Read Only a Monster Online

Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (23 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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“How did you get through the gate?” Edmund said.

“How?” Aaron's posture still seemed careless, but Joan knew him well enough now to see the strain in his eyes. “I'm an Oliver. I'm your son. My chop bears your name. That's enough to get me on any guest list.”

For a second, rage flickered in Edmund's cold eyes. “An Oliver?” he said. “You're not worthy of the name. I removed you from the line of succession. If I could have stripped you of your name too, I would have.”

Aaron's casual posture didn't change. Joan could hear people starting to whisper. Heads were turning. Aaron must be hating this, Joan knew. He was always so careful about how he appeared.

Joan wanted to shove Edmund away—to stop him from speaking—but she knew that Aaron was doing this for her. He'd drawn Edmund's attention to keep him from looking too closely at her. She felt sick.

Aaron looked over Edmund's shoulder at a blond boy about his own age, standing at the edge of the dance floor, watching the scene in silence. “Our new heir?” Aaron's mouth lifted, but there was no amusement on his face. “I had no idea the pool was so shallow.”

Edmund took a step toward Aaron. “Geoffrey knows where his loyalties lie.” For a moment, Joan thought he was going to strike Aaron.

So did Aaron—he flinched. Edmund seemed to realize suddenly that he'd drawn a crowd. He grunted. And then he was striding away, the blond boy hurrying after him. Joan held her breath as Edmund swept past her, but he didn't so much as glance at her.

As soon as Edmund was out of sight, Joan closed the gap. “Aaron,” she said, trying to offer thanks or sympathy—she wasn't even sure.

Aaron looked down at her for a long moment, and then his expression turned to the disdain Joan remembered from the Gilt Room. “I suppose you enjoyed the show?”

Joan was stung. “Of course not. Aaron, are you all—”

“Why are you still standing here?” Aaron interrupted.

,” Joan said, but he was already pushing past her.

At the cascading fountain, Ruth looked impatient. Tom had shifted from drinking to eating, moving along a table laden with food. There were crispy pastries, folded origami-like into animal shapes: swans and deer. And food that Joan didn't recognize: papery wafers and little iced cakes that looked sweet, but smelled of savory herbs.

“Mm,” Tom said in acknowledgment of their arrival.

Frankie sniffed at Joan and then Aaron inquisitively. Joan bent to touch Frankie's soft head. Her stomach was churning.

“Where the hell have you two been?” Ruth whispered.

“Nowhere,” Aaron said.

Tom paused to scoop up a handful of the delicate pastries and shove them into his pockets. “All right,” he said with his mouth full. “Let's go.”

Tom led them back to the first hall, past the line of fire-breathing statues.

Edmund had gone the opposite way, but Joan was afraid of running into him—afraid of what might happen if he noticed her. Beside her, Aaron was silent. He didn't look at Joan when she tried to catch his eye.

They stopped in a room off the hall. It was small but ornate. The wallpaper was hand-painted with pink and gold flowers. One whole wall was a vast mirrored cabinet decorated in gleaming gold leaf. The other walls had display shelves.

Two other guests were already in the room, placing a vase and a small sculpture on an empty shelf. Joan saw then that the
whole room was crammed with valuable objects, on shelves and laid on tables: necklaces, coronets, statues.

“Gifts for the King,” Tom said.

“We didn't bring a gift,” Joan whispered.

“I think that's the least of our indiscretions tonight,” Aaron muttered.

As soon as the other guests left, Tom strode to the far end of the room. “Someone keep watch on the door,” he said. He slid his hand along the back of the cabinet.

There was a click, and a section of the cabinet wall swung open, revealing a dark room behind it.

“Royal escape route.” Aaron sounded grudgingly impressed. “Every palace has one.”

“Quickly,” Tom said. He bent to pick up Frankie. “Before someone else comes in.”

One by one, they slipped into the room behind the cabinet. Joan was last to step into the dark space. She pulled the cabinet shut behind her with another click—and just in time. Muffled voices sounded through the wall a moment later.

