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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (17 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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Ying poured hot water into the teapot. The scent of green leaves made Joan feel acutely homesick, as did the little teacups he unstacked. The cups were decorated with multicolored birds. They had sweeping tail feathers and outstretched wings. Phoenixes.

“I've been wondering,” Aaron said to Ying from his place
at the pillar. “You identified our families just by looking at us.” It was a detail that Joan hadn't noticed. “A Hunt and an Oliver. How did you know that?”

“Most monsters are recorded in the Liu family records,” Ying said matter-of-factly. “The two of you are Joan Chang-Hunt and Aaron Oliver. Joan is the daughter of Pei-Wen Chang—a human. And Maureen Hunt—the estranged daughter of Dorothy Hunt.”

Estranged? That wasn't right. Everything else was, though. Joan folded her arms, feeling exposed and in awe at the demonstration of the Liu family power. Perfect memory.

“And you,” Ying said to Aaron, “are the youngest son of Edmund Oliver.”

It wasn't a question, and Aaron didn't answer.

“By Edmund's second wife,” Ying said. “Marguerite Nightingale. The wife they executed.”

“That's enough,” Aaron said tightly. His back was very stiff. His mother had been executed? Joan forced her eyes from his face—she felt as though she were intruding on something horribly private.

“As I said, the Liu records are very comprehensive,” Ying said. “But you didn't come here for me to tell you things you already know. You came here to bargain. So, let's bargain. What is it that you want?”

“Information,” Joan said.

Ying inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Rules first, then. My family likes to keep things simple. We will have a
conversation, and at the end of it, my family will be owed one favor.”

“What favor?” Joan said.

“You'll know when we call it in,” Ying said.

By the pillar, Aaron shrugged slightly at Joan. He'd apparently been expecting these sorts of terms. Joan didn't like them at all. Buying something unknown for an unknown price was a stupid thing to do. But there'd been no other leads. And if she could get
information to save her family . . . She nodded at Ying.

“Very well, then.” Ying leaned over to the table and poured tea into the little cups. He passed one to Aaron and one to Joan. “What do you want to know?”

Joan sipped her tea, giving herself a moment to collect her thoughts. The tea was good—grassy and fresh and green. The kind of tea Dad kept in the freezer. “We've heard rumors,” she said. “About your family's power.”

“Perfect memory,” Ying said. “That's common knowledge.”

“There are rumors about hidden aspects of the power.”

“I've heard rumors,” Ying said thoughtfully, “about hidden aspects of the Oliver power.” To Aaron, he said: “They say that the heads of your family can see more than other Olivers see.”

For some reason, Aaron's gaze flicked to Joan, his expression unreadable. “We're not talking about my family,” he said.

“No?” Ying said musingly. “Olivers see. Hunts hide. Nowaks live. Patels bind. Portellis open. Hathaways leash. Nightingales take. Mtawalis keep. Argents sway. Alis seal. Griffiths
reveal. But only the Lius remember.” The words were slightly chanted—the recital of a nursery rhyme. “The twelve great families of London,” he said.

“I hope you're not expecting us to pay for that,” Aaron said dryly. “Every monster child in London knows that rhyme.”

Ying's face did that thing again, where he seemed amused without actually smiling. “The family powers are common knowledge,” he said. “But you're asking about family secrets. If I were you, I'd be concerned that a Liu family secret might cost more than you're willing to pay.”

the one making the bargain,” Joan said. She was the one who'd wanted to come here. “Not Aaron. And I'm willing to pay.”

Ying gave her a long look, as if assessing whether she really wanted to make the trade. “Have you ever heard of the
zhēnshí de lìshĭ
?” he said finally.

“The true history?” Aaron said.

Ying's eyebrows went up. “You know Mandarin?”

“No,” Aaron said. “I know of the belief.” He sounded disapproving.

Ying turned back to Joan. “Some people believe that there was once another timeline,” he explained. “One that existed before our own. Some families call it the
vera historia
. Or the true timeline.” There was a sad reverence in his voice. “We believe that the true timeline was erased, and that
timeline was created in its place.”

“A fringe belief,” Aaron said. “Everyone knows that the
timeline corrects itself. It's impossible for there to have ever been another timeline.”

