It was not out of kindness but out of spite. Contrary to belief I am capable of love, and if I fell in love with a man . . . well that is the reason she allowed me to keep my gifts, for if I sang because I thought I was alone but he was there then he is immediately under my entrapment, and the only way to release him is to kill him. Even women are not immune to the poison of my kiss—no gender is. Why do you think I am so heartless? Why do you think I take great effort in not caring about anything or anyone? One mistake from me and they are dead. I am capable of love but I chose not to, because of the joke that has been played upon me.”
Silence fell, tangible in the air, until Ariadne once more voiced the question she had asked upstairs, the questions that plagued her thoughts: “What happened to you?”
“A great many deal of things.”
Ariadne shook her head. “I meant of the reason for your banishment.”
“A great many deal of things,” Ophelia repeated. “Things I will not speak about. Do not press me to tear open my chest and reveal to you the secrets embedded within my heart.”
A nod from the demon. “I apologise.” She began to turn away, detecting that this conversation had drawn to an end but then Ophelia spoke once more.
“Perhaps—perhaps one day I may tell you,” she said, barely a whisper. “I know I have been defensive about my past, but it is getting harder and harder to keep it concealed.”
Despite herself, Ariadne gave the siren a small smile. “I would like that.”
“But not now: my story is too long and winding to speak of in a little amount of time, and I am not ready.” Ophelia pushed away from the table and moved to idly walk around the room. She looked over her shoulder at Ariadne and said, “You should go to your portals, someone might be waiting.”
“Are you sure you want to be left alone?—can I trust you to be left alone?”
Ophelia laughed, though it was small and nothing more than an exhalation of breath. “I am not about to pick up one of the knives here and do something drastic,” she said and rolled her eyes. “I spend most of my time inside my own head. Loneliness becomes me.”
“Ophelia . . .”
The siren sighed and made a shooing gesture. “Go. Your friends may be waiting.”
“They are your friends also.”
Ophelia snorted. “I am a nomad by name and trade, I do not have friends.”
“That is not a way to live, Ophelia.”
The siren turned away her head and took up a sudden interest in the cold chambers. Ariadne shook her head slightly and began to make her way out of the room. Just as she began to open one of the doors she swore she heard Ophelia whisper, “I know.”
Ariadne said not another word before she left the room.