The darkness was complete. Joan could hear her own breaths and the muffled voices from the party outside. She could hear Ruth fidgeting beside her, dress rustling.

Tom's voice sounded, barely audible. “Forgot to bring a torch.”

More rustling, and then an illumination revealed Aaron holding his phone. “This won't last,” he warned. “Battery's almost gone.” He held it up.

Joan had thought that they'd entered a narrow space—had been hunched a little to accommodate it—but now she saw that they were in a vast room with red-draped balconies and wooden pews. High above, the ceiling seemed to be covered in gold leaf.
The palace chapel
, she thought wonderingly. King Henry had married Anne Boleyn here.

“Come on,” Tom whispered. “We won't have long before the gate closes.”


In spite of the danger, Joan couldn't help but feel a guilty wonder as Tom led them out of the chapel and into the palace proper. She'd always loved history. And, stripped of the showy costume of monsters, this real, lived-in part of Whitehall felt more of a marvel than the fire-breathing statues of the great hall.

These dark spaces were the suites of Charles II and his mistresses. The walls were draped with rich tapestries of men on horseback and women in long gowns. The beds were as ornate as cakes—all chocolate curls and flourishes. Some of the sheets were rumpled, as if their owners had just gotten out of bed.

There was a strange air of suspension about each room. Letters and ink lay carelessly on desks. Doors were ajar.

“How can the Monster Court be inside Whitehall Palace?” Joan whispered to Tom.

“It isn't always,” Tom said. “Sometimes it manifests in other places. They say that the King steals these places for a frozen moment.”

“How?” Joan said, but Tom only shook his head. “And where is everyone?” Joan asked. “Where are all the humans
who live here? Shouldn't they all be here too?” Tom shook his head again, as if he didn't know.

They walked through curtained spaces, guided only by the light from Aaron's phone. They all fell silent as they entered a room with curtains flung wide. The view through the window was the Thames under a bright moon.

The river was closer than Joan would have expected. She remembered reading that the river had been higher in the past. Aaron made an unhappy sound. Joan felt it too. There was something disturbing about the scene—beyond the height of the river. It took her a second to understand what it was.

Nothing was moving outside. The river was frozen—every ripple still. Moonlight lay along it like spilled milk. Trees and low buildings were dim outlines on the other side of the bank.

“I hate this place,” Ruth whispered.

“The timeline hates it too,” Aaron said. “I can feel it.”

“I always thought that the King was just a man,” Ruth said. “But this kind of power is . . . I've never heard of anything like it.” She gazed out at the frozen river. “What if everything they say about the King is true? What if he
see everything?”

“He can't,” Joan whispered back, with more confidence than she felt. “Or we wouldn't be here. We wouldn't have got this far.”

Ruth shook her head. She was still looking out at the view. The window's reflection made her face ghostly. “There's something wrong about this,” she whispered.

“This place—” Joan started.

“Not just this place,” Ruth said. “There's something wrong
about all of this. I feel as if we've got something wrong.”

“What do you mean?” Joan said.

“I don't know,” Ruth said. “I don't know. It's just a feeling.”

Joan didn't know what she meant. To her, this seemed right. Gran had given her a key to the Monster Court. And now they were here. Now they were achingly close to bringing their family back to life. “We can't stop now,” she said. “We're almost there.” She looked at Tom for confirmation.

He nodded. “We're near to the lion's den now.”

But Joan started to feel the wrongness too as Tom led them down a long stone gallery, half open to a formal garden. In the garden, there were statues of animals on pedestals—a chained leopard in carnival colors, a unicorn with a horn as sharp as a saber—dozens of them, garishly painted and gilded.

“Where is everybody?” Joan asked him again. “Where are the people who live here? Where's the King?”

“The King is never seen,” Tom said. When Joan turned to him, he said: “When he wants something done, he sends a member of the Monster Court in his place.”

Joan remembered the story Aaron told. “Like Conrad?” she said. The man who'd executed Aaron's cousin.