“Some of my family believe they remember fragments of it,” Ying said.

Joan's breath caught. It was true, then. The Lius did remember changed events. “Do you?” she asked. “Do you remember it?”

Ying took a long moment to answer. “The Liu power is perfect memory,” he said. “For some of us, our power goes beyond that. We remember small changes—the ordinary fluxes of the timeline. But only those of great power have glimpsed the
zhēnshí de lìshĭ.

Joan leaned forward, eager. “If there were another timeline, then something changed it. Or someone.”

“I'm sorry,” Ying said, not unkindly. “But that completes our conversation. I've given you information about the Liu power. Now you owe a favor.”

“No,” Joan said. The conversation was just starting. She needed to know so much more. “How was the timeline changed? Please. I'll owe another favor.”

“I'm sorry,” Ying said. He refilled Joan's tea. “As I told you, my family likes to keep things simple. One debt is simple. Multiple debts are complicated. But please. Finish your tea and feel free to peruse the gallery afterward.”

Aaron shifted from the white pillar. He came over to sit beside Joan on the edge of the garden bed. “Joan,” he said softly. “He's met the terms of the bargain.”

“We can't leave,” Joan said. She was sure that Ying knew
more. “Aaron, I can't leave until I know.”

Aaron bowed his head. When he raised it again, it was to look up at Ying. “I'll take on a debt,” he said.

“No,” Joan said. That wouldn't be fair. He hadn't even wanted to come here.

Maybe Ying would take something other than a favor. But what did Joan have to trade? She hadn't brought anything with her into this time except for a phone and her clothes—and she'd sold the phone yesterday.

The only thing she still had was . . . She put her hand to her chest, feeling the lines of the necklace under the soft fuzz of her sweater. The man at the market had offered to buy it yesterday and Joan had refused.

Her hands shook as she unclasped it. It was the last thing she had left of Gran. She tried not to think about that as she offered it to Ying. “Will you take this instead of a favor?”

“I'm sorry,” Ying said.

,” Joan said. “Please. I need to know.”

“Need to know what?” Ying said.

“How to undo deaths.”

The sad lines in Ying's face were like carvings in wood. “You've lost someone.”

“Yes,” Joan whispered.

“I can't help you with what you want to know,” Ying said gently. “You don't owe me for telling you that you can't bring them back.”

Joan couldn't accept that. “Something or someone changed
the timeline before,” she said. “You have perfect memory, and you said that the Liu records are comprehensive. You must have heard something—some rumor, some whisper—about how it was done.” She held out the necklace again. “Please.”

Ying started to shake his head as if to refuse one final time. And then he frowned, leaning closer to get a better look at the necklace. Joan heard his breath catch. “Where did you get that?” he said softly.

Joan remembered the way Gran's hand had slipped from her wrist, leaving the chain behind. She'd barely been able to see it through her tears that night. “My grandmother gave it to me.”

“May I?” Ying said. But instead of reaching for the necklace, he cleared the table, moving bowls and plates to the ground so that there was only the black tray left.

Joan draped the necklace across it. The gold pendant was very bright against the black.

There'd been blood on the chain after Gran had died. Joan had washed it that night in the shower. But she hadn't really looked at it—she hadn't been able to bear it.

Now she examined the pendant: it wasn't the silver-tongued fox of the Hunts, but something else. At first, Joan couldn't make out the intention of it. It was a creature with a lion's head and the talons of a bird. It wasn't much bigger than her thumbnail, but it was exquisitely detailed: three-dimensional and lifelike. It stood on a flat gold disc, ears up, head tilted in curious interest. The whole thing seemed to be solid gold.

“I never noticed you wearing that,” Aaron said to Joan.

“It has a long chain,” Ying said absently. The chain was gold too, and very fine. There were dark marks along it, as if the gold had been burned. Ying spread his fingers, touching four fingertips to the patches, and Joan had a sudden clear memory of touching the chain in those same places. The chain had been unblemished, and after she'd touched it, these dark patches had appeared. She'd thought at the time that the blemishes had been blood. But looking at the chain now, it seemed almost as if the gold itself had been transformed into something else. But

Ying looked at Joan again. There was something searching in his gaze, as if she hadn't really had his attention before this. And now she had it completely. Joan was unexpectedly reminded of the way Edmund Oliver had looked at her in the Gilt Room. His indifference had changed to interest, as if he'd seen something inside her.
The Hunts have been keeping secrets
, he'd said.

“What do you want to know?” Ying said.

Joan swallowed. Her heart was beating faster, and she wasn't sure why. “How was the timeline changed?” she asked.

“There are stories about the creation of our timeline,” Ying said. “But they're myths.”

“Myths?” Joan said.
The human hero is a mythical figure
, Ruth had said last night. “What myths?”

“They say that the King created our timeline,” Ying said. “Using an object. A device. He destroyed the
zhēnshí de lìshĭ
with it and created this timeline in its place. Now this timeline
is his timeline. Everything in it is just as he wishes it to be.”

“What device?” Joan said. They were so close to learning what she needed to know. If there was a way to get her family back, she had to have it.

“All I can tell you is that it's held at a place called the Monster Court.” Ying was still looking at her with that new attention. “The seat of the King's power. And you don't need to ask me how to get to it.” He picked up the necklace, and, to Joan's surprise, placed it back into her hand, coiling it slowly before letting the end drop. “You have a key.”

Joan stared at him.

Ying stood up. “We'll call on you when we need a favor,” he said.


Joan and Aaron walked away from the Liu family gallery. Joan couldn't stop touching the necklace Gran had given her. Could it actually be a key to the Monster Court? The seat of the King's power?

“You talked about the King when we first arrived,” Joan said to Aaron as they walked.

“Get that pendant out of sight,” Aaron said, clipped. He was very tense. He'd insisted on walking back by a different route, and now he was checking over his shoulder.

“Why didn't Ying take it?” Joan wondered. She tucked it carefully under her sweater. “I offered it to him.”

“He probably didn't want it anywhere near him,” Aaron said. “And neither do I.”

They reached an intersection. Joan pressed the button at the lights. Aaron's fingers twitched, as if standing still were intolerable.

“Why are you so scared?” Joan asked him.

“We need to get back to the market,” Aaron said. His mouth was tight, and the pale press of his lips reminded Joan of how
ill he'd looked when Ruth had spoken of seeing Court Guards at the hospital.

“Who is he king of?” Joan said. “All the monsters of England?”

Aaron didn't seem to want to answer. When he did, it was curt. “Our borders don't match what you'd think of as countries,” he said shortly. “They were drawn in a different time.”

What you'd think of as countries.
Joan had that feeling again of seeing a crack through a curtain—a glimpse of another world. There was so much she didn't know—so much Gran had never told her.

A red Royal Mail van trundled past them. Aaron tracked it until it had turned the corner. He was watching every car that passed. The lights changed. “Come on,” Aaron said. He'd already started walking.

“Aaron—” Joan said.

“Keep walking,” Aaron said. He waited for Joan to catch up. “The King is never seen,” he said, still curt. “He rules through the members of the Monster Court: the King's arms and executioners. We sometimes call them the
Curia Monstrorum

Joan matched her pace to Aaron's. She tried to make sense of the pieces she had. The monster world had a hierarchy of authority. Ruth had talked about Court Guards; Joan guessed they were something like police officers. Above them were the members of the Monster Court. And above
, the King himself.

The King is never seen.
Joan imagined an invisible presence
that permeated the monster world. “Do you think it could be true?” she asked Aaron. “What Ying said? Do you think the King once changed the timeline? Do you think he erased the true timeline with a device?”

Aaron shot another reflexive look over his shoulder. “Don't
things like that,” he hissed. He caught Joan's confused expression. “
True timeline
,” he clarified. “Don't say those words in public.”

They were walking alone beside the road. Hardly public. And Ying hadn't seemed afraid to say them. “No one can hear us,” Joan said.

Aaron looked around before he spoke, and when he did, his voice was soft, as if he was afraid they might be overheard, even though there was clearly no one in earshot. “There is only one timeline. The King's timeline,” he said. “Events are just as he wishes them to be. To speak of another timeline, to call it the
timeline . . . it's dangerous. It's—it's blasphemy.”