“Conrad,” Tom agreed. “Or Eleanor. Or the one we call the Giant. Those are the three members of Court who come near the vicinity of our time.”

“I overheard someone mention Conrad in the halls,” Ruth said. “He's here tonight.”

The others visibly shivered. Tom looked over his shoulder. “We need to be quiet now,” he whispered. “Guards patrol much more regularly closer to the Royal Archive.”

At the end of a stretch of smooth green lawn, they reached a staircase leading down. Joan stood there at the black mouth of it.

Tom left Frankie at the top of the stairs. He descended.

From below, there were startled sounds, then pained sounds, then no sounds. Tom reappeared and grabbed Frankie. “All clear,” he said unnecessarily.

Tom led them down the flight of stairs. Joan's heavy dress swept against her legs as she descended. She felt as if she were walking down to a bunker. The air began to smell of mud and brine. Joan imagined the frozen mountain of the river just beyond the thick stone wall.

At the bottom of the staircase, four guards lay sprawled on a dark rug. Joan looked at Tom, impressed. He'd taken out four armed men by himself.

Tom bent and unbuckled a wristwatch from one of the guards. “Eleven thirty,” he said. The new guards would arrive on the hour.

“Okay, let's go,” Joan said.

Beyond here, Tom had no idea of the archive's security; he'd never been allowed to guard it. Ruth had hedged her bets by bringing a selection of tools. Joan was secretly hoping there wouldn't be
more security. How much security could an archive in the Monster Court even need? The gates only opened every century or so.

Aaron led the way out of the alcove at the bottom of the stairs and into the passage to the archive. At his low gasp, Joan looked up.

The passage was only about twenty feet long, and it ended in a wooden door with a winged-lion insignia carved into it. The door to the archive. But there was something between them and the door. . . .

At first, all Joan could see was a patch of bright white on the passage floor. As she walked closer, the brightness resolved into a snowy landscape. She stared. There was a slice of winter in the middle of the passage.

“What is that?” she whispered. Light shone on the snow. She looked up and saw a piece of daytime sky, dazzlingly blue. It didn't look like a London sky.

The stretch of snow was about ten feet across. Joan could almost imagine jumping over it. She put her hand out tentatively. The air pushed back. “There's a barrier.” It felt like magnetic repulsion.

Ruth came closer. “Did you

“See what?” Joan said. But now she saw it too. Inside the wintry landscape, a shadow was moving on the snow.

An animal padded into view, tigerlike, with enormous arcing fangs. It was as big as a horse, and solidly built. The huge muscles of its legs shifted as it walked.

Joan gasped, and the animal turned as if it had heard. It looked right at Joan, seeming as shocked as she felt. Could it see her? She got her answer a second later. It snarled at her and leaped.

Joan heard herself shout. She twisted to run. But there were no claws or fangs. Instead, someone had caught her and steadied her. Aaron. “Careful,” he said shakily. “Or you'll fall.”

The creature circled back, snarling, tail lashing. Joan shuddered.

“That's a saber-toothed tiger,” Aaron said disbelievingly.

“That's not just winter in there,” Ruth said, sounding just as shaky. “That must be a hundred thousand years ago at least.”

Tom reached into his pocket absently and took a gulp from a flask. “Shhh,” he said as Frankie yapped frantically under his arm and squirmed, trying to get at the tiger. Frankie subsided to a low growl.

As the tiger padded out of sight, Joan put her hand out again. The barrier seemed slightly rounded, as if it was shaped like a sphere. She pictured this slice of winter as the thick wall of a bubble that surrounded the archive completely.

“It's like a moat,” Ruth said. “A piece of another time standing between us and the archive.”

“You really didn't know this was here?” Aaron said to Tom.

“I would have
you,” Tom said, annoyed.

“What are we going to do?” Ruth said. “We can't travel through that. It would be a hundred thousand years just to walk into the Paleolithic period, and then another hundred thousand years to walk out.”

“I think that's the point,” Aaron said. “It can't be traversed.”