“Blasphemy?” Joan repeated. It was an unexpected word for the context. She would have thought
would be a better fit for a king. “But, Aaron, if—”

,” Aaron ground out. “
can you wait until we're somewhere safe before you ask any more questions?” He ran a shaky hand through his hair. “What have we got ourselves into?” he asked, almost to himself.

The Ravencroft Market was busier than it had been when they'd left. As they wove through it, Joan finally saw how the main area was structured: divided into periods like the sections of a
department store. Over there was the twentieth century; and over here the twenty-first, the clothes becoming less and less familiar in color and cut with each decade after Joan's own, until they were as strange as clothes from the distant past. It made Joan want to walk through to the far end of the market—to see the contraband technologies there.

“There are Court Guards patrolling the market,” Aaron murmured. “Keep your head down.” He ducked his own head, but Joan was curious enough to look around.
Monster police
, she thought. She remembered again Ruth's story of seeing Court Guards at the hospital.

She didn't spot any of them at first. And then she turned into an aisle where a man was saying mildly to a stall owner: “Give me all the cell phones.”

The man wore a gold pin on his lapel: a winged lion, posed as if stalking the viewer, wings outstretched like a bird of prey. The stall owner was a middle-aged woman with purple lipstick and a matching purple jacket. The Court Guard's manner was easygoing, but the woman's hands shook as she put the phones into a box. She didn't look at him directly.

Aaron took Joan's elbow and moved her quickly past them. As they walked, Joan began to spot more and more guards with winged-lion pins. Stall owners looked on, white-lipped but not protesting, while phones and other devices were confiscated, as their tables were stripped bare.

“Technology out of its time,” Aaron whispered to Joan as they reached the stairs. “Technically illegal, but Court Guards don't usually concern themselves with small markets like this.”

Joan swallowed. “Ruth said she saw Court Guards after she spoke about the massacre,” she whispered. “And I was overheard speaking of the massacre yesterday. Do you think they're looking for us?”

“If they were here for us, their attention would be on people, not technology,” Aaron said. “It's just a coincidental raid. Come on.”

To Joan's relief, Ruth opened the door to the flat on the first knock.

“There are Court Guards—” Aaron started to say.

“I know,” Ruth said. “I've been watching them from upstairs.”

She ushered them into the bedroom nook. There was a pull-down ladder in the ceiling.

Joan followed Ruth up the ladder and found herself in a rooftop garden. On one side, the market's glass dome rose like a sail. From up here, the leadwork ravens in the blue glass were the size of cats. Waist-high parapets enclosed the rest of the rooftop, reminding Joan of the Liu family's courtyard.

“You can see everything from here,” Joan said wonderingly. Below, on the street, monsters were popping in and out of existence like soap bubbles. She didn't think she'd ever get used to that. Through the glass dome, the market was laid out in miniature. The guards looked the same as everyone else from this height—their pins too small to see. But Joan could tell where they were from the spaces other people left around them. And, even from up here, Joan could see how the guards had changed
the atmosphere of the market. Customers were moving more slowly, heads turned to track them. Sellers were quieter.

“No one ever comes up onto the roof,” Ruth said.

“Because it's ghastly,” Aaron said. Someone had put potted plants up here, but they were long dead—withered to silver stems. The parapets were crumbling. He added, conceding, “Although, true—it's a comprehensive view.”

Joan sat on a parapet, facing Ruth and Aaron. “We have some news,” she told Ruth. “We spoke to Ying Liu. He confirmed the rumors. Some of the Lius remember another timeline.”

Ruth's eyes widened. “He told you that?”

“That's the least of it,” Aaron said. “Your cousin is in possession of contraband from the Monster Court itself. Did you know that?”

” Ruth said. “No!”

Joan unclasped the gold necklace and leaned over to hand it to Ruth. “Gran gave it to me just before she died.” She hoped Ruth wouldn't feel hurt that Gran had given her something.

Ruth didn't look hurt. She looked puzzled. She took the necklace and stretched it out against the bright white sky. She twisted it slightly, making the chain glint.

“Have you seen it before?” Joan said. “In Gran's house, maybe? Or did she ever wear it?”

Ruth shook her head. “Not that I know of. What are these dark patches on the chain? They almost look like stone.”