Joan hoped no one had ever walked through it. Because a round trip—through the moat to the archive and back—would
cost four hundred thousand years of human life. Had the King ever stolen that much? She felt ill at the thought.

“We need to go back,” Aaron said.

“No,” Joan said. “No. Wait.” She needed to think.

“There's no way in. We need to cut our losses,” Aaron said.

“The new guards will be here soon,” Tom said.

Joan could
the archive's door across the strip of snow. It was so close. She could hardly bear it. Behind that door, there was a device that could bring her family back to life. The
, Gran had called it. And Joan was standing a few feet away, unable to even touch the door. She couldn't leave.

“Joan,” Aaron said.

Joan shook her head.

“Look,” Aaron said. “Even if it were possible to steal that much human time, we still couldn't travel through that
. We're on a mire.”

A mire. Joan had forgotten about that. Monsters couldn't travel here—their powers didn't work in this place. Except . . . that clearly wasn't quite true.

The King's powers still worked: this bubble of another time was proof of that; the whole palace out of its time was proof. Maybe the family powers would still work here too. Maybe the Hunt power would work.

“Ruth,” Joan said. There was a twig on the floor, tracked in from the garden. Joan bent to pick it up. The thought was still half-formed as she straightened. “Ruth, do you think you could put this in there?”

“What do you mean?” Ruth said, sounding confused.

Joan's own family power had diminished over the years. As a child, she'd been able to hide and retrieve things just like the rest of the Hunts. But as she'd gotten older, retrieval had become less and less reliable. She'd lost things that way. A jade bracelet that she'd been given as a baby. A cameo brooch that Mum had once owned. A few years ago, she'd stopped trying to hide things at all. Ruth's and Bertie's Hunt power had gotten stronger as they'd gotten older, but Joan's had faded away as if it had never really been hers.

“How does the Hunt power actually work?” Joan asked Ruth.

Tom interjected with a soft cough. He showed them the wristwatch he'd taken from the guard: 11:35. “Next change is twenty-five minutes away.”

So they had twenty-five minutes. No . . . Joan calculated.
minutes, unless they wanted to run right into the new guards.

Joan tried again with Ruth. “How does the Hunt power work?” she asked. “I used to think that we put objects some
else. But that isn't right, is it?”

“No,” Ruth said slowly. “It's more like we place objects some

“Do you think you could?” Joan nodded at the snowy landscape.

“What, put something in there?” Ruth bit her lip. “I don't know, Joan. . . .”

Joan gave her the twig. “Can you try?”

Ruth's dubious expression didn't change as she turned to the snowy landscape. But she put one hand up to touch the barrier.

“I think . . .” Joan was still feeling out the idea. “I think it'll be just like all the other times you've hidden an object with your power. The only difference will be that you can see where you're putting it.”

Ruth pressed the twig against the barrier in the familiar motion of the Hunt power. She shook her head doubtfully, and was still shaking it when the twig crossed through. Her eyes widened. Joan heard Tom gasp softly

Joan let out the breath she'd been holding. “Let it go,” she whispered. Ruth did. For a moment the twig seemed to stand, suspended in the air, and then it vanished.

“Where did it go?” Aaron said.

“Well . . .” Joan tried not to feel too excited. Putting a twig in there was a long way from crossing the barrier. “
think the Hunts place objects into a moment in time. My aunt Ada puts mugs of hot tea into the air. When she takes them out again, they're always still steaming.”

“I don't understand, though,” Ruth said. “How does this help us? The Hunt power doesn't work on living creatures. I can't push you in there, if that's what you're thinking. I can't go in there myself.”

“I know,” Joan said. “I know. But . . . what if you could create a tunnel?”

Ruth looked at her questioningly.

“What if you had a . . . a tube of some kind?” Joan said. “Could you hold the inside of the tube in this time and the outside in
time?” She gestured at the snowy ground. “Do you think you could make a tunnel through to that door?”

BOOK: Only a Monster
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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