“I don't know,” Joan said. The question made her feel strangely uneasy. She remembered again how she'd touched the necklace after Gran had died: how, when she'd lifted her fingers,
the gold underneath had been dull and dark. That couldn't be right, though, she thought again. She had to be remembering that wrong.

For some reason another memory came to her then: Ying Liu spreading his fingers to touch those dark patches. The way he'd looked at her searchingly afterward.

“According to Ying Liu, that's a key to the Monster Court,” Aaron said.

Ruth jumped and almost fumbled it, as if he'd told her she was holding a snake.

“That's what he told us,” Joan said.

Ruth's eyes were huge. “
is a key to the Court?” she said. “I don't understand. How is it even a key? It's a necklace.”

“I don't know,” Aaron said. “But look. The pendant is a sigil. It looks almost like a family chop.”

Ruth held it up again, curiosity apparently overcoming fear. “I've never seen this sigil. . . .” She frowned, looking more closely. “What is it? A gargoyle? There are knots in its tail.”

“A chimera of some kind,” Aaron said. “But I've never seen it before either.”

Ruth turned the pendant over. There was an indented, stamped image on the underside of the disk. The same creature, standing on a scroll. Joan squinted at the words.
Non sibi sed regi.

“‘Not for self, but for king,'” Aaron said.

“Those words don't belong to any of the twelve families,” Ruth said.

“Maybe a lesser family's chop,” Aaron said. “Or a French family's.”

“But there's no name on it,” Ruth said.

“What's a chop?” Joan asked.

Aaron reached into his pocket and took out a chain, unhooking it from a buttonhole. Joan had noticed the chain before, but she'd assumed it was for a fob watch. Now she saw that it had a little pendant figurine attached: a mermaid. But not a fairytale mermaid: there was something menacing about the tilt of her head, her clawing hands, the snakelike coil of her tail. It was the same mermaid that had been tattooed on Aaron's relative. The same outline Joan had seen through Aaron's wet shirt. The Oliver sigil.

Aaron mimed stamping it against the table and then handed it to Joan. “It's a seal.”

There was a flat gold disk under the mermaid's tail. It had an etched image of the mermaid along with Aaron's name in mirrored letters.
Son of Edmund
, the chop said. Joan made out a Latin phrase:
Fidelis ad mortem.

“Proof of identity,” Aaron said. “Most monsters have one. In my family, we get them when our power stabilizes—when we're confirmed to be Olivers. We're buried with them when we die.”

“Proof of identity?” Joan said. “Don't people forge them?”

“Not really,” Ruth said. “They're handmade. The little scratches and imperfections are almost impossible to perfectly forge.”

Joan took Gran's necklace back from Ruth. She examined
it. Ruth was right. It did kind of look like a chop. “Ying told us something else,” she said to Ruth as she fastened it back on. “He said that the King erased the previous timeline and created this timeline in its place.”

“Are you talking about the true timeline?” Ruth said. At Aaron's wince, Ruth said: “It's only blasphemy if you believe all that nonsense about the King being infallible.”

“Some of us honor our oaths,” Aaron said.

“Oh, give me a break from that fake Oliver piety,” Ruth said. “Your family is a bunch of slithering schemers. You should just own it instead of pretending loyalty to the King.”

“Fidelis ad mortem,” Aaron said. “We live by it. You wouldn't understand.”

“Yes, ‘loyal unto death,'” Ruth said. “Clever that you don't say who you're loyal to. Everyone knows it's only to yourselves.”

“Better than the Hunt motto. What is it again? ‘Always running'?”

,” Ruth said sharply.

“Can we go back to the important part of this conversation?” Joan said.

Aaron closed his mouth over whatever insult he'd been about to shoot at Ruth. He shrugged one shoulder, not quite sheepish.

“Ying Liu said that the King erased the previous timeline using a device,” Joan told Ruth. “A device kept at the Monster Court.” Joan tapped the pendant. “And now we have a way in.”

She looked at the other two expectantly. Ruth was as silent as Aaron.

“Gran knew about the hero,” Joan said. “That's why she gave me that necklace. So we could get into the Court. So we could find that device and stop the massacre.”

BOOK: Only a Monster
9.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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